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

IV. Merlin


THE TORTURED King—seeing Merlin wholly meshed

In his defection, even to indifference,

And all the while attended and exalted

By some unfathomable obscurity

Of divination, where the Grail, unseen,

Broke yet the darkness where a king saw nothing—

Feared now the lady Vivian more than Fate;

For now he knew that Modred, Lancelot,

The Queen, the King, the Kingdom, and the World,

Were less to Merlin, who had made him King,

Than one small woman in Broceliande.

Whereas the lady Vivian, seeing Merlin

Acclaimed and tempted and allured again

To service in his old magnificence,

Feared now King Arthur more than storms and robbers;

For Merlin, though he knew himself immune

To no least whispered little wish of hers

That might afflict his ear with ecstasy,

Had yet sufficient of his old command

Of all around him to invest an eye

With quiet lightning, and a spoken word

With easy thunder, so accomplishing

A profit and a pastime for himself—

And for the lady Vivian, when her guile

Outlived at intervals her graciousness;

And this equipment of uncertainty,

Which now had gone away with him to Britain

With Dagonet, so plagued her memory

That soon a phantom brood of goblin doubts

Inhabited his absence, which had else

Been empty waiting and a few brave fears,

And a few more, she knew, that were not brave,

Or long to be disowned, or manageable.

She thought of him as he had looked at her

When first he had acquainted her alarm

At sight of the King’s letter with its import;

And she remembered now his very words:

“The King believes today as in his boyhood

That I am Fate,” he said; and when they parted

She had not even asked him not to go;

She might as well, she thought, have bid the wind

Throw no more clouds across a lonely sky

Between her and the moon,—so great he seemed

In his oppressed solemnity, and she,

In her excess of wrong imagining,

So trivial in an hour, and, after all

A creature of a smaller consequence

Than kings to Merlin, who made kings and kingdoms

And had them as a father; and so she feared

King Arthur more than robbers while she waited

For Merlin’s promise to fulfil itself,

And for the rest that was to follow after:

“He said he would come back, and so he will.

He will because he must, and he is Merlin,

The master of the world—or so he was;

And he is coming back again to me

Because he must and I am Vivian.

It’s all as easy as two added numbers:

Some day I’ll hear him ringing at the gate,

As he rang on that morning in the spring,

Ten years ago; and I shall have him then

For ever. He shall never go away

Though kings come walking on their hands and knees

To take him on their backs.” When Merlin came,

She told him that, and laughed; and he said strangely:

“Be glad or sorry, but no kings are coming.

Not Arthur, surely; for now Arthur knows

That I am less than Fate.”

Ten years ago

The King had heard, with unbelieving ears

At first, what Merlin said would be the last

Reiteration of his going down

To find a living grave in Brittany:

“Buried alive I told you I should be,

By love made little and by woman shorn,

Like Samson, of my glory; and the time

Is now at hand. I follow in the morning

Where I am led. I see behind me now

The last of crossways, and I see before me

A straight and final highway to the end

Of all my divination. You are King,

And in your kingdom I am what I was.

Wherever I have warned you, see as far

As I have seen; for I have shown the worst

There is to see. Require no more of me,

For I can be no more than what I was.”

So, on the morrow, the King said farewell;

And he was never more to Merlin’s eye

The King than at that hour; for Merlin knew

How much was going out of Arthur’s life

With him, as he went southward to the sea.

Over the waves and into Brittany

Went Merlin, to Broceliande. Gay birds

Were singing high to greet him all along

A broad and sanded woodland avenue

That led him on forever, so he thought,

Until at last there was an end of it;

And at the end there was a gate of iron,

Wrought heavily and invidiously barred.

He pulled a cord that rang somewhere a bell

Of many echoes, and sat down to rest,

Outside the keeper’s house, upon a bench

Of carven stone that might for centuries

Have waited there in silence to receive him.

The birds were singing still; leaves flashed and swung

Before him in the sunlight; a soft breeze

Made intermittent whisperings around him

Of love and fate and danger, and faint waves

Of many sweetly-stinging fragile odors

Broke lightly as they touched him; cherry-boughs

Above him snowed white petals down upon him,

And under their slow falling Merlin smiled

Contentedly, as one who contemplates

No longer fear, confusion, or regret,

May smile at ruin or at revelation.

A stately fellow with a forest air

Now hailed him from within, with searching words

And curious looks, till Merlin’s glowing eye

Transfixed him and he flinched: “My compliments

And homage to the lady Vivian.

Say Merlin from King Arthur’s Court is here,

A pilgrim and a stranger in appearance,

Though in effect her friend and humble servant.

Convey to her my speech as I have said it,

Without abbreviation or delay,

And so deserve my gratitude forever.”

“But Merlin?” the man stammered; “Merlin? Merlin?”—

“One Merlin is enough. I know no other.

Now go you to the lady Vivian

And bring to me her word, for I am weary.”

Still smiling at the cherry-blossoms falling

Down on him and around him in the sunlight,

He waited, never moving, never glancing

This way or that, until his messenger

Came jingling into vision, weighed with keys,

And inly shaken with much wondering

At this great wizard’s coming unannounced

And unattended. When the way was open

The stately messenger, now bowing low

In reverence and awe, bade Merlin enter;

And Merlin, having entered, heard the gate

Clang back behind him; and he swore no gate

Like that had ever clanged in Camelot,

Or any other place if not in hell.

“I may be dead; and this good fellow here,

With all his keys,” he thought, “may be the Devil,—

Though I were loath to say so, for the keys

Would make him rather more akin to Peter;

And that’s fair reasoning for this fair weather.”

“The lady Vivian says you are most welcome,”

Said now the stately-favored servitor,

“And are to follow me. She said, ‘Say Merlin—

A pilgrim and a stranger in appearance,

Though in effect my friend and humble servant—

Is welcome for himself, and for the sound

Of his great name that echoes everywhere.’”—

“I like you and I like your memory,”

Said Merlin, curiously, “but not your gate.

Why forge for this elysian wilderness

A thing so vicious with unholy noise?”—

“There’s a way out of every wilderness

For those who dare or care enough to find it,”

The guide said: and they moved along together,

Down shaded ways, through open ways with hedgerows.

And into shade again more deep than ever,

But edged anon with rays of broken sunshine

In which a fountain, raining crystal music,

Made faery magic of it through green leafage,

Till Merlin’s eyes were dim with preparation

For sight now of the lady Vivian.

He saw at first a bit of living green

That might have been a part of all the green

Around the tinkling fountain where she gazed

Upon the circling pool as if her thoughts

Were not so much on Merlin—whose advance

Betrayed through his enormity of hair

The cheeks and eyes of youth—as on the fishes.

But soon she turned and found him, now alone,

And held him while her beauty and her grace

Made passing trash of empires, and his eyes

Told hers of what a splendid emptiness

Her tedious world had been without him in it

Whose love and service were to be her school,

Her triumph, and her history: “This is Merlin,”

She thought; “and I shall dream of him no more.

And he has come, he thinks, to frighten me

With beards and robes and his immortal fame;

Or is it I who think so? I know not.

I’m frightened, sure enough, but if I show it,

I’ll be no more the Vivian for whose love

He tossed away his glory, or the Vivian

Who saw no man alive to make her love him

Till she saw Merlin once in Camelot,

And seeing him, saw no other. In an age

That has no plan for me that I can read

Without him, shall he tell me what I am,

And why I am, I wonder?” While she thought,

And feared the man whom her perverse negation

Must overcome somehow to soothe her fancy,

She smiled and welcomed him; and so they stood,

Each finding in the other’s eyes a gleam

Of what eternity had hidden there.

“Are you always all in green, as you are now?”

Said Merlin, more employed with her complexion,

Where blood and olive made wild harmony

With eyes and wayward hair that were too dark

For peace if they were not subordinated;

“If so you are, then so you make yourself

A danger in a world of many dangers.

If I were young, God knows if I were safe

Concerning you in green, like a slim cedar,

As you are now, to say my life was mine:

Were you to say to me that I should end it,

Longevity for me were jeopardized.

Have you your green on always and all over?”

“Come here, and I will tell you about that,”

Said Vivian, leading Merlin with a laugh

To an arbored seat where they made opposites:

“If you are Merlin—and I know you are,

For I remember you in Camelot,—

You know that I am Vivian, as I am;

And if I go in green, why, let me go so,

And say at once why you have come to me

Cloaked over like a monk, and with a beard

As long as Jeremiah’s. I don’t like it.

I’ll never like a man with hair like that

While I can feed a carp with little frogs.

I’m rather sure to hate you if you keep it,

And when I hate a man I poison him.”

“You’ve never fed a carp with little frogs,”

Said Merlin; “I can see it in your eyes.”—

“I might then, if I haven’t,” said the lady;

“For I’m a savage, and I love no man

As I have seen him yet. I’m here alone,

With some three hundred others, all of whom

Are ready, I dare say, to die for me;

I’m cruel and I’m cold, and I like snakes;

And some have said my mother was a fairy,

Though I believe it not.”

“Why not believe it?”

Said Merlin; “I believe it. I believe

Also that you divine, as I had wished,

In my surviving ornament of office

A needless imposition on your wits,

If not yet on the scope of your regard.

Even so, you cannot say how old I am,

Or yet how young. I’m willing cheerfully

To fight, left-handed, Hell’s three headed hound

If you but whistle him up from where he lives;

I’m cheerful and I’m fierce, and I’ve made kings;

And some have said my father was the Devil,

Though I believe it not. Whatever I am,

I have not lived in Time until to-day.”

A moment’s worth of wisdom there escaped him,

But Vivian seized it, and it was not lost.

Embroidering doom with many levities,

Till now the fountain’s crystal silver, fading,

Became a splash and a mere chilliness,

They mocked their fate with easy pleasantries

That were too false and small to be forgotten,

And with ingenious insincerities

That had no repetition or revival.

At last the lady Vivian arose,

And with a crying of how late it was

Took Merlin’s hand and led him like a child

Along a dusky way between tall cones

Of tight green cedars: “Am I like one of these?

You said I was, though I deny it wholly.”—

“Very,” said Merlin, to his bearded lips

Uplifting her small fingers.—“O, that hair!”

She moaned, as if in sorrow: “Must it be?

Must every prophet and important wizard

Be clouded so that nothing but his nose

And eyes, and intimations of his ears,

Are there to make us know him when we see him?

Praise heaven I’m not a prophet! Are you glad?”—

He did not say that he was glad or sorry;

For suddenly came flashing into vision

A thing that was a manor and a castle,

With walls and roofs that had a flaming sky.

Behind them, like a sky that he remembered,

And one that had from his rock-sheltered haunt

Above the roofs of his forsaken city

Made flame as if all Camelot were on fire.

The glow brought with it a brief memory

Of Arthur as he left him, and the pain

That fought in Arthur’s eyes for losing him,

And must have overflowed when he had vanished.

But now the eyes that looked hard into his

Were Vivian’s, not the King’s; and he could see,

Or so he thought, a shade of sorrow in them.

She took his two hands: “You are sad,” she said.—

He smiled: “Your western lights bring memories

Of Camelot. We all have memories—

Prophets, and women who are like slim cedars;

But you are wrong to say that I am sad.”—

“Would you go back to Camelot?” she asked,

Her fingers tightening. Merlin shook his head.

“Then listen while I tell you that I’m glad,”

She purred, as if assured that he would listen:

“At your first warning, much too long ago,

Of this quaint pilgrimage of yours to see

‘The fairest and most orgulous of ladies’—

No language for a prophet, I am sure—

Said I, ‘When this great Merlin comes to me,

My task and avocation for some time

Will be to make him willing, if I can,

To teach and feed me with an ounce of wisdom.’

For I have eaten to an empty shell,

After a weary feast of observation

Among the glories of a tinsel world

That had for me no glory till you came,

A life that is no life. Would you go back

To Camelot?”—Merlin shook his head again,

And the two smiled together in the sunset.

They moved along in silence to the door,

Where Merlin said: “Of your three hundred here

There is but one I know, and him I favor;

I mean the stately one who shakes the keys

Of that most evil sounding gate of yours,

Which has a clang as if it shut forever.”—

“If there be need, I’ll shut the gate myself,”

She said. “And you like Blaise? Then you shall have him.

He was not born to serve, but serve he must,

It seems, and be enamoured of my shadow.

He cherishes the taint of some high folly

That haunts him with a name he cannot know,

And I could fear his wits are paying for it.

Forgive his tongue, and humor it a little.”—

“I knew another one whose name was Blaise,”

He said; and she said lightly, “Well, what of it?”—

“And he was nigh the learnedest of hermits;

His home was far away from everywhere,

And he was all alone there when he died.”—

“Now be a pleasant Merlin,” Vivian said,

Patting his arm, “and have no more of that;

For I’ll not hear of dead men far away,

Or dead men anywhere this afternoon.

There’ll be a trifle in the way of supper

This evening, but the dead shall not have any.

Blaise and this man will tell you all there is

For you to know. Then you’ll know everything.”

She laughed, and vanished like a humming-bird.