Isoud

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Isoud

by: Edward Thomas (Author)
from: Cloud Castle and Other Papers (Pp. 81 - 89)  1922

THE other day a thick snowfall whitened the hills. Winter it is not yet nevertheless; a black insistence here and there of hillock or jag was left to remind us of the living form; though tucked down, stiff and angular like a corpse, in its shroud, the earth still lived. It was buried, yet buried alive; and it needed only a tumultuous enthusiasm of sunshine to awaken what had seemed the lifeless angles of knees and chin to life. That enthusiasm came. First an icy fog overclouded the pools, garrisoned by melancholy lime and elm, mostly bare, and by gracious poplars hardly wasted or discoloured, over and among which floated three swallows continually. But the light invaded and barred the beech-trunks with the shadow of their own boughs. Then rapidly the splendour drew off, only to be followed by a sweet-tempered afternoon which later on was visited by notable light, diluted and invisible, so homely and so companionable, as though from a fountain closer than the sun, from something on earth, something not far off; a light under which the very asphalt of aching streets will receive the shadows of tree and spire. All the grim jewelleries of the hoar frost were gone. Far off a sudden fusillade occasionally surprised the air. Then the hour between light and darkness was one of the holy eves of autumn. ... With sunset a vigorous gale took flight from the north, and overthrew the barriers of day and uplifted the heavens a league higher, until the storm came, preceded, while it was yet light, by a wonderful stir and freshness of the air between those heaving bergs of cloud immersed and reluctantly smouldering in blue sky water east and west; and this was the hour for the unexpected, the marvellous, for the extending of Nature's bounds. A moment or two of sumptuous calm—as if one slept upon pillows of wild-hop blossom; the waterfall's breath ceased to tease the ivy foliage, and the storm whipped it instead. Thunder came, and a wind that plucked out the poplar boughs as if they had been hen feathers. That, too, gave way with rumblings of retreat: and the rain was globed prettily on the silver underside of a leaf that lay stiff. So the latest memory of that day was powerful and sweet. We saw the mighty motion of the steadfast tide as it swerved, swerved slowly in echelon at the broadest point of the river, where two streams, both voices of the sea, though querulous, enter it; we saw how the water, all red in the recurrent ardours of sunset, was burdened with foam; how the low grassy shore hissed, and the big, tawny moon leant at watch—as if with a pensive arm—on the hills, quite near. That night also passed, the perfect silence of it expounded by the unaccountable murmur as of gigantic pinions beating slowly at the horizon, and the black bars of midnight weighing heavily upon the brow, until the white moon was deluged by fiery clouds of dawn. Importunate sunlight then called us forth early to a long day of breezes that drove the lark giddily backward in its song. With an imposing promise of the far away spring, a great poplar, in a spurt of delicate rain, rose up in magically aggrandized magnificence into a lustrous pane of sky. But most impressively the memory of that day is inseparable from a reading of Malory's narrative of the knight Kehydius. Out of doors I had read this story, which is an unimportant appanage of Tristram's tragedy, and told fragmentarily over many pages after Malory's way—stealing like a meek rosy thread of silk through the purple and sea-green pomps of a sombre embroidered imagery. The open air endowed it with what it lacked: not that it was without art, though it is not purely art that gilds such a history as Elaine's; he speaks, as it were, for, he is the melodious mouth for, Nature herself. Indeed, of all books none is so fitted for such reading. One can fancy it the work of an old woodlander who wrote in his splashed hunting dress. His stories have all the carelessness and haste of stories told by eager riders in a joyful chase; that is how he came to add fondly to his picture of a lion-guarded castle in the tale of Galahad—"and the moone shone clere"; and Kehydius is one of those constellated knights whom he just names, with sympathy, it is true, but no more. So after a dreamy reading of the book were my own thoughts of Kehydius and Malory's ejaculations combined in one history that came to me all day in intermitted harmony. The sound thereof was as of distant music coming and going with the pulse of the breeze, or like light
That from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
One thought of the beginning of the life of Kehydius in some towered town; of his melancholy youth, full of hopes for a future that will never be, and regrets for a past that has never been. And one day Tristram and Lamorak "took Kehydius at the fosters hous and soo they rode with hym to the ship."

Underfoot one of the clear brown Gwili's little tributaries all its course runs beneath close hazel and thorn bushes, till it is unfettered into sparkling liberty over tumbled rocks, in a deep bed whose sides were in September the home of the finest ivy, of all plants indeed, refined to a crepuscular paleness and frailness; there, too, or close at hand, was the hot pimpernel, hot as if it had burnt like a tongue of volcanic flame from the scorched pebbles.

There was Kehydius marching with the great knights. Surely he will not long love his life! He is to love the highest and loveliest in all the world. That soul was never wholly sincere except with Nature; and perhaps his eyes had never opened with the fearlessness, the innocence, the eternal surprise of childhood—save to the sky! There would be days when the despotic splendour of the sunlight never permitted him to rest, but only to gaze and dream. And "the fyrst time that ever syre Kehydius sawe la Beale Isoud he was soo enamoured upon her that for very pure love he myghte never withdrawe it. ... And at the last as ye shall here or the book be ended syre Kehydius dyed for love of la Beale Isoud."

And Autumn came. Fine pale ferns nodded beside the path; the red campions blossomed with smaller and smaller flowers; children harvested the blackberries from sprays of crisp green arched over serpentining red stems; and there were all the pleasures of a day abroad—the stepping-stones in lustrous brown water! the fear of cattle too indolent to raise a horn! and the damp, cool crystal of the air before evening below the oaks and hazels of a lane!

Kehydius has written to Isoud, and drawn replies from that stately queen. The events following have all the sorrowful comedy of real life: Tristram maddens with jealousy at Isoud's condescending response to Kehydius, who leaps from the scene, but afterward goes on affectionate search for his rival; and not alone; at least he is pursued by one that loved him hopelessly, a maiden named Summer Night, whose very step was desirable and full of love and always tender as if she feared to break the slumber of one beloved and sick. From her Kehydius learned to play upon Tristram's harp so faultlessly that they drew him with tears to their side, only to depart, however, with "The harp is the harp of Tristram, but the harper ...!" But Kehydius "saide that he wolde goo in to Bretayn."

Evening is at hand. Long, delicate amber ribands of sunshine lie across the page in a quiet sunset of misty gold, whose beams glance night by night off a neighbouring window to this spot, but soon, as now, escape along with the memorable splendour upon the book.

Night closes the story appropriately. Kehydius has returned and after curing Tristram with the herbs of the love-wise Summer Night has gone forth, neglectful of her, with the knight. Again they quarrelled over Isoud. One night, therefore, Kehydius left Tristram asleep, harp at side, and rode with intent never to return. ... Let us not be content with Malory's allusion to “the noble knyghte syre Kehydius that dyed for the love of la Beale Isoud."

To what weird banquet are those gloomy clouds journeying amid the firs, with bat and with crow, in the fervid but lightless west? From what weird banquet or witching tryst in the dead east are they returning like sullen guests? The year has "passed into many yesterdays," and now the arborets of brier and thorn that stagger up and down the acclivities moan in the invectives of the wind.

Never had Sir Kehydius joy such as on that night; there was joy even in the thought that cropped up among his memories, the thought that
Grief is to bliss a blindfold sister sweet.
Suddenly then came the fear that Tristram might suffer harm in his sleep. He rode hot-foot back, therefore, and sat to watch until day; when he bethought him of the harp; he would play once again—a stanza only, perhaps of the glade
Where light and white the wood nymphs go.
Those tones were his own obsequies. ... His fingers and voice ran through all the subtleties of delight and love. ... The light of a sunken moon was fading by delicate diminuendo among the woods. ... Even Tristram wondered and admired. Finally, the recollection of Isoud! The tristful majesty of her praises could not restrain his hand, the hand that presently drove a sword, through the misty quivering chords, into the heart of Kehydius. Summer Night was close by. She took up the corpse, and herself scooped a grave in the forest's heart where dew is dried not even at noon. But when the grave was deep, she could not endure to loosen those fair limbs into the pit; so, descending herself and drawing his body over the edge, she, crushed by the weight and effortless with fright and grief, died; and no robins covered the sorrow of those two; only when Tristram and Isoud passed there in the chase, they found that the hair of Summer Night had expanded over all as if in pity; and Isoud, with her elegiac voice, praised the hair.