Verse > Matthew Arnold > Poems
Matthew Arnold (1822–88).  The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867.  1909.
Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems
Tristram and Iseult.
I. Tristram
[First published 1852. Reprinted 1853, ’54, ’57.]

IS 1 she not come? The messenger was sure.
Prop me upon the pillows once again—
Raise me, my Page: this cannot long endure.
Christ! what a night! how the sleet whips the pane!
  What lights will those out to the northward be?        5
The lanterns of the fishing-boats at sea.
Soft—who is that stands by the dying fire?

  Ah! not the Iseult I desire.
.      .      .      .      .
What Knight is this so weak and pale,
Though the locks are yet brown on his noble head,        10
Propt on pillows in his bed,
Gazing seawards for the light
Of some ship that fights the gale
On this wild December night?
Over the sick man’s feet is spread        15
A dark green forest dress.
A gold harp leans against the bed,
Ruddy in the fire’s light.
  I know him by his harp of gold,
Famous in Arthur’s court of old:        20
I know him by his forest dress.
  The peerless hunter, harper, knight—
Tristram of Lyoness.
What Lady is this, whose silk attire
Gleams so rich in the light of the fire? 2        25
The ringlets on her shoulders lying
In their flitting lustre vying
With the clasp of burnish’d gold
Which her heavy robe doth hold.
Her looks are mild, her fingers slight        30
As the driven snow are white; 3
And 4 her cheeks are sunk and pale.
  Is it that the bleak 5 sea-gale
Beating from the Atlantic sea
On this coast of Brittany,        35
Nips too keenly the sweet Flower?—
  Is it that a deep fatigue
Hath come on her, a chilly fear,
Passing all her youthful hour
Spinning with her maidens here,        40
Listlessly through the window bars
Gazing seawards many a league
From her lonely shore-built tower,
While the knights are at the wars?
  Or, perhaps, has her young heart        45
Felt already some deeper smart,
Of those that in secret the heart-strings rive,
Leaving her sunk and pale, though fair?—
  Who is this snowdrop by the sea?
I know her by her mildness rare, 6        50
Her snow-white hands, her golden hair; 7
I know her by her rich silk dress,
And her fragile loveliness.
The sweetest Christian soul alive,
Iseult of Brittany.        55
Iseult of Brittany?—but where 8
Is that other Iseult fair,
That proud, first Iseult, Cornwall’s queen?
She, whom Tristram’s ship of yore
From Ireland to Cornwall bore,        60
To Tyntagel, to the side 9
Of King Marc, to be his bride?
She who, as they voyag’d, quaff’d
With Tristram that spic’d magic draught,
Which since then for ever rolls        65
Through their blood, and binds their souls,
  Working love, but working teen?—
There were two Iseults, who did sway
Each her hour of Tristram’s day;
But one possess’d his waning time,        70
The other his resplendent prime.
Behold her here, the patient Flower,
Who possess’d his darker hour.
Iseult of the Snow-White Hand
  Watches pale by Tristram’s bed.—        75
She is here who had his gloom,
Where art thou who hadst his bloom?
One such kiss as those of yore
Might thy dying knight restore—
  Does the love-draught work no more?        80
Art thou cold, or false, or dead,
  Iseult of Ireland?
Loud howls the wind, sharp patters the rain,
And the knight sinks back on his pillows again:
He is weak with fever and pain,        85
And his spirit is not clear.
Hark! he mutters in his sleep,
As he wanders far from here,
Changes place and time of year,
And his closed eye doth sweep        90
O’er some fair unwintry sea,
Not this fierce Atlantic deep,
  As he mutters brokenly—
The calm sea shines, loose hang the vessel’s sails—
Before us are the sweet green fields of Wales,        95
And overhead the cloudless sky of May.—
‘Ah, would I were in those green fields at play,
Not pent on ship-board this delicious day.
Tristram, I pray thee, of thy courtesy,
Reach me my golden cup that stands by thee,        100
And pledge me in it first for courtesy.—’
Ha! dost thou start? are thy lips blanch’d like mine?
Child, ’tis no water this, ’tis poison’d wine!
.      .      .      .      .
        Ah, sweet angels, let him dream!        105
      Keep his eyelids! let him seem
      Not this fever-wasted wight
      Thinn’d and pal’d before his time,
      But the brilliant youthful knight
      In the glory of his prime,        110
      Sitting in the gilded barge,
      At thy side, thou lovely charge!
      Bending gaily o’er thy hand,
      Iseult of Ireland!
      And she too, that princess fair,        115
      If her bloom be now less rare,
      Let her have her youth again—
        Let her be as she was then!
      Let her have her proud dark eyes,
      And her petulant quick replies,        120
      Let her sweep her dazzling hand
      With its gesture of command,
      And shake back her raven hair
      With the old imperious air.
        As of old, so let her be,        125
      That first Iseult, princess bright,
      Chatting with her youthful knight
      As he steers her o’er the sea,
      Quitting at her father’s will
      The green isle where she was bred,        130
        And her bower in Ireland,
      For the surge-beat Cornish strand,
      Where the prince whom she must wed
      Dwells on proud Tyntagel’s hill, 10
      Fast beside the sounding sea.        135
      And that golden cup her mother
      Gave her, that her future lord, 11
      Gave her, that King Marc and she, 12
      Might drink it on their marriage day,
      And for ever love each other,        140
        Let her, as she sits on board,
      Ah, sweet saints, unwittingly,
      See it shine, and take it up,
      And to Tristram laughing say—
      ‘Sir Tristram, of thy courtesy,        145
      Pledge me in my golden cup!’
      Let them drink it—let their hands
      Tremble, and their cheeks be flame,
      As they feel the fatal bands
      Of a love they dare not name,        150
      With a wild delicious pain,
        Twine about their hearts again.
      Let the early summer be
      Once more round them, and the sea
      Blue, and o’er its mirror kind        155
      Let the breath of the May wind,
      Wandering through their drooping sails,
        Die on the green fields of Wales.
      Let a dream like this restore
      What his eye must see no more.        160
Chill blows the wind, the pleasaunce walks are drear.
Madcap, what jest was this, to meet me here?
Were feet like those made for so wild a way?
The southern winter-parlour, by my fay,
Had been the likeliest trysting-place to-day.—        165
‘Tristram!—nay, nay—thou must not take my hand
Tristram—sweet love—we are betray’d—out-plann’d.
Fly—save thyself—save me. I dare not stay.’
One last kiss first!—‘’Tis vain—to horse—away!’
.      .      .      .      .
      Ah, sweet saints, his dream doth move        170
      Faster surely than it should,
      From the fever in his blood.
      All the spring-time of his love
      Is already gone and past,
      And instead thereof is seen        175
      Its winter, which endureth still—
      Tyntagel on its surge-beat hill, 13
      The pleasaunce walks, the weeping queen,
      The flying leaves, the straining blast,
      And that long, wild kiss—their last.        180
      And this rough December night
      And his burning fever pain
      Mingle with his hurrying dream
      Till they rule it, till he seem
      The press’d fugitive again,        185
      The love-desperate banish’d knight
      With a fire in his brain
      Flying o’er the stormy main.
        Whither does he wander now?
      Haply in his dreams the wind        190
      Wafts him here, and lets him find
      The lovely Orphan Child again
      In her castle by the coast,
      The youngest, fairest chatelaine,
      That this realm of France can boast,        195
        Our Snowdrop by the Atlantic sea,
      Iseult of Brittany.
      And—for through the haggard air,
      The stain’d arms, the matted hair
      Of that stranger-knight ill-starr’d,        200
      There gleam’d something that recall’d
      The Tristram who in better days
      Was Launcelot’s guest at Joyous Gard—
      Welcom’d here, and here install’d,
      Tended of his fever here,        205
      Haply he seems again to move
      His young guardian’s heart with love;
        In his exil’d loneliness,
      In his stately deep distress,
      Without a word, without a tear.—        210
        Ah, ’tis well he should retrace
      His tranquil life in this lone place;
      His gentle bearing at the side
      Of his timid youthful bride;
      His long rambles by the shore        215
      On winter evenings, when the roar
      Of the near waves came, sadly grand,
      Through the dark, up the drown’d sand:
        Or his endless reveries
      In the woods, where the gleams play        220
      On the grass under the trees,
      Passing the long summer’s day
      Idle as a mossy stone
      In the forest depths alone;
      The chase neglected, and his hound        225
      Couch’d beside him on the ground.—
        Ah, what trouble’s on his brow?
      Hither let him wander now,
      Hither, to the quiet hours
      Pass’d among these heaths of ours        230
      By the grey Atlantic sea.
        Hours, if not of ecstasy,
      From violent anguish surely free.
All red with blood the whirling river flows,
The wide plain rings, the daz’d air throbs with blows.        235
Upon us are the chivalry of Rome—
Their spears are down, their steeds are bath’d in foam.
‘Up, Tristram, up,’ men cry, ‘thou moonstruck knight!
What foul fiend rides thee? On into the fight!’—
Above the din her voice is in my ears—        240
I see her form glide through the crossing spears.—
.      .      .      .      .
      Ah, he wanders forth again;
      We cannot keep him; now as then
      There’s a secret in his breast        245
        That will never let him rest.
      These musing fits in the green wood
      They cloud the brain, they dull the blood.
        His sword is sharp—his horse is good—
      Beyond the mountains will he see        250
      The famous towns of Italy,
      And label with the blessed sign
      The heathen Saxons on the Rhine.
      At Arthur’s side he fights once more
      With the Roman Emperor.        255
      There’s many a gay knight where he goes
      Will help him to forget his care.
      The march—the leaguer—Heaven’s blithe air—
      The neighing steeds—the ringing blows;
        Sick pining comes not where these are.        260
      Ah, what boots it, that the jest
      Lightens every other brow.
      What, that every other breast
      Dances as the trumpets blow,
      If one’s own heart beats not light        265
      On 14 the waves of the toss’d fight,
      If oneself cannot get free
      From the clog of misery?
        Thy lovely youthful Wife grows pale
      Watching by the salt sea tide        270
      With her children at her side
      For the gleam of thy white sail.
      Home, Tristram, to thy halls again!
      To our lonely sea complain,
        To our forests tell thy pain.        275
All round the forest sweeps off, black in shade,
But it is moonlight in the open glade:
And in the bottom of the glade shine clear
The forest chapel and the fountain near.
  I think, I have a fever in my blood:        280
Come, let me leave the shadow of this wood,
Ride down, and bathe my hot brow in the flood.
  Mild shines the cold spring in the moon’s clear light.
God! ’tis her face plays in the waters bright.—
‘Fair love,’ she says, ‘canst thou forget so soon,        285
At this soft hour, under this sweet moon?’—
.      .      .      .      .
      Ah poor soul, if this be so,
      Only death can balm thy woe.
      The solitudes of the green wood        290
      Had no medicine for thy mood.
        The rushing battle clear’d thy blood
      As little as did solitude.
        Ah, his eyelids slowly break
      Their hot seals, and let him wake.        295
      What new change shall we now see?
        A happier? Worse it cannot be.
Is my Page here? Come, turn me to the fire.
Upon the window panes the moon shines bright;
The wind is down: but she’ll not come to-night.        300
Ah no—she is asleep in Cornwall now, 15
Far hence—her dreams are fair—smooth is her brow. 16
Of me she recks not, nor my vain 17 desire.
  I have had dreams, I have had dreams, my Page,
Would take a score years from a strong man’s age.        305
And with a blood like mine, will leave, I fear,
Scant leisure for a second messenger.
  My Princess, art thou there? Sweet, ’tis too late.
To bed, and sleep: my fever is gone by:
To-night my Page shall keep me company.        310
Where do the children sleep? kiss them for me.
Poor child, thou art almost as pale as I:
This comes of nursing long and watching late.
To bed—good night!
.      .      .      .      .
      She left the gleam-lit fire-place,        315
        She came to the bed-side.
      She took his hands in hers: her tears
      Down on her slender fingers rain’d.
      She rais’d her eyes upon his face—
      Not with a look of wounded pride,        320
      A look as if the heart complain’d:—
        Her look was like a sad embrace;
      The gaze of one who can divine
      A grief, and sympathize.
      Sweet Flower, thy children’s eyes        325
        Are not more innocent than thine.
        But they sleep in shelter’d rest,
      Like helpless birds in the warm nest,
      On the Castle’s southern side;
      Where feebly comes the mournful roar        330
      Of buffeting wind and surging tide
      Through many a room and corridor.
      Full on their window the Moon’s ray
      Makes their chamber as bright as day;
      It shines upon the blank white walls,        335
      And on the snowy pillow falls,
      And on two angel-heads doth play
      Turn’d to each other:—the eyes clos’d—
        The lashes on the cheeks repos’d.
      Round each sweet brow the cap close-set        340
      Hardly lets peep the golden hair;
      Through the soft-open’d lips the air
      Scarcely moves the coverlet.
      One little wandering arm is thrown
      At random on the counterpane,        345
      And often the fingers close in haste
      As if their baby owner chas’d
      The butterflies again.
      This stir they have and this alone;
      But else they are so still.        350
        Ah, tired madcaps, you lie still
      But were you at the window now
      To look forth on the fairy sight
      Of your illumin’d haunts by night;
      To see the park-glades where you play        355
      Far lovelier than they are by day;
      To see the sparkle on the caves,
      And upon every giant bough
      Of those old oaks, whose wet red leaves
      Are jewell’d with bright drops of rain—        360
        How would your voices run again!
      And far beyond the sparkling trees
      Of the castle park one sees
      The bare heaths spreading, clear as day,
      Moor behind moor, far, far away,        365
      Into the heart of Brittany.
      And here and there, lock’d by the land,
      Long inlets of smooth glittering sea,
      And many a stretch of watery sand
      All shining in the white moon-beams.        370
      But you see fairer in your dreams.
What voices are these on the clear night air?
What lights in the court? what steps on the stair?
Note 1. Tristram and Iseult Title] Tristan and Iseult 1857.
  In 1857 Arnold called his hero Tristan; but as in 1869 and all later editions he reverted to the spelling Tristram, which he had used in the first three editions of the poem, that spelling has been followed here, although the text printed is otherwise that of 1857.
  ‘In the court of his uncle King Marc, the King of Cornwall, who at this time resided at the castle of Tyntagel, Tristram became expert in all knightly exercise.—The king of Ireland, at Tristram’s solicitations, promised to bestow his daughter Iseult in marriage on King Marc. The mother of Iseult gave to her daughter’s confidante a philtre, or love-potion, to be administered on the night of her nuptials. Of this beverage Tristram and Iseult, on their voyage to Cornwall, unfortunately partook. Its influence, during the remainder of their lives, regulated the affections and destiny of the lovers.—
  ‘After the arrival of Tristram and Iseult in Cornwall, and the nuptials of the latter with King Marc, a great part of the romance is occupied with their contrivances to procure secret interviews.—Tristram, being forced to leave Cornwall on account of the displeasure of his uncle, repaired to Brittany, where lived Iseult with the White Hands.—He married her—more out of gratitude than love.—Afterwards he proceeded to the dominions of Arthur, which became the theatre of unnumbered exploits.
  ‘Tristram, subsequent to these events, returned to Brittany, and to his long-neglected wife. There, being wounded and sick, he was soon reduced to the lowest ebb. In this situation, he dispatched a confidant to the queen of Cornwall, to try if he could induce her to accompany him to Brittany,’ &c.—DUNLOP’S History of Fiction [Arnold.]. Vol. I. pp. 260 et seqq. (ed. 1816).
  [Note first inserted in 1853. ‘Tyntagel.’ (1857) is ‘Tyntagil’ in 1852, 1853, 1854.] [back]
Note 2. Between 25 and 26 1852 reads
Never surely has been seen
So slight a form in so rich a dress.
Note 3. 30, 31 first inserted in 1853. [back]
Note 4. And] But 1852. [back]
Note 5. bleak] black 1854. [back]
Note 6. mildness rare] golden hair 1852. [back]
Note 7. 51 first inserted in 1853. [back]
Note 8. 56–82 first inserted in 1853. [back]
Note 9. 60, 61
To Tyntagil from Ireland bore,
To Cornwall’s palace, to the side 1853, 1854.
Note 10. Keeps his court in Tyntagil, 1852, 1853, 1854. [back]
Note 11. future lord] lord and she 1852. [back]
Note 12. 138 first inserted in 1853. [back]
Note 13. The palace towers of Tyntagil, 1852, 1853, 1854. [back]
Note 14. On] In 1852. [back]
Note 15. Cornwall now] Tyntagil 1852, 1853, 1854. [back]
Note 16. smooth is her brow.] her sleep is still. 1852, 1853, 1854 [back]
Note 17. my vain] of my 1852, 1853 [back]

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