Arthurian and Grail Poetry
The Shriving of Guinevere
By S. Weir Mitchell
Still she stood in the shunning crowd.
"Is there none," she said, aloud,
"None who knelt to me, great and proud,
Will say one word for me, sad and bowed?
Alas! it seems to me, if I
Were one of you, who, standing by,
Hear gathered in a woman's cry
The years of such an agony,
It seemeth me that I would take
Sweet pity's side for mine own sake,
And, knowing guilt alone should quake,
For chance of right one battle make."
But, no man heeding her, she stayed
Beneath the linden's trembling shade,
And peered, half hopeful, half afraid,
While passed in silence man and maid.
She, staring on the stone-dry street
Through the long summer-noonday heat,
And, stirring never from her seat,
Half saw men's shadows pass her feet.
"Ah me!" she murmured, "well I see
How bitter each day's life may be
To them who have not where to flee
And are as one with misery."
But, whether knight to tourney rode,
Or bridal garments past her flowed,
Or by some bier slow mourners trode,
No sign of life the woman showed.
When as the priestly evening threw
The blessed waters of the dew,
About her head her cloak she drew
And hid her face from every view;
Till, asthe twilight grew to shade,
And passed no more or man or maid,
A sudden hand was on her laid.
"And who art thou?" she moaned, afraid;
Beside her one of visage sad
Which yet to see made sorrow glad
Stood, in a knight's white raiment clad,
But neither sword nor poniard had.
"One who has loved you well," he said.
"Living I loved you well, and dead
I love you still; when joys were spread
Like flowers, and greatness crowned your head,
None loved you more. Not Arthur gave--
He will not check me from his grave--
So pure a love; nor Launcelot brave
With deeper love had yearned to save."
"Then," said the woman, still at bay,
"Why do I tremble when you lay
A hand upon my shoulder? Stay,
What is thy name, sir knight, I pray?
For wheresoever memory chase
I know not one such troubled face,
Nor one that hath such godly grace
Of solemn sweetness any place:
But, whatsoever man thou be,
What is it I should do for thee?"
Whereon, he, smiling cheerily,
Said: "I would have thee follow me."
Not any answer did he wait,
But turned towards the city gate;
Not any word said she, but straight
Went after, bent and desolate;
And, as a dream might draw, he drew
Her feet to action, till she knew
That house and palace round her grew,
And some wild revel's reeling crew,
And dame and page and squire and knight,
And torches flashing on the sight,
And fiery jewels flaming bright,
And love and music and delight;
But slow across the spangled green
The stern knight went and went the queen,--
He solemn, silent, and serene,
She bending low with humble mien.
But where he turned the music died,
Love-parted lips no more replied,
And, shrinking back on either side,
Serf and lord stared, wonder-eyed,
Or marveling shrunk swift away
Before that visage solemn, gray,
Till, where the leaping fountains sway,
Thick showed the knights in white array.
There where he passed, though moved no breeze,
The leaves stirred trembling on the trees;
And where he looked, by slow degrees
Fell silence and some strange unease,
Whilst whispers ran: "Who may it be?
What knight is this? And who is she?
But only Gawain looked to see,
And, praying, fell upon his knee.
Then said a voice full solemnly:
"Of all the knights that look on me,
If only one of them there be
That never hath sinned wittingly,
Let him the woman first disown,
Let him be first to cast a stone
At one, who, fallen from a throne,
Is sad and weary and alone.
Him, when the lists of God are set,
Him, when the knights of God are met,
If that he lacketh answer yet,
The soul of him shall answer get."
Then, as a lily bowed with rain
Leaps shedding it, she shed her pain,
And towering looked where men, like grain
Storm-humbled, bent upon the plain;
Whilst over her the cold night air
Throbbed with some awful pulse of prayer,
As, bending low with reverent care,
She kissed the good knight's raiment fair.
When as she trembling rose again,
And felt no more in heart and brain
The weary weight of sin and pain,
For him that healed she looked in vain;
And from the starry heavens immense
Unto her soul with penitence
Came, as if felt by some new sense,
The noise of wings departing thence.