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

IV. Merlin


KING ARTHUR, as he paced a lonely floor

That rolled a muffled echo, as he fancied,

All through the palace and out through the world,

Might now have wondered hard, could he have heard

Sir Lamorak’s apathetic disregard

Of what Fate’s knocking made so manifest

And ominous to others near the King—

If any, indeed, were near him at this hour

Save Merlin, once the wisest of all men,

And weary Dagonet, whom he had made

A knight for love of him and his abused

Integrity. He might have wondered hard

And wondered much; and after wondering,

He might have summoned, with as little heart

As he had now for crowns, the fond, lost Merlin,

Whose Nemesis had made of him a slave,

A man of dalliance, and a sybarite.

“Men change in Brittany, Merlin,” said the King;

And even his grief had strife to freeze again

A dreary smile for the transmuted seer

Now robed in heavy wealth of purple silk,

With frogs and foreign tassels. On his face,

Too smooth now for a wizard or a sage,

Lay written, for the King’s remembering eyes,

A pathos of a lost authority

Long faded, and unconscionably gone;

And on the King’s heart lay a sudden cold:

“I might as well have left him in his grave,

As he would say it, saying what was true,—

As death is true. This Merlin is not mine,

But Vivian’s. My crown is less than hers,

And I am less than woman to this man.”

Then Merlin, as one reading Arthur’s words

On viewless tablets in the air before him:

“Now, Arthur, since you are a child of mine—

A foster-child, and that’s a kind of child—

Be not from hearsay or despair too eager

To dash your meat with bitter seasoning,

So none that are more famished than yourself

Shall have what you refuse. For you are King,

And if you starve yourself, you starve the state;

And then by sundry looks and silences

Of those you loved, and by the lax regard

Of those you knew for fawning enemies,

You may learn soon that you are King no more,

But a slack, blasted, and sad-fronted man,

Made sadder with a crown. No other friend

Than I could say this to you, and say more;

And if you bid me say no more, so be it.”

The King, who sat with folded arms, now bowed

His head and felt, unfought and all aflame

Like immanent hell-fire, the wretchedness

That only those who are to lead may feel—

And only they when they are maimed and worn

Too sore to covet without shuddering

The fixed impending eminence where death

Itself were victory, could they but lead

Unbitten by the serpents they had fed.

Turning, he spoke: “Merlin, you say the truth:

There is no man who could say more to me

Today, or say so much to me, and live.

But you are Merlin still, or part of him;

I did you wrong when I thought otherwise,

And I am sorry now. Say what you will.

We are alone, and I shall be alone

As long as Time shall hide a reason here

For me to stay in this infested world

Where I have sinned and erred and heeded not

Your counsel; and where you yourself—God save us!—

Have gone down smiling to the smaller life

That you and your incongruous laughter called

Your living grave. God save us all, Merlin,

When you, the seer, the founder, and the prophet,

May throw the gold of your immortal treasure

Back to the God that gave it, and then laugh

Because a woman has you in her arms …

Why do you sting me now with a small hive

Of words that are all poison? I do not ask

Much honey; but why poison me for nothing,

And with a venom that I know already

As I know crowns and wars? Why tell a king—

A poor, foiled, flouted, miserable king—

That if he lets rats eat his fingers off

He’ll have no fingers to fight battles with?

I know as much as that, for I am still

A king—who thought himself a little less

Than God; a king who built him palaces

On sand and mud, and hears them crumbling now,

And sees them tottering, as he knew they must.

You are the man who made me to be King—

Therefore, say anything.”

Merlin, stricken deep

With pity that was old, being born of old

Foreshadowings, made answer to the King:

“This coil of Lancelot and Guinevere

Is not for any mortal to undo,

Or to deny, or to make otherwise;

But your most violent years are on their way

To days, and to a sounding of loud hours

That are to strike for war. Let not the time

Between this hour and then be lost in fears,

Or told in obscurations and vain faith

In what has been your long security;

For should your force be slower then than hate,

And your regret be sharper than your sight,

And your remorse fall heavier than your sword,—

Then say farewell to Camelot, and the crown.

But say not you have lost, or failed in aught

Your golden horoscope of imperfection

Has held in starry words that I have read.

I see no farther now than I saw then,

For no man shall be given of everything

Together in one life; yet I may say

The time is imminent when he shall come

For whom I founded the Siege Perilous;

And he shall be too much a living part

Of what he brings, and what he burns away in,

To be for long a vexed inhabitant

Of this mad realm of stains and lower trials.

And here the ways of God again are mixed:

For this new knight who is to find the Grail

For you, and for the least who pray for you

In such lost coombs and hollows of the world

As you have never entered, is to be

The son of him you trusted—Lancelot,

Of all who ever jeopardized a throne

Sure the most evil-fated, saving one,

Your son, begotten, though you knew not then

Your leman was your sister, of Morgause;

For it is Modred now, not Lancelot,

Whose native hate plans your annihilation—

Though he may smile till he be sick, and swear

Allegiance to an unforgiven father

Until at last he shake an empty tongue

Talked out with too much lying—though his lies

Will have a truth to steer them. Trust him not,

For unto you the father, he the son

Is like enough to be the last of terrors—

If in a field of time that looms to you

Far larger than it is you fail to plant

And harvest the old seeds of what I say,

And so be nourished and adept again

For what may come to be. But Lancelot

Will have you first; and you need starve no more

For the Queen’s love, the love that never was.

Your Queen is now your Kingdom, and hereafter

Let no man take it from you, or you die.

Let no man take it from you for a day;

For days are long when we are far from what

We love, and mischief’s other name is distance.

Let hat be all, for I can say no more;

Not even to Blaise the Hermit, were he living,

Could I say more than I have given you now

To hear; and he alone was my confessor.”

The King arose and paced the floor again.

“I get gray comfort of dark words,” he said;

“But tell me not that you can say no more:

You can, for I can hear you saying it.

Yet I’ll not ask for more. I have enough—

Until my new knight comes to prove and find

The promise and the glory of the Grail,

Though I shall see no Grail. For I have built

On sand and mud, and I shall see no Grail.”—

“Nor I,” said Merlin. “Once I dreamed of it,

But I was buried. I shall see no Grail,

Nor would I have it otherwise. I saw

Too much, and that was never good for man.

The man who goes alone too far goes mad—

In one way or another. God knew best,

And he knows what is coming yet for me.

I do not ask. Like you, I have enough.”

That night King Arthur’s apprehension found

In Merlin an obscure and restive guest,

Whose only thought was on the hour of dawn,

When he should see the last of Camelot

And ride again for Brittany; and what words

Were said before the King was left alone

Were only darker for reiteration.

They parted, all provision made secure

For Merlin’s early convoy to the coast,

And Arthur tramped the past. The loneliness

Of kings, around him like the unseen dead,

Lay everywhere; and he was loath to move,

As if in fear to meet with his cold hand

The touch of something colder. Then a whim,

Begotten of intolerable doubt,

Seized him and stung him until he was asking

If any longer lived among his knights

A man to trust as once he trusted all,

And Lancelot more than all. “And it is he

Who is to have me first,” so Merlin says,—

“As if he had me not in hell already.

Lancelot! Lancelot!” He cursed the tears

That cooled his misery, and then he asked

Himself again if he had one to trust

Among his knights, till even Bedivere,

Tor, Bors, and Percival, rough Lamorak,

Griflet, and Gareth, and gay Gawaine, all

Were dubious knaves,—or they were like to be,

For cause to make them so; and he had made

Himself to be the cause. “God set me right,

Before this folly carry me on farther,”

He murmured; and he smiled unhappily,

Though fondly, as he thought: “Yes, there is one

Whom I may trust with even my soul’s last shred;

And Dagonet will sing for me tonight

An old song, not too merry or too sad.”

When Dagonet, having entered, stood before

The King as one affrighted, the King smiled:

“You think because I call for you so late

That I am angry, Dagonet? Why so?

Have you been saying what I say to you,

And telling men that you brought Merlin here?

No? So I fancied; and if you report

No syllable of anything I speak,

You will have no regrets, and I no anger.

What word of Merlin was abroad today?”

“Today have I heard no man save Gawaine,

And to him I said only what all men

Are saying to their neighbors. They believe

That you have Merlin here, and that his coming

Denotes no good. Gawaine was curious,

But ever mindful of your majesty.

He pressed me not, and we made light of it.”

“Gawaine, I fear, makes light of everything,”

The King said, looking down. “Sometimes I wish

I had a full Round Table of Gawaines.

But that’s a freak of midnight,—never mind it.

Sing me a song—one of those endless things

That Merlin liked of old, when men were younger

And there were more stars twinkling in the sky.

I see no stars that are alive tonight,

And I am not the king of sleep. So then,

Sing me an old song.”

Dagonet’s quick eye

Caught sorrow in the King’s; and he knew more,

In a fool’s way, than even the King himself

Of what was hovering over Camelot.

“O King,” he said, “I cannot sing tonight.

If you command me I shall try to sing,

But I shall fail; for there are no songs now

In my old throat, or even in these poor strings

That I can hardly follow with my fingers.

Forgive me—kill me—but I cannot sing.”

Dagonet fell down then on both his knees

And shook there while he clutched the King’s cold hand

And wept for what he knew.

“There, Dagonet;

I shall not kill my knight, or make him sing.

No more; get up, and get you off to bed.

There’ll be another time for you to sing,

So get you to your covers and sleep well.”

Alone again, the King said, bitterly:

“Yes, I have one friend left, and they who know

As much of him as of themselves believe

That he’s a fool. Poor Dagonet’s a fool.

And if he be a fool, what else am I

Than one fool more to make the world complete?

‘The love that never was!’ … Fool, fool, fool, fool!”

The King was long awake. No covenant

With peace was his tonight; and he knew sleep

As he knew the cold eyes of Guinevere

That yesterday had stabbed him, having first

On Lancelot’s name struck fire, and left him then

As now they left him—with a wounded heart,

A wounded pride, and a sickening pang worse yet

Of lost possession. He thought wearily

Of watchers by the dead, late wayfarers,

Rough-handed mariners on ships at sea,

Lone-yawning sentries, wastrels, and all others

Who might be saying somewhere to themselves,

“The King is now asleep in Camelot;

God save the King.”—“God save the King, indeed,

If there be now a king to save,” he said.

Then he saw giants rising in the dark,

Born horribly of memories and new fears

That in the gray-lit irony of dawn

Were partly to fade out and be forgotten;

And then there might be sleep, and for a time

There might again be peace. His head was hot

And throbbing; but the rest of him was cold,

As he lay staring hard where nothing stood,

And hearing what was not, even while he saw

And heard, like dust and thunder far away,

The coming confirmation of the words

Of him who saw so much and feared so little

Of all that was to be. No spoken doom

That ever chilled the last night of a felon

Prepared a dragging anguish more profound

And absolute than Arthur, in these hours,

Made out of darkness and of Merlin’s words;

No tide that ever crashed on Lyonnesse

Drove echoes inland that were lonelier

For widowed ears among the fisher-folk,

Than for the King were memories tonight

Of old illusions that were dead for ever.