Arthurian and Grail Poetry

The Quest Of Merlin
By Richard Hovey
A Prelude

Interior of a cavern in the bowels of the earth, beneath Mount Hecla. Huge rock-fragments, amid which twists tortuously a great root of the tree Yggdrasil. A flickering flame, by the light of which are seen the NORNS, colossal but shadowy shapes, about a gigantic but indistinct Loom. Dull, heavy sounds, out of which arises a strange music, which resolves itself continually into imperfect harmonies, which leave the heart in unrest. A sense of striving and struggle beats through the music.

THE NORNS.
We are the Recorders!
We are the Finishers!
Nothing we initiate;
All things we fulfil.
Odin initiates
And Freyja and Loki,
Divine Balder and the other Immortals.
Whatsoever they begin,
Relentlessly we fulfil.

Ye, too, O men, are as gods;
Ye are free and the free create;
Ye have part in the Imperishable.
Ever as ye follow the Beautiful,
Shall the worm transfigure itself
And the new-born god appear.
But over your destinies we sit in doom;
Whatsoever ye begin,

Relentlessly we fulfil.
Think and we seize the thought;
Act and the deed once done
Sinks into our iron hands.
Only the unthought thought, O man,
Is thine own and the deed forborne.
Thou canst neither love nor doubt
But the doubt and the love alike
Pass into the infrangible weft of the world
That we weave with inexorable fingers.

We are the Queens of Time,
And, while Time is, we endure.
With the calm of the Empyrean
We mix not, neither dwell we therein;
But over the shifting
Our shuttles are inflexible.
God having given us Time,
Over Time we are greater than God.
We are the Finishers.

[A low, foreboding roll of thunder.--MERLIN appears on a jutting crag in the cave, with a forked wand in his hand.--The flame flashes into sudden brilliancy, sharply defining the rocky walls of the cavern, but at once sinks back into its former weak and flickering indistinctness.--The NORNS remain motionless, noting none of these things, nor do they actually perceive MERLIN at any time.]

MERLIN.
Hail!
Ye monstrous Glooms!
Formless Forms!
Known and Unknown!
To what avail
Through strifes and storms,
Athwart the Sea that bellows and booms
In the ear
With the threatening of dire dooms,
Strove I once alone
In the starless vast of the night of fear,
Dread Queens, to behold your throne?
Lo, all that passes
From your touch takes shape,
Yet in you I find not any shape at all.
Dimly the dusk glasses
To the view
Shadows that fall
Into the Void; the Verities escape.
Without you seeing is not nor thought,
But you--
Woe! I discern you not.

URD.
Sisters, how should a man's eyes see the Void?

VERDANDE.
Shadows of clouds he scans on a searchless sea.

SKULD.
Between two Deeps a film of mist that shifts!

MERLIN.
Shadowy ones!
Ye whom my eyes have seemed to see
Many times in the weary years!
Deeper and darker the riddle appears;
Muddier the river runs.
What are ye, Darknesses? Whence have ye risen?
Are ye or seem ye? What is it to seem or to be?
With the same awe I re-behold you
As when I first clave o'er the unroadwayed sea
And through the cavernous darks of Hecla's womb
The way to Odin's tomb--
To your earth-bound prison.

VERDANDE.
The shuttle flies. The noise of men far off
Breaks faintly on our ears like a distant surf.

MERLIN.
Prison, I call it, I hold you--
You, the Resistless, Monarchs of Days--
As verily slaves as we.
Slaves of the stone sceptre your own hands wield
Over the weirds of the world--
Or of some mightier Silence whose ways
I find not without me revealed
Nor within me enfurled.

URD.
I hear a voice above the noise of men,
Like a bird's thin shriek shrilling o'er the surf.

MERLIN.
Ever thus!
I pass and return,
But ye remain ever the same.
I see the weft wax and the pale flame burn;
I hear the dark words and ominous:
But never to me ye turn;
Me ye call not by name.

SKULD.
The surf booms on, the billows break and cease,
And the gull's cry dissolves into the wind.

MERLIN.
Answer my thought!
Ye have answered before,--
So mightily wrought
My strenuous lore.
By the wand in my hand
I command you to show
All the veils may conceal,
That it ails me to know.
Man and wife, is it weal?
Man and wife, is it woe?
Ye see not the wand;
Ye see not the mage:
As two straws in your hand
Are the fool and the sage.
Ye know not I utter;
Ye know not ye heed;
But the words that ye mutter
Shall answer my need.
Speak!

VERDANDE.
Woe to the maiden, for her doom is dark!

SKULD.
Woe to the knight! His thread is stained with blood.

URD.
Woe to the Prince! For a witless fault great woe!

MERLIN.
Alas! for all mortals
Sorrow sits waiting.
Man, hesitating,
Into the Future peers.
From the dark portals
Issue the Fears.

VERDANDE.
Weal for the lovers, after many days!

URD.
Ay, but they first shall sail a bitter sea!

SKULD.
Weal for the King, but not till the kingdom pass!

MERLIN.
Weal and woe!
A dark saying!
Yeaing and naying!
How shall I know?

URD.
The seer and the seeing and the seen--
Are not these three things known and yet unknown?

VERDANDE.
To live is better far than not to live--
Yea, and to live is worse than not to live.

SKULD.
The womb--the tomb--and each of these is all--
And he that acts, is wise and is unwise.

MERLIN.
A womb and a tomb!
No more?

VERDANDE.
Who weds this woman hath a royal wife.

URD.
Behold the man she loves, a king of men!

SKULD.
Each man must choose his wife and bide his lot.

MERLIN.
She loves the Prince!--
A queenly one!--
Whom else should he wed?
Who else should share his throne?
Daughters of Time! ye speak and convince.
I have chosen a way to tread.

URD.
Marriage the calm gods give, a crown of life;
Marriage we give, not they, a kissing curse.

MERLIN.
A rhymeless Rune--
Is and Is Not.
Solve me the riddle!
Is there no overword?

VERDANDE.
Darkness and light ring round the globe of things,
And each pursues the other as it flies.

MERLIN.
Know ye the wand?
With the wand I compel you.

SKULD.
A Dragon slaying forever a deathless Queen!
There is no wit in us to make this clear.

MERLIN.
Not in you?
Where then? In myself?

[He strikes his own forehead with the wand.-- A black formless mark appears on his brow.--He falls in a swoon.]