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

IV. Merlin


“NO kings are coming on their hands and knees,

Nor yet on horses or in chariots,

To carry me away from you again,”

Said Merlin, winding around Vivian’s ear

A shred of her black hair. “King Arthur knows

That I have done with kings, and that I speak

No more their crafty language. Once I knew it,

But now the only language I have left

Is one that I must never let you hear

Too long, or know too well. When towering deeds

Once done shall only out of dust and words

Be done again, the doer may then be wary

Lest in the complement of his new fabric

There be more words than dust.”

“Why tell me so?”

Said Vivian; and a singular thin laugh

Came after her thin question. “Do you think

That I’m so far away from history

That I require, even of the wisest man

Who ever said the wrong thing to a woman,

So large a light on what I know already—

When all I seek is here before me now

In your new eyes that you have brought for me

From Camelot? The eyes you took away

Were sad and old; and I could see in them

A Merlin who remembered all the kings

He ever saw, and wished himself, almost,

Away from Vivian, to make other kings,

And shake the world again in the old manner.

I saw myself no bigger than a beetle

For several days, and wondered if your love

Were large enough to make me any larger

When you came back. Am I a beetle still?”

She stood up on her toes and held her cheek

For some time against his, and let him go.

“I fear the time has come for me to wander

A little in my prison-yard,” he said.—

“No, tell me everything that you have seen

And heard and done, and seen done, and heard done,

Since you deserted me. And tell me first

What the King thinks of me.”—“The King believes

That you are almost what you are,” he told her:

“The beauty of all ages that are vanished,

Reborn to be the wonder of one woman.”—

“I knew he hated me. What else of him?”—

“And all that I have seen and heard and done,

Which is not much, would make a weary telling;

And all your part of it would be to sleep,

And dream that Merlin had his beard again.”—

“Then tell me more about your good fool knight,

Sir Dagonet. If Blaise were not half-mad

Already with his pondering on the name

And shield of his unshielding nameless father,

I’d make a fool of him. I’d call him Ajax;

I’d have him shake his fist at thunder-storms,

And dance a jig as long as there was lightning,

And so till I forgot myself entirely.

Not even your love may do so much as that.”—

“Thunder and lightning are no friends of mine,”

Said Merlin slowly, “more than they are yours;

They bring me nearer to the elements

From which I came than I care now to be.”—

“You owe a service to those elements;

For by their service you outwitted age

And made the world a kingdom of your will.”—

He touched her hand, smiling: “Whatever service

Of mine awaits them will not be forgotten,”

He said; and the smile faded on his face.—

“Now of all graceless and ungrateful wizards—”

But there she ceased, for she found in his eyes

The first of a new fear. “The wrong word rules

Today,” she said; “and we’ll have no more journeys.”

Although he wandered rather more than ever

Since he had come again to Brittany

From Camelot, Merlin found eternally

Before him a new loneliness that made

Of garden, park, and woodland, all alike,

A desolation and a changelessness

Defying reason, without Vivian

Beside him, like a child with a black head,

Or moving on before him, or somewhere

So near him that, although he saw it not

With eyes, he felt the picture of her beauty

And shivered at the nearness of her being.

Without her now there was no past or future,

And a vague, soul-consuming premonition

He found the only tenant of the present;

He wondered, when she was away from him,

If his avenging injured intellect

Might shine with Arthur’s kingdom a twin mirror,

Fate’s plaything, for new ages without eyes

To see therein themselves and their declension.

Love made his hours a martyrdom without her;

The world was like an empty house without her,

Where Merlin was a prisoner of love

Confined within himself by too much freedom,

Repeating an unending exploration

Of many solitary silent rooms,

And only in a way remembering now

That once their very solitude and silence

Had by the magic of expectancy

Made sure what now he doubted—though his doubts,

Day after day, were founded on a shadow.

For now to Merlin, in his paradise,

Had come an unseen angel with a sword

Unseen, the touch of which was a long fear

For longer sorrow that had never come,

Yet might if he compelled it. He discovered,

One golden day in autumn as he wandered,

That he had made the radiance of two years

A misty twilight when he might as well

Have had no mist between him and the sun,

The sun being Vivian. On his coming then

To find her all in green against a wall

Of green and yellow leaves, and crumbling bread

For birds around the fountain while she sang

And the birds ate the bread, he told himself

That everything today was as it was

At first, and for a minute he believed it.

“I’d have you always all in green out here,”

He said, “if I had much to say about it.”—

She clapped her crumbs away and laughed at him:

“I’ve covered up my bones with every color

That I can carry on them without screaming,

And you have liked them all—or made me think so.”—

“I must have liked them if you thought I did,”

He answered, sighing; “but the sight of you

Today as on the day I saw you first,

All green, all wonderful” … He tore a leaf

To pieces with a melancholy care

That made her smile.—“Why pause at ‘wonderful’?

You’ve hardly been yourself since you came back

From Camelot, where that unpleasant King

Said things that you have never said to me.”—

He looked upon her with a worn reproach:

“The King said nothing that I keep from you.”—

“What is it then?” she asked, imploringly;

“You man of moods and miracles, what is it?”—

He shook his head and tore another leaf:

“There is no need of asking what it is;

Whatever you or I may choose to name it,

The name of it is Fate, who played with me

And gave me eyes to read of the unwritten

More lines than I have read. I see no more

Today than yesterday, but I remember.

My ways are not the ways of other men;

My memories go forward. It was you

Who said that we were not in tune with Time;

It was not I who said it.”—“But you knew it;

What matter then who said it?”—“It was you

Who said that Merlin was your punishment

For being in tune with him and not with Time—

With Time or with the world; and it was you

Who said you were alone, even here with Merlin;

It was not I who said it. It is I

Who tell you now my inmost thoughts.” He laughed

As if at hidden pain around his heart,

But there was not much laughing in his eyes.

They walked, and for a season they were silent:

“I shall know what you mean by that,” she said,

“When you have told me. Here’s an oak you like,

And here’s a place that fits me wondrous well

To sit in. You sit there. I’ve seen you there

Before; and I have spoiled your noble thoughts

By walking all my fingers up and down

Your countenance, as if they were the feet

Of a small animal with no great claws.

Tell me a story now about the world,

And the men in it, what they do in it,

And why it is they do it all so badly.”—

“I’ve told you every story that I know,

Almost,” he said.—“O, don’t begin like that.”—

“Well, once upon a time there was a King.”—

“That has a more commendable address;

Go on, and tell me all about the King;

I’ll bet the King had warts or carbuncles,

Or something wrong in his divine insides,

To make him wish that Adam had died young.”

Merlin observed her slowly with a frown

Of saddened wonder. She laughed rather lightly,

And at his heart he felt again the sword

Whose touch was a long fear for longer sorrow.

“Well, once upon a time there was a king,”

He said again, but now in a dry voice

That wavered and betrayed a venturing.

He paused, and would have hesitated longer,

But something in him that was not himself

Compelled an utterance that his tongue obeyed,

As an unwilling child obeys a father

Who might be richer for obedience

If he obeyed the child: “There was a king

Who would have made his reign a monument

For kings and peoples of the waiting ages

To reverence and remember, and to this end

He coveted and won, with no ado

To make a story of, a neighbor queen

Who limed him with her smile and had of him,

In token of their sin, what he found soon

To be a sort of mongrel son and nephew—

And a most precious reptile in addition—

To ornament his court and carry arms,

And latterly to be the darker half

Of ruin. Also the king, who made of love

More than he made of life and death together,

Forgot the world and his example in it

For yet another woman—one of many—

And this one he made Queen, albeit he knew

That her unsworn allegiance to the knight

That he had loved the best of all his order

Must one day bring along the coming end

Of love and honor and of everything;

And with a kingdom builded on two pits

Of living sin,—so founded by the will

Of one wise counsellor who loved the king,

And loved the world and therefore made him king

To be a mirror for it,—the king reigned well

For certain years, awaiting a sure doom;

For certain years he waved across the world

A royal banner with a Dragon on it;

And men of every land fell worshipping

The Dragon as it were the living God,

And not the living sin.”

She rose at that,

And after a calm yawn, she looked at Merlin:

“Why all this new insistence upon sin?”

She said; “I wonder if I understand

This king of yours, with all his pits and dragons;

I know I do not like him.” A thinner light

Was in her eyes than he had found in them

Since he became the willing prisoner

That she had made of him; and on her mouth

Lay now a colder line of irony

Than all his fears or nightmares could have drawn

Before today: “What reason do you know

For me to listen to this king of yours?

What reading has a man of woman’s days,

Even though the man be Merlin and a prophet?”

“I know no call for you to love the king,”

Said Merlin, driven ruinously along

By the vindictive urging of his fate;

“I know no call for you to love the king,

Although you serve him, knowing not yet the king

You serve. There is no man, or any woman,

For whom the story of the living king

Is not the story of the living sin.

I thought my story was the common one,

For common recognition and regard.”

“Then let us have no more of it,” she said;

“For we are not so common, I believe,

That we need kings and pits and flags and dragons

To make us know that we have let the world

Go by us. Have you missed the world so much

That you must have it in with all its clots

And wounds and bristles on to make us happy—

Like Blaise, with shouts and horns and seven men

Triumphant with a most unlovely boar?

Is there no other story in the world

Than this one of a man that you made king

To be a moral for the speckled ages?

You said once long ago, if you remember,

‘You are too strange a lady to fear specks’;

And it was you, you said, who feared them not.

Why do you look at me as at a snake

All coiled to spring at you and strike you dead?

I am not going to spring at you, or bite you;

I’m going home. And you, if you are kind,

Will have no fear to wander for an hour.

I’m sure the time has come for you to wander;

And there may come a time for you to say

What most you think it is that we need here

To make of this Broceliande a refuge

Where two disheartened sinners may forget

A world that has today no place for them.”

A melancholy wave of revelation

Broke over Merlin like a rising sea,

Long viewed unwillingly and long denied.

He saw what he had seen, but would not feel,

Till now the bitterness of what he felt

Was in his throat, and all the coldness of it

Was on him and around him like a flood

Of lonelier memories than he had said

Were memories, although he knew them now

For what they were—for what this eyes had seen,

For what his ears had heard and what his heart

Had felt, with him not knowing what it felt.

But now he knew that his cold angel’s name

Was Change, and that a mightier will than his

Or Vivian’s had ordained that he be there.

To Vivian he could not say anything

But words that had no more of hope in them

Than anguish had of peace: “I meant the world …

I meant the world,” he groaned; “not you—not me.”

Again the frozen line of irony

Was on her mouth. He looked up once at it.

And then away—too fearful of her eyes

To see what he could hear now in her laugh

That melted slowly into what she said,

Like snow in icy water: “This world of yours

Will surely be the end of us. And why not?

I’m overmuch afraid we’re part of it,—

Or why do we build walls up all around us,

With gates of iron that make us think the day

Of judgment’s coming when they clang behind us?

And yet you tell me that you fear no specks!

With you I never cared for them enough

To think of them. I was too strange a lady.

And your return is now a speckled king

And something that you call a living sin—

That’s like an uninvited poor relation

Who comes without a welcome, rather late,

And on a foundered horse.”

“Specks? What are specks?”

He gazed at her in a forlorn wonderment

That made her say: “You said, ‘I fear them not.’

‘If I were king in Camelot,’ you said,

‘I might fear more than specks.’ Have you forgotten?

Don’t tell me, Merlin, you are growing old.

Why don’t you make somehow a queen of me,

And give me half the world? I’d wager thrushes

That I should reign, with you to turn the wheel,

As well as any king that ever was.

The curse on me is that I cannot serve

A ruler who forgets that he is king.”

In this bewildered misery Merlin then

Stared hard at Vivian’s face, more like a slave

Who sought for common mercy than like Merlin:

“You speak a language that was never mine,

Or I have lost my wits. Why do you seize

The flimsiest of opportunities

To make of what I said another thing

Than love or reason could have let me say,

Or let me fancy? Why do you keep the truth

So far away from me, when all your gates

Will open at your word and let me go

To some place where no fear or weariness

Of yours need ever dwell? Why does a woman,

Made otherwise a miracle of love

And loveliness, and of immortal beauty,

Tear one word by the roots out of a thousand,

And worry it, and torture it, and shake it,

Like a small dog that has a rag to play with?

What coil of an ingenious destiny

Is this that makes of what I never meant

A meaning as remote as hell from heaven?”

“I don’t know,” Vivian said reluctantly,

And half as if in pain; “I’m going home.

I’m going home and leave you here to wander,

Pray take your kings and sins away somewhere

And bury them, and bury the Queen in also.

I know this king; he lives in Camelot,

And I shall never like him. There are specks

Almost all over him. Long live the king,

But not the king who lives in Camelot,

With Modred, Lancelot, and Guinevere—

And all four speckled like a merry nest

Of addled eggs together. You made him King

Because you loved the world and saw in him

From infancy a mirror for the millions.

The world will see itself in him, and then

The world will say its prayers and wash its face,

And build for some new king a new foundation.

Long live the King! … But now I apprehend

A time for me to shudder and grow old

And garrulous—and so become a fright

For Blaise to take out walking in warm weather—

Should I give way to long considering

Of worlds you may have lost while prisoned here

With me and my light mind. I contemplate

Another name for this forbidden place,

And one more fitting. Tell me, if you find it,

Some fitter name than Eden. We have had

A man and woman in it for some time,

And now, it seems, we have a Tree of Knowledge.”

She looked up at the branches overhead

And shrugged her shoulders. Then she went away;

And what was left of Merlin’s happiness,

Like a disloyal phantom, followed her.

He felt the sword of his cold angel thrust

And twisted in his heart, as if the end

Were coming next, but the cold angel passed

Invisibly and left him desolate,

With misty brow and eyes. “The man who sees

May see too far, and he may see too late

The path he takes unseen,” he told himself

When he found thought again. “The man who sees

May go on seeing till the immortal flame

That lights and lures him folds him in its heart,

And leaves of what there was of him to die

An item of inhospitable dust

That love and hate alike must hide away;

Or there may still be charted for his feet

A dimmer faring, where the touch of time

Were like the passing of a twilight moth

From flower to flower into oblivion,

If there were not somewhere a barren end

Of moths and flowers, and glimmering far away

Beyond a desert where the flowerless days

Are told in slow defeats and agonies,

The guiding of a nameless light that once

Had made him see too much—and has by now

Revealed in death, to the undying child

Of Lancelot, the Grail. For this pure light

Has many rays to throw, for many men

To follow; and the wise are not all pure,

Nor are the pure all wise who follow it.

There are more rays than men. But let the man

Who saw too much, and was to drive himself

From paradise, play too lightly or too long

Among the moths and flowers, he finds at last

There is a dim way out; and he shall grope

Where pleasant shadows lead him to the plain

That has no shadow save his own behind him.

And there, with no complaint, nor much regret,

Shall he plod on, with death between him now

And the far light that guides him, till he falls

And has an empty thought of empty rest;

Then Fate will put a mattock in his hands

And lash him while he digs himself the grave

That is to be the pallet and the shroud

Of his poor blundering bones. The man who saw

Too much must have an eye to see at last

Where Fate has marked the clay; and he shall delve,

Although his hand may slacken, and his knees

May rock without a method as he toils;

For there’s a delving that is to be done—

If not for God, for man. I see the light,

But I shall fall before I come to it;

For I am old. I was young yesterday.

Time’s hand that I have held away so long

Grips hard now on my shoulder. Time has won.

Tomorrow I shall say to Vivian

That I am old and gaunt and garrulous,

And tell her one more story: I am old.”

There were long hours for Merlin after that,

And much long wandering in his prison-yard,

Where now the progress of each heavy step

Confirmed a stillness of impending change

And imminent farewell. To Vivian’s ear

There came for many days no other story

Than Merlin’s iteration of his love

And his departure from Broceliande,

Where Merlin still remained. In Vivian’s eye,

There was a quiet kindness, and at times

A smoky flash of incredulity

That faded into pain. Was this the Merlin—

This incarnation of idolatry

And all but supplicating deference—

This bowed and reverential contradiction

Of all her dreams and her realities—

Was this the Merlin who for years and years

Before she found him had so made her love him

That kings and princes, thrones and diadems,

And honorable men who drowned themselves

For love, were less to her than melon-shells?

Was this the Merlin whom her fate had sent

One spring day to come ringing at her gate,

Bewildering her love with happy terror

That later was to be all happiness?

Was this the Merlin who had made the world

Half over, and then left it with a laugh

To be the youngest, oldest, weirdest, gayest,

And wisest, and sometimes the foolishest

Of all the men of her consideration?

Was this the man who had made other men

As ordinary as arithmetic?

Was this man Merlin who came now so slowly

Towards the fountain where she stood again

In shimmering green? Trembling, he took her hands

And pressed them fondly, one upon the other,

Between his:

“I was wrong that other day,

For I have one more story. I am old.”

He waited like one hungry for the word

Not said; and she found in his eyes a light

As patient as a candle in a window

That looks upon the sea and is a mark

For ships that have gone down. “Tomorrow,” he said;

“Tomorrow I shall go away again

To Camelot; and I shall see the King

Once more; and I may come to you again

Once more; and I shall go away again

For ever. There is now no more than that

For me to do; and I shall do no more.

I saw too much when I saw Camelot;

And I saw farther backward into Time,

And forward, than a man may see and live,

When I made Arthur king. I saw too far,

But not so far as this. Fate played with me

As I have played with Time; and Time, like me,

Being less than Fate, will have on me his vengeance.

On Fate there is no vengeance, even for God.”

He drew her slowly into his embrace

And held her there, but when he kissed her lips

They were as cold as leaves and had no answer;

For Time had given him then, to prove his words,

A frozen moment of a woman’s life.

When Merlin the next morning came again

In the same pilgrim robe that he had worn

While he sat waiting where the cherry-blossoms

Outside the gate fell on him and around him

Grief came to Vivian at the sight of him;

And like a flash of a swift ugly knife,

A blinding fear came with it. “Are you going?”

She said, more with her lips than with her voice;

And he said, “I am going. Blaise and I

Are going down together to the shore,

And Blaise is coming back. For this one day

Be good enough to spare him, for I like him.

I tell you now, as once I told the King,

That I can be no more than what I was,

And I can say no more than I have said.

Sometimes you told me that I spoke too long

And sent me off to wander. That was good.

I go now for another wandering,

And I pray God that all be well with you.”

For long there was a whining in her ears

Of distant wheels departing. When it ceased,

She closed the gate again so quietly

That Merlin could have heard no sound of it.