Verse > Edwin A. Robinson > Collected Poems > IV. Merlin > IV
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Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).  Collected Poems. 1921.
  
IV. Merlin
IV
  
THE TORTURED King—seeing Merlin wholly meshed
In his defection, even to indifference,
And all the while attended and exalted      755
By some unfathomable obscurity
Of divination, where the Grail, unseen,
Broke yet the darkness where a king saw nothing—
Feared now the lady Vivian more than Fate;
For now he knew that Modred, Lancelot,      760
The Queen, the King, the Kingdom, and the World,
Were less to Merlin, who had made him King,
Than one small woman in Broceliande.
Whereas the lady Vivian, seeing Merlin
Acclaimed and tempted and allured again      765
To service in his old magnificence,
Feared now King Arthur more than storms and robbers;
For Merlin, though he knew himself immune
To no least whispered little wish of hers
That might afflict his ear with ecstasy,      770
Had yet sufficient of his old command
Of all around him to invest an eye
With quiet lightning, and a spoken word
With easy thunder, so accomplishing
A profit and a pastime for himself—      775
And for the lady Vivian, when her guile
Outlived at intervals her graciousness;
And this equipment of uncertainty,
Which now had gone away with him to Britain
With Dagonet, so plagued her memory      780
That soon a phantom brood of goblin doubts
Inhabited his absence, which had else
Been empty waiting and a few brave fears,
And a few more, she knew, that were not brave,
Or long to be disowned, or manageable.      785
She thought of him as he had looked at her
When first he had acquainted her alarm
At sight of the King’s letter with its import;
And she remembered now his very words:
“The King believes today as in his boyhood      790
That I am Fate,” he said; and when they parted
She had not even asked him not to go;
She might as well, she thought, have bid the wind
Throw no more clouds across a lonely sky
Between her and the moon,—so great he seemed      795
In his oppressed solemnity, and she,
In her excess of wrong imagining,
So trivial in an hour, and, after all
A creature of a smaller consequence
Than kings to Merlin, who made kings and kingdoms      800
And had them as a father; and so she feared
King Arthur more than robbers while she waited
For Merlin’s promise to fulfil itself,
And for the rest that was to follow after:
“He said he would come back, and so he will.      805
He will because he must, and he is Merlin,
The master of the world—or so he was;
And he is coming back again to me
Because he must and I am Vivian.
It’s all as easy as two added numbers:      810
Some day I’ll hear him ringing at the gate,
As he rang on that morning in the spring,
Ten years ago; and I shall have him then
For ever. He shall never go away
Though kings come walking on their hands and knees      815
To take him on their backs.” When Merlin came,
She told him that, and laughed; and he said strangely:
“Be glad or sorry, but no kings are coming.
Not Arthur, surely; for now Arthur knows
That I am less than Fate.”      820
 
  Ten years ago
The King had heard, with unbelieving ears
At first, what Merlin said would be the last
Reiteration of his going down
To find a living grave in Brittany:      825
“Buried alive I told you I should be,
By love made little and by woman shorn,
Like Samson, of my glory; and the time
Is now at hand. I follow in the morning
Where I am led. I see behind me now      830
The last of crossways, and I see before me
A straight and final highway to the end
Of all my divination. You are King,
And in your kingdom I am what I was.
Wherever I have warned you, see as far      835
As I have seen; for I have shown the worst
There is to see. Require no more of me,
For I can be no more than what I was.”
So, on the morrow, the King said farewell;
And he was never more to Merlin’s eye      840
The King than at that hour; for Merlin knew
How much was going out of Arthur’s life
With him, as he went southward to the sea.
 
Over the waves and into Brittany
Went Merlin, to Broceliande. Gay birds      845
Were singing high to greet him all along
A broad and sanded woodland avenue
That led him on forever, so he thought,
Until at last there was an end of it;
And at the end there was a gate of iron,      850
Wrought heavily and invidiously barred.
He pulled a cord that rang somewhere a bell
Of many echoes, and sat down to rest,
Outside the keeper’s house, upon a bench
Of carven stone that might for centuries      855
Have waited there in silence to receive him.
The birds were singing still; leaves flashed and swung
Before him in the sunlight; a soft breeze
Made intermittent whisperings around him
Of love and fate and danger, and faint waves      860
Of many sweetly-stinging fragile odors
Broke lightly as they touched him; cherry-boughs
Above him snowed white petals down upon him,
And under their slow falling Merlin smiled
Contentedly, as one who contemplates      865
No longer fear, confusion, or regret,
May smile at ruin or at revelation.
 
A stately fellow with a forest air
Now hailed him from within, with searching words
And curious looks, till Merlin’s glowing eye      870
Transfixed him and he flinched: “My compliments
And homage to the lady Vivian.
Say Merlin from King Arthur’s Court is here,
A pilgrim and a stranger in appearance,
Though in effect her friend and humble servant.      875
Convey to her my speech as I have said it,
Without abbreviation or delay,
And so deserve my gratitude forever.”
“But Merlin?” the man stammered; “Merlin? Merlin?”—
“One Merlin is enough. I know no other.      880
Now go you to the lady Vivian
And bring to me her word, for I am weary.”
Still smiling at the cherry-blossoms falling
Down on him and around him in the sunlight,
He waited, never moving, never glancing      885
This way or that, until his messenger
Came jingling into vision, weighed with keys,
And inly shaken with much wondering
At this great wizard’s coming unannounced
And unattended. When the way was open      890
The stately messenger, now bowing low
In reverence and awe, bade Merlin enter;
And Merlin, having entered, heard the gate
Clang back behind him; and he swore no gate
Like that had ever clanged in Camelot,      895
Or any other place if not in hell.
“I may be dead; and this good fellow here,
With all his keys,” he thought, “may be the Devil,—
Though I were loath to say so, for the keys
Would make him rather more akin to Peter;      900
And that’s fair reasoning for this fair weather.”
 
“The lady Vivian says you are most welcome,”
Said now the stately-favored servitor,
“And are to follow me. She said, ‘Say Merlin—
A pilgrim and a stranger in appearance,      905
Though in effect my friend and humble servant—
Is welcome for himself, and for the sound
Of his great name that echoes everywhere.’”—
“I like you and I like your memory,”
Said Merlin, curiously, “but not your gate.      910
Why forge for this elysian wilderness
A thing so vicious with unholy noise?”—
“There’s a way out of every wilderness
For those who dare or care enough to find it,”
The guide said: and they moved along together,      915
Down shaded ways, through open ways with hedgerows.
And into shade again more deep than ever,
But edged anon with rays of broken sunshine
In which a fountain, raining crystal music,
Made faery magic of it through green leafage,      920
Till Merlin’s eyes were dim with preparation
For sight now of the lady Vivian.
He saw at first a bit of living green
That might have been a part of all the green
Around the tinkling fountain where she gazed      925
Upon the circling pool as if her thoughts
Were not so much on Merlin—whose advance
Betrayed through his enormity of hair
The cheeks and eyes of youth—as on the fishes.
But soon she turned and found him, now alone,      930
And held him while her beauty and her grace
Made passing trash of empires, and his eyes
Told hers of what a splendid emptiness
Her tedious world had been without him in it
Whose love and service were to be her school,      935
Her triumph, and her history: “This is Merlin,”
She thought; “and I shall dream of him no more.
And he has come, he thinks, to frighten me
With beards and robes and his immortal fame;
Or is it I who think so? I know not.      940
I’m frightened, sure enough, but if I show it,
I’ll be no more the Vivian for whose love
He tossed away his glory, or the Vivian
Who saw no man alive to make her love him
Till she saw Merlin once in Camelot,      945
And seeing him, saw no other. In an age
That has no plan for me that I can read
Without him, shall he tell me what I am,
And why I am, I wonder?” While she thought,
And feared the man whom her perverse negation      950
Must overcome somehow to soothe her fancy,
She smiled and welcomed him; and so they stood,
Each finding in the other’s eyes a gleam
Of what eternity had hidden there.
 
“Are you always all in green, as you are now?”      955
Said Merlin, more employed with her complexion,
Where blood and olive made wild harmony
With eyes and wayward hair that were too dark
For peace if they were not subordinated;
“If so you are, then so you make yourself      960
A danger in a world of many dangers.
If I were young, God knows if I were safe
Concerning you in green, like a slim cedar,
As you are now, to say my life was mine:
Were you to say to me that I should end it,      965
Longevity for me were jeopardized.
Have you your green on always and all over?”
 
“Come here, and I will tell you about that,”
Said Vivian, leading Merlin with a laugh
To an arbored seat where they made opposites:      970
“If you are Merlin—and I know you are,
For I remember you in Camelot,—
You know that I am Vivian, as I am;
And if I go in green, why, let me go so,
And say at once why you have come to me      975
Cloaked over like a monk, and with a beard
As long as Jeremiah’s. I don’t like it.
I’ll never like a man with hair like that
While I can feed a carp with little frogs.
I’m rather sure to hate you if you keep it,      980
And when I hate a man I poison him.”
 
“You’ve never fed a carp with little frogs,”
Said Merlin; “I can see it in your eyes.”—
“I might then, if I haven’t,” said the lady;
“For I’m a savage, and I love no man      985
As I have seen him yet. I’m here alone,
With some three hundred others, all of whom
Are ready, I dare say, to die for me;
I’m cruel and I’m cold, and I like snakes;
And some have said my mother was a fairy,      990
Though I believe it not.”
 
        “Why not believe it?”
Said Merlin; “I believe it. I believe
Also that you divine, as I had wished,
In my surviving ornament of office      995
A needless imposition on your wits,
If not yet on the scope of your regard.
Even so, you cannot say how old I am,
Or yet how young. I’m willing cheerfully
To fight, left-handed, Hell’s three headed hound      1000
If you but whistle him up from where he lives;
I’m cheerful and I’m fierce, and I’ve made kings;
And some have said my father was the Devil,
Though I believe it not. Whatever I am,
I have not lived in Time until to-day.”      1005
A moment’s worth of wisdom there escaped him,
But Vivian seized it, and it was not lost.
 
Embroidering doom with many levities,
Till now the fountain’s crystal silver, fading,
Became a splash and a mere chilliness,      1010
They mocked their fate with easy pleasantries
That were too false and small to be forgotten,
And with ingenious insincerities
That had no repetition or revival.
At last the lady Vivian arose,      1015
And with a crying of how late it was
Took Merlin’s hand and led him like a child
Along a dusky way between tall cones
Of tight green cedars: “Am I like one of these?
You said I was, though I deny it wholly.”—      1020
“Very,” said Merlin, to his bearded lips
Uplifting her small fingers.—“O, that hair!”
She moaned, as if in sorrow: “Must it be?
Must every prophet and important wizard
Be clouded so that nothing but his nose      1025
And eyes, and intimations of his ears,
Are there to make us know him when we see him?
Praise heaven I’m not a prophet! Are you glad?”—
 
He did not say that he was glad or sorry;
For suddenly came flashing into vision      1030
A thing that was a manor and a castle,
With walls and roofs that had a flaming sky.
Behind them, like a sky that he remembered,
And one that had from his rock-sheltered haunt
Above the roofs of his forsaken city      1035
Made flame as if all Camelot were on fire.
The glow brought with it a brief memory
Of Arthur as he left him, and the pain
That fought in Arthur’s eyes for losing him,
And must have overflowed when he had vanished.      1040
But now the eyes that looked hard into his
Were Vivian’s, not the King’s; and he could see,
Or so he thought, a shade of sorrow in them.
She took his two hands: “You are sad,” she said.—
He smiled: “Your western lights bring memories      1045
Of Camelot. We all have memories—
Prophets, and women who are like slim cedars;
But you are wrong to say that I am sad.”—
“Would you go back to Camelot?” she asked,
Her fingers tightening. Merlin shook his head.      1050
“Then listen while I tell you that I’m glad,”
She purred, as if assured that he would listen:
“At your first warning, much too long ago,
Of this quaint pilgrimage of yours to see
‘The fairest and most orgulous of ladies’—      1055
No language for a prophet, I am sure—
Said I, ‘When this great Merlin comes to me,
My task and avocation for some time
Will be to make him willing, if I can,
To teach and feed me with an ounce of wisdom.’      1060
For I have eaten to an empty shell,
After a weary feast of observation
Among the glories of a tinsel world
That had for me no glory till you came,
A life that is no life. Would you go back      1065
To Camelot?”—Merlin shook his head again,
And the two smiled together in the sunset.
 
They moved along in silence to the door,
Where Merlin said: “Of your three hundred here
There is but one I know, and him I favor;      1070
I mean the stately one who shakes the keys
Of that most evil sounding gate of yours,
Which has a clang as if it shut forever.”—
“If there be need, I’ll shut the gate myself,”
She said. “And you like Blaise? Then you shall have him.      1075
He was not born to serve, but serve he must,
It seems, and be enamoured of my shadow.
He cherishes the taint of some high folly
That haunts him with a name he cannot know,
And I could fear his wits are paying for it.      1080
Forgive his tongue, and humor it a little.”—
“I knew another one whose name was Blaise,”
He said; and she said lightly, “Well, what of it?”—
“And he was nigh the learnedest of hermits;
His home was far away from everywhere,      1085
And he was all alone there when he died.”—
“Now be a pleasant Merlin,” Vivian said,
Patting his arm, “and have no more of that;
For I’ll not hear of dead men far away,
Or dead men anywhere this afternoon.      1090
There’ll be a trifle in the way of supper
This evening, but the dead shall not have any.
Blaise and this man will tell you all there is
For you to know. Then you’ll know everything.”
She laughed, and vanished like a humming-bird.      1095

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