Verse > Edwin A. Robinson > Collected Poems > IV. Merlin > V
  PREVIOUS NEXT  
CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).  Collected Poems. 1921.
  
IV. Merlin
V
  
THE SUN went down, and the dark after it
Starred Merlin’s new abode with many a sconced
And many a moving candle, in whose light
The prisoned wizard, mirrored in amazement,
Saw fronting him a stranger, falcon-eyed,      1100
Firm-featured, of a negligible age,
And fair enough to look upon, he fancied,
Though not a warrior born, nor more a courtier.
A native humor resting in his long
And solemn jaws now stirred, and Merlin smiled      1105
To see himself in purple, touched with gold,
And fledged with snowy lace.—The careful Blaise,
Having drawn some time before from Merlin’s wallet
The sable raiment of a royal scholar,
Had eyed it with a long mistrust and said:      1110
“The lady Vivian would be vexed, I fear,
To meet you vested in these learned weeds
Of gravity and death; for she abhors
Mortality in all its hues and emblems—
Black wear, long argument, and all the cold      1115
And solemn things that appertain to graves.”—
And Merlin, listening, to himself had said,
“This fellow has a freedom, yet I like him;”
And then aloud: “I trust you. Deck me out,
However, with a temperate regard      1120
For what your candid eye may find in me
Of inward coloring. Let them reap my beard,
Moreover, with a sort of reverence,
For I shall never look on it again.
And though your lady frown her face away      1125
To think of me in black, for God’s indulgence,
Array me not in scarlet or in yellow.”—
And so it came to pass that Merlin sat
At ease in purple, even though his chin
Reproached him as he pinched it, and seemed yet      1130
A little fearful of its nakedness.
He might have sat and scanned himself for ever
Had not the careful Blaise, regarding him,
Remarked again that in his proper judgment,
And on the valid word of his attendants,      1135
No more was to be done. “Then do no more,”
Said Merlin, with a last look at his chin;
“Never do more when there’s no more to do,
And you may shun thereby the bitter taste
Of many disillusions and regrets.      1140
God’s pity on us that our words have wings
And leave our deeds to crawl so far below them;
For we have all two heights, we men who dream,
Whether we lead or follow, rule or serve.”—
“God’s pity on us anyhow,” Blaise answered,      1145
“Or most of us. Meanwhile, I have to say,
As long as you are here, and I’m alive,
Your summons will assure the loyalty
Of all my diligence and expedition.
The gong that you hear singing in the distance      1150
Was rung for your attention and your presence.”—
“I wonder at this fellow, yet I like him,”
Said Merlin; and he rose to follow him.
 
The lady Vivian in a fragile sheath
Of crimson, dimmed and veiled ineffably      1155
By the flame-shaken gloom wherein she sat,
And twinkled if she moved, heard Merlin coming,
And smiled as if to make herself believe
Her joy was all a triumph; yet her blood
Confessed a tingling of more wonderment      1160
Than all her five and twenty worldly years
Of waiting for this triumph could remember;
And when she knew and felt the slower tread
Of his unseen advance among the shadows
To the small haven of uncertain light      1165
That held her in it as a torch-lit shoal
Might hold a smooth red fish, her listening skin
Responded with a creeping underneath it,
And a crinkling that was incident alike
To darkness, love, and mice. When he was there,      1170
She looked up at him in a whirl of mirth
And wonder, as in childhood she had gazed
Wide-eyed on royal mountebanks who made
So brief a shift of the impossible
That kings and queens would laugh and shake themselves;      1175
Then rising slowly on her little feet,
Like a slim creature lifted, she thrust out
Her two small hands as if to push him back—
Whereon he seized them. “Go away,” she said;
“I never saw you in my life before,”—      1180
“You say the truth,” he answered; “when I met
Myself an hour ago, my words were yours.
God made the man you see for you to like,
If possible. If otherwise, turn down
These two prodigious and remorseless thumbs      1185
And leave your lions to annihilate him.”—
 
“I have no other lion than yourself,”
She said; “and since you cannot eat yourself,
Pray do a lonely woman, who is, you say,
More like a tree than any other thing      1190
In your discrimination, the large honor
Of sharing with her a small kind of supper.”—
“Yes, you are like a tree,—or like a flower;
More like a flower to-night.” He bowed his head
And kissed the ten small fingers he was holding,      1195
As calmly as if each had been a son;
Although his heart was leaping and his eyes
Had sight for nothing save a swimming crimson
Between two glimmering arms. “More like a flower
To-night,” he said, as now he scanned again      1200
The immemorial meaning of her face
And drew it nearer to his eyes. It seemed
A flower of wonder with a crimson stem
Came leaning slowly and regretfully
To meet his will—a flower of change and peril      1205
That had a clinging blossom of warm olive
Half stifled with a tyranny of black,
And held the wayward fragrance of a rose
Made woman by delirious alchemy.
She raised her face and yoked his willing neck      1210
With half her weight; and with hot lips that left
The world with only one philosophy
For Merlin or for Anaxagoras,
Called his to meet them and in one long hush
Of capture to surrender and make hers      1215
The last of anything that might remain
Of what was now their beardless wizardry.
Then slowly she began to push herself
Away, and slowly Merlin let her go
As far from him as his outreaching hands      1220
Could hold her fingers while his eyes had all
The beauty of the woodland and the world
Before him in the firelight, like a nymph
Of cities, or a queen a little weary
Of inland stillness and immortal trees.      1225
“Are you to let me go again sometime,”
She said,—“before I starve to death, I wonder?
If not, I’ll have to bite the lion’s paws,
And make him roar. He cannot shake his mane,
For now the lion has no mane to shake;      1230
The lion hardly knows himself without it,
And thinks he has no face, but there’s a lady
Who says he had no face until he lost it.
So there we are. And there’s a flute somewhere,
Playing a strange old tune. You know the words:      1235
‘The Lion and the Lady are both hungry.’”
 
Fatigue and hunger—tempered leisurely
With food that some devout magician’s oven
Might after many failures have delivered,
And wine that had for decades in the dark      1240
Of Merlin’s grave been slowly quickening,
And with half-heard, dream-weaving interludes
Of distant flutes and viols, made more distant
By far, nostalgic hautboys blown from nowhere,—
Were tempered not so leisurely, may be,      1245
With Vivian’s inextinguishable eyes
Between two shining silver candlesticks
That lifted each a trembling flame to make
The rest of her a dusky loveliness
Against a bank of shadow. Merlin made,      1250
As well as he was able while he ate,
A fair division of the fealty due
To food and beauty, albeit more times than one
Was he at odds with his urbanity
In honoring too long the grosser viand.      1255
“The best invention in Broceliande
Has not been over-taxed in vain, I see,”
She told him, with her chin propped on her fingers
And her eyes flashing blindness into his:
“I put myself out cruelly to please you,      1260
And you, for that, forget almost at once
The name and image of me altogether.
You needn’t, for when all is analyzed,
It’s only a bird-pie that you are eating.”
 
“I know not what you call it,” Merlin said;      1265
“Nor more do I forget your name and image,
Though I do eat; and if I did not eat,
Your sending out of ships and caravans
To get whatever ’tis that’s in this thing
Would be a sorrow for you all your days;      1270
And my great love, which you have seen by now,
Might look to you a lie; and like as not
You’d actuate some sinewed mercenary
To carry me away to God knows where
And seal me in a fearsome hole to starve,      1275
Because I made of this insidious picking
An idle circumstance. My dear fair lady—
And there is not another under heaven
So fair as you are as I see you now—
I cannot look at you too much and eat;      1280
And I must eat, or be untimely ashes,
Whereon the light of your celestial gaze
Would fall, I fear me, for no longer time
Than on the solemn dust of Jeremiah—
Whose beard you likened once, in heathen jest,      1285
To mine that now is no man’s.”
 
        “Are you sorry?”
Said Vivian, filling Merlin’s empty goblet;
“If you are sorry for the loss of it,
Drink more of this and you may tell me lies      1290
Enough to make me sure that you are glad;
But if your love is what you say it is,
Be never sorry that my love took off
That horrid hair to make your face at last
A human fact. Since I have had your name      1295
To dream of and say over to myself,
The visitations of that awful beard
Have been a terror for my nights and days—
For twenty years. I’ve seen it like an ocean,
Blown seven ways at once and wrecking ships,      1300
With men and women screaming for their lives;
I’ve seen it woven into shining ladders
That ran up out of sight and so to heaven,
All covered with white ghosts with hanging robes
Like folded wings,—and there were millions of them,      1305
Climbing, climbing, climbing, all the time;
And all the time that I was watching them
I thought how far above me Merlin was,
And wondered always what his face was like.
But even then, as a child, I knew the day      1310
Would come some time when I should see his face
And hear his voice, and have him in my house
Till he should care no more to stay in it,
And go away to found another kingdom.”—
“Not that,” he said; and, sighing, drank more wine;      1315
“One kingdom for one Merlin is enough.”—
“One Merlin for one Vivian is enough,”
She said. “If you care much, remember that;
But the Lord knows how many Vivians
One Merlin’s entertaining eye might favor,      1320
Indifferently well and all at once,
If they were all at hand. Praise heaven they’re not.”
 
“If they were in the world—praise heaven they’re not—
And if one Merlin’s entertaining eye
Saw two of them, there might be left him then      1325
The sight of no eye to see anything—
Not even the Vivian who is everything,
She being Beauty, Beauty being She,
She being Vivian, and so on for ever.”—
“I’m glad you don’t see two of me,” she said;      1330
“For there’s a whole world yet for you to eat
And drink and say to me before I know
The sort of creature that you see in me.
I’m withering for a little more attention,
But, being woman, I can wait. These cups      1335
That you see coming are for the last there is
Of what my father gave to kings alone,
And far from always. You are more than kings
To me; therefore I give it all to you,
Imploring you to spare no more of it      1340
Than a small cockle-shell would hold for me
To pledge your love and mine in. Take the rest,
That I may see tonight the end of it.
I’ll have no living remnant of the dead
Annoying me until it fades and sours      1345
Of too long cherishing; for Time enjoys
The look that’s on our faces when we scowl
On unexpected ruins, and thrift itself
May be a sort of slow unwholesome fire
That eats away to dust the life that feeds it.      1350
You smile, I see, but I said what I said.
One hardly has to live a thousand years
To contemplate a lost economy;
So let us drink it while it’s yet alive
And you and I are not untimely ashes.      1355
My last words are your own, and I don’t like ’em.”—
A sudden laughter scattered from her eyes
A threatening wisdom. He smiled and let her laugh,
Then looked into the dark where there was nothing:
“There’s more in this than I have seen,” he thought,      1360
“Though I shall see it.”—“Drink,” she said again;
“There’s only this much in the world of it,
And I am near to giving all to you
Because you are so great and I so little.”
 
With a long-kindling gaze that caught from hers      1365
A laughing flame, and with a hand that shook
Like Arthur’s kingdom, Merlin slowly raised
A golden cup that for a golden moment
Was twinned in air with hers; and Vivian,
Who smiled at him across their gleaming rims,      1370
From eyes that made a fuel of the night
Surrounding her, shot glory over gold
At Merlin, while their cups touched and his trembled.
He drank, not knowing what, nor caring much
For kings who might have cared less for themselves,      1375
He thought, had all the darkness and wild light
That fell together to make Vivian
Been there before them then to flower anew
Through sheathing crimson into candle-light
With each new leer of their loose, liquorish eyes.      1380
Again he drank, and he cursed every king
Who might have touched her even in her cradle;
For what were kings to such as he, who made them
And saw them totter—for the world to see,
And heed, if the world would? He drank again,      1385
And yet again—to make himself assured
No manner of king should have the last of it—
The cup that Vivian filled unfailingly
Until she poured for nothing. “At the end
Of this incomparable flowing gold,”      1390
She prattled on to Merlin, who observed
Her solemnly, “I fear there may be specks.”—
He sighed aloud, whereat she laughed at him
And pushed the golden cup a little nearer.
He scanned it with a sad anxiety,      1395
And then her face likewise, and shook his head
As if at her concern for such a matter:
“Specks? What are specks? Are you afraid of them?”
He murmured slowly, with a drowsy tongue;
“There are specks everywhere. I fear them not.      1400
If I were king in Camelot, I might
Fear more than specks. But now I fear them not.
You are too strange a lady to fear specks.”
 
He stared a long time at the cup of gold
Before him but he drank no more. There came      1405
Between him and the world a crumbling sky
Of black and crimson, with a crimson cloud
That held a far off town of many towers.
All swayed and shaken, till at last they fell,
And there was nothing but a crimson cloud      1410
That crumbled into nothing, like the sky
That vanished with it, carrying away
The world, the woman, and all memory of them,
Until a slow light of another sky
Made gray an open casement, showing him      1415
Faint shapes of an exotic furniture
That glimmered with a dim magnificence,
And letting in the sound of many birds
That were, as he lay there remembering,
The only occupation of his ears      1420
Until it seemed they shared a fainter sound,
As if a sleeping child with a black head
Beside him drew the breath of innocence.
 
One shining afternoon around the fountain,
As on the shining day of his arrival,      1425
The sunlight was alive with flying silver
That had for Merlin a more dazzling flash
Than jewels rained in dreams, and a richer sound
Than harps, and all the morning stars together,—
When jewels and harps and stars and everything      1430
That flashed and sang and was not Vivian,
Seemed less than echoes of her least of words—
For she was coming. Suddenly, somewhere
Behind him, she was coming; that was all
He knew until she came and took his hand      1435
And held it while she talked about the fishes.
When she looked up he thought a softer light
Was in her eyes than once he had found there;
And had there been left yet for dusky women
A beauty that was heretofore not hers,      1440
He told himself he must have seen it then
Before him in the face at which he smiled
And trembled. “Many men have called me wise,”
He said, “but you are wiser than all wisdom
If you know what you are.”—“I don’t,” she said;      1445
“I know that you and I are here together;
I know that I have known for twenty years
That life would be almost a constant yawning
Until you came; and now that you are here,
I know that you are not to go away      1450
Until you tell me that I’m hideous;
I know that I like fishes, ferns, and snakes,—
Maybe because I liked them when the world
Was young and you and I were salamanders;
I know, too, a cool place not far from here,      1455
Where there are ferns that are like marching men
Who never march away. Come now and see them,
And do as they do—never march away.
When they are gone, some others, crisp and green,
Will have their place, but never march away.”—      1460
He smoothed her silky fingers, one by one:
“Some other Merlin, also, do you think,
Will have his place—and never march away?”—
Then Vivian laid a finger on his lips
And shook her head at him before she laughed:      1465
“There is no other Merlin than yourself,
And you are never going to be old.”
 
Oblivious of a world that made of him
A jest, a legend, and a long regret,
And with a more commanding wizardry      1470
Than his to rule a kingdom where the king
Was Love and the queen Vivian, Merlin found
His queen without the blemish of a word
That was more rough than honey from her lips,
Or the first adumbration of a frown      1475
To cloud the night-wild fire that in her eyes
Had yet a smoky friendliness of home,
And a foreknowing care for mighty trifles.
“There are miles and miles for you to wander in,”
She told him once: “Your prison yard is large,      1480
And I would rather take my two ears off
And feed them to the fishes in the fountain
Than buzz like an incorrigible bee
For always around yours, and have you hate
The sound of me; for some day then, for certain,      1485
Your philosophic rage would see in me
A bee in earnest, and your hand would smite
My life away. And what would you do then?
I know: for years and years you’d sit alone
Upon my grave, and be the grieving image      1490
Of lean remorse, and suffer miserably;
And often, all day long, you’d only shake
Your celebrated head and all it holds,
Or beat it with your fist the while you groaned
Aloud and went on saying to yourself:      1495
‘Never should I have killed her, or believed
She was a bee that buzzed herself to death,
First having made me crazy, had there been
Judicious distance and wise absences
To keep the two of us inquisitive.’”—      1500
“I fear you bow your unoffending head
Before a load that should be mine,” said he;
“If so, you led me on by listening.
You should have shrieked and jumped, and then fled yelling;
That’s the best way when a man talks too long.      1505
God’s pity on me if I love your feet
More now than I could ever love the face
Of any one of all those Vivians
You summoned out of nothing on the night
When I saw towers. I’ll wander and amend.”—      1510
At that she flung the noose of her soft arms
Around his neck and kissed him instantly:
“You are the wisest man that ever was,
And I’ve a prayer to make: May all you say
To Vivian be a part of what you knew      1515
Before the curse of her unquiet head
Was on your shoulder, as you have it now,
To punish you for knowing beyond knowledge.
You are the only one who sees enough
To make me see how far away I am      1520
From all that I have seen and have not been;
You are the only thing there is alive
Between me as I am and as I was
When Merlin was a dream. You are to listen
When I say now to you that I’m alone.      1525
Like you, I saw too much; and unlike you
I made no kingdom out of what I saw—
Or none save this one here that you must rule,
Believing you are ruled. I see too far
To rule myself. Time’s way with you and me      1530
Is our way, in that we are out of Time
And out of tune with Time. We have this place,
And you must hold us in it or we die.
Look at me now and say if what I say
Be folly or not; for my unquiet head      1535
Is no conceit of mine. I had it first
When I was born; and I shall have it with me
Till my unquiet soul is on its way
To be, I hope, where souls are quieter.
So let the first and last activity      1540
Of what you say so often is your love
Be always to remember that our lyres
Are not strung for Today. On you it falls
To keep them in accord here with each other,
For you have wisdom, I have only sight      1545
For distant things—and you. And you are Merlin.
Poor wizard! Vivian is your punishment
For making kings of men who are not kings;
And you are mine, by the same reasoning,
For living out of Time and out of tune      1550
With anything but you. No other man
Could make me say so much of what I know
As I say now to you. And you are Merlin!”
 
She looked up at him till his way was lost
Again in the familiar wilderness      1555
Of night that love made for him in her eyes,
And there he wandered as he said he would;
He wandered also in his prison-yard,
And, when he found her coming after him,
Beguiled her with her own admonishing      1560
And frowned upon her with a fierce reproof
That many a time in the old world outside
Had set the mark of silence on strong men—
Whereat she laughed, not always wholly sure,
Nor always wholly glad, that he who played      1565
So lightly was the wizard of her dreams:
“No matter—if only Merlin keep the world
Away,” she thought. “Our lyres have many strings,
But he must know them all, for he is Merlin.”
 
And so far years, till ten of them were gone,—      1570
Ten years, ten seasons, or ten flying ages—
Fate made Broceliande a paradise,
By none invaded, until Dagonet,
Like a discordant, awkward bird of doom,
Flew in with Arthur’s message. For the King,      1575
In sorrow cleaving to simplicity,
And having in his love a quick remembrance
Of Merlin’s old affection for the fellow,
Had for this vain, reluctant enterprise
Appointed him—the knight who made men laugh,      1580
And was a fool because he played the fool.
 
“The King believes today, as in his boyhood,
That I am Fate; and I can do no more
Than show again what in his heart he knows,”
Said Merlin to himself and Vivian:      1585
“This time I go because I made him King,
Thereby to be a mirror for the world;
This time I go, but never after this,
For I can be no more than what I was,
And I can do no more than I have done.”      1590
He took her slowly in his arms and felt
Her body throbbing like a bird against him:
“This time I go; I go because I must.”
 
And in the morning, when he rode away
With Dagonet and Blaise through the same gate      1595
That once had clanged as if to shut for ever,
She had not even asked him not to go;
For it was then that in his lonely gaze
Of helpless love and sad authority
She found the gleam of his imprisoned power      1600
That Fate withheld; and, pitying herself,
She pitied the fond Merlin she had changed,
And saw the Merlin who had changed the world.

CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD

  PREVIOUS NEXT  
 
Loading
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors