King Arthur and His Round Table - Canto 1


Beginning (as my Bookseller desires)
Like an old Minstrel with his gown and beard,
" Fair Ladies, gallant Knights, and gentle Squires,
" Now the last service from the Board is clear'd,
" And if this noble Company requires,
" And if amidst your mirth I may be heard,
" Of sundry strange adventures I could tell,
" That oft were told before, but never told so well. "


T HE G REAT K ING A RTHUR made a sumptuous Feast,
And held his Royal Christmas at Carlisle,
And thither came the Vassals, most and least,
From every corner of this British Isle;
And all were entertain'd, both man and beast,
According to their rank, in proper style;
The steeds were fed and litter'd in the stable,
The ladies and the knights sat down to table.


The bill of fare (as you may well suppose)
Was suited to those plentiful old times,
Before our modern luxuries arose,
With truffles and ragoats, and various crimes;
And therefore, from the original in prose
I shall arrange the catalogue in rhymes:
They served up salmon, venison, and wild boars
By hundreds, and by dozens, and by scores.


Hogsheads of honey, kilderkins of mustard,
Muttons, and fatted beeves, and bacon swine;
Herons and bitterns, peacock, swan and bustard,
Teal, mallard, pigeons, widgeons, and in fine
Plum-puddings, pancakes, apple-pies and custard:
And therewithal they drank good Gascon wine,
With mead, and ale, and cider of our own;
For porter, punch, and negus, were not known.


The noise and uproar of the scullery tribe,
All pilfering and scrambling in their calling,
Was past all powers of language to describe —
The din of manful oaths and female squalling:
The sturdy porter, huddling up his bribe,
And then at random breaking heads and bawling,
Outcries, and cries of order, and contusions,
Made a confusion beyond all confusions;


Beggars and vagabonds, blind, lame, and sturdy,
Minstrels and singers with their various airs,
The pipe, the tabor, and the hurdy-gurdy,
Jugglers and mountebanks with apes and bears,
Continued from the first day to the third day,
An uproar like ten thousand Smithfield fairs;
There were wild beasts and foreign birds and creatures,
And Jews and Foreigners with foreign features.


All sorts of people there were seen together,
All sorts of characters, all sorts of dresses;
The fool with fox's tail and peacock's feather,
Pilgrims, and penitents, and grave burgesses;
The country people with their coats of leather,
Vintners and victuallers with cans and messes;
Grooms, archers, varlets, falconers and yeomen,
Damsels and waiting-maids, and waiting-women.


But the profane, indelicate amours,
The vulgar, unenlighten'd conversation
Of minstrels, menials, courtezans, and boors,
(Although appropriate to their meaner station)
Would certainly revolt a taste like yours;
Therefore I shall omit the calculation
Of all the curses, oaths, and cuts and stabs,
Occasion'd by their dice, and drink, and drabs.


We must take care in our poetic cruise,
And never hold a single tack too long;
Therefore my versatile ingenious Muse
Takes leave of this illiterate, low-bred throng,
Intending to present superior views,
Which to genteeler company belong,
And show the higher orders of society
Behaving with politeness and propriety.


And certainly they say, for fine behaving
King Arthur's Court has never had its match;
True point of honour, without pride or braving,
Strict etiquette for ever on the watch:
Their manners were refined and perfect — saving
Some modern graces, which they could not catch,
As spitting through the teeth, and driving stages,
Accomplishments reserved for distant ages.


They look'd a manly, generous generation;
Beards, shoulders, eyebrows, broad, and square, and thick,
Their accents firm and loud in conversation,
Their eyes and gestures eager, sharp, and quick,
Shew'd them prepared, on proper provocation,
To give the lie, pull noses, stab and kick;
And for that very reason, it is said,
They were so very courteous and well-bred.


The ladies look'd of an heroic race —
At first a general likeness struck your eye,
Tall figures, open features, oval face,
Large eyes, with ample eyebrows arch'd and high;
Their manners had an odd, peculiar grace,
Neither repulsive, affable, nor shy,
Majestical, reserved, and somewhat sullen;
Their dresses partly silk, and partly woollen.


In form and figure far above the rest,
Sir L AUNCELOT was chief of all the train,
In Arthur's Court an ever welcome guest;
Britain will never see his like again.
Of all the Knights she ever had the best,
Except, perhaps, Lord Wellington in Spain:
I never saw his picture nor his print,
From Morgan's Chronicle I take my hint.


For Morgan says (at least as I have heard,
And as a learned friend of mine assures),
Beside him all that lordly train appear'd
Like courtly minions, or like common boors,
As if unfit for knightly deeds, and rear'd
To rustic labours or to loose amours;
He moved amidst his peers without compare,
So lofty was his stature, look, and air.


Yet oftentimes his courteous cheer forsook
His countenance, and then return'd again,
As if some secret recollection shook
His inward heart with unacknowledged pain;
And something haggard in his eyes and look
(More than his years or hardships could explain)
Made him appear, in person and in mind,
Less perfect than what nature had design'd.


Of noble presence, but of different mien,
Alert and lively, voluble and gay,
Sir T RISTRAM at Carlisle was rarely seen,
But ever was regretted while away;
With easy mirth, an enemy to spleen,
His ready converse charm'd the wintry day;
No tales he told of sieges or of fights,
Of foreign marvels, like the foolish Knights,


But with a playful imitative tone
(That merely seem'd a voucher for the truth)
Recounted strange adventures of his own,
The chances of his childhood and his youth,
Of churlish Giants he had seen and known,
Their rustic phrase and courtesies uncouth,
The dwellings, and the diet, and the lives
Of savage Monarchs and their monstrous Wives:


Songs, music, languages, and many a lay
Asturian or Armoric, Irish, Basque,
His ready memory seized and bore away;
And ever when the Ladies chose to ask,
Sir Tristram was prepared to sing and play,
Not like a minstrel earnest at his task,
But with a sportive, careless, easy style,
As if he seem'd to mock himself the while.


His ready wit and rambling education,
With the congenial influence of his stars,
Had taught him all the arts of conversation,
All games of skill and stratagems of wars;
His birth, it seems, by Merlin's calculation,
Was under Venus, Mercury, and Mars;
His mind with all their attributes was mixt,
And, like those planets, wandering and unfixt;


From realm to realm he ran — and never staid;
Kingdoms and crowns he won — and gave away:
It seem'd as if his labours were repaid
By the mere noise and movement of the fray:
No conquests nor acquirements had he made:
His chief delight was on some festive day
To ride triumphant, prodigal, and proud,
And shower his wealth amidst the shouting crowd:


His schemes of war were sudden, unforeseen,
Inexplicable both to friend and foe;
It seem'd as if some momentary spleen
Inspired the project and impell'd the blow;
And most his fortune and success were seen
With means the most inadequate and low;
Most master of himself, and least encumber'd,
When overmatch'd, entangled, and outnumber'd.


Strange instruments and engines he contrived
For sieges, and constructions for defence,
Inventions some of them that have survived,
Others were deem'd too cumbrous and immense:
Minstrels he loved, and cherish'd while he lived,
And patronized them both with praise and pence;
Somewhat more learned than became a Knight,
It was reported he could read and write.


Sir G AWAIN may be painted in a word —
He was a perfect loyal Cavalier;
His courteous manners stand upon record,
A stranger to the very thought of fear.
The proverb says, As brave as his own sword;
And like his weapon was that worthy Peer,
Of admirable temper, clear and bright,
Polish'd yet keen, though pliant yet upright.


On every point, in earnest or in jest,
His judgment, and his prudence, and his wit,
Were deem'd the very touchstone and the test
Of what was proper, graceful, just, and fit;
A word from him set every thing at rest,
His short decisions never fail'd to hit;
His silence, his reserve, his inattention,
Were felt as the severest reprehension:


His memory was the magazine and hoard,
Where claims and grievances, from year to year,
And confidences and complaints were stored,
From dame and knight, from damsel, boor, and peer:
Loved by his friends, and trusted by his Lord,
A generous courtier, secret and sincere,
Adviser-general to the whole community,
He served his friend, but watch'd his opportunity.


One riddle I could never understand —
But his success in war was strangely various;
In executing schemes that others plann'd,
He seem'd a very Caesar or a Marius;
Take his own plans, and place him in command,
Your prospect of success became precarious:
His plans were good, but Launcelot succeeded
And realized them better far than He did.


His discipline was stedfast and austere,
Unalterably fix'd, but calm and kind;
Founded on admiration, more than fear,
It seem'd an emanation from his mind;
The coarsest natures that approach'd him near
Grew courteous for the moment and refined;
Beneath his eye the poorest, weakest wight
Felt full of point-of-honour like a knight.


In battle he was fearless to a fault,
The foremost in the thickest of the field;
His eager valour knew no pause nor halt,
And the red rampant Lion in his Shield
Scaled Towns and Towers, the foremost in assault,
With ready succour where the battle reel'd:
At random like a thunderbolt he ran,
And bore down shields, and pikes, and horse, and man.
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