Masefield's Midsummer Night

THE TAKING OF GWENIVERE

FRENCH poets write :-- That, Lancelot the brave
Fought and defeated Arthur's Knights, to save
Queen Gwenivere, then sentenced to the fire: -

That he and she then lived in heart's desire
At Joyous Gard, for certain months or years.

This is Queen Isolt's tale, not Gwenivere's,
Tristan's, not Lancelot's: but since men know
This version best, I tell it also so.


Soon as the colour-giving dawn was seen,
Arthur bade call
His Court, to judge the sinning of his Queen
There in the hall.
Himself, in scarlet, sat upon his throne
To hear her plead;
She, with her beauty only, stood alone;
Alone indeed.

For round her stood the widows and the young
Of all the Knights
Whose limbs and lives her lover had unstrung
On the wall's heights;
And with them were the rabble of the Court
And Modred's friends,
Thinking the baiting of the Queen a sport
That made amends.

And in the shrilling of the threats and cries
That nothing stilled,
Sir Modred told of Lancelot's emprise
And how he killed
The meyny sent against him to discover
The wicked thing.
"He killed them," Modred cried, "this woman's lover.
Be just, O King."

Then Arthur spoke: "You bid me to be just . . .
Justice decrees
Death for the petty treason of a lust
And brooks no pleas;
'Death for the wife by burning at the stake;'
The law is clear;
No shadow of exception will I make,
It is death here

Unless the one accused can bring defence
Of such a kind
That we be certain of her innocence . . .
Now let us find
What answer the accused, Queen Gwenivere,
Makes to the tale
Of petty treason brought against her here.
Let truth prevail."

The red-gold Queen replied: "O tender lord
To grant this grace,
To let me answer as you sit at board
To try the case.
A few short hours ago you ordered men
To take and kill
My friend and me. Since murder throve not then,
Now justice will."

"No," Arthur said, "they were not sent to slay,
But to arrest
And bring to me: they charged you to obey
The King's behest.
Resistance to my order was the cause
Of twelve men's death;
For that there shall be answer to the laws
As the law saith.

But the main question now is treason, Queen.
This Knight and you
Met to be lovers as you long have been.
Is that not true?
You went disguised, in darkness and alone,
To this man's lair,
Because you are his woman to the bone
And loved him there.

If not to love this captain, tell us then
Why did you go
To meet him, hidden from the eyes of men
In darkness so?
Answer us that . . . remember that you stand
On a pit's brink.
Speak truth as one in judgment on God's hand,
But ere speech . . . think."

The colour came to Gwenivere's pale cheek,
Her great eyes shone:
"Why should I think," she asked, "before I speak?
All thought is gone
From you and all the rabble kennelled here
To hear me cast .
You mean to burn me living on a bier
By sentence past.

I say you lie. Your killers never spoke
Of the King's will,
But beat the turret door until it broke,
Meaning to kill.
Then Lancelot to save me (me, the Queen)
From the King's friends,
Made such a story as will last, I ween,
Till the world ends.

There were thirteen against a man and me;
These two remain:
Modred and Mullet in their infamy,
The things unslain . . .
They disobeyed your orders without cause,
They mocked your will:
No matter: they may much assist your laws
To kill me still."

"Queen," Arthur answered, "if they disobeyed,
That cannot clear
You, the accused one, of the charges made
Against you here.
The chief of which is, that unlawful love
Sways you from me,
And has done long, as many people prove
To certainty.

'What the Court asks from you is a defence.
That you must make,
Or our unchanging law will send you hence
To burn at stake.
Why did you go by night to Lancelot
If not for sin?
Let royal indignation be forgot,
Let truth begin."

Then the proud red-gold lady, beauty's peer,
Answered: "Proceed . . .
Burn me, to soothe this kennel barking here,
Your friends in need,
Your haters and your killers and your two
Flee-ers, who ran.
Know, there is warrantise for all you do:
I loved this man."

Then Arthur said: "No need to question more . . .
Since you are his,
Doubly a traitor to the oaths you swore,
Your sentence is
That you be burned within the public ring
Outside the wall,
Before this noon: thus sentences the King . . .
Bear witness all."

Then Gawaine said: "King Arthur, you are mad,
And act from spite . . .
This is no trial that the Queen has had . . .
You have no right
To sentence on confession, without proof,
As the world knows."
Then Arthur said: "Peace, Gawaine, stand aloof.
To stake she goes."

Then Gawaine said: "You turn all upside down
For one hour's rage . . .
She is the chiefest sapphire in your crown,
Star of her age:
And you, because your bastard Modred wills,
Cast her to die.
It is not justice, no, but he that kills . . .
That infamy."

Then Arthur said: "You, for this insolence
To me, the King,
Shall call the bodyguard and take her hence
Out to the Ring,
And there see sentence done as I command."
Gawaine said: "No.
Let Modred be your foul act's dirty hand,
I will not go.

No; let your bastard do your hangman's task;
I, a King's son,
Refuse it, whether you command or ask."
Then everyone
Cried: "Down with Gawaine!" But Sir Gawaine turned
Scorning them all;
He shouldered through the mob that milled and churned
And left the hall.

Then Arthur cried to Gareth, Gawaine's brother,
Still but a boy:
"You, Gareth, shall not question, like the other,
Your King's employ.
You, on your knightly service, take the Queen,
This proven trash,
And burn her as a felon on the green
To bitter ash.

About it: go: fall in the bodyguard."
At this he rose
And left the Queen sans counsel or regard,
Alone with foes.
The widows and the children of those killed,
And all the mean
With nails that clutcht and savagery that thrilled,
Assailed the Queen,

So that the spearmen had ado to check
The rush that came
With sharp claws stretching for the victim's neck
And shrieks of shame.
But Gareth with a spear-butt beat them back
And kept space free,
Then said to her: "O lovely Queen, alack
That this should be . . .

Now I am shamed whatever thing I do:
Letting you live,
I break my oath; and if I murder you,
None will forgive
And nought atone, forever, till I die . . .
These curs at least
Shall all behave or show a reason why."
Then like a beast,

A bull that sees his foe, or wolves made one,
Seeing their prey,
That crowd of haters brought with malison
The Queen to bay . . .
They beat the spearmen back, they spat, they struck,
They overwhelmed . . .
Gareth was gallant but had little luck,
That lad unhelmed;

So, in an instant, Queen and guard were reeds
Tosst in a flood
Of devils utterly possesst by greeds
For human blood.
They screamed: "You golden harlot, once so proud,
Shall now be tame;
Come to the fire, malkin, in your shroud,
And feed the flame."

Then suddenly, while all the building rang
From those who curst,
The bronze doors were forct open with a dang,
And in there burst
Lancelot and his meyny, with Sir Bors,
Ector and Urre,
Cutting a pathway to her from the doors
To rescue her.

In that fierce mellay of the charge none knew
What foe he hit;
Each in his headlong fury struck and slew,
Steel on steel bit.
Lancelot cleared the crowd, his meyny broke
The King's array;
There Lancelot killed Gareth with a stroke,
And Ector, Kai.

And Bors killed Gauter, and Sir Safer clave
Driant the Bright;
There Bel the Proud was toppled to his grave,
And Tor the Knight.
Lancelot at the Queen's side cleared a ring
And shouted: "Swine . . .
I take this royal lady from the King,
She is now mine.

Tell Arthur therefore that I take her hence . . .
If he demur,
Let him give battle; I will make defence
For love of her."
Then, with his arm about her, forth he stalkt
Out, through the crowd,
Who shrank away from him like jackals baulkt,
Snarling but cowed.

Then at the gateway taking horse, he passt
Usk bridge at trot,
And on the green beyond it trotted fast
From archer's shot.
Th' alarm bell in the tower boomed like surf,
But fear was gone
From all those comrades trotting on the turf
While the sun shone.

Till noon they trotted, then, near Braddoc reach,
They turned aside
From raddled Severn babbling in soft speech,
To a green ride;
Through ancient oakwoods where the ravens built,
All day they went,
Till sunset found them on the western tilt
Of the bare bent.

There, looking back across the misty woods
Topped by red sky,
They saw white Venus star the solitudes
Above the Wye;
They saw the Severn sandy to the mouth,
Arthur's domain,
The forest and the mountains to the south,
Chain in blue chain.

Then Lancelot and Gwenivere were sure
That they were done
With all their past, however long might dure
Their share of sun.
That they were finisht with that realm of gold
As Knight and Queen;
The glory of their living was grown old,
Their joy had been.

Above the rock, above the well, above
The grove of thorn,
That couple stood, those burners in great love,
On the forlorn
Lean neck of hill surmounted by the caer,
The glow of light
Shone in the Captain's eyes and the Queen's hair
Before the night.

They set their tired horses to the east
Over the crest.
Beyond, the colours had already ceast,
Birds were at rest.
The mist was creeping on the Seven Springs
Where no light glowed,
A darkness was upon the face of things:
To that they rode.