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

VI. Lancelot


SO Lancelot, with a world’s weight upon him,

Went heavily to that heaviest of all toil,

Which of itself tells hard in the beginning

Of what the end shall be. He found an army

That would have razed all Britain, and found kings

For generals; and they all went to Dover,

Where the white cliffs were ghostlike in the dawn,

And after dawn were deathlike. For the word

Of the dead King’s last battle chilled the sea

Before a sail was down; and all who came

With Lancelot heard soon from little men,

Who clambered overside with larger news,

How ill had fared the great. Arthur was dead,

And Modred with him, each by the other slain;

And there was no knight left of all who fought

On Salisbury field save one, Sir Bedivere,

Of whom the tale was told that he had gone

Darkly away to some far hermitage,

To think and die. There were tales told of a ship.

Anon, by further sounding of more men,

Each with a more delirious involution

Than his before him, he believed at last

The Queen was yet alive—if it were life

To draw now the Queen’s breath, or to see Britain

With the Queen’s eyes—and that she fared somewhere

To westward out of London, where the Tower

Had held her, as once Joyous Gard had held her,

For dolorous weeks and months a prisoner there,

With Modred not far off, his eyes afire

For her and for the King’s avenging throne,

That neither King nor son should see again.

“‘The world had paid enough for Camelot,’

Gawaine said; and the Queen had paid enough,

God knows,” said Lancelot. He saw Bors again

And found him angry—angry with his tears,

And with his fate that was a reason for them:

“Could I have died with Modred on my soul,

And had the King lived on, then had I lived

On with him; and this played-out world of ours

Might not be for the dead.”

“A played-out world,

Although that world be ours, had best be dead,”

Said Lancelot: “There are worlds enough to follow.

‘Another Camelot and another King,’

Bedivere said. And where is Bedivere now?

And Camelot?”

“There is no Camelot,”

Bors answered. “Are we going back to France,

Or are we to tent here and feed our souls

On memories and on ruins till even our souls

Are dead? Or are we to set free for sport

An idle army for what comes of it?”

“Be idle till you hear from me again,

Or for a fortnight. Then, if you have no word,

Go back; and I may follow you alone,

In my own time, in my own way.”

“Your way

Of late, I fear, has been too much your own;

But what has been, has been, and I say nothing.

For there is more than men at work in this;

And I have not your eyes to find the Light,

Here in the dark—though some day I may see it.”

“We shall all see it, Bors,” Lancelot said,

With his eyes on the earth. He said no more.

Then with a sad farewell, he rode away,

Somewhere into the west. He knew not where.

“We shall all see it, Bors,” he said again.

Over and over he said it, still as he rode,

And rode, away to the west, he knew not where,

Until at last he smiled unhappily

At the vain sound of it. “Once I had gone

Where the Light guided me, but the Queen came,

And then there was no Light. We shall all see—”

He bit the words off short, snapping his teeth,

And rode on with his memories before him,

Before him and behind. They were a cloud

For no Light now to pierce. They were a cloud

Made out of what was gone; and what was gone

Had now another lure than once it had,

Before it went so far away from him—

To Camelot. And there was no Camelot now—

Now that no Queen was there, all white and gold,

Under an oaktree with another sunlight

Sifting itself in silence on her glory

Through the dark leaves above her where she sat,

Smiling at what she feared, and fearing least

What most there was to fear. Ages ago

That must have been; for a king’s world had faded

Since then, and a king with it. Ages ago,

And yesterday, surely it must have been

That he had held her moaning in the firelight

And heard the roaring down of that long rain,

As if to wash away the walls that held them

Then for that hour together. Ages ago,

And always, it had been that he had seen her,

As now she was, floating along before him,

Too far to touch and too fair not to follow,

Even though to touch her were to die. He closed

His eyes, only to see what he had seen

When they were open; and he found it nearer,

Seeing nothing now but the still white and gold

In a wide field of sable, smiling at him,

But with a smile not hers until today—

A smile to drive no votary from the world

To find the Light. “She is not what it is

That I see now,” he said: “No woman alive

And out of hell was ever like that to me.

What have I done to her since I have lost her?

What have I done to change her? No, it is I—

I who have changed. She is not one who changes.

The Light came, and I did not follow it;

Then she came, knowing not what thing she did,

And she it was I followed. The gods play

Like that, sometimes; and when the gods are playing,

Great men are not so great as the great gods

Had led them once to dream. I see her now

Where now she is alone. We are all alone,

We that are left; and if I look too long

Into her eyes… I shall not look too long.

Yet look I must. Into the west, they say,

She went for refuge. I see nuns around her;

But she, with so much history tenanting

Her eyes, and all that gold over her eyes,

Were not yet, I should augur, out of them.

If I do ill to see her, then may God

Forgive me one more trespass. I would leave

The world and not the shadow of it behind me.”

Time brought his weary search to a dusty end

One afternoon in Almesbury, where he left,

With a glad sigh, his horse in an innyard;

And while he ate his food and drank his wine,

Thrushes, indifferent in their loyalty

To Arthur dead and to Pan never dead,

Sang as if all were now as all had been.

Lancelot heard them till his thoughts came back

To freeze his heart again under the flood

Of all his icy fears. What should he find?

And what if he should not find anything?

“Words, after all,” he said, “are only words;

And I have heard so many in these few days

That half my wits are sick.”

He found the queen,

But she was not the Queen of white and gold

That he had seen before him for so long.

There was no gold; there was no gold anywhere.

The black hood, and the white face under it,

And the blue frightened eyes, were all he saw—

Until he saw more black, and then more white.

Black was a foreign foe to Guinevere;

And in the glimmering stillness where he found her

Now, it was death; and she Alcestis-like,

Had waited unaware for the one hand

Availing, so he thought, that would have torn

Off and away the last fell shred of doom

That was destroying and dishonoring

All the world held of beauty. His eyes burned

With a sad anger as he gazed at hers

That shone with a sad pity. “No,” she said;

“You have not come for this. We are done with this.

For there are no queens here; there is a Mother.

The Queen that was is only a child now,

And you are strong. Remember you are strong,

And that your fingers hurt when they forget

How strong they are.”

He let her go from him

And while he gazed around him, he frowned hard

And long at the cold walls: “Is this the end

Of Arthur’s kingdom and of Camelot?”—

She told him with a motion of her shoulders

All that she knew of Camelot or of kingdoms;

And then said: “We are told of other States

Where there are palaces, if we should need them,

That are not made with hands. I thought you knew.”

Dumb, like a man twice banished, Lancelot

Stood gazing down upon the cold stone floor;

And she, demurely, with a calm regard

That he met once and parried, stood apart,

Appraising him with eyes that were no longer

Those he had seen when first they had seen his.

They were kind eyes, but they were not the eyes

Of his desire; and they were not the eyes

That he had followed all the way from Dover.

“I feared the Light was leading you,” she said,

“So far by now from any place like this

That I should have your memory, but no more.

Might not that way have been the wiser way?

There is no Arthur now, no Modred now,—

No Guinevere.” She paused, and her voice wandered

Away from her own name: “There is nothing now

That I can see between you and the Light

That I have dimmed so long. If you forgive me,

And I believe you do—though I know all

That I have cost, when I was worth so little—

There is no hazard that I see between you

And all you sought so long, and would have found

Had I not always hindered you. Forgive me—

I could not let you go. God pity men

When women love too much—and women more.”

He scowled and with an iron shrug he said:

“Yes, there is that between me and the light.”

He glared at her black hood as if to seize it;

Their eyes met, and she smiled: “No, Lancelot;

We are going by two roads to the same end;

Or let us hope, at least, what knowledge hides,

And so believe it. We are going somewhere.

Why the new world is not for you and me,

I cannot say; but only one was ours.

I think we must have lived in our one world

All that earth had for us. You are good to me,

Coming to find me here for the last time;

For I should have been lonely many a night,

Not knowing if you cared. I do know now;

And there is not much else for me to know

That earth may tell me. I found in the Tower,

With Modred watching me, that all you said

That rainy night was true. There was time there

To find out everything. There were long days,

And there were nights that I should not have said

God would have made a woman to endure.

I wonder if a woman lives who knows

All she may do.”

“I wonder if one woman

Knows one thing she may do,” Lancelot said,

With a sad passion shining out of him

While he gazed on her beauty, palled with black

That hurt him like a sword. The full blue eyes

And the white face were there, and the red lips

Were there, but there was no gold anywhere.

“What have you done with your gold hair?” he said;

“I saw it shining all the way from Dover,

But here I do not see it. Shall I see it?”—

Faintly again she smiled: “Yes, you may see it

All the way back to Dover; but not here.

There’s not much of it here, and what there is

Is not for you to see.”

“Well, if not here,”

He said at last, in a low voice that shook,

“Is there no other place left in the world?”

“There is not even the world left, Lancelot,

For you and me.”

“There is France left,” he said.

His face flushed like a boy’s, but he stood firm

As a peak in the sea and waited.

“How many lives

Must a man have in one to make him happy?”

She asked, with a wan smile of recollection

That only made the black that was around

Her calm face more funereal: “Was it you,

Or was it Gawaine who said once to me,

‘We cannot make one world of two, nor may we

Count one life more than one. Could we go back

To the old garden’… Was it you who said it,

Or was it Bors? He was always saying something.

It may have been Bors.” She was not looking then

At Lancelot; she was looking at her fingers

In her old way, as to be sure again

How many of them she had.

He looked at her,

Without the power to smile, and for the time

Forgot that he was Lancelot: “Is it fair

For you to drag that back, out of its grave,

And hold it up like this for the small feast

Of a small pride?”

“Yes, fair enough for a woman,”

Guinevere said, not seeing his eyes. “How long

Do you conceive the Queen of the Christian world

Would hide herself in France…”

“Why do you pause?

I said it; I remember when I said it;

And it was not today. Why in the name

Of grief should we hide anywhere? Bells and banners

Are not for our occasion, but in France

There may be sights and silences more fair

Than pageants. There are seas of difference

Between this land and France, albeit to cross them

Were no immortal voyage, had you an eye

For France that you had once.”

“I have no eye

Today for France, I shall have none tomorrow;

And you will have no eye for France tomorrow.

Fatigue and loneliness, and your poor dream

Of what I was, have led you to forget.

When you have had your time to think and see

A little more, then you will see as I do;

And if you see France, I shall not be there,

Save as a memory there. We are done, you and I,

With what we were. ‘Could we go back again,

The fruit that we should find’—but you know best

What we should find. I am sorry for what I said;

But a light word, though it cut one we love,

May save ourselves the pain of a worse wound.

We are all women. When you see one woman—

When you see me—before you in your fancy,

See me all white and gold, as I was once.

I shall not harm you then; I shall not come

Between you and the Gleam that you must follow,

Whether you will or not. There is no place

For me but where I am; there is no place

For you save where it is that you are going.

If I knew everything as I know that,

I should know more than Merlin, who knew all,

And long ago, that we are to know now.

What more he knew he may not then have told

The King, or anyone,—maybe not even himself;

Though Vivian may know something by this time

That he has told her. Have you wished, I wonder,

That I was more like Vivian, or Isolt?

The dark ones are more devious and more famous,

And men fall down more numerously before them—

Although I think more men get up again,

And go away again, than away from us.

If I were dark, I might say otherwise.

Try to be glad, even if you are sorry,

That I was not born dark; for I was not.

For me there was no dark until it came

When the King came, and with his heavy shadow

Put out the sun that you made shine again

Before I was to die. So I forgive

The faggots; I can do no more than that—

For you, or God.” She looked away from him

And in the casement saw the sunshine dying:

“The time that we have left will soon be gone;

When the bell rings, it rings for you to go,

But not for me to go. It rings for me

To stay—and pray. I, who have not prayed much,

May as well pray now. I have not what you have

To make me see, though I shall have, sometime,

A new light of my own. I saw in the Tower,

When all was darkest and I may have dreamed,

A light that gave to men the eyes of Time

To read themselves in silence. Then it faded,

And the men faded. I was there alone.

I shall not have what you have, or much else—

In this place. I shall see in other places

What is not here. I shall not be alone.

And I shall tell myself that you are seeing

All that I cannot see. For the time now,

What most I see is that I had no choice,

And that you came to me. How many years

Of purgatory shall I pay God for saying

This to you here?” Her words came slowly out,

And her mouth shook.

He took her two small hands

That were so pale and empty, and so cold:

“Poor child, I said too much and heard too little

Of what I said. But when I found you here,

So different, so alone, I would have given

My soul to be a chattel and a gage

For dicing fiends to play for, could so doing

Have brought one summer back.”

“When they are gone,”

She said, with grateful sadness in her eyes,

“We do not bring them back, or buy them back,

Even with our souls. I see now it is best

We do not buy them back, even with our souls.”

A slow and hollow bell began to sound

Somewhere above them, and the world became

For Lancelot one wan face—Guinevere’s face.

“When the bell rings, it rings for you to go,”

She said; “and you are going… I am not.

Think of me always as I used to be,

All white and gold—for that was what you called me.

You may see gold again when you are gone;

And I shall not be there.”—He drew her nearer

To kiss the quivering lips that were before him

For the last time. “No, not again,” she said;

“I might forget that I am not alone …

I shall not see you in this world again,

But I am not alone. No,… not alone.

We have had all there was, and you were kind—

Even when you tried so hard once to be cruel.

I knew it then… or now I do. Good-bye.”

He crushed her cold white hands and saw them falling

Away from him like flowers into a grave.

When she looked up to see him, he was gone;

And that was all she saw till she awoke

In her white cell, where the nuns carried her

With many tears and many whisperings.

“She was the Queen, and he was Lancelot,”

One said. “They were great lovers. It is not good

To know too much of love. We who love God

Alone are happiest. Is it not so, Mother?”—

“We who love God alone, my child, are safest,”

The Mother replied; “and we are not all safe

Until we are all dead. We watch, and pray.”

Outside again, Lancelot heard the sound

Of reapers he had seen. With lighter tread

He walked away to them to see them nearer;

He walked and heard again the sound of thrushes

Far off. He saw below him, stilled with yellow,

A world that was not Arthur’s, and he saw

The convent roof; and then he could see nothing

But a wan face and two dim lonely hands

That he had left behind. They were down there,

Somewhere, her poor white face and hands, alone.

“No man was ever alone like that,” he thought,

Not knowing what last havoc pity and love

Had still to wreak on wisdom. Gradually,

In one long wave it whelmed him, and then broke—

Leaving him like a lone man on a reef,

Staring for what had been with him, but now

Was gone and was a white face under the sea,

Alive there, and alone—always alone.

He closed his eyes, and the white face was there,

But not the gold. The gold would not come back.

There were gold fields of corn that lay around him,

But they were not the gold of Guinevere—

Though men had once, for sake of saying words,

Prattled of corn about it. The still face

Was there, and the blue eyes that looked at him

Through all the stillness of all distances;

And he could see her lips, trying to say

Again, “I am not alone.” And that was all

His life had said to him that he remembered

While he sat there with his hands over his eyes,

And his heart aching. When he rose again

The reapers had gone home. Over the land

Around him in the twilight there was rest.

There was rest everywhere; and there was none

That found his heart. “Why should I look for peace

When I have made the world a ruin of war?”

He muttered; and a Voice within him said:

“Where the Light falls, death falls; a world has died

For you, that a world may live. There is no peace.

Be glad no man or woman bears for ever

The burden of first days. There is no peace.”

A word stronger than his willed him away

From Almesbury. All alone he rode that night,

Under the stars, led by the living Voice

That would not give him peace. Into the dark

He rode, but not for Dover. Under the stars,

Alone, all night he rode, out of a world

That was not his, or the King’s; and in the night

He felt a burden lifted as he rode,

While he prayed he might bear it for the sake

Of a still face before him that was fading,

Away in a white loneliness. He made,

Once, with groping hand as if to touch it,

But a black branch of leaves was all he found.

Now the still face was dimmer than before,

And it was not so near him. He gazed hard,

But through his tears he could not see it now;

And when the tears were gone he could see only

That all he saw was fading, always fading;

And she was there alone. She was the world

That he was losing; and the world he sought

Was all a tale for those who had been living,

And had not lived. Once even he turned his horse,

And would have brought his army back with him

To make her free. They should be free together.

But the Voice within him said: “You are not free.

You have come to the world’s end, and it is best

You are not free. Where the Light falls, death falls;

And in the darkness comes the Light.” He turned

Again; and he rode on, under the stars,

Out of the world, into he knew not what,

Until a vision chilled him and he saw,

Now as in Camelot, long ago in the garden,

The face of Galahad who had seen and died,

And was alive, now in a mist of gold.

He rode on into the dark, under the stars,

And there were no more faces. There was nothing.

But always in the darkness he rode on,

Alone; and in the darkness came the Light.