Arthurian and Grail Poetry
By Sebastian Evans
I mind me of Toraise in Carmelide:--
Plenary court with show and festival
Held King Leodegan that Whitsuntide.
By noon the busy cooks had served in hall
Pottage of herbs with spiceries and wine,
Boars' heads in aigredouce and therewithal
Herons and egrets in sauce Gamelyne,
Peacocks in pride in platters of pure gold,
And swans in silver served with galentine,
Bakemeats and venison and a store untold
Of savoury breads, and flesh, and fowl, and fish,
Sallets and mortrews, fritters hot and cold,
Creams, cates, and jellies, many a lordly dish
Of pear and pippin, comfit-carraways,
Citron and dates--a Cardinal could wish
No fairer garnish on his holy days.
And after every course the Sewer arrayed
A subtle fancy of Dame Fortune's ways:
First, Belisaire upon his throne displayed;
Next, the blind lazar cowering by the wall;
The third, in tattered weed, a beggar-maid;
And last, Cophetua's bride in crown and pall.
Dame Fortune's self the while, in midmost place,
Poising her gilded limbs on her swift ball
Above the mast-head, with a silken lace
Bare up the mainsail of an argosy
Of beaten silver, that in hypocras
Swam idly, all becalmed in a Red Sea,
Among the isles of wafer-cake in sop.
And fair aloft, the minstrel-gallery
A ceilure starred with gold did overtop:
And ever among, the quire or played or sang
With citole, sackbut, sawtrey, and sweet stop
Of clariner and cornet, and the clang
Of timbrels and of tabors--pipe and lute
With their wild warble thrilling through the twang
Of harps and wail of melancholy flute.
To that high music every heart beat high
With knightly passion, and when all was mute,
The young men did not think it much to die;
And greybeards knew that their old blood was young,
And looked upon the young men with a sigh.
Then forward stood a chorister and flung
Such sweet, sweet sorrow into his sweet lay
Of lovers' woe, that, ere the song was sung,
There was no warrior's eye but turned away
Lest it should meet his fellow's for the tear.
Ginevra looked at Arthur, but the grey
Of her bright eyne knew nought of lover's fear;
And when they met not his, the rebel blood
Flushed to the fair tip of her tingling ear,
As there before him teeth on lip she stood,
For that she knew she showed so beautiful
In the wild triumph of that sovran mood,
And grudged that he should see not. Was he dull,
And drank that philtre of sweet sound in vain,
That thus he looked away, nor cared to lull
The divine longing of love's hunger-pain
By feeding in her eyes his love with love?
He saw not,--no! Nor, though he stared amain,
Saw he the banners blazoned bright above
The starry ceilure. Not until the stir
After the song, when all the guests 'gan move,
Did her true lover think to look at her.
And then, pardie, her eyes were otherwhere:
For lo, past truncheoned steward and cellarer
Who stood beside the cupboard, mazed with care
Of the great goblets and the cups of state,
Limped Tronc the jester, with a Kaiser's air,
His kingly train upborne by an ape sedate,
And four white poodles, two on either side,
Marching upright, but sad, as if the fate
Of courtier-life bore hardly on their pride,
And those gay silken masquer weeds they wore
Repaid not half what they must needs abide
As hangers-on to majesty so poor.
Long laughter shook the hall at that strange show,
Which waxed amain when on the lower floor
The motley knave, with many a mop and mow,
Bade all his four-foot courtiers dance and leap,
Just as a king might bid his dukes do so.
The feasters laughed and drank, and they drank deep
Of those tall flagons, and the butler's wand
Waved for fresh vintage with a lordly sweep.
Ginevra raught a wine-flask from the stand
Brimmed with the ripest, and at Arthur's knee
Knelt, a deep beaker in her dainty hand,
Gemmed all within with jewels that make flee
All taint and venom from the faery brim,
And humbly proffered her new lord. But he,
Shamed that such service should be done to him
By her who was his worship, bade her rise.
"Nay," quoth the Sire, "fair knight, in life and limb
We are all thine--Let be, the girl is wise."
Then Arthur drank and gave her back the cup;
But still she knelt beside him, and her eyes
Betrayed no signal as she raised them up
Of woman's art in the child's artlessness,
As if she wondered how her lord should sup.
Yet inly knew she all her loveliness:
The pilch of velvet, parted white and blue,
Reversed with ermines for an emperess,
All overt on the sides, where shimmered through
The kirtle's silken warp with weft of gold
From looms of Baldack--O, full well she knew
The needled broidery wrought on every fold--
Those smiling suns above and sunflowers three
Under each sun, with faces broad and bold
Staring upon him through their greenery
Of sheeny leafage; all along the hem
A rienz plus bas jeo ne me tourne mie
Figured in umber, and on every stem
Solleil m'attire on scroll of argent grain--
The glistening girdle brooched with pearl and gem,
The gipciere silver-guarded and its chain,
The coronal of gold and golden net--
Full well she knew she wore them not in vain,
But knew no less herself was mightier yet.
The joyous witchcraft of her sunny hair,
The spell of eyes that dimmed the eyes they met,
Even the sigh that half betrayed how fair
The rosy promise of the imperial breast,
Guising an art to tell how, pillowed there,
Her love, the sovran of the world, might rest
In empire sweeter than the sway of kings.
So, for the night was waxing, host and guest
Betook them to their chambers, and the things
Which showed so mighty faded while they slept
Utterly even as fond imaginings,
And no man knew that he had laughed or wept.
But not forgetful of sweet life they lay,
For each, almost ere midnight tolled, had leapt
Forth from his couch to busk him for the day.
Then on the dais a carpet of fine Tars
Was spread in hall, where grooms and pages gay,
With tapers twinkling under the gold stars,
Lighted the bare-armed, leathern-aproned band
Who cased us in our harness for the wars.
And 'mid the clang, a squire on either hand,
Came Arthur's self, and on the carpet doffed
His mantle blue of cloth of Samarcand,
Unhasped the jewelled girdle, and aloft
Lifted the velvet coat, and set aside
The banded shoon of cheveril white and soft.
Then stately through high hall in seemly pride,
Among the clashing press, that Peerless One
Stepped with such gait as might beseem the bride
Of empire peerless underneath the sun.
Yet to her lord right maidenly she spake,
Bidding good morrow: "Nay," quoth she, "by none
Save mine own hands, sweet Sire, for knighthood's sake
Shalt thou be armed this day."--With that she set
Upon the kingly cycladoun of lake
The hacketon all lined with sarcinet,
Orfreyed without with crescents of thin gold
Upon the buckskin; next the solleret
She fitted on each foot with fold on fold
Of overlapping steel and toe-piece keen,
Like scale and sting of hornet; next in hold
She locked his thews in greaves of damasked sheen
Of Milan; next the cuisses featously
She hasped upon his thigh, and fair between
Buckled the knee-piece underneath the knee;
Vambrace and brassart next, and elbow-plate
As squire who knew full well where each should be
Upon his arms she jointed in due state,
And shelled the shoulders in their silver scale.
Then, o'er the pourpoint, heeding not the weight,
Deftly she donned the jesseraunt of mail;
And over that, the jupon, blazoned fair
With fiery dragon swindging his huge tail,
And broidered bordure, wrought in leafage rare
Of braided strands of silk incarnadine.
Then on the golden glory of his hair
With gentle stedfast hand and earnest eyne,
As if she offered up a kingly gift
With solemn pageant at a saintly shrine,
With arms upstretched before him did she lift
The bascinet all burnished, rich inlaid
With golden damask, then with fingers swift
Made fast the fringe of camail fair displayed;
Drew on the gauntlets with their gadlings gilt
And tasseled hems with knotted silk arrayed;
And kneeling then, the spurs he won in tilt
On the first day he armed him, on his heel
She set and buckled. Deftly thus she built
Around her love that sheeny tower of steel.--
But more was wanting. Still upon one knee
Beside her new lord did the proud one kneel,
And from the blushing page took reverently
The faery wonder of Escalibor
With all its wealth of jewelled wizardry
Wherewith to gird her knightly bachelor:
Baldrick and hilt and scabbard--not a gem
But flashed with virtue for a conqueror:--
This ruby once on Judith's diadem
Blazed like a star--that diamond clasp of yore
Girdled the Wise King in Jerusalem:
Yet all not worthier than the blade they bore,
Forged in the caverns of the Enchanted Lake
By Weland, snapped and forged again thrice o'er,
Graven with names whereat the foul fiends quake
In potent rune and mystic sign enscrolled;
Then for the first time did the fair hand shake,
Yet tongued the buckle smoothly on the fold
And the rich ends in a loose knot let fall.
So rose she, proudly smiling to behold
Her knight and king, how comely and how tall
He showed in that fair labour of her hand.
Yea, and beside her others smiled in hall;
For watching the sweet pair anigh did stand
Her sire and Merlin, with such thoughts as stir
Old hearts at sight of young love, 'mid a band
Of gaping losels, page and armourer.
Then spake old Merlin with his sour-sweet smile,
By name to Arthur, but as much to her:--
"Fair sir, in Logress, in the minster-aisle
Of sweet Saint Stephen erst thou didst receive
At pious Dubric's hand the name and style
Of a true knight, but now thou wouldst achieve
A dearer honour--now almost 'tis thine
To be love-knighted. By this lady's leave
One thing alone is lacking."--Her full eyne
Ginevra flashed upon that wizard grey,
As Arthur asked: "What lacketh, master mine?
No rite shall fail my chivalry this day
From whence I date my knighthood, for till this
I have but jested." Then quoth Merlin: "Nay,
'Tis but a trifle--let the lady kiss,
And thou, fair sir, art knight for evermore!"
"Sweet Sire," quoth she, "King Arthur shall not miss
For gift so small his knighthood. If my lore
Be nothing in this matter, pardon me:
Yet as to kisses, I am not so poor
That I can spare none." Then full maidenly
Her rosy lips she lifted to her lord
And kissed him in all stateliness; but he
Caught her in both arms and without a word
Repaid the kiss thrice o'er and thrice to boot.
O, but no rune nor gem on belt nor sword
Could stay the trembling that from head to foot
Shook the new knight in that encounter sweet,
No harness ward the wound from his heart's root.
So kissed those lovers. Fleet and few, how fleet,
How few, from the first cradle to the last,
Those high eternal moments! O, the beat
Within their pulses made our own beat fast
And dimmed our eyes with pity and regret.
Or do we now grow old, and fondly cast
A sadness on the joy we half forget,
Clouding with sorrows of our eld the youth
We do remember to remember yet?
We know not now. But even thus in sooth
Those lovers kissed, and we who saw them kiss
Look back and see them still with such deep ruth
As maketh old men weep at sight of bliss;--
Still feel the whisper which we could not hear:
"All eyes are staring--loose me after this."
So slipped she from his arms with gracious cheer,
Ruddy for maiden shame, yet not the less
Proud, not alone of her own knight sans peer,
But proud that all should see that fond caress.
Then Arthur turned as one but half awake,
Drunken with that deep draught of loveliness,
Dazed with his dreams of conquest for her sake
And bliss to be. But when his eye did light
On her sad-smiling sire, a flush 'gan break
Into his brow, with love's own wanness white;
And when beyond he felt the glittering blue
Of Merlin's eye, he crimsoned through outright;
For well that bridegroom knew that Merlin knew
His lawless other love and its wild sin--
Sin unto death, even though all else be true.
But Merlin spake: "Hereafter thou shalt win
Glory undying, such as never yet
Was e'er achieved by prince or paladin.
Yea, there be mighty names that men forget,
And all our life is but a little space,
And soon we shall lie still for all our fret.
Our day is short, and night comes on apace,
And then we shall not know sorrow nor bliss,
Nor toil nor rest, nor recollect the face
Of man nor woman. Yet by that sweet kiss
To the world's end men shall remember thee!
They shall remember, yea, and more than this:
King thou art now, and king again shalt be
Hereafter in this land of Bloy Bretayne;
For though thou go away, and shalt be free
No less than others from the toil and pain,
Thou shalt not die as others, nor the years
Shall waste no glory of thy secret reign
In realm of Faery, whence among thy peers
Thou shalt return to rule in sight of all
That shall have eyes to see thee through their tears
Of joy that after so long interval
Their own King Arthur doth come back to men."
So Merlin spake, and we, who stood in hall,
Were mute for musing. But Ginevra then
As one whom joy and doubt at once o'erwhelm,
Hearing how he, her lord, should come agen,
Yet nought of her, the lady of his realm--
Stepped forth once more and with firm hand did don
Over the knight's steel cap the kingly helm,
Windowed and pranked with gold, and thereupon
A chaplet wrought with leaf of lily and vine,
Beaten in gold--a Jew's-work pentagon
Under each foil, inwrought with subtle twine
Of stones of empire on the sheeny rim.
Then Merlin came, saying: "The last is mine,"
And set above the helm a crest to dim
All gold and gemwork flash they as they might;
The Dragon-royal, through whose every limb
The lifeblood beat in pulses of quick light;
Yet stirred it not, save that its snaky tail
It curled in glancing folds, and fiery bright
It breathed a flame, red-mirrored in the mail.
So strode the King full kingly to the gate,
Where in gay trappings o'er the burnished scale
Bridged by the saddle, his tall steed did wait
And neighed to greet his monarch as he strode
And swung into the stirrups in all state.
Sadly those lovers each bade each to God;
For glory is sweet but love is loth to go;
And through the strait lane clattering forth we rode
With folded gonfanons and lances low.