Arthurian and Grail Poetry
The Love Song of Tristram and Iseult
By Cyril Emra
In crimson light the ocean shone
Beneath the heavens sublime;
Far-spent, the day was passing on
To the great deep of time;
And half-way hid behind the west,
The dying sun immense and bright
Touched with red fire the foamy crest
Of endless waves, and bathed in light
A ship with ivory sails unfurled
That danced adown the waste sea-world,
Alone of all things there,-
Sir Tristram's vessel voyaging
South to the Cornish coast to bring
For Mark, his uncle and his king,
A bride, Iseult the fair.
Iseult and Tristram - knight and maid: -
O names of dust and fire!
When shall the glamour of them fade,
Or when the pity tire?
On strange adventure came they, he
Unwilling escort of the queen
That was to be; unwilling she
To wed the king she ne'er had seen.
And who, that knows how love may be
Bound not by any man's decree,
But works its wilful way and free
To what dim fate it cannot see,
Through peril and through woe,
Shall wonder that between these twain,
The goodliest of all splendid men,
The loveliest woman living then,
A spell, a charm their souls to chain,
A bond of dread, delightful pain
Silent and strong should grow?
All day adown the shining seas
They saw the sunlight gleam;
The straining canvas caught the breeze
That surged upon their beam,
Till the long hours to evening drew,
Hushed to a whisper sank the wind,
And ribboned out across the blue
The fleecy clouds far-streaming thinned
Into illumined lines of mist
By the red sunset redly kissed,
And blushing rosy-bright,
In that short hour of lesser life
That drifts between the alternate strife
Of restless day and night.
Faint as a bank of cloud that sails
Where sea-line touches sky,
They saw the hilly coast of Wales
On the horizon lie;
And gazing at the distant heights,
'How long?' she asked; 'how many more
Of sunny days and starry nights
Before we reach Tintagel's shore?'
'By wind and tide so fairly sped,
On the third day,' Sir Tristram said,
'I doubt not we shall see you led
In royal state, a bride to wed
With Mark, my kinsman lord.'
And either in the other's eyes
A moment glanced, aware and wise
Of speech that in deep silence lies,
Of fear that through great stillness cries;
Nor spake they other word.
The sun slid down behind the west;
Bright grew the milky moon;
That dream of dusk, that hour of rest
Was ended all too soon;
Fresh sang the breeze at sunset lulled;
The rattling tackle quivered tight;
The sullen waters, lately dulled,
Gleamed with a myriad points of white.
Close-hauled, with sheets no longer slacked,
Windward the golden galley tacked,
And by the cloud-ribbed heavens tracked,
Through the gray twilight, she
Into the moonshine and the dark
Went gliding like a phantom bark
Adown a fairy sea.
One gleaming planet pale and red
They saw about them burn,
The mirrored moonlight far ahead
Lay glistening, and astern
Like trampled snow her froth-strewn wake,
Whereon were shadowed blurred and black
The broad sails and the high-raised deck,
Slow-fading followed on her track.
The crested water slapped her bows
Like spray on some strong swimmer's brows
Who beats against the breeze;
And where, the shattered foam amid,
Her knife-edged battle-bleak was hid,
Purred a low ripple as she slid
Along the gliding seas.
Screened by the bulwark's lofty shade
And lit by swinging lights
Iseult sate idle with her maid,
And Tristram with his knights.
After the long inactive day
Bound by the vessel's narrow space,
With tale and song they whiled away
This last, late hour of twilight grace.
O keen young faces eager-eyed,
O strength and beauty well allied,
Bright souls whose fire not yet had died,
And hearts impassioned with the pride
Which only youth can give!
How well it were that night to be
One there of Cornwall's chivalry, -
Between the starlight and the sea
How well to be alive!
Sir Tristram took his harp of gold
And sang an old, sad song,
Of two whose love was never told
Through lonely years and long.
For she already was a wife
Who suffered silent to the end,
And he who loved her more than life,
Her husband's own familiar friend.
And Iseult feared the nameless pang
Of yearning and despair that rang
Through sense and spirit as he sang, -
Almost it seemed to be
Her own heart's music in the chords,
Her soul's voice wailing in the words
Of that wild melody.
With lips light-parted, curving red
Above a pearly gleam,
With eyes in whose deep lustre played
The shadow of a dream,
Entranced she heard him, while the throng
Of knights about her, great and tall,
The brave, the battle-tried, the strong,
Were held by the sweet minstrel all.
And Tristram made the music thrill
With witchery of sleep to still
And lull the listeners at his will
Where round him rested they, until
He saw the wakeful fire
In their eyes soften, as the spell
Of numbering languour on them fell;
But hers he could not tire.
Their souls were drowsed with sleep; they grew
Aweary; one by one
And two by two away they drew
And left them twain alone.
His fingers faltered on the strings,
Upon his lips the music died,
And stirred with dim disquietings
He rose and gat him to her side.
'The night grows old,' he said, 'and lo,
Now the still hours more silent grow;
Thy maiden waits for thee below;
Ah, then, Iseult, I pray thee go,
While I a vigil keep;
In me such fires unrestful roll
As drive the calmness from my soul,
And from mine eyes the sleep!'
No stir save that the vessel made
Seemed there in all the world;
In utter calm, in silence dead,
She lay with canvas furled;
The sudden landward breeze had sighed
Its life away an hour ago;
And hushed as in a shrine replied
Iseult, her clear voice thrilling low, -
'From me, too, sleep is far away;
Should I fare better if I lay
Wide-eyed until the weary day?
Ah, Tristram, the may I not stay
And watch with thee awhile?'
And though he feared her presence nigh,
Yet could he not her will deny,
So with light words of courtesy
Tristram made answer, marvelling why
Such rapture in her touch should lie,
Such peril in her smile!
The starry heavens circled slow;
The dreamy hours of sleep
On wings of slumber brooded low
Above the drowsy deep;
But never life more wakeful glowed
Through their twain hearts that beat in tune,
As side by side the deck they trod
And watched the westward-waning moon
In burnished splendour round and large
Like some spent warrior's battle-targe,
Drop down behind the distant marge
Of shadowy sea and sky, -
So calm the night, so clear the sight
Of those keen eyes whose vision bright
Saw the last ragged wisp of light,
Like flames on some faint far-off height,
Melt to a mist and die!
'Now,' said Sir Tristram, 'night is come
To its most breathless tide;
In this great silence ghostly-dumb
We must no more abide.'
'Ah, stay thou yet awhile!' she said,
'Is not this hour at least our own?
My heart is touched with sudden dread;
I fear the stillness all alone,
I fear the solitary hours,
The darkness that above me towers
In my low cabin's gloom,
And most the sounds that sigh and groan
All night of waters, like the moan
Of souls that sob in doom.
'But here no restless murmur mars
The deep, unworldly spell
Of glassy sea and solemn stars, -
These that I love most well.
And haply this the last time is
That earth so free a mood can give,
When not in dreams and memories
But still in burning life I live.
Ah, Tristram, to the world is shown
The gilded glory of a throne,
Yet she is friendless and alone
Who weds a gray-haired king.
Would God 'twere mine to choose between
Love and the splendours of a queen,
Or that I had not destined been
For such proud sorrowing.'
And Tristram found no word to say,
Nor might his will devise
To tell what pity in him lay,
And he with silent eyes
Gazed on her through the twilight dim,
Desired, adored all else above,
Dearer than his own life to him
And fair beyond the dreams of love.
Almost in fancy wild and sweet
He felt his arms about her meet,
His heart upon her bosom beat
In passionate embrace;
And through the pulses of his frame,
And through his soul in shuddering flame
The wonder of her beauty came,
Till might he not, for fear and shame,
Look more upon her face.
'This is a bitter thing,' she said,
'That comes upon my life;
Almost I would that I were dead
Than be that gaunt king's wife.
Ah! Tristram, like a little child
My little woes on thee I pour;
Forgive me if my words are wild.
Forget them! Now I say no more!'
Then with low voice he answered, 'Nay,
Iseult, there is no word to say
Save this, that if on any day
All else desert thee or betray,
Then look thou unto me;
And if I fail thee may my name
Be blotted from the book of fame,
And in the silence set with them
Which for dishonour and black shame
May never spoken be!
'And now, since all sweet hours must die,
Since even the dark has sight
And ears that gape and tongues that lie,
My lady fair, good-night!'
Then lifted she her wistful eyes
To where in the faint light he stood
Seeming of more than mortal size
Near her, and splendid as a god.
And all her strength grew weak and dim;
She loved the clean-cut length of limb,
The beauty and the might of him,
The proud imperial face
With features clear against the night,
And eyes now lit with tender light
Which in the battle, blue and bright
So terribly might blaze.
They passed from where the encircling screen
Had hid them in its frame,
Whose silken curtains hung between
The middle ship and them;
And beautiful before their sight
All the great galley dreaming lay,
The mightiest ship that e'er in fight
Or peaceful errand flung the spray.
Her tall masts tapered overhead;
A hundred steps a man might tread
From rudder-post to figure-head,
A score across her beam;
High-decked, and slender, lithe of bow
Was she; and sheer the deep to plough
The royal dragon on her prow
Shone with a golden gleam.
All living things, as in some realm
Sleep-haunted, seemed to drowse;
The steersman nodded at the helm,
And in the distant bows
The seaman of the watch looked out
Over the deep and never stirred;
Neither was any call nor shout
Nor murmur of low voices heard;
And laced by shadows gaunt and gray
From the pale mast-light's ghostly ray,
Beside their oars the rowers lay
Like sleepers dumb in death.
'Speak low; step softly!' Tristram said,
'Iseult, we are as two that tread
With mortal feet the darkness dread
On some gray vessel of the dead
Where none but we have breath!'
The sheen of stars was all that came
From the blue vault of night,
Yet the wide waters were aflame
With luminous, dim light.
Most strange it was how silent gleamed
Those pale fires on the deep around,
And once, when a star shot, it seemed
There should have been some gentle sound.
No stir, no breath, above, beneath!
All earth, all heaven were calm as death,
Save only, now and then,
A low wave lapped the vessel's side,
And faint above their heads replied
The tap of quivering rope and slide,
As smooth she rocked upon the tide,
And all was hushed again.
'Now,' said Iseult, 'I must obey
If thou wilt have it so;
A maiden has no voice to say
What things she will or no.
Howe'er the impatient heart rebels
Still must she suffer and be dumb:
Therefore in this, as in all else,
Perforce I yield. Then, Tristram, come!'
And down the narrow stairway slow,
Lit by a flickering lantern's glow,
They passed to the dim deck below,
And at her door made pause.
And Iseult opening looked therein:
No light was there save what might win
Through the high porthole drifting thin;
Nor in the shadowy dusk within
Or sound or movement was.
'My maid is gone,' she said. 'Wilt thou
Bring, of thy courtesy,
The lamp that hangs behind thee now,
And set it here for me?'
So Tristram, in the old, free way
Of those less rigid-mannered days,
Entered with her, and silent they
Pale in the lantern's dusky haze,
With hands that trembled at the touch
Each of the other, marvelled much
What presence filled the room, -
A lonely sound, it seemed to them,
The breath of one who listened came,
And watchful eyes of quiet flame
Peered through the dim-lit gloom.
Shamed with a strange and sacred awe,
As in some holy place,
He lifted up his eyes and saw,
Framed round her loveliness,
All things that in that chamber made
Fit setting for a fairy face, -
The walls with costly stuff arrayed,
And mirrors of dark steely glaze;
Fur of wild things with peril killed,
And niche-held bowls with flowers filled,
Whose faint erotic perfume thrilled
Like some dim dream of old;
And on a carven shelf that swung
By chains of cunning silver slung,
A great bejewelled flagon hung,
And cup of curious gold.
'Lo here,' she said, 'a gift I bring
From that old home of mine,
My father's gift to Mark the king,
A meed of ancient wine.
And now, I wis, the night grows cold; -
Sir Tristram, ere thou go from here,
Of this rare vintage century-old
Drink thou one cup of royal cheer!"
No seals upon the vessel were,
And little toil it made for her
To take the golden lid from there,
And pour a cup thereof.
Thus with her lithe, white hands she did,
And thence her faltering fingers slid
To where lay in her bosom hid
A witchwork fiery and forbid,
A reckless charm of love.
By what compelling whim possessed
Her soul might scarce divine,
She drew the philtre from her breast
And poured it in the wine,
That secret draught her mother brewed
For Mark and her, of magic might
To sear the soul and sting the blood
With passion perilously bright.
They watched the rosy bubbles swim
Around the golden beaker's brim,
Like spirits loosened, which in dim
Strange bondage were asleep;
She drank, and kissed the goblet's edge.
'Take thou,' she said, 'this cup I pledge!'
And Tristram drained it deep.
What breath of drowsy fire was this
That made his soul to swoon;
What drift of sunset memories,
Or love beneath the moon;
What surging music faintly sighed
From ways in old glad seasons trod;
What dreadful daring that defied
The vengeance of eternal God?
He looked into her eyes and felt
His soul touch hers that in them dwelt,
His brimming senses reel and melt
In some supreme eclipse.
He drew her to him; close and still
She drooped as one who has no will;
More near and near he leaned, until
His whole heart's yearning seemed to thrill
Like flame upon her lips!
Ah joy beyond the world's desire!
What burning dream was this?
Their breathless souls drew in like fire
All heaven in a kiss!
Through deeps of space, it seemed to him,
Her voice thrilled low: - 'Dear love,' she said,
'My spirit faints; the world grows dim
With joy that makes my soul afraid.'
And from her arms' dear bondage he
Loosed him, and said low-voiced, 'On me
Fear also comes. And now from thee
Must I begone till day shall be.'
Nor made they other speech,
But parted there as dreamers might
Whom some wild vision of the night
Fulfils with anguish and delight,
An-hungered each for each.
And Tristram went, with shuddering soul,
Back to the star-lit gloom.
The brooding stillness seemed to roll
On him great breaths of doom.
Athrough the silence and the dark
He heard a voice cry out his name,
And saw the ghostly face of Mark
Peer on him through a mist of flame; -
'Art thou that knight whom rumour saith
Men shall find faithful to the death?
Is Tristram traitor to his faith?'
And answer found he none,
But felt about him darkly set,
With some strange purpose dim and great,
The glowing fetters of a fate
He might not guide nor shun.
In the gray watch before the morn
Deep silence hung sublime;
Darkly the dying night was borne
To the great dark of Time.
No breath the quiet water stirred
Nor frayed the heaven's cloudy bars,
Yet one who listened might have heard
A sigh which to the drooping stars
From the dead stillness of the deep
Lifted, as from a world asleep
That feels a dream withdrawn;
And up the purple orient flowed
A stormy light that throbbed and glowed
Like the avenging fires of God, -
The first faint pulse of dawn!