The Last Ballad

Print

The Last Ballad

by: John Davidson (Author)
from: The Last Ballad and Other Poems (Pp. 1 - 23)  1899

By coasts where scalding deserts reek,
   The apanages of despair;
In outland wilds, by firth and creek,
   O'er icy bournes of silver air;

In storm or calm delaying not,
   To every noble task addressed,
Year after year, Sir Lancelot
   Fulfilled King Arthur's high behest.

He helped the helpless ones; withstood
   Tyrants and sanctioners of vice;
He rooted out the dragon brood,
   And overthrew false deities.

Alone with his own soul, alone
   With life and death, with day and night,
His thought and strength grew great and shone
   A tongue of flame, a sword of light.

And yet not all alone. On high,
   When midnight set the spaces free,
And brimming stars hung from the sky
   Low down, and spilt their jewellery,

Behind the nightly squandered fire,
   Through a dark lattice only seen
By love, a look of rapt desire
   Fell from a vision of the Queen.

From heaven she bent when twilight knit
   The dusky air and earth in one;
He saw her like a goddess sit
   Enthroned upon the noonday sun.

In passages of gulfs and sounds,
   When wild winds dug the sailor's grave,
When clouds and billows merged their bounds,
   And the keel climbed the slippery wave,

A sweet sigh laced the tempest; nay,
   Low at his ear he heard her speak;
Among the hurtling sheaves of spray
   Her loosened tresses swept his cheek.

And in the revelry of death,
   If human greed of slaughter cast
Remorse aside, a violet breath,
   The incense of her being passed

Across his soul, and deeply swayed
   The fount of pity; o'er the strife
He curbed the lightning of his blade,
   And gave the foe his forfeit life.

Low on the heath, or on the deck,
   In bloody mail or wet with brine,
Asleep he saw about her neck
   The wreath of gold and rubies shine;

He saw her brows, her lovelit face,
   And on her cheek one passionate tear;
He felt in dreams the rich embrace,
   The beating heart of Guinevere.

"Visions that haunt my couch, my path,
   Although the waste, unfathomed sea
Should rise against me white with wrath
   I must behold her verily,

"Once ere I die," he said, and turned
   Westward his faded silken sails
From isles where cloudy mountains burned,
   And north to Severn-watered Wales.

Beside the Usk King Arthur kept
   His Easter court, a glittering rout.
But Lancelot, because there swept
   A passion of despair throughout

His being, when he saw once more
   The sky that canopied, the tide
That girdled Guinevere, forebore
   His soul's desire, and wandered wide

In unknown seas companionless,
   Eating his heart, until by chance
He drifted into Lyonesse,
   The wave-worn kingdom of romance.

He leapt ashore and watched his barque
   Unmastered stagger to its doom;
Then doffed his arms and fled baresark
   Into the forest's beckoning gloom.

The exceeding anguish of his mind
   Had broken him. "King Arthur's trust,"
He cried; "ignoble, fateful, blind!
   Her love and my love, noxious lust!

"Dupes of our senses! Let us eat
   In caverns fathoms underground,
Alone, ashamed! To sit at meat
   In jocund throngs?—the most profound

"Device of life the mountebank,
   Vendor of gilded ashes! Steal
From every sight to use the rank
   And loathsome needs that men conceal;

"And crush and drain in curtained beds
   The clusters called of love; but feed
With garlanded uplifted heads;
   Invite the powers that sanction greed

"To countenance the revel; boast
   Of hunger, thirst; be drunken; claim
Indulgence to the uttermost,
   Replenishing the founts of shame!"

He gathered berries, efts, and snails,
   Sorrel, and new-burst hawthorn leaves;
Uprooted with his savage nails
   Earth-nuts; and under rocky eaves

Shamefast devoured them, out of sight
   In darkness, lest the eye of beast,
Or bird, or star, or thing of night
   Uncouth, unknown, should watch him feast.

At noon in twilight depths of pine
   He heard the word Amaimon spoke;
He saw the pallid, evil sign
   The wred-eld lit upon the oak.

The viper loitered in his way;
   The minx looked up with bloodshot leer;
Ill-meaning fauns and lamiae
   With icy laughter flitted near.

But if he came upon a ring
   Of sinless elves, and crept unseen
Beneath the brake to hear them sing,
   And watch them dancing on the green,

They touched earth with their finger-tips;
   They ceased their roundelay; they laid
A seal upon their elfin lips
   And vanished in the purple shade.

At times he rent the dappled flank
   Of some fair creature of the chase,
Mumbled its flesh, or growling drank
   From the still-beating heart, his face

And jowl ruddled, and in his hair
   And beard, blood-painted straws and burs,
While eagles barked screening the air,
   And wolves that were his pensioners.

Sometimes at night his mournful cry
   Troubled all waking things; the mole
Dived to his deepest gallery;
   The vixen from the moonlit knoll

Passed like a shadow underground,
   And the mad satyr in his lair
Whined bodeful at the world-old sound
   Of inarticulate despair.

Sir Lancelot, beloved of men!
   The ancient earth gat hold of him;
A year was blotted from his ken
   In the enchanted forest dim.

At Easter when the thorn beset
   The bronzing wood with silver sprays,
And hyacinth and violet
   Empurpled all the russet ways;

When buttercup and daffodil
   A stainless treasure-trove unrolled,
And cowslips had begun to fill
   Their chalices with sweeter gold,

He heard a sound of summer rush
   By swarthy grove and kindled lawn;
He heard, he sighed to hear the thrush
   Singing alone before the dawn.

Forward he stalked with eyes on fire
   Like one who keeps in sound and sight
An angel with celestial lyre
   Descanting rapturous delight.

He left behind the spell-bound wood;
   He saw the branchless air unfurled;
He climbed a hill and trembling stood
   Above the prospect of the world.

With lustre in its bosom pent
   From many a shining summer day
And harvest moon, the wan sea leant
   Against a heaven of iron-grey.

Inland on the horizon beat
   And flickered, drooping heavily,
A fervid haze, a vaporous heat,
   The dusky eyelid of the sky.

White ways, white gables, russet thatch
   Fretted the green and purple plain;
The herd undid his woven latch;
   The bleating flock went forth again;

The skylarks uttered lauds and prime;
   The sheep-bells rang from hill to hill;
The cuckoo pealed his mellow chime;
   The orient bore a burden shrill.

His memory struggled half awake;
   Dimly he groped within to see
What star, what sun, what light should break
   And set his darkened spirit free.

But from without deliverance came:
   Afar he saw a horseman speed,
A knight, a spirit clad in flame
   Riding upon a milkwhite steed.

For now the sun had quenched outright
   The clouds and all their working charms,
Marshalled his legionary light,
   And fired the rider's golden arms.

Softly the silver billows flowed;
   Beneath the hill the emerald vale
Dipped seaward; on the burnished road
   The milkwhite steed, the dazzling mail

Advanced and flamed against the wind;
   And Lancelot, his body rent
With the fierce trial of his mind
   To know, reeled down the steep descent.

Remembrances of battle plied
   His soul with ruddy beams of day.
"A horse! a lance! to arms!" he cried,
   And stood there weeping in the way.

"Speak!" said the knight. "What man are you?"
   "I know not yet. Surely of old
I rode in arms, and fought and slew
   In jousts and battles manifold."

Oh, wistfully he drew anear,
   Fingered the reins, the jewelled sheath;
With rigid hand he grasped the spear,
   And shuddering whispered, "Life and death,

"Love, lofty deeds, renown—did these
   Attend me once in days unknown?"
With courtesy, with comely ease,
   And brows that like his armour shone,

The golden knight dismounting took
   Sir Lancelot by the hand and said,
"Your voice of woe, your lonely look
   As of a dead man whom the dead

"Themselves cast out—whence are they, friend?"
   Sir Lancelot a moment hung
In doubt, then knelt and made an end
   Of all his madness, tensely strung

In one last effort to be free
   Of evil things that wait for men
In secret, strangle memory,
   And shut the soul up in their den.

"Spirit," he said, "I know your eyes:
   They bridge with light the heavy drift
Of years. . . . A woman said, 'Arise;
   And if you love the Queen, be swift!'

"The token was an emerald chased
   In gold, once mine. Wherefore I rode
At dead of night in proudest haste
   To Payarne where the Queen abode.

"A crafty witch gave me to drink:
   Almost till undern of the morn
Silent, in darkness. . . . When I think
   It was not Guinevere, self-scorn

"Cuts to the marrow of my bones,
   A blade of fire. Can wisdom yield
No mood, no counsel, that atones
   For wasted love! . . . Heaven had revealed

"That she should bear a child to me
   My bed-mate said. . . . Yet am I mad?
The offspring of that treachery!
   The maiden kngiht! You—Galahad,

"My son, who make my trespass dear!"
   His look released his father's thought—
The darkling orbs of Guinevere;
   For so had Lancelot's passion wrought.

With tenderer tears than women shed
   Sir Galahad held his father fast.
"Now I shall be your squire," he said.
   But Lancelot fought him long. At last

The maiden gently overpowered
   The man. Upon his milkwhite steed
He brought him where a castle towered
   Midmost a green enamelled mead;

And clothed his body, clothed his heart
   In human garniture once more.
"My father, bid me now depart.
   I hear beside the clanging shore,

"Above the storm, or in the wind,
   Outland, or on the old Roman street,
A chord of music intertwined
   From wandering tones deep-hued and sweet.

"Afar or near, at noon, at night,
   The braided sound attends and fills
My soul with peace, as heaven with light
   O'erflows when morning crowns the hills.

"And with the music, seen or hid,
   A blood-rose on the palace lawn,
A fount of crimson, dark amid
   The stains and glories of the dawn;

"Above the city's earthly hell
   A token ominous of doom,
A cup on fire and terrible
   With thunders in its ruddy womb;

"But o'er the hamlet's fragrant smoke,
   The dance and song at eventide,
A beating heart, the gentle yoke
   Of life the bridegroom gives the bride;

"A ruby shadow on the snow;
   A flower, a lamp—through every veil
And mutable device I know,
   And follow still the Holy Grail

"Until God gives me my new name
   Empyreal, and the quest be done."
Then like a spirit clad in flame,
   He kissed his father and was gone.

Long gazed Sir Lancelot on the ground
   Tormented till benign repose
Enveloped him in depths profound
   Of sweet oblivion. When he rose

The bitterest was past. "And I
   Shall follow now the Holy Grail,
Seen, or unseen, until I die:
   My very purpose shall avail

"My soul," he said. By day, by night,
   He rode abroad, his vizor up;
With sun and moon his vehement sight
   Fought for a vision of the cup—

In vain. For evermore on high
   When darkness set the spaces free,
And brimming stars hung from the sky
   Low down, and spilt their jewellery,

Behind the nightly squandered fire,
   Through a dim lattice only seen
By love, a look of rapt desire
   Fell from a vision of the Queen.

From heaven she bent when twilight knit
   The dusky air and earth in one;
He saw her like a goddess sit
   Enthroned upon the noonday sun.

Wherefore he girt himself again:
   In lawless towns and savage lands,
He overthrew unrighteous men,
   Accomplishing the King's commands.

In passages of gulfs and sounds
   When wild winds dug the sailor's grave,
When clouds and billows merged their bounds,
   And the keel climbed the slippery wave,

A sweet sigh laced the tempest; nay,
   Low at his ear he heard her speak;
Among the hurtling sheaves of spray
   Her loosened tresses swept his cheek.

And in the revelry of death,
   If human greed of slaughter cast
Remorse aside, a violet breath,
   The incense of her being passed

Across his soul, and deeply swayed
   The fount of pity; o'er the strife
He curbed the lightning of his blade,
   And gave the foe his forfeit life.

His love, in utter woe annealed,
   Escaped the furnace, sweet and clear—
His love that on the world had sealed
   The look, the soul of Guinevere.
Additional Information:
Later retitled "A Ballad of Lancelot" in Selected Poems, London: John Lane, 1904, pp. 55-69.