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Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur


              1That story which the bold Sir Bedivere,
              2First made and latest left of all the knights,
              3Told, when the man was no more than a voice
              4In the white winter of his age, to those
              5With whom he dwelt, new faces, other minds.

              6     For on their march to westward, Bedivere,
              7Who slowly paced among the slumbering host,
              8Heard in his tent the moanings of the King:

              9     "I found Him in the shining of the stars,
            10I mark'd Him in the flowering of His fields,
            11But in His ways with men I find Him not.
            12I waged His wars, and now I pass and die.
            13O me! for why is all around us here
            14As if some lesser god had made the world,
            15But had not force to shape it as he would,
            16Till the High God behold it from beyond,
            17And enter it, and make it beautiful?
            18Or else as if the world were wholly fair,
            19But that these eyes of men are dense and dim,
            20And have not power to see it as it is:
            21Perchance, because we see not to the close;--
            22For I, being simple, thought to work His will,
            23And have but stricken with the sword in vain;
            24And all whereon I lean'd in wife and friend
            25Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm
            26Reels back into the beast, and is no more.
            27My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death:
            28Nay--God my Christ--I pass but shall not die."

            29     Then, ere that last weird battle in the west,
            30There came on Arthur sleeping, Gawain kill'd
            31In Lancelot's war, the ghost of Gawain blown
            32Along a wandering wind, and past his ear
            33Went shrilling, "Hollow, hollow all delight!
            34Hail, King! to-morrow thou shalt pass away.
            35Farewell! there is an isle of rest for thee.
            36And I am blown along a wandering wind,
            37And hollow, hollow, hollow all delight."
            38And fainter onward, like wild birds that change
            39Their season in the night and wail their way
            40From cloud to cloud, down the long wind the dream
            41Shrill'd; but in going mingled with dim cries
            42Far in the moonlit haze among the hills,
            43As of some lonely city sack'd by night,
            44When all is lost, and wife and child with wail
            45Pass to new lords; and Arthur woke and call'd,
            46"Who spake? A dream. O light upon the wind,
            47Thine, Gawain, was the voice--are these dim cries
            48Thine? or doth all that haunts the waste and wild
            49Mourn, knowing it will go along with me?"

            50     This heard the bold Sir Bedivere and spake:
            51"O me, my King, let pass whatever will,
            52Elves, and the harmless glamour of the field;
            53But in their stead thy name and glory cling
            54To all high places like a golden cloud
            55For ever: but as yet thou shalt not pass.
            56Light was Gawain in life, and light in death
            57Is Gawain, for the ghost is as the man;
            58And care not thou for dreams from him, but rise--
            59I hear the steps of Modred in the west,
            60And with him many of thy people, and knights
            61Once thine, whom thou hast loved, but grosser grown
            62Than heathen, spitting at their vows and thee.
            63Right well in heart they know thee for the King.
            64Arise, go forth and conquer as of old."

            65     Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
            66"Far other is this battle in the west
            67Whereto we move, than when we strove in youth,
            68And brake the petty kings, and fought with Rome,
            69Or thrust the heathen from the Roman wall,
            70And shook him thro' the north. Ill doom is mine
            71To war against my people and my knights.
            72The king who fights his people fights himself.
            73And they my knights, who loved me once, the stroke
            74That strikes them dead is as my death to me.
            75Yet let us hence, and find or feel a way
            76Thro' this blind haze, which ever since I saw
            77One lying in the dust at Almesbury,
            78Hath folded in the passes of the world."

            79     Then rose the King and moved his host by night,
            80And ever push'd Sir Modred, league by league,
            81Back to the sunset bound of Lyonnesse--
            82A land of old upheaven from the abyss
            83By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
            84Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
            85And the long mountains ended in a coast
            86Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
            87The phantom circle of a moaning sea.
            88There the pursuer could pursue no more,
            89And he that fled no further fly the King;
            90And there, that day when the great light of heaven
            91Burn'd at his lowest in the rolling year,
            92On the waste sand by the waste sea they closed.
            93Nor ever yet had Arthur fought a fight
            94Like this last, dim, weird battle of the west.
            95A deathwhite mist slept over sand and sea:
            96Whereof the chill, to him who breathed it, drew
            97Down with his blood, till all his heart was cold
            98With formless fear; and ev'n on Arthur fell
            99Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought.

          100For friend and foe were shadows in the mist,
          101And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew;
          102And some had visions out of golden youth,
          103And some beheld the faces of old ghosts
          104Look in upon the battle; and in the mist
          105Was many a noble deed, many a base,
          106And chance and craft and strength in single fights,
          107And ever and anon with host to host
          108Shocks, and the splintering spear, the hard mail hewn,
          109Shield-breakings, and the clash of brands, the crash
          110Of battleaxes on shatter'd helms, and shrieks
          111After the Christ, of those who falling down
          112Look'd up for heaven, and only saw the mist;
          113And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights,
          114Oaths, insult, filth, and monstrous blasphemies,
          115Sweat, writhings, anguish, labouring of the lungs
          116In that close mist, and cryings for the light,
          117Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.

          118     Last, as by some one deathbed after wail
          119Of suffering, silence follows, or thro' death
          120Or deathlike swoon, thus over all that shore,
          121Save for some whisper of the seething seas,
          122A dead hush fell; but when the dolorous day
          123Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came
          124A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew
          125The mist aside, and with that wind the tide
          126Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field
          127Of battle: but no man was moving there;
          128Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon,
          129Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave
          130Brake in among dead faces, to and fro
          131Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down
          132Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen,
          133And shiver'd brands that once had fought with Rome,
          134And rolling far along the gloomy shores
          135The voice of days of old and days to be.

          136     Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere,
          137And whiter than the mist that all day long
          138Had held the field of battle was the King:

          139     "Hearest thou this great voice that shakes the world,
          140And wastes the narrow realm whereon we move,
          141And beats upon the faces of the dead,
          142My dead, as tho' they had not died for me?--
          143O Bedivere, for on my heart hath fall'n
          144Confusion, till I know not what I am,
          145Nor whence I am, nor whether I be King.
          146Behold, I seem but King among the dead."

          147     Then spake the bold Sir Bedivere: "My King,
          148King everywhere! and so the dead have kings,
          149There also will I worship thee as King.
          150Yet still thy life is whole, and still I live
          151Who love thee; but who hates thee, he that brought
          152The heathen back among us, yonder stands,
          153Modred, unharm'd, the traitor of thine house."

          154     Then spake the King: "My house hath been my doom.
          155But call not thou this traitor of my house
          156Who hath but dwelt beneath one roof with me.
          157My house are rather they who sware my vows,
          158Yea, even while they brake them, own'd me King.
          159And well for thee, saying in my dark hour,
          160When all the purport of my throne hath fail'd,
          161That quick or dead thou hottest me for King.
          162King am I, whatsoever be their cry;
          163And one last act of kinghood shalt thou see
          164Yet, ere I pass." And uttering this the King
          165Made at the man: then Modred smote his liege
          166Hard on that helm which many a heathen sword
          167Had beaten thin; while Arthur at one blow,
          168Striking the last stroke with Excalibur,
          169Slew him, and all but slain himself, he fell.

          170     So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
          171Among the mountains by the winter sea;
          172Until King Arthur's Table, man by man,
          173Had fall'n in Lyonnesse about their lord,
          174King Arthur. Then, because his wound was deep,
          175The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
          176And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
          177A broken chancel with a broken cross,
          178That stood on a dark strait of barren land:
          179On one side lay the Ocean, and on one
          180Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

          181     Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
          182"The sequel of to-day unsolders all
          183The goodliest fellowship of famous knights
          184Whereof this world holds record. Such a sleep
          185They sleep--the men I loved. I think that we
          186Shall never more, at any future time,
          187Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds,
          188Walking about the gardens and the halls
          189Of Camelot, as in the days that were.
          190I perish by this people which I made,--
          191Tho' Merlin sware that I should come again
          192To rule once more; but, let what will be, be,
          193I am so deeply smitten thro' the helm
          194That without help I cannot last till morn.
          195Thou therefore take my brand Excalibur,
          196Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how
          197In those old days, one summer noon, an arm
          198Rose up from out the bosom of the lake,
          199Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
          200Holding the sword--and how I row'd across
          201And took it, and have worn it, like a king;
          202And, wheresoever I am sung or told
          203In aftertime, this also shall be known:
          204But now delay not: take Excalibur,
          205And fling him far into the middle mere:
          206Watch what thou seëst, and lightly bring me word."

          207     To him replied the bold Sir Bedivere:
          208"It is not meet, Sir King, to leave thee thus,
          209Aidless, alone, and smitten thro' the helm--
          210A little thing may harm a wounded man;
          211Yet I thy hest will all perform at full,
          212Watch what I see, and lightly bring thee word."

          213     So saying, from the ruin'd shrine he stept,
          214And in the moon athwart the place of tombs,
          215Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men,
          216Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang
          217Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam. He, stepping down
          218By zigzag paths, and juts of pointed rock,
          219Came on the shining levels of the lake.

          220     There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,
          221And o'er him, drawing it, the winter moon,
          222Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth
          223And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt:
          224For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks,
          225Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work
          226Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long
          227That both his eyes were dazzled as he stood,
          228This way and that dividing the swift mind,
          229In act to throw: but at the last it seem'd
          230Better to leave Excalibur conceal'd
          231There in the many-knotted waterflags,
          232That whistled stiff and dry about the marge.
          233So strode he back slow to the wounded King.

          234     Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
          235"Hast thou perform'd my mission which I gave?
          236What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?"

          237     And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
          238"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds,
          239And the wild water lapping on the crag."

          240     To whom replied King Arthur, faint and pale:
          241"Thou hast betray'd thy nature and thy name,
          242Not rendering true answer, as beseem'd
          243Thy fealty, nor like a noble knight:
          244For surer sign had follow'd, either hand
          245Or voice, or else a motion of the mere.
          246This is a shameful thing for men to lie.
          247Yet now, I charge thee, quickly go again,
          248As thou art lief and dear, and do the thing
          249I bade thee, watch, and lightly bring me word."

          250     Then went Sir Bedivere the second time
          251Across the ridge, and paced beside the mere,
          252Counting the dewy pebbles, fix'd in thought;
          253But when he saw the wonder of the hilt,
          254How curiously and strangely chased, he smote
          255His palms together, and he cried aloud:

          256     "And if indeed I cast the brand away,
          257Surely a precious thing, one worthy note,
          258Should thus be lost for ever from the earth,
          259Which might have pleased the eyes of many men.
          260What good should follow this, if this were done?
          261What harm, undone? Deep harm to disobey,
          262Seeing obedience is the bond of rule.
          263Were it well to obey then, if a king demand
          264An act unprofitable, against himself?
          265The King is sick, and knows not what he does.
          266What record, or what relic of my lord
          267Should be to aftertime, but empty breath
          268And rumours of a doubt? But were this kept,
          269Stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings,
          270Some one might show it at a joust of arms,
          271Saying, 'King Arthur's sword, Excalibur,
          272Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake.
          273Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps
          274Upon the hidden bases of the hills.'
          275So might some old man speak in the aftertime
          276To all the people, winning reverence.
          277But now much honour and much fame were lost."

          278     So spake he, clouded with his own conceit,
          279And hid Excalibur the second time,
          280And so strode back slow to the wounded King.

          281     Then spoke King Arthur, breathing heavily:
          282"What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?'

          283     And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
          284"I heard the water lapping on the crag,
          285And the long ripple washing in the reeds."

          286     To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:
          287"Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,
          288Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!
          289Authority forgets a dying king,
          290Laid widow'd of the power in his eye
          291That bow'd the will. I see thee what thou art,
          292For thou, the latest-left of all my knights,
          293In whom should meet the offices of all,
          294Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt;
          295Either from lust of gold, or like a girl
          296Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes.
          297Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice,
          298And the third time may prosper, get thee hence:
          299But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur,
          300I will arise and slay thee with my hands."

          301     Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran,
          302And, leaping down the ridges, lightly, plunged
          303Among the bulrush beds, and clutch'd the sword,
          304And strongly wheel'd and threw it. The great brand
          305Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,
          306And flashing round and round, and whirl'd in an arch,
          307Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
          308Seen where the moving isles of winter shock
          309By night, with noises of the Northern Sea.
          310So flash'd and fell the brand Excalibur:
          311But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
          312Clothed in white samite, mystic wonderful,
          313And caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him
          314Three times, and drew him under in the mere.
          315And lightly went the other to the King.

          316     Then spoke King Arthur, drawing thicker breath:
          317"Now see I by thine eyes that this is done.
          318Speak out: what is it thou hast heard, or seen?"

          319     And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
          320"Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems
          321Should blind my purpose, for I never saw,
          322Nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die,
          323Not tho' I live three lives of mortal men,
          324So great a miracle as yonder hilt.
          325Then with both hands I flung him, wheeling him;
          326But when I look'd again, behold an arm,
          327Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
          328That caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him
          329Three times, and drew him under in the mere."

          330     And answer made King Arthur, breathing hard:
          331"My end draws nigh; 'tis time that I were gone.
          332Make broad thy shoulders to receive my weight,
          333And bear me to the margin; yet I fear
          334My wound hath taken cold, and I shall die."

          335     So saying, from the pavement he half rose,
          336Slowly, with pain, reclining on his arm,
          337And looking wistfully with wide blue eyes
          338As in a picture. Him Sir Bedivere
          339Remorsefully regarded thro' his tears,
          340And would have spoken, but he found not words;
          341Then took with care, and kneeling on one knee,
          342O'er both his shoulders drew the languid hands,
          343And rising bore him thro' the place of tombs.

          344     But, as he walk'd, King Arthur panted hard,
          345Like one that feels a nightmare on his bed
          346When all the house is mute. So sigh'd the King,
          347Muttering and murmuring at his ear, "Quick, quick!
          348I fear it is too late, and I shall die."
          349But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge,
          350Clothed with his breath, and looking, as he walk'd,
          351Larger than human on the frozen hills.
          352He heard the deep behind him, and a cry
          353Before. His own thought drove him like a goad.
          354Dry clash'd his harness in the icy caves
          355And barren chasms, and all to left and right
          356The bare black cliff clang'd round him, as he based
          357His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
          358Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels--
          359And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
          360And the long glories of the winter moon.

          361     Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge,
          362Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,
          363Beneath them; and descending they were ware
          364That all the decks were dense with stately forms,
          365Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream--by these
          366Three Queens with crowns of gold: and from them rose
          367A cry that shiver'd to the tingling stars,
          368And, as it were one voice, an agony
          369Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills
          370All night in a waste land, where no one comes,
          371Or hath come, since the making of the world.

          372     Then murmur'd Arthur, "Place me in the barge."
          373So to the barge they came. There those three Queens
          374Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept.
          375But she, that rose the tallest of them all
          376And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,
          377And loosed the shatter'd casque, and chafed his hands,
          378And call'd him by his name, complaining loud,
          379And dropping bitter tears against a brow
          380Striped with dark blood: for all his face was white
          381And colourless, and like the wither'd moon
          382Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east;
          383And all his greaves and cuisses dash'd with drops
          384Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls--
          385That made his forehead like a rising sun
          386High from the daïs-throne--were parch'd with dust
          387Or, clotted into points and hanging loose,
          388Mix'd with the knightly growth that fringed his lips.
          389So like a shatter'd column lay the King;
          390Not like that Arthur who, with lance in rest,
          391From spur to plume a star of tournament,
          392Shot thro' the lists at Camelot, and charged
          393Before the eyes of ladies and of kings.

          394     Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
          395"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
          396Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
          397For now I see the true old times are dead,
          398When every morning brought a noble chance,
          399And every chance brought out a noble knight.
          400Such times have been not since the light that led
          401The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
          402But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
          403Which was an image of the mighty world,
          404And I, the last, go forth companionless,
          405And the days darken round me, and the years,
          406Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

          407     And slowly answer'd Arthur from the barge:
          408"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
          409And God fulfils himself in many ways,
          410Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
          411Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
          412I have lived my life, and that which I have done
          413May He within himself make pure! but thou,
          414If thou shouldst never see my face again,
          415Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
          416Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
          417Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
          418For what are men better than sheep or goats
          419That nourish a blind life within the brain,
          420If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
          421Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
          422For so the whole round earth is every way
          423Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
          424But now farewell. I am going a long way
          425With these thou seëst--if indeed I go
          426(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)--
          427To the island-valley of Avilion;
          428Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
          429Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
          430Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard lawns
          431And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea,
          432Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

          433     So said he, and the barge with oar and sail
          434Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan
          435That, fluting a wild carol ere her death,
          436Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood
          437With swarthy webs. Long stood Sir Bedivere
          438Revolving many memories, till the hull
          439Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn,
          440And on the mere the wailing died away.

          441     But when that moan had past for evermore,
          442The stillness of the dead world's winter dawn
          443Amazed him, and he groan'd, ``The King is gone.''
          444And therewithal came on him the weird rhyme,
          445"From the great deep to the great deep he goes."

          446     Whereat he slowly turn'd and slowly clomb
          447The last hard footstep of that iron crag;
          448Thence mark'd the black hull moving yet, and cried,
          449"He passes to be King among the dead,
          450And after healing of his grievous wound
          451He comes again; but--if he come no more--
          452O me, be yon dark Queens in yon black boat,
          453Who shriek'd and wail'd, the three whereat we gazed
          454On that high day, when, clothed with living light,
          455They stood before his throne in silence, friends
          456Of Arthur, who should help him at his need?"

          457     Then from the dawn it seem'd there came, but faint
          458As from beyond the limit of the world,
          459Like the last echo born of a great cry,
          460Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
          461Around a king returning from his wars.

          462     Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb
          463Ev'n to the highest he could climb, and saw,
          464Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
          465Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King,
          466Down that long water opening on the deep
          467Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
          468From less to less and vanish into light.
          469And the new sun rose bringing the new year.

Notes

1] Tennyson extends the "Morte d'Arthur" of the 1842 volume with an introduction (1-169) and a conclusion (441-69).

199] white, samite, mystic: a silken fabric with interwoven gold and silver threads made by magic.

248] Lief: beloved.

307] streamer of the Northern morn: northern lights.

308] isles of winter: icebergs.

366] The three queens named by Malory were Morgan le Fay, the Queen of Northgalys, and the Queen of the Waste Lands.


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, Idylls of the King (London: Strahan, 1869). tenn T366 I496 1869 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto). Alfred lord Tennyson, Works (London: Macmillan, 1891). tenn T366 A1 1891a Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
First publication date: 1869
RPO poem editor: H. M. McLuhan
RP edition: 3RP 3.99.
Recent editing: 2:2002/1/10

Rhyme: unrhyming


Other poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson