Arthurian and Grail Poetry

King Ban: A Fragment
By Algernon Charles Swinburne

These three held flight upon the leaning lands
At undern, past the skirt of misty camps
Sewn thick from Benwick to the outer march--
King Ban, and, riding wrist by wrist, Ellayne,
And caught up with his coloured swathing-bands
Across her arm, a hindrance in the reins,
A bauble slipt between the bridle-ties,
The three months' trouble that was Launcelot.
For Claudas leant upon the land, and smote
This way and that way, as a pestilence
Moves with vague patience in the unclean heat
This way and that way; so the Gaulish war
Smote, moving in the marches. Then King Ban
Shut in one girdled waist of narrow stones
His gold and all his men, and set on them
A name, the name of perfect men at need,
And over them a seneschal, the man
Most inward and entailed upon his soul,
That next his will and in his pulses moved
As the close blood and purpose of his heart,
And laid the place between his hands, and rode
North to the wild rims of distempered sea
That, crossed to Logres, his face might look red [sic]
The face of Arthur, and therein light blood
Even to the eyes and to the circled hair
For shame of failure in so near a need,
Failure in service of so near a man.
Because that time King Arthur would not ride,
But lay and let his hands weaken to white
Among the stray gold of a lady's head.
His hands unwedded: neither could bring help
To Ban that helped to rend his land for him
From the steel wrist of spoilers, but the time
A sleep like yellow mould had overgrown,
A pleasure sweet and sick as marsh-flowers.
Therefore about his marches rode King Ban
With eyes that fell between his hands to count
The golden inches of the saddle-rim,
Strange with rare stones; and in his face there rose
A doubt that burnt it with red pain and fear
All over it, and plucked upon his heart,
The old weak heart that loss had eaten through,
Remembering how the seneschal went back
At coming out from Claudas in his tent;
And how they bound together, chin by chin,
Whispered and wagged, and made lean room for words,
And a sharp mutter fed the ears of them.
And he went in and set no thought thereon
To waste; fear had not heart to fear indeed,
The king being old, since any fear in such
Is as a wound upon the fleshly sense
That drains a parcel of his time thereout,
Therefore he would not fear that as it fell
This thing should fall. For Claudas the keen thief
For some thin rounds and wretched stamps of gold
Had bought the tower and men and seneschal,
Body and breath and blood, yea, soul and shame.
They knew not this, at halt upon a hill.
Only surmise was dull upon the sense
And thin conjecture sickened in the speech;
So they fell silent, riding in the hills.
There on a little terrace the good king
Reined, and looked out. Far back the white lands lay;
The wind went in them like a broken man,
Lamely; the mist had set a bitter lip
To the rimmed river, and the moon burnt blank.
But outward from the castle of King Ban
There blew a sound of trouble, and there clomb
A fire that thrust an arm across the air,
Shook a rent skirt of dragging flame, and blanched
The grey flats to such cruel white as shone
Iron against the shadow of the sky
Blurred out with its blind stars; for as the sea
Gathers to lengthen a bleached edge of foam
Whole weights of windy water, and the green
Brine flares and hisses as the heap makes up,
Till the gaunt wave writhes, trying to breathe,
Then turns, and all the whited rims of steel
Lean over, and the hollowed round roars in
And smites the pebble forward in the mud,
And grinds the shingle in cool whirls of white,
Clashed through and crossed with blank assault of foam,
Filled with hard thunder and drenched dregs of sand--
So leant and leapt the many-mouthèd fire,
So curled upon the walls, dipt, crawled, smote, clung,
Caught like a beast that catches on the flesh,
Waxed hoar with sick default, shivered across,
Choked out, a snake unfed.
Thereat King Ban
Trembled for pain in all his blood, and death
Under the heart caught him and made his breath
Wince, as a worm does, wounded in the head;
And fear began upon his flesh, and shook
The chaste and inly sufferance of it
Almost to ruin; a small fire and keen
Eating in muscle and nerve and hinge of joint
Perilous way; so bitter was the blow
Made on his sense by treason and sharp loss.
Then he fell weeping tears, with blood in them,
Like that red sweat that stained Gethsemane
With witness, when the deadly kiss had put
Shame on the mouth of Judas; and he cried,
Crying on God, and made out words and said:
Fair lord, sweet lord, most pleasant to all men,
To me so pleasant in clean days of mine
That now are rained upon with heavy rain,
Soiled with grey grime and with the dusty years,
Because in all those tourneys and hot things
I had to do with, in all riding times
And noise of work, and on smooth holidays
Sitting to see the smiting of hard spears,
And spur-smiting of steeds and wrath of men,
And gracious measure of the rounded game,
I held you in true honour and kept white
The hands of my allegiance as a maid's,
Being whole of faith and perfect in the will.
Therefore I pray you, O God marvellous,
See me how I am stricken among men,
And how the lip I fed with plenteousness
And cooled with wine of liberal courtesy
Turns a snake's life to poison me and clings--