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

IV. Merlin


SIR LAMORAK, the man of oak and iron,

Had with him now, as a care-laden guest,

Sir Bedivere, a man whom Arthur loved

As he had loved no man save Lancelot.

Like one whose late-flown shaft of argument

Had glanced and fallen afield innocuously,

He turned upon his host a sudden eye

That met from Lamorak’s an even shaft

Of native and unused authority;

And each man held the other till at length

Each turned away, shutting his heavy jaws

Again together, prisoning thus two tongues

That might forget and might not be forgiven.

Then Bedivere, to find a plain way out,

Said, “Lamorak, let us drink to some one here,

And end this dryness. Who shall it be—the King,

The Queen, or Lancelot?”—“Merlin,” Lamorak growled;

And then there were more wrinkles round his eyes

Than Bedivere had said were possible.

“There’s no refusal in me now for that,”

The guest replied; “so, ‘Merlin’ let it be.

We’ve not yet seen him, but if he be here,

And even if he should not be here, say ‘Merlin.’”

They drank to the unseen from two new tankards,

And fell straightway to sighing for the past,

And what was yet before them. Silence laid

A cogent finger on the lips of each

Impatient veteran, whose hard hands lay clenched

And restless on his midriff, until words

Were stronger than strong Lamorak:


Began the solid host, “you may as well

Say now as at another time hereafter

That all your certainties have bruises on ’em,

And all your pestilent asseverations

Will never make a man a salamander—

Who’s born, as we are told, so fire won’t bite him,—

Or a slippery queen a nun who counts and burns

Herself to nothing with her beads and candles.

There’s nature, and what’s in us, to be sifted

Before we know ourselves, or any man

Or woman that God suffers to be born.

That’s how I speak; and while you strain your mazard,

Like Father Jove, big with a new Minerva,

We’ll say, to pass the time, that I speak well.

God’s fish! The King had eyes; and Lancelot

Won’t ride home to his mother, for she’s dead.

The story is that Merlin warned the King

Of what’s come now to pass; and I believe it

And Arthur, he being Arthur and a king,

Has made a more pernicious mess than one,

We’re told, for being so great and amorous:

It’s that unwholesome and inclement cub

Young Modred I’d see first in hell before

I’d hang too high the Queen or Lancelot;

The King, if one may say it, set the pace,

And we’ve two strapping bastards here to prove it.

Young Borre, he’s well enough; but as for Modred,

I squirm as often as I look at him.

And there again did Merlin warn the King,

The story goes abroad; and I believe it.”

Sir Bedivere, as one who caught no more

Than what he would of Lamorak’s outpouring,

Inclined his grizzled head and closed his eyes

Before he sighed and rubbed his beard and spoke:

“For all I know to make it otherwise,

The Queen may be a nun some day or other;

I’d pray to God for such a thing to be,

If prayer for that were not a mockery.

We’re late now for much praying, Lamorak,

When you and I can feel upon our faces

A wind that has been blowing over ruins

That we had said were castles and high towers—

Till Merlin, or the spirit of him, came

As the dead come in dreams. I saw the King

This morning, and I saw his face. Therefore,

I tell you, if a state shall have a king,

The king must have the state, and be the state;

Or then shall we have neither king nor state,

But bones and ashes, and high towers all fallen:

And we shall have, where late there was a kingdom,

A dusty wreck of what was once a glory—

A wilderness whereon to crouch and mourn

And moralize, or else to build once more

For something better or for something worse.

Therefore again, I say that Lancelot

Has wrought a potent wrong upon the King,

And all who serve and recognize the King,

And all who follow him and all who love him.

Whatever the stormy faults he may have had,

To look on him today is to forget them;

And if it be too late for sorrow now

To save him—for it was a broken man

I saw this morning, and a broken king—

The God who sets a day for desolation

Will not forsake him in Avilion,

Or whatsoever shadowy land there be

Where peace awaits him on its healing shores.”

Sir Lamorak, shifting in his oaken chair,

Growled like a dog and shook himself like one:

“For the stone-chested, helmet-cracking knight

That you are known to be from Lyonnesse

To northward, Bedivere, you fol-de-rol

When days are rancid, and you fiddle-faddle

More like a woman than a man with hands

Fit for the smiting of a crazy giant

With armor an inch thick, as we all know

You are, when you’re not sermonizing at us.

As for the King, I say the King, no doubt,

Is angry, sorry, and all sorts of things,

For Lancelot, and for his easy Queen,

Whom he took knowing she’d thrown sparks already

On that same piece of tinder, Lancelot,

Who fetched her with him from Leodogran

Because the King—God save poor human reason!—

Would prove to Merlin, who knew everything

Worth knowing in those days, that he was wrong.

I’ll drink now and be quiet,—but, by God,

I’ll have to tell you, Brother Bedivere,

Once more, to make you listen properly,

That crowns and orders, and high palaces,

And all the manifold ingredients

Of this good solid kingdom, where we sit

And spit now at each other with our eyes,

Will not go rolling down to hell just yet

Because a pretty woman is a fool.

And here’s Kay coming with his fiddle face

As long now as two fiddles. Sit ye down,

Sir Man, and tell us everything you know

Of Merlin—or his ghost without a beard.

What mostly is it?”

Sir Kay, the seneschal,

Sat wearily while he gazed upon the two:

“To you it mostly is, if I err not,

That what you hear of Merlin’s coming back

Is nothing more or less than heavy truth.

But ask me nothing of the Queen, I say,

For I know nothing. All I know of her

Is what her eyes have told the silences

That now attend her; and that her estate

Is one for less complacent execration

Than quips and innuendoes of the city

Would augur for her sin—if there be sin—

Or for her name—if now she have a name.

And where, I say, is this to lead the King,

And after him, the kingdom and ourselves?

Here be we, three men of a certain strength

And some confessed intelligence, who know

That Merlin has come out of Brittany—

Out of his grave, as he would say it for us—

Because the King has now a desperation

More strong upon him than a woman’s net

Was over Merlin—for now Merlin’s here,

And two of us who knew him know how well

His wisdom, if he have it any longer,

Will by this hour have sounded and appraised

The grief and wrath and anguish of the King,

Requiring mercy and inspiring fear

Lest he forego the vigil now most urgent,

And leave unwatched a cranny where some worm

Or serpent may come in to speculate.”

“I know your worm, and his worm’s name is Modred—

Albeit the streets are not yet saying so,”

Said Lamorak, as he lowered his wrath and laughed

A sort of poisonous apology

To Kay: “And in the meantime, I’ll be gyved!

Here’s Bedivere a-wailing for the King,

And you, Kay, with a moist eye for the Queen.

I think I’ll blow a horn for Lancelot;

For by my soul a man’s in sorry case

When Guineveres are out with eyes to scorch him:

I’m not so ancient or so frozen certain

That I’d ride horses down to skeletons

If she were after me. Has Merlin seen him—

This Lancelot, this Queen-fed friend of ours?”

Kay answered sighing, with a lonely scowl:

“The picture that I conjure leaves him out;

The King and Merlin are this hour together,

And I can say no more; for I know nothing.

But how the King persuaded or beguiled

The stricken wizard from across the water

Outriddles my poor wits. It’s all too strange.”

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

Roared Lamorak, forgetting once again

The devastating carriage of his voice.

“Is the King sick?” he said, more quietly;

“Is he to let one damned scratch be enough

To paralyze the force that heretofore

Would operate a way through hell and iron,

And iron already slimy with his blood?

Is the King blind—with Modred watching him?

Does he forget the crown for Lancelot?

Does he forget that every woman mewing

Shall some day be a handful of small ashes?”

“You speak as one for whom the god of Love

Has yet a mighty trap in preparation.

We know you, Lamorak,” said Bedivere:

“We know you for a short man, Lamorak,—

In deeds, if not in inches or in words;

But there are fens and heights and distances

That your capricious ranging has not yet

Essayed in this weird region of man’s love.

Forgive me, Lamorak, but your words are words.

Your deeds are what they are; and ages hence

Will men remember your illustriousness,

If there be gratitude in history.

For me, I see the shadow of the end,

Wherein to serve King Arthur to the end,

And, if God have it so, to see the Grail

Before I die.”

But Lamorak shook his head:

“See what you will, or what you may. For me,

I see no other than a stinking mess—

With Modred stirring it, and Agravaine

Spattering Camelot with as much of it

As he can throw. The Devil got somehow

Into God’s workshop once upon a time,

And out of the red clay that he found there

He made a shape like Modred, and another

As like as eyes are to this Agravaine.

‘I never made ’em,’ said the good Lord God,

‘But let ’em go, and see what comes of ’em.’

And that’s what we’re to do. As for the Grail,

I’ve never worried it, and so the Grail

Has never worried me.”

Kay sighed. “I see

With Bedivere the coming of the end,”

He murmured; “for the King I saw today

Was not, nor shall he ever be again,

The King we knew. I say the King is dead;

The man is living, but the King is dead.

The wheel is broken.”

“Faugh!” said Lamorak;

“There are no dead kings yet in Camelot;

But there is Modred who is hatching ruin,—

And when it hatches I may not be here.

There’s Gawaine too, and he does not forget

My father, who killed his. King Arthur’s house

Has more divisions in it than I like

In houses; and if Modred’s aim be good

For backs like mine, I’m not long for the scene.”