The churl in spirit, up or down
Along the scale of ranks, thro' all,
To him who grasps a golden ball,
By blood a king, at heart a clown;
The churl in spirit, howe'er he veil
His want in forms for fashion's sake,
Will let his coltish nature break
At seasons thro' the gilded pale:
For who can always act? but he,
To whom a thousand memories call,
Not being less but more than all
The gentleness he seem'd to be,
Best seem'd the thing he was, and join'd
Each office of the social hour
To noble manners, as the flower
And native growth of noble mind;
Nor ever narrowness or spite,
Or villain fancy fleeting by,
Drew in the expression of an eye,
Where God and Nature met in light;
And thus he bore without abuse
The grand old name of gentleman,
Defamed by every charlatan,
And soil'd with all ignoble use.
- A "churl" is a rascally, low-born fellow. Yes—it's a very class-loaded term, but here Tennyson probably just means someone who behaves badly because they are a jerk, not because they haven't been taught decent manners ("churl in spirit").
- So even though a man might be born of higher blood (in the first stanza), it's implied that his behavior makes him a churl. Even if he's trying hard to come off like a gentlemen, his true nature will eventually shine through: "For who can always act?"
- Arthur, though, was a true gentleman. "Gentle" is also a class-related term; it comes from "gentil," which means "high born." (This is related to our modern "gentleman"—a man who uses fancy manners.)
- Within Tennyson's friend, both God (probably meaning good behavior) and Nature (the blood aspect of a person) meet "in light."
- The term "gentleman" has been abused by being used to describe a whole lot of people who really aren't gentlemen at all.