Arthurian and Grail Poetry
The Eve of Morte Arthur
By Sebastian Evans
Beside the dripping copses fleeting low,
The homeless cuckoo jeereth all the day,
Even as he jeered a thousand years ago.
May-morn itself is weary of the May.
In wonted wise, the cheerless nightingale
Carpeth her carol on the hawthorn spray:
The daffodil and primrose are as pale,
Dog-violet scentless as in Mays of yore,
And all the woodland telleth its old tale.
All deeds are done, and the last quest is o'er;
For Galahad is gone, and sinless Knight
Shall seat him in Siege Perilous no more.
O pure and perfect Champion of the Right,
O lily-flower of sinful Lancelot's line!
Wert thou not born to teach us how the might
Of earthly knighthood quails before divine?
True warrior, harnessed in celestial mail!
Wert thou not Priest, too, chosen at the shrine,
When the last glory of the Holy Grail
Flashed from the altar-stone in Carbonek,
And psalms of welcome pealed within the veil?
Not like thine erring sire hast thou made wreck
Of God's dear grace, and flinched the one last quest;
In death as life, a soul without a fleck!
Yea, Galahad hath entered into rest,
Fair-tombed in Sarras, his own holy land!
That knightly Hermit, too, whom he loved best,
Percivall, sleeps in peace at his right hand;
And at his left, that knight's sweet sister, oared
By angel-shipmates to the blissful strand.
Tristan, than whom since Nembroth 'fore the Lord
No mightier hunter rode with horn and hound;
He, too, hath died the death, not hand on sword
As best beseems true knight of Table Round,
But slain by her he wronged: "Fair dame," quoth he,
"Look forth, for I am faint of my sore wound:
Be the sails white, my Love comes back to me,
Be the sails black, all my good days are done."
Then went the wife and looked across the sea,
And saw the white sails glisten in the sun,
And lied to him she loved: "One sail I spied,
Blacker than treason,--other spied I none."
But he thereon gave a great groan and died.
Then came that other widow to the beach,
And those two women meeting there dry-eyed
Across the dead stood staring each on each.
Then, bending low, that queenly Voyager
Kissed the white lips: "Mine own!"--and in the speech
Fell forward dead. The first one glared at her
And spurned her with her foot and slunk away.
So passed he to the land where none can err;
The Sire of Nurture. Let the gaunt wolf bay,
And the tall-antlered red-deer couch secure,
The broad-winged heron fearless cleave the grey;
No bowman lives can draw a bolt so sure;
Dumb are his deep-mouthed boar-hounds of Albayne,
His falcons-royal heedless of the lure!
And he, too, Merlin, he who wooed in vain
The grace of that fair Lady of the Lake
Who nursed Sir Lancelot--cometh not again!
Snared in the charm he taught her for love's sake,
The hoary Wizard haunts the thorny brere,
And wastes his marvels on the wild-wood brake.
Yet still not seldom may the Hermit hear
A dolorous hint at dusk in the Waste Land;
And caitiff horseman, felled by angry spear
Five fathom o'er the croup with unseen hand,
Surmise a dreary chuckle in the breeze
Among the bare oaks of Brokeliand.
All are forgotten. Yea, and more than these,
Fair dame and lord, minstrel and knight and sage,
Who wrought and fought and loved and took their ease,
Have wended forth on their last pilgrimage.
In shameless drivel of unhallowed eld
Morgana doteth on a lusty page
Among the lakes o' the West, where once she held
High court that vied with Arthur's court of yore:
And, homeless wandering through her woods unspelled,
The Fair Dame of the Forest Sans-retour
Hath lost her chess-play and sweet carollings,
Her greenwood bowers of dalliance all forlore.
O, for those old May-days, when queens and kings
Held court of Love amidst the Table Round,
And she whose knight had done the worthiest things
For her sole sake, though she and Fortune frowned,
Heard all the doughty deeds he did achieve
And gave the guerdon as he sate there crowned!
O days of glory! O that Easter Eve
In Table Round when Arthur sate in hall,
And all the kings from whom he did receive
Homage and fee were vested with the pall
And crown and sceptre, vassals of his throne;
While lordly heralds told with trumpet call
The whole fair folk of fifteen realms his own!
Aye, and the knights that won them, with loud voice
Those heralds blazoned, and their full renown,
Even to the steeds that bare them, and the choice
Of shield and token and enchanted brand,
Galuth and Morglay, Florent, Marmyadoise,
And the keen glory of the Arthurian hand!
And when the heralds ceased, the Minstrel's chant
Bound up the flowers of fame from every land.
From Prester John the lily elephant
Bare shells and incense of the imperial East,
Cathaian ivories, gums of Garamant,
Tall plumes of estrich, fells of spotted beast,
With stuffs of Baldack and of Babylon
All in a golden tower enfortaliced.
And, twixt the seas of Caspian Amazon
Where Alisaunder wrought the Walls of Weird
Athwart the gateways of Mount Caucason,
With caitiff howling Magog shrank afeard
Into his hollows, where on Antichrist
Ever he raveth, rending his red beard.
The Paynim Soudans, leagued in solemn tryst
From Nile to Tars, from Tars to Trebisound,
Dismayed forgat their hoary feuds and kissed,
And at their altars grovelled all discrowned;
To Belsabuk, Mahound and Apolyn
Shrieking vain curses on the Table Round!
Then, too, by faery, venturous wight could win
Beneath the moonled swaying of the waves,
The crystal marches of the deep within;
And Arthur's name among the twilight caves
Would scare the Grendel to her coral brake,
And cow the fell sea-unicorns like slaves!
The Damsels of the Waters for his sake
Bade summon all their gruesome treasurers,
Orc, Kraken, and immeasurable Snake,
To delve from out their whirl-pit sepulchres
The peerless hoards of immemorial wreck
Whelmed o'er with bones of old-world mariners--
Gem-talismans once gorgeous on the neck
Of queens of Tarshish--Idol's eyes of Ind,
And moneys minted by Melchizedek.
And, past the deep sea-dungeons of the wind,
The Pilgrim heard the Hell-stream cataracts boom
Within the abyss by flames eternal mined
Through ice eternal to the chasm of doom:--
"Arthur!" he cried--one moment Hell was still,
And "Arthur!" echoed through the seething gloom!
Yea, and yet onward through the midnight chill
Of desolate wastes beyond, where dawn is none,
Erewhile rejoicing to the Holy Hill
Through God's dear grace unspotted knight hath won,
And all the mystery of the Gates hath seen;
Where o'er-against the birthstead of the sun
The bulwarks glow of Paradise Terrene--
The walls of jasper, sardonyx, and pearl
With golden mortar molten in between:
The crystal-carven canopies a-curl
With emerald sprays of passion-flower and vine,
And garnet grapes and topaz tendril whorl:
The doors of starry diamond, with a twine
Of sapphire hinges cusped with chrysoprase
And ruby studs and knops of almondine:--
And, all opaque against the liquid blaze,
Central, with sword and balance, helm and greave,
The Archangel-champion, crowned with awful rays;
Leftward Our Lady, whispering sweet reprieve
To sinful father Adam, and to right
Her Son, the Healer, comforting sad Eve.
Yea, erst such marvel cheered the Pilgrim Knight,
And ever about the Eternal Doors, like doves,
Or poised or fluttered a celestial flight
Of Angels chanting in the trellised groves
Of crest and corbel, cope and capital;
Flashing sweet sheen among the fretted coves
And depths of amethystine interval
In gabled eaves of niche and pinnacle,
Or basking in fair alleys on the wall.
And one from forth the blissful citadel
Would hover toward the Palmer as he prayed,
With gift of water from the Fourfold Well
Whence flow the streams of Eden, so allayed
With sovran virtue, that three drops alone
Make whole all deadliest dint of mortal blade,
And bade him bear to Arthur on his throne
That living token of immortal grace
Stopped in a cruse of hieroglyphic stone.
So sang the poet in his pride of place,
And Arthur bade the pages plenish well
The cups of all the kings with wine of race,
Osaye or Algarde, Rhenish or Rochell,
Vernage of Venice, Rhodes or Famagust,
Sweet Malvoisie or Cretan Muscadel,--
And pledged them all with outstretched arm august.
Then to the lordly singer of his name,
Still standing, he bade bear as guerdon just
A bugle carved in tusk of hippotame,
And whale's-bone comb in casket of red gold.
So sang the poet, and his songs were fame,
For fame was truth, and true the tales he told,
For men believed them: All are falsehood now,
For faith is lost alike in new and old.
Yea, even high achievements, such as plough
Their record deepest in men's memories
Are true no longer. Lo, as none knows how
The splendour faileth out of sunset skies,
When on the long capes of the cloudland bay
Like foam from seas of light the glory lies,
Yet ere we mark it gloameth into grey,--
So Truth hath died in talk at bench and board,
And Preacher's holy lore and Poet's lay.
Yea, men no more durst speak the manly word,
But waste their wit in woman jest and jeer;
And courtly things that strut and wear a sword
Whisper to high-born dame, and crouch and leer
And sneer a double meaning to the tale
No loyal knight could tell nor maiden hear.
Even in council, clad in useless mail,
They gibe and chatter, each in fooling phrase
Girding at other till their lips are pale
With such small wrath as in emasculate days
May vent itself in slander and be safe.
We have forgotten knightly words and ways,
When gentle Chieftain at a glance would chafe,
And at a hinted slur clap hand to hilt.
Honour is dead and Courtesy a waif
None cares to treasure, now no blood is spilt
To prove its value. Lie and give the lie,
And the lewd world will laugh away the guilt!
Nor man nor woman now with stedfast eye
Shall scathe the craven slanderer for his pains!
Our dames are worthy of our chivalry.--
In their dull eyne a nightshade philtre feigns
A fire unfelt and fondness not their own:
Wan cheeks are flushed, unvermeiled of the veins,
And brows disfurnished flaunt a spangled loan
Of saffron tress in pearl-y-fretted caul.--
Now languid beauty luxeth her green zone
Starry with ouches on her purfled pall,
And, whitely shuddering o'er the lees of lust,
Clencheth her teeth and fingers to recall
How frolic erst she quaffed the foamy must:
Yet doth she publish still as sumptuously
Her lavish bosom blanched with pearly dust:
Still with the smile which love ne'er lived to see,
Wooeth in vain a withered knight to wait
And loop a posied loveknot at her knee.
There is a dreadful secret in the State--
A secret bruited at the Market-cross
And blased by every lazar at the gate;
Such secret as the gleeman's wit makes gross
To wipe a tally off the ale-wife's score,
Or earn a pandar's penny by his gloss.
Lo, where she standeth by the Castle-door,
The Weaver of the Secret--mid a band
Of idling courtiers, dame and paramour,--
Our queen, Ginevra; on her dainty hand
A tercel gentle with a silken jess.--
There in the sun Dame Meliot sees her stand,
Scans her from head to foot, and falls to guess
How many marks might buy the violet hood
Reversed with ermines on her auburn tress.--
Sir Dinadan lets loose his fooling mood
And prates how old-world beauty wont to smile,--
Elayne of Troy and that sweet Moor who wooed
Heroes and aspics to her breast by Nile,--
Judith and Cressid,--the fair queen who died
For Duke Eneas, and the dame whose wile
Saddled and bridled for a summer ride
The Sage who thought to tame Olympia's son--
Panthasilee and Theseus' warrior-bride,--
Swears that of all the bevy never a one
Was half so queenly, half so fair as she!
And one with narrow eyes that durst meet none,
Makes felt the prying which she cannot see,
Like a chill draught the casement chinks between:
Mordred--and chews on treason yet to be.
He, born of love where love should never have been,
Is Arthur's first-born--why not Arthur's heir?
Ginevra is Arthur's, why not Mordred's queen?
No mother she to Mordred! Wherefore spare,
When he may smite with one avenging stroke
His father's crime, and win a queen so fair?--
A parricide?--Nay, but the sire first broke
The laws of kind! Vengeance in kind were meet!
Is she not Lancelot's love? She could revoke
Her love for Arthur--were't not doubly sweet
To reign Sir Lancelot's Lancelot, in her grace?--
Thus the black pulses of the false heart beat.
But other twain who gaze upon her face
Are sick with other fancies. Lancelot one--
That other, Arthur--each a little space
Baring his sorrow to the May-day sun.
O, but the look within Sir Lancelot's eyes!--
He who of old hath diced with Death, and won
The life he freely staked on his emprize,
Ever thereafter beareth in his look
The mark of one who hath read mysteries:
But here beside that sign as in a book
Is writ the tragedy of love--such love
As weaveth its own shame, yet cannot brook
The eternal doom, to wear the weft it wove!
Yea, and yet more! Look on his cheek again:--
Along the furrows which his madness drove
So deeply there, have tears not flowed in vain?
Tears to which those of widows o'er the dead
Ere nine days' bridal are as summer rain?
But now those eyelids have no tears to shed!--
He looks upon the Dame who is his fate,
Yet hath no worship for the white and red,
Love-lustrous eyne and queenly grace of gait,
And lips the world were once well lost to win.
He never knew such passion as may sate
Its yearnings and forget that it hath bin--
His was the love that, daring all things, dares
Interminable sequences of sin--
And dying, leaves its office to its heirs,
Remorse and ruth and duty. Love, erewhile,
Was lavish in observances and cares,
And none are stinted.--Love, to earn a smile,
Would spend its heart's blood on a hopeless quest:
And, though the guerdon can no more beguile,
He still woos death as freely to his breast,
With every due devoir of champion knight.
Yea, not the smallest point of love's behest
In hall and bower but is fulfilled aright.
The Temple is as stately as before:
There is no change, no lacking to the sight--
Only behind the Veil, where once of yore
Within the Holy of Holies, in the Ark,
By wings of Cherubs warded evermore,
Love's own Shekinah dwelt, now burns a spark
Of liquid hell-fire! All else is the same--
Even the light--but that which lights the dark
No longer is the glory of The Name!
There is no madness in the grief that ploughs
The front of Arthur, but the searing flame
Followed no less the share athwart his brows.--
True king from crown to spur, within his eye
Where royally 'mid high ambitions, house
The sage's lore and the knight's chivalry,
Lurk adders of inevitable sting.
'Tis nothing that his time draws near to die:
'Tis long since death hath seemed a dreadful thing,
And he who did forebode it, told no less
Of days when Arthur should again be king.--
Death simply were an end of weariness,
Were't not he knoweth that it comes as doom
Of sin unspeakable in youth's excess.
Not yet he knoweth how nor when shall bloom
That deadly seed he sowed within his life,
Whose ripeness is the fruitage of the tomb;
Yet even now the shadows of the strife
Fall on him from its leaves--and there be moods
In which he knows he hath no friend nor wife;
And hinting doubts and treacherous likelihoods
Like night-mared children wake and cry aloud.
Yet speaks he not the grief o'er which he broods:
He will believe not. "Nay, she is too proud,
Too pure, too loving! Never have I seen
In her true eyes the trouble and the cloud--
No shame--no wish unworthy such a queen!
And he, Sir Lancelot--shall my weakness wrong
Mine own knight peerless? Why, the time hath been
When, had he been less loyal-souled than strong,
He might have won her when myself lay low,
And all the realm made glad his bridal song!
Yea, had he been less true, it hath been so
A thousand times.--Yet, not as wronging them,
But testing mine own conscience--say, I know
The twain are guilty--how shall I condemn?
I, by the side of whose transcendent crime
Theirs were a mud-smirch on a kirtle-hem?
Nay! I do wrong them! These my fancies chime
Too truly with that frenzy of mine youth!
'Tis I, whose soul hath wallowed in the slime,
Whose thoughts pollute the cleanness of their truth!"
Thus museth he--too sad, too pure to own
Even to himself he knows the secret sooth!
And Thou, fair Curse of Empire on his throne!
Hath that proud nostril known no penitence?
O subtly double nature! each alone
As true as truest music to the sense--
Together both in discord intervals
Jangling a double falsehood and offence!
Yea, false to Arthur and Lancelot false,
Thou'rt true to Lancelot and to Arthur true!
Queen never queenlier stept in Camelot's halls,
Leman more loving Joyous-Gard ne'er knew!
Red as the life-blood, as the snowdrift white,
The twin loves each from other wrests his due;
And even as now the king's most royal right
At knighthood's feet the imperious pulses fling,
That empire's daughter, mated with the knight,
Had treasured her last fondness for the king!
Thine is the star of even and of morn!
A childless Eve, thy loves for children bring
Two offerings at two altars--blood and corn:
Cain's garden-ransom of primeval sin
And Abel's firstling of the flocks unshorn!
Yea, even thus did Death at first begin,
And thus begins our own! Nay, Death for her
Already hath made desolate all within,
Yet left her beauty for its sepulchre.--
Dream ye she knows not how she hath grown old,
Or that the Mays in fleeting can confer
The peaceful pulses of a heart grown cold?
Nay, the late summer of her years reveals
Secrets of passion which the spring ne'er told!
Burns her with threefold thirst, yet, mocking, seals
The springs of joy and leaves the witchcraft stale
Could once have freed them! Think you not she feels
That little spout of hell-fire through the veil
Within the temple of Sir Lancelot's love?
Think you her eyes are seared not with the bale
Of cloven flames her own twin arks above?
Yea, Arthur's court is Arthur's court no more,
And none have heart to strive as once they strove.
All high emprize is crushed and crusted o'er
With ruin wrought by false and feeble wills,
And the whole realm is smitten at the core
With restless boding of supremer ills.
So have we heard Sicilian palmer tell
Of quaking homesteads in the cloven hills,--
Of muttered warnings in the Demon Dell
And dreary levin flickering on the snow
That crests the hollow heights of Mongibell.--
While o'er the sulphurous cauldron gathering slow
The swart reek waxeth like a cedar tree
O'ershadowing half the welkin; and below
The whole isle groaneth--woodland, waste, and lea.
Till on a starless night, with rending flash
Of fury flaring into skies and sea,
Far through the clouds the fiery fountains crash
Of chaos spouted from abysmal wells:
And in the mountain-crucible a gash
Of blinding brightness gapeth on the dells,
Whence forth in thundery ruin o'er the verge,
Bursting the shattered gateways of the fells,
Far through the pinewood swoops the smolten surge.
The belted oaks a league before its tread
Shudder and writhe like slaves beneath the scourge,
Ere long to die the death!--A ghastly red
Looms through the reek among their smouldering leaves,
And, clogged with craggy dross, the fires of dread
Flood round the blazing trunks. The woodland heaves,
And all the staggering mountain-side aflame
Slides to the plain among the ungarnered sheaves,
Vineyard and thorp and city of old name.--
Vainly inviolate all a summer's day
The wall Cyclopian holds its ancient fame!
Round scarp and bulwark, tower and buttress-stay
Fathom on fathom, fiercelier swells and beats
The weltering fireflood with its stony spray!
One rending yawn, and through the desert streets
The white walls float upon the deadly wave
That whelms for aye those old imperial seats!--
Thence, five-fold cloven, scarce with might to pave
With fire the fig-tree shades and groves of palm,
The grim flood loiters to its ocean-grave,
And the old world resumeth its old calm:
Though far o'er-sea, the Maltese anchorite
Mid hail of ashes, stints his morning psalm
And Northward peers into the mist till night
For the next sign of Judgment to begin.
So fares our kingdom now, for Arthur's might
Quakes to the base, fire-sapped by kingly sin:--
A footfall jarring scarce enough to shake
One withered blossom from the jessamin
More than enough beneath our feet to wake
The doom we wait for from its slumberings,
And loose the fountains of the burning lake.
The world is old--and still the mavis sings.
We wait the doom--yet on the hawthorn-spray
The nightingale remembers the old springs.
May-morn itself is weary of the May,
Yet, careless of the wreck of realms and kings,
The homeless cuckoo jeereth all the day.