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

VI. Lancelot


ALL day the rain came down on Joyous Gard,

Where now there was no joy, and all that night

The rain came down. Shut in for none to find him

Where an unheeded log-fire fought the storm

With upward swords that flashed along the wall

Faint hieroglyphs of doom not his to read,

Lancelot found a refuge where at last

He might see nothing. Glad for sight of nothing,

He saw no more. Now and again he buried

A lonely thought among the coals and ashes

Outside the reaching flame and left it there,

Quite as he left outside in rainy graves

The sacrificial hundreds who had filled them.

“They died, Gawaine,” he said, “and you live on,

You and the King, as if there were no dying;

And it was I, Gawaine, who let you live—

You and the King. For what more length of time,

I wonder, may there still be found on earth

Foot-room for four of us? We are too many

For one world, Gawaine; and there may be soon,

For one or other of us, a way out.

As men are listed, we are men for men

To fear; and I fear Modred more than any.

But even the ghost of Modred at the door—

The ghost I should have made him—would employ

For time as hard as this a louder knuckle,

Assuredly now, than that. And I would see

No mortal face till morning.… Well, are you well

Again? Are you as well again as ever?”

He led her slowly on with a cold show

Of care that was less heartening for the Queen

Than anger would have been, into the firelight,

And there he gave her cushions. “Are you warm?”

He said; and she said nothing. “Are you afraid?”

He said again; “are you still afraid of Gawaine?

As often as you think of him and hate him,

Remember too that he betrayed his brothers

To us that he might save us. Well, he saved us;

And Rome, whose name to you was never music,

Saves you again, with heaven alone may tell

What others who might have their time to sleep

In earth out there, with the rain falling on them,

And with no more to fear of wars tonight

Than you need fear of Gawaine or of Arthur.

The way before you is a safer way

For you to follow than when I was in it.

We children who forget the whips of Time,

To live within the hour, are slow to see

That all such hours are passing. They were past

When you came here with me.”

She looked away,

Seeming to read the firelight on the walls

Before she spoke: “When I came here with you,

And found those eyes of yours, I could have wished

And prayed it were the end of hours, and years.

What was it made you save me from the fire,

If only out of memories and forebodings

To build around my life another fire

Of slower faggots? If you had let me die,

Those other faggots would be ashes now,

And all of me that you have ever loved

Would be a few more ashes. If I read

The past as well as you have read the future

You need say nothing of ingratitude,

For I say only lies. My soul, of course,

It was you loved. You told me so yourself.

And that same precious blue-veined cream-white soul

Will soon be safer, if I understand you,

In Camelot, where the King is, than elsewhere

On earth. What more, in faith, have I to ask

Of earth or heaven than that! Although I fell

When you said Camelot, are you to know,

Surely, the stroke you gave me then was not

The measure itself of ecstasy? We women

Are such adept inveterates in our swooning

That we fall down for joy as easily

As we eat one another to show our love.

Even horses, seeing again their absent masters,

Have wept for joy; great dogs have died of it.”

Having said as much as that, she frowned and held

Her small white hands out for the fire to warm them.

Forward she leaned, and forward her thoughts went—

To Camelot. But they were not there long,

Her thoughts; for soon she flashed her eyes again,

And he found in them what he wished were tears

Of angry sorrow for what she had said.

“What are you going to do with me?” she asked;

And all her old incisiveness came back,

With a new thrust of malice, which he felt

And feared. “What are you going to do with me?

What does a child do with a worn-out doll?

I was a child once; and I had a father.

He was a king; and, having royal ways,

He made a queen of me—King Arthur’s queen.

And if that happened, once upon a time,

Why may it not as well be happening now

That I am not a queen? Was I a queen

When first you brought me here with one torn rag

To cover me? Was I overmuch a queen

When I sat up at last, and in a gear

That would have made a bishop dance to Cardiff

To see me wearing it? Was I Queen then?”

“You were the Queen of Christendom,” he said,

Not smiling at her, “whether now or not

You deem it an unchristian exercise

To vilipend the wearing of the vanished.

The women may have reasoned, insecurely,

That what one queen had worn would please another.

I left them to their ingenuities.”

Once more he frowned away a threatening smile,

But soon forgot the memory of all smiling

While he gazed on the glimmering face and hair

Of Guinevere—the glory of white and gold

That had been his, and were, for taking of it,

Still his, to cloud, with an insidious gleam

Of earth, another that was not of earth,

And so to make of him a thing of night—

A moth between a window and a star,

Not wholly lured by one or led by the other.

The more he gazed upon her beauty there,

The longer was he living in two kingdoms,

Not owning in his heart the king of either,

And ruling not himself. There was an end

Of hours, he told her silent face again,

In silence. On the morning when his fury

Wrenched her from that foul fire in Camelot,

Where blood paid irretrievably the toll

Of her release, the whips of Time had fallen

Upon them both. All this to Guinevere

He told in silence and he told in vain.

Observing her ten fingers variously,

She sighed, as in equivocal assent,

“No two queens are alike.”

“Is that the flower

Of all your veiled invention?” Lancelot said,

Smiling at last: “If you say, saying all that,

You are not like Isolt—well, you are not.

Isolt was a physician, who cured men

Their wounds, and sent them rowelling for more;

Isolt was too dark, and too versatile;

She was too dark for Mark, if not for Tristram.

Forgive me; I was saying that to myself,

And not to make you shiver. No two queens—

Was that it?—are alike? A longer story

Might have a longer telling and tell less.

Your tale’s as brief as Pelleas with his vengeance

On Gawaine, whom he swore that he would slay

At once for stealing of the lady Ettard.”

“Treasure my scantling wits, if you enjoy them;

Wonder a little, too, that I conserve them

Through the eternal memory of one morning,

And in these years of days that are the death

Of men who die for me. I should have died.

I should have died for them.”

“You are wrong,” he said;

“They died because Gawaine went mad with hate

For loss of his two brothers and set the King

On fire with fear, the two of them believing

His fear was vengeance when it was in fact

A royal desperation. They died because

Your world, my world, and Arthur’s world is dying,

As Merlin said it would. No blame is yours;

For it was I who led you from the King—

Or rather, to say truth, it was your glory

That led my love to lead you from the King—

By flowery ways, that always end somewhere,

To fire and fright and exile, and release.

And if you bid your memory now to blot

Your story from the book of what has been,

Your phantom happiness were a ghost indeed,

And I the least of weasels among men,—

Too false to manhood and your sacrifice

To merit a niche in hell. If that were so,

I’d swear there was no light for me to follow,

Save your eyes to the grave; and to the last

I might not know that all hours have an end;

I might be one of those who feed themselves

By grace of God, on hopes dryer than hay,

Enjoying not what they eat, yet always eating.

The Vision shattered, a man’s love of living

Becomes at last a trap and a sad habit,

More like an ailing dotard’s love of liquor

That ails him, than a man’s right love of woman,

Or of his God. There are men enough like that,

And I might come to that. Though I see far

Before me now, could I see, looking back,

A life that you could wish had not been lived,

I might be such a man. Could I believe

Our love was nothing mightier then than we were,

I might be such a man—a living dead man,

One of these days.”

Guinevere looked at him,

And all that any woman has not said

Was in one look: “Why do you stab me now

With such a needless ‘then’? If I am going—

And I suppose I am—are the words all lost

That men have said before to dogs and children

To make them go away? Why use a knife,

When there are words enough without your ‘then’

To cut as deep as need be? What I ask you

Is never more to ask me if my life

Be one that I could wish had not been lived—

And that you never torture it again,

To make it bleed and ache as you do now,

Past all indulgence or necessity.

Were you to give a lonely child who loved you

One living thing to keep—a bird, may be—

Before you went away from her forever,

Would you, for surety not to be forgotten,

Maim it and leave it bleeding on her fingers?

And would you leave the child alone with it—

Alone, and too bewildered even to cry,

Till you were out of sight? Are you men never

To know what words are? Do you doubt sometimes

A Vision that lets you see so far away

That you forget so lightly who it was

You must have cared for once to be so kind—

Or seem so kind—when she, and for that only,

Had that been all, would throw down crowns and glories

To share with you the last part of the world?

And even the queen in me would hardly go

So far off as to vanish. If I were patched

And scrapped in what the sorriest fisher-wife

In Orkney might give mumbling to a beggar,

I doubt if oafs and yokels would annoy me

More than I willed they should. Am I so old

And dull, so lean and waning, or what not,

That you must hurry away to grasp and hoard

The small effect of time I might have stolen

From you and from a Light that where it lives

Must live for ever? Where does history tell you

The Lord himself would seem in so great haste

As you for your perfection? If our world—

Your world and mine and Arthur’s as you say—

Is going out now to make way for another,

Why not before it goes, and I go with it,

Have yet one morsel more of life together,

Before death sweeps the table and our few crumbs

Of love are a few last ashes on a fire

That cannot hurt your Vision, or burn long?

You cannot warm your lonely fingers at it

For a great waste of time when I am dead:

When I am dead you will be on your way,

With maybe not so much as one remembrance

Of all I was, to follow you and torment you.

Some word of Bors may once have given color

To some few that I said, but they were true—

Whether Bors told them first to me, or whether

I told them first to Bors. The Light you saw

Was not the Light of Rome; the word you had

Of Rome was not the word of God—though Rome

Has refuge for the weary and heavy-laden.

Were I to live too long I might seek Rome

Myself, and be the happier when I found it.

Meanwhile, am I to be no more to you

Than a moon-shadow of a lonely stranger

Somewhere in Camelot? And is there no region

In this poor fading world of Arthur’s now

Where I may be again what I was once—

Before I die? Should I live to be old,

I shall have been long since too far away

For you to hate me then; and I shall know

How old I am by seeing it in your eyes.”

Her misery told itself in a sad laugh,

And in a rueful twisting of her face

That only beauty’s perilous privilege

Of injury would have yielded or suborned

As hope’s infirm accessory while she prayed

Through Lancelot to heaven for Lancelot.

She looked away: “If I were God,” she said,

“I should say, ‘Let them be as they have been.

A few more years will heap no vast account

Against eternity, and all their love

Was what I gave them. They brought on the end

Of Arthur’s empire, which I wrought through Merlin

For the world’s knowing of what kings and queens

Are made for; but they knew not what they did—

Save as a price, and as a fear that love

Might end in fear. It need not end that way,

And they need fear no more for what I gave them;

For it was I who gave them to each other.’

If I were God, I should say that to you.”

He saw tears quivering in her pleading eyes,

But through them she could see, with a wild hope,

That he was fighting. When he spoke, he smiled—

Much as he might have smiled at her, she thought,

Had she been Gawaine, Gawaine having given

To Lancelot, who yet would have him live,

An obscure wound that would not heal or kill.

“My life was living backward for the moment,”

He said, still burying in the coals and ashes

Thoughts that he would not think. His tongue was dry,

And each dry word he said was choking him

As he said on: “I cannot ask of you

That you be kind to me, but there’s a kindness

That is your proper debt. Would you cajole

Your reason with a weary picturing

On walls or on vain air of what your fancy,

Like firelight, makes of nothing but itself?

Do you not see that I go from you only

Because you go from me?—because our path

Led where at last it had an end in havoc,

As long we knew it must—as Arthur too,

And Merlin knew it must?—as God knew it must?

A power that I should not have said was mine—

That was not mine, and is not mine—avails me

Strangely tonight, although you are here with me;

And I see much in what has come to pass

That is to be. The Light that I have seen,

As you say true, is not the light of Rome,

Albeit the word of Rome that set you free

Was more than mine or the King’s. To flout that word

Would sound the preparation of a terror

To which a late small war on our account

Were a king’s pastime and a queen’s annoyance;

And that, for the good fortune of a world

As yet not over-fortuned, may not be.

There may be war to come when you are gone,

For I doubt yet Gawaine; but Rome will hold you,

Hold you in Camelot. If there be more war,

No fire of mine shall feed it, nor shall you

Be with me to endure it. You are free;

And free, you are going home to Camelot.

There is no other way than one for you,

Nor is there more than one for me. We have lived,

And we shall die. I thank you for my life.

Forgive me if I say no more tonight.”

He rose, half blind with pity that was no longer

The servant of his purpose or his will,

To grope away somewhere among the shadows

For wine to drench his throat and his dry tongue,

That had been saying he knew not what to her

For whom his life-devouring love was now

A scourge of mercy.

Like a blue-eyed Medea

Of white and gold, broken with grief and fear

And fury that shook her speechless while she waited,

Yet left her calm enough for Lancelot

To see her without seeing, she stood up

To breathe and suffer. Fury could not live long,

With grief and fear like hers and love like hers,

When speech came back: “No other way now than one?

Free? Do you call me free? Do you mean by that

There was never woman alive freer to live

Than I am free to die? Do you call me free

Because you are driven so near to death yourself

With weariness of me, and the sight of me,

That you must use a crueller knife than ever,

And this time at my heart, for me to watch

Before you drive it home? For God’s sake, drive it!

Drive it as often as you have the others,

And let the picture of each wound it makes

On me be shown to women and men for ever;

And the good few that know—let them reward you.

I hear them, in such low and pitying words

As only those who know, and are not many,

Are used to say: ‘The good knight Lancelot

It was who drove the knife home to her heart,

Rather than drive her home to Camelot.’

Home! Free! Would you let me go there again—

To be at home?—be free? To be his wife?

To live in his arms always, and so hate him

That I could heap around him the same faggots

That you put out with blood? Go home, you say?

Home?—where I saw the black post waiting for me

That morning?—saw those good men die for me—

Gareth and Gaheris, Lamorak’s brother Tor,

And all the rest? Are men to die for me

For ever? Is there water enough, do you think.

Between this place and that for me to drown in?”

“There is time enough, I think, between this hour

And some wise hour tomorrow, for you to sleep in.

When you are safe again in Camelot,

The King will not molest you or pursue you;

The King will be a suave and chastened man.

In Camelot you shall have no more to dread

Than you shall hear then of this rain that roars

Tonight as if it would be roaring always.

I do not ask you to forgive the faggots,

Though I would have you do so for your peace.

Only the wise who know may do so much,

And they, as you say truly, are not many.

And I would say no more of this tonight.”

“Then do not ask me for the one last thing

That I shall give to God! I thought I died

That morning. Why am I alive again,

To die again? Are you all done with me?

Is there no longer something left of me

That made you need me? Have I lost myself

So fast that what a mirror says I am

Is not what is, but only what was once?

Does half a year do that with us, I wonder,

Or do I still have something that was mine

That afternoon when I was in the sunset,

Under the oak, and you were looking at me?

Your look was not all sorrow for your going

To find the Light and leave me in the dark—

But I am the daughter of Leodogran,

And you are Lancelot,—and have a tongue

To say what I may not.… Why must I go

To Camelot when your kinsmen hold all France?

Why is there not some nook in some old house

Where I might hide myself—with you or not?

Is there no castle, or cabin, or cave in the woods?

Yes, I could love the bats and owls, in France,

A lifetime sooner than I could the King

That I shall see in Camelot, waiting there

For me to cringe and beg of him again

The dust of mercy, calling it holy bread.

I wronged him, but he bought me with a name

Too large for my king-father to relinquish—

Though I prayed him, and I prayed God aloud,

To spare that crown. I called it crown enough

To be my father’s child—until you came.

And then there were no crowns or kings or fathers

Under the sky. I saw nothing but you.

And you would whip me back to bury myself

In Camelot, with a few slave maids and lackeys

To be my grovelling court; and even their faces

Would not hide half the story. Take me to France—

To France or Egypt,—anywhere else on earth

Than Camelot! Is there not room in France

For two more dots of mortals?—or for one?—

For me alone? Let Lionel go with me—

Or Bors. Let Bors go with me into France,

And leave me there. And when you think of me,

Say Guinevere is in France, where she is happy;

And you may say no more of her than that …

Why do you not say something to me now—

Before I go? Why do you look—and look?

Why do you frown as if you thought me mad?

I am not mad—but I shall soon be mad,

If I go back to Camelot where the King is.

Lancelot!… Is there nothing left of me?

Nothing of what you called your white and gold,

And made so much of? Has it all gone by?

He must have been a lonely God who made

Man in his image and then made only a woman!

Poor fool she was! Poor Queen! Poor Guinevere!

There were kings and bishops once, under her window

Like children, and all scrambling for a flower.

Time was!—God help me, what am I saying now!

Does a Queen’s memory wither away to that?

Am I so dry as that? Am I a shell?

Have I become so cheap as this?… I wonder

Why the King cared!” She fell down on her knees

Crying, and held his knees with hungry fear.

Over his folded arms, as over the ledge

Of a storm-shaken parapet, he could see,

Below him, like a tumbling flood of gold,

The Queen’s hair with a crumpled foam of white

Around it: “Do you ask, as a child would,

For France because it has a name? How long

Do you conceive the Queen of the Christian world

Would hide herself in France were she to go there?

How long should Rome require to find her there?

And how long, Rome or not, would such a flower

As you survive the unrooting and transplanting

That you commend so ingenuously tonight?

And if we shared your cave together, how long,

And in the joy of what obscure seclusion,

If I may say it, were Lancelot of the Lake

And Guinevere an unknown man and woman,

For no eye to see twice? There are ways to France,

But why pursue them for Rome’s interdict,

And for a longer war? Your path is now

As open as mine is dark—or would be dark,

Without the Light that once had blinded me

To death, had I seen more. I shall see more,

And I shall not be blind. I pray, moreover,

That you be not so now. You are a Queen,

And you may be no other. You are too brave

And kind and fair for men to cheer with lies.

We cannot make one world of two, nor may we

Count one life more than one. Could we go back

To the old garden, we should not stay long;

The fruit that we should find would all be fallen,

And have the taste of earth.”

When she looked up,

A tear fell on her forehead. “Take me away!”

She cried. “Why do you do this? Why do you say this?

If you are sorry for me, take me away

From Camelot! Send me away—drive me away—

Only away from there! The King is there—

And I may kill him if I see him there.

Take me away—take me away to France!

And if I cannot hide myself in France,

Then let me die in France!”

He shook his head,

Slowly, and raised her slowly in his arms,

Holding her there; and they stood long together.

And there was no sound then of anything,

Save a low moaning of a broken woman,

And the cold roaring down of that long rain.

All night the rain came down on Joyous Gard;

And all night, there before the crumbling embers

That faded into feathery death-like dust,

Lancelot sat and heard it. He saw not

The fire that died, but he heard rain that fell

On all those graves around him and those years

Behind him; and when dawn came, he was cold.

At last he rose, and for a time stood seeing

The place where she had been. She was not there;

He was not sure that she had ever been there;

He was not sure there was a Queen, or a King,

Or a world with kingdoms on it. He was cold.

He was not sure of anything but the Light—

The Light he saw not. “And I shall not see it,”

He thought, “so long as I kill men for Gawaine.

If I kill him, I may as well kill myself;

And I have killed his brothers.” He tried to sleep,

But rain had washed the sleep out of his life,

And there was no more sleep. When he awoke,

He did not know that he had been asleep;

And the same rain was falling. At some strange hour

It ceased, and there was light. And seven days after,

With a cavalcade of silent men and women,

The Queen rode into Camelot, where the King was,

And Lancelot rode grimly at her side.

When he rode home again to Joyous Gard,

The storm in Gawaine’s eyes and the King’s word

Of banishment attended him. “Gawaine

Will give the King no peace,” Lionel said;

And Lancelot said after him, “Therefore

The King will have no peace.”—And so it was

That Lancelot, with many of Arthur’s knights

That were not Arthur’s now, sailed out one day

From Cardiff to Bayonne, where soon Gawaine,

The King, and the King’s army followed them,

For longer sorrow and for longer war.