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

VI. Lancelot


NOT having viewed Carleon or Carlisle,

The King came home to Camelot after midnight,

Feigning an ill not feigned; and his return

Brought Bedivere, and after him Gawaine,

To the King’s inner chamber, where they waited

Through the grim light of dawn. Sir Bedivere,

By nature stern to see, though not so bleak

Within as to be frozen out of mercy,

Sat with arms crossed and with his head weighed low

In heavy meditation. Once or twice

His eyes were lifted for a careful glimpse

Of Gawaine at the window, where he stood

Twisting his fingers feverishly behind him,

Like one distinguishing indignantly,

For swift eclipse and for offence not his,

The towers and roofs and the sad majesty

Of Camelot in the dawn, for the last time.

Sir Bedivere, at last, with a long sigh

That said less of his pain than of his pity,

Addressed the younger knight who turned and heard

His elder, but with no large eagerness:

“So it has come, Gawaine; and we are here.

I find when I see backward something farther,

By grace of time, than you are given to see—

Though you, past any doubt, see much that I

See not—I find that what the colder speech

Of reason most repeated says to us

Of what is in a way to come to us

Is like enough to come. And we are here.

Before the unseeing sun is here to mock us,

Or the King here to prove us, we are here.

We are the two, it seems, that are to make

Of words and of our presences a veil

Between him and the sight of what he does.

Little have I to say that I may tell him:

For what I know is what the city knows,

Not what it says,—for it says everything.

The city says the first of all who met

The sword of Lancelot was Colgrevance,

Who fell dead while he wept—a brave machine,

Cranked only for the rudiments of war.

But some of us are born to serve and shift,

And that’s not well. The city says, also,

That you and Lancelot were in the garden,

Before the sun went down.”

“Yes,” Gawaine groaned;

“Yes, we were there together in the garden,

Before the sun went down; and I conceive

A place among the possibilities

For me with other causes unforeseen

Of what may shake down soon to grief and ashes

This kingdom and this empire. Bedivere,

Could I have given a decent seriousness

To Lancelot while he said things to me

That pulled his heart half out of him by the roots,

And left him, I see now, half sick with pity

For my poor uselessness to serve a need

That I had never known, we might be now

Asleep and easy in our beds at home,

And we might hear no murmurs after sunrise

Of what we are to hear. A few right words

Of mine, if said well, might have been enough.

That shall I never know. I shall know only

That it was I who laughed at Lancelot

When he said what lay heaviest on his heart.

By now he might be far away from here,

And farther from the world. But the Queen came;

The Queen came, and I left them there together;

And I laughed as I left them. After dark

I met with Modred and said what I could,

When I had heard him, to discourage him.

His mother was my mother. I told Bors,

And he told Lancelot; though as for that,

My story would have been the same as his,

And would have had the same acknowledgement:

“Thanks, but no matter’—or to that effect.

The Queen, of course, had fished him for his word,

And had it on the hook when she went home;

And after that, an army of red devils

Could not have held the man away from her.

And I’m to live as long as I’m to wonder

What might have been, had I not been—myself.

I heard him, and I laughed. Then the Queen came.”

“Recriminations are not remedies,

Gawaine; and though you cast them at yourself,

And hurt yourself, you cannot end or swerve

The flowing of these minutes that leave hours

Behind us, as we leave our faded selves

And yesterdays. The surest-visioned of us

Are creatures of our dreams and inferences,

And though it look to us a few go far

For seeing far, the fewest and the farthest

Of all we know go not beyond themselves.

No, Gawaine, you are not the cause of this;

And I have many doubts if all you said,

Or in your lightness may have left unsaid,

Would have unarmed the Queen. The Queen was there.”—

Gawaine looked up, and then looked down again:

“Good God, if I had only said—said something!”

“Say nothing now, Gawaine.” Bedivere sighed,

And shook his head: “Morning is not in the west.

The sun is rising and the King is coming;

Now you may hear him in the corridor,

Like a sick landlord shuffling to the light

For one last look-out on his mortgaged hills.

But hills and valleys are not what he sees;

He sees with us the fire—the sign—the law.

The King that is the father of the law

Is weaker than his child, except he slay it.

Not long ago, Gawaine, I had a dream

Of a sword over kings, and of a world

Without them.”—“Dreams, dreams.”—“Hush, Gawaine.”

King Arthur

Came slowly on till in the darkened entrance

He stared and shivered like a sleep-walker,

Brought suddenly awake where a cliff’s edge

Is all he sees between another step

And his annihilation. Bedivere rose,

And Gawaine rose; and with instinctive arms

They partly guided, partly carried him,

To the King’s chair.

“I thank you, gentlemen,

Though I am not so shaken, I dare say,

As you would have me. This is not the hour

When kings who do not sleep are at their best;

And had I slept this night that now is over,

No man should ever call me King again.”

He pulled his heavy robe around him closer,

And laid upon his forehead a cold hand

That came down warm and wet. “You, Bedivere,

And you, Gawaine, are shaken with events

Incredible yesterday,—but kings are men.

Take off their crowns and tear away their colors

And let them see with my eyes what I see—

Yes, they are men, indeed! If there’s a slave

In Britain with a reptile at his heart

Like mine that with his claws of ice and fire

Tears out of me the fevered roots of mercy,

Find him, and I will make a king of him!

And then, so that his happiness may swell

Tenfold, I’ll sift the beauty of all courts

And capitals, to fetch the fairest woman

That evil has in hiding; after that,

That he may know the sovran one man living

To be his friend, I’ll prune all chivalry

To one sure knight. In this wise our new king

Will have his queen to love, as I had mine,—

His friend that he may trust, as I had mine,—

And he will be as gay, if all goes well,

As I have been: as fortunate in his love,

And in his friend as fortunate—as I am!

And what am I?… And what are you—you two!

If you are men, why don’t you say I’m dreaming?

I know men when I see them, I know daylight;

And I see now the gray shine of our dreams.

I tell you I’m asleep and in my bed!…

But no—no… I remember. You are men.

You are no dreams—but God, God, if you were!

If I were strong enough to make you vanish

And have you back again with yesterday—

Before I lent myself to that false hunting,

Which yet may stalk the hours of many more

Than Lancelot’s unhappy twelve who died,—

With a misguided Colgrevance to lead them,

And Agravaine to follow and fall next,—

Then should I know at last that I was King,

And I should then be King. But kings are men,

And I have gleaned enough these two years gone

To know that queens are women. Merlin told me:

“The love that never was.’ Two years ago

He told me that: ‘The love that never was!’

I saw—but I saw nothing. Like the bird

That hides his head, I made myself see nothing.

But yesterday I saw—and I saw fire.

I think I saw it first in Modred’s eyes;

Yet he said only truth—and fire is right.

It is—it must be fire. The law says fire.

And I, the King who made the law, say fire!

What have I done—what folly have I said,

Since I came here, of dreaming? Dreaming? Ha!

I wonder if the Queen and Lancelot

Are dreaming!… Lancelot! Have they found him yet?

He slashed a way into the outer night—

Somewhere with Bors. We’ll have him here anon,

And we shall feed him also to the fire.

There are too many faggots lying cold

That might as well be cleansing, for our good,

A few deferred infections of our state

That honor should no longer look upon.

Thank heaven, I man my drifting wits again!

Gawaine, your brothers, Gareth and Gaheris,

Are by our royal order there to see

And to report. They went unwillingly,

For they are new to law and young to justice;

But what they are to see will harden them

With wholesome admiration of a realm

Where treason’s end is ashes. Ashes. Ashes!

Now this is better. I am King again.

Forget, I pray, my drowsy temporizing,

For I was not then properly awake.…

What? Hark! Whose crass insanity is that!

If I be King, go find the fellow and hang him

Who beats into the morning on that bell

Before there is a morning! This is dawn!

What! Bedivere? Gawaine? You shake your heads?

I tell you this is dawn!… What have I done?

What have I said so lately that I flinch

To think on! What have I sent those boys to see?

I’ll put clouts on my eyes, and I’ll not see it!

Her face, and hands, and little small white feet,

And all her shining hair and her warm body—

No—for the love of God, no!—it’s alive!

She’s all alive, and they are burning her—

The Queen—the love—the love that never was!

Gawaine! Bedivere! Gawaine!—Where is Gawaine!

Is he there in the shadow? Is he dead?

Are we all dead? Are we in hell?—Gawaine!…

I cannot see her now in the smoke. Her eyes

Are what I see—and her white body is burning!

She never did enough to make me see her

Like that—to make her look at me like that!

There’s not room in the world for so much evil

As I see clamoring in her poor white face

For pity. Pity her, God! God!… Lancelot!”