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Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Idylls of the King: The Last Tournament


              1     Dagonet, the fool, whom Gawain in his mood
              2Had made mock-knight of Arthur's Table Round,
              3At Camelot, high above the yellowing woods,
              4Danced like a wither'd leaf before the hall.
              5And toward him from the hall, with harp in hand,
              6And from the crown thereof a carcanet
              7Of ruby swaying to and fro, the prize
              8Of Tristram in the jousts of yesterday,
              9Came Tristram, saying, "Why skip ye so, Sir Fool?"

            10     For Arthur and Sir Lancelot riding once
            11Far down beneath a winding wall of rock
            12Heard a child wail. A stump of oak half-dead.
            13From roots like some black coil of carven snakes,
            14Clutch'd at the crag, and started thro' mid air
            15Bearing an eagle's nest: and thro' the tree
            16Rush'd ever a rainy wind, and thro' the wind
            17Pierced ever a child's cry: and crag and tree
            18Scaling, Sir Lancelot from the perilous nest,
            19This ruby necklace thrice around her neck,
            20And all unscarr'd from beak or talon, brought
            21A maiden babe; which Arthur pitying took,
            22Then gave it to his Queen to rear: the Queen
            23But coldly acquiescing, in her white arms
            24Received, and after loved it tenderly,
            25And named it Nestling; so forgot herself
            26A moment, and her cares; till that young life
            27Being smitten in mid heaven with mortal cold
            28Past from her; and in time the carcanet
            29Vext her with plaintive memories of the child:
            30So she, delivering it to Arthur, said,
            31"Take thou the jewels of this dead innocence,
            32And make them, an thou wilt, a tourney-prize."

            33     To whom the King, "Peace to thine eagle-borne
            34Dead nestling, and this honour after death,
            35Following thy will! but, O my Queen, I muse
            36Why ye not wear on arm, or neck, or zone
            37Those diamonds that I rescued from the tarn,
            38And Lancelot won, methought, for thee to wear."

            39     "Would rather you had let them fall," she cried,
            40"Plunge and be lost--ill-fated as they were,
            41A bitterness to me!--ye look amazed,
            42Not knowing they were lost as soon as given--
            43Slid from my hands, when I was leaning out
            44Above the river--that unhappy child
            45Past in her barge: but rosier luck will go
            46With these rich jewels, seeing that they came
            47Not from the skeleton of a brother-slayer,
            48But the sweet body of a maiden babe.
            49Perchance--who knows?--the purest of thy knights
            50May win them for the purest of my maids."

            51     She ended, and the cry of a great jousts
            52With trumpet-blowings ran on all the ways
            53From Camelot in among the faded fields
            54To furthest towers; and everywhere the knights
            55Arm'd for a day of glory before the King.

            56     But on the hither side of that loud morn
            57Into the hall stagger'd, his visage ribb'd
            58From ear to ear with dogwhip-weals, his nose
            59Bridge-broken, one eye out, and one hand off,
            60And one with shatter'd fingers dangling lame,
            61A churl, to whom indignantly the King,

            62     "My churl, for whom Christ died, what evil beast
            63Hath drawn his claws athwart thy face? or fiend?
            64Man was it who marr'd heaven's image in thee thus?"

            65     Then, sputtering thro' the hedge of splinter'd teeth,
            66Yet strangers to the tongue, and with blunt stump
            67Pitch-blacken'd sawing the air, said the maim'd churl,

            68     "He took them and he drave them to his tower--
            69Some hold he was a table-knight of thine--
            70A hundred goodly ones--the Red Knight, he--
            71Lord, I was tending swine, and the Red Knight
            72Brake in upon me and drave them to his tower;
            73And when I cal'd upon thy name as one
            74That doest right by gentle and by churl,
            75Maim'd me and maul'd, and would outright have slain,
            76Save that he aware me to a message, saying,
            77'Tell thou the King and all his liars, that I
            78Have founded my Round Table in the North,
            79And whatsoever his own knights have sworn
            80My knights have sworn the counter to it--and say
            81My tower is full of harlots, like his court,
            82But mine are worthier, seeing they profess
            83To be none other than themselves--and say
            84My knights are all adulterers like his own,
            85But mine are truer, seeing they profess
            86To be none other; and say his hour is come,
            87The heathen are upon him, his long lance
            88Broken, and his Excalibur a straw.' "

            89     Then Arthur turn'd to Kay the seneschal,
            90"Take thou my churl, and tend him curiously
            91Like a king's heir, till all his hurts be whole.
            92The heathen--but that ever-climbing wave,
            93Hurl'd back again so often in empty foam,
            94Hath lain for years at rest--and renegades,
            95Thieves, bandits, leavings of confusion, whom
            96The wholesome realm is purged of otherwhere,
            97Friends, thro' your manhood and your fealty,--now
            98Make their last head like Satan in the North.
            99My younger knights, new-made, in whom your flower
          100Waits to be solid fruit of golden deeds,
          101Move with me toward their quelling, which achieved,
          102The loneliest ways are safe from shore to shore.
          103But thou, Sir Lancelot, sitting in my place
          104Enchair'd to-morrow, arbitrate the field;
          105For wherefore shouldst thou care to mingle with it
          106Only to yield my Queen her own again?
          107Speak, Lancelot, thou art silent: is it well?"

          108     Thereto Sir Lancelot answer'd, "It is well:
          109Yet better if the King abide, and leave
          110The leading of his younger knights to me.
          111Else, for the King has will'd it, it is well."

          112     Then Arthur rose and Lancelot follow'd him,
          113And while they stood without the doors, the King
          114Turn'd to him saying, "Is it then so well?
          115Or mine the blame that oft I seem as he
          116Of whom was written, 'A sound is in his ears'?
          117The foot that loiters, bidden go,--the glance
          118That only seems half-loyal to command,--
          119A manner somewhat fall'n from reverence--
          120Or have I dream'd the bearing of our knights
          121Tells of a manhood ever less and lower?
          122Or whence the fear lest this my realm, uprear'd,
          123By noble deeds at one with noble vows,
          124From flat confusion and brute violence,s
          125Reel back into the beast, and be no more?"

          126     He spoke, and taking all his younger knights,
          127Down the slope city rode, and sharply turn'd
          128North by the gate. In her high bower the Queen,
          129Working a tapestry, lifted up her head,
          130Watch'd her lord pass, and knew not that she sigh'd.
          131Then ran across her memory the strange rhyme
          132Of bygone Merlin, "Where is he who knows?
          133From the great deep to the great deep he goes."

          134     But when the morning of a tournament,
          135By these in earnest those in mockery call'd
          136The Tournament of the Dead Innocence,
          137Brake with a wet wind blowing, Lancelot,
          138Round whose sick head all night, like birds of prey,
          139The words of Arthur flying shriek'd, arose,
          140And down a streetway hung with folds of pure
          141White samite, and by fountains running wine,
          142Where children sat in white with cups of gold,
          143Moved to the lists, and there, with slow sad steps
          144Ascending, fill'd his double-dragon'd chair.

          145     He glanced and saw the stately galleries,
          146Dame, damsel, each thro' worship of their Queen
          147White-robed in honour of the stainless child,
          148And some with scatter'd jewels, like a bank
          149Of maiden snow mingled with sparks of fire.
          150He look'd but once, and vail'd his eyes again.

          151     The sudden trumpet sounded as in a dream
          152To ears but half-awaked, then one low roll
          153Of Autumn thunder, and the jousts began:
          154And ever the wind blew, and yellowing leaf
          155And gloom and gleam, and shower and shorn plume
          156Went down it. Sighing weariedly, as one
          157Who sits and gazes on a faded fire,
          158When all the goodlier guests are past away,
          159Sat their great umpire, looking o'er the lists.
          160He saw the laws that ruled the tournament
          161Broken, but spake not; once, a knight cast down
          162Before his throne of arbitration cursed
          163The dead babe and the follies of the King;
          164And once the laces of a helmet crack'd,
          165And show'd him, like a vermin in its hole,
          166Modred, a narrow face: anon he heard
          167The voice that billow'd round the barriers roar
          168An ocean-sounding welcome to one knight,
          169But newly-enter'd, taller than the rest,
          170And armour'd all in forest green, whereon
          171There tript a hundred tiny silver deer,
          172And wearing but a holly-spray for crest,
          173With ever-scattering berries, and on shield
          174A spear, a harp, a bugle--Tristram--late
          175From overseas in Brittany return'd,
          176And marriage with a princess of that realm,
          177Isolt the White--Sir Tristram of the Woods--
          178Whom Lancelot knew, had held sometime with pain
          179His own against him, and now yearn'd to shake
          180The burthen off his heart in one full shock
          181With Tristram ev'n to death: his strong hands gript
          182And dinted the gilt dragons right and left,
          183Until he groan'd for wrath--so many of those,
          184That ware their ladies' colours on the casque,
          185Drew from before Sir Tristram to the bounds,
          186And there with gibes and flickering mockeries
          187Stood, while he mutter'd, "Craven crests! O shame!
          188What faith have these in whom they sware to love?
          189The glory of our Round Table is no more."

          190     So Tristram won, and Lancelot gave, the gems,
          191Not speaking other word than "Hast thou won?
          192Art thou the purest, brother? See, the hand
          193Wherewith thou takest this, is red!" to whom
          194Tristram, half plagued by Lancelot's languorous mood,
          195Made answer, "Ay, but wherefore toss me this
          196Like a dry bone cast to some hungry hound?
          197Let be thy fair Queen's fantasy. Strength of heart
          198And might of limb, but mainly use and skill,
          199Are winners in this pastime of our King.
          200My hand--belike the lance hath dript upon it--
          201No blood of mine, I trow; but O chief knight,
          202Right arm of Arthur in the battlefield,
          203Great brother, thou nor I have made the world;
          204Be happy in thy fair Queen as I in mine."

          205     And Tristram round the gallery made his horse
          206Caracole; then bow'd his homage, bluntly saying,
          207"Fair damsels, each to him who worships each
          208Sole Queen of Beauty and of love, behold
          209This day my Queen of Beauty is not here."
          210And most of these were mute, some anger'd, one
          211Murmuring, "All courtesy is dead," and one
          212"The glory of our Round Table is no more."

          213     Then fell thick rain, plume droopt and mantle clung,
          214And pettish cries awoke, and the wan day
          215Went glooming down in wet and weariness:
          216But under her black brows a swarthy one
          217Laugh'd shrilly, crying, "Praise the patient saints,
          218Our one white day of Innocence hath past,
          219Tho' somewhat draggled at the skirt. So be it.
          220The snowdrop only, flowering thro' the year,
          221Would make the world as blank as Winter-tide.
          222Come--let us gladden their sad eyes, our Queen's
          223And Lancelot's, at this night's solemnity
          224With all the kindlier colours of the field."

          225     So dame and damsel glitter'd at the feast
          226Variously gay: for he that tells the tale
          227Liken'd them, saying, as when an hour of cold
          228Falls on the mountain in midsummer snows,
          229And all the purple slopes of mountain flowers
          230Pass under white, till the warm hour returns
          231With veer of wind, and all are flowers again;
          232So dame and damsel cast the simple white,
          233And glowing in all colours, the live grass,
          234Rose-campion, bluebell, kingcup, poppy, glanced
          235About the revels, and with mirth so loud
          236Beyond all use, that, half-amazed, the Queen,
          237And wroth at Tristram and the lawless jousts,
          238Brake up their sports, then slowly to her bower
          239Parted, and in her bosom pain was lord.

          240     And little Dagonet on the morrow morn,
          241High over all the yellowing Autumn-tide,
          242Danced like a wither'd leaf before the hall.
          243Then Tristram saying, "Why skip ye so, Sir Fool?"
          244Wheel'd round on either heel, Dagonet replied,
          245"Belike for lack of wiser company;
          246Or being fool, and seeing too much wit
          247Makes the world rotten, why, belike I skip
          248To know myself the wisest knight of all."
          249"Ay, fool," said Tristram, "but 'tis eating dry
          250To dance without a catch, a roundelay
          251To dance to." Then he twangled on his harp,
          252And while he twangled little Dagonet stood
          253Quiet as any water-sodden log
          254Stay'd in the wandering warble of a brook;
          255But when the twangling ended, skipt again;
          256And being ask'd, "Why skipt ye not, Sir Fool?"
          257Made answer, "I had liefer twenty years
          258Skip to the broken music of my brains
          259Than any broken music thou canst make."
          260Then Tristram, waiting for the quip to come,
          261"Good now, what music have I broken, fool?"
          262And little Dagonet, skipping, "Arthur, the King's;
          263For when thou playest that air with Queen Isolt,
          264Thou makest broken music with thy bride,
          265Her daintier namesake down in Brittany--
          266And so thou breakest Arthur's music, too."
          267"Save for that broken music in thy brains,
          268Sir Fool," said Tristram, "I would break thy head.
          269Fool, I came late, the heathen wars were o'er,
          270The life had flown, we sware but by the shell--
          271I am but a fool to reason with a fool--
          272Come, thou art crabb'd and sour: but lean me down,
          273Sir Dagonet, one of thy long asses' ears,
          274And harken if my music be not true.

          275     "`Free love--free field--we love but while we may:
          276The woods are hush'd, their music is no more:
          277The leaf is dead, the yearning past away:
          278New leaf, new life--the days of frost are o'er:
          279New life, new love, to suit the newer day:
          280New loves are sweet as those that went before:
          281Free love--free field--we love but while we may.'

          282     "Ye might have moved slow-measure to my tune,
          283Not stood stockstill. I made it in the woods,
          284And heard it ring as true as tested gold."

          285     But Dagonet with one foot poised in his hand,
          286"Friend, did ye mark that fountain yesterday
          287Made to run wine?--but this had run itself
          288All out like a long life to a sour end--
          289And them that round it sat with golden cups
          290To hand the wine to whosoever came--
          291The twelve small damosels white as Innocence,
          292In honour of poor Innocence the babe,
          293Who left the gems which Innocence the Queen
          294Lent to the King, and Innocence the King
          295Gave for a prize--and one of those white slips
          296Handed her cup and piped, the pretty one,
          297'Drink, drink, Sir Fool,' and thereupon I drank,
          298Spat--pish--the cup was gold, the draught was mud."

          299     And Tristram, "Was it muddier than thy gibes?
          300Is all the laughter gone dead out of thee?--
          301Not marking how the knighthood mock thee, fool--
          302'Fear God: honour the King--his one true knight--
          303Sole follower of the vows'--for here be they
          304Who knew thee swine enow before I came,
          305Smuttier than blasted grain: but when the King
          306Had made thee fool, thy vanity so shot up
          307It frighted all free fool from out thy heart;
          308Which left thee less than fool, and less than swine,
          309A naked aught--yet swine I hold thee still,
          310For I have flung thee pearls and find thee swine."

          311     And little Dagonet mincing with his feet,
          312"Knight, an ye fling those rubies round my neck
          313In lieu of hers, I'll hold thou hast some touch
          314Of music, since I care not for thy pearls.
          315Swine? I have wallow'd, I have wash'd--the world
          316Is flesh and shadow--I have had my day.
          317The dirty nurse, Experience, in her kind
          318Hath foul'd me--an I wallow'd, then I wash'd--
          319I have had my day and my philosophies--
          320And thank the Lord I am King Arthur's fool.
          321Swine, say ye? swine, goats, asses, rams and geese
          322Troop'd round a Paynim harper once, who thrumm'd
          323On such a wire as musically as thou
          324Some such fine song--but never a king's fool."

          325     And Tristram, "Then were swine, goats, asses, geese
          326The wiser fools, seeing thy Paynim bard
          327Had such a mastery of his mystery
          328That he could harp his wife up out of hell."

          329     Then Dagonet, turning on the ball of his foot,
          330"And whither harp'st thou thine? down! and thyself
          331Down! and two more: a helpful harper thou,
          332That harpest downward! dost thou know the star
          333We call the harp of Arthur up in heaven?"

          334     And Tristram, "Ay, Sir Fool, for when our King
          335Was victor wellnigh day by day, the knights,
          336Glorying in each new glory, set his name
          337High on all hills, and in the signs of heaven."

          338     And Dagonet answer'd, "Ay, and when the land
          339Was freed, and the Queen false, ye set yourself
          340To babble about him, all to show your wit--
          341And whether he were King by courtesy,
          342Or King by right--and so went harping down
          343The black king's highway, got so far, and grew
          344So witty that we play'd at ducks and drakes
          345With Arthur's vows on the great lake of fire.
          346Tuwhoo! do ye see it? do ye see the star?"

          347     "Nay, fool," said Tristram, "not in open day."
          348And Dagonet, "Nay, nor will: I see it and hear.
          349It makes a silent music up in heaven,
          350And I, and Arthur and the angels hear,
          351And then we skip." "Lo, fool," he said, "ye talk
          352Fool's treason: is the King thy brother fool?"
          353Then little Dagonet clapt his hands and shrill'd,
          354"Ay, ay, my brother fool, the king of fools!
          355Conceits himself as God that he can make
          356Figs out of thistles, silk from bristles, milk
          357From burning spurge, honey from hornet-combs
          358And men from beasts--Long live the king of fools!"

          359     And down the city Dagonet danced away;
          360But thro' the slowly-mellowing avenues
          361And solitary passes of the wood
          362Rode Tristram toward Lyonnesse and the west.
          363Before him fled the face of Queen Isolt
          364With ruby-circled neck, but evermore
          365Past, as a rustle or twitter in the wood
          366Made dull his inner, keen his outer eye
          367For all that walk'd, or crept, or perch'd, or flew.
          368Anon the face, as, when a gust hath blown,
          369Unruffling waters re-collect the shape
          370Of one that in them sees himself, return'd;
          371But at the slot or fewmets of a deer,
          372Or ev'n a fall'n feather, vanish'd again.

          373     So on for all that day from lawn to lawn
          374Thro' many a league-long bower he rode. At length
          375A lodge of intertwisted beechen-boughs
          376Furze-cramm'd, and bracken-rooft, the which himself
          377Built for a summer day with Queen Isolt
          378Against a shower, dark in the golden grove
          379Appearing, sent his fancy back to where
          380She lived a moon in that low lodge with him:
          381Till Mark her lord had past, the Cornish King,
          382With six or seven, when Tristram was away,
          383And snatch'd her thence; yet dreading worse than shame
          384Her warrior Tristram, spake not any word,
          385But bode his hour, devising wretchedness.

          386     And now that desert lodge to Tristram lookt
          387So sweet, that halting, in he past, and sank
          388Down on a drift of foliage random-blown;
          389But could not rest for musing how to smoothe
          390And sleek his marriage over to the Queen.
          391Perchance in lone Tintagil far from all
          392The tonguesters of the court she had not heard.
          393But then what folly had sent him overseas
          394After she left him lonely here? a name?
          395Was it the name of one in Brittany,
          396Isolt, the daughter of the King? "Isolt
          397Of the white hands" they call'd her: the sweet name
          398Allured him first, and then the maid herself,
          399Who served him well with those white hands of hers,
          400And loved him well, until himself had thought
          401He loved her also, wedded easily,
          402But left her all as easily, and return'd.
          403The black-blue Irish hair and Irish eyes
          404Had drawn him home--what marvel? then he laid
          405His brows upon the drifted leaf and dream'd.

          406     He seem'd to pace the strand of Brittany
          407Between Isolt of Britain and his bride,
          408And show'd them both the ruby-chain, and both
          409Began to struggle for it, till his Queen
          410Graspt it so hard, that all her hand was red.
          411Then cried the Breton, "Look, her hand is red!
          412These be no rubies, this is frozen blood,
          413And melts within her hand--her hand is hot
          414With ill desires, but this I gave thee, look,
          415Is all as cool and white as any flower."
          416Follow'd a rush of eagle's wings, and then
          417A whimpering of the spirit of the child,
          418Because the twain had spoil'd her carcanet.

          419     He dream'd; but Arthur with a hundred spears
          420Rode far, till o'er the illimitable reed,
          421And many a glancing plash and sallowy isle,
          422The wide-wing'd sunset of the misty marsh
          423Glared on a huge machicolated tower
          424That stood with open doors, where out was roll'd
          425A roar of riot, as from men secure
          426Amid their marshes, ruffians at their ease
          427Among their harlot-brides, an evil song.
          428"Lo there," said one of Arthur's youth, for there,
          429High on a grim dead tree before the tower,
          430A goodly brother of the Table Round
          431Swung by the neck: and on the boughs a shield
          432Showing a shower of blood in a field noir,
          433And therebeside a horn, inflamed the knights
          434At that dishonour done the gilded spur,
          435Till each would clash the shield, and blow the horn.
          436But Arthur waved them back. Alone he rode.
          437Then at the dry harsh roar of the great horn,
          438That sent the face of all the marsh aloft
          439An ever upward-rushing storm and cloud
          440Of shriek and plume, the Red Knight heard, and all,
          441Even to tipmost lance and topmost helm
          442In blood-red armour sallying, howl'd to the King,

          443     "The teeth of Hell flay bare and gnash thee flat!
          444Lo! art thou not that eunuch-hearted King
          445Who fain had clipt free manhood from the world--
          446The woman-worshipper? Yea, God's curse, and I!
          447Slain was the brother of my paramour
          448By a knight of thine, and I that heard her whine
          449And snivel, being eunuch-hearted too,
          450Sware by the scorpion-worm that twists in hell,
          451And stings itself to everlasting death,
          452To hang whatever knight of thine I fought
          453And tumbled. Art thou King?--Look to thy life!"

          454     He ended: Arthur knew the voice; the face
          455Wellnigh was helmet-hidden, and the name
          456Went wandering somewhere darkling in his mind.
          457And Arthur deign'd not use of word or sword,
          458But let the drunkard, as he stretch'd from horse
          459To strike him, overbalancing his bulk,
          460Down from the causeway heavily to the swamp
          461Fall, as the crest of some slow-arching wave,
          462Heard in dead night along that table-shore,
          463Drops flat, and after the great waters break
          464Whitening for half a league, and thin themselves,
          465Far over sands marbled with moon and cloud,
          466From less and less to nothing; thus he fell
          467Head-heavy; then the knights, who watch'd him, roar'd
          468And shouted and leapt down upon the fall'n;
          469There trampled out his face from being known,
          470And sank his head in mire, and slimed themselves:
          471Nor heard the King for their own cries, but sprang
          472Thro' open doors, and swording right and left
          473Men, women, on their sodden faces, hurl'd
          474The tables over and the wines, and slew
          475Till all the rafters rang with woman-yells,
          476And all the pavement stream'd with massacre:
          477Then, echoing yell with yell, they fired the tower,
          478Which half that autumn night, like the live North,
          479Red-pulsing up thro' Alioth and Alcor,
          480Made all above it, and a hundred meres
          481About it, as the water Moab saw
          482Come round by the East, and out beyond them flush'd
          483The long low dune, and lazy-plunging sea.

          484     So all the ways were safe from shore to shore,
          485But in the heart of Arthur pain was lord.

          486     Then, out of Tristram waking, the red dream
          487Fled with a shout, and that low lodge return'd,
          488Mid-forest, and the wind among the boughs.
          489He whistled his good warhorse left to graze
          490Among the forest greens, vaulted upon him,
          491And rode beneath an ever-showering leaf,
          492Till one lone woman, weeping near a cross,
          493Stay'd him. "Why weep ye?" "Lord," she said, "my man
          494Hath left me or is dead"; whereon he thought--
          495"What, if she hate me now? I would not this.
          496What, if she love me still? I would not that.
          497I know not what I would"--but said to her,
          498"Yet weep not thou, lest, if thy mate return,
          499He find thy favour changed and love thee not"--
          500Then pressing day by day thro' Lyonnesse
          501Last in a roky hollow, belling, heard
          502The hounds of Mark, and felt the goodly hounds
          503Yelp at his heart, but turning, past and gain'd
          504Tintagil, half in sea, and high on land,
          505A crown of towers.

          505                                 Down in a casement sat,
          506A low sea-sunset glorying round her hair
          507And glossy-throated grace, Isolt the Queen.
          508And when she heard the feet of Tristram grind
          509The spiring stone that scaled about her tower,
          510Flush'd, started, met him at the doors, and there
          511Belted his body with her white embrace,
          512Crying aloud, "Not Mark--not Mark, my soul!
          513The footstep flutter'd me at first: not he:
          514Catlike thro' his own castle steals my Mark,
          515But warrior-wise thou stridest thro' his halls
          516Who hates thee, as I him--ev'n to the death.
          517My soul, I felt my hatred for my Mark
          518Quicken within me, and knew that thou wert nigh."
          519To whom Sir Tristram smiling, "I am here.
          520Let be thy Mark, seeing he is not thine."

          521     And drawing somewhat backward she replied,
          522"Can he be wrong'd who is not ev'n his own,
          523But save for dread of thee had beaten me,
          524Scratch'd, bitten, blinded, marr'd me somehow--Mark?
          525What rights are his that dare not strike for them?
          526Not lift a hand--not, tho' he found me thus!
          527But harken! have ye met him? hence he went
          528To-day for three days' hunting--as he said--
          529And so returns belike within an hour.
          530Mark's way, my soul!--but eat not thou with Mark,
          531Because he hates thee even more than fears;
          532Nor drink: and when thou passest any wood
          533Close vizor, lest an arrow from the bush
          534Should leave me all alone with Mark and hell.
          535My God, the measure of my hate for Mark
          536Is as the measure of my love for thee.''

          537     So, pluck'd one way by hate and one by love,
          538Drain'd of her force, again she sat, and spake
          539To Tristram, as he knelt before her, saying,
          540"O hunter, and O blower of the horn,
          541Harper, and thou hast been a rover too,
          542For, ere I mated with my shambling king,
          543Ye twain had fallen out about the bride
          544Of one--his name is out of me--the prize,
          545If prize she were--(what marvel--she could see)
          546Thine, friend; and ever since my craven seeks
          547To wreck thee villainously: but, O Sir Knight,
          548What dame or damsel have ye kneel'd to last?"

          549     And Tristram, "Last to my Queen Paramount,
          550Here now to my Queen Paramount of love
          551And loveliness--ay, lovelier than when first
          552Her light feet fell on our rough Lyonnesse,
          553Sailing from Ireland."

          553                                   Softly laugh'd Isolt;
          554"Flatter me not, for hath not our great Queen
          555My dole of beauty trebled?" and he said,
          556"Her beauty is her beauty, and thine thine,
          557And thine is more to me--soft, gracious, kind--
          558Save when thy Mark is kindled on thy lips
          559Most gracious; but she, haughty ev'n to him,
          560Lancelot; for I have seen him wan enow
          561To make one doubt if ever the great Queen
          562Have yielded him her love."

          562                                               To whom Isolt,
          563"Ah then, false hunter and false harper, thou
          564Who brakest thro' the scruple of my bond,
          565Calling me thy white hind, and saying to me
          566That Guinevere had sinn'd against the highest,
          567And I--misyoked with such a want of man--
          568That I could hardly sin against the lowest."

          569     He answer'd, "O my soul, be comforted!
          570If this be sweet, to sin in leading-strings,
          571If here be comfort, and if ours be sin,
          572Crown'd warrant had we for the crowning sin
          573That made us happy: but how ye greet me--fear
          574And fault and doubt--no word of that fond tale--
          575Thy deep heart-yearnings, thy sweet memories
          576Of Tristram in that year he was away."

          577     And, saddening on the sudden, spake Isolt,
          578"I had forgotten all in my strong joy
          579To see thee--yearnings?--ay! for, hour by hour,
          580Here in the never-ended afternoon,
          581O sweeter than all memories of thee,
          582Deeper than any yearnings after thee
          583Seem'd those far-rolling, westward-smiling seas,
          584Watch'd from this tower. Isolt of Britain dash'd
          585Before Isolt of Brittany on the strand,
          586Would that have chill'd her bride-kiss? Wedded her?
          587Fought in her father's battles? wounded there?
          588The King was all fulfill'd with gratefulness,
          589And she, my namesake of the hands, that heal'd
          590Thy hurt and heart with unguent and caress--
          591Well--can I wish her any huger wrong
          592Than having known thee? her too hast thou left
          593To pine and waste in those sweet memories.
          594O were I not my Mark's, by whom all men
          595Are noble, I should hate thee more than love."

          596     And Tristram, fondling her light hands, replied,
          597"Grace, Queen, for being loved: she loved me well.
          598Did I love her? the name at least I loved.
          599Isolt?--I fought his battles, for Isolt!
          600The night was dark; the true star set. Isolt!
          601The name was ruler of the dark--Isolt?
          602Care not for her! patient, and prayerful, meek,
          603Pale-blooded, she will yield herself to God."

          604     And Isolt answer'd, "Yea, and why not I?
          605Mine is the larger need, who am not meek,
          606Pale-blooded, prayerful. Let me tell thee now.
          607Here one black, mute midsummer night I sat,
          608Lonely, but musing on thee, wondering where,
          609Murmuring a light song I had heard thee sing,
          610And once or twice I spake thy name aloud.
          611Then flash'd a levin-brand; and near me stood,
          612In fuming sulphur blue and green, a fiend--
          613Mark's way to steal behind one in the dark--
          614For there was Mark: 'He has wedded her,' he said,
          615Not said, but hiss'd it: then this crown of towers
          616So shook to such a roar of all the sky,
          617That here in utter dark I swoon'd away,
          618And woke again in utter dark, and cried,
          619'I will flee hence and give myself to God'--
          620And thou wert lying in thy new leman's arms."

          621     Then Tristram, ever dallying with her hand,
          622"May God be with thee, sweet, when old and gray,
          623And past desire!" a saying that anger'd her.'
          624"`May God be with thee, sweet, when thou art old,
          625And sweet no more to me!' I need Him now.
          626For when had Lancelot utter'd aught so gross
          627Ev'n to the swineherd's malkin in the mast?
          628The greater man, the greater courtesy.
          629Far other was the Tristram, Arthur's knight!
          630But thou, thro' ever harrying thy wild beasts--
          631Save that to touch a harp, tilt with a lance
          632Becomes thee well--art grown wild beast thyself.
          633How darest thou, if lover, push me even
          634In fancy from thy side, and set me far
          635In the gray distance, half a life away,
          636Her to be loved no more? Unsay it, unswear!
          637Flatter me rather, seeing me so weak,
          638Broken with Mark and hate and solitude,
          639Thy marriage and mine own, that I should suck
          640Lies like sweet wines: lie to me: I believe.
          641Will ye not lie? not swear, as there ye kneel,
          642And solemnly as when ye sware to him
          643The man of men, our King--My God, the power
          644Was once in vows when men believed the King!
          645They lied not then, who sware, and thro' their vows
          646The King prevailing made his realm:--I say,
          647Swear to me thou wilt love me ev'n when old,
          648Gray-hair'd, and past desire, and in despair."

          649     Then Tristram, pacing moodily up and down,
          650"Vows! did you keep the vow you made to Mark
          651More than I mine? Lied, say ye? Nay, but learnt,
          652The vow that binds too strictly snaps itself--
          653My knighthood taught me this--ay, being snapt--
          654We run more counter to the soul thereof
          655Than had we never sworn. I swear no more.
          656I swore to the great King, and am forsworn.
          657For once--ev'n to the height--I honour'd him.
          658'Man, is he man at all?' methought, when first
          659I rode from our rough Lyonnesse, and beheld
          660That victor of the Pagan throned in hall--
          661His hair, a sun that ray'd from off a brow
          662Like hillsnow high in heaven, the steel-blue eyes,
          663The golden beard that clothed his lips with light--
          664Moreover, that weird legend of his birth,
          665With Merlin's mystic babble about his end
          666Amazed me; then his foot was on a stool
          667Shaped as a dragon; he seem'd to me no man,
          668But Michaël trampling Satan; so I sware,
          669Being amazed: but this went by--The vows!
          670O ay--the wholesome madness of an hour--
          671They served their use, their time; for every knight
          672Believed himself a greater than himself,
          673And every follower eyed him as a God;
          674Till he, being lifted up beyond himself,
          675Did mightier deeds than elsewise he had done,
          676And so the realm was made; but then their vows--
          677First mainly thro' that sullying of our Queen--
          678Began to gall the knighthood, asking whence
          679Had Arthur right to bind them to himself?
          680Dropt down from heaven? wash'd up from out the deep?
          681They fail'd to trace him thro' the flesh and blood
          682Of our old kings: whence then? a doubtful lord
          683To bind them by inviolable vows,
          684Which flesh and blood perforce would violate:
          685For feel this arm of mine--the tide within
          686Red with free chase and heather-scented air,
          687Pulsing full man; can Arthur make me pure
          688As any maiden child? lock up my tongue
          689From uttering freely what I freely hear?
          690Bind me to one? The wide world laughs at it.
          691And worldling of the world am I, and know
          692The ptarmigan that whitens ere his hour
          693Woos his own end; we are not angels here
          694Nor shall be: vows--I am woodman of the woods,
          695And hear the garnet-headed yaffingale
          696Mock them: my soul, we love but while we may;
          697And therefore is my love so large for thee,
          698Seeing it is not bounded save by love."

          699     Here ending, he moved toward her, and she said,
          700"Good: an I turn'd away my love for thee
          701To some one thrice as courteous as thyself--
          702For courtesy wins woman all as well
          703As valour may, but he that closes both
          704Is perfect, he is Lancelot--taller indeed,
          705Rosier and comelier, thou--but say I loved
          706This knightliest of all knights, and cast thee back
          707Thine own small saw, 'We love but while we may,'
          708Well then, what answer?"

          708                                        He that while she spake,
          709Mindful of what he brought to adorn her with,
          710The jewels, had let one finger lightly touch
          711The warm white apple of her throat, replied,
          712"Press this a little closer, sweet, until--
          713Come, I am hunger'd and half-anger'd--meat,
          714Wine, wine--and I will love thee to the death,
          715And out beyond into the dream to come."

          716     So then, when both were brought to full accord,
          717She rose, and set before him all he will'd;
          718And after these had comforted the blood
          719With meats and wines, and satiated their hearts--
          720Now talking of their woodland paradise,
          721The deer, the dews, the fern, the founts, the lawns;
          722Now mocking at the much ungainliness,
          723And craven shifts, and long crane legs of Mark--
          724Then Tristram laughing caught the harp, and sang:

          725     "Ay, ay, O ay--the winds that bend the brier!
          726A star in heaven, a star within the mere!
          727Ay, ay, O ay--a star was my desire,
          728And one was far apart, and one was near:
          729Ay, ay, O ay--the winds that bow the grass!
          730And one was water and one star was fire,
          731And one will ever shine and one will pass.
          732Ay, ay, O ay--the winds that move the mere."

          733     Then in the light's last glimmer Tristram show'd
          734And swung the ruby carcanet. She cried,
          735"The collar of some Order, which our King
          736Hath newly founded, all for thee, my soul,
          737For thee, to yield thee grace beyond thy peers."

          738     "Not so, my Queen," he said, "but the red fruit
          739Grown on a magic oak-tree in mid-heaven,
          740And won by Tristram as a tourney-prize,
          741And hither brought by Tristram for his last
          742Love-offering and peace-offering unto thee."

          743     He spoke, he turn'd, then, flinging round her neck,
          744Claspt it, and cried "Thine Order, O my Queen!"
          745But, while he bow'd to kiss the jewell'd throat,
          746Out of the dark, just as the lips had touch'd,
          747Behind him rose a shadow and a shriek--
          748"Mark's way," said Mark, and clove him thro' the brain.

          749     That night came Arthur home, and while he climb'd,
          750All in a death-dumb autumn-dripping gloom,
          751The stairway to the hall, and look'd and saw
          752The great Queen's bower was dark,--about his feet
          753A voice clung sobbing till he question'd it,
          754"What art thou?" and the voice about his feet
          755Sent up an answer, sobbing, "I am thy fool,
          756And I shall never make thee smile again."

Notes

1] The tenth of the Idylls, based chiefly on Books VIII-X of Malory's Morte D'Arthur. The theme is the blight spreading from the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, into low places.

6] carcanet: necklace.

37] Those diamonds. In "Lancelot and Elaine," they were won by Lancelot and given to Guinevere, who, in jealousy, flung them into the river.

44-45] Just as Guinevere had flung away the diamonds, the barge carrying the dead Elaine appeared.

47] brother-slayer. The diamonds had been taken by Arthur from the crown of a king who had died in mortal combat with his brother.

70] Red Knight: Sir Pelleas, main character in "Pelleas and Ettarre," the Idyll immediately before "The Last Tournament." Betrayed by Gawain and Ettarre, Pelleas becomes a savagely disillusioned enemy of the Round Table.

87] heathen: Angles and Saxons.

88] Excalibur: Arthur's sword, symbol of his power.

98] like Satan in the North: Satan, revolting from God, withdrew his forces to the north of Heaven (Isaiah 14: 13).

132-33] Quoted from Merlin's song in "The Coming of Arthur," 409-10.

174] A spear, a harp, a bugle: refers to Tristram's fame as a great knight-at-arms, a great harpist, and a great hunter. He has recently married Isolt of the Fair Hands of Brittany.

343] the black king's highway: the devil's broad highway to destruction.

455] the name: the name of Pelleas, given to the Red Knight by Tennyson.

478] the live North: Aurora Borealis.

479] Alioth and Alcor: two stars in the Great Bear.

481] the water Moab saw: II Kings 3:22.

501] roky: misty.

504] Tintagil: The ruins of the castle still stand on the west coast of Cornwall.

553] sailing from Ireland: Tristram had been commissioned to bring Isolt from Ireland to be the bride of King Mark. En route they had innocently drunk the love potion intended for Mark and Isolt, and thus were fated to love each other unto death.

695] garnet-headed yaffingale: the red-headed green woodpecker.

725-32] The two Isolts are symbolized by the two stars.

748] Mark's way: This is Malory's version, followed by Tennyson (Malory, Book XIX, ch. xl XI): "Also that traitor king slew the noble knight Sir Tristram, as he sat harping afore his lady La Beale Isoud, with a trenchant glaive ... and La Beale Isoud died swooning upon the corse of Sir Tristram, whereof was great pity."

752] The great Queen's bower was dark: Guinevere had departed with Lancelot.


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: Alfred lord Tennyson, Works (London: Macmillan, 1891). tenn T366 A1 1891a Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
First publication date: 1871
RPO poem editor: H. M. McLuhan
RP edition: 3RP 3.82.
Recent editing: 2:2002/1/10

Rhyme: unrhyming


Other poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson