Verse > William Wordsworth > Complete Poetical Works




            WHILE Merlin paced the Cornish sands,
            Forth-looking toward the rocks of Scilly,
            The pleased Enchanter was aware
            Of a bright Ship that seemed to hang in air,
            Yet was she work of mortal hands,
          And took from men her name--THE WATER LILY.

            Soft was the wind, that landward blew;
            And, as the Moon, o'er some dark hill ascendant,
            Grows from a little edge of light
            To a full orb, this Pinnace bright                        10
            Became, as nearer to the coast she drew,
          More glorious, with spread sail and streaming pendant.

            Upon this winged Shape so fair
            Sage Merlin gazed with admiration:
            Her lineaments, thought he, surpass
            Aught that was ever shown in magic glass;
            Was ever built with patient care;
          Or, at a touch, produced by happiest transformation.

            Now, though a Mechanist, whose skill
            Shames the degenerate grasp of modern science,            20
            Grave Merlin (and belike the more
            For practising occult and perilous lore)
            Was subject to a freakish will
          That sapped good thoughts, or scared them with defiance.

            Provoked to envious spleen, he cast
            An altered look upon the advancing Stranger
            Whom he had hailed with joy, and cried,
            "My Art shall help to tame her pride--"
            Anon the breeze became a blast,
          And the waves rose, and sky portended danger.               30

            With thrilling word, and potent sign
            Traced on the beach, his work the Sorcerer urges;
            The clouds in blacker clouds are lost,
            Like spiteful Fiends that vanish, crossed
            By Fiends of aspect more malign;
          And the winds roused the Deep with fiercer scourges.

            But worthy of the name she bore
            Was this Sea-flower, this buoyant Galley;
            Supreme in loveliness and grace
            Of motion, whether in the embrace                         40
            Of trusty anchorage, or scudding o'er
          The main flood roughened into hill and valley.

            Behold, how wantonly she laves
            Her sides, the Wizard's craft confounding;
            Like something out of Ocean sprung
            To be for ever fresh and young,
            Breasts the sea-flashes, and huge waves
          Top-gallant high, rebounding and rebounding!

            But Ocean under magic heaves,
            And cannot spare the Thing he cherished:                  50
            Ah! what avails that she was fair,
            Luminous, blithe, and debonair?
            The storm has stripped her of her leaves;
          The Lily floats no longer!--She hath perished.

            Grieve for her,--she deserves no less;
            So like, yet so unlike, a living Creature!
            No heart had she, no busy brain;
            Though loved, she could not love again;
            Though pitied, 'feel' her own distress;
          Nor aught that troubles us, the fools of Nature.            60

            Yet is there cause for gushing tears;
            So richly was this Galley laden,
            A fairer than herself she bore,
            And, in her struggles, cast ashore;
            A lovely One, who nothing hears
          Of wind or wave--a meek and guileless Maiden.

            Into a cave had Merlin fled
            From mischief, caused by spells himself had muttered;
            And while, repentant all too late,
            In moody posture there he sate,                           70
            He heard a voice, and saw, with half-raised head,
          A Visitant by whom these words were uttered;

            "On Christian service this frail Bark
            Sailed" (hear me, Merlin!) "under high protection,
            Though on her prow a sign of heathen power
            Was carved--a Goddess with a Lily flower,
            The old Egyptian's emblematic mark
          Of joy immortal and of pure affection.

            Her course was for the British strand;
            Her freight, it was a Damsel peerless;                    80
            God reigns above, and Spirits strong
            May gather to avenge this wrong
            Done to the Princess, and her Land
          Which she in duty left, sad but not cheerless.

            And to Caerleon's loftiest tower
            Soon will the Knights of Arthur's Table
            A cry of lamentation send;
            And all will weep who there attend,
            To grace that Stranger's bridal hour,
          For whom the sea was made unnavigable.                      90

            Shame! should a Child of royal line
            Die through the blindness of thy malice?"
            Thus to the Necromancer spake
            Nina, the Lady of the Lake,
            A gentle Sorceress, and benign,
          Who ne'er embittered any good man's chalice.

            "What boots," continued she, "to mourn?
            To expiate thy sin endeavour:
            From the bleak isle where she is laid,
            Fetched by our art, the Egyptian Maid                    100
            May yet to Arthur's court be borne
          Cold as she is, ere life be fled for ever.

            My pearly Boat, a shining Light,
            That brought me down that sunless river,
            Will bear me on from wave to wave,
            And back with her to this sea-cave;--
            Then Merlin! for a rapid flight
          Through air, to thee my Charge will I deliver.

            The very swiftest of thy cars
            Must, when my part is done, be ready;                    110
            Meanwhile, for further guidance, look
            Into thy own prophetic book;
            And, if that fail, consult the Stars
          To learn thy course; farewell! be prompt and steady."

            This scarcely spoken, she again
            Was seated in her gleaming shallop,
            That, o'er the yet-distempered Deep,
            Pursued its way with bird-like sweep,
            Or like a steed, without a rein,
          Urged o'er the wilderness in sportive gallop.              120

            Soon did the gentle Nina reach
            That Isle without a house or haven;
            Landing, she found not what she sought,
            Nor saw of wreck or ruin aught
            But a carved Lotus cast upon the beach
          By the fierce waves, a flower in marble graven.

            Sad relique, but how fair the while!
            For gently each from each retreating
            With backward curve, the leaves revealed
            The bosom half, and half concealed,                      130
            Of a Divinity, that seemed to smile
          On Nina, as she passed, with hopeful greeting.

            No quest was hers of vague desire,
            Of tortured hope and purpose shaken;
            Following the margin of a bay,
            She spied the lonely Castaway,
            Unmarred, unstripped of her attire,
          But with closed eyes,--of breath and bloom forsaken.

            Then Nina, stooping down, embraced,
            With tenderness and mild emotion,                        140
            The Damsel, in that trance embound;
            And, while she raised her from the ground,
            And in the pearly shallop placed,
          Sleep fell upon the air, and stilled the ocean.

            The turmoil hushed, celestial springs
            Of music opened, and there came a blending
            Of fragrance, underived from earth,
            With gleams that owed not to the sun their birth,
            And that soft rustling of invisible wings
          Which Angels make, on works of love descending.            150

            And Nina heard a sweeter voice
            Than if the Goddess of the flower had spoken:
            "Thou hast achieved, fair Dame! what none
            Less pure in spirit could have done;
            Go, in thy enterprise rejoice!
          Air, earth, sea, sky, and heaven, success betoken."

            So cheered, she left that Island bleak,
            A bare rock of the Scilly cluster;
            And, as they traversed the smooth brine,
            The self-illumined Brigantine                            160
            Shed, on the Slumberer's cold wan cheek
          And pallid brow, a melancholy lustre.

            Fleet was their course, and when they came
            To the dim cavern, whence the river
            Issued into the salt-sea flood,
            Merlin, as fixed in thought he stood,
            Was thus accosted by the Dame;
          "Behold to thee my Charge I now deliver!

            But where attends thy chariot--where?"--
            Quoth Merlin, "Even as I was bidden,                     170
            So have I done; as trusty as thy barge
            My vehicle shall prove--O precious Charge!
            If this be sleep, how soft! if death, how fair!
          Much have my books disclosed, but the end is hidden."

            He spake; and gliding into view
            Forth from the grotto's dimmest chamber
            Came two mute Swans, whose plumes of dusky white
            Changed, as the pair approached the light,
            Drawing an ebon car, their hue
          (Like clouds of sunset) into lucid amber.                  180

            Once more did gentle Nina lift
            The Princess, passive to all changes:
            The car received her:--then up-went
            Into the ethereal element
            The Birds with progress smooth and swift
          As thought, when through bright regions memory ranges.

            Sage Merlin, at the Slumberer's side,
            Instructs the Swans their way to measure;
            And soon Caerleon's towers appeared,
            And notes of minstrelsy were heard                       190
            From rich pavilions spreading wide,
          For some high day of long-expected pleasure.

            Awe-stricken stood both Knights and Dames
            Ere on firm ground the car alighted;
            Eftsoons astonishment was past,
            For in that face they saw the last
            Last lingering look of clay, that tames
          All pride; by which all happiness is blighted.

            Said Merlin, "Mighty King, fair Lords,
            Away with feast and tilt and tourney!                    200
            Ye saw, throughout this royal House,
            Ye heard, a rocking marvellous
            Of turrets, and a clash of swords
          Self-shaken, as I closed my airy journey.

            Lo! by a destiny well known
            To mortals, joy is turned to sorrow;
            This is the wished-for Bride, the Maid
            Of Egypt, from a rock conveyed
            Where she by shipwreck had been thrown,
          Ill sight! but grief may vanish ere the morrow."           210

            "Though vast thy power, thy words are weak,"
            Exclaimed the King, "a mockery hateful;
            Dutiful Child, her lot how hard!
            Is this her piety's reward?
            Those watery locks, that bloodless cheek!
          O winds without remorse! O shore ungrateful!

            Rich robes are fretted by the moth;
            Towers, temples, fall by stroke of thunder;
            Will that, or deeper thoughts, abate
            A Father's sorrow for her fate?                          220
            He will repent him of his troth;
          His brain will burn, his stout heart split asunder.

            Alas! and I have caused this woe;
            For, when my prowess from invading Neighbours
            Had freed his Realm, he plighted word
            That he would turn to Christ our Lord,
            And his dear Daughter on a Knight bestow
          Whom I should choose for love and matchless labours.

            Her birth was heathen; but a fence
            Of holy Angels round her hovered:                        230
            A Lady added to my court
            So fair, of such divine report
            And worship, seemed a recompence
          For fifty kingdoms by my sword recovered.

            Ask not for whom, O Champions true!
            She was reserved by me her life's betrayer;
            She who was meant to be a bride
            Is now a corse: then put aside
            Vain thoughts, and speed ye, with observance due
          Of Christian rites, in Christian ground to lay her."       240

            "The tomb," said Merlin, "may not close
            Upon her yet, earth hide her beauty;
            Not froward to thy sovereign will
            Esteem me, Liege! if I, whose skill
            Wafted her hither, interpose
          To check this pious haste of erring duty.

            My books command me to lay bare
            The secret thou art bent on keeping:
            Here must a high attest be given,
            'What' Bridegroom was for her ordained by Heaven.        250
            And in my glass significants there are
          Of things that may to gladness turn this weeping.

            For this, approaching, One by One,
            Thy Knights must touch the cold hand of the Virgin;
            So, for the favoured One, the Flower may bloom
            Once more: but, if unchangeable her doom,
            If life departed be for ever gone,
          Some blest assurance, from this cloud emerging,

            May teach him to bewail his loss;
            Not with a grief that, like a vapour, rises              260
            And melts; but grief devout that shall endure,
            And a perpetual growth secure
            Of purposes which no false thought shall cross,
          A harvest of high hopes and noble enterprises."

            "So be it," said the King;--"anon,
            Here, where the Princess lies, begin the trial;
            Knights each in order as ye stand
            Step forth."--To touch the pallid hand
            Sir Agravaine advanced; no sign he won
          From Heaven or earth;--Sir Kaye had like denial.           270

            Abashed, Sir Dinas turned away;
            Even for Sir Percival was no disclosure;
            Though he, devoutest of all Champions, ere
            He reached that ebon car, the bier
            Whereon diffused like snow the Damsel lay,
          Full thrice had crossed himself in meek composure.

            Imagine (but ye Saints! who can?)
            How in still air the balance trembled--
            The wishes, peradventure the despites
            That overcame some not ungenerous Knights;               280
            And all the thoughts that lengthened out a span
          Of time to Lords and Ladies thus assembled.

            What patient confidence was here!
            And there how many bosoms panted!
            While drawing toward the car Sir Gawaine, mailed
            For tournament, his beaver vailed,
            And softly touched; but, to his princely cheer
          And high expectancy, no sign was granted.

            Next, disencumbered of his harp,
            Sir Tristram, dear to thousands as a brother,            290
            Came to the proof, nor grieved that there ensued
            No change;--the fair Izonda he had wooed
            With love too true, a love with pangs too sharp,
          From hope too distant, not to dread another.

            Not so Sir Launcelot;--from Heaven's grace
            A sign he craved, tired slave of vain contrition;
            The royal Guinever looked passing glad
            When his touch failed.--Next came Sir Galahad;
            He paused, and stood entranced by that still face
          Whose features he had seen in noontide vision.             300

            For late, as near a murmuring stream
            He rested 'mid an arbour green and shady.
            Nina, the good Enchantress, shed
            A light around his mossy bed;
            And, at her call, a waking dream
          Prefigured to his sense the Egyptian Lady.

            Now, while his bright-haired front he bowed,
            And stood, far-kenned by mantle furred with ermine,
            As o'er the insensate Body hung
            The enrapt, the beautiful, the young,                    310
            Belief sank deep into the crowd
          That he the solemn issue would determine.

            Nor deem it strange; the Youth had worn
            That very mantle on a day of glory,
            The day when he achieved that matchless feat,
            The marvel of the PERILOUS SEAT,
            Which whosoe'er approached of strength was shorn,
          Though King or Knight the most renowned in story.

            He touched with hesitating hand--
            And lo! those Birds, far-famed through Love's dominions, 320
            The Swans, in triumph clap their wings;
            And their necks play, involved in rings,
            Like sinless snakes in Eden's happy land;--
          "Mine is she," cried the Knight;--again they clapped their 

            "Mine was she--mine she is, though dead,
            And to her name my soul shall cleave in sorrow;"
            Whereat, a tender twilight streak
            Of colour dawned upon the Damsel's cheek;
            And her lips, quickening with uncertain red,
          Seemed from each other a faint warmth to borrow.           330

            Deep was the awe, the rapture high,
            Of love emboldened, hope with dread entwining,
            When, to the mouth, relenting Death
            Allowed a soft and flower-like breath,
            Precursor to a timid sigh,
          To lifted eyelids, and a doubtful shining.

            In silence did King Arthur gaze
            Upon the signs that pass away or tarry;
            In silence watched the gentle strife
            Of Nature leading back to life;                          340
            Then eased his soul at length by praise
          Of God, and Heaven's pure Queen--the blissful Mary.

            Then said he, "Take her to thy heart,
            Sir Galahad! a treasure, that God giveth,
            Bound by indissoluble ties to thee
            Through mortal change and immortality;
            Be happy and unenvied, thou who art
          A goodly Knight that hath no peer that liveth!"

            Not long the Nuptials were delayed;
            And sage tradition still rehearses                       350
            The pomp, the glory of that hour
            When toward the altar from her bower
            King Arthur led the Egyptian Maid,
          And Angels carolled these far-echoed verses;--

              Who shrinks not from alliance
              Of evil with good Powers,
              To God proclaims defiance,
              And mocks whom he adores.

              A Ship to Christ devoted
              From the Land of Nile did go;                          360
              Alas! the bright Ship floated,
              An Idol at her prow.

              By magic domination,
              The Heaven-permitted vent
              Of purblind mortal passion,
              Was wrought her punishment.

              The Flower the Form within it,
              What served they in her need?
              Her port she could not win it,
              Nor from mishap be freed.                              370

              The tempest overcame her,
              And she was seen no more;
              But gently, gently blame her--
              She cast a Pearl ashore.

              The Maid to Jesu hearkened,
              And kept to him her faith,
              Till sense in death was darkened,
              Or sleep akin to death.

              But Angels round her pillow
              Kept watch, a viewless band;                           380
              And, billow favouring billow,
              She reached the destined strand.

              Blest Pair! whate'er befall you,
              Your faith in Him approve
              Who from frail earth can call you
              To bowers of endless love!



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