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Short poem

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Morte d'Arthur

              1  So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
              2Among the mountains by the winter sea;
              3Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
              4Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
              5King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
              6The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
              7Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
              8And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
              9A broken chancel with a broken cross,
            10That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
            11On one side lay the ocean, and on one
            12Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

            13      Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
            14"The sequel of to-day unsolders all
            15The goodliest fellowship of famous knights
            16Whereof this world holds record. Such a sleep
            17They sleep--the men I loved. I think that we
            18Shall never more, at any future time,
            19Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds,
            20Walking about the gardens and the halls
            21Of Camelot, as in the days that were.
            22I perish by this people which I made,--
            23Tho' Merlin sware that I should come again
            24To rule once more--but let what will be, be,
            25I am so deeply smitten thro' the helm
            26That without help I cannot last till morn.
            27Thou therefore take my brand Excalibur,
            28Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how
            29In those old days, one summer noon, an arm
            30Rose up from out the bosom of the lake,
            31Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
            32Holding the sword--and how I row'd across
            33And took it, and have worn it, like a king:
            34And, wheresoever I am sung or told
            35In aftertime, this also shall be known:
            36But now delay not: take Excalibur,
            37And fling him far into the middle mere:
            38Watch what thou seëst, and lightly bring me word."

            39      To him replied the bold Sir Bedivere:
            40"It is not meet, Sir King, to leave thee thus,
            41Aidless, alone, and smitten thro' the helm.
            42A little thing may harm a wounded man.
            43Yet I thy hest will all perform at full,
            44Watch what I see, and lightly bring thee word."

            45      So saying, from the ruin'd shrine he stept
            46And in the moon athwart the place of tombs,
            47Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men,
            48Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang
            49Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam. He, stepping down
            50By zigzag paths, and juts of pointed rock,
            51Came on the shining levels of the lake.

            52      There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,
            53And o'er him, drawing it, the winter moon,
            54Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth
            55And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt:
            56For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks,
            57Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth work
            58Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long
            59That both his eyes were dazzled, as he stood,
            60This way and that dividing the swift mind,
            61In act to throw: but at the last it seem'd
            62Better to leave Excalibur conceal'd
            63There in the many-knotted water-flags,
            64That whistled stiff and dry about the marge.
            65So strode he back slow to the wounded King.

            66      Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:
            67"Hast thou perform'd my mission which I gave?
            68What is it thou hast seen, or what hast heard?"

            69      And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
            70"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds,
            71And the wild water lapping on the crag."

            72      To whom replied King Arthur, faint and pale:
            73"Thou hast betray'd thy nature and thy name,
            74Not rendering true answer, as beseem'd
            75Thy fealty, nor like a noble knight:
            76For surer sign had follow'd, either hand,
            77Or voice, or else a motion of the mere.
            78This is a shameful thing for men to lie.
            79Yet now, I charge thee, quickly go again
            80As thou art lief and dear, and do the thing
            81I bade thee, watch, and lightly bring me word."

            82      Then went Sir Bedivere the second time
            83Across the ridge, and paced beside the mere,
            84Counting the dewy pebbles, fixed in thought;
            85But when he saw the wonder of the hilt,
            86How curiously and strangely chased, he smote
            87His palms together, and he cried aloud,

            88      "And if indeed I cast the brand away,
            89Surely a precious thing, one worthy note,
            90Should thus be lost forever from the earth,
            91Which might have pleased the eyes of many men.
            92What good should follow this, if this were done?
            93What harm, undone? deep harm to disobey,
            94Seeing obedience is the bond of rule.
            95Were it well to obey then, if a king demand
            96An act unprofitable, against himself?
            97The King is sick, and knows not what he does.
            98What record, or what relic of my lord
            99Should be to aftertime, but empty breath
          100And rumours of a doubt? but were this kept,
          101Stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings,
          102Some one might show it at a joust of arms,
          103Saying, 'King Arthur's sword, Excalibur,
          104Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake;
          105Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps
          106Upon the hidden bases of the hills.'
          107So might some old man speak in the aftertime
          108To all the people, winning reverence.
          109But now much honour and much fame were lost."

          110      So spake he, clouded with his own conceit,
          111And hid Excalibur the second time,
          112And so strode back slow to the wounded King.

          113      Then spoke King Arthur, breathing heavily:
          114"What is it thou hast seen, or what hast heard?"

          115      And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
          116"I heard the water lapping on the crag,
          117And the long ripple washing in the reeds."

          118      To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:
          119"Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,
          120Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!
          121Authority forgets a dying king,
          122Laid widow'd of the power in his eye
          123That bow'd the will. I see thee what thou art,
          124For thou, the latest-left of all my knights,
          125In whom should meet the offices of all,
          126Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt;
          127Either from lust of gold, or like a girl
          128Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes.
          129Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice,
          130And the third time may prosper, get thee hence:
          131But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur,
          132I will arise and slay thee with my hands."

          133      Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran,
          134And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged
          135Among the bulrush-beds, and clutch'd the sword,
          136And strongly wheel'd and threw it. The great brand
          137Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,
          138And flashing round and round, and whirl'd in an arch,
          139Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
          140Seen where the moving isles of winter shock
          141By night, with noises of the northern sea.
          142So flash'd and fell the brand Excalibur:
          143But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
          144Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
          145And caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him
          146Three times, and drew him under in the mere.
          147And lightly went the other to the King.

          148      Then spoke King Arthur, drawing thicker breath:
          149"Now see I by thine eyes that this is done.
          150Speak out: what is it thou hast heard, or seen?"

          151      And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:
          152"Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems
          153Should blind my purpose, for I never saw,
          154Nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die,
          155Not tho' I live three lives of mortal men,
          156So great a miracle as yonder hilt.
          157Then with both hands I flung him, wheeling him;
          158But when I look'd again, behold an arm,
          159Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
          160That caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him
          161Three times, and drew him under in the mere."

          162      And answer made King Arthur, breathing hard:
          163"My end draws nigh; 't is time that I were gone.
          164Make broad thy shoulders to receive my weight,
          165And bear me to the margin; yet I fear
          166My wound hath taken cold, and I shall die."

          167      So saying, from the pavement he half rose,
          168Slowly, with pain, reclining on his arm,
          169And looking wistfully with wide blue eyes
          170As in a picture. Him Sir Bedivere
          171Remorsefully regarded thro' his tears,
          172And would have spoken, but he found not words,
          173Then took with care, and kneeling on one knee,
          174O'er both his shoulders drew the languid hands,
          175And rising bore him thro' the place of tombs.

          176      But, as he walk'd, King Arthur panted hard,
          177Like one that feels a nightmare on his bed
          178When all the house is mute. So sigh'd the King
          179Muttering and murmuring at his ear, "Quick, quick!
          180I fear it is too late, and I shall die."
          181But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge,
          182Clothed with his breath, and looking, as he walk'd
          183Larger than human on the frozen hills.
          184He heard the deep behind him, and a cry
          185Before. His own thought drove him like a goad.
          186Dry clash'd his harness in the icy caves
          187And barren chasms, and all to left and right
          188The bare black cliff clang'd round him, as he based
          189His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang
          190Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels--
          191And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,
          192And the long glories of the winter moon.

          193      Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge
          194Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,
          195Beneath them; and descending they were ware
          196That all the decks were dense with stately forms
          197Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream--by these
          198Three Queens with crowns of gold--and from them rose
          199A cry that shiver'd to the tingling stars,
          200And, as it were one voice, an agony
          201Of lamentation, like a wind, that shrills
          202All night in a waste land, where no one comes,
          203Or hath come, since the making of the world.

          204      Then murmur'd Arthur, "Place me in the barge,"
          205And to the barge they came. There those three Queens
          206Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept.
          207But she that rose the tallest of them all
          208And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,
          209And loosed the shatter'd casque, and chafed his hands,
          210And call'd him by his name, complaining loud
          211And dropping bitter tears against his brow
          212Striped with dark blood: for all his face was white
          213And colourless, and like the wither'd moon
          214Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east;
          215And all his greaves and cuisses dash'd with drops
          216Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls--
          217That made his forehead like a rising sun
          218High from the daïs-throne--were parch'd with dust;
          219Or, clotted into points and hanging loose,
          220Mix'd with the knightly growth that fringed his lips.
          221So like a shatter'd column lay the King;
          222Not like that Arthur who, with lance in rest,
          223From spur to plume a star of tournament,
          224Shot thro' the lists at Camelot, and charged
          225Before the eyes of ladies and of kings.

          226      Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
          227"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
          228Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
          229For now I see the true old times are dead,
          230When every morning brought a noble chance,
          231And every chance brought out a noble knight.
          232Such times have been not since the light that led
          233The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
          234But now the whole ROUND TABLE is dissolved
          235Which was an image of the mighty world;
          236And I, the last, go forth companionless,
          237And the days darken round me, and the years,
          238Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

          239      And slowly answer'd Arthur from the barge:
          240"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
          241And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
          242Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
          243Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
          244I have lived my life, and that which I have done
          245May He within Himself make pure! but thou,
          246If thou shouldst never see my face again,
          247Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
          248Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
          249Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
          250For what are men better than sheep or goats
          251That nourish a blind life within the brain,
          252If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
          253Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
          254For so the whole round earth is every way
          255Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
          256But now farewell. I am going a long way
          257With these thou seëst--if indeed I go--
          258(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)
          259To the island-valley of Avilion;
          260Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
          261Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
          262Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
          263And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea,
          264Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

          265      So said he, and the barge with oar and sail
          266Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan
          267That, fluting a wild carol ere her death,
          268Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood
          269With swarthy webs. Long stood Sir Bedivere
          270Revolving many memories, till the hull
          271Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn,
          272And on the mere the wailing died away.

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, Poems, 2 vols. (Boston: W. D. Ticknor, 1842). PR 5550 E42a Victoria College Library (Toronto). Alfred lord Tennyson, Works (London: Macmillan, 1891). tenn T366 A1 1891a Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
First publication date: 1842
RPO poem editor: J. D. Robins
RP edition: 2RP 2.379.
Recent editing: 2:2002/3/7

Composition date: 1835
Rhyme: unrhymed

Other poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson