THE ROMANCE OF THE WATER LILY
WHILE Merlin paced the Cornish sands,
Forth-looking toward the rocks of Scilly,
The pleased Enchanter was aware
Of a bright Ship that seemed to hang in air,
Yet was she work of mortal hands,
And took from men her name--THE WATER LILY.
Soft was the wind, that landward blew;
And, as the Moon, o'er some dark hill ascendant,
Grows from a little edge of light
To a full orb, this Pinnace bright 10
Became, as nearer to the coast she drew,
More glorious, with spread sail and streaming pendant.
Upon this winged Shape so fair
Sage Merlin gazed with admiration:
Her lineaments, thought he, surpass
Aught that was ever shown in magic glass;
Was ever built with patient care;
Or, at a touch, produced by happiest transformation.
Now, though a Mechanist, whose skill
Shames the degenerate grasp of modern science, 20
Grave Merlin (and belike the more
For practising occult and perilous lore)
Was subject to a freakish will
That sapped good thoughts, or scared them with defiance.
Provoked to envious spleen, he cast
An altered look upon the advancing Stranger
Whom he had hailed with joy, and cried,
"My Art shall help to tame her pride--"
Anon the breeze became a blast,
And the waves rose, and sky portended danger. 30
With thrilling word, and potent sign
Traced on the beach, his work the Sorcerer urges;
The clouds in blacker clouds are lost,
Like spiteful Fiends that vanish, crossed
By Fiends of aspect more malign;
And the winds roused the Deep with fiercer scourges.
But worthy of the name she bore
Was this Sea-flower, this buoyant Galley;
Supreme in loveliness and grace
Of motion, whether in the embrace 40
Of trusty anchorage, or scudding o'er
The main flood roughened into hill and valley.
Behold, how wantonly she laves
Her sides, the Wizard's craft confounding;
Like something out of Ocean sprung
To be for ever fresh and young,
Breasts the sea-flashes, and huge waves
Top-gallant high, rebounding and rebounding!
But Ocean under magic heaves,
And cannot spare the Thing he cherished: 50
Ah! what avails that she was fair,
Luminous, blithe, and debonair?
The storm has stripped her of her leaves;
The Lily floats no longer!--She hath perished.
Grieve for her,--she deserves no less;
So like, yet so unlike, a living Creature!
No heart had she, no busy brain;
Though loved, she could not love again;
Though pitied, 'feel' her own distress;
Nor aught that troubles us, the fools of Nature. 60
Yet is there cause for gushing tears;
So richly was this Galley laden,
A fairer than herself she bore,
And, in her struggles, cast ashore;
A lovely One, who nothing hears
Of wind or wave--a meek and guileless Maiden.
Into a cave had Merlin fled
From mischief, caused by spells himself had muttered;
And while, repentant all too late,
In moody posture there he sate, 70
He heard a voice, and saw, with half-raised head,
A Visitant by whom these words were uttered;
"On Christian service this frail Bark
Sailed" (hear me, Merlin!) "under high protection,
Though on her prow a sign of heathen power
Was carved--a Goddess with a Lily flower,
The old Egyptian's emblematic mark
Of joy immortal and of pure affection.
Her course was for the British strand;
Her freight, it was a Damsel peerless; 80
God reigns above, and Spirits strong
May gather to avenge this wrong
Done to the Princess, and her Land
Which she in duty left, sad but not cheerless.
And to Caerleon's loftiest tower
Soon will the Knights of Arthur's Table
A cry of lamentation send;
And all will weep who there attend,
To grace that Stranger's bridal hour,
For whom the sea was made unnavigable. 90
Shame! should a Child of royal line
Die through the blindness of thy malice?"
Thus to the Necromancer spake
Nina, the Lady of the Lake,
A gentle Sorceress, and benign,
Who ne'er embittered any good man's chalice.
"What boots," continued she, "to mourn?
To expiate thy sin endeavour:
From the bleak isle where she is laid,
Fetched by our art, the Egyptian Maid 100
May yet to Arthur's court be borne
Cold as she is, ere life be fled for ever.
My pearly Boat, a shining Light,
That brought me down that sunless river,
Will bear me on from wave to wave,
And back with her to this sea-cave;--
Then Merlin! for a rapid flight
Through air, to thee my Charge will I deliver.
The very swiftest of thy cars
Must, when my part is done, be ready; 110
Meanwhile, for further guidance, look
Into thy own prophetic book;
And, if that fail, consult the Stars
To learn thy course; farewell! be prompt and steady."
This scarcely spoken, she again
Was seated in her gleaming shallop,
That, o'er the yet-distempered Deep,
Pursued its way with bird-like sweep,
Or like a steed, without a rein,
Urged o'er the wilderness in sportive gallop. 120
Soon did the gentle Nina reach
That Isle without a house or haven;
Landing, she found not what she sought,
Nor saw of wreck or ruin aught
But a carved Lotus cast upon the beach
By the fierce waves, a flower in marble graven.
Sad relique, but how fair the while!
For gently each from each retreating
With backward curve, the leaves revealed
The bosom half, and half concealed, 130
Of a Divinity, that seemed to smile
On Nina, as she passed, with hopeful greeting.
No quest was hers of vague desire,
Of tortured hope and purpose shaken;
Following the margin of a bay,
She spied the lonely Castaway,
Unmarred, unstripped of her attire,
But with closed eyes,--of breath and bloom forsaken.
Then Nina, stooping down, embraced,
With tenderness and mild emotion, 140
The Damsel, in that trance embound;
And, while she raised her from the ground,
And in the pearly shallop placed,
Sleep fell upon the air, and stilled the ocean.
The turmoil hushed, celestial springs
Of music opened, and there came a blending
Of fragrance, underived from earth,
With gleams that owed not to the sun their birth,
And that soft rustling of invisible wings
Which Angels make, on works of love descending. 150
And Nina heard a sweeter voice
Than if the Goddess of the flower had spoken:
"Thou hast achieved, fair Dame! what none
Less pure in spirit could have done;
Go, in thy enterprise rejoice!
Air, earth, sea, sky, and heaven, success betoken."
So cheered, she left that Island bleak,
A bare rock of the Scilly cluster;
And, as they traversed the smooth brine,
The self-illumined Brigantine 160
Shed, on the Slumberer's cold wan cheek
And pallid brow, a melancholy lustre.
Fleet was their course, and when they came
To the dim cavern, whence the river
Issued into the salt-sea flood,
Merlin, as fixed in thought he stood,
Was thus accosted by the Dame;
"Behold to thee my Charge I now deliver!
But where attends thy chariot--where?"--
Quoth Merlin, "Even as I was bidden, 170
So have I done; as trusty as thy barge
My vehicle shall prove--O precious Charge!
If this be sleep, how soft! if death, how fair!
Much have my books disclosed, but the end is hidden."
He spake; and gliding into view
Forth from the grotto's dimmest chamber
Came two mute Swans, whose plumes of dusky white
Changed, as the pair approached the light,
Drawing an ebon car, their hue
(Like clouds of sunset) into lucid amber. 180
Once more did gentle Nina lift
The Princess, passive to all changes:
The car received her:--then up-went
Into the ethereal element
The Birds with progress smooth and swift
As thought, when through bright regions memory ranges.
Sage Merlin, at the Slumberer's side,
Instructs the Swans their way to measure;
And soon Caerleon's towers appeared,
And notes of minstrelsy were heard 190
From rich pavilions spreading wide,
For some high day of long-expected pleasure.
Awe-stricken stood both Knights and Dames
Ere on firm ground the car alighted;
Eftsoons astonishment was past,
For in that face they saw the last
Last lingering look of clay, that tames
All pride; by which all happiness is blighted.
Said Merlin, "Mighty King, fair Lords,
Away with feast and tilt and tourney! 200
Ye saw, throughout this royal House,
Ye heard, a rocking marvellous
Of turrets, and a clash of swords
Self-shaken, as I closed my airy journey.
Lo! by a destiny well known
To mortals, joy is turned to sorrow;
This is the wished-for Bride, the Maid
Of Egypt, from a rock conveyed
Where she by shipwreck had been thrown,
Ill sight! but grief may vanish ere the morrow." 210
"Though vast thy power, thy words are weak,"
Exclaimed the King, "a mockery hateful;
Dutiful Child, her lot how hard!
Is this her piety's reward?
Those watery locks, that bloodless cheek!
O winds without remorse! O shore ungrateful!
Rich robes are fretted by the moth;
Towers, temples, fall by stroke of thunder;
Will that, or deeper thoughts, abate
A Father's sorrow for her fate? 220
He will repent him of his troth;
His brain will burn, his stout heart split asunder.
Alas! and I have caused this woe;
For, when my prowess from invading Neighbours
Had freed his Realm, he plighted word
That he would turn to Christ our Lord,
And his dear Daughter on a Knight bestow
Whom I should choose for love and matchless labours.
Her birth was heathen; but a fence
Of holy Angels round her hovered: 230
A Lady added to my court
So fair, of such divine report
And worship, seemed a recompence
For fifty kingdoms by my sword recovered.
Ask not for whom, O Champions true!
She was reserved by me her life's betrayer;
She who was meant to be a bride
Is now a corse: then put aside
Vain thoughts, and speed ye, with observance due
Of Christian rites, in Christian ground to lay her." 240
"The tomb," said Merlin, "may not close
Upon her yet, earth hide her beauty;
Not froward to thy sovereign will
Esteem me, Liege! if I, whose skill
Wafted her hither, interpose
To check this pious haste of erring duty.
My books command me to lay bare
The secret thou art bent on keeping:
Here must a high attest be given,
'What' Bridegroom was for her ordained by Heaven. 250
And in my glass significants there are
Of things that may to gladness turn this weeping.
For this, approaching, One by One,
Thy Knights must touch the cold hand of the Virgin;
So, for the favoured One, the Flower may bloom
Once more: but, if unchangeable her doom,
If life departed be for ever gone,
Some blest assurance, from this cloud emerging,
May teach him to bewail his loss;
Not with a grief that, like a vapour, rises 260
And melts; but grief devout that shall endure,
And a perpetual growth secure
Of purposes which no false thought shall cross,
A harvest of high hopes and noble enterprises."
"So be it," said the King;--"anon,
Here, where the Princess lies, begin the trial;
Knights each in order as ye stand
Step forth."--To touch the pallid hand
Sir Agravaine advanced; no sign he won
From Heaven or earth;--Sir Kaye had like denial. 270
Abashed, Sir Dinas turned away;
Even for Sir Percival was no disclosure;
Though he, devoutest of all Champions, ere
He reached that ebon car, the bier
Whereon diffused like snow the Damsel lay,
Full thrice had crossed himself in meek composure.
Imagine (but ye Saints! who can?)
How in still air the balance trembled--
The wishes, peradventure the despites
That overcame some not ungenerous Knights; 280
And all the thoughts that lengthened out a span
Of time to Lords and Ladies thus assembled.
What patient confidence was here!
And there how many bosoms panted!
While drawing toward the car Sir Gawaine, mailed
For tournament, his beaver vailed,
And softly touched; but, to his princely cheer
And high expectancy, no sign was granted.
Next, disencumbered of his harp,
Sir Tristram, dear to thousands as a brother, 290
Came to the proof, nor grieved that there ensued
No change;--the fair Izonda he had wooed
With love too true, a love with pangs too sharp,
From hope too distant, not to dread another.
Not so Sir Launcelot;--from Heaven's grace
A sign he craved, tired slave of vain contrition;
The royal Guinever looked passing glad
When his touch failed.--Next came Sir Galahad;
He paused, and stood entranced by that still face
Whose features he had seen in noontide vision. 300
For late, as near a murmuring stream
He rested 'mid an arbour green and shady.
Nina, the good Enchantress, shed
A light around his mossy bed;
And, at her call, a waking dream
Prefigured to his sense the Egyptian Lady.
Now, while his bright-haired front he bowed,
And stood, far-kenned by mantle furred with ermine,
As o'er the insensate Body hung
The enrapt, the beautiful, the young, 310
Belief sank deep into the crowd
That he the solemn issue would determine.
Nor deem it strange; the Youth had worn
That very mantle on a day of glory,
The day when he achieved that matchless feat,
The marvel of the PERILOUS SEAT,
Which whosoe'er approached of strength was shorn,
Though King or Knight the most renowned in story.
He touched with hesitating hand--
And lo! those Birds, far-famed through Love's dominions, 320
The Swans, in triumph clap their wings;
And their necks play, involved in rings,
Like sinless snakes in Eden's happy land;--
"Mine is she," cried the Knight;--again they clapped their
"Mine was she--mine she is, though dead,
And to her name my soul shall cleave in sorrow;"
Whereat, a tender twilight streak
Of colour dawned upon the Damsel's cheek;
And her lips, quickening with uncertain red,
Seemed from each other a faint warmth to borrow. 330
Deep was the awe, the rapture high,
Of love emboldened, hope with dread entwining,
When, to the mouth, relenting Death
Allowed a soft and flower-like breath,
Precursor to a timid sigh,
To lifted eyelids, and a doubtful shining.
In silence did King Arthur gaze
Upon the signs that pass away or tarry;
In silence watched the gentle strife
Of Nature leading back to life; 340
Then eased his soul at length by praise
Of God, and Heaven's pure Queen--the blissful Mary.
Then said he, "Take her to thy heart,
Sir Galahad! a treasure, that God giveth,
Bound by indissoluble ties to thee
Through mortal change and immortality;
Be happy and unenvied, thou who art
A goodly Knight that hath no peer that liveth!"
Not long the Nuptials were delayed;
And sage tradition still rehearses 350
The pomp, the glory of that hour
When toward the altar from her bower
King Arthur led the Egyptian Maid,
And Angels carolled these far-echoed verses;--
Who shrinks not from alliance
Of evil with good Powers,
To God proclaims defiance,
And mocks whom he adores.
A Ship to Christ devoted
From the Land of Nile did go; 360
Alas! the bright Ship floated,
An Idol at her prow.
By magic domination,
The Heaven-permitted vent
Of purblind mortal passion,
Was wrought her punishment.
The Flower the Form within it,
What served they in her need?
Her port she could not win it,
Nor from mishap be freed. 370
The tempest overcame her,
And she was seen no more;
But gently, gently blame her--
She cast a Pearl ashore.
The Maid to Jesu hearkened,
And kept to him her faith,
Till sense in death was darkened,
Or sleep akin to death.
But Angels round her pillow
Kept watch, a viewless band; 380
And, billow favouring billow,
She reached the destined strand.
Blest Pair! whate'er befall you,
Your faith in Him approve
Who from frail earth can call you
To bowers of endless love!