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

VI. Lancelot


FOR longer war they came, and with a fury

That only Modred’s opportunity,

Seized in the dark of Britain, could have hushed

And ended in a night. For Lancelot,

When he was hurried amazed out of his rest

Of a gray morning to the scarred gray wall

Of Benwick, where he slept and fought, and saw

Not yet the termination of a strife

That irked him out of utterance, found again

Before him a still plain without an army.

What the mist hid between him and the distance

He knew not, but a multitude of doubts

And hopes awoke in him, and one black fear,

At sight of a truce-waving messenger

In whose approach he read, as by the Light

Itself, the last of Arthur. The man reined

His horse outside the gate, and Lancelot,

Above him on the wall, with a sick heart,

Listened: “Sir Gawaine to Sir Lancelot

Sends greeting; and this with it, in his hand.

The King has raised the siege, and you in France

He counts no longer with his enemies.

His toil is now for Britain, and this war

With you, Sir Lancelot, is an old war,

If you will have it so.”—“Bring the man in,”

Said Lancelot, “and see that he fares well.”

All through the sunrise, and alone, he sat

With Gawaine’s letter, looking toward the sea

That flowed somewhere between him and the land

That waited Arthur’s coming, but not his.

“King Arthur’s war with me is an old war,

If I will have it so,” he pondered slowly;

“And Gawaine’s hate for me is an old hate,

If I will have it so. But Gawaine’s wound

Is not a wound that heals; and there is Modred—

Inevitable as ruin after flood.

The cloud that has been darkening Arthur’s empire

May now have burst, with Arthur still in France,

Many hours away from Britain, and a world

Away from me. But I read this in my heart.

If in the blot of Modred’s evil shadow,

Conjecture views a cloudier world than is,

So much the better, then, for clouds and worlds,

And kings. Gawaine says nothing yet of this,

But when he tells me nothing he tells all.

Now he is here, fordone and left behind,

Pursuant of his wish; and there are words

That he would say to me. Had I not struck him

Twice to the earth, unwillingly, for my life,

My best eye then, I fear, were best at work

On what he has not written. As it is,

If I go seek him now, and in good faith,

My faith may dig my grave. If so, then so.

If I know only with my eyes and ears,

I may as well not know.”

Gawaine, having scanned

His words and sent them, found a way to sleep—

And sleeping, to forget. But he remembered

Quickly enough when he woke up to meet

With his the shining gaze of Lancelot

Above him in a shuttered morning gloom,

Seeming at first a darkness that had eyes.

Fear for a moment seized him, and his heart,

Long whipped and driven with fever, paused and flickered,

As like to fail too soon. Fearing to move,

He waited; fearing to speak, he waited; fearing

To see too clearly or too much, he waited;

For what, he wondered—even the while he knew

It was for Lancelot to say something.

And soon he did: “Gawaine, I thought at first

No man was here.”

“No man was, till you came.

Sit down; and for the love of God who made you,

Say nothing to me now of my three brothers.

Gareth and Gaheris and Agravaine

Are gone; and I am going after them;

Of such is our election. When you gave

That ultimate knock on my revengeful head,

You did a piece of work.”

“May God forgive,”

Lancelot said, “I did it for my life,

Not yours.”

“I know, but I was after yours;

Had I been Lancelot, and you Gawaine,

You might be dead.”

“Had you been Lancelot,

And I Gawaine, my life had not been yours—

Not willingly. Your brothers are my debt

That I shall owe to sorrow and to God,

For whatsoever payment there may be.

What I have paid is not a little, Gawaine.”

“Why leave me out? A brother more or less

Would hardly be the difference of a shaving.

My loose head would assure you, saying this,

That I have no more venom in me now

On their account than mine, which is not much.

There was a madness feeding on us all,

As we fed on the world. When the world sees,

The world will have in turn another madness;

And so, as I’ve a glimpse, ad infinitum.

But I’m not of the seers: Merlin it was

Who turned a sort of ominous early glimmer

On my profane young life. And after that

He falls himself, so far that he becomes

One of our most potential benefits—

Like Vivian, or the mortal end of Modred.

Why could you not have taken Modred also,

And had the five of us? You did your best,

We know, yet he’s more poisonously alive

Than ever; and he’s a brother, of a sort,

Or half of one, and you should not have missed him.

A gloomy curiosity was our Modred,

From his first intimation of existence.

God made him as He made the crocodile,

To prove He was omnipotent. Having done so,

And seeing then that Camelot, of all places

Ripe for annihilation, most required him,

He put him there at once, and there he grew.

And there the King would sit with him for hours,

Admiring Modred’s growth; and all the time

His evil it was that grew, the King not seeing

In Modred the Almighty’s instrument

Of a world’s overthrow. You, Lancelot,

And I, have rendered each a contribution;

And your last hard attention on my skull

Might once have been a benison on the realm,

As I shall be, too late, when I’m laid out

With a clean shroud on—though I’d liefer stay

A while alive with you to see what’s coming.

But I was not for that; I may have been

For something, but not that. The King, my uncle,

Has had for all his life so brave a diet

Of miracles, that his new fare before him

Of late has ailed him strangely; and of all

Who loved him once he needs you now the most—

Though he would not so much as whisper this

To me or to my shadow. He goes alone

To Britain, with an army brisk as lead,

To battle with his Modred for a throne

That waits, I fear, for Modred—should your France

Not have it otherwise. And the Queen’s in this,

For Modred’s game and prey. God save the Queen,

If not the King! I’ve always liked this world;

And I would a deal rather live in it

Than leave it in the middle of all this music.

If you are listening, give me some cold water.”

Lancelot, seeing by now in dim detail

What little was around him to be seen,

Found what he sought and held a cooling cup

To Gawaine, who, with both hands clutching it,

Drank like a child. “I should have had that first,”

He said, with a loud breath, “before my tongue

Began to talk. What was it saying? Modred?

All through the growing pains of his ambition

I’ve watched him; and I might have this and that

To say about him, if my hours were days.

Well, if you love the King and hope to save him,

Remember his many infirmities of virtue—

Considering always what you have in Modred,

For ever unique in his iniquity.

My truth might have a prejudicial savor

To strangers, but we are not strangers now.

Though I have only one spoiled eye that sees,

I see in yours we are not strangers now.

I tell you, as I told you long ago—

When the Queen came to put my candles out

With her gold head and her propinquity—

That all your doubts that you had then of me,

When they were more than various imps and harpies

Of your inflamed invention, were sick doubts:

King Arthur was my uncle, as he is now;

But my Queen-aunt, who loved him something less

Than cats love rain, was not my only care.

Had all the women who came to Camelot

Been aunts of mine, I should have been, long since,

The chilliest of all unwashed eremites

In a far land alone. For my dead brothers,

Though I would leave them where I go to them,

I read their story as I read my own,

And yours, and—were I given the eyes of God—

As I might yet read Modred’s. For the Queen,

May she be safe in London where she’s hiding

Now in the Tower. For the King, you only—

And you but hardly—may deliver him yet

From that which Merlin’s vision long ago,

If I made anything of Merlin’s words,

Foretold of Arthur’s end. And for ourselves,

And all who died for us, or now are dying

Like rats around us of their numerous wounds

And ills and evils, only this do I know—

And this you know: The world has paid enough

For Camelot. It is the world’s turn now—

Or so it would be if the world were not

The world. ‘Another Camelot,’ Bedivere says;

‘Another Camelot and another King’—

Whatever he means by that. With a lineal twist,

I might be king myself; and then, my lord,

Time would have sung my reign—I say not how.

Had I gone on with you, and seen with you

Your Gleam, and had some ray of it been mine,

I might be seeing more and saying less.

Meanwhile, I liked this world; and what was on

The Lord’s mind when He made it is no matter.

Be lenient, Lancelot; I’ve a light head.

Merlin appraised it once when I was young,

Telling me then that I should have the world

To play with. Well, I’ve had it, and played with it;

And here I’m with you now where you have sent me

Neatly to bed, with a towel over one eye;

And we were two of the world’s ornaments.

Praise all you are that Arthur was your King;

You might have had no Gleam had I been King,

Or had the Queen been like some queens I knew.

King Lot, my father—”

Lancelot laid a finger

On Gawaine’s lips: “You are too tired for that.”—

“Not yet,” said Gawaine, “though I may be soon.

Think you that I forget this Modred’s mother

Was mine as well as Modred’s? When I meet

My mother’s ghost, what shall I do—forgive?

When I’m a ghost, I’ll forgive everything …

It makes me cold to think what a ghost knows.

Put out the bonfire burning in my head,

And light one at my feet. When the King thought

The Queen was in the flames, he called on you:

‘God, God,’ he said, and ‘Lancelot.’ I was there,

And so I heard him. That was a bad morning

For kings and queens, and there are to be worse.

Bedivere had a dream, once on a time:

‘Another Camelot and another King,’

He says when he’s awake; but when he dreams,

There are no kings. Tell Bedivere, some day,

That he saw best awake. Say to the King

That I saw nothing vaster than my shadow,

Until it was too late for me to see;

Say that I loved him well, but served him ill—

If you two meet again. Say to the Queen …

Say what you may say best. Remember me

To Pelleas, too, and tell him that his lady

Was a vain serpent. He was dying once

For love of her, and had me in his eye

For company along the dusky road

Before me now. But Pelleas lived, and married.

Lord God, how much we know!—What have I done?

Why do you scowl? Well, well,—so the earth clings

To sons of earth; and it will soon be clinging,

To this one son of earth you deprecate,

Closer than heretofore. I say too much,

Who should be thinking all a man may think

When he has no machine. I say too much—

Always. If I persuade the devil again

That I’m asleep, will you espouse the notion

For a small hour or so? I might be glad—

Not to be here alone.” He gave his hand

Slowly, in hesitation. Lancelot shivered,

Knowing the chill of it. “Yes, you say too much,”

He told him, trying to smile. “Now go to sleep;

And if you may, forget what you forgive.”

Lancelot, for slow hours that were as long

As leagues were to the King and his worn army,

Sat waiting,—though not long enough to know

From any word of Gawaine, who slept on,

That he was glad not to be there alone.—

“Peace to your soul, Gawaine,” Lancelot said,

And would have closed his eyes. But they were closed.