Merlin and the White Death


Merlin and the White Death

from: Once a Week (251 - 252)  February 20, 1864


DARKLY I sought, in shade and sun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
Long days I journeyed, fearing not,
     Through forests dark, by waters dire;
And far behind me Camelot
     Sank to its topmost spire.
Ay, wingëd as the summer wind,
I left the haunts of men behind:
By waters dire, through forests dark,
Under the white moon's silver arc;
O'er hill, down valley, far away,
Toward the sunset gathering gray,
               I, Merlin, fled,—
With aged limbs and hoary hair,
Arm'd with strange amulets to snare
The peerless Water-Witch, whose head
With lilies of sleep is garlanded,
     Under the earth and air,—
And all the viewless lures to break
Of that pale Lady of the Lake.


Swiftly I near'd her region dun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
Till, lastly, trees of hugest height,
     Below them, flowers of poppy red,
And weird deep whisperings of the night,
     And breezes dropping dead,
Closed round my path; while in the sky
The moon shone like a great white eye
That watched me through a belt of cloud,—
What time, with head and shoulders bowed,
And lips that mutter'd unaware,
I gained the haunted region where
          White Uniun dwells;
And far away, through forest trees,
I caught a gleam like moonlit seas—
A glassy gleam of silver swells,—
The lake rimm'd round with lily-bells,
     Unstirr'd by rain or breeze;—
And trembled on, my own to make
The matchless Lady of the Lake.


Nor safely wooed, nor lightly won,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
She dwells within her weed-hung cave,
     Deep in the green moon-lighted water,
She glimmers in the whispering wave—
     A demon's awful daughter!
White, white as snow her oozy dress,
White as her face's loveliness;
Supple her boneless limbs as snakes,
And full of radiance, such as breaks
Around the cestus of a star,
And strange as eyes of serpents are
          Her haunting eyes;
And she had power, as stars aver,
To make the wight who conquered her
More young, and beautiful, and wise,
For good and ill, and great emprize,
     Than all men else that stir;
Wherefore I sought to win and take
This matchless Lady of the Lake!


Colder than ice her blood doth run,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
Pitiless to all things that range
     Below her, near her, or above,
Till, by some marvel dark and strange,
     She learn at last to love;
Knight after knight had thither gone,
Led by fierce impulse plunging on
To something that he loved with dread,
And each in turn been conquerëd;
Yea, each in turn been held and snared
By the pale syren, silver-hair'd,
          Whom all men fear!
And side by side they lay at rest,
With folded hands upon the breast,
On beds of weed and darnel drear,
And foam-bells hung in every ear,
     And all in white were drest,
And all were watch'd till they should wake
By the pale Lady of the Lake.


Potent her spells in shade or sun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
Wherefore I, Merlin, old but strong,
     Sweeping my breast with hoary beard,
Skill'd in deep signs and magic song,
     Much honour'd and revered,
Vow'd, with a wise man's purpose stern,
To face the Water-Witch, and learn
What wondrous arts, unknown to me,
What superhuman witchery,
She used, those sleepers to enslave
That rested in her ocean cave,
          Nor felt, nor heard;
Nay, vowed by her strange love to free
My soul for immortality,
To woo her darkly, till I heard
The sigh of love, the whisper'd word
     That proved her love for me!
And then for aye her spells to break,
The wondrous Lady of the Lake.


Thus arm'd, I near'd her region dun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
I passed from out the forests old,
     And, 'tween two faintly purple hills,
Saw the smooth waters glitter cold,
     And throb with silvery thrills:
Under a heaven glassy gray,
Bare to the ghastly moon they lay.
And on their marge great lilies heaved,
Slimed with the water-snakes, huge-leaved
And monstrous, floating scores on scores,
With fire-sparks burning in their cores—
          Like eyes of flame;
Afar across the lake there passed
Great shadows, multiform and vast,
That with low murmurs went and came;
And crawling things, stingless and tame,
     Came creeping thick and fast
Upon me, as I silence brake
With, "Rise, white Phantom of the Lake!


"The time has come, thy spells are spun,
Fair Uniun, pale Uniun!
And, lo! with hands uplifted thus,
     I weave a spell of strange device,
To awe thine eyes soul-perilous,
     And thaw thy blood of ice!"
Then, like a hum of waterfalls,
I heard a voice, "Who calls, who calls?"
And, standing on the water's brim,
With heart stone-still and brain a-swim,
I wove the spell of strange device,
With whirling arms I wove it thrice,
          And audibly.
From the deep silence of the flood,
The answer smote me where I stood,—
"Who summons me, who summons me?"
And, straining dizzy eyes to see,
     With fingers gushing blood,
I shrieked aloud, "Awake! awake!
Thou white-faced