Verse > Edwin A. Robinson > Collected Poems > VI. Lancelot > VII
Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).  Collected Poems. 1921.
VI. Lancelot
ALL day the rain came down on Joyous Gard,      1570
Where now there was no joy, and all that night
The rain came down. Shut in for none to find him
Where an unheeded log-fire fought the storm
With upward swords that flashed along the wall
Faint hieroglyphs of doom not his to read,      1575
Lancelot found a refuge where at last
He might see nothing. Glad for sight of nothing,
He saw no more. Now and again he buried
A lonely thought among the coals and ashes
Outside the reaching flame and left it there,      1580
Quite as he left outside in rainy graves
The sacrificial hundreds who had filled them.
“They died, Gawaine,” he said, “and you live on,
You and the King, as if there were no dying;
And it was I, Gawaine, who let you live—      1585
You and the King. For what more length of time,
I wonder, may there still be found on earth
Foot-room for four of us? We are too many
For one world, Gawaine; and there may be soon,
For one or other of us, a way out.      1590
As men are listed, we are men for men
To fear; and I fear Modred more than any.
But even the ghost of Modred at the door—
The ghost I should have made him—would employ
For time as hard as this a louder knuckle,      1595
Assuredly now, than that. And I would see
No mortal face till morning…. Well, are you well
Again? Are you as well again as ever?”
He led her slowly on with a cold show
Of care that was less heartening for the Queen      1600
Than anger would have been, into the firelight,
And there he gave her cushions. “Are you warm?”
He said; and she said nothing. “Are you afraid?”
He said again; “are you still afraid of Gawaine?
As often as you think of him and hate him,      1605
Remember too that he betrayed his brothers
To us that he might save us. Well, he saved us;
And Rome, whose name to you was never music,
Saves you again, with heaven alone may tell
What others who might have their time to sleep      1610
In earth out there, with the rain falling on them,
And with no more to fear of wars tonight
Than you need fear of Gawaine or of Arthur.
The way before you is a safer way
For you to follow than when I was in it.      1615
We children who forget the whips of Time,
To live within the hour, are slow to see
That all such hours are passing. They were past
When you came here with me.”
        She looked away,      1620
Seeming to read the firelight on the walls
Before she spoke: “When I came here with you,
And found those eyes of yours, I could have wished
And prayed it were the end of hours, and years.
What was it made you save me from the fire,      1625
If only out of memories and forebodings
To build around my life another fire
Of slower faggots? If you had let me die,
Those other faggots would be ashes now,
And all of me that you have ever loved      1630
Would be a few more ashes. If I read
The past as well as you have read the future
You need say nothing of ingratitude,
For I say only lies. My soul, of course,
It was you loved. You told me so yourself.      1635
And that same precious blue-veined cream-white soul
Will soon be safer, if I understand you,
In Camelot, where the King is, than elsewhere
On earth. What more, in faith, have I to ask
Of earth or heaven than that! Although I fell      1640
When you said Camelot, are you to know,
Surely, the stroke you gave me then was not
The measure itself of ecstasy? We women
Are such adept inveterates in our swooning
That we fall down for joy as easily      1645
As we eat one another to show our love.
Even horses, seeing again their absent masters,
Have wept for joy; great dogs have died of it.”
Having said as much as that, she frowned and held
Her small white hands out for the fire to warm them.      1650
Forward she leaned, and forward her thoughts went—
To Camelot. But they were not there long,
Her thoughts; for soon she flashed her eyes again,
And he found in them what he wished were tears
Of angry sorrow for what she had said.      1655
“What are you going to do with me?” she asked;
And all her old incisiveness came back,
With a new thrust of malice, which he felt
And feared. “What are you going to do with me?
What does a child do with a worn-out doll?      1660
I was a child once; and I had a father.
He was a king; and, having royal ways,
He made a queen of me—King Arthur’s queen.
And if that happened, once upon a time,
Why may it not as well be happening now      1665
That I am not a queen? Was I a queen
When first you brought me here with one torn rag
To cover me? Was I overmuch a queen
When I sat up at last, and in a gear
That would have made a bishop dance to Cardiff      1670
To see me wearing it? Was I Queen then?”
“You were the Queen of Christendom,” he said,
Not smiling at her, “whether now or not
You deem it an unchristian exercise
To vilipend the wearing of the vanished.      1675
The women may have reasoned, insecurely,
That what one queen had worn would please another.
I left them to their ingenuities.”
Once more he frowned away a threatening smile,
But soon forgot the memory of all smiling      1680
While he gazed on the glimmering face and hair
Of Guinevere—the glory of white and gold
That had been his, and were, for taking of it,
Still his, to cloud, with an insidious gleam
Of earth, another that was not of earth,      1685
And so to make of him a thing of night—
A moth between a window and a star,
Not wholly lured by one or led by the other.
The more he gazed upon her beauty there,
The longer was he living in two kingdoms,      1690
Not owning in his heart the king of either,
And ruling not himself. There was an end
Of hours, he told her silent face again,
In silence. On the morning when his fury
Wrenched her from that foul fire in Camelot,      1695
Where blood paid irretrievably the toll
Of her release, the whips of Time had fallen
Upon them both. All this to Guinevere
He told in silence and he told in vain.
Observing her ten fingers variously,      1700
She sighed, as in equivocal assent,
“No two queens are alike.”
  “Is that the flower
Of all your veiled invention?” Lancelot said,
Smiling at last: “If you say, saying all that,      1705
You are not like Isolt—well, you are not.
Isolt was a physician, who cured men
Their wounds, and sent them rowelling for more;
Isolt was too dark, and too versatile;
She was too dark for Mark, if not for Tristram.      1710
Forgive me; I was saying that to myself,
And not to make you shiver. No two queens—
Was that it?—are alike? A longer story
Might have a longer telling and tell less.
Your tale’s as brief as Pelleas with his vengeance      1715
On Gawaine, whom he swore that he would slay
At once for stealing of the lady Ettard.”
“Treasure my scantling wits, if you enjoy them;
Wonder a little, too, that I conserve them
Through the eternal memory of one morning,      1720
And in these years of days that are the death
Of men who die for me. I should have died.
I should have died for them.”
  “You are wrong,” he said;
“They died because Gawaine went mad with hate      1725
For loss of his two brothers and set the King
On fire with fear, the two of them believing
His fear was vengeance when it was in fact
A royal desperation. They died because
Your world, my world, and Arthur’s world is dying,      1730
As Merlin said it would. No blame is yours;
For it was I who led you from the King—
Or rather, to say truth, it was your glory
That led my love to lead you from the King—
By flowery ways, that always end somewhere,      1735
To fire and fright and exile, and release.
And if you bid your memory now to blot
Your story from the book of what has been,
Your phantom happiness were a ghost indeed,
And I the least of weasels among men,—      1740
Too false to manhood and your sacrifice
To merit a niche in hell. If that were so,
I’d swear there was no light for me to follow,
Save your eyes to the grave; and to the last
I might not know that all hours have an end;      1745
I might be one of those who feed themselves
By grace of God, on hopes dryer than hay,
Enjoying not what they eat, yet always eating.
The Vision shattered, a man’s love of living
Becomes at last a trap and a sad habit,      1750
More like an ailing dotard’s love of liquor
That ails him, than a man’s right love of woman,
Or of his God. There are men enough like that,
And I might come to that. Though I see far
Before me now, could I see, looking back,      1755
A life that you could wish had not been lived,
I might be such a man. Could I believe
Our love was nothing mightier then than we were,
I might be such a man—a living dead man,
One of these days.”      1760
        Guinevere looked at him,
And all that any woman has not said
Was in one look: “Why do you stab me now
With such a needless ‘then’? If I am going—
And I suppose I am—are the words all lost      1765
That men have said before to dogs and children
To make them go away? Why use a knife,
When there are words enough without your ‘then’
To cut as deep as need be? What I ask you
Is never more to ask me if my life      1770
Be one that I could wish had not been lived—
And that you never torture it again,
To make it bleed and ache as you do now,
Past all indulgence or necessity.
Were you to give a lonely child who loved you      1775
One living thing to keep—a bird, may be—
Before you went away from her forever,
Would you, for surety not to be forgotten,
Maim it and leave it bleeding on her fingers?
And would you leave the child alone with it—      1780
Alone, and too bewildered even to cry,
Till you were out of sight? Are you men never
To know what words are? Do you doubt sometimes
A Vision that lets you see so far away
That you forget so lightly who it was      1785
You must have cared for once to be so kind—
Or seem so kind—when she, and for that only,
Had that been all, would throw down crowns and glories
To share with you the last part of the world?
And even the queen in me would hardly go      1790
So far off as to vanish. If I were patched
And scrapped in what the sorriest fisher-wife
In Orkney might give mumbling to a beggar,
I doubt if oafs and yokels would annoy me
More than I willed they should. Am I so old      1795
And dull, so lean and waning, or what not,
That you must hurry away to grasp and hoard
The small effect of time I might have stolen
From you and from a Light that where it lives
Must live for ever? Where does history tell you      1800
The Lord himself would seem in so great haste
As you for your perfection? If our world—
Your world and mine and Arthur’s as you say—
Is going out now to make way for another,
Why not before it goes, and I go with it,      1805
Have yet one morsel more of life together,
Before death sweeps the table and our few crumbs
Of love are a few last ashes on a fire
That cannot hurt your Vision, or burn long?
You cannot warm your lonely fingers at it      1810
For a great waste of time when I am dead:
When I am dead you will be on your way,
With maybe not so much as one remembrance
Of all I was, to follow you and torment you.
Some word of Bors may once have given color      1815
To some few that I said, but they were true—
Whether Bors told them first to me, or whether
I told them first to Bors. The Light you saw
Was not the Light of Rome; the word you had
Of Rome was not the word of God—though Rome      1820
Has refuge for the weary and heavy-laden.
Were I to live too long I might seek Rome
Myself, and be the happier when I found it.
Meanwhile, am I to be no more to you
Than a moon-shadow of a lonely stranger      1825
Somewhere in Camelot? And is there no region
In this poor fading world of Arthur’s now
Where I may be again what I was once—
Before I die? Should I live to be old,
I shall have been long since too far away      1830
For you to hate me then; and I shall know
How old I am by seeing it in your eyes.”
Her misery told itself in a sad laugh,
And in a rueful twisting of her face
That only beauty’s perilous privilege      1835
Of injury would have yielded or suborned
As hope’s infirm accessory while she prayed
Through Lancelot to heaven for Lancelot.
She looked away: “If I were God,” she said,
“I should say, ‘Let them be as they have been.      1840
A few more years will heap no vast account
Against eternity, and all their love
Was what I gave them. They brought on the end
Of Arthur’s empire, which I wrought through Merlin
For the world’s knowing of what kings and queens      1845
Are made for; but they knew not what they did—
Save as a price, and as a fear that love
Might end in fear. It need not end that way,
And they need fear no more for what I gave them;
For it was I who gave them to each other.’      1850
If I were God, I should say that to you.”
He saw tears quivering in her pleading eyes,
But through them she could see, with a wild hope,
That he was fighting. When he spoke, he smiled—
Much as he might have smiled at her, she thought,      1855
Had she been Gawaine, Gawaine having given
To Lancelot, who yet would have him live,
An obscure wound that would not heal or kill.
“My life was living backward for the moment,”
He said, still burying in the coals and ashes      1860
Thoughts that he would not think. His tongue was dry,
And each dry word he said was choking him
As he said on: “I cannot ask of you
That you be kind to me, but there’s a kindness
That is your proper debt. Would you cajole      1865
Your reason with a weary picturing
On walls or on vain air of what your fancy,
Like firelight, makes of nothing but itself?
Do you not see that I go from you only
Because you go from me?—because our path      1870
Led where at last it had an end in havoc,
As long we knew it must—as Arthur too,
And Merlin knew it must?—as God knew it must?
A power that I should not have said was mine—
That was not mine, and is not mine—avails me      1875
Strangely tonight, although you are here with me;
And I see much in what has come to pass
That is to be. The Light that I have seen,
As you say true, is not the light of Rome,
Albeit the word of Rome that set you free      1880
Was more than mine or the King’s. To flout that word
Would sound the preparation of a terror
To which a late small war on our account
Were a king’s pastime and a queen’s annoyance;
And that, for the good fortune of a world      1885
As yet not over-fortuned, may not be.
There may be war to come when you are gone,
For I doubt yet Gawaine; but Rome will hold you,
Hold you in Camelot. If there be more war,
No fire of mine shall feed it, nor shall you      1890
Be with me to endure it. You are free;
And free, you are going home to Camelot.
There is no other way than one for you,
Nor is there more than one for me. We have lived,
And we shall die. I thank you for my life.      1895
Forgive me if I say no more tonight.”
He rose, half blind with pity that was no longer
The servant of his purpose or his will,
To grope away somewhere among the shadows
For wine to drench his throat and his dry tongue,      1900
That had been saying he knew not what to her
For whom his life-devouring love was now
A scourge of mercy.
        Like a blue-eyed Medea
Of white and gold, broken with grief and fear      1905
And fury that shook her speechless while she waited,
Yet left her calm enough for Lancelot
To see her without seeing, she stood up
To breathe and suffer. Fury could not live long,
With grief and fear like hers and love like hers,      1910
When speech came back: “No other way now than one?
Free? Do you call me free? Do you mean by that
There was never woman alive freer to live
Than I am free to die? Do you call me free
Because you are driven so near to death yourself      1915
With weariness of me, and the sight of me,
That you must use a crueller knife than ever,
And this time at my heart, for me to watch
Before you drive it home? For God’s sake, drive it!
Drive it as often as you have the others,      1920
And let the picture of each wound it makes
On me be shown to women and men for ever;
And the good few that know—let them reward you.
I hear them, in such low and pitying words
As only those who know, and are not many,      1925
Are used to say: ‘The good knight Lancelot
It was who drove the knife home to her heart,
Rather than drive her home to Camelot.’
Home! Free! Would you let me go there again—
To be at home?—be free? To be his wife?      1930
To live in his arms always, and so hate him
That I could heap around him the same faggots
That you put out with blood? Go home, you say?
Home?—where I saw the black post waiting for me
That morning?—saw those good men die for me—      1935
Gareth and Gaheris, Lamorak’s brother Tor,
And all the rest? Are men to die for me
For ever? Is there water enough, do you think.
Between this place and that for me to drown in?”
“There is time enough, I think, between this hour      1940
And some wise hour tomorrow, for you to sleep in.
When you are safe again in Camelot,
The King will not molest you or pursue you;
The King will be a suave and chastened man.
In Camelot you shall have no more to dread      1945
Than you shall hear then of this rain that roars
Tonight as if it would be roaring always.
I do not ask you to forgive the faggots,
Though I would have you do so for your peace.
Only the wise who know may do so much,      1950
And they, as you say truly, are not many.
And I would say no more of this tonight.”
“Then do not ask me for the one last thing
That I shall give to God! I thought I died
That morning. Why am I alive again,      1955
To die again? Are you all done with me?
Is there no longer something left of me
That made you need me? Have I lost myself
So fast that what a mirror says I am
Is not what is, but only what was once?      1960
Does half a year do that with us, I wonder,
Or do I still have something that was mine
That afternoon when I was in the sunset,
Under the oak, and you were looking at me?
Your look was not all sorrow for your going      1965
To find the Light and leave me in the dark—
But I am the daughter of Leodogran,
And you are Lancelot,—and have a tongue
To say what I may not…. Why must I go
To Camelot when your kinsmen hold all France?      1970
Why is there not some nook in some old house
Where I might hide myself—with you or not?
Is there no castle, or cabin, or cave in the woods?
Yes, I could love the bats and owls, in France,
A lifetime sooner than I could the King      1975
That I shall see in Camelot, waiting there
For me to cringe and beg of him again
The dust of mercy, calling it holy bread.
I wronged him, but he bought me with a name
Too large for my king-father to relinquish—      1980
Though I prayed him, and I prayed God aloud,
To spare that crown. I called it crown enough
To be my father’s child—until you came.
And then there were no crowns or kings or fathers
Under the sky. I saw nothing but you.      1985
And you would whip me back to bury myself
In Camelot, with a few slave maids and lackeys
To be my grovelling court; and even their faces
Would not hide half the story. Take me to France—
To France or Egypt,—anywhere else on earth      1990
Than Camelot! Is there not room in France
For two more dots of mortals?—or for one?—
For me alone? Let Lionel go with me—
Or Bors. Let Bors go with me into France,
And leave me there. And when you think of me,      1995
Say Guinevere is in France, where she is happy;
And you may say no more of her than that …
Why do you not say something to me now—
Before I go? Why do you look—and look?
Why do you frown as if you thought me mad?      2000
I am not mad—but I shall soon be mad,
If I go back to Camelot where the King is.
Lancelot!… Is there nothing left of me?
Nothing of what you called your white and gold,
And made so much of? Has it all gone by?      2005
He must have been a lonely God who made
Man in his image and then made only a woman!
Poor fool she was! Poor Queen! Poor Guinevere!
There were kings and bishops once, under her window
Like children, and all scrambling for a flower.      2010
Time was!—God help me, what am I saying now!
Does a Queen’s memory wither away to that?
Am I so dry as that? Am I a shell?
Have I become so cheap as this?… I wonder
Why the King cared!” She fell down on her knees      2015
Crying, and held his knees with hungry fear.
Over his folded arms, as over the ledge
Of a storm-shaken parapet, he could see,
Below him, like a tumbling flood of gold,
The Queen’s hair with a crumpled foam of white      2020
Around it: “Do you ask, as a child would,
For France because it has a name? How long
Do you conceive the Queen of the Christian world
Would hide herself in France were she to go there?
How long should Rome require to find her there?      2025
And how long, Rome or not, would such a flower
As you survive the unrooting and transplanting
That you commend so ingenuously tonight?
And if we shared your cave together, how long,
And in the joy of what obscure seclusion,      2030
If I may say it, were Lancelot of the Lake
And Guinevere an unknown man and woman,
For no eye to see twice? There are ways to France,
But why pursue them for Rome’s interdict,
And for a longer war? Your path is now      2035
As open as mine is dark—or would be dark,
Without the Light that once had blinded me
To death, had I seen more. I shall see more,
And I shall not be blind. I pray, moreover,
That you be not so now. You are a Queen,      2040
And you may be no other. You are too brave
And kind and fair for men to cheer with lies.
We cannot make one world of two, nor may we
Count one life more than one. Could we go back
To the old garden, we should not stay long;      2045
The fruit that we should find would all be fallen,
And have the taste of earth.”
        When she looked up,
A tear fell on her forehead. “Take me away!”
She cried. “Why do you do this? Why do you say this?      2050
If you are sorry for me, take me away
From Camelot! Send me away—drive me away—
Only away from there! The King is there—
And I may kill him if I see him there.
Take me away—take me away to France!      2055
And if I cannot hide myself in France,
Then let me die in France!”
        He shook his head,
Slowly, and raised her slowly in his arms,
Holding her there; and they stood long together.      2060
And there was no sound then of anything,
Save a low moaning of a broken woman,
And the cold roaring down of that long rain.
All night the rain came down on Joyous Gard;
And all night, there before the crumbling embers      2065
That faded into feathery death-like dust,
Lancelot sat and heard it. He saw not
The fire that died, but he heard rain that fell
On all those graves around him and those years
Behind him; and when dawn came, he was cold.      2070
At last he rose, and for a time stood seeing
The place where she had been. She was not there;
He was not sure that she had ever been there;
He was not sure there was a Queen, or a King,
Or a world with kingdoms on it. He was cold.      2075
He was not sure of anything but the Light—
The Light he saw not. “And I shall not see it,”
He thought, “so long as I kill men for Gawaine.
If I kill him, I may as well kill myself;
And I have killed his brothers.” He tried to sleep,      2080
But rain had washed the sleep out of his life,
And there was no more sleep. When he awoke,
He did not know that he had been asleep;
And the same rain was falling. At some strange hour
It ceased, and there was light. And seven days after,      2085
With a cavalcade of silent men and women,
The Queen rode into Camelot, where the King was,
And Lancelot rode grimly at her side.
When he rode home again to Joyous Gard,
The storm in Gawaine’s eyes and the King’s word      2090
Of banishment attended him. “Gawaine
Will give the King no peace,” Lionel said;
And Lancelot said after him, “Therefore
The King will have no peace.”—And so it was
That Lancelot, with many of Arthur’s knights      2095
That were not Arthur’s now, sailed out one day
From Cardiff to Bayonne, where soon Gawaine,
The King, and the King’s army followed them,
For longer sorrow and for longer war.



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