Arthurian and Grail Poetry

Isolt
By Madison Cawein

"But when the queen, La beale Isoude heard these tidings shee made such sorrow that shee was full nigh out of her minde, and so upon a day she thought to slay herselfe, and never for to live after Sir Tristram's death."--Le Morte d'Arthure.

I
The wild dawn flares o'er wood and vale,
O'er all the world she used to love:
Low on her couch it finds her pale,
The dawn that breaks with flame above.
Her lute, that once was all her care,
To which her love had often sung,
Upon a damask-covered chair
Now lies neglected and unstrung.
Back from her face her hair she throws,
Her heavy hair that falls and slips,
Then, rising, to the casement goes
With languid eyes and pallid lips.

II
With feverish face from morn till noon,
And noon to middle-night she stoops
From her high lattice; late and soon
In search for him among the troops
That come and go or loiter by.
For there had come a dame, in garb
Of pearls and samite, green of dye,
A stately woman on a barb,
From Camelot, who, looking round,
Had sneered, " 'Mid herdsmen and such craft
This Tristram lives like any hound."
Then as she shook her curls and laughed,
And flashed on Isolt looks of scorn,
Trailing her glimmering jewels past,
"I met a madman yestermorn
Within the forest. Wild, aghast
He stood, all naked in the rain,
'Twas Tristram, he of Lyonesse,
A good knight once, but now--" Again
She laughed, then sneered.--And one might guess
The thing she hinted in disdain.

III
So Isolt watched now: long she leant
From her high tower that hapless dawn:
Above her bloomed the firmament,
Below, the world was dewy wan.
She saw a long lake where the stags
Came down to drink: and woods of pines
Beyond which mountains loomed, whose crags,--
Gaunt guardians of Mark's boundary lines,--
Gray watch-towers, hawk-like, overhung;
And 'mid the pines, wild, ivy-clung,
She saw a castle lift its old
Green walls of ruin, now a cave
For bandits, and a robber-hold
Of lust, beside a torrent's wave.
Then o'er a bridge, whose granite arched
The torrent's foam, she saw a knight,--
Behind whom spear-armed followers marched,--
Like Galahad, in glittering white,
Ride from the forest-covered height.

IV
High on a barb whose trappings shone
Inlaid with laton, gold of hue,
Star-bright amid the dawn and dew;
Proud on his lordly-stepping roan
He rode, and seemed of chivalry
The star, until he stood alone
Before the Court and spoke his lie,
And said,--(for him, too, heart and tongue,
Mark's gold had bought)--"I saw him die.
Alas! For one so brave and young!
But better so than still to be
A madman and a mockery!"--
Then smiled around the questioning Court
As one who brought no ill report. . . .
And she believed. And front to front
With all her misery that eve,--
Which, sombre-visaged, o'er the mount,
Above Day's burning bier did grieve
And bow her melancholy star,--
With tearful eyes she watched the light
Streak all the heaven with blood afar;
And lingered far into the night,
Lamenting at her casement-bar.

V
"Oh, I'm like one who o'er her light,
Her lamp of love, bends down, when, lo!
All on a sudden, out of night,
Dashing it down, there comes a blow
That leaves all darkness; and she hears
A demon whispering in the gloom,
That shuts her in with all her fears,"
So thought she, lonely in her room.
Then took her lute and touched such airs
As Tristram loved, sad songs of Breön,
She once had heard, all unawares,
Sir Launcelot sing in old Caerleön,
To Guinevere upon the stairs,
The terrace stairs, beside the Usk,
Deep in the nightingale-haunted dusk.
Then ceased, and wept until the stars,
Seen through her tears, made heaven all tears,
On fire with tears, that left their scars
Upon its face; and all the years
Of grief and love seemed in their spheres:
And reaching out her arms she cried,
"O God! O God! that I had died!
O Tristram! Tristram! art thou near?
O love, be near me in this hour!
This hour of anguish and of fear!
Which,--(like yon fountain's ceaseless foam,
Unseen, beneath this starlit tower,
Deep in the shadow of its dome),--
Throbs on and on within my life,
The utter darkness of its woe.--
O hour of grief! O hour of strife!
Why must my young heart suffer so?
Why must my sick soul sigh and sigh,
And God not hear nor let me die?"

VI
When rose the moon, and far away
A nightingale beneath the tower,
Heard through the fountain's falling spray,
Made lonelier yet that lonely hour;
And 'twixt the nodding grove and lake
A glimmering fawn stalked through the night,
And snuffed the wind, then bent to slake
Its thirst; she veiled her face,--as white
As death's,--and said: "The way is clear!
There is no use in waiting here!
Come! let me cure this heart that bursts!
This pain is more than I can bear!--
Come! let me still this soul that thirsts! . . .
Upon the lake, as thick as stars
In heav'n, the lilies lie asleep.--
There lies a way beyond these bars,
These walls of flesh that hold and keep!
The nightingale shall find its mate,
The fawn its fellow, and must I,
The spouse of grief, the wife of hate,
Live on alone until I die?--
How long, how long, O God, to wait!" . . .
Far through the darkness went her cry.