Camelot

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Camelot

from: Camelot (Pp. 7 - 16)  Written 1917; published 1919

Dank fogs and foul mists from the poisoned deep
Thickened above strange pools, aglimmer
With shapeless white moons elf-dismembered, dimmer
Than snakes that through the sombre brushwood creep.
Where grey breaths mingled in slow dance
Men's faces flashed in one fierce glance.
The cold bleak fury of the sudden lance
Tore them like paper masks: so white
They vanished in the night.
A mad wind hurried from the east
Whirling afar the cloudgates fleeced.
The chill grey dawn spread out behind.
From clarion wild and throbbing tremulous drum
Went up a cry of Arthur come.
Proud, with proud princely lips, he rode
Where the dim-wreathèd vapours flowed.
Between the banners green and gold
Were calm bluff face and silent eyes
And thick lank hair driven red along the wind.
A thousand knights and spearmen bold
About their monarch tramped and wheeled.
The tangled lance, like bristles in black field,
Pierced the grey torment of the storm-swept skies.

O'er Camelot Town by trumpet sound
A white sun burnt like burnished brass,
And bronze-cheeked horsemen turban-crowned
O'er-swarmed the plain, and swept around
Speared thick as bladed grass.
A Queen they brought to Arthur's hand
To spare the wasting of their land.
Lo! stately amid white foaming ostrich plumes
Went ponderous elephants vermilion-dyed,
Pricked on by shrill calls from their oiled black grooms.
Then, in a golden tower's mauve-curtained pride,
Moved forth dark Guenivere to meet the King.
Her monster, by his Nubian driver reined,
Being knelt, two mutes drew back the tasselled string,
And opened to the wind's warm dallying:
Soft sensual carven face like ivory, stained
A warm tea-brown, rich carmine-painted cheeks,
Fading in smooth green where the shadow-streaks
Enfolded bulbous curves of purple lips,
And lustrous eyes like lacquered almond-slips
Set in a fringe of fine jet lashes, aglow
With dusky splendour. Whereupon right low
The King, ruthless no more, bent him in greeting,
While sombre horns and wailing kettledrums beating
Noised o'er the ground bass shouts of Arthur's men
A strange barbaric hum. Among the crowd
Great Launcelot (long, horse-cheeked, and swarthy-browed,
His black hair ringed with red gold) paused, drew rein,
Tamed the proud hoofs and turning in the way,
Towards Camelot's ivory gates, led back the wide array.

Through the lone temple courts boomed the loud gongs,
Harrying down dim ways (as winds that o'er
Grey flagstones drive the yellow beech-leaf throngs)
Quaint-motioned priests in mystic vestiture,
To where stood clumped, the innermost shrine before,
A phalanxed heap of knights, chanting response
To low crooned songs, like the myriad moan of gnats.
And ever anon as the bell of beaten bronze
Clanged out, the great round golden priestly hats
Swayed slowly forward to the crimson mats.
Forth leapt the Dusky Queen 'mid the host of them gathered.
Dancing she whirled her round, mocked with keen cries
Their muttered charms, their hierarch saffron-feathered,
Their great bronze mask. Forthwith the burning eyes
Of Galahad took the challenge. Gawaine the wise
Blazed up beside the throne in sudden wrath:
Whom Arthur with a look made pause. Ghost pale
Grew all men. Lo! on the wind, a fiery path
Trod by three flaming spirits. Rathe
Bore they against the King the Holy Grail:
Then fled. And where the sacred veil
Had hung behind the altar, a strange land lay
Beckoning men's inquisition. Unamazed,
Eager to cleanse their fane, three knights sprang up,
Pledged hilted swords to quest that cup,
Spurred steed and went forth on their threefold trail.
Then turned the King where Modred the prince, wry-faced,
Hugging his dreamed ideals, drew hood and gazed.

Sir Launcelot's soul moved in some Eastern world
O'er whose buff cliffs, trees cone-trunked, preened
Dark purplish bulks. Long trailing spray-lines greened,
Beaded with pink blooms, fell from willows gnarled,
Across a crimson mauve-flecked stream.
The tawny round sun, half adream
With nard, twixt violet poplars dropped its beam
On thick lush grass, whence rose a white
Slim naked girl, alight
With lemon, limmed with pink, who shed
Rich orange hair from her proud head.
But where he rode was dry curst ground.
Grey-bellied clouds went wallowing on all day.
No living thing he met, but lay
Ever brown dung on fields as bare
As chiselled copper, hedged in square
By straggling brushwoods, spiked with trees,
Not blighted like the roadway's stumps,
But crookt like crazy chimneys sweep's-broom crowned.
Dusk brought a rattling hail. His knees
Shook, and his bleeding face, ice-bit,
Fled screaming through the raw mad wind that split
His whole beer-coloured world to clod-like lumps.

A low moon filled the violet sky:
So red and pale it hung at dawn
It made the tall grass wave mast-high:
But when Sir Galahad spurred by
The red round moon was gone.
Beyond the slimy dust-green ford
An angel with a flaming sword
Smote him so that his hair lay flaxen-white
Across translucent brows. His twin blue eyes
Burnt like dark beads in that unearthly light.
Thence sprung an elvish world, where he saw rise
'Mid cloudy phantom-whorls, vast forms that strode
All dumbly through the gloom, till spectral foes
Entangling, slew them. Æons he abode
To learn the truth thereof. Far other rode
Gawaine (clipped black moustache, short parrot nose,
Brown mobile eyes and solid massive throat
Raised to a delicate chin) whose linked-mail coat
Bore brawny chest, and quick short sturdy limbs.
Gaily he went: snuffed the horizon's rims
Day in, day out. Sometimes great shouldering downs
Thrust broad half-tilted fields up, o'er whose crowns
Dense woodland sprawled, here green, here ochre, umbered
With sun. Thence flowed wide shades of blue. Lo! slumbered
Maroon-tiled cots, dark elms splashed on buff lanes!
Or again, between faint cloud-whifts, quivered blown
Bright brick-red trees, long, slim, and forward thrown
Lagging their branches, as a lady trains
Plumed fans in hastening. Last o'er Camelot black,
The blood-red sun flared out like a torch flame puffed back.
Silently through the open gates he passed.
The dark night eddied round him: only here
And there a glimmering flicker of lamplight cast
Pale yellow rays on tier by climbing tier
Of dim arcades and palaces built sheer
Against the stars. An unshaped monstrous dread
Stalked through his mind as he through that lone town.
Beside a green drawn blind with covered head
A figure moved, and stopped him. Looking down
He knew the Queen's face in that mask of brown,
With red dulled eyes weeping most piteously.
"Art thou come back," she cried, "Gawaine my Lord?
The King is in dire need. Ai, woe is me,
Such weird I drew upon him. Mark the abhorred
But now slew Isolde as we sat at cards
And taunted me with Launcelot's lust, that howls
Nightlong amid the streets with riotous pards
Stark mad, and dog-like rends the guards
Sent out to apprehend him. Modred prowls
With Mark among the filthy cowls
O' the lewd folk. One seeks friends, the other prey--
Tristram that loved the White Queen; even as I
Of old yon Launcelot, ere the doltish King"--
Hot Gawaine rose upon her blabbering.
"Thou gilded sow, wouldst thou the Throne befoul
With this vile ordure?" Towered his mace on high
And smashed her skull out like a poisoned fly.

A gust of wind drove on and shook the door
Wide open. Leaping red lights flung
Quick shapes on broken plaster walls, that bore
White guttered candles in wire sockets hung.
Gawaine beheld brute-faces bunched
Fierce-eyed, while two breathed wrestlers crunched
Hard sand with bare feet. One vast torso hunched,
Thick knotted red limbs tightly drawn,
Swayed like a hairy fawn
O'er his swart foe, who (with smooth skin
Dull ivory colour) wriggled in
And on a sudden thrust his knife
Sharp in his breast. The mighty Tristram fell
Ox-like to earth. They turned pell-mell
In flight, the babbling bousy crew.
King Mark, with purring eyes of blue
And earth-brown hair, slipped on his cloak
And went. But Gawaine seeing the place
Clear, one red moment sensed the coming strife.
That Mark or Modred from the Great King's yoke
Should think to purge the realm, made reel
His scorn. Therewith a dark shape clutched him. Steel
Flashed in his thigh. Moonwhite blazed Launcelot's face.

By massive columns ivory-ferned
Where clouds of floating perfume hung,
Rare spice o'er scented wines rich-urned
A thousand golden braziers burned,
While exquisitely rung
Strange liquid notes from mellow flutes
Played faintly for the miming mutes.
'Mid stools of sandal-wood in dim lit ring
White slaves and tawny silken cats stretched prone
O'er gorgeous Persian stuffs, where the Ancient King
Lay dreaming on his splendid sombre throne.
Along the ebon stairs, gold traceries
Wrought delicately. Whereby, quaintly garbed,
Three crooked dwarfs strove still to draw his eyes,
With ape-like mocks and garrulous mimicries,
By peacocks, under twisted bill-blades barbed.
A sudden cry broke out. The smart quick tread
Of hurrying men was heard. Lo! At their head
Modred the Prince with fifty torchbearers
Paced up before the King: spoke out with terse
Brief words the Kingdom's wrongs, since lust was now
Sole law. There stood he passionate, neck bent low,
Tense white face thrust against the King's, in cold
Contempt of all his doing. Arthur's hold
Stiffened upon his sword. "The Night goes ill,"
He cried, "When the bright moons flee!" And straightway, doffed
His plumed effeminacy, he towered aloft
Shouting his challenge through the great hall, until
Blow after fierce blow beat him to the ground. . .
When the red flames were dimmed, rank mist swirled all around.

      April, 1917.