Arthurian and Grail Poetry
The Return From the Quest
By Oscar F. Adams
The dogs do bark;
Beggars are coming to town.
Some in rags,
And some in tags,
And some in velvet gown.
The summer brooded and the winds were husht,
And on the palace walls the sunshine slept,
And all within King Arthur's court withdrew
To where the shadows deepest lay, and thought
Of winter and the snow. But he, the King,
Sitting beside a window that o'erhung
The stream that murmur'd past the lichen'd walls
And wander'd thro' the meadows to the sea,
Mus'd on the time when of the Table Round
The number was complete and of his knights
Not one was absent from his place. But now
The seat of many a one in Arthur's hall
Was vacant, and from off the walls was gone
Full many a blazon'd, burnisht, knightly shield.
This had not been, so sadly Arthur mus'd,
But for the apparition of the Grail
Seen in a vision by that holy maid,
The sister of Sir Percivale, who told
The wondrous tale to all his brother knights,
And straightway set them longing for the Quest.
Then, while he mus'd, the voice of Dagonet,
The fool, shrill'd thro' the silence, and the King
Lookt up. Before him stood the fool, who call'd,
"Arouse, my brother fool, and hark to me!"
Then answer'd Arthur, nothing loth to break
A jest or two with little Dagonet,
"But why thy brother fool am I?"
The jester, shaking all his bells, replied,
"What sayest thou of him who constant wears
A thistle next his heart and knows not whence
His pain? Who fain would make a shining crown
From lumps of lead? And such a fool art thou.
And therefore shouldst thou wear a cap and bells,
And therefore have I call'd thee brother fool."
Then thus the King:
"A bitter, pointless jest;
Thy wit doth not increase as doth thy age."
To whom, in answer, shrill'd Sir Dagonet:
"Said I not truly? Take my cap and bells;"
Then mutter'd, past the hearing of his lord,
"The thistle next his heart is Guinevere,
His Queen," and after, spoke aloud, "Thy knights,
My brother fool, are not they all dull lumps
Of lead? And after all thy pains are spent
Upon them leaden still they yet remain.
Of such as these thou vainly hop'st to make
A shining crown of manhood in thy realm,
And therefore have I call'd thee 'brother fool.' "
"Thy wit is sharply edged, my fool," here spoke
The King, "and yet, for all its sharpness, fails."
Thereat the dwarf peer'd curiously up
Into his master's face, and seeing naught
Unusual in its kingly grace, had turn'd,
But turning, caught the echo of a sigh,
And knew his arrow reach'd King Arthur's heart.
Thereafter fell a silence on the twain
And Arthur mus'd as sadly as before
On hopes that had been his in long-past days
When he had plann'd the healing of the world.
Slow past a morning hour until at last
A momentary vagrant breeze, that thro'
The high, unlatticed, open window swept,
Tost aimlessly an early wither'd leaf
Into the kingly lap. Then spoke the King,
Smoothing the fade leaf:
It may be that thy song is gentler than
Thy wit; if so be, let me hear."
The dwarf, moving to where a gilded harp
Half hidden in a corner of the room
Gleam'd like a star in mellow darkness set,
Sudden swept all its strings impatiently,
And when the gust of music sank and died
And rose again to live in wailing, sang,--
And sad and bitter were the tune and words.
"High hopes--high deeds--we hope but while we may;
The buds have blown, their perfume is no more;
The time is sped, the glory past away;
New time, new strife,--the hours of joy are o'er;
New strife, new hate, to fit this later day;
New hates are deep as those that were before;
High hopes--high deeds--we hope but while we may."
The singer ended, and his bitter notes
Were follow'd by the snapping of a string.
Then said the King:
"Ye do the harp a wrong,
To make it sponsor for your grewsome stave,
And kinder had it been to chant a strain
More pleasing unto weary ears like mine."
To whom then sadly spake Sir Dagonet:
"No lightsome lays are left to sing; the hours
Of joy are o'er;" and while the King his words
Revolv'd in mind and echo found therein,
The dwarf obeisance made and danced away.
"High hopes--high deeds--we hope but while we may."
The King said slowly to himself, and paus'd,
For sudden rose a clamor in the streets,
As if the countless dogs of Camelot
Were all one voice, such uproar was there made.
Then Arthur, wond'ring at the din, arose
And past to an apartment that o'erlookt
The city's streets, and peering forth, he saw
A train of weary pilgrims near the city walls.
Then open swung the weirdly sculptur'd gates,
And Arthur knew the men, his knights return'd
From Quest of Holy Grail. And first rode Bors
And Lancelot. Dim were the trappings once
So gay on men and steeds, and tatter'd shreds
Now wav'd and flutter'd from their garments' hems.
Behind rode Percivale, in dusty rags,
And after, others worn and torn as he,
And beggars never seem'd so poor as these,
The crest and flower of Arthur's Table Round;
But last of all Gawain in velvet fine
Flasht gayly by with knightly comrades twain,
For pleasant was the Quest for him who made
So sure the holy Quest was not for him,
And thus King Arthur saw his knights return
From Quest a twelvemonth long of Holy Grail.
Loud rose the canine clamor in the streets
As these rode by, a beggar throng to eyes
Which saw them pass beyond the city walls
The year before, impelled by holy zeal,
And he who now shone brightest, false Gawain,
In honor's ranks the faintest of them all,
But shriller rang the voice of Dagonet
Dancing beside the train, who, as he saw
The kingly face regarding all who past,
With slender finger pointed to the knights
Return'd as beggars from their bootless Quest,
And sang, and bitter both the notes and words,--
"High hopes--high deeds--we hope but while we may."