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Short poem

William Morris (1834-1896)

The Defence of Guenevere

              1But, learning now that they would have her speak,
              2She threw her wet hair backward from her brow,
              3Her hand close to her mouth touching her cheek,

              4As though she had had there a shameful blow,
              5And feeling it shameful to feel ought but shame
              6All through her heart, yet felt her cheek burned so,

              7She must a little touch it; like one lame
              8She walked away from Gauwaine, with her head
              9Still lifted up; and on her cheek of flame

            10The tears dried quick; she stopped at last and said:
            11"O knights and lords, it seems but little skill
            12To talk of well-known things past now and dead.

            13"God wot I ought to say, I have done ill,
            14And pray you all forgiveness heartily!
            15Because you must be right, such great lords--still

            16"Listen, suppose your time were come to die,
            17And you were quite alone and very weak;
            18Yea, laid a dying while very mightily

            19"The wind was ruffling up the narrow streak
            20Of river through your broad lands running well:
            21Suppose a hush should come, then some one speak:

            22" 'One of these cloths is heaven, and one is hell,
            23Now choose one cloth for ever; which they be,
            24I will not tell you, you must somehow tell

            25" 'Of your own strength and mightiness; here, see!'
            26Yea, yea, my lord, and you to ope your eyes,
            27At foot of your familiar bed to see

            28"A great God's angel standing, with such dyes,
            29Not known on earth, on his great wings, and hands
            30Held at two ways, light from the inner skies

            31"Showing him well, and making his commands
            32Seem to be God's commands, moreover, too,
            33Holding within his hands the cloths on wands;

            34"And one of these strange choosing cloths was blue,
            35Wavy and long, and one cut short and red;
            36No man could tell the better of the two.

            37"After a shivering half-hour you said:
            38'God help! heaven's colour, the blue;' and he said: 'hell.'
            39Perhaps you then would roll upon your bed,

            40"And cry to all good men that loved you well,
            41'Ah Christ! if only I had known, known, known;'
            42Launcelot went away, then I could tell,

            43"Like wisest man how all things would be, moan,
            44And roll and hurt myself, and long to die,
            45And yet fear much to die for what was sown.

            46"Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,
            47Whatever may have happened through these years,
            48God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie."

            49Her voice was low at first, being full of tears,
            50But as it cleared, it grew full loud and shrill,
            51Growing a windy shriek in all men's ears,

            52A ringing in their startled brains, until
            53She said that Gauwaine lied, then her voice sunk,
            54And her great eyes began again to fill,

            55Though still she stood right up, and never shrunk,
            56But spoke on bravely, glorious lady fair!
            57Whatever tears her full lips may have drunk,

            58She stood, and seemed to think, and wrung her hair,
            59Spoke out at last with no more trace of shame,
            60With passionate twisting of her body there:

            61"It chanced upon a day that Launcelot came
            62To dwell at Arthur's court: at Christmas time
            63This happened; when the heralds sung his name,

            64" 'Son of King Ban of Benwick,' seemed to chime
            65Along with all the bells that rang that day,
            66O'er the white roofs, with little change of rhyme.

            67"Christmas and whitened winter passed away,
            68And over me the April sunshine came,
            69Made very awful with black hail-clouds, yea

            70"And in the Summer I grew white with flame,
            71And bowed my head down--Autumn, and the sick
            72Sure knowledge things would never be the same,

            73"However often Spring might be most thick
            74Of blossoms and buds, smote on me, and I grew
            75Careless of most things, let the clock tick, tick,

            76"To my unhappy pulse, that beat right through
            77My eager body; while I laughed out loud,
            78And let my lips curl up at false or true,

            79"Seemed cold and shallow without any cloud.
            80Behold my judges, then the cloths were brought;
            81While I was dizzied thus, old thoughts would crowd,

            82"Belonging to the time ere I was bought
            83By Arthur's great name and his little love;
            84Must I give up for ever then, I thought,

            85"That which I deemed would ever round me move
            86Glorifying all things; for a little word,
            87Scarce ever meant at all, must I now prove

            88"Stone-cold for ever? Pray you, does the Lord
            89Will that all folks should be quite happy and good?
            90I love God now a little, if this cord

            91"Were broken, once for all what striving could
            92Make me love anything in earth or heaven?
            93So day by day it grew, as if one should

            94"Slip slowly down some path worn smooth and even,
            95Down to a cool sea on a summer day;
            96Yet still in slipping there was some small leaven

            97"Of stretched hands catching small stones by the way,
            98Until one surely reached the sea at last,
            99And felt strange new joy as the worn head lay

          100"Back, with the hair like sea-weed; yea all past
          101Sweat of the forehead, dryness of the lips,
          102Washed utterly out by the dear waves o'ercast,

          103"In the lone sea, far off from any ships!
          104Do I not know now of a day in Spring?
          105No minute of that wild day ever slips

          106"From out my memory; I hear thrushes sing,
          107And wheresoever I may be, straightway
          108Thoughts of it all come up with most fresh sting:

          109"I was half mad with beauty on that day,
          110And went without my ladies all alone,
          111In a quiet garden walled round every way;

          112"I was right joyful of that wall of stone,
          113That shut the flowers and trees up with the sky,
          114And trebled all the beauty: to the bone,

          115"Yea right through to my heart, grown very shy
          116With weary thoughts, it pierced, and made me glad;
          117Exceedingly glad, and I knew verily,

          118"A little thing just then had made me mad;
          119I dared not think, as I was wont to do,
          120Sometimes, upon my beauty; if I had

          121"Held out my long hand up against the blue,
          122And, looking on the tenderly darken'd fingers,
          123Thought that by rights one ought to see quite through,

          124"There, see you, where the soft still light yet lingers,
          125Round by the edges; what should I have done,
          126If this had joined with yellow spotted singers,

          127"And startling green drawn upward by the sun?
          128But shouting, loosed out, see now! all my hair,
          129And trancedly stood watching the west wind run

          130"With faintest half-heard breathing sound--why there
          131I lose my head e'en now in doing this;
          132But shortly listen--in that garden fair

          133"Came Launcelot walking; this is true, the kiss
          134Wherewith we kissed in meeting that spring day,
          135I scarce dare talk of the remember'd bliss,

          136"When both our mouths went wandering in one way,
          137And aching sorely, met among the leaves;
          138Our hands being left behind strained far away.

          139"Never within a yard of my bright sleeves
          140Had Launcelot come before--and now, so nigh!
          141After that day why is it Guenevere grieves?

          142"Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,
          143Whatever happened on through all those years,
          144God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.

          145"Being such a lady could I weep these tears
          146If this were true? A great queen such as I
          147Having sinn'd this way, straight her conscience sears;

          148"And afterwards she liveth hatefully,
          149Slaying and poisoning, certes never weeps,--
          150Gauwaine, be friends now, speak me lovingly.

          151"Do I not see how God's dear pity creeps
          152All through your frame, and trembles in your mouth?
          153Remember in what grave your mother sleeps,

          154"Buried in some place far down in the south,
          155Men are forgetting as I speak to you;
          156By her head sever'd in that awful drouth

          157"Of pity that drew Agravaine's fell blow,
          158I pray your pity! let me not scream out
          159For ever after, when the shrill winds blow

          160"Through half your castle-locks! let me not shout
          161For ever after in the winter night
          162When you ride out alone! in battle-rout

          163"Let not my rusting tears make your sword light!
          164Ah! God of mercy, how he turns away!
          165So, ever must I dress me to the fight;

          166"So--let God's justice work! Gauwaine, I say,
          167See me hew down your proofs: yea, all men know
          168Even as you said how Mellyagraunce one day,

          169"One bitter day in la Fausse Garde, for so
          170All good knights held it after, saw--
          171Yea, sirs, by cursed unknightly outrage; though

          172"You, Gauwaine, held his word without a flaw,
          173This Mellyagraunce saw blood upon my bed--
          174Whose blood then pray you? is there any law

          175"To make a queen say why some spots of red
          176Lie on her coverlet? or will you say:
          177`Your hands are white, lady, as when you wed,

          178" `Where did you bleed?' and I must stammer out: 'Nay,
          179I blush indeed, fair lord, only to rend
          180My sleeve up to my shoulder, where there lay

          181" `A knife-point last night:' so must I defend
          182The honour of the lady Guenevere?
          183Not so, fair lords, even if the world should end

          184"This very day, and you were judges here
          185Instead of God. Did you see Mellyagraunce
          186When Launcelot stood by him? what white fear

          187"Curdled his blood, and how his teeth did dance,
          188His side sink in? as my knight cried and said:
          189'Slayer of unarm'd men, here is a chance!

          190" `Setter of traps, I pray you guard your head,
          191By God I am so glad to fight with you,
          192Stripper of ladies, that my hand feels lead

          193" `For driving weight; hurrah now! draw and do,
          194For all my wounds are moving in my breast,
          195And I am getting mad with waiting so.'

          196"He struck his hands together o'er the beast,
          197Who fell down flat and grovell'd at his feet,
          198And groan'd at being slain so young `at least.'

          199"My knight said: `Rise you, sir, who are so fleet
          200At catching ladies, half-arm'd will I fight,
          201My left side all uncover'd!' then I weet,

          202"Up sprang Sir Mellyagraunce with great delight
          203Upon his knave's face; not until just then
          204Did I quite hate him, as I saw my knight

          205"Along the lists look to my stake and pen
          206With such a joyous smile, it made me sigh
          207From agony beneath my waist-chain, when

          208"The fight began, and to me they drew nigh;
          209Ever Sir Launcelot kept him on the right,
          210And traversed warily, and ever high

          211"And fast leapt caitiff's sword, until my knight
          212Sudden threw up his sword to his left hand,
          213Caught it, and swung it; that was all the fight,

          214"Except a spout of blood on the hot land;
          215For it was hottest summer; and I know
          216I wonder'd how the fire, while I should stand,

          217"And burn, against the heat, would quiver so,
          218Yards above my head; thus these matters went;
          219Which things were only warnings of the woe

          220"That fell on me. Yet Mellyagraunce was shent,
          221For Mellyagraunce had fought against the Lord;
          222Therefore, my lords, take heed lest you be blent

          223"With all this wickedness; say no rash word
          224Against me, being so beautiful; my eyes,
          225Wept all away to grey, may bring some sword

          226"To drown you in your blood; see my breast rise,
          227Like waves of purple sea, as here I stand;
          228And how my arms are moved in wonderful wise,

          229"Yea also at my full heart's strong command,
          230See through my long throat how the words go up
          231In ripples to my mouth; how in my hand

          232"The shadow lies like wine within a cup
          233Of marvellously colour'd gold; yea now
          234This little wind is rising, look you up,

          235"And wonder how the light is falling so
          236Within my moving tresses: will you dare
          237When you have looked a little on my brow,

          238"To say this thing is vile? or will you care
          239For any plausible lies of cunning woof,
          240When you can see my face with no lie there

          241"For ever? am I not a gracious proof--
          242'But in your chamber Launcelot was found'--
          243Is there a good knight then would stand aloof,

          244"When a queen says with gentle queenly sound:
          245'O true as steel, come now and talk with me,
          246I love to see your step upon the ground

          247" 'Unwavering, also well I love to see
          248That gracious smile light up your face, and hear
          249Your wonderful words, that all mean verily

          250" 'The thing they seem to mean: good friend, so dear
          251To me in everything, come here to-night,
          252Or else the hours will pass most dull and drear;

          253" 'If you come not, I fear this time I might
          254Get thinking over much of times gone by,
          255When I was young, and green hope was in sight:

          256" 'For no man cares now to know why I sigh;
          257And no man comes to sing me pleasant songs,
          258Nor any brings me the sweet flowers that lie

          259" 'So thick in the gardens; therefore one so longs
          260To see you, Launcelot; that we may be
          261Like children once again, free from all wrongs

          262" 'Just for one night.' Did he not come to me?
          263What thing could keep true Launcelot away
          264If I said, 'Come?' There was one less than three

          265"In my quiet room that night, and we were gay;
          266Till sudden I rose up, weak, pale, and sick,
          267Because a bawling broke our dream up, yea

          268"I looked at Launcelot's face and could not speak,
          269For he looked helpless too, for a little while;
          270Then I remember how I tried to shriek,

          271"And could not, but fell down; from tile to tile
          272The stones they threw up rattled o'er my head
          273And made me dizzier; till within a while

          274"My maids were all about me, and my head
          275On Launcelot's breast was being soothed away
          276From its white chattering, until Launcelot said--

          277"By God! I will not tell you more to-day,
          278Judge any way you will--what matters it?
          279You know quite well the story of that fray,

          280"How Launcelot still'd their bawling, the mad fit
          281That caught up Gauwaine--all, all, verily,
          282But just that which would save me; these things flit.

          283"Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,
          284Whatever may have happen'd these long years,
          285God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie!

          286"All I have said is truth, by Christ's dear tears."
          287She would not speak another word, but stood
          288Turn'd sideways; listening, like a man who hears

          289His brother's trumpet sounding through the wood
          290Of his foes' lances. She lean'd eagerly,
          291And gave a slight spring sometimes, as she could

          292At last hear something really; joyfully
          293Her cheek grew crimson, as the headlong speed
          294Of the roan charger drew all men to see,
          295The knight who came was Launcelot at good need.


1] The story is based on Malory's fifteenth-century Morte d'Arthur. Guenevere was Arthur's queen and Launcelot her lover. In making Gauwaine Launcelot's accuser Morris deviates from Malory.

11] skill: help.

153] According to Malory it was Gauwaine's brother Gaheris, not his brother Agravaine, who beheaded their mother Margawse when he found her in bed with Lamorak.

168] Mellyagraunce: a treacherous knight, envious of Launcelot.

169] la Fausse Garde: the name afterwards appropriately given to the castle of Mellyagraunce. Launcelot's castle was called Joyous Gard and later Dolorous Gard.

173] Launcelot had cut his hand in clambering into Guenevere's chamber.

201] weet: know.

220] shent: destroyed.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: William Morris, The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems (London: Bell and Daldy, 1858). PR 5078 D4 1858 SIGS end M677 D44 1858 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
First publication date: 1858
RPO poem editor: P. F. Morgan
RP edition: 3RP 3.327.
Recent editing: 2:2002/4/10

Rhyme: aba bcb cdc ...

Other poems by William Morris