Tristram's Tomb

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Tristram's Tomb

by: James Ormerod (Author)
from: Tristram's Tomb and Other Poems (Pp. 9 - 13)  1928

King Mark of Cornwall sailed away
   From Britain unto Brittany.
The breakers in the bay that day
   Boomed loudly and full mournfully.

Two coffins lay within the hold
   Of beryl and chalcedony:
One was for Tristram's body cold,
   And one for Iseult's majesty.

Two bodies lay upon one bed
   In Iseult's castle o'er the sea.
Iseult of Ireland now hath wed
   Sir Tristram in Death's orat'ry.

King Mark unto the steersman cried:
   "Make for the Breton coast ahead!
I trow by dawn we shall have spied
   The tower where Iseult lieth dead."

Thus spake he, then for sorrow stopped,
   And pulled his vizor quickly down
To hide the tears that swiftly dropped
   Upon his woollen tunic brown;

And turning from the steersman yare,
   He paced the deck till ruddy Mars
Waxed brightly, and the tuskèd Bear
   Prowled round the vast fold of the stars.

All night he mourned for his dead bride;
   All night he wept for Tristram dead.
"Alas! I would that I had died,
   Or ever I had Iseult wed."

So mused he till the dawn-light grey
   Revealed the coast of Brittany.
High on a headland, near a bay,
   Sir Tristram's castle looked to sea.

Thither they clomb, and pensively
   They entered through the chapel door,
And, bending reverently the knee
   Before the pyx, they paced the floor

Until they reached the sacred space
   Where stood the taper-litten bier;
And kneeling in that solemn place,
   They wept for those two lovers dear.

There also Iseult White-Hands wept,
   Whom Tristram gat to heal the hurt
Some villein gave him while he slept
   Unharnessed on the greenwood's vert

In King Mark's realm, and afterward
   Did wed for that great courtesy.
Alas, that she should from her lord
   Receive such infelicity!

Across the carven bier she lay,
   Fraying the gold-fringed purple pall;
Her hair from out her hood did stray,
   And on the marble floor did fall.

Anon she lifted up her head,
   And with a look of agony
She gazed at her mute lord abed,
   The while she murmured dolefully:

"O Tristram, lord incomparable!
   Why did you cross the Atlantic main
That I might heal your wound nor tell
   Me of that other cureless pain?

"Why did you woo me openly
   And plead to share your life with mine,
The while you knew that o'er the sea
   She loved you and did yearn to twine

"Her amorous arms with yours, and kiss
   Your virgin lips and knightly brow?
Why did you fill my cup with bliss
   That I might drink disaster now?

She ceased awhile, then sobbed aloud,
   Like Magdalene at Jesus' tomb;
And stared at Tristram's broidered shroud,
   Like one expectant of her doom.

She saw not there the kneeling knights,
   Nor wist she that the sunlight streamed
Upon their shields; the altar-lights
   To her blurred sight no longer gleamed.

Nor could she see the blessèd rood,
   Nor mark the vested acolyte:
Fixed in that rueful attitude,
   Naught could elate her, naught affright.

Then Mark uprose, and crossed his breast,
   And took the face-cloths off the dead,
And bared Sir Tristram's bloodless chest,
   With cold, grief-palsied hands and said:

"O Tristram, knight of Lyonesse!
   Why did you drink with Iseult fair
The draught of love, to feel distress
   That no knight living long could bear?

"Why did you watch me Iseult wed,
   And never claim her as your own?
It had been better had you fled
   Together nor come near my throne;

"For now my bed is very cold
   Without its queenly occupant,
And now I miss your helm of gold
   When in the lists my lance I plant.

"And paynim knights my castle raid,
   And burn and loot from sea to sea;
And tuskèd boars my realm invade,
   And rive and ruin wantonly."

With that he swooned, and tumbled down
   Upon the tessellated ground,
And clutched at Iseult's funeral gown,
   And made a muffled moaning sound,

Like a hurt deer when in the brake
   It bleedeth from unstanchèd wounds,
And feels the greenwood's pleasance quake
   With baying of the ardent hounds.

Anon his knights ran up, and chafed
   His clammy palms, and gave him wine
From out a cup the priest vouchsafed,
   Engraved with clusters of the vine.

Then, after hearing Mass, they laid
   Iseult and Tristram tenderly
Within the coffins they had made;
   And in procession to the sea

They went, preceded by the priest,
   With lifted cross and open book
From which he prayed aloud, nor ceased
   Until the ship the bay forsook.

Then back they sailed to that lone shore
   Where high Tintagel greets the waves,
And 'neath the chantry's pavèd floor
   They build a pair of marble graves

Wherein they laid those lovers twain,
   And sang sweet Masses for their sakes.
There they alike in peace remain
   Until the Judgment-morning breaks.

And saith the ancient chronicle:
   A briar-tree sprang from Tristram's grave,
And climbed across the apse, and fell
   On Iseult's tomb, and there it clave.

Thrice did the peasants fell the tree,
   And thrice it grew and flowered again;
Whereat they marvelled ceaselessly,
   And unto Mark did straight complain.

When King Mark heard he scarce could speak
   For the strained feeling at his throat.
"O carles," he said, "depart, nor seek
   To kill the briar, lest in the moat

"I fling you for your villainy."
   And whispering to himself he said:
"Iseult of Ireland now hath wed
   Sir Tristram in Death's orat'ry."