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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Farewell of King Arthur to Queen Guinevere
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
 
From ‘Idylls of the King’

BUT when the Queen, immersed in such a trance,
And moving through the past unconsciously,
Came to that point where first she saw the King
Ride toward her from the city, sighed to find
Her journey done, glanced at him, thought him cold.        5
High, self-contained, and passionless, not like him,
“Not like my Lancelot”—while she brooded thus
And grew half guilty in her thoughts again,
There rode an armèd warrior to the doors.
A murmuring whisper through the nunnery ran,        10
Then on a sudden a cry, “The King!” She sat
Stiff-stricken, listening: but when armèd feet
Through the long gallery from the outer doors
Rang coming, prone from off her seat she fell,
And groveled with her face against the floor;        15
There with her milk-white arms and shadowy hair
She made her face a darkness from the King;
And in the darkness heard his armed feet
Pause by her: then came silence, then a voice,
Monotonous and hollow like a ghost’s        20
Denouncing judgment, but though changed, the King’s:—
 
  “Liest thou here so low, the child of one
I honored, happy, dead before thy shame?
Well is it that no child is born of thee.
The children born of thee are sword and fire,        25
Red ruin, and the breaking-up of laws,
The craft of kindred, and the Godless hosts
Of heathen swarming o’er the Northern Sea;
Whom I, while yet Sir Lancelot, my right arm,
The mightiest of my knights, abode with me,        30
Have everywhere about this land of Christ
In twelve great battles ruining overthrown.
And knowest thou now from whence I come?—From him,
From waging bitter war with him; and he,
That did not shun to smite me in worse way,        35
Had yet that grace of courtesy in him left,
He spared to lift his hand against the King
Who made him knight: but many a knight was slain;
And many more, and all his kith and kin
Clave to him, and abode in his own land.        40
And many more when Modred raised revolt,
Forgetful of their troth and fealty, clave
To Modred, and a remnant stays with me.
And of this remnant will I leave a part,
True men who love me still, for whom I live,        45
To guard thee in the wild hour coming on,
Lest but a hair of this low head be harmed.
Fear not: thou shalt be guarded till my death.
Howbeit I know, if ancient prophecies
Have erred not, that I march to meet my doom.        50
Thou hast not made my life so sweet to me,
That I the King should greatly care to live;
For thou hast spoilt the purpose of my life.
Bear with me for the last time while I show,
Even for thy sake, the sin which thou hast sinned.        55
For when the Roman left us, and their law
Relaxed its hold upon us, and the ways
Were filled with rapine, here and there a deed
Of prowess done redressed a random wrong.
But I was first of all the kings who drew        60
The knighthood-errant of this realm and all
The realms together under me, their Head,
In that fair Order of my Table Round,—
A glorious company, the flower of men,
To serve as model for the mighty world,        65
And be the fair beginning of a time.
I made them lay their hands in mine, and swear
To reverence the King as if he were
Their conscience, and their conscience as their King,
To break the heathen and uphold the Christ,        70
To ride abroad redressing human wrongs,
To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it,
To honor his own word as if his God’s,
To lead sweet lives in purest chastity,
To love one maiden only, cleave to her,        75
And worship her by years of noble deeds
Until they won her; for indeed I knew
Of no more subtle master under heaven
Than is the maiden passion for a maid,
Not only to keep down the base in man,        80
But teach high thought, and amiable words,
And courtliness, and the desire of fame,
And love of truth, and all that makes a man.
And all this throve before I wedded thee,
Believing, ‘Lo mine helpmate, one to feel        85
My purpose and rejoicing in my joy.’
Then came thy shameful sin with Lancelot;
Then came the sin of Tristram and Isolt;
Then others, following these my mightiest knights,
And drawing foul ensample from fair names,        90
Sinned also, till the loathsome opposite
Of all my heart had destined did obtain,
And all through thee! so that this life of mine
I guard as God’s high gift from scathe and wrong,
Not greatly care to lose; but rather think        95
How sad it were for Arthur, should he live,
To sit once more within his lonely hall,
And miss the wonted number of my knights,
And miss to hear high talk of noble deeds
As in the golden days before thy sin.        100
For which of us, who might be left, could speak
Of the pure heart, nor seem to glance at thee?
And in thy bowers of Camelot or of Usk
Thy shadow still would glide from room to room,
And I should evermore be vext with thee        105
In hanging robe or vacant ornament,
Or ghostly footfall echoing on the stair.
For think not, though thou wouldst not love thy lord,
Thy lord has wholly lost his love for thee.
I am not made of so slight elements.        110
Yet must I leave thee, woman, to thy shame.
I hold that man the worst of public foes
Who either for his own or children’s sake.
To save his blood from scandal, lets the wife
Whom he knows false, abide and rule the house;        115
For being through his cowardice allowed
Her station, taken everywhere for pure,
She like a new disease, unknown to men,
Creeps, no precaution used, among the crowd,
Makes wicked lightnings of her eyes, and saps        120
The fealty of our friends, and stirs the pulse
With devil’s leaps, and poisons half the young.
Worst of the worst were that man he that reigns!
Better the King’s waste hearth and aching heart
Than thou reseated in thy place of light,        125
The mockery of my people, and their bane.”
 
  He paused, and in the pause she crept an inch
Nearer, and laid her hands about his feet.
Far off a solitary trumpet blew.
Then waiting by the doors the war-horse neighed        130
As at a friend’s voice, and he spake again:—
 
  “Yet think not that I come to urge thy crimes;
I did not come to curse thee, Guinevere,—
I, whose vast pity almost makes me die
To see thee, laying there thy golden head,        135
My pride in happier summers, at my feet.
The wrath which forced my thoughts on that fierce law,
The doom of treason and the flaming death,
(When first I learnt thee hidden here) is past.
The pang which while I weighed thy heart with one        140
Too wholly true to dream untruth in thee,
Made my tears burn, is also past—in part.
And all is past, the sin is sinned, and I,
Lo! I forgive thee, as Eternal God
Forgives: do thou for thine own soul the rest.        145
But how to take last leave of all I loved?
O golden hair, with which I used to play,
Not knowing! O imperial-molded form,
And beauty such as never woman wore,
Until it came a kingdom’s curse with thee—        150
I cannot touch thy lips,—they are not mine,
But Lancelot’s: nay, they never were the King’s.
I cannot take thy hand,—that too is flesh,
And in the flesh thou hast sinned; and mine own flesh.
Here looking down on thine polluted, cries        155
‘I loathe thee;’ yet not less, O Guinevere,—
For I was ever virgin save for thee,—
My love through flesh hath wrought into my life
So far, that my doom is, I love thee still.
Let no man dream but that I love thee still.        160
Perchance, and so thou purify thy soul,
And so thou lean on our fair father Christ,
Hereafter in that world where all are pure
We two may meet before high God, and thou
Wilt spring to me, and claim me thine, and know        165
I am thine husband—not a smaller soul,
Nor Lancelot, nor another. Leave me that,
I charge thee, my last hope. Now must I hence.
Through the thick night I hear the trumpet blow:
They summon me their King to lead mine hosts        170
Far down to that great battle in the west,
Where I must strike against the man they call
My sister’s son—no kin of mine, who leagues
With Lords of the White Horse, heathen, and knights,
Traitors—and strike him dead, and meet myself        175
Death, or I know not what mysterious doom.
And thou remaining here wilt learn the event:
But hither shall I never come again,
Never lie by thy side; see thee no more—
Farewell!”

            And while she groveled at his feet,
        180
She felt the King’s breath wander o’er her neck,
And in the darkness o’er her fallen head
Perceived the waving of his hands that blest.
 
 
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