Verse > Edwin A. Robinson > Collected Poems > IV. Merlin > VI
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).  Collected Poems. 1921.
IV. Merlin
“NO kings are coming on their hands and knees,
Nor yet on horses or in chariots,      1605
To carry me away from you again,”
Said Merlin, winding around Vivian’s ear
A shred of her black hair. “King Arthur knows
That I have done with kings, and that I speak
No more their crafty language. Once I knew it,      1610
But now the only language I have left
Is one that I must never let you hear
Too long, or know too well. When towering deeds
Once done shall only out of dust and words
Be done again, the doer may then be wary      1615
Lest in the complement of his new fabric
There be more words than dust.”
        “Why tell me so?”
Said Vivian; and a singular thin laugh
Came after her thin question. “Do you think      1620
That I’m so far away from history
That I require, even of the wisest man
Who ever said the wrong thing to a woman,
So large a light on what I know already—
When all I seek is here before me now      1625
In your new eyes that you have brought for me
From Camelot? The eyes you took away
Were sad and old; and I could see in them
A Merlin who remembered all the kings
He ever saw, and wished himself, almost,      1630
Away from Vivian, to make other kings,
And shake the world again in the old manner.
I saw myself no bigger than a beetle
For several days, and wondered if your love
Were large enough to make me any larger      1635
When you came back. Am I a beetle still?”
She stood up on her toes and held her cheek
For some time against his, and let him go.
“I fear the time has come for me to wander
A little in my prison-yard,” he said.—      1640
“No, tell me everything that you have seen
And heard and done, and seen done, and heard done,
Since you deserted me. And tell me first
What the King thinks of me.”—“The King believes
That you are almost what you are,” he told her:      1645
“The beauty of all ages that are vanished,
Reborn to be the wonder of one woman.”—
“I knew he hated me. What else of him?”—
“And all that I have seen and heard and done,
Which is not much, would make a weary telling;      1650
And all your part of it would be to sleep,
And dream that Merlin had his beard again.”—
“Then tell me more about your good fool knight,
Sir Dagonet. If Blaise were not half-mad
Already with his pondering on the name      1655
And shield of his unshielding nameless father,
I’d make a fool of him. I’d call him Ajax;
I’d have him shake his fist at thunder-storms,
And dance a jig as long as there was lightning,
And so till I forgot myself entirely.      1660
Not even your love may do so much as that.”—
“Thunder and lightning are no friends of mine,”
Said Merlin slowly, “more than they are yours;
They bring me nearer to the elements
From which I came than I care now to be.”—      1665
“You owe a service to those elements;
For by their service you outwitted age
And made the world a kingdom of your will.”—
He touched her hand, smiling: “Whatever service
Of mine awaits them will not be forgotten,”      1670
He said; and the smile faded on his face.—
“Now of all graceless and ungrateful wizards—”
But there she ceased, for she found in his eyes
The first of a new fear. “The wrong word rules
Today,” she said; “and we’ll have no more journeys.”      1675
Although he wandered rather more than ever
Since he had come again to Brittany
From Camelot, Merlin found eternally
Before him a new loneliness that made
Of garden, park, and woodland, all alike,      1680
A desolation and a changelessness
Defying reason, without Vivian
Beside him, like a child with a black head,
Or moving on before him, or somewhere
So near him that, although he saw it not      1685
With eyes, he felt the picture of her beauty
And shivered at the nearness of her being.
Without her now there was no past or future,
And a vague, soul-consuming premonition
He found the only tenant of the present;      1690
He wondered, when she was away from him,
If his avenging injured intellect
Might shine with Arthur’s kingdom a twin mirror,
Fate’s plaything, for new ages without eyes
To see therein themselves and their declension.      1695
Love made his hours a martyrdom without her;
The world was like an empty house without her,
Where Merlin was a prisoner of love
Confined within himself by too much freedom,
Repeating an unending exploration      1700
Of many solitary silent rooms,
And only in a way remembering now
That once their very solitude and silence
Had by the magic of expectancy
Made sure what now he doubted—though his doubts,      1705
Day after day, were founded on a shadow.
For now to Merlin, in his paradise,
Had come an unseen angel with a sword
Unseen, the touch of which was a long fear
For longer sorrow that had never come,      1710
Yet might if he compelled it. He discovered,
One golden day in autumn as he wandered,
That he had made the radiance of two years
A misty twilight when he might as well
Have had no mist between him and the sun,      1715
The sun being Vivian. On his coming then
To find her all in green against a wall
Of green and yellow leaves, and crumbling bread
For birds around the fountain while she sang
And the birds ate the bread, he told himself      1720
That everything today was as it was
At first, and for a minute he believed it.
“I’d have you always all in green out here,”
He said, “if I had much to say about it.”—
She clapped her crumbs away and laughed at him:      1725
“I’ve covered up my bones with every color
That I can carry on them without screaming,
And you have liked them all—or made me think so.”—
“I must have liked them if you thought I did,”
He answered, sighing; “but the sight of you      1730
Today as on the day I saw you first,
All green, all wonderful” … He tore a leaf
To pieces with a melancholy care
That made her smile.—“Why pause at ‘wonderful’?
You’ve hardly been yourself since you came back      1735
From Camelot, where that unpleasant King
Said things that you have never said to me.”—
He looked upon her with a worn reproach:
“The King said nothing that I keep from you.”—
“What is it then?” she asked, imploringly;      1740
“You man of moods and miracles, what is it?”—
He shook his head and tore another leaf:
“There is no need of asking what it is;
Whatever you or I may choose to name it,
The name of it is Fate, who played with me      1745
And gave me eyes to read of the unwritten
More lines than I have read. I see no more
Today than yesterday, but I remember.
My ways are not the ways of other men;
My memories go forward. It was you      1750
Who said that we were not in tune with Time;
It was not I who said it.”—“But you knew it;
What matter then who said it?”—“It was you
Who said that Merlin was your punishment
For being in tune with him and not with Time—      1755
With Time or with the world; and it was you
Who said you were alone, even here with Merlin;
It was not I who said it. It is I
Who tell you now my inmost thoughts.” He laughed
As if at hidden pain around his heart,      1760
But there was not much laughing in his eyes.
They walked, and for a season they were silent:
“I shall know what you mean by that,” she said,
“When you have told me. Here’s an oak you like,
And here’s a place that fits me wondrous well      1765
To sit in. You sit there. I’ve seen you there
Before; and I have spoiled your noble thoughts
By walking all my fingers up and down
Your countenance, as if they were the feet
Of a small animal with no great claws.      1770
Tell me a story now about the world,
And the men in it, what they do in it,
And why it is they do it all so badly.”—
“I’ve told you every story that I know,
Almost,” he said.—“O, don’t begin like that.”—      1775
“Well, once upon a time there was a King.”—
“That has a more commendable address;
Go on, and tell me all about the King;
I’ll bet the King had warts or carbuncles,
Or something wrong in his divine insides,      1780
To make him wish that Adam had died young.”
Merlin observed her slowly with a frown
Of saddened wonder. She laughed rather lightly,
And at his heart he felt again the sword
Whose touch was a long fear for longer sorrow.      1785
“Well, once upon a time there was a king,”
He said again, but now in a dry voice
That wavered and betrayed a venturing.
He paused, and would have hesitated longer,
But something in him that was not himself      1790
Compelled an utterance that his tongue obeyed,
As an unwilling child obeys a father
Who might be richer for obedience
If he obeyed the child: “There was a king
Who would have made his reign a monument      1795
For kings and peoples of the waiting ages
To reverence and remember, and to this end
He coveted and won, with no ado
To make a story of, a neighbor queen
Who limed him with her smile and had of him,      1800
In token of their sin, what he found soon
To be a sort of mongrel son and nephew—
And a most precious reptile in addition—
To ornament his court and carry arms,
And latterly to be the darker half      1805
Of ruin. Also the king, who made of love
More than he made of life and death together,
Forgot the world and his example in it
For yet another woman—one of many—
And this one he made Queen, albeit he knew      1810
That her unsworn allegiance to the knight
That he had loved the best of all his order
Must one day bring along the coming end
Of love and honor and of everything;
And with a kingdom builded on two pits      1815
Of living sin,—so founded by the will
Of one wise counsellor who loved the king,
And loved the world and therefore made him king
To be a mirror for it,—the king reigned well
For certain years, awaiting a sure doom;      1820
For certain years he waved across the world
A royal banner with a Dragon on it;
And men of every land fell worshipping
The Dragon as it were the living God,
And not the living sin.”      1825
        She rose at that,
And after a calm yawn, she looked at Merlin:
“Why all this new insistence upon sin?”
She said; “I wonder if I understand
This king of yours, with all his pits and dragons;      1830
I know I do not like him.” A thinner light
Was in her eyes than he had found in them
Since he became the willing prisoner
That she had made of him; and on her mouth
Lay now a colder line of irony      1835
Than all his fears or nightmares could have drawn
Before today: “What reason do you know
For me to listen to this king of yours?
What reading has a man of woman’s days,
Even though the man be Merlin and a prophet?”      1840
“I know no call for you to love the king,”
Said Merlin, driven ruinously along
By the vindictive urging of his fate;
“I know no call for you to love the king,
Although you serve him, knowing not yet the king      1845
You serve. There is no man, or any woman,
For whom the story of the living king
Is not the story of the living sin.
I thought my story was the common one,
For common recognition and regard.”      1850
“Then let us have no more of it,” she said;
“For we are not so common, I believe,
That we need kings and pits and flags and dragons
To make us know that we have let the world
Go by us. Have you missed the world so much      1855
That you must have it in with all its clots
And wounds and bristles on to make us happy—
Like Blaise, with shouts and horns and seven men
Triumphant with a most unlovely boar?
Is there no other story in the world      1860
Than this one of a man that you made king
To be a moral for the speckled ages?
You said once long ago, if you remember,
‘You are too strange a lady to fear specks’;
And it was you, you said, who feared them not.      1865
Why do you look at me as at a snake
All coiled to spring at you and strike you dead?
I am not going to spring at you, or bite you;
I’m going home. And you, if you are kind,
Will have no fear to wander for an hour.      1870
I’m sure the time has come for you to wander;
And there may come a time for you to say
What most you think it is that we need here
To make of this Broceliande a refuge
Where two disheartened sinners may forget      1875
A world that has today no place for them.”
A melancholy wave of revelation
Broke over Merlin like a rising sea,
Long viewed unwillingly and long denied.
He saw what he had seen, but would not feel,      1880
Till now the bitterness of what he felt
Was in his throat, and all the coldness of it
Was on him and around him like a flood
Of lonelier memories than he had said
Were memories, although he knew them now      1885
For what they were—for what this eyes had seen,
For what his ears had heard and what his heart
Had felt, with him not knowing what it felt.
But now he knew that his cold angel’s name
Was Change, and that a mightier will than his      1890
Or Vivian’s had ordained that he be there.
To Vivian he could not say anything
But words that had no more of hope in them
Than anguish had of peace: “I meant the world …
I meant the world,” he groaned; “not you—not me.”      1895
Again the frozen line of irony
Was on her mouth. He looked up once at it.
And then away—too fearful of her eyes
To see what he could hear now in her laugh
That melted slowly into what she said,      1900
Like snow in icy water: “This world of yours
Will surely be the end of us. And why not?
I’m overmuch afraid we’re part of it,—
Or why do we build walls up all around us,
With gates of iron that make us think the day      1905
Of judgment’s coming when they clang behind us?
And yet you tell me that you fear no specks!
With you I never cared for them enough
To think of them. I was too strange a lady.
And your return is now a speckled king      1910
And something that you call a living sin—
That’s like an uninvited poor relation
Who comes without a welcome, rather late,
And on a foundered horse.”
        “Specks? What are specks?”      1915
He gazed at her in a forlorn wonderment
That made her say: “You said, ‘I fear them not.’
‘If I were king in Camelot,’ you said,
‘I might fear more than specks.’ Have you forgotten?
Don’t tell me, Merlin, you are growing old.      1920
Why don’t you make somehow a queen of me,
And give me half the world? I’d wager thrushes
That I should reign, with you to turn the wheel,
As well as any king that ever was.
The curse on me is that I cannot serve      1925
A ruler who forgets that he is king.”
In this bewildered misery Merlin then
Stared hard at Vivian’s face, more like a slave
Who sought for common mercy than like Merlin:
“You speak a language that was never mine,      1930
Or I have lost my wits. Why do you seize
The flimsiest of opportunities
To make of what I said another thing
Than love or reason could have let me say,
Or let me fancy? Why do you keep the truth      1935
So far away from me, when all your gates
Will open at your word and let me go
To some place where no fear or weariness
Of yours need ever dwell? Why does a woman,
Made otherwise a miracle of love      1940
And loveliness, and of immortal beauty,
Tear one word by the roots out of a thousand,
And worry it, and torture it, and shake it,
Like a small dog that has a rag to play with?
What coil of an ingenious destiny      1945
Is this that makes of what I never meant
A meaning as remote as hell from heaven?”
“I don’t know,” Vivian said reluctantly,
And half as if in pain; “I’m going home.
I’m going home and leave you here to wander,      1950
Pray take your kings and sins away somewhere
And bury them, and bury the Queen in also.
I know this king; he lives in Camelot,
And I shall never like him. There are specks
Almost all over him. Long live the king,      1955
But not the king who lives in Camelot,
With Modred, Lancelot, and Guinevere—
And all four speckled like a merry nest
Of addled eggs together. You made him King
Because you loved the world and saw in him      1960
From infancy a mirror for the millions.
The world will see itself in him, and then
The world will say its prayers and wash its face,
And build for some new king a new foundation.
Long live the King! … But now I apprehend      1965
A time for me to shudder and grow old
And garrulous—and so become a fright
For Blaise to take out walking in warm weather—
Should I give way to long considering
Of worlds you may have lost while prisoned here      1970
With me and my light mind. I contemplate
Another name for this forbidden place,
And one more fitting. Tell me, if you find it,
Some fitter name than Eden. We have had
A man and woman in it for some time,      1975
And now, it seems, we have a Tree of Knowledge.”
She looked up at the branches overhead
And shrugged her shoulders. Then she went away;
And what was left of Merlin’s happiness,
Like a disloyal phantom, followed her.      1980
He felt the sword of his cold angel thrust
And twisted in his heart, as if the end
Were coming next, but the cold angel passed
Invisibly and left him desolate,
With misty brow and eyes. “The man who sees      1985
May see too far, and he may see too late
The path he takes unseen,” he told himself
When he found thought again. “The man who sees
May go on seeing till the immortal flame
That lights and lures him folds him in its heart,      1990
And leaves of what there was of him to die
An item of inhospitable dust
That love and hate alike must hide away;
Or there may still be charted for his feet
A dimmer faring, where the touch of time      1995
Were like the passing of a twilight moth
From flower to flower into oblivion,
If there were not somewhere a barren end
Of moths and flowers, and glimmering far away
Beyond a desert where the flowerless days      2000
Are told in slow defeats and agonies,
The guiding of a nameless light that once
Had made him see too much—and has by now
Revealed in death, to the undying child
Of Lancelot, the Grail. For this pure light      2005
Has many rays to throw, for many men
To follow; and the wise are not all pure,
Nor are the pure all wise who follow it.
There are more rays than men. But let the man
Who saw too much, and was to drive himself      2010
From paradise, play too lightly or too long
Among the moths and flowers, he finds at last
There is a dim way out; and he shall grope
Where pleasant shadows lead him to the plain
That has no shadow save his own behind him.      2015
And there, with no complaint, nor much regret,
Shall he plod on, with death between him now
And the far light that guides him, till he falls
And has an empty thought of empty rest;
Then Fate will put a mattock in his hands      2020
And lash him while he digs himself the grave
That is to be the pallet and the shroud
Of his poor blundering bones. The man who saw
Too much must have an eye to see at last
Where Fate has marked the clay; and he shall delve,      2025
Although his hand may slacken, and his knees
May rock without a method as he toils;
For there’s a delving that is to be done—
If not for God, for man. I see the light,
But I shall fall before I come to it;      2030
For I am old. I was young yesterday.
Time’s hand that I have held away so long
Grips hard now on my shoulder. Time has won.
Tomorrow I shall say to Vivian
That I am old and gaunt and garrulous,      2035
And tell her one more story: I am old.”
There were long hours for Merlin after that,
And much long wandering in his prison-yard,
Where now the progress of each heavy step
Confirmed a stillness of impending change      2040
And imminent farewell. To Vivian’s ear
There came for many days no other story
Than Merlin’s iteration of his love
And his departure from Broceliande,
Where Merlin still remained. In Vivian’s eye,      2045
There was a quiet kindness, and at times
A smoky flash of incredulity
That faded into pain. Was this the Merlin—
This incarnation of idolatry
And all but supplicating deference—      2050
This bowed and reverential contradiction
Of all her dreams and her realities—
Was this the Merlin who for years and years
Before she found him had so made her love him
That kings and princes, thrones and diadems,      2055
And honorable men who drowned themselves
For love, were less to her than melon-shells?
Was this the Merlin whom her fate had sent
One spring day to come ringing at her gate,
Bewildering her love with happy terror      2060
That later was to be all happiness?
Was this the Merlin who had made the world
Half over, and then left it with a laugh
To be the youngest, oldest, weirdest, gayest,
And wisest, and sometimes the foolishest      2065
Of all the men of her consideration?
Was this the man who had made other men
As ordinary as arithmetic?
Was this man Merlin who came now so slowly
Towards the fountain where she stood again      2070
In shimmering green? Trembling, he took her hands
And pressed them fondly, one upon the other,
Between his:
        “I was wrong that other day,
For I have one more story. I am old.”      2075
He waited like one hungry for the word
Not said; and she found in his eyes a light
As patient as a candle in a window
That looks upon the sea and is a mark
For ships that have gone down. “Tomorrow,” he said;      2080
“Tomorrow I shall go away again
To Camelot; and I shall see the King
Once more; and I may come to you again
Once more; and I shall go away again
For ever. There is now no more than that      2085
For me to do; and I shall do no more.
I saw too much when I saw Camelot;
And I saw farther backward into Time,
And forward, than a man may see and live,
When I made Arthur king. I saw too far,      2090
But not so far as this. Fate played with me
As I have played with Time; and Time, like me,
Being less than Fate, will have on me his vengeance.
On Fate there is no vengeance, even for God.”
He drew her slowly into his embrace      2095
And held her there, but when he kissed her lips
They were as cold as leaves and had no answer;
For Time had given him then, to prove his words,
A frozen moment of a woman’s life.
When Merlin the next morning came again      2100
In the same pilgrim robe that he had worn
While he sat waiting where the cherry-blossoms
Outside the gate fell on him and around him
Grief came to Vivian at the sight of him;
And like a flash of a swift ugly knife,      2105
A blinding fear came with it. “Are you going?”
She said, more with her lips than with her voice;
And he said, “I am going. Blaise and I
Are going down together to the shore,
And Blaise is coming back. For this one day      2110
Be good enough to spare him, for I like him.
I tell you now, as once I told the King,
That I can be no more than what I was,
And I can say no more than I have said.
Sometimes you told me that I spoke too long      2115
And sent me off to wander. That was good.
I go now for another wandering,
And I pray God that all be well with you.”
For long there was a whining in her ears
Of distant wheels departing. When it ceased,      2120
She closed the gate again so quietly
That Merlin could have heard no sound of it.



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