Verse > Edwin A. Robinson > Collected Poems > IV. Merlin > III
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).  Collected Poems. 1921.
IV. Merlin
KING ARTHUR, as he paced a lonely floor
That rolled a muffled echo, as he fancied,
All through the palace and out through the world,
Might now have wondered hard, could he have heard      460
Sir Lamorak’s apathetic disregard
Of what Fate’s knocking made so manifest
And ominous to others near the King—
If any, indeed, were near him at this hour
Save Merlin, once the wisest of all men,      465
And weary Dagonet, whom he had made
A knight for love of him and his abused
Integrity. He might have wondered hard
And wondered much; and after wondering,
He might have summoned, with as little heart      470
As he had now for crowns, the fond, lost Merlin,
Whose Nemesis had made of him a slave,
A man of dalliance, and a sybarite.
“Men change in Brittany, Merlin,” said the King;
And even his grief had strife to freeze again      475
A dreary smile for the transmuted seer
Now robed in heavy wealth of purple silk,
With frogs and foreign tassels. On his face,
Too smooth now for a wizard or a sage,
Lay written, for the King’s remembering eyes,      480
A pathos of a lost authority
Long faded, and unconscionably gone;
And on the King’s heart lay a sudden cold:
“I might as well have left him in his grave,
As he would say it, saying what was true,—      485
As death is true. This Merlin is not mine,
But Vivian’s. My crown is less than hers,
And I am less than woman to this man.”
Then Merlin, as one reading Arthur’s words
On viewless tablets in the air before him:      490
“Now, Arthur, since you are a child of mine—
A foster-child, and that’s a kind of child—
Be not from hearsay or despair too eager
To dash your meat with bitter seasoning,
So none that are more famished than yourself      495
Shall have what you refuse. For you are King,
And if you starve yourself, you starve the state;
And then by sundry looks and silences
Of those you loved, and by the lax regard
Of those you knew for fawning enemies,      500
You may learn soon that you are King no more,
But a slack, blasted, and sad-fronted man,
Made sadder with a crown. No other friend
Than I could say this to you, and say more;
And if you bid me say no more, so be it.”      505
The King, who sat with folded arms, now bowed
His head and felt, unfought and all aflame
Like immanent hell-fire, the wretchedness
That only those who are to lead may feel—
And only they when they are maimed and worn      510
Too sore to covet without shuddering
The fixed impending eminence where death
Itself were victory, could they but lead
Unbitten by the serpents they had fed.
Turning, he spoke: “Merlin, you say the truth:      515
There is no man who could say more to me
Today, or say so much to me, and live.
But you are Merlin still, or part of him;
I did you wrong when I thought otherwise,
And I am sorry now. Say what you will.      520
We are alone, and I shall be alone
As long as Time shall hide a reason here
For me to stay in this infested world
Where I have sinned and erred and heeded not
Your counsel; and where you yourself—God save us!—      525
Have gone down smiling to the smaller life
That you and your incongruous laughter called
Your living grave. God save us all, Merlin,
When you, the seer, the founder, and the prophet,
May throw the gold of your immortal treasure      530
Back to the God that gave it, and then laugh
Because a woman has you in her arms …
Why do you sting me now with a small hive
Of words that are all poison? I do not ask
Much honey; but why poison me for nothing,      535
And with a venom that I know already
As I know crowns and wars? Why tell a king—
A poor, foiled, flouted, miserable king—
That if he lets rats eat his fingers off
He’ll have no fingers to fight battles with?      540
I know as much as that, for I am still
A king—who thought himself a little less
Than God; a king who built him palaces
On sand and mud, and hears them crumbling now,
And sees them tottering, as he knew they must.      545
You are the man who made me to be King—
Therefore, say anything.”
        Merlin, stricken deep
With pity that was old, being born of old
Foreshadowings, made answer to the King:      550
“This coil of Lancelot and Guinevere
Is not for any mortal to undo,
Or to deny, or to make otherwise;
But your most violent years are on their way
To days, and to a sounding of loud hours      555
That are to strike for war. Let not the time
Between this hour and then be lost in fears,
Or told in obscurations and vain faith
In what has been your long security;
For should your force be slower then than hate,      560
And your regret be sharper than your sight,
And your remorse fall heavier than your sword,—
Then say farewell to Camelot, and the crown.
But say not you have lost, or failed in aught
Your golden horoscope of imperfection      565
Has held in starry words that I have read.
I see no farther now than I saw then,
For no man shall be given of everything
Together in one life; yet I may say
The time is imminent when he shall come      570
For whom I founded the Siege Perilous;
And he shall be too much a living part
Of what he brings, and what he burns away in,
To be for long a vexed inhabitant
Of this mad realm of stains and lower trials.      575
And here the ways of God again are mixed:
For this new knight who is to find the Grail
For you, and for the least who pray for you
In such lost coombs and hollows of the world
As you have never entered, is to be      580
The son of him you trusted—Lancelot,
Of all who ever jeopardized a throne
Sure the most evil-fated, saving one,
Your son, begotten, though you knew not then
Your leman was your sister, of Morgause;      585
For it is Modred now, not Lancelot,
Whose native hate plans your annihilation—
Though he may smile till he be sick, and swear
Allegiance to an unforgiven father
Until at last he shake an empty tongue      590
Talked out with too much lying—though his lies
Will have a truth to steer them. Trust him not,
For unto you the father, he the son
Is like enough to be the last of terrors—
If in a field of time that looms to you      595
Far larger than it is you fail to plant
And harvest the old seeds of what I say,
And so be nourished and adept again
For what may come to be. But Lancelot
Will have you first; and you need starve no more      600
For the Queen’s love, the love that never was.
Your Queen is now your Kingdom, and hereafter
Let no man take it from you, or you die.
Let no man take it from you for a day;
For days are long when we are far from what      605
We love, and mischief’s other name is distance.
Let hat be all, for I can say no more;
Not even to Blaise the Hermit, were he living,
Could I say more than I have given you now
To hear; and he alone was my confessor.”      610
The King arose and paced the floor again.
“I get gray comfort of dark words,” he said;
“But tell me not that you can say no more:
You can, for I can hear you saying it.
Yet I’ll not ask for more. I have enough—      615
Until my new knight comes to prove and find
The promise and the glory of the Grail,
Though I shall see no Grail. For I have built
On sand and mud, and I shall see no Grail.”—
“Nor I,” said Merlin. “Once I dreamed of it,      620
But I was buried. I shall see no Grail,
Nor would I have it otherwise. I saw
Too much, and that was never good for man.
The man who goes alone too far goes mad—
In one way or another. God knew best,      625
And he knows what is coming yet for me.
I do not ask. Like you, I have enough.”
That night King Arthur’s apprehension found
In Merlin an obscure and restive guest,
Whose only thought was on the hour of dawn,      630
When he should see the last of Camelot
And ride again for Brittany; and what words
Were said before the King was left alone
Were only darker for reiteration.
They parted, all provision made secure      635
For Merlin’s early convoy to the coast,
And Arthur tramped the past. The loneliness
Of kings, around him like the unseen dead,
Lay everywhere; and he was loath to move,
As if in fear to meet with his cold hand      640
The touch of something colder. Then a whim,
Begotten of intolerable doubt,
Seized him and stung him until he was asking
If any longer lived among his knights
A man to trust as once he trusted all,      645
And Lancelot more than all. “And it is he
Who is to have me first,” so Merlin says,—
“As if he had me not in hell already.
Lancelot! Lancelot!” He cursed the tears
That cooled his misery, and then he asked      650
Himself again if he had one to trust
Among his knights, till even Bedivere,
Tor, Bors, and Percival, rough Lamorak,
Griflet, and Gareth, and gay Gawaine, all
Were dubious knaves,—or they were like to be,      655
For cause to make them so; and he had made
Himself to be the cause. “God set me right,
Before this folly carry me on farther,”
He murmured; and he smiled unhappily,
Though fondly, as he thought: “Yes, there is one      660
Whom I may trust with even my soul’s last shred;
And Dagonet will sing for me tonight
An old song, not too merry or too sad.”
When Dagonet, having entered, stood before
The King as one affrighted, the King smiled:      665
“You think because I call for you so late
That I am angry, Dagonet? Why so?
Have you been saying what I say to you,
And telling men that you brought Merlin here?
No? So I fancied; and if you report      670
No syllable of anything I speak,
You will have no regrets, and I no anger.
What word of Merlin was abroad today?”
“Today have I heard no man save Gawaine,
And to him I said only what all men      675
Are saying to their neighbors. They believe
That you have Merlin here, and that his coming
Denotes no good. Gawaine was curious,
But ever mindful of your majesty.
He pressed me not, and we made light of it.”      680
“Gawaine, I fear, makes light of everything,”
The King said, looking down. “Sometimes I wish
I had a full Round Table of Gawaines.
But that’s a freak of midnight,—never mind it.
Sing me a song—one of those endless things      685
That Merlin liked of old, when men were younger
And there were more stars twinkling in the sky.
I see no stars that are alive tonight,
And I am not the king of sleep. So then,
Sing me an old song.”      690
        Dagonet’s quick eye
Caught sorrow in the King’s; and he knew more,
In a fool’s way, than even the King himself
Of what was hovering over Camelot.
“O King,” he said, “I cannot sing tonight.      695
If you command me I shall try to sing,
But I shall fail; for there are no songs now
In my old throat, or even in these poor strings
That I can hardly follow with my fingers.
Forgive me—kill me—but I cannot sing.”      700
Dagonet fell down then on both his knees
And shook there while he clutched the King’s cold hand
And wept for what he knew.
        “There, Dagonet;
I shall not kill my knight, or make him sing.      705
No more; get up, and get you off to bed.
There’ll be another time for you to sing,
So get you to your covers and sleep well.”
Alone again, the King said, bitterly:
“Yes, I have one friend left, and they who know      710
As much of him as of themselves believe
That he’s a fool. Poor Dagonet’s a fool.
And if he be a fool, what else am I
Than one fool more to make the world complete?
‘The love that never was!’ … Fool, fool, fool, fool!”      715
The King was long awake. No covenant
With peace was his tonight; and he knew sleep
As he knew the cold eyes of Guinevere
That yesterday had stabbed him, having first
On Lancelot’s name struck fire, and left him then      720
As now they left him—with a wounded heart,
A wounded pride, and a sickening pang worse yet
Of lost possession. He thought wearily
Of watchers by the dead, late wayfarers,
Rough-handed mariners on ships at sea,      725
Lone-yawning sentries, wastrels, and all others
Who might be saying somewhere to themselves,
“The King is now asleep in Camelot;
God save the King.”—“God save the King, indeed,
If there be now a king to save,” he said.      730
Then he saw giants rising in the dark,
Born horribly of memories and new fears
That in the gray-lit irony of dawn
Were partly to fade out and be forgotten;
And then there might be sleep, and for a time      735
There might again be peace. His head was hot
And throbbing; but the rest of him was cold,
As he lay staring hard where nothing stood,
And hearing what was not, even while he saw
And heard, like dust and thunder far away,      740
The coming confirmation of the words
Of him who saw so much and feared so little
Of all that was to be. No spoken doom
That ever chilled the last night of a felon
Prepared a dragging anguish more profound      745
And absolute than Arthur, in these hours,
Made out of darkness and of Merlin’s words;
No tide that ever crashed on Lyonnesse
Drove echoes inland that were lonelier
For widowed ears among the fisher-folk,      750
Than for the King were memories tonight
Of old illusions that were dead for ever.



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