A Ballad of Lancelot

By coasts where scalding deserts reek,

The apanages of despair;

In outland wilds, by firth and creek,

O'er icy bournes of silver air;

In storm or calm delaying not,

To every noble task addressed,

Year after year, Sir Lancelot

Fulfilled King Arthur's high behest.

He helped the helpless ones; withstood

Tyrants and sanctioners of vice;

He rooted out the dragon brood,

And overthrew false deities.

Alone with his own soul, alone

With life and death, with day and night,

His thought and strength grew great and shone

A tongue of flame, a sword of light.

And yet not all alone. On high,

When midnight set the spaces free,

And brimming stars hung from the sky

Low down, and spilt their jewellery,

Behind the nightly squandered fire,

Through a dark lattice only seen

By love, a look of rapt desire

Fell from a vision of the Queen.

From heaven she bent when twilight knit

The dusky air and earth in one;

He saw her like a goddess sit

Enthroned upon the noonday sun.

In passages of gulfs and sounds,

When wild winds dug the sailor's grave,

When clouds and billows merged their bounds,

And the keel climbed the slippery wave,

A sweet sigh laced the tempest; nay,

Low at his ear he heard her speak;

Among the hurtling sheaves of spray

Her loosened tresses swept his cheek.

And in the revelry of death,

If human greed of slaughter cast

Remorse aside, a violet breath,

The incense of her being passed

Across his soul, and deeply swayed

The fount of pity; o'er the strife

He curbed the lightning of his blade,

And gave the foe his forfeit life.

Low on the heath, or on the deck,

In bloody mail or wet with brine,

Asleep he saw about her neck

The wreath of gold and rubies shine;

He saw her brows, her lovelit face,

And on her cheek one passionate tear;

He felt in dreams the rich embrace,

The beating heart of Guinevere.

" Visions that haunt my couch, my path,

Although the waste, unfathomed sea

Should rise against me white with wrath

I must behold her verily,

" Once ere I die," he said, and turned

Westward his faded silken sails

From isles where cloudy mountains burned,

And north to Severn-watered Wales.

Beside the Usk King Arthur kept

His Easter court, a glittering rout.

But Lancelot, because there swept

A passion of despair throughout

His being, when he saw once more

The sky that canopied, the tide

That girdled Guinevere, forbore

His soul's desire, and wandered wide

In unknown seas companionless,

Eating his heart, until by chance

He drifted into Lyonesse,

The wave-worn kingdom of romance.

He leapt ashore and watched his barque

Unmastered stagger to its doom;

Then doffed his arms and fled baresark

Into the forest's beckoning gloom.

The exceeding anguish of his mind

Had broken him. " King Arthur's trust,"

He cried; " ignoble, fateful, blind!

Her love and my love, noxious lust!

" Dupes of our senses! Let us eat

In caverns fathoms underground,

Alone, ashamed! To sit at meat

In jocund throngs? — the most profound

" Device of life the mountebank,

Vendor of gilded ashes! Steal

From every sight to use the rank

And loathsome needs that men conceal;

" And crush and drain in curtained beds

The clusters called of love; but feed

With garlanded uplifted heads;

Invite the powers that sanction greed

" To countenance the revel; boast

Of hunger, thirst; be drunken; claim

Indulgence to the uttermost,

Replenishing the founts of shame!"

He gathered berries, efts, and snails,

Sorrel, and new-burst hawthorn leaves;

Uprooted with his savage nails

Earth-nuts; and under rocky eaves

Shamefast devoured them, out of sight

In darkness, lest the eye of beast,

Or bird, or star, or thing of night

Uncouth, unknown, should watch him feast.

At noon in twilight depths of pine

He heard the word Amaimon spoke;

He saw the pallid, evil sign

The wred-eld lit upon the oak.

The viper loitered in his way;

The minx looked up with bloodshot leer;

Ill-meaning fauns and lamiae

With icy laughter flitted near.

But if he came upon a ring

Of sinless elves, and crept unseen

Beneath the brake to hear them sing,

And watch them dancing on the green,

They touched earth with their finger-tips;

They ceased their roundelay; they laid

A seal upon their elfin lips

And vanished in the purple shade.

At times he rent the dappled flank

Of some fair creature of the chase,

Mumbled its flesh, or growling drank

From the still-beating heart, his face

And jowl ruddled, and in his hair

And beard, blood-painted straws and burs,

While eagles barked screening the air,

And wolves that were his pensioners.

Sometimes at night his mournful cry

Troubled all waking things; the mole

Dived to his deepest gallery;

The vixen from the moonlit knoll

Passed like a shadow underground,

And the mad satyr in his lair

Whined bodeful at the world-old sound

Of inarticulate despair.

Sir Lancelot, beloved of men!

The ancient earth gat hold of him;

A year was blotted from his ken

In the enchanted forest dim.

At Easter when the thorn beset

The bronzing wood with silver sprays,

And hyacinth and violet

Empurpled all the russet ways;

When buttercup and daffodil

A stainless treasure-trove unrolled,

And cowslips had begun to fill

Their chalices with sweeter gold,

He heard a sound of summer rush

By swarthy grove and kindled lawn;

He heard, he sighed to hear the thrush

Singing alone before the dawn.

Forward he stalked with eyes on fire

Like one who keeps in sound and sight

An angel with celestial lyre

Descanting rapturous delight.

He left behind the spell-bound wood;

He saw the branchless air unfurled;

He climbed a hill and trembling stood

Above the prospect of the world.

With lustre in its bosom pent

From many a shining summer day

And harvest moon, the wan sea leant

Against a heaven of iron-grey.

Inland on the horizon beat

And flickered, drooping heavily,

A fervid haze, a vaporous heat,

The dusky eyelid of the sky.

White ways, white gables, russet thatch

Fretted the green and purple plain;

The herd undid his woven latch;

The bleating flock went forth again;

The skylarks uttered lauds and prime;

The sheep-bells rang from hill to hill;

The cuckoo pealed his mellow chime;

The orient bore a burden shrill.

His memory struggled half awake;

Dimly he groped within to see

What star, what sun, what light should break

And set his darkened spirit free.

But from without deliverance came:

Afar he saw a horseman speed,

A knight, a spirit clad in flame

Riding upon a milkwhite steed.

For now the sun had quenched outright

The clouds and all their working charms,

Marshalled his legionary light,

And fired the rider's golden arms.

Softly the silver billows flowed;

Beneath the hill the emerald vale

Dipped seaward; on the burnished road

The milkwhite steed, the dazzling mail

Advanced and flamed against the wind;

And Lancelot, his body rent

With the fierce trial of his mind

To know, reeled down the steep descent.

Remembrances of battle plied

His soul with ruddy beams of day.

" A horse! a lance! to arms!" he cried,

And stood there weeping in the way.

" Speak!" said the knight. " What man are you?"

" I know not yet. Surely of old

I rode in arms, and fought and slew

In jousts and battles manifold."

Oh, wistfully he drew anear,

Fingered the reins, the jewelled sheath;

With rigid hand he grasped the spear,

And shuddering whispered, " Life and death,

" Love, lofty deeds, renown — did these

Attend me once in days unknown?"

With courtesy, with comely ease,

And brows that like his armour shone,

The golden knight dismounting took

Sir Lancelot by the hand and said,

" Your voice of woe, your lonely look

As of a dead man whom the dead

" Themselves cast out — whence are they, friend?"

Sir Lancelot a moment hung

In doubt, then knelt and made an end

Of all his madness, tensely strung

In one last effort to be free

Of evil things that wait for men

In secret, strangle memory,

And shut the soul up in their den.

" Spirit," he said, " I know your eyes:

They bridge with light the heavy drift

Of years. . . . A woman said, " Arise;

And if you love the Queen, be swift! "

" The token was an emerald chased

In gold, once mine. Wherefore I rode

At dead of night in proudest haste

To Payarne where the Queen abode.

" A crafty witch gave me to drink:

Almost till undern of the morn

Silent, in darkness. . . . When I think

It was not Guinevere, self-scorn

" Cuts to the marrow of my bones,

A blade of fire. Can wisdom yield

No mood, no counsel, that atones

For wasted love! . . . Heaven had revealed

" That she should bear a child to me

My bed-mate said. . . . Yet am I mad?

The offspring of that treachery!

The maiden knight! You — Galahad,

" My son, who make my trespass dear!"

His look released his father's thought —

The darkling orbs of Guinevere;

For so had Lancelot's passion wrought.

With tenderer tears than women shed

Sir Galahad held his father fast.

" Now I shall be your squire," he said.

But Lancelot fought him long. At last

The maiden gently overpowered

The man. Upon his milkwhite steed

He brought him where a castle towered

Midmost a green enamelled mead;

And clothed his body, clothed his heart

In human garniture once more.

" My father, bid me now depart.

I hear beside the clanging shore,

" Above the storm, or in the wind,

Outland, or on the old Roman street,

A chord of music intertwined

From wandering tones deep-hued and sweet.

" Afar or near, at noon, at night,

The braided sound attends and fills

My soul with peace, as heaven with light

O'erflows when morning crowns the hills.

" And with the music, seen or hid,

A blood-rose on the palace lawn,

A fount of crimson, dark amid

The stains and glories of the dawn;

" Above the city's earthly hell

A token ominous of doom,

A cup on fire and terrible

With thunders in its ruddy womb;

" But o'er the hamlet's fragrant smoke,

The dance and song at eventide,

A beating heart, the gentle yoke

Of life the bridegroom gives the bride;

" A ruby shadow on the snow;

A flower, a lamp — through every veil

And mutable device I know,

And follow still the Holy Grail

" Until God gives me my new name

Empyreal, and the quest be done."

Then like a spirit clad in flame,

He kissed his father and was gone.

Long gazed Sir Lancelot on the ground

Tormented till benign repose

Enveloped him in depths profound

Of sweet oblivion. When he rose

The bitterest was past. " And I

Shall follow now the Holy Grail,

Seen, or unseen, until I die:

My very purpose shall avail

" My soul," he said. By day, by night

He rode abroad, his vizor up;

With sun and moon his vehement sight

Fought for a vision of the cup —

In vain. For evermore on high

When darkness set the spaces free,

And brimming stars hung from the sky

Low down, and spilt their jewellery,

Behind the nightly squandered fire,

Through a dim lattice only seen

By love, a look of rapt desire

Fell from a vision of the Queen.

From heaven she bent when twilight knit

The dusky air and earth in one;

He saw her like a goddess sit

Enthroned upon the noonday sun.

Wherefore he girt himself again:

In lawless towns and savage lands,

He overthrew unrighteous men,

Accomplishing the King's commands.

In passages of gulfs and sounds

When wild winds dug the sailor's grave,

When clouds and billows merged their bounds,

And the keel climbed the slippery wave,

A sweet sigh laced the tempest; nay,

Low at his ear he heard her speak;

Among the hurtling sheaves of spray

Her loosened tresses swept his cheek.

And in the revelry of death,

If human greed of slaughter cast

Remorse aside, a violet breath,

The incense of her being passed

Across his soul, and deeply swayed

The fount of pity; o'er the strife

He curbed the lightning of his blade,

And gave the foe his forfeit life.

His love, in utter woe annealed,

Escaped the furnace, sweet and clear —

His love that on the world had sealed

The look, the soul of Guinevere.

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