This poem describes a gathering of four friends on Christmas Eve: a parson (member of the clergy) named Holmes, a poet named Everard Hall, their host Francis Allen (Frank), and the narrator. After they finish gambling and dismiss the women who were in attendance, they sit around the half-empty bowl of wine and discuss how Christmas is no longer taken seriously as a religious holiday: “All the old honor had from Christmas gone.” The narrator is exhausted and soon “f[a]ll[s] in a doze.” While “half-asleep,” he listens to the parson criticize the new science of geology and the internal divisions within the church, which have contributed to “the general decay of faith.”
When the poet awakes, he hears the parson lament that there is nothing to depend on in modern times. The host, Francis Allen, suggests that poetry might replace religion as the new source of faith and inspiration. However, upon hearing Frank’s tribute to him, the poet Hall remarks sarcastically that he looks for inspiration to the bowl of wine! The narrator, now fully awake, responds that they all remember Hall’s fondness for alcohol from their college days. However, he added, they also remember his talent for writing verse, and wonder “What came of that?” Before the poet can answer, Frank relates that the poet burnt the twelve books of the epic he had written about King Arthur because he thought that his poetry had nothing new to say. Rushing to his own defense, Hall explains that there was no point in writing poetry that was merely an echo of old times; just as nature cannot restore extinct animals such as the mastodon, the poet should not attempt verse in the classical style that will merely read as “faint Homeric echoes.”
Frank informs his friends that he actually salvaged the eleventh of the twelve books in the poet’s Arthurian epic, pulling it from the fire before it could burn. The narrator requests that the poet now read aloud from his book, because he remembers the respect Hall enjoyed when they were freshmen in college. Hall reluctantly agrees to share his work with his friends.
After Hall finishes reading, the last light flickers and dies out—but the host and the narrator remain so enraptured by the poet’s words that they cannot move. The narrator explains that he is not sure whether “it was the tone in which he read” that made Hall’s writing so powerful, or whether the success of his writing can be attributed to “some modern touches here and there,” which he added to the classical story. They sit until the cock crows, heralding the arrival of Christmas. The narrator goes to bed and dreams of Arthur: “And so to bed, where yet in sleep I seemed to sail with Arthur.” He dreams of a boat carrying Arthur back to the present like a modern gentleman as all the people gather around him to welcome him as the harbinger of peace. Then, the narrator hears the sound of “a hundred bells” and wakes to the church bells on Christmas Morning.
This poem serves as a frame for the twelfth and final book in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King: the first 51 lines precede the idyll and then lines 324-354 follow it. Its lines are in blank verse, which is a name for unrhymed iambic pentameter. Blank verse, the most common form of counted unrhymed lines, matches the cadences of spoken language more closely than any other form (rather than free-form), and is thus appropriate for a poem chronicling a conversation among four friends. (The entire Idylls of the King, too, is written in blank verse.)
In 1833, Tennyson proposed to write a long epic about King Arthur, the legendary British leader who resisted the Anglo-Saxon invaders of sixth-century England. By 1838, he had completed one of the twelve books, entitled “Morte d’Arthur,” which chronicled the king’s death (“morte”). He published this single book in 1842 within the framework of this poem, “The Epic,” which consists of 51 lines that precede “Morte d’Arthur” and thirty lines that follow it. “The Epic” provides a modern context for the Arthurian story by casting it as a manuscript read aloud by a poet to three of his friends following their Christmas-Eve revelry. After Tennyson completed all twelve books of Idylls of the King in 1869, he discarded this framing poem and retitled “Morte d’Arthur” as “The Passing of Arthur.”
As in many of Tennyson’s poems, this work exhibits a great concern with the scientific developments of his day; the parson mentions geology as one of the sources of the decline in faith in contemporary times (line 16). The science of geology, which suddenly extended the history of the earth back millions of years beyond the standard biblical account, had been formulated by Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology (1830-33). Lyell drew on evidence from fossils found beneath the surface of the earth, and Tennyson’s characters, too, rely on fossils as evidence for their arguments. Thus they say, “Why take the style of those heroic times? For nature brings not back the mastodon” (lines 35-36): the poet Hall, in arguing that artists must not simply “remodel models,” cites as evidence the fact that nature never brings back extinct species such as the mastodon, known only by its fossilized remains. Ironically, then, the poet draws upon fossils as evidence while lamenting the new science that does just this.