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

VI. Lancelot


GAWAINE, his body trembling and his heart

Pounding as if he were a boy in battle,

Sat crouched as far away from everything

As walls would give him distance. Bedivere

Stood like a man of stone with folded arms,

And wept in stony silence. The King moved

His pallid lips and uttered fitfully

Low fragments of a prayer that was half sad,

Half savage, and was ended in a crash

Of distant sound that anguish lifted near

To those who heard it. Gawaine sprang again

To the same casement where the towers and roofs

Had glimmered faintly a long hour ago,

But saw no terrors yet—though now he heard

A fiercer discord than allegiance rings

To rouse a mourning city: blows, groans, cries,

Loud iron struck on iron, horses trampling,

Death-yells and imprecations, and at last

A moaning silence. Then a murmuring

Of eager fearfulness, which had a note

Of exultation and astonishment,

Came nearer, till a tumult of hard feet

Filled the long corridor where late the King

Had made a softer progress.

“Well then, Lucan,”

The King said, urging an indignity

To qualify suspense: “For what arrears

Of grace are we in debt for this attention?

Why all this early stirring of our sentries,

And their somewhat unseasoned innovation,

To bring you at this unappointed hour?

Are we at war with someone or another,

Without our sanction or intelligence?

Are Lucius and the Romans here to greet us,

Or was it Lucius we saw dead?”

Sir Lucan

Bowed humbly in amazed acknowledgment

Of his intrusion, meanwhile having scanned

What three grief-harrowed faces were revealing:

“Praise God, sir, there are tears in the King’s eyes,

And in his friends’. Having regarded them,

And having ventured an abrupt appraisal

Of what I translate.…”

“Lucan,” the King said,

“No matter what procedure or persuasion

Gave you an entrance—tell us what it is

That you have come to tell us, and no more.

There was a most uncivil sound abroad

Before you came. Who riots in the city?”

“Sir, will your patience with a element ear,

Attend the confirmation of events,

I will, with all available precision,

Say what this morning has inaugurated.

No preface or prolonged exordium

Need aggravate the narrative, I venture.

The man of God, requiring of the Queen

A last assoiling prayer for her salvation,

Heard what none else did hear save God the Father.

Then a great hush descended on a scene

Where stronger men than I fell on their knees,

And wet with tears their mail of shining iron

That soon was to be cleft unconscionably

Beneath a blast of anguish as intense

And fabulous in ardor and effect

As Jove’s is in his lightning. To be short,

They led the Queen—and she went bravely to it,

Or so she was configured in the picture—

A brief way more; and we who did see that,

Believed we saw the last of all her sharing

In this conglomerate and perplexed existence.

But no—and here the prodigy comes in—

The penal flame had hardly bit the faggot,

When, like an onslaught out of Erebus,

There came a crash of horses, and a flash

Of axes, and a hewing down of heroes,

Not like to any in its harsh, profound,

Unholy, and uneven execution.

I felt the breath of one horse on my neck,

And of a sword that all but left a chasm

Where still, praise be to God, I have intact

A face, if not a fair one. I achieved

My flight, I trust, with honorable zeal,

Not having arms, or mail, or preservation

In any phase of necessary iron.

I found a refuge; and there saw the Queen,

All white, and in a swound of woe uplifted

By Lionel, while a dozen fought about him,

And Lancelot, who seized her while he struck,

And with his insane army galloped away,

Before the living, whom he left amazed,

Were sure they were alive among the dead.

Not even in the legendary mist

Of wars that none today may verify,

Did ever men annihilate their kind

With a more vicious inhumanity,

Or a more skilful frenzy. Lancelot

And all his heated adjuncts are by now

Too far, I fear, for such immediate

Reprisal as your majesty perchance…”

“O’ God’s name, Lucan,” the King cried, “be still!”

He gripped with either sodden hand an arm

Of his unyielding chair, while his eyes blazed

In anger, wonder, and fierce hesitation.

Then with a sigh that may have told unheard

Of an unwilling gratitude, he gazed

Upon his friends who gazed again at him;

But neither King nor friend said anything

Until the King turned once more to Sir Lucan:

“Be still, or publish with a shorter tongue

The names of our companions who are dead.

Well, were you there? Or did you run so fast

That you were never there? You must have eyes,

Or you could not have run to find us here.”

Then Lucan, with a melancholy glance

At Gawaine, who stood glaring his impatience,

Addressed again the King: “I will be short, sir;

Too brief to measure with finality

The scope of what I saw with indistinct

Amazement and incredulous concern.

Sir Tor, Sir Griflet, and Sir Aglovale

Are dead. Sir Gillimer, he is dead. Sir—Sir—

But should a living error be detailed

In my account, how should I meet your wrath

For such a false addition to your sorrow?”

He turned again to Gawaine, who shook now

As if the fear in him were more than fury.—

The King, observing Gawaine, beat his foot

In fearful hesitancy on the floor:

“No, Lucan; if so kind an error lives

In your dead record, you need have no fear.

My sorrow has already, in the weight

Of this you tell, too gross a task for that.”

“Then I must offer you cold naked words,

Without the covering warmth of even one

Forlorn alternative,” said Lucan, slowly:

“Sir Gareth, and Sir Gaheris—are dead.”

The rage of a fulfilled expectancy,

Long tortured on a rack of endless moments,

Flashed out of Gawaine’s overflowing eyes

While he flew forward, seizing Lucan’s arms,

And hurled him while he held him.—“Stop, Gawaine,”

The King said grimly. “Now is no time for that.

If Lucan, in a too bewildered heat

Of observation or sad reckoning,

Has added life to death, our joy therefor

Will be the larger. You have lost yourself.”

“More than myself it is that I have lost,”

Gawaine said, with a choking voice that faltered:

“Forgive me, Lucan; I was a little mad.

Gareth?—and Gaheris? Do you say their names,

And then say they are dead! They had no arms—

No armor. They were like you—and you live!

Why do you live when they are dead! You ran,

You say? Well, why were they not running—

If they ran only for a pike to die with?

I knew my brothers, and I know your tale

Is not all told. Gareth?—and Gaheris?

Would they stay there to die like silly children?

Did they believe the King would have them die

For nothing? There are dregs of reason, Lucan,

In lunacy itself. My brothers, Lucan,

Were murdered like two dogs. Who murdered them?

Lucan looked helplessly at Bedivere,

The changeless man of stone, and then at Gawaine:

“I cannot use the word that you have used,

Though yours must have an answer. Your two brothers

Would not have squandered or destroyed themselves

In a vain show of action. I pronounce it,

If only for their known obedience

To the King’s instant wish. Know then your brothers

Were caught and crowded, this way and then that,

With men and horses raging all around them;

And there were swords and axes everywhere

That heads of men were. Armored and unarmored,

They knew the iron alike. In so great press,

Discrimination would have had no pause

To name itself; and therefore Lancelot

Saw not—or seeing, he may have seen too late—

On whom his axes fell.”

“Why do you flood

The name of Lancelot with words enough

To drown him and his army—and his axes!…

His axes?—or his axe! Which, Lucan? Speak!

Speak, or by God you’ll never speak again!…

Forgive me, Lucan; I was a little mad.

You, sir, forgive me; and you, Bedivere.

There are too many currents in this ocean

Where I’m adrift, and I see no land yet.

Men tell of a great whirlpool in the north

Where ships go round until the men aboard

Go dizzy, and are dizzy when they’re drowning.

But whether I’m to drown or find the shore,

There is one thing—and only one thing now—

For me to know.… His axes? or his axe!

Say, Lucan, or I—O Lucan, speak—speak—speak!

Lucan, did Lancelot kill my two brothers?”

“I say again that in all human chance

He knew not upon whom his axe was falling.”

“So! Then it was his axe and not his axes.

It was his hell-begotten self that did it,

And it was not his men. Gareth! Gaheris!

You came too soon. There was no place for you

Where there was Lancelot. My folly it was,

Not yours, to take for true the inhuman glamour

Of his high-shining fame for that which most

Was not the man. The truth we see too late

Hides half its evil in our stupidity;

And we gape while we groan for what we learn.

An hour ago and I was all but eager

To mourn with Bedivere for grief I had

That I did not say something to this villain—

To this true, gracious, murderous friend of mine—

To comfort him and urge him out of this,

While I was half a fool and half believed

That he was going. Well, there is this to say:

The world that has him will not have him long.

You see how calm I am, now I have said it?

And you, sir, do you see how calm I am?

And it was I who told of shipwrecks—whirlpools—

Drowning! I must have been a little mad,

Not having occupation. Now I have one.

And I have now a tongue as many-phrased

As Lucan’s. Gauge it, Lucan, if you will;

Or take my word. It’s all one thing to me—

All one, all one! There’s only one thing left …

Gareth and Gaheris! Gareth!… Lancelot!”

“Look, Bedivere,” the King said: “look to Gawaine.

Now lead him, you and Lucan, to a chair—

As you and Gawaine led me to this chair

Where I am sitting. We may all be led,

If there be coming on for Camelot

Another day like this. Now leave me here,

Alone with Gawaine. When a strong man goes

Like that, it makes him sick to see his friends

Around him. Leave us, and go now. Sometimes

I’ll scarce remember that he’s not my son,

So near he seems. I thank you, gentlemen.”

The King, alone with Gawaine, who said nothing,

Had yet no heart for news of Lancelot

Or Guinevere. He saw them on their way

To Joyous Gard, where Tristram and Isolt

Had islanded of old their stolen love,

While Mark of Cornwall entertained a vengeance

Envisaging an ending of all that;

And he could see the two of them together

As Mark had seen Isolt there, and her knight,—

Though not, like Mark, with murder in his eyes.

He saw them as if they were there already,

And he were a lost thought long out of mind;

He saw them lying in each other’s arms,

Oblivious of the living and the dead

They left in Camelot. Then he saw the dead

That lay so quiet outside the city walls,

And wept, and left the Queen to Lancelot—

Or would have left her, had the will been his

To leave or take; for now he could acknowledge

An inrush of a desolate thanksgiving

That she, with death around her, had not died.

The vision of a peace that humbled him,

And yet might save the world that he had won,

Came slowly into view like something soft

And ominous on all-fours, without a spirit

To make it stand upright. “Better be that,

Even that, than blood,” he sighed, “if that be peace.”

But looking down on Gawaine, who said nothing,

He shook his head: “The King has had his world,

And he shall have no peace. With Modred here,

And Agravaine with Gareth, who is dead

With Gaheris, Gawaine will have no peace.

Gawaine or Modred—Gawaine with his hate,

Or Modred with his anger for his birth,

And the black malady of his ambition—

Will make of my Round Table, where was drawn

The circle of a world, a thing of wreck

And yesterday—a furniture forgotten;

And I, who loved the world as Merlin did,

May lose it as he lost it, for a love

That was not peace, and therefore was not love.”