Verse > Edwin A. Robinson > Collected Poems > IV. Merlin > II
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).  Collected Poems. 1921.
IV. Merlin
SIR LAMORAK, the man of oak and iron,
Had with him now, as a care-laden guest,
Sir Bedivere, a man whom Arthur loved
As he had loved no man save Lancelot.
Like one whose late-flown shaft of argument      220
Had glanced and fallen afield innocuously,
He turned upon his host a sudden eye
That met from Lamorak’s an even shaft
Of native and unused authority;
And each man held the other till at length      225
Each turned away, shutting his heavy jaws
Again together, prisoning thus two tongues
That might forget and might not be forgiven.
Then Bedivere, to find a plain way out,
Said, “Lamorak, let us drink to some one here,      230
And end this dryness. Who shall it be—the King,
The Queen, or Lancelot?”—“Merlin,” Lamorak growled;
And then there were more wrinkles round his eyes
Than Bedivere had said were possible.
“There’s no refusal in me now for that,”      235
The guest replied; “so, ‘Merlin’ let it be.
We’ve not yet seen him, but if he be here,
And even if he should not be here, say ‘Merlin.’”
They drank to the unseen from two new tankards,
And fell straightway to sighing for the past,      240
And what was yet before them. Silence laid
A cogent finger on the lips of each
Impatient veteran, whose hard hands lay clenched
And restless on his midriff, until words
Were stronger than strong Lamorak:      245
Began the solid host, “you may as well
Say now as at another time hereafter
That all your certainties have bruises on ’em,
And all your pestilent asseverations      250
Will never make a man a salamander—
Who’s born, as we are told, so fire won’t bite him,—
Or a slippery queen a nun who counts and burns
Herself to nothing with her beads and candles.
There’s nature, and what’s in us, to be sifted      255
Before we know ourselves, or any man
Or woman that God suffers to be born.
That’s how I speak; and while you strain your mazard,
Like Father Jove, big with a new Minerva,
We’ll say, to pass the time, that I speak well.      260
God’s fish! The King had eyes; and Lancelot
Won’t ride home to his mother, for she’s dead.
The story is that Merlin warned the King
Of what’s come now to pass; and I believe it
And Arthur, he being Arthur and a king,      265
Has made a more pernicious mess than one,
We’re told, for being so great and amorous:
It’s that unwholesome and inclement cub
Young Modred I’d see first in hell before
I’d hang too high the Queen or Lancelot;      270
The King, if one may say it, set the pace,
And we’ve two strapping bastards here to prove it.
Young Borre, he’s well enough; but as for Modred,
I squirm as often as I look at him.
And there again did Merlin warn the King,      275
The story goes abroad; and I believe it.”
Sir Bedivere, as one who caught no more
Than what he would of Lamorak’s outpouring,
Inclined his grizzled head and closed his eyes
Before he sighed and rubbed his beard and spoke:      280
“For all I know to make it otherwise,
The Queen may be a nun some day or other;
I’d pray to God for such a thing to be,
If prayer for that were not a mockery.
We’re late now for much praying, Lamorak,      285
When you and I can feel upon our faces
A wind that has been blowing over ruins
That we had said were castles and high towers—
Till Merlin, or the spirit of him, came
As the dead come in dreams. I saw the King      290
This morning, and I saw his face. Therefore,
I tell you, if a state shall have a king,
The king must have the state, and be the state;
Or then shall we have neither king nor state,
But bones and ashes, and high towers all fallen:      295
And we shall have, where late there was a kingdom,
A dusty wreck of what was once a glory—
A wilderness whereon to crouch and mourn
And moralize, or else to build once more
For something better or for something worse.      300
Therefore again, I say that Lancelot
Has wrought a potent wrong upon the King,
And all who serve and recognize the King,
And all who follow him and all who love him.
Whatever the stormy faults he may have had,      305
To look on him today is to forget them;
And if it be too late for sorrow now
To save him—for it was a broken man
I saw this morning, and a broken king—
The God who sets a day for desolation      310
Will not forsake him in Avilion,
Or whatsoever shadowy land there be
Where peace awaits him on its healing shores.”
Sir Lamorak, shifting in his oaken chair,
Growled like a dog and shook himself like one:      315
“For the stone-chested, helmet-cracking knight
That you are known to be from Lyonnesse
To northward, Bedivere, you fol-de-rol
When days are rancid, and you fiddle-faddle
More like a woman than a man with hands      320
Fit for the smiting of a crazy giant
With armor an inch thick, as we all know
You are, when you’re not sermonizing at us.
As for the King, I say the King, no doubt,
Is angry, sorry, and all sorts of things,      325
For Lancelot, and for his easy Queen,
Whom he took knowing she’d thrown sparks already
On that same piece of tinder, Lancelot,
Who fetched her with him from Leodogran
Because the King—God save poor human reason!—      330
Would prove to Merlin, who knew everything
Worth knowing in those days, that he was wrong.
I’ll drink now and be quiet,—but, by God,
I’ll have to tell you, Brother Bedivere,
Once more, to make you listen properly,      335
That crowns and orders, and high palaces,
And all the manifold ingredients
Of this good solid kingdom, where we sit
And spit now at each other with our eyes,
Will not go rolling down to hell just yet      340
Because a pretty woman is a fool.
And here’s Kay coming with his fiddle face
As long now as two fiddles. Sit ye down,
Sir Man, and tell us everything you know
Of Merlin—or his ghost without a beard.      345
What mostly is it?”
        Sir Kay, the seneschal,
Sat wearily while he gazed upon the two:
“To you it mostly is, if I err not,
That what you hear of Merlin’s coming back      350
Is nothing more or less than heavy truth.
But ask me nothing of the Queen, I say,
For I know nothing. All I know of her
Is what her eyes have told the silences
That now attend her; and that her estate      355
Is one for less complacent execration
Than quips and innuendoes of the city
Would augur for her sin—if there be sin—
Or for her name—if now she have a name.
And where, I say, is this to lead the King,      360
And after him, the kingdom and ourselves?
Here be we, three men of a certain strength
And some confessed intelligence, who know
That Merlin has come out of Brittany—
Out of his grave, as he would say it for us—      365
Because the King has now a desperation
More strong upon him than a woman’s net
Was over Merlin—for now Merlin’s here,
And two of us who knew him know how well
His wisdom, if he have it any longer,      370
Will by this hour have sounded and appraised
The grief and wrath and anguish of the King,
Requiring mercy and inspiring fear
Lest he forego the vigil now most urgent,
And leave unwatched a cranny where some worm      375
Or serpent may come in to speculate.”
“I know your worm, and his worm’s name is Modred—
Albeit the streets are not yet saying so,”
Said Lamorak, as he lowered his wrath and laughed
A sort of poisonous apology      380
To Kay: “And in the meantime, I’ll be gyved!
Here’s Bedivere a-wailing for the King,
And you, Kay, with a moist eye for the Queen.
I think I’ll blow a horn for Lancelot;
For by my soul a man’s in sorry case      385
When Guineveres are out with eyes to scorch him:
I’m not so ancient or so frozen certain
That I’d ride horses down to skeletons
If she were after me. Has Merlin seen him—
This Lancelot, this Queen-fed friend of ours?”      390
Kay answered sighing, with a lonely scowl:
“The picture that I conjure leaves him out;
The King and Merlin are this hour together,
And I can say no more; for I know nothing.
But how the King persuaded or beguiled      395
The stricken wizard from across the water
Outriddles my poor wits. It’s all too strange.”
“It’s all too strange, and half the world’s half crazy!”
Roared Lamorak, forgetting once again
The devastating carriage of his voice.      400
“Is the King sick?” he said, more quietly;
“Is he to let one damned scratch be enough
To paralyze the force that heretofore
Would operate a way through hell and iron,
And iron already slimy with his blood?      405
Is the King blind—with Modred watching him?
Does he forget the crown for Lancelot?
Does he forget that every woman mewing
Shall some day be a handful of small ashes?”
“You speak as one for whom the god of Love      410
Has yet a mighty trap in preparation.
We know you, Lamorak,” said Bedivere:
“We know you for a short man, Lamorak,—
In deeds, if not in inches or in words;
But there are fens and heights and distances      415
That your capricious ranging has not yet
Essayed in this weird region of man’s love.
Forgive me, Lamorak, but your words are words.
Your deeds are what they are; and ages hence
Will men remember your illustriousness,      420
If there be gratitude in history.
For me, I see the shadow of the end,
Wherein to serve King Arthur to the end,
And, if God have it so, to see the Grail
Before I die.”      425
        But Lamorak shook his head:
“See what you will, or what you may. For me,
I see no other than a stinking mess—
With Modred stirring it, and Agravaine
Spattering Camelot with as much of it      430
As he can throw. The Devil got somehow
Into God’s workshop once upon a time,
And out of the red clay that he found there
He made a shape like Modred, and another
As like as eyes are to this Agravaine.      435
‘I never made ’em,’ said the good Lord God,
‘But let ’em go, and see what comes of ’em.’
And that’s what we’re to do. As for the Grail,
I’ve never worried it, and so the Grail
Has never worried me.”      440
        Kay sighed. “I see
With Bedivere the coming of the end,”
He murmured; “for the King I saw today
Was not, nor shall he ever be again,
The King we knew. I say the King is dead;      445
The man is living, but the King is dead.
The wheel is broken.”
        “Faugh!” said Lamorak;
“There are no dead kings yet in Camelot;
But there is Modred who is hatching ruin,—      450
And when it hatches I may not be here.
There’s Gawaine too, and he does not forget
My father, who killed his. King Arthur’s house
Has more divisions in it than I like
In houses; and if Modred’s aim be good      455
For backs like mine, I’m not long for the scene.”



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