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

VI. Lancelot


THE DARK of Modred’s hour not yet availing,

Gawaine it was who gave the King no peace;

Gawaine it was who goaded him and drove him

To Joyous Gard, where now for long his army,

Disheartened with unprofitable slaughter,

Fought for their weary King and wearily

Died fighting. Only Gawaine’s hate it was

That held the King’s knights and his warrior slaves

Close-hived in exile, dreaming of old scenes

Where Sorrow, and her demon sister Fear,

Now shared the dusty food of loneliness,

From Orkney to Cornwall. There was no peace,

Nor could there be, so Gawaine told the King,

And so the King in anguish told himself,

Until there was an end of one of them—

Of Gawaine or the King, or Lancelot,

Who might have had an end, as either knew,

Long since of Arthur and of Gawaine with him.

One evening in the moonlight Lancelot

And Bors, his kinsman, and the loyalest,

If least assured, of all who followed him,

Sat gazing from an ivy-cornered casement

In angry silence upon Arthur’s horde,

Who in the silver distance, without sound,

Were dimly burying dead men. Sir Bors,

Reiterating vainly what was told

As wholesome hearing for unhearing ears,

Said now to Lancelot: “And though it be

For no more now than always, let me speak:

You have a pity for the King, you say,

That is not hate; and for Gawaine you have

A grief that is not hate. Pity and grief!

And the Queen all but shrieking out her soul

That morning when we snatched her from the faggots

That were already crackling when we came!

Why, Lancelot, if in you is an answer,

Have you so vast a charity for the King,

And so enlarged a grief for his gay nephew,

Whose tireless hate for you has only one

Disastrous appetite? You know for what—

For your slow blood. I knew you, Lancelot,

When all this would have been a merry fable

For smiling men to yawn at and forget,

As they forget their physic. Pity and grief

Are in your eyes. I see them well enough;

And I saw once with you, in a far land,

The glimmering of a Light that you saw nearer—

Too near for your salvation or advantage,

If you be what you seem. What I saw then

Made life a wilder mystery than ever,

And earth a new illusion. You, maybe,

Saw pity and grief. What I saw was a Gleam,

To fight for or to die for—till we know

Too much to fight or die. Tonight you turn

A page whereon your deeds are to engross

Inexorably their story of tomorrow;

And then tomorrow. How many of these tomorrows

Are coming to ask unanswered why this war

Was fought and fought for the vain sake of slaughter?

Why carve a compost of a multitude,

When only two, discriminately despatched,

Would sum the end of what you know is ending

And leave to you the scorch of no more blood

Upon your blistered soul? The Light you saw

Was not for this poor crumbling realm of Arthur,

Nor more for Rome; but for another state

That shall be neither Rome nor Camelot,

Nor one that we may name. Why longer, then,

Are you and Gawaine to anoint with war,

That even in hell would be superfluous,

A reign already dying, and ripe to die?

I leave you to your last interpretation

Of what may be the pleasure of your madness.”

Meanwhile a mist was hiding the dim work

Of Arthur’s men; and like another mist,

All gray, came Guinevere to Lancelot,

Whom Bors had left, not having had of him

The largess of a word. She laid her hands

Upon his hair, vexing him to brief speech:

“And you—are you like Bors?”

“I may be so,”

She said; and she saw faintly where she gazed,

Like distant insects of a shadowy world,

Dim clusters here and there of shadowy men

Whose occupation was her long abhorrence:

“If he came here and went away again,

And all for nothing, I may be like Bors.

Be glad, at least, that I am not like Mark

Of Cornwall, who stood once behind a man

And slew him without saying he was there.

Not Arthur, I believe, nor yet Gawaine,

Would have done quite like that; though only God

May say what there’s to come before this war

Shall have an end—unless you are to see,

As I have seen so long, a way to end it.”

He frowned, and watched again the coming mist

That hid with a cold veil of augury

The stillness of an empire that was dying:

“And are you here to say that if I kill

Gawaine and Arthur we shall both be happy?”

“Is there still such a word as happiness?

I come to tell you nothing, Lancelot,

That folly and waste have not already told you.

Were you another man than Lancelot,

I might say folly and fear. But no,—no fear,

As I know fear, was yet composed and wrought,

By man, for your delay and your undoing.

God knows how cruelly and how truly now

You might say, that of all who breathe and suffer

There may be others who are not so near

To you as I am, and so might say better

What I say only with a tongue not apt

Or guarded for much argument. A woman,

As men have known since Adam heard the first

Of Eve’s interpreting of how it was

In Paradise, may see but one side only—

Where maybe there are two, to say no more.

Yet here, for you and me, and so for all

Caught with us in this lamentable net,

I see but one deliverance: I see none,

Unless you cut for us a clean way out,

So rending these hate-woven webs of horror

Before they mesh the world. And if the world

Or Arthur’s name be now a dying glory,

Why bleed it for the sparing of a man

Who hates you, and a King that hates himself?

If war be war—and I make only blood

Of your red writing—why dishonor Time

For torture longer drawn in your slow game

Of empty slaughter? Tomorrow it will be

The King’s move, I suppose, and we shall have

One more magnificent waste of nameless pawns,

And of a few more knights. God, how you love

This game!—to make so loud a shambles of it,

When you have only twice to lift your finger

To signal peace, and give to this poor drenched

And clotted earth a time to heal itself.

Twice over I say to you, if war be war,

Why play with it? Why look a thousand ways

Away from what it is, only to find

A few stale memories left that would requite

Your tears with your destruction? Tears, I say,

For I have seen your tears; I see them now,

Although the moon is dimmer than it was

Before I came. I wonder if I dimmed it.

I wonder if I brought this fog here with me

To make you chillier even than you are

When I am not so near you.… Lancelot,

There must be glimmering yet somewhere within you

The last spark of a little willingness

To tell me why it is this war goes on.

Once I believed you told me everything;

And what you may have hidden was no matter,

For what you told was all I needed then.

But crumbs that are a festival for joy

Make a dry fare for sorrow; and the few

Spared words that were enough to nourish faith,

Are for our lonely fears a frugal poison.

So, Lancelot, if only to bring back

For once the ghost of a forgotten mercy,

Say now, even though you strike me to the floor

When you have said it, for what untold end

All this goes on. Am I not anything now?

Is Gawaine, who would feed you to wild swine,

And laugh to see them tear you, more than I am?

Is Arthur, at whose word I was dragged out

To wear for you the fiery crown itself

Of human torture, more to you than I am?

Am I, because you saw death touch me once,

Too gross a trifle to be longer prized?

Not many days ago, when you lay hurt

And aching on your bed, and I cried out

Aloud on heaven that I should bring you there,

You said you would have paid the price of hell

To save me that foul morning from the fire.

You paid enough: yet when you told me that,

With death going on outside the while you said it,

I heard the woman in me asking why.

Nor do I wholly find an answer now

In any shine of any far-off Light

You may have seen. Knowing the world, you know

How surely and how indifferently that Light

Shall burn through many a war that is to be,

To which this war were no more than a smear

On circumstance. The world has not begun.

The Light you saw was not the Light of Rome,

Or Time, though you seem battling here for time,

While you are still at war with Arthur’s host

And Gawaine’s hate. How many thousand men

Are going to their death before Gawaine

And Arthur go to theirs—and I to mine?”

Lancelot, looking off into the fog,

In which his fancy found the watery light

Of a dissolving moon, sighed without hope

Of saying what the Queen would have him say:

“I fear, my lady, my fair nephew Bors,

Whose tongue affords a random wealth of sound,

May lately have been scattering on the air

For you a music less oracular

Than to your liking.… Say, then, you had split

The uncovered heads of two men with an axe,

Not knowing whose heads—if that’s a palliation—

And seen their brains fly out and splash the ground

As they were common offal, and then learned

That you had butchered Gaheris and Gareth—

Gareth, who had for me a greater love

Than any that has ever trod the ways

Of a gross world that early would have crushed him,—

Even you, in your quick fever of dispatch,

Might hesitate before you drew the blood

Of him that was their brother, and my friend.

Yes, he was more my friend, was I to know,

Than I had said or guessed; for it was Gawaine

Who gave to Bors the word that might have saved us,

And Arthur’s fading empire, for the time

Till Modred had in his dark wormy way

Crawled into light again with a new ruin

At work in that occult snake’s brain of his.

And even in your prompt obliteration

Of Arthur from a changing world that rocks

Itself into a dizziness around him,

A moment of attendant reminiscence

Were possible, if not likely. Had he made

A knight of you, scrolling your name with his

Among the first of men—and in his love

Inveterately the first—and had you then

Betrayed his fame and honor to the dust

That now is choking him, you might in time—

You might, I say—to my degree succumb.

Forgive me, if my lean words are for yours

Too bare an answer, and ascribe to them

No tinge of allegation or reproach.

What I said once to you I said for ever—

That I would pay the price of hell to save you.

As for the Light, leave that for me alone;

Or leave as much of it as yet for me

May shine. Should I, through any unforeseen

Remote effect of awkwardness or chance,

Be done to death or durance by the King,

I leave some writing wherein I beseech

For you the clemency of afterthought.

Were I to die and he to see me dead,

My living prayer, surviving the cold hand

That wrote, would leave you in his larger prudence,

If I have known the King, free and secure

To bide the summoning of another King

More great than Arthur. But all this is language;

And I know more than words have yet the scope

To show of what’s to come. Go now to rest;

And sleep, if there be sleep. There was a moon;

And now there is no sky where the moon was.

Sometimes I wonder if this be the world

We live in, or the world that lives in us.”

The new day, with a cleansing crash of rain

That washed and sluiced the soiled and hoof-torn field

Of Joyous Gard, prepared for Lancelot

And his wet men the not unwelcome scene

Of a drenched emptiness without an army.

“Our friend the foe is given to dry fighting,”

Said Lionel, advancing with a shrug,

To Lancelot, who saw beyond the rain.

And later Lionel said, “What fellows are they,

Who are so thirsty for their morning ride

That swimming horses would have hardly time

To eat before they swam? You, Lancelot,

If I see rather better than a blind man,

Are waiting on three pilgrims who must love you,

To voyage a flood like this. No friend have I,

To whisper not of three, on whom to count

For such a loyal wash. The King himself

Would entertain a kindly qualm or so,

Before he suffered such a burst of heaven

To splash even three musicians.”

“Good Lionel,

I thank you, but you need afflict your fancy

No longer for my sake. For these who come,

If I be not immoderately deceived,

Are bearing with them the white flower of peace—

Which I could hope might never parch or wither,

Were I a stranger to this ravening world

Where we have mostly a few rags and tags

Between our skins and those that wrap the flesh

Of less familiar brutes we feed upon

That we may feed the more on one another.”

“Well, now that we have had your morning grace

Before our morning meat, pray tell to me

The why and whence of this anomalous

Horse-riding offspring of the Fates. Who are they?”

“I do not read their features or their names;

But if I read the King, they are from Rome,

Spurred here by the King’s prayer for no delay;

And I pray God aloud that I say true.”

And after a long watching, neither speaking,

“You do,” said Lionel; “for by my soul,

I see no other than my lord the Bishop,

Who does God’s holy work in Rochester.

Since you are here, you may as well abide here,

While I go foraging.”

Now in the gateway,

The Bishop, who rode something heavily,

Was glad for rest though grim in his refusal

At once of entertainment or refection:

“What else you do, Sir Lancelot, receive me

As one among the honest when I say

That my voluminous thanks were less by cantos

Than my damp manner feels. Nay, hear my voice:

If once I’m off this royal animal,

How o’ God’s name shall I get on again?

Moreover, the King waits. With your accord,

Sir Lancelot, I’ll dry my rainy face,

While you attend what’s herein written down,

In language of portentous brevity,

For the King’s gracious pleasure and for yours,

Whereof the burden is the word of Rome,

Requiring your deliverance of the Queen

Not more than seven days hence. The King returns

Anon to Camelot; and I go with him,

Praise God, if what he waits now is your will

To end an endless war. No recrudescence,

As you may soon remark, of what is past

Awaits the Queen, or any doubt soever

Of the King’s mercy. Have you more to say

Than Rome has written, or do I perceive

Your tranquil acquiescence? Is it so?

Then be it so! Venite. Pax vobiscum.”

“To end an endless war with ‘pax vobiscum’

Would seem a ready schedule for a bishop;

Would God that I might see the end of it!”

Lancelot, like a statue in the gateway,

Regarded with a qualified rejoicing

The fading out of his three visitors

Into the cold and swallowing wall of storm

Between him and the battle-wearied King

And the unwearying hatred of Gawaine.

To Bors his nephew, and to Lionel,

He glossed a tale of Roman intercession,

Knowing that for a time, and a long time,

The sweetest fare that he might lay before them

Would hold an evil taste of compromise.

To Guinevere, who questioned him at noon

Of what by then had made of Joyous Gard

A shaken hive of legend-heavy wonder,

He said what most it was the undying Devil,

Who ruled him when he might, would have him say:

“Your confident arrangement of the board

For this day’s game was notably not to be;

Today was not for the King’s move or mine,

But for the Bishop’s; and the board is empty.

The words that I have waited for more days

Than are to now my tallage of gray hairs

Have come at last, and at last you are free.

So, for a time, there will be no more war;

And you are going home to Camelot.”

“To Camelot?”…

“To Camelot.” But his words

Were said for no queen’s hearing. In his arms

He caught her when she fell; and in his arms

He carried her away. The word of Rome

Was in the rain. There was no other sound.