Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935). Collected Poems. 1921.

IV. Merlin


“GAWAINE, GAWAINE, what look ye for to see,

So far beyond the faint edge of the world?

D’ye look to see the lady Vivian,

Pursued by divers ominous vile demons

That have another king more fierce than ours?

Or think ye that if ye look far enough

And hard enough into the feathery west

Ye’ll have a glimmer of the Grail itself?

And if ye look for neither Grail nor lady,

What look ye for to see, Gawaine, Gawaine?”

So Dagonet, whom Arthur made a knight

Because he loved him as he laughed at him,

Intoned his idle presence on a day

To Gawaine, who had thought himself alone,

Had there been in him thought of anything

Save what was murmured now in Camelot

Of Merlin’s hushed and all but unconfirmed

Appearance out of Brittany. It was heard

At first there was a ghost in Arthur’s palace,

But soon among the scullions and anon

Among the knights a firmer credit held

All tongues from uttering what all glances told—

Though not for long. Gawaine, this afternoon,

Fearing he might say more to Lancelot

Of Merlin’s rumor-laden resurrection

Than Lancelot would have an ear to cherish,

Had sauntered off with his imagination

To Merlin’s Rock, where now there was no Merlin

To meditate upon a whispering town

Below him in the silence.—Once he said

To Gawaine: “You are young; and that being so,

Behold the shining city of our dreams

And of our King.”—“Long live the King,” said Gawaine.—

“Long live the King,” said Merlin after him;

“Better for me that I shall not be King;

Wherefore I say again, Long live the King,

And add, God save him, also, and all kings—

All kings and queens. I speak in general.

Kings have I known that were but weary men

With no stout appetite for more than peace

That was not made for them.”—“Nor were they made

For kings,” Gawaine said, laughing.—“You are young,

Gawaine, and you may one day hold the world

Between your fingers, knowing not what it is

That you are holding. Better for you and me,

I think, that we shall not be kings.”


Remembering Merlin’s words of long ago,

Frowned as he thought, and having frowned again,

He smiled and threw an acorn at a lizard:

“There’s more afoot and in the air to-day

Than what is good for Camelot. Merlin

May or may not know all, but he said well

To say to me that he would not be King.

Nor more would I be King.” Far down he gazed

On Camelot, until he made of it

A phantom town of many stillnesses,

Not reared for men to dwell in, or for kings

To reign in, without omens and obscure

Familiars to bring terror to their days;

For though a knight, and one as hard at arms

As any, save the fate-begotten few

That all acknowledged or in envy loathed,

He felt a foreign sort of creeping up

And down him, as of moist things in the dark,—

When Dagonet, coming on him unawares,

Presuming on his title of Sir Fool,

Addressed him and crooned on till he was done:

“What look ye for to see, Gawaine, Gawaine?”

“Sir Dagonet, you best and wariest

Of all dishonest men, I look through Time,

For sight of what it is that is to be.

I look to see it, though I see it not.

I see a town down there that holds a king,

And over it I see a few small clouds—

Like feathers in the west, as you observe;

And I shall see no more this afternoon

Than what there is around us every day,

Unless you have a skill that I have not

To ferret the invisible for rats.”

“If you see what’s around us every day,

You need no other showing to go mad.

Remember that and take it home with you;

And say tonight, ‘I had it of a fool—

With no immediate obliquity

For this one or for that one, or for me.’”

Gawaine, having risen, eyed the fool curiously:

“I’ll not forget I had it of a knight,

Whose only folly is to fool himself;

And as for making other men to laugh,

And so forget their sins and selves a little,

There’s no great folly there. So keep it up,

As long as you’ve a legend or a song,

And have whatever sport of us you like

Till havoc is the word and we fall howling.

For I’ve a guess there may not be so loud

A sound of laughing here in Camelot

When Merlin goes again to his gay grave

In Brittany. To mention lesser terrors,

Men say his beard is gone.”

“Do men say that?”

A twitch of an impatient weariness

Played for a moment over the lean face

Of Dagonet, who reasoned inwardly:

“The friendly zeal of this inquiring knight

Will overtake his tact and leave it squealing,

One of these days.”—Gawaine looked hard at him:

“If I be too familiar with a fool,

I’m on the way to be another fool,”

He mused, and owned a rueful qualm within him:

“Yes, Dagonet,” he ventured, with a laugh,

“Men tell me that his beard has vanished wholly,

And that he shines now as the Lord’s anointed,

And wears the valiance of an ageless youth

Crowned with a glory of eternal peace.”

Dagonet, smiling strangely, shook his head:

“I grant your valiance of a kind of youth

To Merlin, but your crown of peace I question;

For, though I know no more than any churl

Who pinches any chambermaid soever

In the King’s palace, I look not to Merlin

For peace, when out of his peculiar tomb

He comes again to Camelot. Time swings

A mighty scythe, and some day all your peace

Goes down before its edge like so much clover.

No, it is not for peace that Merlin comes,

Without a trumpet—and without a beard,

If what you say men say of him be true—

Nor yet for sudden war.”

Gawaine, for a moment,

Met then the ambiguous gaze of Dagonet,

And, making nothing of it, looked abroad

As if at something cheerful on all sides,

And back again to the fool’s unasking eyes:

“Well, Dagonet, if Merlin would have peace,

Let Merlin stay away from Brittany,”

Said he, with admiration for the man

Whom Folly called a fool: “And we have known him;

We knew him once when he knew everything.”

“He knew as much as God would let him know

Until he met the lady Vivian.

I tell you that, for the world knows all that;

Also it knows he told the King one day

That he was to be buried, and alive,

In Brittany; and that the King should see

The face of him no more. Then Merlin sailed

Away to Vivian in Broceliande,

Where now she crowns him and herself with flowers

And feeds him fruits and wines and many foods

Of many savors, and sweet ortolans.

Wise books of every lore of every land

Are there to fill his days, if he require them,

And there are players of all instruments—

Flutes, hautboys, drums, and viols; and she sings

To Merlin, till he trembles in her arms

And there forgets that any town alive

Had ever such a name as Camelot.

So Vivian holds him with her love, they say,

And he, who has no age, has not grown old.

I swear to nothing, but that’s what they say.

That’s being buried in Broceliande

For too much wisdom and clairvoyancy.

But you and all who live, Gawaine, have heard

This tale, or many like it, more than once;

And you must know that Love, when Love invites

Philosophy to play, plays high and wins,

Or low and loses. And you say to me,

‘If Merlin would have peace, let Merlin stay

Away from Brittany.’ Gawaine, you are young,

And Merlin’s in his grave.”

“Merlin said once

That I was young, and it’s a joy for me

That I am here to listen while you say it.

Young or not young, if that be burial,

May I be buried long before I die.

I might be worse than young; I might be old.”—

Dagonet answered, and without a smile:

“Somehow I fancy Merlin saying that;

A fancy—a mere fancy.” Then he smiled:

“And such a doom as his may be for you,

Gawaine, should your untiring divination

Delve in the veiled eternal mysteries

Too far to be a pleasure for the Lord.

And when you stake your wisdom for a woman,

Compute the woman to be worth a grave,

As Merlin did, and say no more about it.

But Vivian, she played high. Oh, very high!

Flutes, hautboys, drums, and viols,—and her love.

Gawaine, farewell.”

“Farewell, Sir Dagonet,

And may the devil take you presently.”

He followed with a vexed and envious eye,

And with an arid laugh, Sir Dagonet’s

Departure, till his gaunt obscurity

Was cloaked and lost amid the glimmering trees.

“Poor fool!” he murmured. “Or am I the fool?

With all my fast ascendency in arms,

That ominous clown is nearer to the King

Than I am—yet; and God knows what he knows,

And what his wits infer from what he sees

And feels and hears. I wonder what he knows

Of Lancelot, or what I might know now,

Could I have sunk myself to sound a fool

To springe a friend.… No, I like not this day.

There’s a cloud coming over Camelot

Larger than any that is in the sky,—

Or Merlin would be still in Brittany,

With Vivian and the viols. It’s all too strange.”

And later, when descending to the city,

Through unavailing casements he could hear

The roaring of a mighty voice within,

Confirming fervidly his own conviction:

“It’s all too strange, and half the world’s half crazy!”—

He scowled: “Well, I agree with Lamorak.”

He frowned, and passed: “And I like not this day.”