Verse > Edwin A. Robinson > Collected Poems > VI. Lancelot > II
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).  Collected Poems. 1921.
VI. Lancelot
THE FLASH of oak leaves over Guinevere      220
That afternoon, with the sun going down,
Made memories there for Lancelot, although
The woman who in silence looked at him
Now seemed his inventory of the world
That he must lose, or suffer to be lost      225
For love of her who sat there in the shade,
With oak leaves flashing in a golden light
Over her face and over her golden hair.
“Gawaine has all the graces, yet he knows;
He knows enough to be the end of us,      230
If so he would,” she said. “He knows and laughs
And we are at the mercy of a man
Who, if the stars went out, would only laugh.”
She looked away at a small swinging blossom,
And then she looked intently at her fingers,      235
While a frown gathered slowly round her eyes,
And wrinkled her white forehead.
Scarce knowing whether to himself he spoke
Or to the Queen, said emptily: “As for Gawaine,      240
My question is, if any curious hind
Or knight that is alive in Britain breathing,
Or prince, or king, knows more of us, or less,
Than Gawaine, in his gay complacency,
Knows or believes he knows. There’s over much      245
Of knowing in this realm of many tongues,
Where deeds are less to those who tell of them
Than are the words they sow; and you and I
Are like to yield a granary of such words,
For God knows what next harvesting. Gawain      250
I fear no more than Gareth, or Colgrevance;
So far as it is his to be the friend
Of any man, so far is he may friend—
Till I have crossed him in some enterprise
Unlikely and unborn. So fear not Gawaine      255
But let your primal care be now for one
Whose name is yours.”
        The Queen, with her blue eyes
Too bright for joy, still gazed on Lancelot,
Who stared as if in angry malediction      260
Upon the shorn grass growing at his feet.
“Why do you speak as if the grass had ears
And I had none? What are you saying now,
So darkly to the grass, of knights and hinds?
Are you the Lancelot who rode, long since,      265
Away from me on that unearthly Quest,
Which left no man the same who followed it—
Or none save Gawaine, who came back so soon
That we had hardly missed him?” Faintly then
She smiled a little, more in her defence,      270
He knew, than for misprision of a man
Whom yet she feared: “Why do you set this day—
This golden day, when all are not so golden—
To tell me, with your eyes upon the ground,
That idle words have been for idle tongues      275
And ears a moment’s idle entertainment?
Have I become, and all at once, a thing
So new to courts, and to the buzz they make,
That I should hear no murmur, see no sign?
Where malice and ambition dwell with envy,      280
They go the farthest who believe the least;
So let them,—while I ask of you again,
Why this day for all this? Was yesterday
A day of ouphes and omens? Was it Friday?
I don’t remember. Days are all alike      285
When I have you to look on; when you go,
There are no days but hours. You might say now
What Gawaine said, and say it in our language.”
The sharp light still was in her eyes, alive
And anxious with a reminiscent fear.      290
Lancelot, like a strong man stricken hard
With pain, looked up at her unhappily;
And slowly, on a low and final note,
Said: “Gawaine laughs alike at what he knows,
And at the loose convenience of his fancy;      295
He sees in others what his humor needs
To nourish it, and lives a merry life.
Sometimes a random shaft of his will hit
Nearer the mark than one a wise man aims
With infinite address and reservation;      300
So has it come to pass this afternoon.”
Blood left the quivering cheeks of Guinevere
As color leaves a cloud; and where white was
Before, there was a ghostliness not white,
But gray; and over it her shining hair      305
Coiled heavily its mocking weight of gold.
The pride of her forlorn light-heartedness
Fled like a storm-blown feather; and her fear,
Possessing her, was all that she possessed.
She sought for Lancelot, but he seemed gone.      310
There was a strong man glowering in a chair
Before her, but he was not Lancelot,
Or he would look at her and say to her
That Gawaine’s words were less than chaff in the wind—
A nonsense about exile, birds, and bones,      315
Born of an indolence of empty breath.
“Say what has come to pass this afternoon,”
She said, “or I shall hear you all my life,
Not hearing what it was you might have told.”
He felt the trembling of her slow last words,      320
And his were trembling as he answered them:
“Why this day, why no other? So you ask,
And so must I in honor tell you more—
For what end, I have yet no braver guess
Than Modred has of immortality,      325
Or you of Gawaine. Could I have him alone
Between me and the peace I cannot know,
My life were like the sound of golden bells
Over still fields at sunset, where no storm
Should ever blast the sky with fire again,      330
Or thunder follow ruin for you and me,—
As like it will, if I for one more day,
Assume that I see not what I have seen,
See now, and shall see. There are no more lies
Left anywhere now for me to tell myself      335
That I have not already told myself,
And overtold, until today I seem
To taste them as I might the poisoned fruit
That Patrise had of Mador, and so died.
And that same apple of death was to be food      340
For Gawaine; but he left it and lives on,
To make his joy of living your confusion.
His life is his religion; he loves life
With such a manifold exuberance
That poison shuns him and seeks out a way      345
To wreak its evil upon innocence.
There may be chance in this, there may be
Be what there be, I do not fear Gawaine.”
The Queen, with an indignant little foot,
Struck viciously the unoffending grass      350
And said: “Why not let Gawaine go his way?
I’ll think of him no more, fear him no more,
And hear of him no more. I’ll hear no more
Of any now save one who is, or was,
All men to me. And he said once to me      355
That he would say why this day, of all days,
Was more mysteriously felicitous
For solemn commination than another.”
Again she smiled, but her blue eyes were telling
No more their story of old happiness.      360
“For me today is not as other days,”
He said, “because it is the first, I find,
That has empowered my will to say to you
What most it is that you must hear and heed.
When Arthur, with a faith unfortified,      365
Sent me alone, of all he might have sent,
That May-day to Leodogran your father,
I went away from him with a sore heart;
For in my heart I knew that I should fail
My King, who trusted me too far beyond      370
The mortal outpost of experience.
And this was after Merlin’s admonition,
Which Arthur, in his passion, took for less
Than his inviolable majesty.
When I rode in between your father’s guards      375
And heard his trumpets blown for my loud honor,
I sent my memory back to Camelot,
And said once to myself, ‘God save the king!’
But the words tore my throat and were like blood
Upon my tongue. Then a great shout went up      380
From shining men around me everywhere;
And I remember more fair women’s eyes
Than there are stars in autumn, all of them
Thrown on me for a glimpse of that high knight
Sir Lancelot—Sir Lancelot of the Lake.      385
I saw their faces and I saw not one
To sever a tendril of my integrity;
But I thought once again, to make myself
Believe a silent lie, ‘God save the King’ …
I saw your face, and there were no more kings.”      390
The sharp light softened in the Queen’s blue eyes,
And for a moment there was joy in them:
“Was I so menacing to the peace, I wonder,
Of anyone else alive? But why go back?
I tell you that I fear Gawaine no more;      395
And if you fear him not, and I fear not
What you fear not, what have we then to fear?”
Fatigued a little with her reasoning,
She waited longer than a woman waits,
Without a cloudy sign, for Lancelot’s      400
Unhurried answer: “Whether or not you fear,
Know always that I fear for me no stroke
Maturing for the joy of any knave
Who sees the world, with me alive in it,
A place too crowded for the furtherance      405
Of his inflammatory preparations.
But Lot of Orkney had a wife, a dark one;
And rumor says no man who gazed at her,
Attentively, might say his prayers again
Without a penance or an absolution.      410
I know not about that; but the world knows
That Arthur prayed in vain once, if he prayed,
Or we should have no Modred watching us.
Know then that what you fear to call my fear
Is all for you; and what is all for you      415
Is all for love, which were the same to me
As life—had I not seen what I have seen.
But first I am to tell you what I see,
And what I mean by fear. It is yourself
That I see now; and if I saw you only,      420
I might forego again all other service,
And leave to Time, who is Love’s almoner,
The benefaction of what years or days
Remaining might be found unchronicled
For two that have not always watched or seen      425
The sands of gold that flow for golden hours.
If I saw you alone! But I know now
That you are never more to be alone.
The shape of one infernal foul attendant
Will be for ever prowling after you,      430
To leer at me like a damned thing whipped out
Of the last cave in hell. You know his name.
Over your shoulder I could see him now,
Adventuring his misbegotten patience
For one destroying word in the King’s ear—      435
The word he cannot whisper there quite yet,
Not having it yet to say. If he should say it,
Then all this would be over, and our days
Of life, your days and mine, be over with it.
No day of mine that were to be for you      440
Your last, would light for me a longer span
Than for yourself; and there would be no twilight.”
The Queen’s implacable calm eyes betrayed
The doubt that had as yet for what he said
No healing answer: “If I fear no more      445
Gawaine, I fear your Modred even less.
Your fear, you say, is for an end outside
Your safety; and as much as that I grant you.
And I believe in your belief, moreover,
That some far-off unheard-of retribution      450
Hangs over Camelot, even as this oak-bough,
That I may almost reach, hangs overhead,
All dark now. Only a small time ago
The light was falling through it, and on me.
Another light, a longer time ago,      455
Was living in your eyes, and we were happy.
Yet there was Modred then as he is now,
As much a danger then as he is now,
And quite as much a nuisance. Let his eyes
Have all the darkness in them they may hold,      460
And there will be less left of it outside
For fear to grope and thrive in. Lancelot,
I say the dark is not what you fear most.
There is a Light that you fear more today
Than all the darkness that has ever been;      465
Yet I doubt not that your Light will burn on
For some time yet without your ministration.
I’m glad for Modred,—though I hate his eyes,—
That he should hold me nearer to your thoughts
Than I should hold myself, I fear, without him;      470
I’m glad for Gawaine, also,—who, you tell me,
Misled my fancy with his joy of living.”
Incredulous of her voice and of her lightness,
He saw now in the patience of her smile
A shining quiet of expectancy      475
That made as much of his determination
As he had made of giants and Sir Peris.
“But I have more to say than you have heard,”
He faltered—“though God knows what you have heard
Should be enough.”      480
        “I see it now,” she said;
“I see it now as always women must
Who cannot hold what holds them any more.
If Modred’s hate were now the only hazard—
The only shadow between you and me—      485
How long should I be saying all this to you,
Or you be listening? No, Lancelot,—no.
I knew it coming for a longer time
Than you fared for the Grail. You told yourself,
When first that wild light came to make men mad      490
Round Arthur’s Table—as Gawaine told himself,
And many another tired man told himself—
That it was God, not something new, that called you.
Well, God was something new to most of them,
And so they went away. But you were changing      495
Long before you, or Bors, or Percival,
Or Galahad rode away—or poor Gawaine,
Who came back presently; and for a time
Before you went—albeit for no long time—
I may have made for your too loyal patience      500
A jealous exhibition of my folly—
All for those two Elaines; and one of them
Is dead, poor child, for you. How do you feel,
You men, when women die for you? They do,
Sometimes, you know. Not often, but sometimes.”      505
Discomfiture, beginning with a scowl
And ending in a melancholy smile,
Crept over Lancelot’s face the while he stared,
More like a child than like the man he was,
At Guinevere’s demure serenity      510
Before him in the shadow, soon to change
Into the darkness of a darker night
Than yet had been since Arthur was a king.
“What seizure of an unrelated rambling
Do you suppose it was that had you then?”      515
He said; and with a frown that had no smile
Behind it, he sat brooding.
        The Queen laughed,
And looked at him again with lucent eyes
That had no sharpness in them; they were soft now,      520
And a blue light, made wet with happiness,
Distilled from pain into abandonment,
Shone out of them and held him while she smiled,
Although they trembled with a questioning
Of what his gloom foretold: “All that I saw      525
Was true, and I have paid for what I saw—
More than a man may know. Hear me, and listen:
You cannot put me or the truth aside,
With half-told words that I could only wish
No man had said to me; not you, of all men.      530
If there were only Modred in the way,
Should I see now, from here and in this light,
So many furrows over your changed eyes?
Why do you fear for me when all my fears
Are for the needless burden you take on?      535
To put me far away, and your fears with me,
Were surely no long toil, had you the will
To say what you have known and I have known
Longer than I dare guess. Have little fear:
Never shall I become for you a curse      540
Laid on your conscience to be borne for ever;
Nor shall I be a weight for you to drag
On always after you, as a poor slave
Drags iron at his heels. Therefore, today,
These ominous reassurances of mine      545
Would seem to me to be a waste of life,
And more than life.”
        Lancelot’s memory wandered
Into the blue and wistful distances
That her soft eyes unveiled. He knew their trick,      550
As he knew the great love that fostered it,
And the wild passionate fate that hid itself
In all the perilous calm of white and gold
That was her face and hair, and might as well
Have been of gold and marble for the world,      555
And for the King. Before he knew, she stood
Behind him with her warm hands on his cheeks,
And her lips on his lips; and though he heard
Not half of what she told, he heard enough
To make as much of it, or so it seemed,      560
As man was ever told, or should be told,
Or need be, until everything was told,
And all the mystic silence of the stars
Had nothing more to keep or to reveal.
“If there were only Modred in the way,”      565
She murmured, “would you come to me tonight?
The King goes to Carleon or Carlisle,
Or some place where there’s hunting. Would you come,
If there were only Modred in the way?”
She felt his hand on hers and laid her cheek      570
Upon his forehead, where the furrows were:
“All these must go away, and so must I—
Before there are more shadows. You will come,
And you may tell me everything you must
That I must hear you tell me—if I must—      575
Of bones and horrors and of horrid waves
That break for ever on the world’s last edge.”



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