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

IV. Merlin


BY Merlin’s Rock, where Dagonet the fool

Was given through many a dying afternoon

To sit and meditate on human ways

And ways divine, Gawaine and Bedivere

Stood silent, gazing down on Camelot.

The two had risen and were going home:

“It hits me sore, Gawaine,” said Bedivere,

“To think on all the tumult and affliction

Down there, and all the noise and preparation

That hums of coming death, and, if my fears

Be born of reason, of what’s more than death.

Wherefore, I say to you again, Gawaine,—

To you—that this late hour is not too late

For you to change yourself and change the King:

For though the King may love me with a love

More tried, and older, and more sure, may be,

Than for another, for such a time as this

The friend who turns him to the world again

Shall have a tongue more gracious and an eye

More shrewd than mine. For such a time as this

The King must have a glamour to persuade him.”

“The King shall have a glamour, and anon,”

Gawaine said, and he shot death from his eyes;

“If you were King, as Arthur is—or was—

And Lancelot had carried off your Queen,

And killed a score or so of your best knights—

Not mentioning my two brothers, whom he slew

Unarmored and unarmed—God save your wits!

Two stewards with skewers could have done as much,

And you and I might now be rotting for it.”

“But Lancelot’s men were crowded,—they were crushed;

And there was nothing for them but to strike

Or die, not seeing where they struck. Think you

They would have slain Gareth and Gaheris,

And Tor, and all those other friends of theirs?

God’s mercy for the world he made, I say,

And for the blood that writes the story of it.

Gareth and Gaheris, Tor and Lamorak,—

All dead, with all the others that are dead!

These years have made me turn to Lamorak

For counsel—and now Lamorak is dead.”

“Why do you fling those two names in my face?

’Twas Modred made an end of Lamorak,

Not I; and Lancelot now has done for Tor.

I’ll urge no king on after Lancelot

For such a two as Tor and Lamorak:

Their father killed my father, and their friend

Was Lancelot, not I. I’ll own my fault—

I’m living; and while I’ve a tongue can talk,

I’ll say this to the King: ‘Burn Lancelot

By inches till he give you back the Queen;

Then hang him—drown him—or do anything

To rid the world of him.’ He killed my brothers,

And he was once my friend: Now damn the soul

Of him who killed my brothers! There you have me.”

“You are a strong man, Gawaine, and your strength

Goes ill where foes are. You may cleave their limbs

And heads off, but you cannot damn their souls;

What you may do now is to save their souls,

And bodies too, and like enough your own.

Remember that King Arthur is a king,

And where there is a king there is a kingdom.

Is not the kingdom any more to you

Than one brief enemy? Would you see it fall

And the King with it, for one mortal hate

That burns out reason? Gawaine, you are king

Today. Another day may see no king

But Havoc, if you have no other word

For Arthur now than hate for Lancelot.

Is not the world as large as Lancelot?

Is Lancelot, because one woman’s eyes

Are brighter when they look on him, to sluice

The world with angry blood? Poor flesh! Poor flesh!

And you, Gawaine,—are you so gaffed with hate

You cannot leave it and so plunge away

To stiller places and there see, for once,

What hangs on this pernicious expedition

The King in his insane forgetfulness

Would undertake—with you to drum him on?

Are you as mad as he and Lancelot

Made ravening into one man twice as mad

As either? Is the kingdom of the world,

Now rocking, to go down in sound and blood

And ashes and sick ruin, and for the sake

Of three men and a woman? If it be so,

God’s mercy for the world he made, I say,—

And say again to Dagonet. Sir Fool,

Your throne is empty, and you may as well

Sit on it and be ruler of the world

From now till supper-time.”

Sir Dagonet,

Appearing, made reply to Bedivere’s

Dry welcome with a famished look of pain,

On which he built a smile: “If I were King,

You, Bedivere, should be my counsellor;

And we should have no more wars over women.

I’ll sit me down and meditate on that.”

Gawaine, for all his anger, laughed a little,

And clapped the fool’s lean shoulder; for he loved him

And was with Arthur when he made him knight.

Then Dagonet said on to Bedivere,

As if his tongue would make a jest of sorrow:

“Sometime I’ll tell you what I might have done

Had I been Lancelot and you King Arthur—

Each having in himself the vicious essence

That now lives in the other and makes war.

When all men are like you and me, my lord,

When all are rational or rickety,

There may be no more war. But what’s here now?

Lancelot loves the Queen, and he makes war

Of love; the King, being bitten to the soul

By love and hate that work in him together,

Makes war of madness; Gawaine hates Lancelot,

And he, to be in tune, makes war of hate;

Modred hates everything, yet he can see

With one damned illegitimate small eye

His father’s crown, and with another like it

He sees the beauty of the Queen herself;

He needs the two for his ambitious pleasure,

And therefore he makes war of his ambition;

And somewhere in the middle of all this

There’s a squeezed world that elbows for attention.

Poor Merlin, buried in Broceliande!

He must have had an academic eye

For woman when he founded Arthur’s kingdom,

And in Broceliande he may be sorry.

Flutes, hautboys, drums, and viols. God be with him!

I’m glad they tell me there’s another world,

For this one’s a disease without a doctor.”

“No, not so bad as that,” said Bedivere;

The doctor, like ourselves, may now be learning;

And Merlin may have gauged his enterprise

Whatever the cost he may have paid for knowing.

We pass, but many are to follow us,

And what they build may stay; though I believe

Another age will have another Merlin,

Another Camelot, and another King.

Sir Dagonet, farewell.”

“Farewell, Sir Knight,

And you, Sir Knight: Gawaine, you have the world

Now in your fingers—an uncommon toy,

Albeit a small persuasion in the balance

With one man’s hate. I’m glad you’re not a fool,

For then you might be rickety, as I am,

And rational as Bedivere. Farewell.

I’ll sit here and be king. God save the King!”

But Gawaine scowled and frowned and answered nothing

As he went slowly down with Bedivere

To Camelot, where Arthur’s army waited

The King’s word for the melancholy march

To Joyous Gard, where Lancelot hid the Queen

And armed his host, and there was now no joy,

As there was now no joy for Dagonet

While he sat brooding, with his wan cheek-bones

Hooked with his bony fingers: “Go, Gawaine,”

He mumbled: “Go your way, and drag the world

Along down with you. What’s a world or so

To you if you can hide an ell of iron

Somewhere in Lancelot, and hear him wheeze

And sputter once or twice before he goes

Wherever the Queen sends him? There’s a man

Who should have been a king, and would have been,

Had he been born so. So should I have been

A king, had I been born so, fool or no:

King Dagonet, or Dagonet the King;

King-Fool, Fool-King; ’twere not impossible.

I’ll meditate on that and pray for Arthur,

Who made me all I am, except a fool.

Now he goes mad for love, as I might go

Had I been born a king and not a fool.

Today I think I’d rather be a fool;

Today the world is less than one scared woman—

Wherefore a field of waving men may soon

Be shorn by Time’s indifferent scythe, because

The King is mad. The seeds of history

Are small, but given a few gouts of warm blood

For quickening, they sprout out wondrously

And have a leaping growth whereof no man

May shun such harvesting of change or death,

Or life, as may fall on him to be borne

When I am still alive and rickety,

And Bedivere’s alive and rational—

If he come out of this, and there’s a doubt,—

The King, Gawaine, Modred, and Lancelot

May all be lying underneath a weight

Of bloody sheaves too heavy for their shoulders

All spent, and all dishonored, and all dead;

And if it come to be that this be so,

And it be true that Merlin saw the truth,

Such harvest were the best. Your fool sees not

So far as Merlin sees: yet if he saw

The truth—why then, such harvest were the best.

I’ll pray for Arthur; I can do no more.

“Why not for Merlin? Or do you count him,

In this extreme, so foreign to salvation

That prayer would be a stranger to his name?”

Poor Dagonet, with terror shaking him,

Stood up and saw before him an old face

Made older with an inch of silver beard,

And faced eyes more eloquent of pain

And ruin than all the faded eyes of age

Till now had ever been, although in them

There was a mystic and intrinsic peace

Of one who sees where men of nearer sight

See nothing. On their way to Camelot,

Gawaine and Bedivere had passed him by,

With lax attention for the pilgrim cloak

They passed, and what it hid: yet Merlin saw

Their faces, and he saw the tale was true

That he had lately drawn from solemn strangers.

“Well, Dagonet, and by your leave,” he said,

“I’ll rest my lonely relics for a while

On this rock that was mine and now is yours.

I favor the succession; for you know

Far more than many doctors, though your doubt

Is your peculiar poison. I foresaw

Long since, and I have latterly been told

What moves in this commotion down below

To show men what it means. It means the end—

If men whose tongues had less to say to me

Than had their shoulders are adept enough

To know; and you may pray for me or not,

Sir Friend, Sir Dagonet.”

“Sir fool, you mean,”

Dagonet said, and gazed on Merlin sadly:

“I’ll never pray again for anything,

And last of all for this that you behold—

The smouldering faggot of unlovely bones

That God has given to me to call Myself.

When Merlin comes to Dagonet for prayer,

It is indeed the end.”

“And in the end

Are more beginnings, Dagonet, than men

Shall name or know today. It was the end

Of Arthur’s insubstantial majesty

When to him and his knights the Grail foreshowed

The quest of life that was to be the death

Of many, and the slow discouraging

Of many more. Or do I err in this?”

“No,” Dagonet replied; “there was a Light;

And Galahad, in the Siege Perilous,

Alone of all on whom it fell, was calm;

There was a Light wherein men saw themselves

In one another as they might become—

Or so they dreamed. There was a long to-do,

And Gawaine, of all forlorn ineligibles,

Rose up the first, and cried more lustily

Than any after him that he should find

The Grail, or die for it,—though he did neither;

For he came back as living and as fit

For new and old iniquity as ever.

Then Lancelot came back, and Bors came back,—

Like men who had seen more than men should see,

And still come back. They told of Percival

Who saw too much to make of this worn life

A long necessity, and of Galahad,

Who died and is alive. They all saw Something.

God knows the meaning or the end of it,

But they saw Something. And if I’ve an eye,

Small joy has the Queen been to Lancelot

Since he came back from seeing what he saw;

For though his passion hold him like hot claws,

He’s neither in the world nor out of it.

Gawaine is king, though Arthur wears the crown;

And Gawaine’s hate for Lancelot is the sword

That hangs by one of Merlin’s fragile hairs

Above the world. Were you to see the King,

The frenzy that has overthrown his wisdom,

Instead of him and his upheaving empire,

Might have an end.”

“I came to see the King,”

Said Merlin, like a man who labors hard

And long with an importunate confession.

“No, Dagonet, you cannot tell me why,

Although your tongue is eager with wild hope

To tell me more than I may tell myself

About myself. All this that was to be

Might show to man how vain it were to wreck

The world for self if it were all in vain.

When I began with Arthur I could see

In each bewildered man who dots the earth

A moment with his days a groping thought

Of an eternal will, strangely endowed

With merciful illusions whereby self

Becomes the will itself and each man swells

In fond accordance with his agency.

Now Arthur, Modred, Lancelot, and Gawaine

Are swollen thoughts of this eternal will

Which have no other way to find the way

That leads them on to their inheritance

Than by the time-infuriating flame

Of a wrecked empire, lighted by the torch

Of woman, who, together with the light

That Galahad found, is yet to light the world.”

A wan smile crept across the weary face

Of Dagonet the fool: “If you knew that

Before your burial in Broceliande,

No wonder your eternal will accords

With all your dreams of what the world requires.

My master, I may say this unto you

Because I am a fool, and fear no man;

My fear is that I’ve been a groping thought

That never swelled enough. You say the torch

Of woman and the light that Galahad found

Are some day to illuminate the world?

I’ll meditate on that. The world is done

For me; and I have been, to make men laugh,

A lean thing of no shape and many capers.

I made them laugh, and I could laugh anon

Myself to see them killing one another

Because a woman with corn-colored hair

Has pranked a man with horns. ’Twas but a flash

Of chance, and Lancelot, the other day

That saved this pleasing sinner from the fire

That she may spread for thousands. Were she now

The cinder the King willed, or were you now

To see the King, the fire might yet go out;

But the eternal will says otherwise.

So be it; I’ll assemble certain gold

That I may say is mine and get myself

Away from this accurst unhappy court,

And in some quiet place where shepherd clowns

And cowherds may have more respondent ears

Than kings and kingdom-builders, I shall troll

Old men to easy graves and be a child

Again among the children of the earth.

I’ll have no more kings, even though I loved

King Arthur, who is mad, as I could love

No other man save Merlin, who is dead.”

“Not wholly dead, but old. Merlin is old.”

The wizard shivered as he spoke, and stared

Away into the sunset where he saw

Once more, as through a cracked and cloudy glass,

A crumbling sky that held a crimson cloud

Wherein there was a town of many towers

All swayed and shaken, in a woman’s hand

This time, till out of it there spilled and flashed

And tumbled, like loose jewels, town, towers, and walls,

And there was nothing but a crumbling sky

That made anon of black and red and ruin

A wild and final rain on Camelot.

He bowed, and pressed his eyes: “Now by my soul,

I have seen this before—all black and red—

Like that—like that—like Vivian—black and red;

Like Vivian, when her eyes looked into mine

Across the cups of gold. A flute was playing—

Then all was black and red.”

Another smile

Crept over the wan face of Dagonet,

Who shivered in his turn. “The torch of woman”

He muttered, “and the light that Galahad found,

Will some day save us all, as they saved Merlin.

Forgive my shivering wits, but I am cold,

And it will soon be dark. Will you go down

With me to see the King, or will you not?

If not, I go tomorrow to the shepherds.

The world is mad, and I’m a groping thought

Of your eternal will; the world and I

Are strangers, and I’ll have no more of it—

Except you go with me to see the King.”

“No, Dagonet, you cannot leave me now,”

Said Merlin, sadly. “You and I are old;

And, as you say, we fear no man. God knows

I would not have the love that once you had

For me be fear of me, for I am past

All fearing now. But Fate may send a fly

Sometimes, and he may sting us to the grave.

So driven to test our faith in what we see.

Are you, now I am coming to an end,

As Arthur’s days are coming to an end,

To sting me like a fly? I do not ask

Of you to say that you see what I see,

Where you see nothing; nor do I require

Of any man more vision than is his;

Yet I could wish for you a larger part

For your last entrance here than this you play

Tonight of a sad insect stinging Merlin.

The more you sting, the more he pities you;

And you were never overfond of pity.

Had you been so, I doubt if Arthur’s love,

Or Gawaine’s, would have made of you a knight.

No, Dagonet, you cannot leave me now,

Nor would you if you could. You call yourself

A fool, because the world and you are strangers.

You are a proud man, Dagonet; you have suffered

What I alone have seen. You are no fool;

And surely you are not a fly to sting

My love to last regret. Believe or not

What I have seen, or what I say to you,

But say no more to me that I am dead

Because the King is mad, and you are old,

And I am older. In Broceliande

Time overtook me as I knew he must;

And I, with a fond overplus of words,

Had warned the lady Vivian already,

Before these wrinkles and this hesitancy

Inhibiting my joints oppressed her sight

With age and dissolution. She said once

That she was cold and cruel; but she meant

That she was warm and kind, and over-wise

For woman in a world where men see not

Beyond themselves. She saw beyond them all,

As I did; and she waited, as I did,

The coming of a day when cherry-blossoms

Were to fall down all over me like snow

In springtime. I was far from Camelot

That afternoon; and I am farther now

From her. I see no more for me to do

Than to leave her and Arthur and the world

Behind me, and to pray that all be well

With Vivian, whose unquiet heart is hungry

For what is not, and what shall never be

Without her, in a world that men are making,

Knowing not how, nor caring yet to know

How slowly and how grievously they do it,—

Though Vivian, in her golden shell of exile,

Knows now and cares, not knowing that she cares,

Nor caring that she knows. In time to be,

The like of her shall have another name

Than Vivian, and her laugh shall be a fire,

Not shining only to consume itself

With what it burns. She knows not yet the name

Of what she is, for now there is no name;

Some day there shall be. Time has many names,

Unwritten yet, for what we say is old

Because we are so young that it seems old.

And this is all a part of what I saw

Before you saw King Arthur. When we parted.

I told her I should see the King again,

And, having seen him, might go back again

To see her face once more. But I shall see

No more the lady Vivian. Let her love

What man she may, no other love than mine

Shall be an index of her memories.

I fear no man who may come after me,

And I see none. I see her, still in green,

Beside the fountain. I shall not go back.

We pay for going back; and all we get

Is one more needless ounce of weary wisdom

To bring away with us. If I come not,

The lady Vivian will remember me,

And say: ‘I knew him when his heart was young,

Though I have lost him now. Time called him home,

And that was as it was; for much is lost

Between Broceliande and Camelot.’”

He stared away into the west again,

Where now no crimson cloud or phantom town

Deceived his eyes. Above a living town

There were gray clouds and ultimate suspense,

And a cold wind was coming. Dagonet,

Now crouched at Merlin’s feet in his dejection,

Saw multiplying lights far down below,

Where lay the fevered streets. At length he felt

On his lean shoulder Merlin’s tragic hand

And trembled, knowing that a few more days

Would see the last of Arthur and the first

Of Modred, whose dark patience had attained

To one precarious half of what he sought:

“And even the Queen herself may fall to him,”

Dagonet murmured.—“The Queen fall to Modred?

Is that your only fear tonight?” said Merlin;

“She may, but not for long.”—“No, not my fear;

For I fear nothing. But I wish no fate

Like that for any woman the King loves,

Although she be the scourge and the end of him

That you saw coming, as I see it now.”

Dagonet shook, but he would have no tears,

He swore, for any king, queen, knave, or wizard—

Albeit he was a stranger among those

Who laughed at him because he was a fool.

“You said the truth, I cannot leave you now,”

He stammered, and was angry for the tears

That mocked his will and choked him.

Merlin smiled,

Faintly, and for the moment: “Dagonet,

I need your word as one of Arthur’s knights

That you will go on with me to the end

Of my short way, and say unto no man

Or woman that you found or saw me here.

No good would follow, for a doubt would live

Unstifled of my loyalty to him

Whose deeds are wrought for those who are to come;

And many who see not what I have seen,

Or what you see tonight, would prattle on

For ever, and their children after them,

Of what might once have been had I gone down

With you to Camelot to see the King.

I came to see the King,—but why see kings?

All this that was to be is what I saw

Before there was an Arthur to be king,

And so to be a mirror wherein men

May see themselves, and pause. If they see not,

Or if they do see and they ponder not,—

I saw; but I was neither Fate nor God.

I saw too much; and this would be the end,

Were there to be end. I saw myself—

A sight no other man has ever seen;

And through the dark that lay beyond myself

I saw two fires that are to light the world.”

On Dagonet the silent hand of Merlin

Weighed now as living iron that held him down

With a primeval power. Doubt, wonderment,

Impatience, and a self-accusing sorrow

Born of an ancient love, possessed and held him

Until his love was more than he could name,

And he was Merlin’s fool, not Arthur’s now:

“Say what you will, I say that I’m the fool

Of Merlin, King of Nowhere; which is Here.

With you for king and me for court, what else

Have we to sigh for but a place to sleep?

I know a tavern that will take us in;

And on the morrow I shall follow you

Until I die for you. And when I die…”—

“Well, Dagonet, the King is listening.”—

And Dagonet answered, hearing in the words

Of Merlin a grave humor and a sound

Of graver pity, “I shall die a fool.”

He heard what might have been a father’s laugh,

Faintly behind him; and the living weight

Of Merlin’s hand was lifted. They arose,

And, saying nothing, found a groping way

Down through the gloom together. Fiercer now,

The wind was like a flying animal

That beat the two of them incessantly

With icy wings, and bit them as they went.

The rock above them was an empty place

Where neither seer nor fool should view again

The stricken city. Colder blew the wind

Across the world, and on it heavier lay

The shadow and the burden of the night;

And there was darkness over Camelot.