Verse > Edwin A. Robinson > Collected Poems > IV. Merlin > VII
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).  Collected Poems. 1921.
IV. Merlin
BY Merlin’s Rock, where Dagonet the fool
Was given through many a dying afternoon
To sit and meditate on human ways      2125
And ways divine, Gawaine and Bedivere
Stood silent, gazing down on Camelot.
The two had risen and were going home:
“It hits me sore, Gawaine,” said Bedivere,
“To think on all the tumult and affliction      2130
Down there, and all the noise and preparation
That hums of coming death, and, if my fears
Be born of reason, of what’s more than death.
Wherefore, I say to you again, Gawaine,—
To you—that this late hour is not too late      2135
For you to change yourself and change the King:
For though the King may love me with a love
More tried, and older, and more sure, may be,
Than for another, for such a time as this
The friend who turns him to the world again      2140
Shall have a tongue more gracious and an eye
More shrewd than mine. For such a time as this
The King must have a glamour to persuade him.”
“The King shall have a glamour, and anon,”
Gawaine said, and he shot death from his eyes;      2145
“If you were King, as Arthur is—or was—
And Lancelot had carried off your Queen,
And killed a score or so of your best knights—
Not mentioning my two brothers, whom he slew
Unarmored and unarmed—God save your wits!      2150
Two stewards with skewers could have done as much,
And you and I might now be rotting for it.”
“But Lancelot’s men were crowded,—they were crushed;
And there was nothing for them but to strike
Or die, not seeing where they struck. Think you      2155
They would have slain Gareth and Gaheris,
And Tor, and all those other friends of theirs?
God’s mercy for the world he made, I say,
And for the blood that writes the story of it.
Gareth and Gaheris, Tor and Lamorak,—      2160
All dead, with all the others that are dead!
These years have made me turn to Lamorak
For counsel—and now Lamorak is dead.”
“Why do you fling those two names in my face?
’Twas Modred made an end of Lamorak,      2165
Not I; and Lancelot now has done for Tor.
I’ll urge no king on after Lancelot
For such a two as Tor and Lamorak:
Their father killed my father, and their friend
Was Lancelot, not I. I’ll own my fault—      2170
I’m living; and while I’ve a tongue can talk,
I’ll say this to the King: ‘Burn Lancelot
By inches till he give you back the Queen;
Then hang him—drown him—or do anything
To rid the world of him.’ He killed my brothers,      2175
And he was once my friend: Now damn the soul
Of him who killed my brothers! There you have me.”
“You are a strong man, Gawaine, and your strength
Goes ill where foes are. You may cleave their limbs
And heads off, but you cannot damn their souls;      2180
What you may do now is to save their souls,
And bodies too, and like enough your own.
Remember that King Arthur is a king,
And where there is a king there is a kingdom.
Is not the kingdom any more to you      2185
Than one brief enemy? Would you see it fall
And the King with it, for one mortal hate
That burns out reason? Gawaine, you are king
Today. Another day may see no king
But Havoc, if you have no other word      2190
For Arthur now than hate for Lancelot.
Is not the world as large as Lancelot?
Is Lancelot, because one woman’s eyes
Are brighter when they look on him, to sluice
The world with angry blood? Poor flesh! Poor flesh!      2195
And you, Gawaine,—are you so gaffed with hate
You cannot leave it and so plunge away
To stiller places and there see, for once,
What hangs on this pernicious expedition
The King in his insane forgetfulness      2200
Would undertake—with you to drum him on?
Are you as mad as he and Lancelot
Made ravening into one man twice as mad
As either? Is the kingdom of the world,
Now rocking, to go down in sound and blood      2205
And ashes and sick ruin, and for the sake
Of three men and a woman? If it be so,
God’s mercy for the world he made, I say,—
And say again to Dagonet. Sir Fool,
Your throne is empty, and you may as well      2210
Sit on it and be ruler of the world
From now till supper-time.”
        Sir Dagonet,
Appearing, made reply to Bedivere’s
Dry welcome with a famished look of pain,      2215
On which he built a smile: “If I were King,
You, Bedivere, should be my counsellor;
And we should have no more wars over women.
I’ll sit me down and meditate on that.”
Gawaine, for all his anger, laughed a little,      2220
And clapped the fool’s lean shoulder; for he loved him
And was with Arthur when he made him knight.
Then Dagonet said on to Bedivere,
As if his tongue would make a jest of sorrow:
“Sometime I’ll tell you what I might have done      2225
Had I been Lancelot and you King Arthur—
Each having in himself the vicious essence
That now lives in the other and makes war.
When all men are like you and me, my lord,
When all are rational or rickety,      2230
There may be no more war. But what’s here now?
Lancelot loves the Queen, and he makes war
Of love; the King, being bitten to the soul
By love and hate that work in him together,
Makes war of madness; Gawaine hates Lancelot,      2235
And he, to be in tune, makes war of hate;
Modred hates everything, yet he can see
With one damned illegitimate small eye
His father’s crown, and with another like it
He sees the beauty of the Queen herself;      2240
He needs the two for his ambitious pleasure,
And therefore he makes war of his ambition;
And somewhere in the middle of all this
There’s a squeezed world that elbows for attention.
Poor Merlin, buried in Broceliande!      2245
He must have had an academic eye
For woman when he founded Arthur’s kingdom,
And in Broceliande he may be sorry.
Flutes, hautboys, drums, and viols. God be with him!
I’m glad they tell me there’s another world,      2250
For this one’s a disease without a doctor.”
“No, not so bad as that,” said Bedivere;
The doctor, like ourselves, may now be learning;
And Merlin may have gauged his enterprise
Whatever the cost he may have paid for knowing.      2255
We pass, but many are to follow us,
And what they build may stay; though I believe
Another age will have another Merlin,
Another Camelot, and another King.
Sir Dagonet, farewell.”      2260
        “Farewell, Sir Knight,
And you, Sir Knight: Gawaine, you have the world
Now in your fingers—an uncommon toy,
Albeit a small persuasion in the balance
With one man’s hate. I’m glad you’re not a fool,      2265
For then you might be rickety, as I am,
And rational as Bedivere. Farewell.
I’ll sit here and be king. God save the King!”
But Gawaine scowled and frowned and answered nothing
As he went slowly down with Bedivere      2270
To Camelot, where Arthur’s army waited
The King’s word for the melancholy march
To Joyous Gard, where Lancelot hid the Queen
And armed his host, and there was now no joy,
As there was now no joy for Dagonet      2275
While he sat brooding, with his wan cheek-bones
Hooked with his bony fingers: “Go, Gawaine,”
He mumbled: “Go your way, and drag the world
Along down with you. What’s a world or so
To you if you can hide an ell of iron      2280
Somewhere in Lancelot, and hear him wheeze
And sputter once or twice before he goes
Wherever the Queen sends him? There’s a man
Who should have been a king, and would have been,
Had he been born so. So should I have been      2285
A king, had I been born so, fool or no:
King Dagonet, or Dagonet the King;
King-Fool, Fool-King; ’twere not impossible.
I’ll meditate on that and pray for Arthur,
Who made me all I am, except a fool.      2290
Now he goes mad for love, as I might go
Had I been born a king and not a fool.
Today I think I’d rather be a fool;
Today the world is less than one scared woman—
Wherefore a field of waving men may soon      2295
Be shorn by Time’s indifferent scythe, because
The King is mad. The seeds of history
Are small, but given a few gouts of warm blood
For quickening, they sprout out wondrously
And have a leaping growth whereof no man      2300
May shun such harvesting of change or death,
Or life, as may fall on him to be borne
When I am still alive and rickety,
And Bedivere’s alive and rational—
If he come out of this, and there’s a doubt,—      2305
The King, Gawaine, Modred, and Lancelot
May all be lying underneath a weight
Of bloody sheaves too heavy for their shoulders
All spent, and all dishonored, and all dead;
And if it come to be that this be so,      2310
And it be true that Merlin saw the truth,
Such harvest were the best. Your fool sees not
So far as Merlin sees: yet if he saw
The truth—why then, such harvest were the best.
I’ll pray for Arthur; I can do no more.      2315
“Why not for Merlin? Or do you count him,
In this extreme, so foreign to salvation
That prayer would be a stranger to his name?”
Poor Dagonet, with terror shaking him,
Stood up and saw before him an old face      2320
Made older with an inch of silver beard,
And faced eyes more eloquent of pain
And ruin than all the faded eyes of age
Till now had ever been, although in them
There was a mystic and intrinsic peace      2325
Of one who sees where men of nearer sight
See nothing. On their way to Camelot,
Gawaine and Bedivere had passed him by,
With lax attention for the pilgrim cloak
They passed, and what it hid: yet Merlin saw      2330
Their faces, and he saw the tale was true
That he had lately drawn from solemn strangers.
“Well, Dagonet, and by your leave,” he said,
“I’ll rest my lonely relics for a while
On this rock that was mine and now is yours.      2335
I favor the succession; for you know
Far more than many doctors, though your doubt
Is your peculiar poison. I foresaw
Long since, and I have latterly been told
What moves in this commotion down below      2340
To show men what it means. It means the end—
If men whose tongues had less to say to me
Than had their shoulders are adept enough
To know; and you may pray for me or not,
Sir Friend, Sir Dagonet.”      2345
        “Sir fool, you mean,”
Dagonet said, and gazed on Merlin sadly:
“I’ll never pray again for anything,
And last of all for this that you behold—
The smouldering faggot of unlovely bones      2350
That God has given to me to call Myself.
When Merlin comes to Dagonet for prayer,
It is indeed the end.”
        “And in the end
Are more beginnings, Dagonet, than men      2355
Shall name or know today. It was the end
Of Arthur’s insubstantial majesty
When to him and his knights the Grail foreshowed
The quest of life that was to be the death
Of many, and the slow discouraging      2360
Of many more. Or do I err in this?”
“No,” Dagonet replied; “there was a Light;
And Galahad, in the Siege Perilous,
Alone of all on whom it fell, was calm;
There was a Light wherein men saw themselves      2365
In one another as they might become—
Or so they dreamed. There was a long to-do,
And Gawaine, of all forlorn ineligibles,
Rose up the first, and cried more lustily
Than any after him that he should find      2370
The Grail, or die for it,—though he did neither;
For he came back as living and as fit
For new and old iniquity as ever.
Then Lancelot came back, and Bors came back,—
Like men who had seen more than men should see,      2375
And still come back. They told of Percival
Who saw too much to make of this worn life
A long necessity, and of Galahad,
Who died and is alive. They all saw Something.
God knows the meaning or the end of it,      2380
But they saw Something. And if I’ve an eye,
Small joy has the Queen been to Lancelot
Since he came back from seeing what he saw;
For though his passion hold him like hot claws,
He’s neither in the world nor out of it.      2385
Gawaine is king, though Arthur wears the crown;
And Gawaine’s hate for Lancelot is the sword
That hangs by one of Merlin’s fragile hairs
Above the world. Were you to see the King,
The frenzy that has overthrown his wisdom,      2390
Instead of him and his upheaving empire,
Might have an end.”
        “I came to see the King,”
Said Merlin, like a man who labors hard
And long with an importunate confession.      2395
“No, Dagonet, you cannot tell me why,
Although your tongue is eager with wild hope
To tell me more than I may tell myself
About myself. All this that was to be
Might show to man how vain it were to wreck      2400
The world for self if it were all in vain.
When I began with Arthur I could see
In each bewildered man who dots the earth
A moment with his days a groping thought
Of an eternal will, strangely endowed      2405
With merciful illusions whereby self
Becomes the will itself and each man swells
In fond accordance with his agency.
Now Arthur, Modred, Lancelot, and Gawaine
Are swollen thoughts of this eternal will      2410
Which have no other way to find the way
That leads them on to their inheritance
Than by the time-infuriating flame
Of a wrecked empire, lighted by the torch
Of woman, who, together with the light      2415
That Galahad found, is yet to light the world.”
A wan smile crept across the weary face
Of Dagonet the fool: “If you knew that
Before your burial in Broceliande,
No wonder your eternal will accords      2420
With all your dreams of what the world requires.
My master, I may say this unto you
Because I am a fool, and fear no man;
My fear is that I’ve been a groping thought
That never swelled enough. You say the torch      2425
Of woman and the light that Galahad found
Are some day to illuminate the world?
I’ll meditate on that. The world is done
For me; and I have been, to make men laugh,
A lean thing of no shape and many capers.      2430
I made them laugh, and I could laugh anon
Myself to see them killing one another
Because a woman with corn-colored hair
Has pranked a man with horns. ’Twas but a flash
Of chance, and Lancelot, the other day      2435
That saved this pleasing sinner from the fire
That she may spread for thousands. Were she now
The cinder the King willed, or were you now
To see the King, the fire might yet go out;
But the eternal will says otherwise.      2440
So be it; I’ll assemble certain gold
That I may say is mine and get myself
Away from this accurst unhappy court,
And in some quiet place where shepherd clowns
And cowherds may have more respondent ears      2445
Than kings and kingdom-builders, I shall troll
Old men to easy graves and be a child
Again among the children of the earth.
I’ll have no more kings, even though I loved
King Arthur, who is mad, as I could love      2450
No other man save Merlin, who is dead.”
“Not wholly dead, but old. Merlin is old.”
The wizard shivered as he spoke, and stared
Away into the sunset where he saw
Once more, as through a cracked and cloudy glass,      2455
A crumbling sky that held a crimson cloud
Wherein there was a town of many towers
All swayed and shaken, in a woman’s hand
This time, till out of it there spilled and flashed
And tumbled, like loose jewels, town, towers, and walls,      2460
And there was nothing but a crumbling sky
That made anon of black and red and ruin
A wild and final rain on Camelot.
He bowed, and pressed his eyes: “Now by my soul,
I have seen this before—all black and red—      2465
Like that—like that—like Vivian—black and red;
Like Vivian, when her eyes looked into mine
Across the cups of gold. A flute was playing—
Then all was black and red.”
        Another smile      2470
Crept over the wan face of Dagonet,
Who shivered in his turn. “The torch of woman”
He muttered, “and the light that Galahad found,
Will some day save us all, as they saved Merlin.
Forgive my shivering wits, but I am cold,      2475
And it will soon be dark. Will you go down
With me to see the King, or will you not?
If not, I go tomorrow to the shepherds.
The world is mad, and I’m a groping thought
Of your eternal will; the world and I      2480
Are strangers, and I’ll have no more of it—
Except you go with me to see the King.”
“No, Dagonet, you cannot leave me now,”
Said Merlin, sadly. “You and I are old;
And, as you say, we fear no man. God knows      2485
I would not have the love that once you had
For me be fear of me, for I am past
All fearing now. But Fate may send a fly
Sometimes, and he may sting us to the grave.
So driven to test our faith in what we see.      2490
Are you, now I am coming to an end,
As Arthur’s days are coming to an end,
To sting me like a fly? I do not ask
Of you to say that you see what I see,
Where you see nothing; nor do I require      2495
Of any man more vision than is his;
Yet I could wish for you a larger part
For your last entrance here than this you play
Tonight of a sad insect stinging Merlin.
The more you sting, the more he pities you;      2500
And you were never overfond of pity.
Had you been so, I doubt if Arthur’s love,
Or Gawaine’s, would have made of you a knight.
No, Dagonet, you cannot leave me now,
Nor would you if you could. You call yourself      2505
A fool, because the world and you are strangers.
You are a proud man, Dagonet; you have suffered
What I alone have seen. You are no fool;
And surely you are not a fly to sting
My love to last regret. Believe or not      2510
What I have seen, or what I say to you,
But say no more to me that I am dead
Because the King is mad, and you are old,
And I am older. In Broceliande
Time overtook me as I knew he must;      2515
And I, with a fond overplus of words,
Had warned the lady Vivian already,
Before these wrinkles and this hesitancy
Inhibiting my joints oppressed her sight
With age and dissolution. She said once      2520
That she was cold and cruel; but she meant
That she was warm and kind, and over-wise
For woman in a world where men see not
Beyond themselves. She saw beyond them all,
As I did; and she waited, as I did,      2525
The coming of a day when cherry-blossoms
Were to fall down all over me like snow
In springtime. I was far from Camelot
That afternoon; and I am farther now
From her. I see no more for me to do      2530
Than to leave her and Arthur and the world
Behind me, and to pray that all be well
With Vivian, whose unquiet heart is hungry
For what is not, and what shall never be
Without her, in a world that men are making,      2535
Knowing not how, nor caring yet to know
How slowly and how grievously they do it,—
Though Vivian, in her golden shell of exile,
Knows now and cares, not knowing that she cares,
Nor caring that she knows. In time to be,      2540
The like of her shall have another name
Than Vivian, and her laugh shall be a fire,
Not shining only to consume itself
With what it burns. She knows not yet the name
Of what she is, for now there is no name;      2545
Some day there shall be. Time has many names,
Unwritten yet, for what we say is old
Because we are so young that it seems old.
And this is all a part of what I saw
Before you saw King Arthur. When we parted.      2550
I told her I should see the King again,
And, having seen him, might go back again
To see her face once more. But I shall see
No more the lady Vivian. Let her love
What man she may, no other love than mine      2555
Shall be an index of her memories.
I fear no man who may come after me,
And I see none. I see her, still in green,
Beside the fountain. I shall not go back.
We pay for going back; and all we get      2560
Is one more needless ounce of weary wisdom
To bring away with us. If I come not,
The lady Vivian will remember me,
And say: ‘I knew him when his heart was young,
Though I have lost him now. Time called him home,      2565
And that was as it was; for much is lost
Between Broceliande and Camelot.’”
He stared away into the west again,
Where now no crimson cloud or phantom town
Deceived his eyes. Above a living town      2570
There were gray clouds and ultimate suspense,
And a cold wind was coming. Dagonet,
Now crouched at Merlin’s feet in his dejection,
Saw multiplying lights far down below,
Where lay the fevered streets. At length he felt      2575
On his lean shoulder Merlin’s tragic hand
And trembled, knowing that a few more days
Would see the last of Arthur and the first
Of Modred, whose dark patience had attained
To one precarious half of what he sought:      2580
“And even the Queen herself may fall to him,”
Dagonet murmured.—“The Queen fall to Modred?
Is that your only fear tonight?” said Merlin;
“She may, but not for long.”—“No, not my fear;
For I fear nothing. But I wish no fate      2585
Like that for any woman the King loves,
Although she be the scourge and the end of him
That you saw coming, as I see it now.”
Dagonet shook, but he would have no tears,
He swore, for any king, queen, knave, or wizard—      2590
Albeit he was a stranger among those
Who laughed at him because he was a fool.
“You said the truth, I cannot leave you now,”
He stammered, and was angry for the tears
That mocked his will and choked him.      2595
        Merlin smiled,
Faintly, and for the moment: “Dagonet,
I need your word as one of Arthur’s knights
That you will go on with me to the end
Of my short way, and say unto no man      2600
Or woman that you found or saw me here.
No good would follow, for a doubt would live
Unstifled of my loyalty to him
Whose deeds are wrought for those who are to come;
And many who see not what I have seen,      2605
Or what you see tonight, would prattle on
For ever, and their children after them,
Of what might once have been had I gone down
With you to Camelot to see the King.
I came to see the King,—but why see kings?      2610
All this that was to be is what I saw
Before there was an Arthur to be king,
And so to be a mirror wherein men
May see themselves, and pause. If they see not,
Or if they do see and they ponder not,—      2615
I saw; but I was neither Fate nor God.
I saw too much; and this would be the end,
Were there to be end. I saw myself—
A sight no other man has ever seen;
And through the dark that lay beyond myself      2620
I saw two fires that are to light the world.”
On Dagonet the silent hand of Merlin
Weighed now as living iron that held him down
With a primeval power. Doubt, wonderment,
Impatience, and a self-accusing sorrow      2625
Born of an ancient love, possessed and held him
Until his love was more than he could name,
And he was Merlin’s fool, not Arthur’s now:
“Say what you will, I say that I’m the fool
Of Merlin, King of Nowhere; which is Here.      2630
With you for king and me for court, what else
Have we to sigh for but a place to sleep?
I know a tavern that will take us in;
And on the morrow I shall follow you
Until I die for you. And when I die…”—      2635
“Well, Dagonet, the King is listening.”—
And Dagonet answered, hearing in the words
Of Merlin a grave humor and a sound
Of graver pity, “I shall die a fool.”
He heard what might have been a father’s laugh,      2640
Faintly behind him; and the living weight
Of Merlin’s hand was lifted. They arose,
And, saying nothing, found a groping way
Down through the gloom together. Fiercer now,
The wind was like a flying animal      2645
That beat the two of them incessantly
With icy wings, and bit them as they went.
The rock above them was an empty place
Where neither seer nor fool should view again
The stricken city. Colder blew the wind      2650
Across the world, and on it heavier lay
The shadow and the burden of the night;
And there was darkness over Camelot.




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