Arthurian and Grail Poetry
By Oscar F. Adams
The man in the wilderness asked me
How many strawberries grow in the sea;
And I answered him as I thought good,
As many as red herrings grow in the wood.
Sir Bevis, faithful knight of Arthur's court,
Returning from some mission of his lord,
Who held him dear, and oft would send by him
Such secret message as none else might bear,
And who was known to all as form'd of truth
And loving service well compact, had found,
So late the hour, the gates of Camelot
Fast clos'd, and he without was fain to wait
Till morning 'neath the roof of one who dwelt
Beside the walls by mighty Merlin made;
A kinsman whom Sir Bevis dearly lov'd.
Glad was the man when he Sir Bevis saw,
And heard the knight in courtly accents crave
A shelter till the morn, and gladly made
His kinsman of the famous Table Round
Right welcome to such cheer as he possest.
On oaken board he threw the damask cloth,
And on it laid the snowy manchet bread,
The pastry rich, the lordly round of beef,
And from a silver flagon poured the wine.
Naught said the knight till, meat and drink consum'd,
And hunger past, his tongue was therewith loos'd
And with a voice like to the mellow roll
Of music deep and full, far heard yet close
In seeming to the eager listener's ear,
"Kinsman, thou shouldst have been with me
These five days past, which I, at Arthur's hest,
Have spent at court of Mark, the Cornish king
Who wedded fair Iseult of Ireland.
On him all courtesy is lost, but she
Is fairer than Queen Guinevere, and false,
Alas! as fair, if there be any truth
In tales of her and Tristram buzz'd about
In Cornish court below us by the sea.
Thou shouldst have seen the feastings and the jousts
That graced my stay, for greatly Mark desires
With Arthur peace and therefore honor'd me
On embassage from blameless Arthur sent.
For me, I care not greatly for such sports,
But thou wast always of another mind
And therefore shouldst have gone along with me."
He ceas'd, and resting idly, chin in hand,
And elbow propt upon the board, he bent
A keenly mirthful gaze upon his host.
"Good Bevis, tell me not of Mark,
Of Cornish court, of feasts or lordly jousts,
For here, scarce three leagues off from Camelot,
Have I adventure had to last my life,
Yea, such, I thought, were like to end my life,
What time that thou wert feasting with King Mark."
To whom the knight:
"Thou seemst in goodly trim
For one so late in peril of his life;
But let me hear."
Thereat while evening wan'd
The kinsman of Sir Bevis told his tale.
"But two days since upon a listless morn
On which the sun shone fiercely from a sky
Of brass, and all the winds were still and husht
The murmuring streets of busy Camelot
I sought yon forest that, dim miles away,
O'erspreads the plain that sloping gently bounds
The west. Therein mov'd I as one who needs
No friend to 'company his steps, and there,
Outworn by distance and by summer's heat,
Sank into sleep beside a hollow oak
And woke not till what time the evening fell
Across the land and feebly strove the pale
New moon to wrestle with the dark.
I rose bewilder'd, scarce as yet possest
Of full remebrance of my journey thence,
So dull'd my senses with yet lingering sleep,
There sudden brake from covert thick of bush
And brier that barr'd the way with thorny front,
One mightier than any knight who sits
At meat with Arthur at the Table Round.
Yea, to my fears he seem'd as huge as ten
Though they were each as stout as Lancelot,
And fast he gript me by the hair and arm.
The field mouse is not in the cat's grim clutch
More helpless than was I, thy kinsman, then,
And tremblingly I found my voice and spoke:
'Oh, who art thou who here at close of day
Dost hold me fast in peril of my life?'
At these my words he loudly laught in scorn
And slowly rolling both his gleaming eyes
Upon me, gript the closer till I roar'd
For pain. Then made he answer rough and harsh
As watchdog's howling when the thief is nigh:
'The lord of this great forest, lo, am I!
And mighty through its fruits and roots am I.
Sir Evergreen am hight, and I can keep
Thee here till doomsday, an it pleaseth thee.'
To whom then I:
'Such fate would little please;
'Twould please me much the best to be let go.'
Amaz'd, he of the wood upon me glar'd
The space of one long minute, and the woods
Were still. Then broke he into loud-voiced song:
'Fate! fate! 'tis fate that holds thee pris'ner here;
Fate! fate! sharp fate, so think not to get clear.
No fate, no fate so terrible as I!'
Have you not heard my strength no one can beat?
Oh, fling yourself in terror at my feet.
No fate, no fate so terrible as I!"
Full loud he sang the while I quak'd for fear,
And thro' the forest loud the grewsome stave
Resounded and the forest echoed 'I.'
Then as I wonder'd what should me befall,
Once more he spoke, and, full of dread, I heard.
'Poor craven denizen of Camelot,
Twas not to slay and eat thee that I sought
Thee here. Not meet were it for me to eat
Thy flesh, seeing I eat not meat, but still
On fruits and roots have waxen strong, if wax
Be strong and strong be wax.'
They name it in the streets of Camelot.'
'Peace, kitchen knave!' loud roar'd Sir Evergreen,
'Thy prate is like the buzzing of some fly
That comes and goes and comes again, and yet
For nothing; such thy foolish speech. And now
'I cannot choose but hear, good sir;
To me thy voice sounds louder than the blast
That down great chimneys roars at dead of night.'
At this, well-pleas'd, he of the wood relaxt
Somewhat his grasp and show'd his teeth in smile;
A fierce array, tho' broken here and there.
'Know then, O kitchen knave,' his words to me,
'Within the dusky shadows of this wood
Have I these forty summers dwelt.'
'And winters too, Sir Evergreen?'
He answer made:
'Not winters two, dull knave,
But winters forty as the summers are,
Nor have I cold nor rheumatism felt;
Yet dwelling thus it well may chance I know
But little of the outer world, and thou,
Belike, canst tell me what I fain would hear.'
He paus'd, as one who, at a loss for words,
Doth grope about the chamber of his brain,
And from the quest at last returns with those
He had not chosen were there room for choice;
So far'd it with Sir Evergreen, who roar'd
Impatiently his eager question forth:
'O kitchen knave, or whatso'er thou art,
Make answer truly, hast thou seen the sea?'
He ceas'd, and in the gloomy wood no sound
Was there save faintest stir above our heads
Of half-awakened nestlings in the nest.
Then meekly question'd I:
'The A, B, C?'
'Not so, O knave, the sea I mean doth wind
About the world, as once in youth I heard
Sage Merlin speak, like snake about its prey.
Once more I ask it, hast thou seen the sea?'
'Full oft, in winter storm and summer calm,
Sir Evergreen,' I answered, chill with fear.
'Tis well,' he roar'd, and more beside had said
But that I spoke again and all in wrath
'Strong sir, it is not well if thou
Dost speak thus of the sea, for well and sea
Are vastly different things, tho' water lies
I ended; scarce my words were done
When all the temper of the man broke forth;
Mighty his wrath and gustily he spoke:
'Well me no wells or 'twill be ill with thee;
Sea me no seas, for I will seize on thee;
Lie me no lies or soon wilt thou lie there.'
Thereat he dragg'd me past the hollow oak
And fiercely pointed to a torrent deep
That many feet below us leapt and ran
'Mong sharp and ragged rocks that vext its course,
And made as he would hurl me thitherward.
More had he said, and op'd his mouth to speak
And op'ning, chok'd, (a frog, it may be, fill'd
His angry throat,) but later spoke more calm:
'O knave, provoke me not, lest ill befall,
And now once more attend. There grow within
This wood, beneath the leaves and creeping near
The ground, red berries which the seeming wise
Call straw. Full sweet and toothsome to the taste
Are they, and on them have I often din'd
Nigh to that hour in which the golden sun
In high mid-heaven stands, and all about
The leaves hang quiet in the summer's heat,--
My one regret that there were all too few
To satisfy the hunger in my breast.
Now, kitchen knave, if haply thou canst tell
How many of these berries rare within
The sea do grow, it may be I can feed
Thereon when these within the woods are gone.'
He ended here, and on me bent his gaze
With all expectancy, as one who sits
Within a dry and thirsty land, and sees
The storm-clouds gather in the far southwest.
He pausing, I kept silence for a space;
Then, as the shadows darken'd in the wood,
And owls from out the hollow oak flew forth
With baleful shriek to meet the coming night,
Made answer to the question as I deem'd
It best. 'The sea is wide, Sir Evergreen,
And hard were it for any man to count
And number rightly all that is therein,
Yet near enow for purpose practical
It chanceth I may answer to thy quest.
Of berries thoothsome, which the wise call straw,
(Though not a straw care I for what they say,
Not ev'n the straw which breaks the camel's back,
Nor that which shows the changeful current's course,)
There grow within the angry-bosom'd sea
As many as of herrings red are found
In green and dusky confines of the wood.'
Thus I, and he before me listen'd all
Attent as child who, by some fireside warm,
On winter evenings ere the hour for bed
Heark'neth, delighted, to some fairy tale,
But keepeth silent lest a word be lost;
So all in hope heard he, but at the last
Grew sad and loos'd his grasp, yet gaz'd
Upon me sternly that I dar'd not stir
For fear. Then, while I wonder'd at him, gave
A cry whose tingling echoes reach'd the stars:
'O knave! I know not what red herrings be!'
Full bitterly he cried, and, turning, past
Adown the forest, and the forest clos'd
Upon him, and uncheck'd I went my way."
"A grewsome tale," the bold Sir Bevis said
When all was ended and the story told,
And then the twain to slumber past, and dreams.