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.
III. Iseult of Brittany
A YEAR had flown, and o’er the sea away, 1
In Cornwall, Tristram and queen Iseult lay; 2
In 3 King Marc’s chapel, in Tyntagel old: 4
There in a ship they bore those lovers cold.
The young surviving Iseult, one bright day,        5
Had wander’d forth: her children were at play
In a green circular hollow in the heath
Which borders the sea-shore; a country path
Creeps over it from the till’d fields behind.
The hollow’s grassy banks are soft inclin’d        10
And to one standing on them, far and near
The lone unbroken view spreads bright and clear
Over the waste:—This cirque 5 of open ground
Is light and green; the heather, which all round
Creeps thickly, grows not here; but the pale grass        15
Is strewn with rocks, and many a shiver’d mass
Of vein’d white-gleaming quartz, and here and there
Dotted with holly trees and juniper.
In the smooth centre of the opening stood
Three hollies side by side, and made a screen        20
Warm with the winter sun, of burnish’d green,
With scarlet berries gemm’d, the fell-fare’s food.
Under the glittering hollies Iseult stands
Watching her children play: their little hands
Are busy gathering spars of quartz, and streams        25
Of stagshorn for their hats: anon, with screams
Of mad delight they drop their spoils, and bound
Among the holly clumps and broken ground,
Racing full speed, and startling in their rush
The fell-fares and the speckled missel-thrush        30
Out of their glossy coverts: but when now
Their cheeks were flush’d, and over each hot brow
Under the feather’d hats of the sweet pair
In blinding masses shower’d the golden hair—
Then Iseult called them to her, and the three        35
Cluster’d under the holly screen, and she
Told them an old-world Breton history.
  Warm in their mantles wrapt, the three stood there,
Under the hollies, in the clear still air—
Mantles with those rich furs deep glistering        40
Which Venice ships do from swart Egypt bring.
Long they stayed still—then, pacing at their ease,
Mov’d up and down under the glossy trees;
But still as they pursued their warm dry road
From Iseult’s lips the unbroken story flow’d,        45
And still the children listen’d, their blue eyes
Fix’d on their mother’s face in wide surprise;
Nor did their looks stray once to the sea-side,
Nor to the brown heaths round them, bright and wide,
Nor to the snow which, though ’twas all away        50
From the open heath, still by the hedgerows lay,
Nor to the shining sea-fowl that with screams
Bore up from where the bright Atlantic gleams,
Swooping to landward; nor to where, quite clear,
The fell-fares settled on the thickets near.        55
And they would still have listen’d, till dark night
Came keen and chill down on the heather bright;
But, when the red glow on the sea grew cold,
And the grey turrets of the castle old
Look’d sternly through the frosty evening air,—        60
Then Iseult took by the hand those children fair,
And brought her tale to an end, and found the path,
And led them home over the darkening heath.
  And is she happy? Does she see unmov’d
The days in which she might have liv’d and lov’d        65
Slip without bringing bliss slowly away,
One after one, to-morrow like to-day?
Joy has not found her yet, nor ever will:—
Is it this thought that makes her mien so still,
Her features so fatigued, her eyes, though sweet,        70
So sunk, so rarely lifted save to meet
Her children’s? She moves slow: her voice alone
Has yet an infantine and silver tone,
But even that comes languidly: in truth,
She seems one dying in a mask of youth.        75
And now she will go home, and softly lay
Her laughing children in their beds, and play
Awhile with them before they sleep; and then
She’ll light her silver lamp, which fishermen
Dragging their nets through the rough waves, afar,        80
Along this iron coast, know like a star,
And take her broidery frame, and there she’ll sit
Hour after hour, her gold curls sweeping it,
Lifting her soft-bent head only to mind
Her children, or to listen to the wind.        85
And when the clock peals midnight, she will move
Her work away, and let her fingers rove
Across the shaggy brows of Tristram’s hound
Who lies, guarding her feet, along the ground:
Or else she will fall musing, her blue eyes        90
Fix’d, her slight hands clasp’d on her lap; then rise,
And at her prie-dieu kneel, until she have told
Her rosary beads of ebony tipp’d with gold,
Then to her soft sleep: and to-morrow’ll be
To-day’s exact repeated effigy.        95
  Yes, it is lonely for her in her hall.
The children, and the grey-hair’d seneschal,
Her women, and Sir Tristram’s agèd hound,
Are there the sole companions to be found.
But these she loves; and noisier life than this        100
She would find ill to bear, weak as she is:
She has her children too, and night and day
Is with them; and the wide heaths where they play,
The hollies, and the cliff, and the sea-shore,
The sand, the sea-birds, and the distant sails,        105
These are to her dear as to them: the tales
With which this day the children she beguil’d
She glean’d from Breton grandames when a child
In every hut along this sea-coast wild.
She herself loves them still, and, when they are told,        110
Can forget all to hear them, as of old.
  Dear saints, it is not sorrow, as I hear, 6
Not suffering, that shuts up eye and ear
To all which has delighted them before,
And lets us be what we were once no more.        115
No: we may suffer deeply, yet retain
Power to be mov’d and sooth’d, for all our pain,
By what of old pleas’d us, and will again.
No: ’tis the gradual furnace of the world,
In whose hot air our spirits are upcurl’d        120
Until they crumble, or else grow like steel—
Which kills in us the bloom, the youth, the spring—
Which leaves the fierce necessity to feel,
But takes away the power—this can avail,
By drying up our joy in everything,        125
To make our former pleasures all seem stale.
This, or some tyrannous single thought, some fit
Of passion, which subdues our souls to it,
Till for its sake alone we live and move—
Call it ambition, or remorse, or love—        130
This too can change us wholly, and make seem
All that we did before, shadow and dream.
  And yet, I swear, it angers me to see
How this fool passion gulls men potently;
Being, in truth, but a diseas’d unrest,        135
And an unnatural overheat at best.
How they are full of languor and distress
Not having it; which, when they do possess,
They straightway are burnt up with fume and care,
And spend their lives in posting here and there        140
Where this plague drives them; and have little ease,
Are fretful with themselves, and hard to please. 7
Like that bold 8 Caesar, the fam’d Roman wight,
Who wept at reading of a Grecian knight
Who made a name at younger years than he:        145
Or that renown’d mirror of chivalry,
Prince Alexander, Philip’s peerless son,
Who carried the great war from Macedon
Into the Soudan’s realm, and thundered on
To die at thirty-five in Babylon.        150
  What tale did Iseult to the children say,
Under the hollies, that bright winter’s day?
  She told them of the fairy-haunted land
Away the other side of Brittany,
Beyond the heaths, edg’d by the lonely sea;        155
Of the deep forest-glades of Broce-liande,
Through whose green boughs the golden sunshine creeps,
Where Merlin by the enchanted thorn-tree sleeps.
For here he came with the fay Vivian,
One April, when the warm days first began;        160
He was on foot, and that false fay, his friend,
On her white palfrey; here he met his end,
In these lone sylvan glades, that April day.
This tale of Merlin and the lovely fay
Was the one Iseult chose, and she brought clear        165
Before the children’s fancy him and her.
  Blowing between the stems the forest air
Had loosen’d the brown curls of Vivian’s hair,
Which play’d on her flush’d cheek, and her blue eyes
Sparkled with mocking glee and exercise.        170
Her palfrey’s flanks were mired and bath’d in sweat,
For they had travell’d far and not stopp’d, yet.
A brier in that tangled wilderness
Had scor’d her white right hand, which she allows
To rest unglov’d on her green riding-dress;        175
The other warded off the dropping boughs.
But still she chatted on, with her blue eyes
Fix’d full on Merlin’s face, her stately prize:
Her ’haviour had the morning’s fresh clear grace,
The spirit of the woods was in her face;        180
She look’d so witching fair, that learnèd wight
Forgot his craft, and his best wits took flight,
And he grew fond, and eager to obey
His mistress, use her empire as she may.
  They came to where the brushwood ceas’d, and day        185
Peer’d ’twixt the stems; and the ground broke away
In a slop’d sward down to a brawling brook,
And up as high as where they stood to look
On the brook’s further side was clear; but then
The underwood and trees began again.        190
This open glen was studded thick with thorns
Then white with blossom; and you saw the horns,
Through the green fern, of the shy fallow-deer
Which come at noon down to the water here.
You saw the bright-eyed squirrels dart along        195
Under the thorns on the green sward; and strong
The blackbird whistled from the dingles near,
And the light chipping of the woodpecker
Rang lonelily and sharp: the sky was fair,
And a fresh breath of spring stirr’d everywhere.        200
Merlin and Vivian stopp’d on the slope’s brow
To gaze on the green sea of leaf and bough
Which glistering lay all round them, lone and mild,
As if to itself the quiet forest smil’d.
Upon the brow-top grew a thorn; and here        205
The grass was dry and moss’d, and you saw clear
Across the hollow: white anemonies
Starr’d the cool turf, and clumps of primroses
Ran out from the dark underwood behind.
No fairer resting-place a man could find.        210
‘Here let us halt,’ said Merlin then; and she
Nodded, and tied her palfrey to a tree.
  They sate them down together, and a sleep
Fell upon Merlin, more like death, so deep.
Her finger on her lips, then Vivian rose,        215
And from her brown-lock’d head the wimple throws,
And takes it in her hand, and waves it over
The blossom’d thorn-tree and her sleeping lover.
Nine times she wav’d the fluttering wimple round,
And made a little plot of magic ground.        220
And in that daisied circle, as men say,
Is Merlin prisoner till the judgement-day,
But she herself whither she will can rove,
For she was passing weary of his love.
Note 1. o’er the sea away] in the chapel old 1853. [back]
Note 2. Lay Tristram and queen Iseult dead and cold. 1853. [back]
Note 3. 3, 4 not in 1853. [back]
Note 4. At Tyntagil in King Marc’s chapel old: 1853, 1854. [back]
Note 5. cirque] ring 1853. [back]
Note 6. 112–150 omitted in 1853, 1854, reinserted in 1857. [back]
Note 7. Can never end their tasks, are hard to please. 1853. [back]
Note 8. bold] bald 1853. [back]

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