Arthurian and Grail Poetry

Queen Yseult
By Algernon Charles Swinburne

Canto 1. Of the birth of Sir Tristram, and how he voyaged into Ireland

In the noble days were shown
Deeds of good knights many one,
Many worthy wars were done.

It was time of scath and scorn
When at breaking of the morn
Tristram the good knight was born.

He was fair and well to see
As his mother's child might be:
Many happy wars had he;

Slew Moronde the knight alone,
Whence was all the ill begun
That on Blancheflour was done.

For long since Queen Blancheflour
Took a knight to paramour,
Who had served her well of yore.

And across the waters dim
And by many a river's rim
Went Queen Blancheflour with him.

Many a bitter path she went,
Many a stone her feet had rent,
But her heart was well content.

"Lo!" she said, "I lady free
Took this man for lord of me
Where the crowned saints might see.

"And I will not bid him go,
Not for joyance nor for woe,
Till my very love he know."

When he kissed her as they went,
All her heart was well content,
For the love that she him meant.

Now this knight was called Roland,
And he had within his hand
Ermonie the happy land.

So five months in Ermonie
Dwelt they in their pleasure free;
For they knew not what should be.

Then came Moronde with his men,
Warring with her lord again.
All her heart was bitter then.

But she said: "If this be so,
Tho' I die, he shall not know."
And she kissed and bade him go;

And he wept and went from her.
Then was all the land astir
With a trouble in the air.

When Roland the knight was gone,
Praise of men his warriors won
Warring well before the sun.

But Moronde the evil knight
Smote him falsely in the fight,
Slew him basely out of sight.

Then was weeping long and sore:
For the great love they him bore
All men wept but Blancheflour.

But she took her golden ring
And a fair sword of the king
Wrought with many a carven thing.

With no crown about her head,
Thinking wild thoughts of the dead,
Evermore she fled and fled.

Far within the forest fair,
A great anguish came on her
Till a strong manchild she bare.

And she fain had suckled him,
There beneath the lindens dim,
Round a fountain's weedy brim.

But too soon came death to take
All her beauty for his sake;
And ere death she moaned and spake.

"Ah, fair child," the lady said,
"For this anguish that it had
All thy mother's heart is dead.

"Sweet, I would not live to see
Any sorrow rest on thee,
Better thou hadst died with me.

"Only thou art still too fair
For that smile I cannot bear
In such eyes as Roland's were.

"Now, fair child, mine own wert thou
(And she kissed the small soft brow)
But for death that takes me now.

"And a bitter birth is thine;
But no man can stain thy line
With a shame that was not mine.

"Thou art pure and princely born;
Fairer name was never worn,
Past the touch of any scorn.

"Now thy grief has come on me,
As I prayed that it might be
Lest some woe should rest on thee."

Wept the low voice musical;
"Now that mine has given thee all,
Better love thy love befall.

"Purer prayers be round thy sleep,
Truer tears than these that drip
On thy tender cheek and lip.

"Now, dear child, of all on earth
Thou art yet the fairest birth
For the pain thy life was worth.

"Sweetest name and sweetest heart,
Now I see thee as thou art
I have had the better part.

"For the grief my love has had,
May the sweet saints keep thee glad
Tho' thy birth were strange and sad.

"Now, dear child" (her thin voice strove
Thro' the drawn dry sobs to move),
"Leave I thee to Christ's own love."

So she died in that dark place,
With the anguish in her face;
Mary took her into grace.

On the robe was sown her name,
Where a fine thread white as flame
Thro' the colored samite came.

For on skirt and hem between
Wrought she letters white and green
"This is Blancheflour the Queen."

There men found her as they sped,
Very beautiful and dead,
In the lilies white and red.

And beside her lying there,
Found a manchild strong and fair
Lain among the lilies bare.

And they thought it were ill fate,
If the child, for fear or hate,
They should leave in evil state.

So they took him lying there,
Playing with the lady's hair,
For his face was very fair.

And so tenderly he played,
Half a smile and half afraid,
With her lips and hair, I said,

That the strong men for his sake
Could have wept for dear heartache
At the murmurs he did make.

And the strongest lightly stept
Forth to where the mother slept;
Stooping over her, he wept.

Lightly bowed above the child
The large face whose might was mild
With black-bearded lips that smiled.

Then he took it of his grace,
Bowed him where she lay in place,
Put to hers the little face.

Then they softly buried her
Where the greenest leaves did stir,
With some white flowers in her hair.

And for the sweet look he had,
Weeping not but very sad,
Tristram by his name they bade.

"For he looks upon her so,
Pity where he should not grow
All the piteous things to know."

And they took the sword and ring
That were of Roland the king,
Wrought with many a carven thing.

So they bred him as they knew;
And a noble child he grew,
Like a tree in sun and dew.

Ere he was ten summers old
All the sorrow they him told,
Showed the sword and ring of gold.

Kissed the boy both sword and ring;
"As my father was a king,
I will wreak this bitter thing."

Kissed the boy both ring and sword;
"As my mother to her lord,
Fast I cling to this my word."

So he grew in might and grace,
With her look about his face:
All men saw his royal race.

But when twenty years were done
At the rising of the sun
Tristram from his place was gone.

Forth with warriors is he bound
Over many a change of ground,
To have wreak of Sir Moronde.

When he came to Ermonie,
Bare upon the earth bowed he,
Kissed the earth with kisses three.

To the city men him bring,
Where the herald stood to sing
"Largesse of Moronde the king!"

To the king came Tristram then,
To Moronde the evil man,
Treading softly as he can.

Spake he loftily in place:
A great light was on his face:
"Listen, king, of thy free grace.

"I am Tristram, Roland's son;
By thy might my lands were won,
All my lovers were undone.

"Died by thee Queen Blancheflour,
Mother mine in bitter hour,
That was white as any flower.

"Tho' they died not well aright,
Yet, for thou art belted knight,
King Moronde, I bid thee fight."

A great laughter laughed they all,
Drinking wine about the hall,
Standing by the outer wall.

But the pale king leapt apace,
Caught his staff that lay in place
And smote Tristram on the face.

Tristram stood back paces two,
All his face was reddened so
Round the deep mark of the blow.

Large and bright the king's eyes grew:
As knight Roland's sword he drew,
Fiercely like a pard he flew.

And above the staring eyes
Smote Moronde the king flatwise,
That men saw the dear blood rise.

At the second time he smote,
All the carven blade, I wot,
With the blood was blurred and hot.

At the third stroke that he gave,
Deep the carven steel he drave,
Thro' King Moronde's heart it clave.

Well I ween his wound was great
As he sank across the seat,
Slain for Blancheflour the sweet.

Then spake Tristram, praising God;
In his father's place he stood
Wiping clean the smears of blood,

That the sword, while he did pray,
At the throne's foot he might lay;
Christ save all good knights, I say.

Then spake all men in his praise,
Speaking words of the old days,
Sweeter words than sweetest lays.

Said one, "Lo the dead queen's hair
And her brows so straight and fair;
So the lips of Roland were."

For all praised him as he stood,
That such things none other could
Than the son of kingly blood.

Round he looked with quiet eyes;
"When ye saw King Moronde rise,
None beheld me on this wise."

At such words as he did say,
Bare an old man knelt to pray;
"Christ be with us all to-day.

"This is Tristram the good lord;
Knightly hath he held his word,
Warring with his father's sword."

Then one brought the diadem,
Clear and golden like pure flame;
And his thanks did grace to them.

Next in courteous wise he bade
That fair honour should be had
Of the dear queen that was dead.

So in her great sorrow's praise
A fair tomb he bade them raise
For a wonder to the days.

And between its roof and floor
Wrote he two words and no more,
Wrote Roland and Blancheflour.

That was carven sharp in gold,
For a great praise to behold,
Where the queen lay straight and cold,

All was graven deep and fine,
In and out, and line with line,
That all men might see it shine.

So far off it sprang and shone,
Ere ten paces one had gone,
Showing all the sorrow done.

And the pillars, that upbore
The large roof for evermore,
In wrought flowers her sweet name wore:

Points of stone carved gently all,
Wrought in cusp and capital,
Climbing still to creep and fall.

And in many a tender nook,
Traced soft as running brook,
Shone her face's quiet look.

And above they wrought to lie
King Roland all white on high,
With the lady carven by.

Very patient was her face,
Stooping from its maiden place
Into strange new mother-grace.

Parted lips and closing eyes,
All the quiet of the skies
Fills her beauty where she lies.

On her hair the forest crown
Lets the sliding tresses down,
Touched ere dark with golden brown;

Both with carven hands uplift,
Praying softly as at shrift,
So it stood a kingly gift.

And when all was graven fair
Tristram came, and standing there
Kissed his mother's tender hair.

Then he bade them take for King
His true father in each thing,
Him who saved the sword and ring.

So they hearkened to his word,
And they took to be their lord
Him who kept the ring and sword.

Then by many painful ways,
With a noble thought in chase,
Tristram journeyed many days.

Towards the Cornwall king he bore,
Since an oath of love he swore
For the name of Blancheflour,

That King Mark, her brother true,
He would honour as he knew;
This was he I tell to you.

When he stood in Cornwall there,
Mark beheld him standing bare,
And he knew his sister's hair.

All these things to Mark he told,
To the king so lean and cold,
And he showed her ring of gold.

Then wept all the valiant men,
Wept King Mark upon him then,
Thinking what a grief had been.

Then was Tristram belted knight,
For his happy hand in fight.
Then spake Mark in all men's sight:

"For the love my sister won,
I will honour as I can
This her son, the loved man.

"And this praise I give him here:
He shall go to bring anear
My new bride with noble cheer.

"For strange things are said in place
Of the wonder of her face
And her tender woman's grace."

Spake the king so lean and cold:
"She hath name of honour old,
Yseult queen, the hair of gold.

"All her limbs are fair and strong,
And her face is straight and long,
And her talk is as a song.

"And faint lines of colour stripe
(As spilt wine that one should wipe)
All her golden hair corn-ripe;

"Drawn like red gold ears that stand
In the yellow summer land;
Arrow-straight her perfect hand,

"And her eyes like river-lakes
Where a gloomy glory shakes
Which the happy sunset makes.

"Her shall Tristram go to bring,
With a gift of some rich thing
Fit to free a prisoned king."

As Sir Mark said, it was done;
And ere set the morrow's sun,
Tristram the good knight was gone.

Forth to Ireland bade he come,
Forth across the grey sea-foam,
All to bring Queen Yseult home.