Arthurian and Grail Poetry
By Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Of Guinevere from Arthur separate,
And separate from Launcelot and the world,
And shielded in the convent with her sin,
As one draws fast a veil upon a face
That 's marred, but only holds the scar more close
Against the burning brain--I read to-day
This legend; and if other yet than I
Have read, or said, how know I? for the text
Was written in the story we have learned,
Between the ashen lines, invisible,
In hieroglyphs that blazed and leaped like light
Unto the eyes. A thousand times we read;
A thousand turn the page and understand,
And think we know the record of a life,
When lo! if we will open once again
The awful volume, hid, mysterious,
Intent, there lies the unseen alphabet--
Re-reads the tale from breath to death, and spells
A living language that we never knew.
This that I read was one short song of hers,
A fragment, I interpret, or a lost
Faint prelude to another--missing too.
She sang it (says the text) one summer night,
After the vespers, when the Abbess passed
And blessed her; when the nuns were gone, and when
She, kneeling in her drowsy cell, had said
Her prayers (poor soul!), her sorrowful prayers, in which
She had besought the Lord, for His dear sake,
And love and pity of His Only Son,
To wash her of her stain, and make her fit
On summer nights, behind the convent bars
And on stone floors, with bruisèd lips, to pray
Away all vision but repentance fromHer soul.
When, kneeling as she was, her limbs
Refused to bear her, and she fell afaint
From weariness and striving to become
A holy woman, all her splendid length
Upon the ground, and groveled there, aghast
That buried nature was not dead in her,
But lived, a rebel through her fair, fierce youth;
Aghast to find that claspèd hands would clench;
Aghast to feel that praying lips refused
Like saints to murmur on, but shrank
And quivered dumb. "Alas! I cannot pray!"
Cried Guinevere. "I cannot pray! I will
Not lie! God is an honest God, and I
Will be an honest sinner to his face.
Will it be wicked if I sing? Oh! let
Me sing a little, of I know not what;
Let me just sing, I know not why. For lips
Grow stiff with praying all the night.
Let me believe that I am happy, too.
A blessèd blessèd woman, who is fit
To sing because she did not sin; or else
That God forgot it for a little while
And does not mind me very much.
Dear Lord,"(Said Guinevere), "wilt thou not listen while
I sing, as well as while I pray? I shall
Feel safer so. For I have naught to say
God should not hear. The song comes as the prayer
Doth come. Thou listenest. I sing." . . .
Purple the night, and high were the skies, and higher
The eyes that leaned like the stars of my soul, to me.
Whom loveth the Queen? Him who hath right to crown her.
Who but the King is he?
Sultry the day, and gold was the hair, and golden
The mist that blinded my soul away from me.
Dethroned for a dream, for a gleam, for a glance, for a color,
How could the crownèd be?
Life goeth by like a deed, nor returneth forever.
Death cometh on, fleet-footed as pity should be.
Hush! When she waketh at last and looketh about her,
Whom will a woman see?
Thus in her cell,
Deep in the summer night, sang Guinevere--
A little, broken, blind, sweet melody--
And then she kneeled upon the convent floor,
And, peaceful, finished all her prayer and slept;
For she had naught to say God might not hear.