Verse > Edwin A. Robinson > Collected Poems > VI. Lancelot > V
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).  Collected Poems. 1921.
VI. Lancelot
GAWAINE, his body trembling and his heart
Pounding as if he were a boy in battle,
Sat crouched as far away from everything      935
As walls would give him distance. Bedivere
Stood like a man of stone with folded arms,
And wept in stony silence. The King moved
His pallid lips and uttered fitfully
Low fragments of a prayer that was half sad,      940
Half savage, and was ended in a crash
Of distant sound that anguish lifted near
To those who heard it. Gawaine sprang again
To the same casement where the towers and roofs
Had glimmered faintly a long hour ago,      945
But saw no terrors yet—though now he heard
A fiercer discord than allegiance rings
To rouse a mourning city: blows, groans, cries,
Loud iron struck on iron, horses trampling,
Death-yells and imprecations, and at last      950
A moaning silence. Then a murmuring
Of eager fearfulness, which had a note
Of exultation and astonishment,
Came nearer, till a tumult of hard feet
Filled the long corridor where late the King      955
Had made a softer progress.
        “Well then, Lucan,”
The King said, urging an indignity
To qualify suspense: “For what arrears
Of grace are we in debt for this attention?      960
Why all this early stirring of our sentries,
And their somewhat unseasoned innovation,
To bring you at this unappointed hour?
Are we at war with someone or another,
Without our sanction or intelligence?      965
Are Lucius and the Romans here to greet us,
Or was it Lucius we saw dead?”
        Sir Lucan
Bowed humbly in amazed acknowledgment
Of his intrusion, meanwhile having scanned      970
What three grief-harrowed faces were revealing:
“Praise God, sir, there are tears in the King’s eyes,
And in his friends’. Having regarded them,
And having ventured an abrupt appraisal
Of what I translate….”      975
        “Lucan,” the King said,
“No matter what procedure or persuasion
Gave you an entrance—tell us what it is
That you have come to tell us, and no more.
There was a most uncivil sound abroad      980
Before you came. Who riots in the city?”
“Sir, will your patience with a element ear,
Attend the confirmation of events,
I will, with all available precision,
Say what this morning has inaugurated.      985
No preface or prolonged exordium
Need aggravate the narrative, I venture.
The man of God, requiring of the Queen
A last assoiling prayer for her salvation,
Heard what none else did hear save God the Father.      990
Then a great hush descended on a scene
Where stronger men than I fell on their knees,
And wet with tears their mail of shining iron
That soon was to be cleft unconscionably
Beneath a blast of anguish as intense      995
And fabulous in ardor and effect
As Jove’s is in his lightning. To be short,
They led the Queen—and she went bravely to it,
Or so she was configured in the picture—
A brief way more; and we who did see that,      1000
Believed we saw the last of all her sharing
In this conglomerate and perplexed existence.
But no—and here the prodigy comes in—
The penal flame had hardly bit the faggot,
When, like an onslaught out of Erebus,      1005
There came a crash of horses, and a flash
Of axes, and a hewing down of heroes,
Not like to any in its harsh, profound,
Unholy, and uneven execution.
I felt the breath of one horse on my neck,      1010
And of a sword that all but left a chasm
Where still, praise be to God, I have intact
A face, if not a fair one. I achieved
My flight, I trust, with honorable zeal,
Not having arms, or mail, or preservation      1015
In any phase of necessary iron.
I found a refuge; and there saw the Queen,
All white, and in a swound of woe uplifted
By Lionel, while a dozen fought about him,
And Lancelot, who seized her while he struck,      1020
And with his insane army galloped away,
Before the living, whom he left amazed,
Were sure they were alive among the dead.
Not even in the legendary mist
Of wars that none today may verify,      1025
Did ever men annihilate their kind
With a more vicious inhumanity,
Or a more skilful frenzy. Lancelot
And all his heated adjuncts are by now
Too far, I fear, for such immediate      1030
Reprisal as your majesty perchance…”
“O’ God’s name, Lucan,” the King cried, “be still!”
He gripped with either sodden hand an arm
Of his unyielding chair, while his eyes blazed
In anger, wonder, and fierce hesitation.      1035
Then with a sigh that may have told unheard
Of an unwilling gratitude, he gazed
Upon his friends who gazed again at him;
But neither King nor friend said anything
Until the King turned once more to Sir Lucan:      1040
“Be still, or publish with a shorter tongue
The names of our companions who are dead.
Well, were you there? Or did you run so fast
That you were never there? You must have eyes,
Or you could not have run to find us here.”      1045
Then Lucan, with a melancholy glance
At Gawaine, who stood glaring his impatience,
Addressed again the King: “I will be short, sir;
Too brief to measure with finality
The scope of what I saw with indistinct      1050
Amazement and incredulous concern.
Sir Tor, Sir Griflet, and Sir Aglovale
Are dead. Sir Gillimer, he is dead. Sir—Sir—
But should a living error be detailed
In my account, how should I meet your wrath      1055
For such a false addition to your sorrow?”
He turned again to Gawaine, who shook now
As if the fear in him were more than fury.—
The King, observing Gawaine, beat his foot
In fearful hesitancy on the floor:      1060
“No, Lucan; if so kind an error lives
In your dead record, you need have no fear.
My sorrow has already, in the weight
Of this you tell, too gross a task for that.”
“Then I must offer you cold naked words,      1065
Without the covering warmth of even one
Forlorn alternative,” said Lucan, slowly:
“Sir Gareth, and Sir Gaheris—are dead.”
The rage of a fulfilled expectancy,
Long tortured on a rack of endless moments,      1070
Flashed out of Gawaine’s overflowing eyes
While he flew forward, seizing Lucan’s arms,
And hurled him while he held him.—“Stop, Gawaine,”
The King said grimly. “Now is no time for that.
If Lucan, in a too bewildered heat      1075
Of observation or sad reckoning,
Has added life to death, our joy therefor
Will be the larger. You have lost yourself.”
“More than myself it is that I have lost,”
Gawaine said, with a choking voice that faltered:      1080
“Forgive me, Lucan; I was a little mad.
Gareth?—and Gaheris? Do you say their names,
And then say they are dead! They had no arms—
No armor. They were like you—and you live!
Why do you live when they are dead! You ran,      1085
You say? Well, why were they not running—
If they ran only for a pike to die with?
I knew my brothers, and I know your tale
Is not all told. Gareth?—and Gaheris?
Would they stay there to die like silly children?      1090
Did they believe the King would have them die
For nothing? There are dregs of reason, Lucan,
In lunacy itself. My brothers, Lucan,
Were murdered like two dogs. Who murdered them?
Lucan looked helplessly at Bedivere,      1095
The changeless man of stone, and then at Gawaine:
“I cannot use the word that you have used,
Though yours must have an answer. Your two brothers
Would not have squandered or destroyed themselves
In a vain show of action. I pronounce it,      1100
If only for their known obedience
To the King’s instant wish. Know then your brothers
Were caught and crowded, this way and then that,
With men and horses raging all around them;
And there were swords and axes everywhere      1105
That heads of men were. Armored and unarmored,
They knew the iron alike. In so great press,
Discrimination would have had no pause
To name itself; and therefore Lancelot
Saw not—or seeing, he may have seen too late—      1110
On whom his axes fell.”
        “Why do you flood
The name of Lancelot with words enough
To drown him and his army—and his axes!…
His axes?—or his axe! Which, Lucan? Speak!      1115
Speak, or by God you’ll never speak again!…
Forgive me, Lucan; I was a little mad.
You, sir, forgive me; and you, Bedivere.
There are too many currents in this ocean
Where I’m adrift, and I see no land yet.      1120
Men tell of a great whirlpool in the north
Where ships go round until the men aboard
Go dizzy, and are dizzy when they’re drowning.
But whether I’m to drown or find the shore,
There is one thing—and only one thing now—      1125
For me to know…. His axes? or his axe!
Say, Lucan, or I—O Lucan, speak—speak—speak!
Lucan, did Lancelot kill my two brothers?”
“I say again that in all human chance
He knew not upon whom his axe was falling.”      1130
“So! Then it was his axe and not his axes.
It was his hell-begotten self that did it,
And it was not his men. Gareth! Gaheris!
You came too soon. There was no place for you
Where there was Lancelot. My folly it was,      1135
Not yours, to take for true the inhuman glamour
Of his high-shining fame for that which most
Was not the man. The truth we see too late
Hides half its evil in our stupidity;
And we gape while we groan for what we learn.      1140
An hour ago and I was all but eager
To mourn with Bedivere for grief I had
That I did not say something to this villain—
To this true, gracious, murderous friend of mine—
To comfort him and urge him out of this,      1145
While I was half a fool and half believed
That he was going. Well, there is this to say:
The world that has him will not have him long.
You see how calm I am, now I have said it?
And you, sir, do you see how calm I am?      1150
And it was I who told of shipwrecks—whirlpools—
Drowning! I must have been a little mad,
Not having occupation. Now I have one.
And I have now a tongue as many-phrased
As Lucan’s. Gauge it, Lucan, if you will;      1155
Or take my word. It’s all one thing to me—
All one, all one! There’s only one thing left …
Gareth and Gaheris! Gareth!… Lancelot!”
“Look, Bedivere,” the King said: “look to Gawaine.
Now lead him, you and Lucan, to a chair—      1160
As you and Gawaine led me to this chair
Where I am sitting. We may all be led,
If there be coming on for Camelot
Another day like this. Now leave me here,
Alone with Gawaine. When a strong man goes      1165
Like that, it makes him sick to see his friends
Around him. Leave us, and go now. Sometimes
I’ll scarce remember that he’s not my son,
So near he seems. I thank you, gentlemen.”
The King, alone with Gawaine, who said nothing,      1170
Had yet no heart for news of Lancelot
Or Guinevere. He saw them on their way
To Joyous Gard, where Tristram and Isolt
Had islanded of old their stolen love,
While Mark of Cornwall entertained a vengeance      1175
Envisaging an ending of all that;
And he could see the two of them together
As Mark had seen Isolt there, and her knight,—
Though not, like Mark, with murder in his eyes.
He saw them as if they were there already,      1180
And he were a lost thought long out of mind;
He saw them lying in each other’s arms,
Oblivious of the living and the dead
They left in Camelot. Then he saw the dead
That lay so quiet outside the city walls,      1185
And wept, and left the Queen to Lancelot—
Or would have left her, had the will been his
To leave or take; for now he could acknowledge
An inrush of a desolate thanksgiving
That she, with death around her, had not died.      1190
The vision of a peace that humbled him,
And yet might save the world that he had won,
Came slowly into view like something soft
And ominous on all-fours, without a spirit
To make it stand upright. “Better be that,      1195
Even that, than blood,” he sighed, “if that be peace.”
But looking down on Gawaine, who said nothing,
He shook his head: “The King has had his world,
And he shall have no peace. With Modred here,
And Agravaine with Gareth, who is dead      1200
With Gaheris, Gawaine will have no peace.
Gawaine or Modred—Gawaine with his hate,
Or Modred with his anger for his birth,
And the black malady of his ambition—
Will make of my Round Table, where was drawn      1205
The circle of a world, a thing of wreck
And yesterday—a furniture forgotten;
And I, who loved the world as Merlin did,
May lose it as he lost it, for a love
That was not peace, and therefore was not love.”      1210



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