Arthurian and Grail Poetry
THE OLD LEGEND OF KING ARTHUR
Of patriotic service thou didst well maintain:
Therefore, though Death may hide thy valour now,
When comes worst need thou shalt return again."
So chaunted in low tones the fairy crew
Of that dark barge whereon King Arthur lay,
Drifting adown the misty river's flood,
After his latest fight. So chaunted they,
Staunching his death-clefts; while he, sad of soul,
Ponder'd Sir Lukyn's story wonder-fraught:
How when Excalibar, at Arthur's hest
Flung in the stream, had dipp'd toward the wave,
A hand had risen, and grasp'd and borne it down.
And thus King Arthur dream'd amid his wounds.
"Excalibar, the charmed sword, returns
Unto the hand that gave it,--sunk,--drawn in,--
Nor left such ripple as an autumn leaf
Reaching the water-marge on Evening's breath.
So sinks my life after its turmoil'd years
Without a trace: blown from its branch of power,--
And Time's dull stream flows o'er it heedlessly.
It should not be so. I have served the Gods;
Kept myself pure; and stoutly grappled Hope,
Till, firm-embraced, our pulses were but one.
It is no braggart speech: yon gifted sword
Had courage for its handle, and as straight
My life was and close-hammer'd as the blade,--
True steel that never struck an idle blow.
Unto what end its stalwartness? Defeat.
Lo, I lie here. The sword hath left no mark."
"Thou shalt return again!" the Ladies sang;
While the sore-hearted dream'd amid his wounds.
"Year after year I strove, and through the fight
Bore Hope upon my breast, as one would bear
His beautiful bride; and when they slew her there
I struggled on beneath her dearest form.
O Hope! belovéd, best-belovéd Hope!
That brought my Country's ransom as thy dower;
O Hope! that I have cherish'd 'mid my griefs
In long night-watches and through all the din
Of battle-storm; ay! even when toil was curst,
And knightliest endeavour by repulse
Was driven away, like chaff swept from the floor;
When field on field beheld me overthrown.
Yet never conquer'd: witness Dawn and Eve,
That ever found me rising from defeat
As clomb the Sun from yesternight's red couch!
Would I might battle yet! Give way! I will;
And pile our foes upon the last free space
Of British earth. Why am I slumbering here,
And my good sword not ready to my hand?
"Year after year, and ever the same fierce strife
Without remission. I was as a pass
Through which a host defiles with measured tramp:
Squadron hard-following squadron till the earth
Rejoices in the custom of sure steps.
Let me be buried in the shallowest tomb,
Beneath the march of heroes! Death is nought,
If I may be a stair to Victory.
Where art thou? Victory!--I am here, o'ercome."
And shame, more deep than spear-thrusts, draining life,
He lay entranced, nor heard the Fairies' song:--
"Calmly the sun drops in its western grave,
The seed beneath the glebe, and life to death;
To-morrow comes in joy, ripe corn-fields wave,
And ever the heroic wears its wreath."
"How have I fallen? Has the fault been mine?
I have not flinch'd from peril, nor counted pains;
What adverse odds, what difficult steeps to climb,
What possible inconvenience or mishap,
Troubled me never. I ask'd nought but this--
May it serve thee? my Country! Welcome then.
Self-care was but a feather in the scale,
Or as a spark in one vast-soaring blaze--
The fiery passionate wish to rescue thee.
Thou wast my sacrificial altar; I
A bridegroom offering. Do I boast? Ye Gods!
The boaster has done nothing. Lived and died.
He boasts a failure. Give him leave to say
He fell as a king falleth."
The Chorus swell'd around him, as a pulse
Throbbing indignantly against reproach.
"Thou knewest nor fear nor faltering!"--still they sang.
"Ho! who will follow Arthur to the war?
Methought when once our banner was display'd
The whole land should have risen as one man.
Behold your duty--Forward at the foe--
Had been enough.--The recreants! Woe is me!
They cavil'd at the standard-bearer's name;
Doubted the leader could maintain his place;
Others were worthier, might be 'mong themselves;
'Twas an unlucky day to close with Doom;
Yon covert safest was for skirmishers;
Some little forethought till the rest came up;--
And so sate down on cowardice, a soft couch,
Where some would plan campaigns, as sluggards think
In morning sleeps they put their armour on,
And wake in bed. But these would never wake:
Rotting amid their reveries till the land
Stank with the Cowards' Pestilence. 'Twas so--
Brave Hearts that fought by me from first to last!
That we were left to meet the invader's whelm:
Wrong ever active, while before these homes
Right humbly begg'd for alms some stealthy help
In her sore want. Even that was oft denied.
False-lifed lip-servants! pillow'd warriors!
Whose crest should be a liar's cloven tongue,--
You barter'd Freedom for a dunghill ease,
And let the land of all our glorious sires
Be trampled underneath the ruffian heel
Of foreign tyranny.--My soul is drear.
"Do I forget you? Arthur's trusty peers!
Proud comrades, lovely in your noble strength:
My Knights, my Royal Ones! whose words were deeds,
Whose deeds were hymns of triumph. Let me die,
Since you are fallen. Have the Powers betray'd
Your promise? Worth is worthless. Life itself
Is falsehood.--It may be the Powers are weak,
Since Valour wins not. Is their own abode
Invaded by the Evil of our days?--
I am a king, and I may dare to ask.--
Are even the Gods grown false and dastardly?
I hear the smooth lush whispering of the stream,
And, blending with it, words as dreamy smooth.
What forms are these that hang above my bier?
Where do they carry me, throughout this night?--
Defeat, and death, and all before me dark."
But the white garments glimmer'd in his sight
For all the darkness,--like the first of dawn
To one lone-watching on some weary height;
And on the sweet chaunt slid through his barren griefs
Like softest rain in fields long parch'd with drought.
Ever the Fairies sang, as glode the barge.
"Thou knewest nor fear nor faltering. Thy sure life
Has been an act devout, whose worth shall chain
The future to thy purpose. When the strife
Hath reach'd its height thou shalt return again."
And one clear voice--whose echoes leap'd to shore
And stirr'd the dead upon the battle-ground--
Sang yet again: the King forgot his wounds.
"Thy true adventure was a living seed,
The harvest of the Eternal can not fail:
Thy spirit shall return, at their worst need
To help whom now thy arm may not avail."
It is a fable of the meed of Truth:
Most knight-like Truth, that, scorning sloth or fear,
Hastens to meet the Evils of the time;
And, be he ne'er so poorly companied,
Dares all their force, copes with their fiercest tides,
Defies disaster and despair itself,
And leaves upon the sorriest place of death--
Where hopes are scatter'd like autumnal wrecks--
A memory that shall live and bring his name
In fire to the hearts of new endeavourers,--
Leading them from the gloomiest depth of care,
Even when their need shall be most desperate,
With power as if his Angel had return'd
To avenge the past defeat with victory.
True-soul'd and valiant! Arthur! come again.
Is not our need enough?
What voice replies?