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

WHEN Roland saw the abhorrèd race,
Than blackest ink more black in face,
Who have nothing white but the teeth alone,
“Now,” he said, “it is truly shown,
That the hour of our death is close at hand.        5
Fight, my Franks, ’tis my last command.”
Said Olivier, “Shame is the laggard’s due.”
And at his word they engage anew.

When the heathen saw that the Franks were few,
Heart and strength from the sight they drew;        10
They said, “The Emperor hath the worse.”
The Algalif sat on a sorrel horse;
He pricked with spurs of the gold refined,
Smote Olivier in the back behind.
On through his harness the lance he pressed,        15
Till the steel came out at the baron’s breast.
“Thou hast it!” the Algalif, vaunting, cried,
“Ye were sent by Karl in an evil tide.
Of his wrongs against us he shall not boast;
In thee alone I avenge our host.”        20

Olivier felt the deadly wound,
Yet he grasped Hauteclere, with its steel embrowned;
He smote on the Algalif’s crest of gold,—
Gem and flowers to the earth were rolled;
Clave his head to the teeth below,        25
And struck him dead with the single blow.
“All evil, caitiff, thy soul pursue.
Full well our Emperor’s loss I knew;
But for thee—thou goest not hence to boast
To wife or dame on thy natal coast,        30
Of one denier from the Emperor won,
Or of scathe to me or to others done.”
Then Roland’s aid he called upon.

Olivier knoweth him hurt to death;
The more to vengeance he hasteneth;        35
Knightly as ever his arms he bore,
Staves of lances and shields he shore;
Sides and shoulders and hands and feet,—
Whose eyes soever the sight would greet,
How the Saracens all disfigured lie,        40
Corpse upon corpse, each other by,
Would think upon gallant deeds; nor yet
Doth he the war-cry of Karl forget—
“Montjoie!” he shouted, shrill and clear;
Then called he Roland, his friend and peer,        45
“Sir, my comrade, anear me ride;
This day of dolor shall us divide.”

Roland looked Olivier in the face,—
Ghastly paleness was there to trace;
Forth from his wound did the bright blood flow,        50
And rain in showers to the earth below.
“O God!” said Roland, “is this the end
Of all thy prowess, my gentle friend?
Nor know I whither to bear me now:
On earth shall never be such as thou.        55
Ah, gentle France, thou art overthrown,
Reft of thy bravest, despoiled and lone;
The Emperor’s loss is full indeed!”
At the word he fainted upon his steed.

See Roland there on his charger swooned,
Olivier smitten with his death wound.
His eyes from bleeding are dimmed and dark,
Nor mortal, near or far, can mark;
And when his comrade beside him pressed,
Fiercely he smote on his golden crest;        65
Down to the nasal the helm he shred,
But passed no further, nor pierced his head.
Roland marvelled at such a blow,
And thus bespake him soft and low:
“Hast thou done it, my comrade, wittingly?        70
Roland who loves thee so dear, am I,
Thou hast no quarrel with me to seek?”
Olivier answered, “I hear thee speak,
But I see thee not. God seeth thee.
Have I struck thee, brother? Forgive it me.”        75
“I am not hurt, O Olivier;
And in sight of God, I forgive thee here.”
Then each to other his head has laid,
And in love like this was their parting made.

Olivier feeleth his throe begin;
His eyes are turning his head within,
Sight and hearing alike are gone.
He alights and couches the earth upon;
His Mea Culpa aloud he cries,
And his hands in prayer unto God arise,        85
That he grant him Paradise to share,
That he bless King Karl and France the fair,
His brother Roland o’er all mankind;
Then sank his heart, and his head declined,
Stretched at length on the earth he lay,—        90
So passed Sir Olivier away.
Roland was left to weep alone:
Man so woful hath ne’er been known.

When Roland saw that life had fled,
And with face to earth his comrade dead,        95
He thus bewept him, soft and still:
“Ah, friend, thy prowess wrought thee ill!
So many days and years gone by
We lived together, thou and I:
And thou hast never done me wrong,        100
Nor I to thee, our lifetime long.
Since thou art dead, to live is pain.”
He swooned on Veillantif again,
Yet may not unto earth be cast,
His golden stirrups held him fast.        105

When passed away had Roland’s swoon,
With sense restored, he saw full soon
What ruin lay beneath his view.
His Franks have perished all save two—
The archbishop and Walter of Hum alone.        110
From the mountain-side hath Walter flown,
Where he met in battle the bands of Spain,
And the heathen won and his men were slain
In his own despite to the vale he came;
Called unto Roland, his aid to claim.        115
“Ah, count! brave gentleman, gallant peer!
Where art thou? With thee I know not fear.
I am Walter, who vanquished Maelgut of yore,
Nephew to Drouin, the old and hoar.
For knightly deeds I was once thy friend.        120
I fought the Saracen to the end;
My lance is shivered, my shield is cleft,
Of my broken mail are but fragments left.
I bear in my body eight thrusts of spear;
I die, but I sold my life right dear.”        125
Count Roland heard as he spake the word,
Pricked his steed, and anear him spurred.

“Walter,” said Roland, “thou hadst affray
With the Saracen foe on the heights to-day.
Thou wert wont a valorous knight to be:        130
A thousand horsemen gave I thee;
Render them back, for my need is sore.”
“Alas, thou seest them never more!
Stretched they lie on the dolorous ground,
Where myriad Saracen swarms we found,—        135
Armenians, Turks, and the giant brood
Of Balisa, famous for hardihood,
Bestriding their Arab coursers fleet,
Such host in battle ’twas ours to meet;
Nor vaunting thence shall the heathen go,—        140
Full sixty thousand on earth lie low.
With our brands of steel we avenged us well,
But every Frank by the foeman fell.
My hauberk plates are riven wide,
And I bear such wounds in flank and side,        145
That from every part the bright blood flows,
And feebler ever my body grows.
I am dying fast, I am well aware:
The liegeman I, and claim thy care.
If I fled perforce, thou wilt forgive,        150
And yield me succor while thou dost live.”
Roland sweated with wrath and pain,
Tore the skirts of his vest in twain,
Bound Walter’s every bleeding vein.

In Roland’s sorrow his wrath arose,
Hotly the struck at the heathen foes,
Nor left he one of a score alive;
Walter slew six, the archbishop five.
The heathens cry, “What a felon three!
Look to it, lords, that they shall not flee.        160
Dastard is he who confronts them not;
Craven, who lets them depart this spot.”
Their cries and shoutings begin once more,
And from every side on the Franks they pour.

Count Roland in sooth is a noble peer;
Count Walter, a valorous cavalier;
The archbishop, in battle proved and tried,
Each struck as if knight there were none beside.
From their steeds a thousand Saracens leap,
Yet forty steeds a thousand Saracens leap,        170
I trow they dare not approach them near,
But they hurl against them lance and spear,
Pike and javelin, shaft and dart.
Walter is slain as the missiles part;
The archbishop’s shield in pieces shred,        175
Riven his helm, and pierced his head;
His corselet of steel they rent and tore,
Wounded his body with lances four;
His steed beneath him dropped withal:
What woe to see the archbishop fall!        180

When Turpin felt him flung to ground,
And four lance wounds within him found,
He swiftly rose, the dauntless man,
To Roland looked, and nigh him ran.
Spake but, “I am not overthrown—        185
Brave warrior yields with life alone.”
He drew Almace’s burnished steel,
A thousand ruthless blows to deal.
In after time, the Emperor said
He found four hundred round him spread,—        190
Some wounded, others cleft in twain;
Some lying headless on the plain.
So Giles the saint, who saw it, tells,
For whom High God wrought miracles.
In Laon cell the scroll he wrote;        195
He little weets who knows it not.

Count Roland combateth nobly yet,
His body burning and bathed in sweat;
In his brow a mighty pain, since first,
When his horn he sounded, his temple burst;        200
But he yearns of Karl’s approach to know,
And lifts his horn once more—but oh,
How faint and feeble a note to blow!
The Emperor listened, and stood full still.
“My lords,” he said, “we are faring ill.        205
This day is Roland my nephew’s last;
Like dying man he winds that blast.
On! Who would aid, for life must press.
Sound every trump our ranks possess.”
Peal sixty thousand clarions high,        210
The hills re-echo, the vales reply.
It is now no jest for the heathen band.
“Karl!” they cry, “it is Karl at hand!”

They said, “’Tis the Emperor’s advance,
We hear the trumpets resound of France.        215
If he assail us, hope in vain;
If Roland live, ’tis war again,
And we lose for aye the land of Spain.”
Four hundred in arms together drew,
The bravest of the heathen crew;        220
With serried power they on him press,
And dire in sooth is the count’s distress.

When Roland saw his coming foes,
All proud and stern his spirit rose;
Alive he shall never be brought to yield:        225
Veillantif spurred he across the field,
With golden spurs he pricked him well,
To break the ranks of the infidel;
Archbishop Turpin by his side.
“Let us flee, and save us,” the heathen cried;        230
“These are the trumpets of France we hear—
It is Karl, the mighty Emperor, near.”

Count Roland never hath loved the base,
Nor the proud of heart, nor the dastard race,—
Nor knight, but if he were vassal good,—        235
And he spake to Turpin, as there he stood;
“On foot are you, on horseback I;
For your love I halt, and stand you by.
Together for good and ill we hold;
I will not leave you for man of mould.        240
We will pay the heathen their onset back,
Nor shall Durindana of blows be slack.”
“Base,” said Turpin, “who spares to smite:
When the Emperor comes, he will all requite.”

The heathens said, “We were born to shame.
This day for our disaster came:
Our lords and leaders in battle lost,
And Karl at hand with his marshalled host;
We hear the trumpets of France ring out,
And the cry ‘Montjoie!’ their rallying shout.        250
Roland’s pride is of such a height,
Not to be vanquished by mortal wight;
Hurl we our missiles, and hold aloof.”
And the word they spake, they put in proof,—
They flung, with all their strength and craft,        255
Javelin, barb, and plumèd shaft.
Roland’s buckler was torn and frayed,
His cuirass broken and disarrayed,
Yet entrance none to his flesh they made.
From thirty wounds Veillantif bled,        260
Beneath his rider they cast him, dead;
Then from the field have the heathen flown:
Roland remaineth, on foot, alone.


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