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

VI. Lancelot


THE FLASH of oak leaves over Guinevere

That afternoon, with the sun going down,

Made memories there for Lancelot, although

The woman who in silence looked at him

Now seemed his inventory of the world

That he must lose, or suffer to be lost

For love of her who sat there in the shade,

With oak leaves flashing in a golden light

Over her face and over her golden hair.

“Gawaine has all the graces, yet he knows;

He knows enough to be the end of us,

If so he would,” she said. “He knows and laughs

And we are at the mercy of a man

Who, if the stars went out, would only laugh.”

She looked away at a small swinging blossom,

And then she looked intently at her fingers,

While a frown gathered slowly round her eyes,

And wrinkled her white forehead.


Scarce knowing whether to himself he spoke

Or to the Queen, said emptily: “As for Gawaine,

My question is, if any curious hind

Or knight that is alive in Britain breathing,

Or prince, or king, knows more of us, or less,

Than Gawaine, in his gay complacency,

Knows or believes he knows. There’s over much

Of knowing in this realm of many tongues,

Where deeds are less to those who tell of them

Than are the words they sow; and you and I

Are like to yield a granary of such words,

For God knows what next harvesting. Gawain

I fear no more than Gareth, or Colgrevance;

So far as it is his to be the friend

Of any man, so far is he may friend—

Till I have crossed him in some enterprise

Unlikely and unborn. So fear not Gawaine

But let your primal care be now for one

Whose name is yours.”

The Queen, with her blue eyes

Too bright for joy, still gazed on Lancelot,

Who stared as if in angry malediction

Upon the shorn grass growing at his feet.

“Why do you speak as if the grass had ears

And I had none? What are you saying now,

So darkly to the grass, of knights and hinds?

Are you the Lancelot who rode, long since,

Away from me on that unearthly Quest,

Which left no man the same who followed it—

Or none save Gawaine, who came back so soon

That we had hardly missed him?” Faintly then

She smiled a little, more in her defence,

He knew, than for misprision of a man

Whom yet she feared: “Why do you set this day—

This golden day, when all are not so golden—

To tell me, with your eyes upon the ground,

That idle words have been for idle tongues

And ears a moment’s idle entertainment?

Have I become, and all at once, a thing

So new to courts, and to the buzz they make,

That I should hear no murmur, see no sign?

Where malice and ambition dwell with envy,

They go the farthest who believe the least;

So let them,—while I ask of you again,

Why this day for all this? Was yesterday

A day of ouphes and omens? Was it Friday?

I don’t remember. Days are all alike

When I have you to look on; when you go,

There are no days but hours. You might say now

What Gawaine said, and say it in our language.”

The sharp light still was in her eyes, alive

And anxious with a reminiscent fear.

Lancelot, like a strong man stricken hard

With pain, looked up at her unhappily;

And slowly, on a low and final note,

Said: “Gawaine laughs alike at what he knows,

And at the loose convenience of his fancy;

He sees in others what his humor needs

To nourish it, and lives a merry life.

Sometimes a random shaft of his will hit

Nearer the mark than one a wise man aims

With infinite address and reservation;

So has it come to pass this afternoon.”

Blood left the quivering cheeks of Guinevere

As color leaves a cloud; and where white was

Before, there was a ghostliness not white,

But gray; and over it her shining hair

Coiled heavily its mocking weight of gold.

The pride of her forlorn light-heartedness

Fled like a storm-blown feather; and her fear,

Possessing her, was all that she possessed.

She sought for Lancelot, but he seemed gone.

There was a strong man glowering in a chair

Before her, but he was not Lancelot,

Or he would look at her and say to her

That Gawaine’s words were less than chaff in the wind—

A nonsense about exile, birds, and bones,

Born of an indolence of empty breath.

“Say what has come to pass this afternoon,”

She said, “or I shall hear you all my life,

Not hearing what it was you might have told.”

He felt the trembling of her slow last words,

And his were trembling as he answered them:

“Why this day, why no other? So you ask,

And so must I in honor tell you more—

For what end, I have yet no braver guess

Than Modred has of immortality,

Or you of Gawaine. Could I have him alone

Between me and the peace I cannot know,

My life were like the sound of golden bells

Over still fields at sunset, where no storm

Should ever blast the sky with fire again,

Or thunder follow ruin for you and me,—

As like it will, if I for one more day,

Assume that I see not what I have seen,

See now, and shall see. There are no more lies

Left anywhere now for me to tell myself

That I have not already told myself,

And overtold, until today I seem

To taste them as I might the poisoned fruit

That Patrise had of Mador, and so died.

And that same apple of death was to be food

For Gawaine; but he left it and lives on,

To make his joy of living your confusion.

His life is his religion; he loves life

With such a manifold exuberance

That poison shuns him and seeks out a way

To wreak its evil upon innocence.

There may be chance in this, there may be

Be what there be, I do not fear Gawaine.”

The Queen, with an indignant little foot,

Struck viciously the unoffending grass

And said: “Why not let Gawaine go his way?

I’ll think of him no more, fear him no more,

And hear of him no more. I’ll hear no more

Of any now save one who is, or was,

All men to me. And he said once to me

That he would say why this day, of all days,

Was more mysteriously felicitous

For solemn commination than another.”

Again she smiled, but her blue eyes were telling

No more their story of old happiness.

“For me today is not as other days,”

He said, “because it is the first, I find,

That has empowered my will to say to you

What most it is that you must hear and heed.

When Arthur, with a faith unfortified,

Sent me alone, of all he might have sent,

That May-day to Leodogran your father,

I went away from him with a sore heart;

For in my heart I knew that I should fail

My King, who trusted me too far beyond

The mortal outpost of experience.

And this was after Merlin’s admonition,

Which Arthur, in his passion, took for less

Than his inviolable majesty.

When I rode in between your father’s guards

And heard his trumpets blown for my loud honor,

I sent my memory back to Camelot,

And said once to myself, ‘God save the king!’

But the words tore my throat and were like blood

Upon my tongue. Then a great shout went up

From shining men around me everywhere;

And I remember more fair women’s eyes

Than there are stars in autumn, all of them

Thrown on me for a glimpse of that high knight

Sir Lancelot—Sir Lancelot of the Lake.

I saw their faces and I saw not one

To sever a tendril of my integrity;

But I thought once again, to make myself

Believe a silent lie, ‘God save the King’ …

I saw your face, and there were no more kings.”

The sharp light softened in the Queen’s blue eyes,

And for a moment there was joy in them:

“Was I so menacing to the peace, I wonder,

Of anyone else alive? But why go back?

I tell you that I fear Gawaine no more;

And if you fear him not, and I fear not

What you fear not, what have we then to fear?”

Fatigued a little with her reasoning,

She waited longer than a woman waits,

Without a cloudy sign, for Lancelot’s

Unhurried answer: “Whether or not you fear,

Know always that I fear for me no stroke

Maturing for the joy of any knave

Who sees the world, with me alive in it,

A place too crowded for the furtherance

Of his inflammatory preparations.

But Lot of Orkney had a wife, a dark one;

And rumor says no man who gazed at her,

Attentively, might say his prayers again

Without a penance or an absolution.

I know not about that; but the world knows

That Arthur prayed in vain once, if he prayed,

Or we should have no Modred watching us.

Know then that what you fear to call my fear

Is all for you; and what is all for you

Is all for love, which were the same to me

As life—had I not seen what I have seen.

But first I am to tell you what I see,

And what I mean by fear. It is yourself

That I see now; and if I saw you only,

I might forego again all other service,

And leave to Time, who is Love’s almoner,

The benefaction of what years or days

Remaining might be found unchronicled

For two that have not always watched or seen

The sands of gold that flow for golden hours.

If I saw you alone! But I know now

That you are never more to be alone.

The shape of one infernal foul attendant

Will be for ever prowling after you,

To leer at me like a damned thing whipped out

Of the last cave in hell. You know his name.

Over your shoulder I could see him now,

Adventuring his misbegotten patience

For one destroying word in the King’s ear—

The word he cannot whisper there quite yet,

Not having it yet to say. If he should say it,

Then all this would be over, and our days

Of life, your days and mine, be over with it.

No day of mine that were to be for you

Your last, would light for me a longer span

Than for yourself; and there would be no twilight.”

The Queen’s implacable calm eyes betrayed

The doubt that had as yet for what he said

No healing answer: “If I fear no more

Gawaine, I fear your Modred even less.

Your fear, you say, is for an end outside

Your safety; and as much as that I grant you.

And I believe in your belief, moreover,

That some far-off unheard-of retribution

Hangs over Camelot, even as this oak-bough,

That I may almost reach, hangs overhead,

All dark now. Only a small time ago

The light was falling through it, and on me.

Another light, a longer time ago,

Was living in your eyes, and we were happy.

Yet there was Modred then as he is now,

As much a danger then as he is now,

And quite as much a nuisance. Let his eyes

Have all the darkness in them they may hold,

And there will be less left of it outside

For fear to grope and thrive in. Lancelot,

I say the dark is not what you fear most.

There is a Light that you fear more today

Than all the darkness that has ever been;

Yet I doubt not that your Light will burn on

For some time yet without your ministration.

I’m glad for Modred,—though I hate his eyes,—

That he should hold me nearer to your thoughts

Than I should hold myself, I fear, without him;

I’m glad for Gawaine, also,—who, you tell me,

Misled my fancy with his joy of living.”

Incredulous of her voice and of her lightness,

He saw now in the patience of her smile

A shining quiet of expectancy

That made as much of his determination

As he had made of giants and Sir Peris.

“But I have more to say than you have heard,”

He faltered—“though God knows what you have heard

Should be enough.”

“I see it now,” she said;

“I see it now as always women must

Who cannot hold what holds them any more.

If Modred’s hate were now the only hazard—

The only shadow between you and me—

How long should I be saying all this to you,

Or you be listening? No, Lancelot,—no.

I knew it coming for a longer time

Than you fared for the Grail. You told yourself,

When first that wild light came to make men mad

Round Arthur’s Table—as Gawaine told himself,

And many another tired man told himself—

That it was God, not something new, that called you.

Well, God was something new to most of them,

And so they went away. But you were changing

Long before you, or Bors, or Percival,

Or Galahad rode away—or poor Gawaine,

Who came back presently; and for a time

Before you went—albeit for no long time—

I may have made for your too loyal patience

A jealous exhibition of my folly—

All for those two Elaines; and one of them

Is dead, poor child, for you. How do you feel,

You men, when women die for you? They do,

Sometimes, you know. Not often, but sometimes.”

Discomfiture, beginning with a scowl

And ending in a melancholy smile,

Crept over Lancelot’s face the while he stared,

More like a child than like the man he was,

At Guinevere’s demure serenity

Before him in the shadow, soon to change

Into the darkness of a darker night

Than yet had been since Arthur was a king.

“What seizure of an unrelated rambling

Do you suppose it was that had you then?”

He said; and with a frown that had no smile

Behind it, he sat brooding.

The Queen laughed,

And looked at him again with lucent eyes

That had no sharpness in them; they were soft now,

And a blue light, made wet with happiness,

Distilled from pain into abandonment,

Shone out of them and held him while she smiled,

Although they trembled with a questioning

Of what his gloom foretold: “All that I saw

Was true, and I have paid for what I saw—

More than a man may know. Hear me, and listen:

You cannot put me or the truth aside,

With half-told words that I could only wish

No man had said to me; not you, of all men.

If there were only Modred in the way,

Should I see now, from here and in this light,

So many furrows over your changed eyes?

Why do you fear for me when all my fears

Are for the needless burden you take on?

To put me far away, and your fears with me,

Were surely no long toil, had you the will

To say what you have known and I have known

Longer than I dare guess. Have little fear:

Never shall I become for you a curse

Laid on your conscience to be borne for ever;

Nor shall I be a weight for you to drag

On always after you, as a poor slave

Drags iron at his heels. Therefore, today,

These ominous reassurances of mine

Would seem to me to be a waste of life,

And more than life.”

Lancelot’s memory wandered

Into the blue and wistful distances

That her soft eyes unveiled. He knew their trick,

As he knew the great love that fostered it,

And the wild passionate fate that hid itself

In all the perilous calm of white and gold

That was her face and hair, and might as well

Have been of gold and marble for the world,

And for the King. Before he knew, she stood

Behind him with her warm hands on his cheeks,

And her lips on his lips; and though he heard

Not half of what she told, he heard enough

To make as much of it, or so it seemed,

As man was ever told, or should be told,

Or need be, until everything was told,

And all the mystic silence of the stars

Had nothing more to keep or to reveal.

“If there were only Modred in the way,”

She murmured, “would you come to me tonight?

The King goes to Carleon or Carlisle,

Or some place where there’s hunting. Would you come,

If there were only Modred in the way?”

She felt his hand on hers and laid her cheek

Upon his forehead, where the furrows were:

“All these must go away, and so must I—

Before there are more shadows. You will come,

And you may tell me everything you must

That I must hear you tell me—if I must—

Of bones and horrors and of horrid waves

That break for ever on the world’s last edge.”