Arthurian and Grail Poetry

The Vision of Sir Lionel
By Oscar F. Adams

ARGUMENT.

"There were three sisters in a hall,
There came a knight among them all;
'Good-morrow, aunt,' to the one,
'Good-morrow, aunt,' to the other,
'Good-morrow, gentlewoman,' to the third.
'If you were my aunt
As the other two be,
I would say good-morrow
Then, aunts all three.'"


Sir Launcelot had fled the sight of men,
And past in dolour to a mournful wood
Where seldom rang the voice of knights from chase
Returning, but instead the dismal cry
Of owl in deepest shadows hid, or beast
That prey'd upon his brother beast, like man
On man, and there, a hermit, lived the space
Of three long years, and there, a hermit, died.
Now at this time Sir Ector and Sir Bors,
With others of the broken Table Round,
Coming to crave a blessing at his hands,
Found when they gain'd the cave beneath the rocks
That fring'd the gloomy base of a low hill,
That he, the holy man they sought, had died
An hour before, and like a summer storm
Their grief, and like a torrent flow'd their tears.
Then he, Sir Ector, standing at the feet
Of Launcelot, and lifting up a voice
That shook with anguish, cried aloud, "Thou wert,
Sir Launcelot, head of all the Christian knights!"
And hiding in his scarf a face all marr'd
With weeping, wept again.

There came a hush
Upon them, broken not until Sir Bors
DeGanis, nephew of the dead, cried out:--
"Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, and I dare
To say that thou wert never matcht of none
Among all earthly knights, and that thou wert
The courtliest knight that ever bare a shield,
And to thy lover truest friend of all
That ever rode an horse, and that thou wert
The truest lover of a sinful man
That ever woman loved, and tenderest man
Wert thou that ever struck with sword, and thou
The goodliest person among press of knights,
And thou the gentlest and the meekest man
That ever among ladies ate in hall,
And to thy mortal foe the sternest knight
That ever put spear in the rest."

Then rose
A sharp and bitter cry from those who stood
Beside, and stooping down they rais'd the dead
And reverently bare him forth, the flower
Of knighthood, dead before his time.
And one,
His brother Lionel, a knight who seem'd
In the mid-strength and flourish of his youth
Walk'd last of all with downdropt eyes until
They reach'd the castle of the Joyous Guard,
There he abode till two days after mass
Was sung above Sir Launcelot, and the sound
Of rolling music surg'd along the aisles
Of the small chapel at the Joyous Guard,
And died in mournful murmurs like the wind
In clefts and hollows of some crag above
A heaving stormful sea. But when the knights,
Sir Ector and Sir Bors and all the rest,
Had gone their ways and left Sir Launcelot tomb'd
At altar-foot, the young Sir Lionel
Departed by another way from these,
And past into a wide waste land that lay
On both sides of a sullen stream that swept
Round many a loop of fenland to the sea.
Here in a shatter'd castle of his own
That stood half-islanded by the dark stream,
He past a lonely autumn-tide, nor knew
Nor car'd what hapt amid the world of men;
For ever was he thinking of the dead
Sir Launcelot, and saying to himself,
"Would I had died if so be he had liv'd:
Full gladly had I given my life for his."
And had his brother knights beheld him then,
They might have deem'd the death he crav'd was near;
For like to one whose days have shrunk to hours
He sat in hall unheeding, while the wind
Tore at the casement and was loud without.

So ran the autumn to its end. Each night
The little marshy pools were film'd with ice,
Rime whiten'd the tall reeds that grew beside,
And winter came, and still Sir Lionel
Abode in gloom; but on a day in spring
Nigh to our Lady's feast, a sudden glow
O'erspread the land and brake from out the earth
In flame of crocus and of violet.
And on that day Sir Lionel awoke,
And on that day bethought him of the world,
And felt such stirrings of his youthful blood
As if the chase or tourney beckoned him.
Fill'd with the rush of old impetuous
Desires, Sir Lionel was moved to leap
At once to horse and lightly ride away,
But limbs disus'd from action held him fast,
At which he chaf'd and murmur'd but endur'd
Till all his wonted strength return'd and he
Look'd like a copy of that Launcelot
Who in his younger days flasht thro' the lists
And charg'd, in shock of tourney, past the eyes
Of ladies and of kings at Camelot.

The Easter-tide was past when on a morn
In green mid-April, young Sir Lionel,
To southward turning, rode from out that wild
Waste country to a westward-gazing land
That breath'd of coming summer. On the branch
O'erhead the bud had swell'd to leaf, in hue
Pale emerald shot with threads of gold. The birds
Made riotous music in mid-air, and all
The turf burn'd with the daffodil's sharp flame.
Upon the brow of a low hill that cleft
The plain a half-league distant, rose the walls
Of a great castle from whose highest tower
There flutter'd a white ensign cross'd with bars
Of gold, that now and ever caught the sun
And flasht against the blue of sky beyond.
This when he saw, the knight spake to his squire,
A man in years much past his own, "I pray
You stay till I return," and he made speech
In answer, "Yea, my lord." Thereat the knight
Put spurs to horse and rode to castle gate,
That stood wide open and no man was near.
Above the keystone on long since had carv'd,
With intricate device of blazoning,
A shield and legend on a streaming scroll,
But all were dim with years, and none might tell
The sculptor's meaning save that on the scroll
"Amor" yet linger'd, as if one should say
That love outlasted pride of place and name.

Much pond'ring on this thing, Sir Lionel
Rode slowly o'er the drawbridge 'neath the gate
And past within the courtyard. Nothing stirr'd
To meet his coming, tho' his horse's hoofs
Sent all the echoes flying back from wall
To wall, and for a space Sir Lionel
Sat silent on his horse and gaz'd upon
The empty courtyard. On three sides rose up
A high grey wall, doorless and windowless,
But on the fourth an archway pierc'd the stone,
In which the door swung lightly with each puff
Of wind. This seeing, Lionel was mov'd
To pass beyond. Dismounting from his horse,
He lightly overran the steep stone steps,
And pushing with one hand the oaken door,
Past in. Thereat the door clang'd to with sound
Like thunder, nor would ope again. In awe,
Yet nowise daunted, Lionel enter'd now
A hall hung round with 'broideries that mov'd
In the light breeze that thro' the doorway past
With him, and at the farther end there sat
An ancient maiden clad in faded cloth
Of yellow samite. Faded were the eyes
That lookt on him, and faded too the hue
That once had been sweet colour in the cheeks,
And he, beholding, deem'd her more than twice
His years, and, for she spake no word, bow'd low,
And said with reverence as became a knight
In presence of a dame of rank and years
Like hers, "Good-morrow, aunt." At this a smile,
As wintry watery as the gleam that strikes
Athwart a barren land at close of some
November afternoon, lit up a while
The sombre visage that was turn'd to him,
And ere it past she pointed with a hand
To which, uncompanied, a jewel clung;
And following with his eyes the hand, he saw
An arch behind her, wherethro' Lionel past
In silence, reverencing her mood, and came
Into a hall ten paces longer than
That other hung with 'broideries, but this
With silken hangings, wonders of the loom.
Upon a dais midway of the space,
Beneath a canopy of crimson silk,
Sat one who seem'd a sister unto her,
The ancient maiden of the yellow robe,
But yet twin lustrums younger, for her eyes
Not wholly fail'd their charm, and on her gown
Of samite crimson folded hands lay yet
Unshrunken. Unto her Sir Lionel
With utmost grace of courtesy stoopt low
Until the plume upon his helmet swept
The floor, and with a voice that seem'd all made
Of courtesy, "I pray you, gentle aunt,
Good-morrow!"
At the words she rose from out
Her chair beneath the crimson canopy,
And lifting a white arm, wherefrom the folds
Of samite crimson slipt in gleaming lines,
With slender finger pointed to a door
Half hid in a shadow, smiling as the sun
Of middle summer smiles across a field
Of rip'ning wheat. In silence Lionel
Obey'd the motion of the finger point,
Push'd ope the door which clos'd behind with sound
That jarr'd the nerves of silence, leaving him
Alone within a corridor that led,
After long windings, to a lofty hall
Lighted by three vast windows in which flam'd
The story of the great Pendragonship
In saffron, gules, and azure. On the walls
Were dinted shields a many. From the roof
Droop't faded banners of some mighty king.
All this Sir Lionel saw not, or saw
As one whose heart is elsewhere sees the shapes
Of men and things about him, but of them
Thinks naught; for now his eyes were fixt on one
Who mov'd to meet him in a samite robe
Of palest azure, over which a vine
Wrought all of pearls, as thickly sown as turf
With trembling sparkles after April showers,
At random wander'd from the throat to hem.
Beholding stood Sir Lionel, like one
Who after many years of darkness sees
For the first time. Ne'er had he known a maid
So beautiful, for on her cheek there lay
The rose, and on her brow the lily. Hair
Like ripples of pale sunshine made a light
About her like a glory, and her eyes
Seem'd like twin stars.

Silent he stood such space
As one might count an hundred, then upon
One knee in reverence bending, spake aloud:--
"Good-morrow, maiden--aunt I may not say;
Sister I dare not--yet were you like these,
I might good-morrow bid you, aunts all three.
This can I not; but if you be of earth,
As sure I almost deem that one so fair
Was not of earthly mother born, I fain
Would be your eager, faithful knight to serve
You in such wise as you may deem me fit."
Thereat the maid, extending a white hand,
Sign'd him to rise; when he, that moment seiz'd
With rapture of wild love, caught at the hand
And kiss'd it twice or thrice, but ere his lips
Had left it came a darkness over him,
And in the midst of that great darkness was
A voice that sang, and sadly sweet the words.
And when the song had end the darkness past,
And he upon his horse once more, beside
His squire, was gazing on that land that slop'd
To westward; but the castle no man saw
Thenceforward, and Sir Lionel went his way.