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

IV. Merlin


THE SUN went down, and the dark after it

Starred Merlin’s new abode with many a sconced

And many a moving candle, in whose light

The prisoned wizard, mirrored in amazement,

Saw fronting him a stranger, falcon-eyed,

Firm-featured, of a negligible age,

And fair enough to look upon, he fancied,

Though not a warrior born, nor more a courtier.

A native humor resting in his long

And solemn jaws now stirred, and Merlin smiled

To see himself in purple, touched with gold,

And fledged with snowy lace.—The careful Blaise,

Having drawn some time before from Merlin’s wallet

The sable raiment of a royal scholar,

Had eyed it with a long mistrust and said:

“The lady Vivian would be vexed, I fear,

To meet you vested in these learned weeds

Of gravity and death; for she abhors

Mortality in all its hues and emblems—

Black wear, long argument, and all the cold

And solemn things that appertain to graves.”—

And Merlin, listening, to himself had said,

“This fellow has a freedom, yet I like him;”

And then aloud: “I trust you. Deck me out,

However, with a temperate regard

For what your candid eye may find in me

Of inward coloring. Let them reap my beard,

Moreover, with a sort of reverence,

For I shall never look on it again.

And though your lady frown her face away

To think of me in black, for God’s indulgence,

Array me not in scarlet or in yellow.”—

And so it came to pass that Merlin sat

At ease in purple, even though his chin

Reproached him as he pinched it, and seemed yet

A little fearful of its nakedness.

He might have sat and scanned himself for ever

Had not the careful Blaise, regarding him,

Remarked again that in his proper judgment,

And on the valid word of his attendants,

No more was to be done. “Then do no more,”

Said Merlin, with a last look at his chin;

“Never do more when there’s no more to do,

And you may shun thereby the bitter taste

Of many disillusions and regrets.

God’s pity on us that our words have wings

And leave our deeds to crawl so far below them;

For we have all two heights, we men who dream,

Whether we lead or follow, rule or serve.”—

“God’s pity on us anyhow,” Blaise answered,

“Or most of us. Meanwhile, I have to say,

As long as you are here, and I’m alive,

Your summons will assure the loyalty

Of all my diligence and expedition.

The gong that you hear singing in the distance

Was rung for your attention and your presence.”—

“I wonder at this fellow, yet I like him,”

Said Merlin; and he rose to follow him.

The lady Vivian in a fragile sheath

Of crimson, dimmed and veiled ineffably

By the flame-shaken gloom wherein she sat,

And twinkled if she moved, heard Merlin coming,

And smiled as if to make herself believe

Her joy was all a triumph; yet her blood

Confessed a tingling of more wonderment

Than all her five and twenty worldly years

Of waiting for this triumph could remember;

And when she knew and felt the slower tread

Of his unseen advance among the shadows

To the small haven of uncertain light

That held her in it as a torch-lit shoal

Might hold a smooth red fish, her listening skin

Responded with a creeping underneath it,

And a crinkling that was incident alike

To darkness, love, and mice. When he was there,

She looked up at him in a whirl of mirth

And wonder, as in childhood she had gazed

Wide-eyed on royal mountebanks who made

So brief a shift of the impossible

That kings and queens would laugh and shake themselves;

Then rising slowly on her little feet,

Like a slim creature lifted, she thrust out

Her two small hands as if to push him back—

Whereon he seized them. “Go away,” she said;

“I never saw you in my life before,”—

“You say the truth,” he answered; “when I met

Myself an hour ago, my words were yours.

God made the man you see for you to like,

If possible. If otherwise, turn down

These two prodigious and remorseless thumbs

And leave your lions to annihilate him.”—

“I have no other lion than yourself,”

She said; “and since you cannot eat yourself,

Pray do a lonely woman, who is, you say,

More like a tree than any other thing

In your discrimination, the large honor

Of sharing with her a small kind of supper.”—

“Yes, you are like a tree,—or like a flower;

More like a flower to-night.” He bowed his head

And kissed the ten small fingers he was holding,

As calmly as if each had been a son;

Although his heart was leaping and his eyes

Had sight for nothing save a swimming crimson

Between two glimmering arms. “More like a flower

To-night,” he said, as now he scanned again

The immemorial meaning of her face

And drew it nearer to his eyes. It seemed

A flower of wonder with a crimson stem

Came leaning slowly and regretfully

To meet his will—a flower of change and peril

That had a clinging blossom of warm olive

Half stifled with a tyranny of black,

And held the wayward fragrance of a rose

Made woman by delirious alchemy.

She raised her face and yoked his willing neck

With half her weight; and with hot lips that left

The world with only one philosophy

For Merlin or for Anaxagoras,

Called his to meet them and in one long hush

Of capture to surrender and make hers

The last of anything that might remain

Of what was now their beardless wizardry.

Then slowly she began to push herself

Away, and slowly Merlin let her go

As far from him as his outreaching hands

Could hold her fingers while his eyes had all

The beauty of the woodland and the world

Before him in the firelight, like a nymph

Of cities, or a queen a little weary

Of inland stillness and immortal trees.

“Are you to let me go again sometime,”

She said,—“before I starve to death, I wonder?

If not, I’ll have to bite the lion’s paws,

And make him roar. He cannot shake his mane,

For now the lion has no mane to shake;

The lion hardly knows himself without it,

And thinks he has no face, but there’s a lady

Who says he had no face until he lost it.

So there we are. And there’s a flute somewhere,

Playing a strange old tune. You know the words:

‘The Lion and the Lady are both hungry.’”

Fatigue and hunger—tempered leisurely

With food that some devout magician’s oven

Might after many failures have delivered,

And wine that had for decades in the dark

Of Merlin’s grave been slowly quickening,

And with half-heard, dream-weaving interludes

Of distant flutes and viols, made more distant

By far, nostalgic hautboys blown from nowhere,—

Were tempered not so leisurely, may be,

With Vivian’s inextinguishable eyes

Between two shining silver candlesticks

That lifted each a trembling flame to make

The rest of her a dusky loveliness

Against a bank of shadow. Merlin made,

As well as he was able while he ate,

A fair division of the fealty due

To food and beauty, albeit more times than one

Was he at odds with his urbanity

In honoring too long the grosser viand.

“The best invention in Broceliande

Has not been over-taxed in vain, I see,”

She told him, with her chin propped on her fingers

And her eyes flashing blindness into his:

“I put myself out cruelly to please you,

And you, for that, forget almost at once

The name and image of me altogether.

You needn’t, for when all is analyzed,

It’s only a bird-pie that you are eating.”

“I know not what you call it,” Merlin said;

“Nor more do I forget your name and image,

Though I do eat; and if I did not eat,

Your sending out of ships and caravans

To get whatever ’tis that’s in this thing

Would be a sorrow for you all your days;

And my great love, which you have seen by now,

Might look to you a lie; and like as not

You’d actuate some sinewed mercenary

To carry me away to God knows where

And seal me in a fearsome hole to starve,

Because I made of this insidious picking

An idle circumstance. My dear fair lady—

And there is not another under heaven

So fair as you are as I see you now—

I cannot look at you too much and eat;

And I must eat, or be untimely ashes,

Whereon the light of your celestial gaze

Would fall, I fear me, for no longer time

Than on the solemn dust of Jeremiah—

Whose beard you likened once, in heathen jest,

To mine that now is no man’s.”

“Are you sorry?”

Said Vivian, filling Merlin’s empty goblet;

“If you are sorry for the loss of it,

Drink more of this and you may tell me lies

Enough to make me sure that you are glad;

But if your love is what you say it is,

Be never sorry that my love took off

That horrid hair to make your face at last

A human fact. Since I have had your name

To dream of and say over to myself,

The visitations of that awful beard

Have been a terror for my nights and days—

For twenty years. I’ve seen it like an ocean,

Blown seven ways at once and wrecking ships,

With men and women screaming for their lives;

I’ve seen it woven into shining ladders

That ran up out of sight and so to heaven,

All covered with white ghosts with hanging robes

Like folded wings,—and there were millions of them,

Climbing, climbing, climbing, all the time;

And all the time that I was watching them

I thought how far above me Merlin was,

And wondered always what his face was like.

But even then, as a child, I knew the day

Would come some time when I should see his face

And hear his voice, and have him in my house

Till he should care no more to stay in it,

And go away to found another kingdom.”—

“Not that,” he said; and, sighing, drank more wine;

“One kingdom for one Merlin is enough.”—

“One Merlin for one Vivian is enough,”

She said. “If you care much, remember that;

But the Lord knows how many Vivians

One Merlin’s entertaining eye might favor,

Indifferently well and all at once,

If they were all at hand. Praise heaven they’re not.”

“If they were in the world—praise heaven they’re not—

And if one Merlin’s entertaining eye

Saw two of them, there might be left him then

The sight of no eye to see anything—

Not even the Vivian who is everything,

She being Beauty, Beauty being She,

She being Vivian, and so on for ever.”—

“I’m glad you don’t see two of me,” she said;

“For there’s a whole world yet for you to eat

And drink and say to me before I know

The sort of creature that you see in me.

I’m withering for a little more attention,

But, being woman, I can wait. These cups

That you see coming are for the last there is

Of what my father gave to kings alone,

And far from always. You are more than kings

To me; therefore I give it all to you,

Imploring you to spare no more of it

Than a small cockle-shell would hold for me

To pledge your love and mine in. Take the rest,

That I may see tonight the end of it.

I’ll have no living remnant of the dead

Annoying me until it fades and sours

Of too long cherishing; for Time enjoys

The look that’s on our faces when we scowl

On unexpected ruins, and thrift itself

May be a sort of slow unwholesome fire

That eats away to dust the life that feeds it.

You smile, I see, but I said what I said.

One hardly has to live a thousand years

To contemplate a lost economy;

So let us drink it while it’s yet alive

And you and I are not untimely ashes.

My last words are your own, and I don’t like ’em.”—

A sudden laughter scattered from her eyes

A threatening wisdom. He smiled and let her laugh,

Then looked into the dark where there was nothing:

“There’s more in this than I have seen,” he thought,

“Though I shall see it.”—“Drink,” she said again;

“There’s only this much in the world of it,

And I am near to giving all to you

Because you are so great and I so little.”

With a long-kindling gaze that caught from hers

A laughing flame, and with a hand that shook

Like Arthur’s kingdom, Merlin slowly raised

A golden cup that for a golden moment

Was twinned in air with hers; and Vivian,

Who smiled at him across their gleaming rims,

From eyes that made a fuel of the night

Surrounding her, shot glory over gold

At Merlin, while their cups touched and his trembled.

He drank, not knowing what, nor caring much

For kings who might have cared less for themselves,

He thought, had all the darkness and wild light

That fell together to make Vivian

Been there before them then to flower anew

Through sheathing crimson into candle-light

With each new leer of their loose, liquorish eyes.

Again he drank, and he cursed every king

Who might have touched her even in her cradle;

For what were kings to such as he, who made them

And saw them totter—for the world to see,

And heed, if the world would? He drank again,

And yet again—to make himself assured

No manner of king should have the last of it—

The cup that Vivian filled unfailingly

Until she poured for nothing. “At the end

Of this incomparable flowing gold,”

She prattled on to Merlin, who observed

Her solemnly, “I fear there may be specks.”—

He sighed aloud, whereat she laughed at him

And pushed the golden cup a little nearer.

He scanned it with a sad anxiety,

And then her face likewise, and shook his head

As if at her concern for such a matter:

“Specks? What are specks? Are you afraid of them?”

He murmured slowly, with a drowsy tongue;

“There are specks everywhere. I fear them not.

If I were king in Camelot, I might

Fear more than specks. But now I fear them not.

You are too strange a lady to fear specks.”

He stared a long time at the cup of gold

Before him but he drank no more. There came

Between him and the world a crumbling sky

Of black and crimson, with a crimson cloud

That held a far off town of many towers.

All swayed and shaken, till at last they fell,

And there was nothing but a crimson cloud

That crumbled into nothing, like the sky

That vanished with it, carrying away

The world, the woman, and all memory of them,

Until a slow light of another sky

Made gray an open casement, showing him

Faint shapes of an exotic furniture

That glimmered with a dim magnificence,

And letting in the sound of many birds

That were, as he lay there remembering,

The only occupation of his ears

Until it seemed they shared a fainter sound,

As if a sleeping child with a black head

Beside him drew the breath of innocence.

One shining afternoon around the fountain,

As on the shining day of his arrival,

The sunlight was alive with flying silver

That had for Merlin a more dazzling flash

Than jewels rained in dreams, and a richer sound

Than harps, and all the morning stars together,—

When jewels and harps and stars and everything

That flashed and sang and was not Vivian,

Seemed less than echoes of her least of words—

For she was coming. Suddenly, somewhere

Behind him, she was coming; that was all

He knew until she came and took his hand

And held it while she talked about the fishes.

When she looked up he thought a softer light

Was in her eyes than once he had found there;

And had there been left yet for dusky women

A beauty that was heretofore not hers,

He told himself he must have seen it then

Before him in the face at which he smiled

And trembled. “Many men have called me wise,”

He said, “but you are wiser than all wisdom

If you know what you are.”—“I don’t,” she said;

“I know that you and I are here together;

I know that I have known for twenty years

That life would be almost a constant yawning

Until you came; and now that you are here,

I know that you are not to go away

Until you tell me that I’m hideous;

I know that I like fishes, ferns, and snakes,—

Maybe because I liked them when the world

Was young and you and I were salamanders;

I know, too, a cool place not far from here,

Where there are ferns that are like marching men

Who never march away. Come now and see them,

And do as they do—never march away.

When they are gone, some others, crisp and green,

Will have their place, but never march away.”—

He smoothed her silky fingers, one by one:

“Some other Merlin, also, do you think,

Will have his place—and never march away?”—

Then Vivian laid a finger on his lips

And shook her head at him before she laughed:

“There is no other Merlin than yourself,

And you are never going to be old.”

Oblivious of a world that made of him

A jest, a legend, and a long regret,

And with a more commanding wizardry

Than his to rule a kingdom where the king

Was Love and the queen Vivian, Merlin found

His queen without the blemish of a word

That was more rough than honey from her lips,

Or the first adumbration of a frown

To cloud the night-wild fire that in her eyes

Had yet a smoky friendliness of home,

And a foreknowing care for mighty trifles.

“There are miles and miles for you to wander in,”

She told him once: “Your prison yard is large,

And I would rather take my two ears off

And feed them to the fishes in the fountain

Than buzz like an incorrigible bee

For always around yours, and have you hate

The sound of me; for some day then, for certain,

Your philosophic rage would see in me

A bee in earnest, and your hand would smite

My life away. And what would you do then?

I know: for years and years you’d sit alone

Upon my grave, and be the grieving image

Of lean remorse, and suffer miserably;

And often, all day long, you’d only shake

Your celebrated head and all it holds,

Or beat it with your fist the while you groaned

Aloud and went on saying to yourself:

‘Never should I have killed her, or believed

She was a bee that buzzed herself to death,

First having made me crazy, had there been

Judicious distance and wise absences

To keep the two of us inquisitive.’”—

“I fear you bow your unoffending head

Before a load that should be mine,” said he;

“If so, you led me on by listening.

You should have shrieked and jumped, and then fled yelling;

That’s the best way when a man talks too long.

God’s pity on me if I love your feet

More now than I could ever love the face

Of any one of all those Vivians

You summoned out of nothing on the night

When I saw towers. I’ll wander and amend.”—

At that she flung the noose of her soft arms

Around his neck and kissed him instantly:

“You are the wisest man that ever was,

And I’ve a prayer to make: May all you say

To Vivian be a part of what you knew

Before the curse of her unquiet head

Was on your shoulder, as you have it now,

To punish you for knowing beyond knowledge.

You are the only one who sees enough

To make me see how far away I am

From all that I have seen and have not been;

You are the only thing there is alive

Between me as I am and as I was

When Merlin was a dream. You are to listen

When I say now to you that I’m alone.

Like you, I saw too much; and unlike you

I made no kingdom out of what I saw—

Or none save this one here that you must rule,

Believing you are ruled. I see too far

To rule myself. Time’s way with you and me

Is our way, in that we are out of Time

And out of tune with Time. We have this place,

And you must hold us in it or we die.

Look at me now and say if what I say

Be folly or not; for my unquiet head

Is no conceit of mine. I had it first

When I was born; and I shall have it with me

Till my unquiet soul is on its way

To be, I hope, where souls are quieter.

So let the first and last activity

Of what you say so often is your love

Be always to remember that our lyres

Are not strung for Today. On you it falls

To keep them in accord here with each other,

For you have wisdom, I have only sight

For distant things—and you. And you are Merlin.

Poor wizard! Vivian is your punishment

For making kings of men who are not kings;

And you are mine, by the same reasoning,

For living out of Time and out of tune

With anything but you. No other man

Could make me say so much of what I know

As I say now to you. And you are Merlin!”

She looked up at him till his way was lost

Again in the familiar wilderness

Of night that love made for him in her eyes,

And there he wandered as he said he would;

He wandered also in his prison-yard,

And, when he found her coming after him,

Beguiled her with her own admonishing

And frowned upon her with a fierce reproof

That many a time in the old world outside

Had set the mark of silence on strong men—

Whereat she laughed, not always wholly sure,

Nor always wholly glad, that he who played

So lightly was the wizard of her dreams:

“No matter—if only Merlin keep the world

Away,” she thought. “Our lyres have many strings,

But he must know them all, for he is Merlin.”

And so far years, till ten of them were gone,—

Ten years, ten seasons, or ten flying ages—

Fate made Broceliande a paradise,

By none invaded, until Dagonet,

Like a discordant, awkward bird of doom,

Flew in with Arthur’s message. For the King,

In sorrow cleaving to simplicity,

And having in his love a quick remembrance

Of Merlin’s old affection for the fellow,

Had for this vain, reluctant enterprise

Appointed him—the knight who made men laugh,

And was a fool because he played the fool.

“The King believes today, as in his boyhood,

That I am Fate; and I can do no more

Than show again what in his heart he knows,”

Said Merlin to himself and Vivian:

“This time I go because I made him King,

Thereby to be a mirror for the world;

This time I go, but never after this,

For I can be no more than what I was,

And I can do no more than I have done.”

He took her slowly in his arms and felt

Her body throbbing like a bird against him:

“This time I go; I go because I must.”

And in the morning, when he rode away

With Dagonet and Blaise through the same gate

That once had clanged as if to shut for ever,

She had not even asked him not to go;

For it was then that in his lonely gaze

Of helpless love and sad authority

She found the gleam of his imprisoned power

That Fate withheld; and, pitying herself,

She pitied the fond Merlin she had changed,

And saw the Merlin who had changed the world.