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   English Poetry III: From Tennyson to Whitman.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
727. The Defence of Guenevere
 
William Morris (1834–1896)
 
 
BUT, knowing now that they would have her speak,
She threw her wet hair backward from her brow,
Her hand close to her mouth touching her cheek,
 
As though she had had there a shameful blow,
And feeling it shameful to feel aught but shame        5
All through her heart, yet felt her cheek burned so,
 
She must a little touch it; like one lame
She walked away from Gauwaine, with her head
Still lifted up; and on her cheek of flame
 
The tears dried quick; she stopped at last and said:        10
“O knights and lords, it seems but little skill
To talk of well-known things past now and dead.
 
“God wot I ought to say, I have done ill,
And pray you all forgiveness heartily!
Because you must be right, such great lords; still        15
 
“Listen, suppose your time were come to die,
And you were quite alone and very weak;
Yea, laid a dying while very mightily
 
“The wind was ruffling up the narrow streak
Of river through your broad lands running well:        20
Suppose a hush should come, then some one speak:
 
“‘One of these cloths is heaven, and one is hell,
Now choose one cloth for ever; which they be,
I will not tell you, you must somehow tell
 
“‘Of your own strength and mightiness; here, see!’        25
Yea, yea, my lord, and you to ope your eyes,
At foot of your familiar bed to see
 
“A great God’s angel standing, with such dyes,
Not known on earth, on his great wings, and hands,
Held out two ways, light from the inner skies        30
 
“Showing him well, and making his commands
Seem to be God’s commands, moreover, too,
Holding within his hands the cloths on wands;
 
“And one of these strange choosing cloths was blue,
Wavy and long, and one cut short and red;        35
No man could tell the better of the two.
 
“After a shivering half-hour you said:
‘God help! heaven’s color, the blue;’ and he said, ‘hell.’
Perhaps you would then roll upon your bed,
 
“And cry to all good men that loved you well,        40
‘Ah Christ! if only I had known, known, known;’
Launcelot went away, then I could tell,
 
“Like wisest man how all things would be, moan,
And roll and hurt myself, and long to die,
And yet fear much to die for what was sown.        45
 
“Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,
Whatever may have happened through these years,
God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.”
 
Her voice was low at first, being full of tears,
But as it cleared, it grew full loud and shrill,        50
Growing a windy shriek in all men’s ears,
 
A ringing in their startled brains, until
She said that Gauwaine lied, then her voice sunk,
And her great eyes began again to fill,
 
Though still she stood right up, and never shrunk,        55
But spoke on bravely, glorious lady fair!
Whatever tears her full lips may have drunk,
 
She stood, and seemed to think, and wrung her hair,
Spoke out at last with no more trace of shame,
With passionate twisting of her body there:        60
 
“It chanced upon a day that Launcelot came
To dwell at Arthur’s court: at Christmastime
This happened; when the heralds sung his name,
 
“Son of King Ban of Benwick, seemed to chime
Along with all the bells that rang that day,        65
O’er the white roofs, with little change of rhyme.
 
“Christmas and whitened winter passed away,
And over me the April sunshine came,
Made very awful with black hail-clouds, yea
 
“And in the Summer I grew white with flame,        70
And bowed my head down: Autumn, and the sick
Sure knowledge things would never be the same,
 
“However often Spring might be most thick
Of blossoms and buds, smote on me, and I grew
Careless of most things, let the clock tick, tick,        75
 
“To my unhappy pulse, that beat right through
My eager body; while I laughed out loud,
And let my lips curl up at false or true,
 
“Seemed cold and shallow without any cloud.
Behold, my judges, then the cloths were brought;        80
While I was dizzied thus, old thoughts would crowd
 
“Belonging to the time ere I was bought
By Arthur’s great name and his little love;
Must I give up for ever then, I thought,
 
“That which I deemed would ever round me move,        85
Glorifying all things; for a little word,
Scarce ever meant at all, must I now prove
 
“Stone-cold for ever? Pray you, does the Lord
Will that all folks should be quite happy and good?
I love God now a little, if this cord        90
 
“Were broken, once for all what striving could
Make me love anything in earth or heaven?
So day by day it grew, as if one should
 
“Slip slowly down some path worn smooth and even,
Down to a cool sea on a summer day;        95
Yet still in slipping there was some small leaven
 
“Of stretched hands catching small stones by the way,
Until one surely reached the sea at last,
And felt strange new joy as the worn head lay
 
“Back, with the hair like sea-weed; yea all past        100
Sweat of the forehead, dryness of the lips,
Washed utterly out by the dear waves o’ercast,
 
“In the lone sea, far off from any ships!
Do I not know now of a day in Spring?
No minute of that wild day ever slip        105
 
“From out my memory; I hear thrushes sing,
And wheresoever I may be, straightway
Thoughts of it all come up with most fresh sting:
 
“I was half mad with beauty on that day,
And went without my ladies all alone,        110
In a quiet garden walled round every way;
 
“I was right joyful of that wall of stone,
That shut the flowers and trees up with the sky,
And trebled all the beauty: to the bone,
 
“Yea right through to my heart, grown very shy        115
With wary thoughts, it pierced, and made me glad;
Exceedingly glad, and I knew verily,
 
“A little thing just then had made me mad;
I dared not think, as I was wont to do,
Sometimes, upon my beauty; If I had        120
 
“Held out my long hand up against the blue,
And, looking on the tenderly darken’d fingers,
Thought that by rights one ought to see quite through,
 
“There, see you, where the soft still light yet lingers
Round by the edges; what should I have done,        125
If this had joined with yellow spotted singers,
 
“And startling green drawn upward by the sun?
But shouting, loosed out, see now! all my hair,
And trancedly stood watching the west wind run
 
“With faintest half-heard breathing sound: why there        130
I lose my head e’en now in doing this;
But shortly listen: In that garden fair
 
“Came Launcelot walking; this is true, the kiss
Wherewith we kissed in meeting that spring day,
I scarce dare talk of the remember’d bliss,        135
 
“When both our mouths went wandering in one way,
And aching sorely, met among the leaves;
Our hands being left behind strained far away.
 
“Never within a yard of my bright sleeves
Had Launcelot come before: and now so nigh!        140
After that day why is it Guenevere grieves?
 
“Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,
Whatever happened on through all those years,
God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.
 
“Being such a lady could I weep these tears        145
If this were true? A great queen such as I
Having sinn’d this way, straight her conscience sears;
 
“And afterwards she liveth hatefully,
Slaying and poisoning, certes never weeps:
Gauwaine be friends now, speak me lovingly,        150
 
“Do I not see how God’s dear pity creeps
All through your frame, and trembles in your mouth?
Remember in what grave your mother sleeps,
 
“Buried in some place far down in the south
Men are forgetting as I speak to you;        155
By her head sever’d in that awful drouth
 
“Of pity that drew Agravaine’s fell blow,
I pray your pity! let me not scream out
For ever after, when the shrill winds blow
 
“Through half your castle-locks! let me not shout        160
For ever after in the winter night
When you ride out alone! in battle-rout
 
“Let not my rusting tears make your sword light!
Ah! God of mercy, how he turns away!
So, ever must I dress me to the fight,        165
 
“So: let God’s justice work! Gauwaine, I say,
See me hew down your proofs: yea all men know
Even as you said how Mellyagraunce one day,
 
“One bitter day in la Fausse Garde, for so
All good knights held it after, saw:        170
Yea, sirs, by cursed unknightly outrage; though
 
“You, Gauwaine, held his word without a flaw.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .
Not so, fair lords, even if the world should end
 
“This very day, and you were judges here        175
Instead of God. Did you see Mellyagraunce
When Launcelot stood by him? what white fear
 
“Curdled his blood, and how his teeth did dance,
His side sink in? as my knight cried and said:
‘Slayer of unarm’d men, here is a chance!        180
 
“‘Setter of traps, I pray you guard your head,
By God I am so glad to fight with you,
Stripper of ladies, that my hand feels lead
 
“‘For driving weight; hurrah now! draw and do,
For all my wounds are moving in my breast,        185
And I am getting mad with waiting so.’
 
“He struck his hands together o’er the beast,
Who fell down flat, and grovell’d at his feet,
And groan’d at being slain so young: ‘At least,
 
“My knight said, ‘Rise you, sir, who are so fleet        190
At catching ladies, half-arm’d will I fight,
My left side all uncovered!’ then I weet,
 
“Up sprang Sir Mellyagraunce with great delight
Upon his knave’s face; not until just then
Did I quite hate him, as I saw my knight        195
 
“Along the lists look to my stake and pen
With such a joyous smile, it made me sigh
From agony beneath my waist-chain, when
 
“The fight began, and to me they drew nigh;
Ever Sir Launcelot kept him on the right,        200
And traversed warily, and ever high
 
“And fast leapt caitiff’s sword, until my knight
Sudden threw up his sword to his left hand,
Caught it and swung it; that was all the fight;
 
“Except a spout of blood on the hot land,        205
For it was hottest summer; and I know
I wonder’d how the fire, while I should stand,
 
“And burn, against the heat, would quiver so,
Yards above my head; thus these matters went,
Which things were only warnings of the woe        210
 
“That fell on me. Yet Mellyagraunce was shent,
For Mellyagraunce had fought against the Lord;
Therefore, my lords, take heed lest you be blent
 
“With all his wickedness; say no rash word
Against me, being so beautiful; my eyes        215
Wept all away to gray, may bring some sword
 
“To drown you in your blood; see my breast rise
Like waves of purple sea, as here I stand;
And how my arms are moved in wonderful wise,
 
“Yea also at my full heart’s strong command,        220
See through my long throat how the words go up
In ripples to my mouth; how in my hand
 
“The shadow lies like wine within a cup
Of marvellously color’d gold; yea now
This little wind is rising, look you up,        225
 
“And wonder how the light is falling so
Within my moving tresses: will you dare
When you have looked a little on my brow,
 
“To say this thing is vile? or will you care
For any plausible lies of cunning woof,        230
Where you can see my face with no lie there
 
“For ever? am I not a gracious proof?—
‘But in your chamber Launcelot was found’—
Is there a good knight then would stand aloof,
 
“When a queen says with gentle queenly sound:        235
‘O true as steel, come now and talk with me,
I love to see your step upon the ground
 
“‘Unwavering, also well I love to see
That gracious smile light up your face, and hear
Your wonderful words, that all mean verily        240
 
“‘The thing they seem to mean: good friend, so dear
To me in everything, come here to-night,
Or else the hours will pass most dull and drear;
 
“‘If you come not, I fear this time I might
Get thinking over much of times gone by,        245
When I was young, and green hope was in sight:
 
“‘For no man cares now to know why I sigh;
And no man comes to sing me pleasant songs,
Nor any brings me the sweet flowers that lie
 
“‘So thick in the gardens; therefore one so longs        250
To see you, Launcelot; that we may be
Like children once again, free from all wrongs
 
“‘Just for one night.’ Did he not come to me?
What thing could keep true Launcelot away
If I said, ‘Come?’ there was one less than three        255
 
“In my quiet room that night, and we were gay;
Till sudden I rose up, weak, pale, and sick,
Because a bawling broke our dream up, yea
 
“I looked at Launcelot’s face and could not speak,
For he looked helpless too, for a little while;        260
Then I remember how I tried to shriek,
 
“And could not, but fell down; from tile to tile
The stones they threw up rattled o’er my head
And made me dizzier; till within a while
 
“My maids were all about me, and my head        265
On Launcelot’s breast was being soothed away
From its white chattering, until Launcelot said:…
 
“By God! I will not tell you more to-day,
Judge any way you will: what matters it?
You know quite well the story of that fray,        270
 
“How Launcelot still’d their bawling, the mad fit
That caught up Gauwaine, all, all, verily,
But just that which would save me; these things flit.
 
“Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,
Whatever may have happen’d these long years,        275
God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie!
 
“All I have said is truth, by Christ’s dear tears.”
She would not speak another word, but stood
Turn’d sideways; listening, like a man who hears
 
His brother’s trumpet sounding through the wood        280
Of his foes’ lances. She leaned eagerly,
And gave a slight spring sometimes, as she could
 
At last hear something really; joyfully
Her cheek grew crimson, as the headlong speed
Of the roan charger drew all men to see,        285
The knight who came was Launcelot at good need.
 

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