Fiction > Harvard Classics > The Song of Roland
  The Song of Roland.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Part II: The Prelude of the Great Battle
The Horn

As Roland gazed on his slaughtered men,
He bespake his gentle compeer agen:
“Ah, dear companion, may God thee shield!
Behold, our bravest lie dead on field!
Well may we weep for France the fair,        5
Of her noble barons despoiled and bare.
Had he been with us, our king and friend!
Speak, my brother, thy counsel lend,—
How unto Karl shall we tidings send?”
Olivier answered, “I wist not how.        10
Liefer death than be recreant now.”

“I will sound,” said Roland, “upon my horn,
Karl, as he passeth the gorge, to warn.
The Franks, I know, will return apace.”
Said Olivier, “Nay, it were foul disgrace        15
On your noble kindred to wreak such wrong;
They would bear the stain their lifetime long.
Erewhile I sought it, and sued in vain;
But to sound thy horn thou wouldst not deign.
Not now shall mine assent be won,        20
Nor shall I say it is knightly done.
Lo! both your arms are streaming red.”
“In sooth,” said Roland, “good strokes I sped.”

Said Roland, “Our battle goes hard, I fear;
I will sound my horn that Karl may hear.”        25
“’Twere a deed unknightly,” said Olivier;
“Thou didst disdain when I sought and prayed:
Saved had we been with cur Karl to aid;
Unto him and his host no blame shall be:
By this my beard, might I hope to see        30
My gentle sister Alda’s face,
Thou shouldst never hold her in thine embrace.”

“Ah, why on me doth thine anger fall?”
“Roland, ’tis thou who hast wrought it all.
Valor and madness are scarce allied,—        35
Better discretion than daring pride.
All of thy folly our Franks lie slain,
Nor shall render service to Karl again,
As I implored thee, if thou hadst done,
The king had come and the field were won;        40
Marsil captive, or slain, I trow.
Thy daring, Roland, hath wrought our woe.
No service more unto Karl we pay,
That first of men till the judgment day;
Thou shalt die, and France dishonored be        45
Ended our loyal company—
A woful parting this eve shall see.”

Archbishop Turpin their strife hath heard,
His steed with the spurs of gold he spurred,
And thus rebuked them, riding near:        50
“Sir Roland, and thou, Sir Olivier,
Contend not, in God’s great name, I crave.
Not now availeth the horn to save;
And yet behoves you to wind its call,—
Karl will come to avenge our fall,        55
Nor hence the foemen in joyance wend.
The Franks will all from their steeds descend;
When they find us slain and martyred here,
They will raise our bodies on mule and bier,
And, while in pity aloud they weep,        60
Lay us in hallowed earth they weep,
Nor wolf nor boar on our limbs shall feed.”
Said Roland, “Yea, ’tis a goodly rede.”

Then to his lips the horn he drew,
And full and lustily he blew.        65
The mountain peaks soared high around;
Thirty leagues was borne the sound.
Karl hath heard it, and all his band.
“Our men have battle,” he said, “on hand.”
Ganelon rose in front and cried,        70
“If another spake, I would say he lied.”

With deadly travail, in stress and pain,
Count Roland sounded the mighty strain.
Forth from his mouth the bright blood sprang,
And his temples burst for the very pang.        75
On and onward was borne the blast,
Till Karl hath heard as the gorge he passed,
And Naimes and all his men of war.
“It is Roland’s horn,” said the Emperor,
“And, save in battle, he had not blown.”        80
“Battle,” said Ganelon, “is there none.
Old are you grown—all white and hoar;
Such words bespeak you a child once more.
Have you, then, forgotten Roland’s pride,
Which I marvel God should so long abide,        85
How he captured Noples without your hest?
Forth from the city the heathen pressed,
To your vassal Roland they battle gave,—
He slew them all with the trenchant glaive,
Then turned the waters upon the plain,        90
That trace of blood might none remain.
He would sound all day for a single hare:
’Tis a jest with him and his fellows there;
For who would battle against him dare?
Ride onward—wherefore this chill delay?        95
Your mighty land is yet far away.”

On Roland’s mouth is the bloody stain,
Burst asunder his temple’s vein;
His horn he soundeth in anguish drear;
King Karl and the Franks around him hear.        100
Said Karl, “That horn is long of breath.”
Said Naimes, “’Tis Roland who travaileth.
There is battle yonder by mine avow.
He who betrayed him deceives you now.
Arm, sire; ring forth your rallying cry,        105
And stand your noble household by;
For you hear your Roland in jeopardy.”

The king commands to sound the alarm.
To the trumpet the Franks alight and arm;
With casque and corselet and gilded brand,        110
Buckler and stalwart lance in hand,
Pennons of crimson and white and blue,
The barons leap on their steeds anew,
And onward spur the passes through;
Nor is there one but to other saith,        115
“Could we reach but Roland before his death,
Blows would we strike for him grim and great.”
Ah! what availeth!—’tis all too late.

The evening passed into brightening dawn.
Against the sun their harness shone;        120
From helm and hauberk glanced the rays,
And their painted bucklers seemed all ablaze.
The Emperor rode in wrath apart.
The Franks were moody and sad of heart;
Was none but dropped the bitter tear,        125
For they thought of Roland with deadly fear.—
Then bade the Emperor take and bind
Count Gan, and had him in scorn consigned
To Besgun, chief of his kitchen train.
“Hold me this felon,” he said, “in chain.”        130
Then full a hundred round him pressed,
Of the kitchen varlets the worst and best;
His beard upon lip and chin they tore,
Cuffs of the fist each dealt him four,
Roundly they beat him with rods and staves;        135
Then around his neck those kitchen knaves
Flung a fetterlock fast and strong,
As ye lead a bear in a chain along;
On a beast of burthen the count they cast,
Till they yield him back to Karl at last.        140

Dark, vast, and high the summits soar,
The waters down through the valleys pour,
The trumpets sound in front and rear,
And to Roland’s horn make answer clear.
The Emperor rideth in wrathful mood,        145
The Franks in grievous solicitude;
Nor one among them can stint to weep,
Beseeching God that He Roland keep,
Till they stand beside him upon the field,
To the death together their arms to wield.        150
Ah, timeless succor, and all in vain!
Too long they tarried, too late they strain.

Onward King Karl in his anger goes;
Down on his harness his white beard flows.
The barons of France spur hard behind;        155
But on all there presseth one grief of mind—
That they stand not beside Count Roland then,
As he fronts the power of the Saracen.
Were he hurt in fight, who would then survive?
Yet three score barons around him strive.        160
And what a sixty! Nor chief nor king
Had ever such gallant following.

Roland looketh to hill and plain,
He sees the lines of his warriors slain,
And he weeps like a noble cavalier,        165
“Barons of France, God hold you dear,
And take you to Paradise’s bowers,
Where your souls may lie on the holy flowers;
Braver vassals on earth were none,
So many kingdoms for Karl ye won;        170
Years a-many your ranks I led,
And for end like this were ye nurturèd.
Land of France, thou art soothly fair;
To-day thou liest bereaved and bare;
It was all for me your lives you gave,        175
And I was helpless to shield or save.
May the great God save you who cannot lie.
Olivier, brother, I stand thee by;
I die of grief, if I ’scape unslain:
In, brother, in to the fight again.”        180

Once more pressed Roland within the fight,
His Durindana he grasped with might;
Faldron of Pui did he cleave in two,
And twenty-four of their bravest slew.
Never was man on such vengeance bound;        185
And, as flee the roe-deer before the hound,
So in face of Roland the heathen flee.
Saith Turpin, “Right well this liketh me.
Such prowess a cavalier befits,
Who harness wears, and on charger sits;        190
In battle shall he be strong and great,
Or I prize him not at four deniers’ rate;
Let him else be monk in a cloister cell,
His daily prayers for our souls to tell.”
Cries Roland, “Smite them, and do not spare.”        195
Down once more on the foe they bear,
But the Christian ranks grow thinned and rare.

Who knoweth ransom is none for him,
Maketh in battle resistance grim;
The Franks like wrathful lions strike,        200
But King Marsil beareth him baron-like;
He bestrideth his charger, Gaignon hight,
And he pricketh him hard, Sir Beuve to smite,
The Lord of Beaune and of Dijon town,
Through shield and cuirass, he struck him down:        205
Dead past succor of man he lay.
Ivon and Ivor did Marsil slay;
Gerard of Roussillon beside.
Not far was Roland, and loud he cried,
“Be thou forever in God’s disgrace,        210
Who hast slain my fellows before my face,
Before we part thou shalt blows essay,
And learn the name of my sword to-day.
Down, at the word, came the trenchant brand,
And from Marsil severed his good right hand:        215
With another stroke, the head he won
Of the fair-haired Jurfalez, Marsil’s son.
“Help us, Mahound!” say the heathen train,
“May our gods avenge us on Carlemaine!
Such daring felons he hither sent,        220
Who will hold the field till their lives be spent.”
“Let us flee and save us,” cry one and all,
Unto flight a hundred thousand fall,
Nor can aught the fugitives recall.

But what availeth? though Marsil fly,
His uncle, the Algalif, still is nigh;
Lord of Carthagena is he,
Of Alferna’s shore and Garmalie,
And of Ethiopia, accursed land:
The black battalions at his command,        230
With nostrils huge and flattened ears,
Outnumber fifty thousand spears;
And on they ride in haste and ire,
Shouting their heathen war-cry dire.
“At last,” said Roland, “the hour is come,        235
Here receive we our martyrdom;
Yet strike with your burnished brands—accursed
Who sells not his life right dearly first;
In life or death be your thought the same,
That gentle France be not brought to shame.        240
When the Emperor hither his steps hath bent,
And he sees the Saracens’s chastisement,
Fifteen of their dead against our one,
He will breathe on our souls his bension.”


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