The Parting of Launcelot and Guenevere: A Fragment

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The Parting of Launcelot and Guenevere: A Fragment

Now, as the time wore by to Our Lady's Day,
Spring linger'd in the chambers of the South.
The nightingales were far in fairy-lands.
Beyond the sunset; but the wet blue woods
Were half aware of violets in the wake
Of morning rains. The swallow still delayed
To build and be about in noisy roofs,
And March was moaning in the windy elm.

But Arthur's royal purpose held to keep
A joust of arms to solemnize the time
In stately Camelot. So the King sent forth
His heralds, and let cry through all the land
That he himself would take the lists, and tilt
Against all comers.
                                  Hither came the chiefs
Of Christendom. The King of Northgalies;
Anguishe, the King of Ireland; the Haut Prince,
Sir Galahault; the King o' the Hundred Knights;
The Kings of Scotland and of Brittany;
And many more renownéd knights whereof
The names are glorious. Also all the earls,
And all the dukes, and all the mighty men
And famous heroes of the Table Round,
From far Northumberland to where the wave
Rides rough on Devon from the outer main.
So that there was not seen for seven years,
Since when, at Whitsuntide, Sir Galahad
Departed out of Carlyel from the court,
So fair a fellowship of goodly knights.

Then would King Arthur that the Queen should ride
With him from Carlyel to Camelot
To see the jousts. But she, because that yet
The sickness was upon her, answered nay.
Then said King Arthur, "This repenteth me.
For never hath been seen for seven years,
No, not since Galahad, at Whitsuntide,
Departed from us out of Carlyel,
So fair a fellowship of goodly knights."
But the Queen would not, and the King in wrath
Brake up the court, and rode to Astolat
On this side Camelot.
                                     Now men said the Queen
Tarried behind because of Launcelot,
For Launcelot stayed to heal him of his wound.
And there had been estrangement 'twixt these two
I' the later time, because of bitter words.
So when the King with all his fellowship
Was ridden out of Carlyel, the Queen
Arose, and called to her Sir Launcelot.

Then to Sir Launcelot spoke Queen Guenevere.

"Not for the memory of that love whereof
No more than memory lives, but, Sir, for that
Which even when love is ended yet endures
Making immortal life with deathless deeds,
Honor - true knighthood's golden spurs, the crown
And priceless diadem of peerless Queens, -
I make appeal to you, that hear perchance
The last appeal which I shall ever make.
So weigh my words not lightly! for I feel
The fluttering fires of life grow faint and cold
About my heart. And oft, indeed, to me
Lying whole hours awake in the dead nights
The end seems near, as though the darkness knew
The angel waiting there to call my soul
Perchance before the house awakes; and oft
When faint, and all at once, from far away,
The mournful midnight bells begin to sound
Across the river, all the days that were
(Brief, evil days!) return upon my heart,
And, where the sweetness seemed, I see the sin.
For, waking lone, long hours before the dawn,
Beyond the borders of the dark I seem
To see the twilight of another world,
That grows and grows and glimmers on my gaze.
And oft, when late, before the languorous moon
Through yonder windows to the West goes down
Among the pines, deep peace upon me falls,
Deep peace like death, so that I think I know
The blesséd Mary and the righteous saints
Stand at the throne, and intercede for me.
Wherefore these things are thus I cannot tell.
But now I pray you of your fealty,
And by all knightly faith which may be left,
Arise and get you hence, and join the King.
For wherefore hold you thus behind the court,
Seeing my liege the King is moved in wrath?
For wete you well what say your foes and mine.
'See how Sir Launcelot and Queen Guenevere
Do hold them ever thus behind the King
That they may take their pleasure!' Knowing not
How that for me all these delights are come
To be as withered violets."
                                             Half in tears
She ceased abrupt. Given up to a proud grief,
Vexed to be vext. With love and anger moved.
Love toucht with scorn, and anger pierced with love.
About her, all unheeded, her long hair
Loosed its warm, yellow, waving loveliness,
And o'er her bare and shining shoulder cold
Fell floating free. Upon one full white arm,
To which the amorous purple coverlet
Clung dimpling close, her drooping state was propt.
There, half in shadow of her soft gold curls,
She leaned, and like a rose enricht with dew,
Whose heart is heavy with the clinging bee,
Bowed down toward him all her glowing face,
While in the light of her large angry eyes
Uprose, and rose, a slow imperious sorrow,
And o'er the shine of still, unquivering tears
Swam on to him.

                              But he, with brows averse
And orgolous looks, three times to speech addressed,
Three times in vain. The silence of the place
Fell like a hand upon his heart, and hushed
His foolish anger with authority.
He would not see the wretched Queen: he saw
Only the hunter on the arrassed wall
Prepare to wind amort his bugle horn,
And the long daylight dying down the floors;
For half-way through the golden gates of eve
The sun was rolled. The dropping tapestry glowed
With awful hues. Far off among his reeds
The river, smitten with a waning light,
Shone; and, behind black lengths of pine revealed,
The red West smouldered, and the day declined.
Then year by year, as wave on wave a sea,
The tided Past came softly o'er his heart,
And all the days which had been.

                                                   So he stood
Long in his mind divided: with himself
At strife: and, like a steed that hotly chafes
His silver bit, which yet some silken rein
Swayed by a skilled accustomed hand restrains,
His heart against the knowledge of its love
Made vain revolt, and fretful rose and sunk.
But at the last, quelling a wayward grief,
That swelled against all utterance, and sought
To force its salt and sorrowful overflow
Upon weak language, "Now indeed," he cried,
"I see the face of the old time is changed,
And all things altered! Will the sun still burn?
Still burn the eternal stars? For love was deemed
Not less secure than these. Needs should there be
Something remarkable to prove the world
I am no more that Launcelot, nor thou
That Guenevere, of whom, long since, the fame,
Fruitful of noble deeds, with such a light
Did fill this nook and cantle of the earth,
That all great lands of Christendom beside
Showed darkened of their glory. But I see
That there is nothing left for men to swear by.
For then thy will did never urge me hence,
But drew me through all dangers to thy feet.
And none can say, least thou, I have not been
The staff and burgonet of thy fair fame.
Nor mind you, Madam, how in Surluse once,
When all the estates were met, and noble judges,
Armed clean with shields, set round to keep the right,
Before you sitting throned with Galahault
In great array, on fair green quilts of samite,
Rich, ancient, fringed with gold, seven summer days,
And all before the Earls of Northgalies,
Such service then with this old sword was wrought,
To crown thy beauty in the courts of Fame,
That in that time fell many noble knights,
And all men marvelled greatly? So when last
The loud horns blew to lodging, and we supped
With Palamedes and with Lamorak,
All those great dukes and kings, and famous queens,
Beholding us with a deep joy, avouched
Across the golden cups of costly wine
'There is no Queen of love but Guenevere,
And no true knight but Launcelot of the Lake!'"

Thus he, transported by the thought of days
And deeds that, like the mournful martial sounds
Blown through sad towns where some dead king goes by,
Made music in the chambers of his heart,
Swept by the mighty memory of the past.
Nor spake the sorrowful Queen, nor from deep muse
Unbent the grieving beauty of her brows,
But held her heart's proud pain superbly still.

But when he lifted up his looks, it seemed
Something of sadness in the ancient place,
Like dying breath from lips beloved of yore,
Or unforgotten touch of tender hands
After long years, upon his spirit fell.
For near the carven casement hung the bird,
With hood and jess, that oft had led them forth,
These lovers, through the heart of rippling woods
At morning, in the old and pleasant time.
And o'er the broidered canopies of state
Blazed Uther's dragons, curious, wrought with gems.
Then to his mind that dear and distant dawn
Came back, when first, a boy at Arthur's court,
He paused abasht before the youthful Queen.
And, feeling now her long imploring gaze
Holding him in its sorrow, when he marked
How changed her state, and all unlike to her,
The most renownéd beauty of the time,
And pearl of chivalry, for whom himself
All on a summer's day broke, long of yore
A hundred lances in the field, he sprang
And caught her hand, and, falling to one knee,
Arched all his haughty neck to a quick kiss.
And there was silence. Silently the West
Grew red and redder, and the day declined.

As o'er the hungering heart of some deep sea,
That swells against the planets and the moon
With sad continual strife and vain unrest,
In silence rise and roll the laboring clouds
That bind the thunder, o'er the heaving heart
Of Guenevere all sorrows fraught with love,
All stormy sorrows, in that silence passed.
And like a star in that tumultuous night
Love waxed and waned, and came and went, changed hue,
And was and was not: till the cloud came down,
And all her soul dissolved in showers: and love
Rose through the broken storm: and, with a cry
Of passion sheathed in sharpest pain, she stretched
Wide her warm arms: she rose, she reeled, and fell
(All her great heart unqueened) upon the breast
Of Launcelot; and, lifting up her voice,
She wept aloud "Unhappy that I am,"
She wept, "Unhappy! Would that I had died
Long since, long ere I loved thee, Launcelot!
Would I had died long since! ere I had known
This pain, which hath become my punishment,
To have thirsted for the sea: to have received
A drop no bigger than a drop of dew!
I have done ill," she wept, "I am forlorn,
Forlorn! I falter where I stood secure:
The tower I built is fall'n, is fall'n: the staff
I leaned upon hath broken in my hand.
And I, disrobed, dethroned, discrowned, and all undone,
Survive my kingdom, widowed of all rule,
And men shall mock me for a foolish Queen.
For now I see thy love for me is dead,
Dead that brief love which was the light of life,
And all is dark: and I have lived too long.
For how henceforth, unhappy, shall I bear
To dwell among these halls where we have been?
How keep these chambers emptied of thy voice?
The walks where we have lingered long ago,
The gardens and the places of our love,
Which shall recall the days that come no more,
And all the joy which has been?"
                                                    Thus o'erthrown,
And on the breast of Launcelot weeping wild —
Weeping and murmuring — hung Queen Guenevere.
But, while she wept, upon her brows and lips
Warm kisses fell, warm kisses wet with tears.
For all his mind was melted with remorse,
And all his scorn was killed, and all his heart
Gave way in that caress, and all the love
Of happier years rolled down upon his soul
Redoubled; and he bowed his head, and cried,

"Though thou be variable as the waves,
More sharp than winds among the Hebrides
That shut the frozen Spring in stormy clouds,
As wayward as a child, and all unjust,
Yet must I love thee in despite of pain,
Thou peerless Queen of perfect love! Thou star
That draw'st all tides! Thou goddess far above
My heart's weak worship! so adored thou art,
And I so irretrievably all thine!
But now I will arise, as thou hast said,
And join the King: and these thine enemies
Shall know thee not defenceless any more.
For, either, living, I yet hold my life
To arm for thine, or, dying, by my death
Will steep love's injured honor in such blood
Shall wash out every stain! And so farewell,
Beloved. Forget me not when I am far,
But in thy prayers and in thine evening thoughts
Remember me: as I, when sundown crowns
The distant hills, and Ave-Mary rings,
Shall pine for thee on ways where thou art not."

So these two lovers in one long embrace,
An agony of reconcilement, hung
Blinded in tears and kisses, lip to lip,
And tranced from past and future, time and space.

But by this time, the beam of the slope day,
Edging blue mountain glooms with sullen gold,
A dying fire, fell mournfully athwart
The purple chambers. In the courts below
The shadow of the keep from wall to wall
Shook his dark skirt: great chimes began to sound,
And swing, and rock in glimmering heights, and roll
A reeling music down: but ere it fell
Faint bells in misty spires adown the vale
Caught it, and bore it floating on to night.

So from that long love-trance the envious time
Reclaimed them. Then with a great pang he rose,
Like one that plucked his heart out from his breast,
And, bitterly unwinding her white arms
From the warm circle of their amorous fold,
Left living on her lips the lingering heat
Of one long kiss: and, gathering strongly back
His poured-out anguish to his soul, he went.

And the sun set.

                             Long while she sat alone,
Searching the silence with her fixéd eyes,
While far and farther off o'er distant floors
The intervals of brazen echoes fell.
A changeful light, from varying passions caught,
Flushed all her stately cheek from white to red
In doubtful alternation, as some star
Changes his fiery beauty: for her blood
Set headlong to all wayward moods of sense,
Stirred with swift ebb and flow: till suddenly all
The frozen heights of grief fell loosed, fast, fast,
In cataract over cataract, on her soul.
Then at the last she rose, a reeling shape
That like a shadow swayed against the wall,
Her slight hand held upon her bosom, and fell
Before the Virgin Mother on her knees.
There, in a halo of the silver shrine,
That touched and turned to starlight her slow tears,
Below the feet of the pale-pictured saint
She lay, pour'd out in prayer.

                                                  Meanwhile, without,
A sighing rain from a low fringe of cloud
Whispered among the melancholy hills.
The night's dark limits widened: far above
The crystal sky lay open: and the star
Of eve, his rosy circlet trembling clear,
Grew large and bright, and in the silver moats,
Between the accumulated terraces,
Tangled a trail of fire: and all was still.