Masefield's Midsummer Night
ARTHUR AND HIS RING
BEAUTY'S Delight, the Princess Gwenivere,
The day she promist marriage to the King
Drew from her hand the gem she held most dear,
Kisst it, to Arthur gave,
Saying, "0 love, I plight me with this ring,
This sapphire, my most precious marvellous thing."
Her hair was in it, red as corn in ear.
"This," Arthur said, "I'll carry to my grave."
And being filled with joy, he went to thank
The goddess Venus who had blest his love.
Her image stood before a marble tank
In which, in glittering falls,
A fountain sprinkled water-rings that dove
The shadows of the temple myrtle-grove;
There her bright-breasted pigeons preened and drank,
Sidling and ruckling ever with douce calls.
In marble was the goddess, fashioned well,
Yearning a little forward as she stared;
Men thought her holy bosom rose and fell;
Her robe drooped to her hip,
Fallen in folds, while all above was bared . .
The myrtie shadows and the water fared
Into the pool before her, there to dwell
With the statue's shadow for companionship.
And Arthur, passing, saw his shadow pass
Along that water on the imaged sky
Wherein the evening planet's glitter was.
He reacht the shape of stone,
Love's very Queen who gives the victory;
He saw her sweet, proud face, her steadfast eye,
Her crown that gleamed, like glow-worms among grass,
Her left hand stretcht, her right hand at her zone.
"O lovely Queen," he cried, "to whom all hearts
That ever suffered Love's intensest ache,
Turn with most passionate crying from all parts,
Take now my thanks, most sweet;
All my heart's deepest thankfulnesses take,
Because, to-day, thy Loveliness didst make
Me, thy poor servant, healed from many smarts
By granted love;" he bent and kisst her feet.
And as he kisst, he felt the marble thrill
As though alive; he felt her garment stir;
Her awful beauty made his heart stand still;
His spirit understood
The cryings of the birds attending her;
Light beat upon him, and the smell of myrrh;
Ecstasy rapt him to a greater will;
A peace that burnt like fire, a pain most good.
"O goddess, risen from the sea," he cried,
"Grant that this ring which my beloved gave
May touch your finger and be sanctified;
And make my love endure
Like to the mountain, not the breaking wave;
Make it my star to shine beyond the grave.
O rose, whom men adore in every bride,
Grant me this boon, most beautiful, most pure.
Behold the ring." At this, he tendered it
To Venus' self, and with his gentlest touch
Upon her outstretcht finger made it fit . . .
But to his utmost awe,
The finger bent to take the ring in clutch;
Then, instantly, his ecstasy was such
That the green leaf was speaking to his wit
And the gold glow-worm telling him his law.
He felt the goddess' hand caress his head;
He heard the music that the planets sing;
Strange flowers fell upon him, scarlet-red,
And glow-worms gleaming green .
Yet in the midmost of his joy, the King
Still strove amidst it all to take the ring,
But, lo, it clippt the hand that never bled,
Merged to the finger of the marble Queen.
And as his fingers pluckt, the glory went;
The twilight's wind was in the myrtle grove,
Rattling the leaves and killing all the scent;
The goddess was but stone,
A marble thing to which his jewel dove;
He wrested at it, but it would not move,
It could not move, the finger being bent,
The goddess meant to keep it for her own.
Even with unguents, even when he smeared
Finger and ring with oil, the gem remained
Fast on the stone; until King Arthur feared
That it was lost indeed.
"And yet," he murmured, "if the stone were planed,
By some good craftsman when to-night has waned,
Then, without any doubt it could be cleared."
He went to bed, praying that dawn might speed.
But being abed, the midnight glowed with fire.
There, standing radiant in her crescent moon,
Was Venus' self, the Granter of Desire,
The Hope forever green.
Her quire of lovebirds carolled all in tune,
Her laughing eyes were glowing like the noon,
Joy was her gift and beauty her attire.
"Arthur," she said, "will you not take your Queen?
For I am yours, you wedded me this night;
Take me, beloved: I was never won
Before by mortal man beneath the light,
But I am won by you."
Then Arthur cried, "O creature of the sun,
Have pity on me, O immortal one,
Give back the jewel that my lover plight,
It is Queen Gwenivere's and I am true."
"Behold it, set upon my hand," she said;
"You placed it there with many words of love;
Though I am deathless, do not be afraid,
I am your wedded wife."
"O lady, no," he cried. "By heaven above,
By you, the Blesser and by judging Jove,
My love is Gwenivere, the royal maid,
I neither wooed nor wed you, on my life."
Her crescent moon dimmed down, her eyes seemed stone,
Her scarlet lovebirds dimmed and ceast to sing;
He heard the bloodhounds in the courtyard moan.
"So, Arthur, you deny
Me, the immortal, you an earthly King.
God has your words recorded, I your ring,"
The goddess said: "But she whom you disown
Will come again." She dimmed into the sky.
All day he urged his craftsmen, one by one,
To break away the ring; but all from fear
Of goddess or of priest, refused, and none
Would lift a tool or hand.
Then as he sorrowed in the midnight drear,
His bloodhounds whimpered like a stricken steer,
Venus again came shining like the sun,
With eyes not glad, but gleaming like a brand.
"Arthur," she said: "Behold your Queen again . . .
I come out of the brightness of the sky
To seek my husband; must it be in vain?"
Then he, in sore distress,
Said: "Queen, return the jewel. I deny
I ever gave, or thought of giving. I . . .
Goddess, take pity on a mortal's pain."
"So," she said, "twice you spurn my happiness.
Be wise in time, my Arthur, and beware
A third denial." Then, with dimming light,
She faded from the room and left him there
Shaken at loss and threat.
Unhappy dreams tormented him all night,
Hell-hounds, with yellow eyes and fang-teeth white,
Trotted about his bed with the night-mare.
He rose like one well taken in a net.
And looking at the quay below his tower,
He saw a stranger landing from a ship;
A dark, fierce man, with bright eyes full of power
Blazing beneath a hood . . .
One swift and telling as a cutting whip,
Keen, with a King's decision on his lip.
He smiled on Arthur; Arthur toiled an hour,
Then sought the garden where the statue stood.
And lo, a curse had fallen: fungus grew
Over the goddess in a lace of green;
No sparrows chirruped nor did pigeons coo,
And mat-weed chokt the tank.
The smell of dying made the place unclean,
All withered were the myrtles of the Queen.
"This cannot be the garden that I knew,"
King Arthur thought, and yet his spirit sank.
"Alas," he muttered, "I have brought a curse
Through scorning of the goddess in the night."
Yet in Apollo's house the wreck was worse;
Jove's house was in decay,
The altars bloodless without gift or rite:
No sweet blue incense-smoke, no votive light,
The golden serpents broken from the thyrse,
And no one there to sacrifice or pray.
No pine torch streamed to Mars in tongues of flame,
The sanctuary of the Sun was shut,
And in the Moon's house kittens were at game:
To Mercury no oil
Poured, and to Saturn was no offering put,
Vine-prunings, milk, or cornshoots newly-cut;
No woman called aloud on Juno's name,
Nor brought her wool, or balm, or household spoil.
And no man was at work at field or craft,
Nor loitering in the market or the lanes,
No hawkers cried, no children screamed or laught,
No women tended stall:
The world seemed weary of its fight for gains,
Its daily battle with its daily pains,
Its daily acquiescence in the daft;
A strange awakening had come to all.
But turning tow'rds a lifted voice, he heard,
He found them in the circus at the gates,
Intently listening to a teacher's word.
That same fierce foreign man,
Whom he had seen on quayside midst the freights,
Was speaking to them about life and fates.
His spirit quelled them like the eagle-bird,
The hearers trembled as his message ran.
And when he ceast, those tremblers rose as one,
Eyeing each other for a man to lead;
Then, at a word, they all began to run
Towards the city gate,
Crying, "Destroy the idols, the whole breed . . .
Destroy these statues of the devil's seed!"
Then household idols from their niches spun
Crashing: the stranger bade King Arthur wait.
"Arthur," he said, "I see you have a grief
Tormenting to your spirit: lay it bare."
Then, having heard, he said: "I bring relief;
Their strength begins to fail.
They are but erring thoughts and empty air,
Though some of them are strong and others fair.
My Master is the Master of their chief;
Trust to my Master, for his words avail.
But, hark. To-night, at midnight, you must go
Out of the city to that open space
Where the three highways all together flow
Before the bridge-gate fort.
You know the spot: it is an evil place:
Blood-sodden spirits haunt there without grace.
Natheless, go boldly, for ere cocks shall crow,
Their King will travel thither with his court.
Go to that Sovereign and demand your ring
Before he pass the gateway with his crew;
Many and deadly evils do they bring
My Master be your guide.
Ask for that stolen sapphire as your due
And do not blench nor quaver: if you do,
Then truly it will be an evil thing;
But to the valiant nothing is denied."
At midnight Arthur crept outside the gate
Over the causeway to the river bank,
There where the bridge-head tower rose up great
Above three meeting roads.
A fire-basket swung there from a crank,
Lighting the river-ripples rank on rank;
Nothing was there but darkness full of fate
And spirits without pardon or abodes.
And Arthur, standing at the meeting ways,
Lit by the fire swinging from the tower,
Heard voices crying in a meteor-blaze
That streamed across the air.
One voice was calling: "They have had their hour!"
Then one: "All changes, even Beauty and Power."
Then one: "Eternity has many days . . .
The things that will be are the things that were."
Then, from the city, horses' clattering feet,
Trotting upon the causeway, swiftly neared . .
There came an old King, in a winding-sheet,
Whose gemless crown was lead.
Long-boned he was, sunk-eyed, with scanty beard,
Old beyond human telling, bowed and sered,
Tapping the ass he rode with ancient wheat
That, like a sceptre, dreary lustre shed.
And after him, on horseback, came a crew
Of figures, wrapped in cloaks inscribed with signs,
Each tended by the symbol creature due,
The eagle and the pard,
The wolf, the peacock and the stag with tines,
The ox, the goat, the hedgehog with his spines:
The last was one whose looking almost slew,
Who bore no symbol but a broken shard.
Then Arthur, catching at the donkey's rein,
Challenged the Sovereign as the priest had told,
Saying, "0 Saturn, give my ring again!"
Then Saturn slowly spake.
"I, ageless, am most aged: I was old
Ere first a lichen sprouted upon mould,
And now I meet a man who prefers pain
On earth to bliss such as immortals take.
Accept your lesser fortune: take your gem."
Then, with a sudden waft of holy scent,
That loveliest flower of the immortal stem,
Venus herself, the Queen,
To Arthur from her golden saddle leant.
"Take back the troth-plight that you never meant,"
She said, and gave it. "Think not I condemn.
In exile I shall keep your memory green.
We pass to exile, you to reap your sowing,
We to the violet fields, you to your end,
We into peace and you to ebb and flowing;
But when the Fate cuts short,
When Life has no more penny left to spend,
When Will no longer makes your elbow bend,
Then, from my sea, 0 Love, I will come rowing,
My Queens and I, to bring you into port.
And now, farewell." And, as she spoke, a cock
Crowed from the gateway tower; the brazen gate
Jarred, rolling open at King Saturn's knock;
And all the glimmering crowd
Rode slowly through those forces of no date:
Last went the Death that held the broken fate.
Then Arthur, stunned, recovering from his shock,
Kissed his beloved's ring and sang aloud.