The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere

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The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere

So Guinevere abode at Almesbury,
Clothed in the convent white and black, a nun,
And sore bewailing day by day the death
Of Arthur and his knights; bewailing, too,
Her fatal love of Lancelot, the cause
Of all this evil: day and night she mourn'd
And pray'd, a nun, and clothed in convent weeds.
Meanwhile the heavy tidings of the war
Reach'd Lancelot, where he dwelt beyond the sea,
And, with the tidings, prayer to come with speed
To succour Arthur, grievously bestead
By Mordred; and he hasted at the news
To England, there to rescue, if he might,
The king who made him knight; and scarce had reach'd
The shore before he learn'd the bitter end,
The death of Arthur, and the overthrow
Of all the knights, his fellows; learn'd also
How Guinevere had fled to Almesbury,
To dwell, a nun, in holy works and prayer.
Thither he follow'd, to behold once more
The face of her he loved and served so long;
And, entering there, he walk'd a little while
Within the cloister, waiting if the queen
Should summon him; and, as he walk'd, she saw
And knew him, sitting in her convent room,
Compass'd with nuns, and ladies who had fled
For shelter with their queen; and seeing him,
And calling sharply to her troubled mind
The present sorrow and the ancient joy,
And that long sin which turn'd the joy to bane,
She gave a shrill and sudden cry, and fell
Swooning amid her ladies and the nuns.
There as they held her, drooping, scarce alive,
With sighs she said: "Know ye what moved me so?
See, yonder in the cloister stands the knight,
Whom in my days of sin too well I loved.
Unhappy! for we brought this woe and shame
On Arthur and his realm. But now, I pray you,
Go one, and bid him hither come, that we
May speak together for this one last time."
And while her mind, o'erwrought, was wandering back
Amid the olden times,--the olden love,
The olden joy,--lo, Lancelot enter'd in;
And, with a hard resolve, that almost stay'd
Her pulse's beating, the queen nerved herself,
And turn'd her towards him; and he sprang unto her,
Stretching his arms to clasp her as of old:
But she withdrew a space, and fix'd her eyes
Upon him with a mournful look, which told
That all love's dalliance now was past for them:
And Lancelot check'd himself, still loyal to her,
And sank upon his knees, and took the hand
She yielded neither willing nor yet loth,
And kiss'd it, as a subject his queen's hand;
Then raised his eyes, and saw her face, how changed!
How, how unlike the Guinevere of old,
Her whom he brought so long ago to be
The bride of Arthur, but who loved himself
With love no bonds of duty could withstand:
For whom so oft he won the prize, in jousts
And battles numberless, and made her famed,
The fairest queen loved by the bravest knight!
O then how fair, when her dark passionate eyes
Shot through his arm the strength of fifty men,
And her long hair, in wealth of silken gold,
Caught the sun's light, and stream'd upon her face
The glory of an angel! Now her eye
Was dim with sorrow, and her face, all wan,
And paler for the convent white and black,
Seem'd not queen Guinevere's, and her long hair
Was gather'd up, and hid beneath her weeds.
Yet never had he loved her more, not then,
When, in the pride of beauty and of youth,
She sat at tourneyment to give the prize,
Queen of the land, and queen in beauty more;
For awe and sorrow now were mix'd with love,
And made it greater and a holier thing,
Filling their souls, though never, never more
Should they two know love's dalliance as of old.
Thus for awhile in silence they remain'd,
Till first she spoke, with voice all faint with grief,
Yet free from tears. "Lancelot, is't thus we meet
After such absence? Yet how otherwise?
How else should we two meet, whose passion wrought
Woe and confusion througout all the land,
And death to many a knight; death, too, at last
To my lord Arthur? Yea, even meet we so,
For so 'tis fit; and this, too, is a part
Of that long penance I have doom'd myself,
Through all my life to to mourn the sinful past,
And make amends, if that be granted yet:
For it is bitter, Lancelot, to meet thus;
Bitter as dying, sharp as death itself,
That we should meet so, who once loved so well,
And fill'd our souls with all the joys of love.
But let that go, even as our love is gone,
And help me now to wail that olden sin.
And yet I understand it not, nor know
How love could be so changed to guilt and shame,
That is so high and holy in itself.
Nor understood I Arthur in those days,
Nor know him wholly now. Was he, so cold,
Although so pure, who gave me half his love,
Nobler than thou, who gav'st me all thy heart
And service,--truest service, faithful heart,
Though given to one who should have wholly been
Another's? If my love was due to him,--
As due it was,--why cared he not to win it
By equal love? Or understand, at least,
A woman's love must ever so be won,
Or cannot be entirely given? not bought
By rank, nor forced by duty,--won by love,
Love only. Is't unlawful that a man
Should yield up to a woman all his soul,
But must he cherish in his inner thoughts
Some great ideal, holding it more dear
Than the frail woman whom he vow'd to honour,
Whose faults and weaknesses he knows, so far
Beneath the ideal? Why, then, ask our love
Entire for such half love? A sad lot, sure;
To give so much, yet win so little back.
But thou didst love me as I would be loved;
Didst give me all thy heart, nor think it scorn,
Although thou wast the best and bravest knight
In all the world. What woman had not given
Her heart in turn, as I did give thee mine?
Unhappy! yes, unhappy I who loved,
And thou who wast beloved; but God He knows,
Not all, all guilty, though so wild and weak.
But now at length this earthly love is past:
See'st thou these weeds? Do they not fit this face,
So wan with sorrow? Grieve not therefore thou;
Nor me too well remember in the days
Already come,--the new life we shall both
Live, though apart; nor yet forget me quite;
But think of me as one dead and at rest.
Go therefore to thy land beyond the sea;
There take a wife, and live with her in peace;
And this old, worn, unhappy love of ours,
Yea, let us leave it, though so late, to God,
To perish, as perchance 'tis meet and just,
Or live again in some more happy life,
Where love no more will be at war with right."
Here ceasing, on the ground she fix'd her look,
Yet seem'd to see, as in a trance or dream,
Lancelot, kneeling still; and thus awhile
They both remain'd, nor either spoke a word;
Till Lancelot, lifting up his heavy eyes,
Still on his knees, and holding still her hand,
Spoke, in a voice that scarce found way for tears.
"O lady, Guinevere, my queen, my love,
What shall I say? for what remains to say?
So nobly hast thou spoken, still as ever
Nobler, my queen, a thousand times than I.
One thing thou bidd'st me that I cannot do:
Leave thee, God knows, I must; but wed, while thee,
Thee I love still, that will I never do.
More joy to me it were to cherish still
The memory of thy love, though mix'd with grief,
Than, wedded to another, find with her
The sweetest life that ever lovers found.
Nor doubt our love will bring such joy in grief,
Such sweetness of past sorrow overcome,
As will o'erpass the joys of love less true,
Less perfect. For be sure, whatever shame
May cling to love, and dim its purity,
Will pass away, if but the love remain,
And leave it in its native brightness, pure,
Unsullied as the floor and roof of heaven.
Hold thou this faith; and I will follow thee,
And hide me from the world, and take upon me
A holy life, that I may mourn the sin
Which stain'd our love in those our earthly days;
And, most of all, that I may pray for thee,
That, come what may, thou may'st be ever blest."
Thus having spoke, he rose up from his knees,
And would have kiss'd her, but she still withdrew,
And check'd him: then they look'd upon each other
With eyes that could not take their fill; for both
Knew either should see other never more.
And Guinevere no longer check'd her tears,
But wept and sobb'd as if her heart would break:
Then on a sudden, looking through their mist,
She saw but blankness; all her world was gone,
And those grey convent-walls were but a tomb:
Till, smiting sharply through her aching brain,
A sickness flash'd, and pain itself was lost.