Verse > Edwin A. Robinson > Collected Poems > VI. Lancelot > VI
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Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935).  Collected Poems. 1921.
  
VI. Lancelot
VI
  
THE DARK of Modred’s hour not yet availing,
Gawaine it was who gave the King no peace;
Gawaine it was who goaded him and drove him
To Joyous Gard, where now for long his army,
Disheartened with unprofitable slaughter,      1215
Fought for their weary King and wearily
Died fighting. Only Gawaine’s hate it was
That held the King’s knights and his warrior slaves
Close-hived in exile, dreaming of old scenes
Where Sorrow, and her demon sister Fear,      1220
Now shared the dusty food of loneliness,
From Orkney to Cornwall. There was no peace,
Nor could there be, so Gawaine told the King,
And so the King in anguish told himself,
Until there was an end of one of them—      1225
Of Gawaine or the King, or Lancelot,
Who might have had an end, as either knew,
Long since of Arthur and of Gawaine with him.
One evening in the moonlight Lancelot
And Bors, his kinsman, and the loyalest,      1230
If least assured, of all who followed him,
Sat gazing from an ivy-cornered casement
In angry silence upon Arthur’s horde,
Who in the silver distance, without sound,
Were dimly burying dead men. Sir Bors,      1235
Reiterating vainly what was told
As wholesome hearing for unhearing ears,
Said now to Lancelot: “And though it be
For no more now than always, let me speak:
You have a pity for the King, you say,      1240
That is not hate; and for Gawaine you have
A grief that is not hate. Pity and grief!
And the Queen all but shrieking out her soul
That morning when we snatched her from the faggots
That were already crackling when we came!      1245
Why, Lancelot, if in you is an answer,
Have you so vast a charity for the King,
And so enlarged a grief for his gay nephew,
Whose tireless hate for you has only one
Disastrous appetite? You know for what—      1250
For your slow blood. I knew you, Lancelot,
When all this would have been a merry fable
For smiling men to yawn at and forget,
As they forget their physic. Pity and grief
Are in your eyes. I see them well enough;      1255
And I saw once with you, in a far land,
The glimmering of a Light that you saw nearer—
Too near for your salvation or advantage,
If you be what you seem. What I saw then
Made life a wilder mystery than ever,      1260
And earth a new illusion. You, maybe,
Saw pity and grief. What I saw was a Gleam,
To fight for or to die for—till we know
Too much to fight or die. Tonight you turn
A page whereon your deeds are to engross      1265
Inexorably their story of tomorrow;
And then tomorrow. How many of these tomorrows
Are coming to ask unanswered why this war
Was fought and fought for the vain sake of slaughter?
Why carve a compost of a multitude,      1270
When only two, discriminately despatched,
Would sum the end of what you know is ending
And leave to you the scorch of no more blood
Upon your blistered soul? The Light you saw
Was not for this poor crumbling realm of Arthur,      1275
Nor more for Rome; but for another state
That shall be neither Rome nor Camelot,
Nor one that we may name. Why longer, then,
Are you and Gawaine to anoint with war,
That even in hell would be superfluous,      1280
A reign already dying, and ripe to die?
I leave you to your last interpretation
Of what may be the pleasure of your madness.”
 
Meanwhile a mist was hiding the dim work
Of Arthur’s men; and like another mist,      1285
All gray, came Guinevere to Lancelot,
Whom Bors had left, not having had of him
The largess of a word. She laid her hands
Upon his hair, vexing him to brief speech:
“And you—are you like Bors?”      1290
 
        “I may be so,”
She said; and she saw faintly where she gazed,
Like distant insects of a shadowy world,
Dim clusters here and there of shadowy men
Whose occupation was her long abhorrence:      1295
“If he came here and went away again,
And all for nothing, I may be like Bors.
Be glad, at least, that I am not like Mark
Of Cornwall, who stood once behind a man
And slew him without saying he was there.      1300
Not Arthur, I believe, nor yet Gawaine,
Would have done quite like that; though only God
May say what there’s to come before this war
Shall have an end—unless you are to see,
As I have seen so long, a way to end it.”      1305
 
He frowned, and watched again the coming mist
That hid with a cold veil of augury
The stillness of an empire that was dying:
“And are you here to say that if I kill
Gawaine and Arthur we shall both be happy?”      1310
 
“Is there still such a word as happiness?
I come to tell you nothing, Lancelot,
That folly and waste have not already told you.
Were you another man than Lancelot,
I might say folly and fear. But no,—no fear,      1315
As I know fear, was yet composed and wrought,
By man, for your delay and your undoing.
God knows how cruelly and how truly now
You might say, that of all who breathe and suffer
There may be others who are not so near      1320
To you as I am, and so might say better
What I say only with a tongue not apt
Or guarded for much argument. A woman,
As men have known since Adam heard the first
Of Eve’s interpreting of how it was      1325
In Paradise, may see but one side only—
Where maybe there are two, to say no more.
Yet here, for you and me, and so for all
Caught with us in this lamentable net,
I see but one deliverance: I see none,      1330
Unless you cut for us a clean way out,
So rending these hate-woven webs of horror
Before they mesh the world. And if the world
Or Arthur’s name be now a dying glory,
Why bleed it for the sparing of a man      1335
Who hates you, and a King that hates himself?
If war be war—and I make only blood
Of your red writing—why dishonor Time
For torture longer drawn in your slow game
Of empty slaughter? Tomorrow it will be      1340
The King’s move, I suppose, and we shall have
One more magnificent waste of nameless pawns,
And of a few more knights. God, how you love
This game!—to make so loud a shambles of it,
When you have only twice to lift your finger      1345
To signal peace, and give to this poor drenched
And clotted earth a time to heal itself.
Twice over I say to you, if war be war,
Why play with it? Why look a thousand ways
Away from what it is, only to find      1350
A few stale memories left that would requite
Your tears with your destruction? Tears, I say,
For I have seen your tears; I see them now,
Although the moon is dimmer than it was
Before I came. I wonder if I dimmed it.      1355
I wonder if I brought this fog here with me
To make you chillier even than you are
When I am not so near you…. Lancelot,
There must be glimmering yet somewhere within you
The last spark of a little willingness      1360
To tell me why it is this war goes on.
Once I believed you told me everything;
And what you may have hidden was no matter,
For what you told was all I needed then.
But crumbs that are a festival for joy      1365
Make a dry fare for sorrow; and the few
Spared words that were enough to nourish faith,
Are for our lonely fears a frugal poison.
So, Lancelot, if only to bring back
For once the ghost of a forgotten mercy,      1370
Say now, even though you strike me to the floor
When you have said it, for what untold end
All this goes on. Am I not anything now?
Is Gawaine, who would feed you to wild swine,
And laugh to see them tear you, more than I am?      1375
Is Arthur, at whose word I was dragged out
To wear for you the fiery crown itself
Of human torture, more to you than I am?
Am I, because you saw death touch me once,
Too gross a trifle to be longer prized?      1380
Not many days ago, when you lay hurt
And aching on your bed, and I cried out
Aloud on heaven that I should bring you there,
You said you would have paid the price of hell
To save me that foul morning from the fire.      1385
You paid enough: yet when you told me that,
With death going on outside the while you said it,
I heard the woman in me asking why.
Nor do I wholly find an answer now
In any shine of any far-off Light      1390
You may have seen. Knowing the world, you know
How surely and how indifferently that Light
Shall burn through many a war that is to be,
To which this war were no more than a smear
On circumstance. The world has not begun.      1395
The Light you saw was not the Light of Rome,
Or Time, though you seem battling here for time,
While you are still at war with Arthur’s host
And Gawaine’s hate. How many thousand men
Are going to their death before Gawaine      1400
And Arthur go to theirs—and I to mine?”
Lancelot, looking off into the fog,
In which his fancy found the watery light
Of a dissolving moon, sighed without hope
Of saying what the Queen would have him say:      1405
“I fear, my lady, my fair nephew Bors,
Whose tongue affords a random wealth of sound,
May lately have been scattering on the air
For you a music less oracular
Than to your liking…. Say, then, you had split      1410
The uncovered heads of two men with an axe,
Not knowing whose heads—if that’s a palliation—
And seen their brains fly out and splash the ground
As they were common offal, and then learned
That you had butchered Gaheris and Gareth—      1415
Gareth, who had for me a greater love
Than any that has ever trod the ways
Of a gross world that early would have crushed him,—
Even you, in your quick fever of dispatch,
Might hesitate before you drew the blood      1420
Of him that was their brother, and my friend.
Yes, he was more my friend, was I to know,
Than I had said or guessed; for it was Gawaine
Who gave to Bors the word that might have saved us,
And Arthur’s fading empire, for the time      1425
Till Modred had in his dark wormy way
Crawled into light again with a new ruin
At work in that occult snake’s brain of his.
And even in your prompt obliteration
Of Arthur from a changing world that rocks      1430
Itself into a dizziness around him,
A moment of attendant reminiscence
Were possible, if not likely. Had he made
A knight of you, scrolling your name with his
Among the first of men—and in his love      1435
Inveterately the first—and had you then
Betrayed his fame and honor to the dust
That now is choking him, you might in time—
You might, I say—to my degree succumb.
Forgive me, if my lean words are for yours      1440
Too bare an answer, and ascribe to them
No tinge of allegation or reproach.
What I said once to you I said for ever—
That I would pay the price of hell to save you.
As for the Light, leave that for me alone;      1445
Or leave as much of it as yet for me
May shine. Should I, through any unforeseen
Remote effect of awkwardness or chance,
Be done to death or durance by the King,
I leave some writing wherein I beseech      1450
For you the clemency of afterthought.
Were I to die and he to see me dead,
My living prayer, surviving the cold hand
That wrote, would leave you in his larger prudence,
If I have known the King, free and secure      1455
To bide the summoning of another King
More great than Arthur. But all this is language;
And I know more than words have yet the scope
To show of what’s to come. Go now to rest;
And sleep, if there be sleep. There was a moon;      1460
And now there is no sky where the moon was.
Sometimes I wonder if this be the world
We live in, or the world that lives in us.”
 
The new day, with a cleansing crash of rain
That washed and sluiced the soiled and hoof-torn field      1465
Of Joyous Gard, prepared for Lancelot
And his wet men the not unwelcome scene
Of a drenched emptiness without an army.
“Our friend the foe is given to dry fighting,”
Said Lionel, advancing with a shrug,      1470
To Lancelot, who saw beyond the rain.
And later Lionel said, “What fellows are they,
Who are so thirsty for their morning ride
That swimming horses would have hardly time
To eat before they swam? You, Lancelot,      1475
If I see rather better than a blind man,
Are waiting on three pilgrims who must love you,
To voyage a flood like this. No friend have I,
To whisper not of three, on whom to count
For such a loyal wash. The King himself      1480
Would entertain a kindly qualm or so,
Before he suffered such a burst of heaven
To splash even three musicians.”
 
        “Good Lionel,
I thank you, but you need afflict your fancy      1485
No longer for my sake. For these who come,
If I be not immoderately deceived,
Are bearing with them the white flower of peace—
Which I could hope might never parch or wither,
Were I a stranger to this ravening world      1490
Where we have mostly a few rags and tags
Between our skins and those that wrap the flesh
Of less familiar brutes we feed upon
That we may feed the more on one another.”
 
“Well, now that we have had your morning grace      1495
Before our morning meat, pray tell to me
The why and whence of this anomalous
Horse-riding offspring of the Fates. Who are they?”
 
“I do not read their features or their names;
But if I read the King, they are from Rome,      1500
Spurred here by the King’s prayer for no delay;
And I pray God aloud that I say true.”
And after a long watching, neither speaking,
“You do,” said Lionel; “for by my soul,
I see no other than my lord the Bishop,      1505
Who does God’s holy work in Rochester.
Since you are here, you may as well abide here,
While I go foraging.”
 
        Now in the gateway,
The Bishop, who rode something heavily,      1510
Was glad for rest though grim in his refusal
At once of entertainment or refection:
“What else you do, Sir Lancelot, receive me
As one among the honest when I say
That my voluminous thanks were less by cantos      1515
Than my damp manner feels. Nay, hear my voice:
If once I’m off this royal animal,
How o’ God’s name shall I get on again?
Moreover, the King waits. With your accord,
Sir Lancelot, I’ll dry my rainy face,      1520
While you attend what’s herein written down,
In language of portentous brevity,
For the King’s gracious pleasure and for yours,
Whereof the burden is the word of Rome,
Requiring your deliverance of the Queen      1525
Not more than seven days hence. The King returns
Anon to Camelot; and I go with him,
Praise God, if what he waits now is your will
To end an endless war. No recrudescence,
As you may soon remark, of what is past      1530
Awaits the Queen, or any doubt soever
Of the King’s mercy. Have you more to say
Than Rome has written, or do I perceive
Your tranquil acquiescence? Is it so?
Then be it so! Venite. Pax vobiscum.”      1535
“To end an endless war with ‘pax vobiscum’
Would seem a ready schedule for a bishop;
Would God that I might see the end of it!”
Lancelot, like a statue in the gateway,
Regarded with a qualified rejoicing      1540
The fading out of his three visitors
Into the cold and swallowing wall of storm
Between him and the battle-wearied King
And the unwearying hatred of Gawaine.
To Bors his nephew, and to Lionel,      1545
He glossed a tale of Roman intercession,
Knowing that for a time, and a long time,
The sweetest fare that he might lay before them
Would hold an evil taste of compromise.
To Guinevere, who questioned him at noon      1550
Of what by then had made of Joyous Gard
A shaken hive of legend-heavy wonder,
He said what most it was the undying Devil,
Who ruled him when he might, would have him say:
“Your confident arrangement of the board      1555
For this day’s game was notably not to be;
Today was not for the King’s move or mine,
But for the Bishop’s; and the board is empty.
The words that I have waited for more days
Than are to now my tallage of gray hairs      1560
Have come at last, and at last you are free.
So, for a time, there will be no more war;
And you are going home to Camelot.”
 
“To Camelot?”…
  “To Camelot.” But his words      1565
Were said for no queen’s hearing. In his arms
He caught her when she fell; and in his arms
He carried her away. The word of Rome
Was in the rain. There was no other sound.

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