The Return of Arthur

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The Return of Arthur

by: Irvine Graff (Author)
from: The Return of Arthur  1922

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     All manner of fascinating legends cluster about the name of Arthur, the Celtic hero of far-off days, who made forever memorable a corner of England which is now Cornwall, but which in early history formed a part of Wales. It was while I was a child that the legend concerning Arthur's return fired my imagination so that it straightway set forth on a quest which was destined to continue for years. With my enthusiasm kindled by the inscription on Arthur's tomb at Glastonbury: "Hic jacet Arthurus rex quondam rexque futurus," I searched the pages of English history from Arthur's day to our own, but I failed to discover the individual who fulfilled my conception of the King.
     Eventually the idea developed that in my own day Arthur might return. There was nothing definite about his at first; it signified rather a groping into the future for the final act of an unfinished drama of the past.
     The Great War, instead of giving new impulse to my quest for Arthur, blotted him for the time from my mind. Yet in England where my friend and I chanced to be in August, that agonizing August, of 1914, as the tumultuous weeks passed, one of the most incredible things to witness at this altogether incredible time was the organization, or rather the creation of Kitchener's "Mob," an army tumbled together with magical swiftness from every corner of England, an army unversed in everything military save honor and splendor of spirit,—the scorn of super-drilled German divisions, the salvation of a reeling world. It was Kitchener, "the master personality of his time," who called this army into being. Yet it was not until long after Kitchener's tragic death that revelation flashed blindingly upon me.
     "The Return of Arthur" marks the end of my quest. However unworthy, the poem is designed as a tribute from an American to England.

--Irvine Graff.
July 28, 1922.
"Arturus rex quondam rexque futurus."
                              
                                 I.

My home's in Cornwall. That's the place for me!
No other spot in England equals it.
Cornwall comes first; my second love—the sea.
My mother thought I'd find home dull a bit;
So, even though she had the fire all it,
She gave a little cry when I walked in,
Thinking, of my two loves, the sea would surely win.

I flung my cap onto the window-seat,
Then waltzed my little mother up and down
Until she begged me to be more discreet.
Through all her quivering joy she tried to frown
And light-heartedly I was forced to drown
Her protests with a smothering kiss, and so
Knocked her lace cap awry and set her pale cheeks aglow.

"Mother, I've come home," I cried, "home to play
With you for two whole weeks—to play—to dream!
London's concreteness is too far away
To touch the magic of all this. I seem
To live again. You'll give me cornish cream
For tea! And then, no matter what we do,
There'll be the two of us together—just us two."

A wistful look crept in my mother's eyes
I knew the cause of it and turned her face
To meet my own. How gentle and how wise
Was that dear face, touched now with love's own grace
Beneath the little filmy cap of lace!
She returned my look with a trembling smile
And said her loneliness was gone now—for a while.

"I'd thought, dear boy, it might be you would spend
Your holidays upon some roaming ship."
"No; I came home, to be home till the end.
It's true—this morning, early, I did slip
Down to the docks, and I tasted on my lip
The salt of the sea and a wild desire
Tugged at my breast—till I felt you waiting by the fire!

"I came home then; and oh, I'm glad I came!
All days are happy days when spent with you.
And hunting legends is a great old game—
Perhaps I'll find some that I never knew."
"To Cornish legends, Peter, you prove true!
Because they never leave you fancy free,
I'm jealous of King Arthur as well as of the sea."

"Absurd!" I cried. "And yet my fancy dwells
Upon the King's return. As a boy, I swore
That he'd come back, but reason now rebels
When I think of him as he lived before.
He'd prove no help to England now—in war.
He'd hold, like some holy wistful wraith,
As weapons—antiquated chivalry and faith.

"Beautiful, these, —but of what earthly use
In a contest that this century could bring? —
Abominable weapons and abuse
Beyond all horror of imagining.
Romantic war no longer is the thing."
"What right have you to talk of war—what right?"
"I do not say it's coming, Mother—but it might.

"Then he will come,—to Britain in her need.
When that dread hour strikes, he'll face her foes!
King not perhaps in name, but one in deed;
A ruling will that no one dare oppose.
Rex futurus—so our old legend goes;
But King of peaceful England one short hour,
Or King of an empire's future? What greater power!

"I know my mind's mixed up with Tennyson
And Malory, and lots of others, too;
But I've evolved a version which has won
My credence more than these; which, to be true,
Must even desecrate traditions you
And I have loved from childhood, heritage
Of centuries, with Cornwall the glorious stage.

"The legend that is hardest to unlearn
Concerns King Arthur and his knights asleep,
Waiting the destined hour of their return,
Within some cavern's dark and gloomy keep,
While strange charmed dreams beguile their slumber deep.
I used to think that I should be the one
To find the King and lead him forth to greet the sun!

"So when a tiny boy, with thirsting zeal,
I probed the caves about us, near and far.
You remember, Mother! How you did appeal
To me to learn to take things as they are
And not hitch my wagon to a star
Of fancy that caused my active brain to teem
With the full-panoplied heroes of a gorgeous dream.

"But now I know that thus he'll not appear.
Reincarnated, evolutionized,
Intensively experienced, without fear
He'll meet the hour's issues, jeopardized
Though they are by a nation overcivilized
To the point where polish must soon give way
And elemental, brutal passions hold full sway."

"How, Peter, you do talk!" my mother cried.
"It makes me shiver when you say such things;
For I recall the night your father died—
He told me then to clip your fancy's wings.
Now, college has but spurred your wild imaginings!"
"The psychology of nations I learned there,
It's true; but that I should have picked up anywhere."

                          II.
 
One afternoon soon after this I strayed
Quite far from home. The sea-gulls called. I heard
Hushed wind-notes shaken from the grass; they made
A wistful little symphony, softly slurred.
All else was still.— A tense excitement stirred
My heart to quicker action when I found
The path led upward to an unfamiliar mound.

Beneath, I saw the entrance to a cave.
How had I missed it during all the zest
Of boyhood explorations? My mind gave
One leap and bridged the years between. The best
Of me was boy again! I longed to test
The legend of King Arthur's age-long sleep.
Would he be there in sweet oblivion buried deep?

Eagerly I scrambled down—then swiftly stopped.
Just at the entrance to the cave I found
A stranger, and I gazed as if he'd dropped
From heaven, or had sprung from beneath the ground,
Or perhaps—what a wild thought to confound
One's very senses! —had emerged just then
From age-long dusky shadows into the world again.

He had not seen me yet. In the bright glare
Of shadeless sun he stood there, strong and wise,
A striking figure, tall, erect, and spare,
With noble brow and piercing bright blue eyes
Set far apart. These eyes without surprise
Now looked at me. I felt the strength and charm
Of a potent personality. He raised his arm.

With a sweeping gesture he signified
The lone world near us and the distant sea.
"Just look at that! Just breathe this air!" he cried.
With a flash of humor he turned to me.
"I stole a holiday! And now I’m free
For a whole long afternoon. Chance brought me here;
I left the coach and walked this way. Do you live near?"

Thrilled by the interest in his kindly tone
I stammered forth my little tale of life
Begun right there in Cornwall; how I'd grown
Familiar, as a child, with places rife
With Arthur's exploits; how in peace and strife
I pictured all the pageantry of court
And tourney. Silently he heard my long report.

I could not leave out Arthur from my tale!
Then when I found how keen he was to learn
All that I had to say, I did not fail
To tell the legend of the King's return.
I knew that he was able to discern
How real to me were those time-honored themes;
He said that he had not outgrown his love of dreams.

So legends of all kinds he loved to hear,
And specially those of Celtic origin.
Emboldened, I went further; without fear
Of ridicule I told him that within
A nearby cave I'd some day hoped to win
My boyhood's goal and find—myself! —the King.
He did not laugh even at this fantastic thing.

I said I'd never found this cave before,
And for one breathless moment I had thought
Myself a boy again; then, to explore
Its depths, the entrance I had madly sought—
Had seen a stranger standing there and, caught
By a whirling notion, had fancied him
To be the King! Both of us laughed at this strange whim.

"A tale is told by one old dame nearby
That Arthur's second coming is in doubt
Because tradition has it he will die
At sea; and all of Fairyland, devout
In fealty to the King, is crying out
It will not let him go—his final grave
Would be beyond their reach, unmarked beneath a wave."

At this point I attempted to unfold
My latest theory of the myth's true scope.
He listened keenly, then stood up. Big-souled
Was the smile he gave me. "Boy," he said, "I hope
We meet again.—Dreams enable us to cope
With harsh realities, and so—dream on!
My name is Kitchener."—He turned, waved his hand—was gone.

                          III.
 
Months passed, when threads of war were being spun . . .
Impressions of that hour did not abate—
My hour with Kitchener, Britain's wonder-son.
Australia, India, Egypt knew him. Fate
Had him on her training-ship. When hate
Lashed waves of fury westward to o'erwhelm
An empire's glory, steadily he held the helm.

No longer did I dream, for now I knew!
I had found Arthur by the Cornish sea.
Yes, this was Arthur,—to tradition true,
Yet product of this century,—trustee
Of Britain's greatness. It was Fate's decree
That he should come again to meet the hour
When England stood sore in need of his kingly power.

On August seven Kitchener advertized
For a hundred thousand men. His behest
Was brief: "Your King and Country Need You." Prized
No more was worldly rank; his rank was best
Whose standard was the highest in the test
Of manhood. Shortly, with a great heart-throb,
England witnessed the creation of "Kitchener's Mob."
Not knights of the Round Table, these, and yet
In beautiful truth their modern counterparts.
For tournament a trench, where they have met
The last great challenge with as loyal hearts
As Arthur's knights of old. Prowess imparts
The patent of nobility to all.
Clerks might have had their accolade in Arthur's hall.

Each soldier of that gallant Mob received
A message, not unlike the charge a knight
Was given by Arthur; things to be achieved
Concerned honor and women and the might
Of personal conquest—not alone the right
To conquer foes. Lastly—sternly challenging—
"Do your duty bravely,
           Fear God,
              Honor the King."

I might have made one in that Mob had not
The sea more loudly called. I volunteered
For duty there and all went well. My lot
Fell to the battle-cruiser Hampshire. Fate steered
My course, and eventually commandeered
My very dreams. One day I heard at drill
Lord Kitchener was on board. I felt a boyish thrill.

It was the fifth of June, nineteen-sixteen,
When from a northern Scottish port we steamed
And ran into a violent gale. Between
The hours of five and six it almost seemed
As if no boat could live. The tempest screamed,
Demented; with insensate fury it lashed
The sea to foaming madness; winds and wild waves clashed.

Our convoy was sent back, while we pushed on.
We had not been told our destination.
I was content in this vast game to be a pawn,
But grimly I hoped—for the salvation
Of Britain's plans—that the computation
Concerning Kitchener's safety was made out
So that not the shadow of a turn was left in doubt.

They did not know who Kitchener was! Of course
They reverenced his fame, and were aware
Of his power; but, had they known, the whole force
Of our great empire—land and sea and air—
Would have been requisitioned to prepare
The means for absolute security.
I could not voice my view— they would but scoff at me!

No, they did not know; it was only I.
I once had tried to tell it to a chum,
A boy I'd known in college. He called me "Guy"
Good-naturedly, and said, "What rot!" He'd come
From Manchester. A boy from there'd be numb
To legends quickening my Cornish heart,
Forming of my inner self an integral part.

Never again would I expose my dream!
I hugged it close.— and found it grew more real.
Each act of Kitchener's made his whole life seem
An answer to that promise to reveal
The future Arthur when time made appeal.
The time had come; brilliantly was fulfilled
The forecast that events should march as Arthur willed.

Footsteps were coming towards me, and they sent
Hot blood through my veins in a surging tide.
One of the figures paused. "Why, Peter Ghent!"
A hand fell on my shoulder. "This," he cried,
"Is the dreamer lad of Cornwall, my guide
Into the lovely realm of Celtic lore!
You told me more than I had ever known before.

"Then, too, you had a theory—Ah, now I bring
It to mind." With droll humor Kitchener smiled.
"When I saw you, you were looking for the King
Of legendary greatness, reconciled
To sleepy in a cave until, beguiled
By time's necessity, he should again
Assume a leading rôle in the affairs of men.

"For a moment—do you remember?— you
Took me for the King!" Kitchener laughed outright,
And I blushed furiously red. "It's true,"
I stammered, and I longed with all my might
To tell him that I still thought so, that to-night
Nothing could convince me he was not the King.
But my thoughts died away into vague murmuring.

He sobered. "Boy," he said, "it's good to dream."
A wistful shadow clouded his blue eyes.
"Life else were very bitter in the scheme
Of present things." Again a smile,—so wise,
So sweet, so strong, so kind!—"Don't underprize
The gift—but sometimes forge dreams into facts.
In this brave way can dreams be justified by acts."

                           IV.
 
A fearful terror clutched me by the throat,—
Presentiment of danger. The storm's hate
Increased. If things went wrong, I thought, no boat
Could live in such a sea. What precious freight
We carried! Who on board could estimate
It's worth? . . . There came a rending, deafening blast.
The ship reeled from a mortal wound. Snarling waves rushed past.

There was no confusion. Each knew his place,
And the discipline was excellent. Men
Rushed to the boats; these were lowered apace—
And crashed into kindling. Now and again
The ship lurched like a living thing and then
Gave a groan of agony. Baring white fangs,
The sea danced round its victim, watching its death-pangs.

What caused the explosion, I do not know.
Perhaps we struck a mine. Vividly clear
Is the memory of Kitchener, although
All things then seemed blurred. I saw him appear
From the captain's cabin; showing no fear,
He mounted to the quarter deck. A friend,
A staff-officer, was with him. Then came the end.

There was no chance, because the boats were wrecked.
Three rafts were launched, but who could tell their fate?
Eight bells struck—this I dimly recollect.
Then a pain of passionate protest ate
Its way into my heart. Was it too late
To save Kitchener? The ship was sinking fast . . .
Nothing could be done—I accepted this at last.

In agony of spirit I raised my head
And saw Kitchener. I loved him with a love
Verging on idolatry. Enough is said . . .
He looked down at me from the deck above
And gave me his smile. At once, like a dove
Folding her wings, peace nestled in my soul.
I answered his salute with steadfast self-control.

Black waters engulfed me and I soon lost
Consciousness. When I found myself again
I was on a raft which was being tossed
Drunkenly about but stayed afloat. When
I struggled to get up, with oaths the men
Knocked me down and said that I must not stir;
There was one too many on that raft, as things were.

I lay still a bit, with my mind a blank.
Then recollection, like a surging tide,
Came sweeping full upon me. "The ship sank?"
I asked. Some one nodded. "I saw her glide
And take a header—well, at the outside,
Say fifteen minutes after she was struck.—
But we'll live through this, if we keep on having luck."

"What time is it?" There was still a little light,
But I thought each minute had been a year,
For I felt queerly old. "If I'm right,
It must be almost nine." "D'you think land's near?"
"The Orkneys aren't far—but too far from here."
I felt queer again,—queer and sick and blind.
I waited for a distant thought to reach my mind.

It came; though blurred, sharply it was defined.
"The King!" I gasped, "Where is the King?" They turned
To look at me. One grinned. "I hope he dined
At Buckingham. His Majesty's always spurned
A raft in a gale at sea." I discerned,
Through burning misery, my unwitting slip.
"Kitchener, you mean? Lord Kitchener went down with the ship."

I had been rescued, but my King was dead.
What could life hold?—Then I recalled his smile,
And knew that it would light all life ahead . . .
King Arthur had returned for a little while
And now had passed at sea. In the quaint style
Of the legend: "Unmarked must be his grave;"
But, in spite of Fairies, he had come—in time to save.