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Tristram and Iseult


Is she not come? The messenger was sure.
Prop me upon the pillows once again-
Raise me, my page! this cannot long endure.
-Christ, what a night! how the sleet whips the pane!
What lights will those out to the northward be?

                        The Page
The lanterns of the fishing-boats at sea.

Soft - who is that, stands by the dying fire?

                        The Page

              Ah! not the Iseult I desire.

            *       *        *       *

What Knight is this so weak and pale,
Though the locks are yet brown on his noble head,
Propt on pillows in his bed,
Gazing seaward for the light
Of some ship that fights the gale
On this wild December night?
Over the sick man's feet is spread
A dark green forest-dress;
A gold harp leans against the bed,
Ruddy in the fire's light.
I know him by his harp of gold,
Famous in Arthur's court of old;
I know him by his forest-dress—
The peerless hunter, harper, knight,
Tristram of Lyoness.

What Lady is this, whose silk attire
Gleams so rich in the light of the fire?
The ringlets on her shoulders lying
In their flitting lustre vying
With the clasp of burnish'd gold
Which her heavy robe doth hold.
Her looks are mild, her fingers slight
As the driven snow are white;
But her cheeks are sunk and pale.
Is it that the bleak sea-gale
Beating from the Atlantic sea
On this coast of Brittany,
Nips too keenly the sweet flower?
Is it that a deep fatigue
Hath come on her, a chilly fear,
Passing all her youthful hour
Spinning with her maidens here,
Listlessly through the window-bars
Gazing seawards many a league,
From her lonely shore-built tower,
While the knights are at the wars?
Or, perhaps, has her young heart
Felt already some deeper smart,
Of those that in secret the heart-strings rive,
Leaving her sunk and pale, though fair?
Who is this snowdrop by the sea?—
I know her by her mildness rare,
Her snow-white hands, her golden hair;
I know her by her rich silk dress,
And her fragile loveliness—
The sweetest Christian soul alive,
Iseult of Brittany.

Iseult of Brittany? - but where
Is that other Iseult fair,
That proud, first Iseult, Cornwall's queen?
She, whom Tristram's ship of yore
From Ireland to Cornwall bore,
To Tyntagel, to the side
Of King Marc, to be his bride?
She who, as they voyaged, quaff'd
With Tristram that spiced magic draught,
Which since then for ever rolls
Through their blood, and binds their souls,
Working love, but working teen?—
There were two Iseults who did sway
Each her hour of Tristram's day;
But one possess'd his waning time,
The other his resplendent prime.
Behold her here, the patient flower,
Who possess'd his darker hour!
Iseult of the Snow-White Hand
Watches pale by Tristram's bed.
She is here who had his gloom,
Where art thou who hadst his bloom?
One such kiss as those of yore
Might thy dying knight restore!
Does the love-draught work no more?
Art thou cold, or false, or dead,
Iseult of Ireland?

              *       *        *       *

Loud howls the wind, sharp patters the rain,
And the knight sinks back on his pillows again.
He is weak with fever and pain,
And his spirit is not clear.
Hark! he mutters in his sleep,
As he wanders far from here,
Changes place and time of year,
And his closéd eye doth sweep
O'er some fair unwintry sea,
Not this fierce Atlantic deep,
While he mutters brokenly:—

The calm sea shines, loose hang the vessel's sails;
Before us are the sweet green fields of Wales,
And overhead the cloudless sky of May.—
"Ah, would I were in those green fields at play,
Not pent on ship-board this delicious day!
Tristram, I pray thee, of thy courtesy,
Reach me my golden phial stands by thee,
But pledge me in it first for courtesy. - "

Ha! dost thou start? are thy lips blanch'd like mine?
Child, 'tis no true draught this, 'tis poison'd wine!
Iseult!  . . . .

              *       *        *       *

     Ah, sweet angels, let him dream!
    Keep his eyelids! let him seem
    Not this fever-wasted wight
    Thinn'd and paled before his time,
    But the brilliant youthful knight
    In the glory of his prime,
    Sitting in the gilded barge,
    At thy side, thou lovely charge,
    Bending gaily o'er thy hand,
    Iseult of Ireland!
    And she too, that princess fair,
    If her bloom be now less rare,
    Let her have her youth again—
    Let her be as she was then!
    Let her have her proud dark eyes,
    And her petulant quick replies—
    Let her sweep her dazzling hand
    With its gesture of command,
    And shake back her raven hair
    With the old imperious air!
    As of old, so let her be,
    That first Iseult, princess bright,
    Chatting with her youthful knight
    As he steers her o'er the sea,
    Quitting at her father's will
    The green isle where she was bred,
    And her bower in Ireland,
    For the surge-beat Cornish strand;
    Where the prince whom she must wed
    Dwells on loud Tyntagel's hill
    High above the sounding sea.
    And that potion rare her mother
    Gave her, that her future lord,
    Gave her, that King Marc and she,
    Might drink it on their marriage-day,
    And for ever love each other—
    Let her, as she sits on board,
    Ah, sweet saints, unwittingly!
    See it shine, and take it up,
    And to Tristram laughing say:
    "Sir Tristram, of thy courtesy,
    Pledge me in my golden cup!"
    Let them drink it—let their hands
    Tremble, and their cheeks be flame,
    As they feel the fatal bands
    Of a love they dare not name,
    With a wild delicious pain,
    Twine about their hearts again!
    Let the early summer be
    Once more round them, and the sea
    Blue, and o'er its mirror kind
    Let the breath of the May-wind,
    Wandering through their drooping sails,
    Die on the green fields of Wales!
    Let a dream like this restore
    What his eye must see no more!

Chill blows the wind, the pleasaunce-walks are drear—
Madcap, what jest was this, to meet me here?
Were feet like those made for so wild a way?
The southern winter-parlour, by my fay,
Had been the likeliest trysting-place to-day!
"Tristram! - nay, nay - thou must not take my hand! -
Tristram! - sweet love! - we are betray'd - out-plann'd.
Fly - save thyself - save me! - I dare not stay."

One last kiss first! - "'Tis vain - to horse - away!"

         *       *        *       *
   Ah! sweet saints, his dream doth move
   Faster surely than it should,
   From the fever in his blood!
   All the spring-time of his love
   Is already gone and past,
   And instead thereof is seen
   Its winter, which endureth still—
   Tyntagel on its surge-beat hill,
   The pleasaunce-walks, the weeping queen,
   The flying leaves, the straining blast,
   And that long, wild kiss—their last.
   And this rough December-night,
   And his burning fever-pain,
   Mingle with his hurrying dream,
   Till they rule it, till he seem
   The press'd fugitive again,
   The love-desperate banish'd knight
   With a fire in his brain
   Flying o'er the stormy main.
   -Whither does he wander now?
   Haply in his dreams the wind
   Wafts him here, and lets him find
   The lovely orphan child again
   In her castle by the coast;
   The youngest, fairest chatelaine,
   Whom this realm of France can boast,
   Our snowdrop by the Atlantic sea,
   Iseult of Brittany.
   And —for through the haggard air,
   The stain'd arms, the matted hair
   Of that stranger-knight ill-starr'd,
   There gleam'd something, which recall'd
   The Tristram who in better days
   Was Launcelot's guest at Joyous Gard—
   Welcomed here, and here install'd,
   Tended of his fever here,
   Haply he seems again to move
   His young guardian's heart with love;
   In his exiled loneliness,
   In his stately, deep distress,
   Without a word, without a tear.
   —Ah! 'tis well he should retrace
   His tranquil life in this lone place;
   His gentle bearing at the side
   Of his timid youthful bride;
   His long rambles by the shore
   On winter-evenings, when the roar
   Of the near waves came, sadly grand,
   Through the dark, up the drown'd sand,
   Or his endless reveries
   In the woods, where the gleams play
   On the grass under the trees,
   Passing the long summer's day
   Idle as a mossy stone
   In the forest-depths alone,
   The chase neglected, and his hound
   Couch'd beside him on the ground.
   —Ah! what trouble's on his brow?
   Hither let him wander now;
   Hither, to the quiet hours
   Pass'd among these heaths of ours
   By the grey Atlantic sea;
   Hours, if not of ecstasy,
   From violent anguish surely free!

All red with blood the whirling river flows,
The wide plain rings, the dazed air throbs with blows.
Upon us are the chivalry of Rome—
Their spears are down, their steeds are bathed in foam.
"Up, Tristram, up," men cry, "thou moonstruck knight!
What foul fiend rides thee? On into the fight!"
—Above the din her voice is in my ears;
I see her form glide through the crossing spears.—
Iseult! . . . .

         *       *        *       *
   Ah! he wanders forth again;
   We cannot keep him; now, as then,
   There's a secret in his breast
   Which will never let him rest.
   These musing fits in the green wood
   They cloud the brain, they dull the blood!
   —His sword is sharp, his horse is good;
   Beyond the mountains will he see
   The famous towns of Italy,
   And label with the blessed sign
   The heathen Saxons on the Rhine.
   At Arthur's side he fights once more
   With the Roman Emperor.
   There's many a gay knight where he goes
   Will help him to forget his care;
   The march, the leaguer, Heaven's blithe air,
   The neighing steeds, the ringing blows—
   Sick pining comes not where these are.
   Ah! what boots it, that the jest
   Lightens every other brow,
   What, that every other breast
   Dances as the trumpets blow,
   If one's own heart beats not light
   On the waves of the toss'd fight,
   If oneself cannot get free
   From the clog of misery?
   Thy lovely youthful wife grows pale
   Watching by the salt sea-tide
   With her children at her side
   For the gleam of thy white sail.
   Home, Tristram, to thy halls again!
   To our lonely sea complain,
   To our forests tell thy pain!

All round the forest sweeps off, black in shade,
But it is moonlight in the open glade;
And in the bottom of the glade shine clear
The forest-chapel and the fountain near.
—I think, I have a fever in my blood;
Come, let me leave the shadow of this wood,
Ride down, and bathe my hot brow in the flood.
—Mild shines the cold spring in the moon's clear light;
God! 'tis her face plays in the waters bright.
"Fair love," she says, "canst thou forget so soon,
At this soft hour, under this sweet moon?"—
Iseult! . . . .

              *       *        *       *

   Ah, poor soul! if this be so,
   Only death can balm thy woe.
   The solitudes of the green wood
   Had no medicine for thy mood;
   The rushing battle clear'd thy blood
   As little as did solitude.
   —Ah! his eyelids slowly break
   Their hot seals, and let him wake;
   What new change shall we now see?
   A happier? Worse it cannot be.

Is my page here? Come, turn me to the fire!
Upon the window-panes the moon shines bright;
The wind is down—but she'll not come to-night.
Ah no! she is asleep in Cornwall now,
Far hence; her dreams are fair—smooth is her brow.
Of me she recks not, nor my vain desire.
—I have had dreams, I have had dreams, my page,
Would take a score years from a strong man's age;
And with a blood like mine, will leave, I fear,
Scant leisure for a second messenger.
—My princess, art thou there? Sweet, do not wait!
To bed, and sleep! my fever is gone by;
To-night my page shall keep me company.
Where do the children sleep? kiss them for me!
Poor child, thou art almost as pale as I;
This comes of nursing long and watching late.
To bed—good night!

              *       *        *       *
   She left the gleam-lit fireplace,
   She came to the bed-side;
   She took his hands in hers—her tears
   Down on his wasted fingers rain'd.
   She raised her eyes upon his face—
   Not with a look of wounded pride,
   A look as if the heart complained—
   Her look was like a sad embrace;
   The gaze of one who can divine
   A grief, and sympathise.
   Sweet flower! thy children's eyes
   Are not more innocent than thine.
   But they sleep in shelter'd rest,
   Like helpless birds in the warm nest,
   On the castle's southern side;
   Where feebly comes the mournful roar
   Of buffeting wind and surging tide
   Through many a room and corridor.
   —Full on their window the moon's ray
   Makes their chamber as bright as day.
   It shines upon the blank white walls,
   And on the snowy pillow falls,
   And on two angel-heads doth play
   Turn'd to each other—the eyes closed,
   The lashes on the cheeks reposed.
   Round each sweet brow the cap close-set
   Hardly lets peep the golden hair;
   Through the soft-open'd lips the air
   Scarcely moves the coverlet.
   One little wandering arm is thrown
   At random on the counterpane,
   And often the fingers close in haste
   As if their baby-owner chased
   The butterflies again.
   This stir they have, and this alone;
   But else they are so still!
   —Ah, tired madcaps! you lie still;
   But were you at the window now,
   To look forth on the fairy sight
   Of your illumined haunts by night,
   To see the park-glades where you play
   Far lovelier than they are by day,
   To see the sparkle on the eaves,
   And upon every giant-bough
   Of those old oaks, whose wet red leaves
   Are jewell'd with bright drops of rain—
   How would your voices run again!
   And far beyond the sparkling trees
   Of the castle-park one sees
   The bare heaths spreading, clear as day,
   Moor behind moor, far, far away,
   Into the heart of Brittany.
   And here and there, lock'd by the land,
   Long inlets of smooth glittering sea,
   And many a stretch of watery sand
   All shining in the white moon-beams—
   But you see fairer in your dreams!

What voices are these on the clear night-air?
What lights in the court—what steps on the stair?

              ISEULT OF IRELAND

Raise the light, my page! that I may see her.—
   Thou art come at last, then, haughty Queen!
Long I've waited, long I've fought my fever;
   Late thou comest, cruel thou hast been.

Blame me not, poor sufferer! that I tarried;
   Bound I was, I could not break the band.
Chide not with the past, but feel the present!
   I am here—we meet—I hold thy hand.

Thou art come, indeed—thou hast rejoin'd me;
   Thou hast dared it—but too late to save.
Fear not now that men should tax thine honour!
   I am dying: build—(thou may'st)—my grave!

Tristram, ah, for love of Heaven, speak kindly!
   What, I hear these bitter words from thee?
Sick with grief I am, and faint with travel—
   Take my hand—dear Tristram, look on me!

I forget, thou comest from thy voyage—
   Yes, the spray is on thy cloak and hair.
But thy dark eyes are not dimm'd, proud Iseult!
   And thy beauty never was more fair.

Ah, harsh flatterer! let alone my beauty!
   I, like thee, have left my youth afar.
Take my hand, and touch these wasted fingers—
   See my cheek and lips, how white they are!

Thou art paler—but thy sweet charm, Iseult!
   Would not fade with the dull years away.
Ah, how fair thou standest in the moonlight!
   I forgive thee, Iseult!—thou wilt stay?

Fear me not, I will be always with thee;
   I will watch thee, tend thee, soothe thy pain;
Sing thee tales of true, long-parted lovers,
   Join'd at evening of their days again.

No, thou shalt not speak! I should be finding
   Something alter'd in thy courtly tone.
Sit—sit by me! I will think, we've lived so
   In the green wood, all our lives, alone.

Alter'd, Tristram? Not in courts, believe me,
   Love like mine is alter'd in the breast;
Courtly life is light and cannot reach it—
   Ah! it lives, because so deep-suppress'd!

What, thou think'st men speak in courtly chambers
   Words by which the wretched are consoled?
What, thou think'st this aching brow was cooler,
   Circled, Tristram, by a band of gold?

Royal state with Marc, my deep-wrong'd husband—
   That was bliss to make my sorrows flee!
Silken courtiers whispering honied nothings—
   Those were friends to make me false to thee!

Ah, on which, if both our lots were balanced,
   Was indeed the heaviest burden thrown—
Thee, a pining exile in thy forest,
   Me, a smiling queen upon my throne?

Vain and strange debate, where both have suffer'd,
   Both have pass'd a youth consumed and sad,
Both have brought their anxious day to evening,
   And have now short space for being glad!

Join'd we are henceforth; nor will thy people,
   Nor thy younger Iseult take it ill,
That a former rival shares her office,
   When she sees her humbled, pale, and still.

I, a faded watcher by thy pillow,
   I, a statue on thy chapel-floor,
Pour'd in prayer before the Virgin-Mother,
   Rouse no anger, make no rivals more.

She will cry: "Is this the foe I dreaded?
   This his idol? this that royal bride?
Ah, an hour of health would purge his eyesight!
   Stay, pale queen! for ever by my side."

Hush, no words! that smile, I see, forgives me.
   I am now thy nurse, I bid thee sleep.
Close thine eyes—this flooding moonlight blinds them!—
   Nay, all's well again! thou must not weep.

I am happy! yet I feel, there's something
   Swells my heart, and takes my breath away.
Through a mist I see thee; near—come nearer!
   Bend—bend down!—I yet have much to say.

Heaven! his head sinks back upon the pillow—
   Tristram! Tristram! let thy heart not fail!
Call on god and on the holy angels!
   What, love, courage!—Christ! he is so pale.

Hush, 'tis vain, I feel my end approaching!
   This is what my mother said should be,
When the fierce pains took her in the forest,
   The deep draughts of death, in bearing me.

"Son," she said, "thy name shall be of sorrow;
   Tristram art thou call'd for my death's sake."
So she said, and died in the drear forest.
   Grief since then his home with me doth make.

I am dying.—Start not, nor look wildly!
   Me, thy living friend, thou canst not save.
But, since living we were ununited,
   Go not far, O Iseult! from my grave.

Close mine eyes, then seek the princess Iseult;
   Speak her fair, she is of royal blood!
Say, I will'd so, that thou stay beside me—
   She will grant it; she is kind and good.

Now to sail the seas of death I leave thee—
   One last kiss upon the living shore!

Tristram!—Tristram!—stay—receive me with thee!
   Iseult leaves thee, Tristram! never more.

              *       *        *       *
You see them clear—the moon shines bright.
Slow, slow and softly, where she stood,
She sinks upon the ground;—her hood
Had fallen back; her arms outspread
Still hold her lover's hand; her head
Is bow'd, half-buried, on the bed.
O'er the blanch'd sheet her raven hair
Lies in disorder'd streams; and there,
Strung like white stars, the pearls still are,
And the golden bracelets, heavy and rare,
Flash on her white arms still.
The very same which yesternight
Flash'd in the silver sconces' light,
When the feast was gay and the laughter loud
In Tyntagel's palace proud.
But then they deck'd a restless ghost
With hot-flush'd cheeks and brilliant eyes,
And quivering lips on which the tide
Of courtly speech abruptly died,
And a glance which over the crowded floor,
The dancers, and the festive host,
Flew ever to the door.
That the knights eyed her in surprise,
And the dames whispered scoffingly:
"Her moods, good lack, they pass like showers!
But yesternight and she would be
As pale and still as wither'd flowers,
And now to-night she laughs and speaks
And has a colour in her cheeks;
Christ keep us from such fantasy!"—

Yes, now the longing is o'erpast,
Which, dogg'd by fear and fought by shame
Shook her weak bosom day and night,
Consumed her beauty like a flame,
And dimm'd it like the desert-blast.
And though the bed-clothes hide her face,
Yet were it lifted to the light,
The sweet expression of her brow
Would charm the gazer, till his thought
Erased the ravages of time,
Fill'd up the hollow cheek, and brought
A freshness back as of her prime—
So healing is her quiet now.
So perfectly the lines express
A tranquil, settled loveliness,
Her younger rival's purest grace.

The air of the December-night
Steals coldly around the chamber bright,
Where those lifeless lovers be;
Swinging with it, in the light
Flaps the ghostlike tapestry.
And on the arras wrought you see
A stately Huntsman, clad in green,
And round him a fresh forest-scene.
On that clear forest-knoll he stays,
With his pack round him, and delays.
He stares and stares, with troubled face,
At this huge, gleam-lit fireplace,
At that bright, iron-figured door,
And those blown rushes on the floor.
He gazes down into the room
With heated cheeks and flurried air,
And to himself he seems to say:
"What place is this, and who are they?
Who is that kneeling Lady fair?
And on his pillows that pale Knight
Who seems of marble on a tomb?
How comes it here, this chamber bright,
Through whose mullion'd windows clear
The castle-court all wet with rain,
The drawbridge and the moat appear,
And then the beach, and, mark'd with spray,
The sunken reefs, and far away
The unquiet bright Atlantic plain?
—What, has some glamour made me sleep,
And sent me with my dogs to sweep,
By night, with boisterous bugle-peal,
Through some old, sea-side, knightly hall,
Not in the free green wood at all?
That Knight's asleep and at her prayer
That Lady by the bed doth kneel—
Then hush, thou boisterous bugle-peal!"

—The wild boar rustles in his lair;
The fierce hounds snuff the tainted air;
But lord and hounds keep rooted there.

Cheer, cheer thy dogs into the brake,
O Hunter! and without a fear
Thy golden-tassell'd bugle blow,
And through the glades thy pastime take—
For thou wilt rouse no sleepers here!
For these thou seest are unmoved;
Cold, cold as those who lived and loved
A thousand years ago.

              ISEULT OF BRITTANY

A year had flown, and o'er the sea away,
In Cornwall, Tristram and Queen Iseult lay;
In King Marc's chapel, in Tyntagel old—
There in a ship they bore those lovers cold.

The young surviving Iseult, one bright day,
Had wander'd forth. Her children were at play
In a green circular hollow in the heath
Which borders the sea-shore—a country path
Creeps over it from the till'd fields behind.
The hollow's grassy banks are soft-inclined,
And to one standing on them, far and near
The lone unbroken view spreads bright and clear
Over the waste. This cirque of open ground
Is light and green; the heather, which all round
Creeps thickly, grows not here; but the pale grass
Is strewn with rocks, and many a shiver'd mass
Of vein'd white-gleaming quartz, and here and there
Dotted with holly-trees and juniper.
In the smooth centre of the opening stood
Three hollies side by side, and made a screen,
Warm with the winter-sun, of burnish'd green
With scarlet berries gemm'd, the fell-fare's food.
Under the glittering hollies Iseult stands,
Watching her children play; their little hands
Are busy gathering spars of quartz, and streams
Of stagshorn for their hats; anon, with screams
Of mad delight they drop their spoils, and bound
Among the holly-clumps and broken ground,
Racing full speed, and startling in their rush
The fell-fares and the speckled missel-thrush
Out of their glossy coverts;—but when now
Their cheeks were flush'd, and over each hot brow,
Under the feather'd hats of the sweet pair,
In blinding masses shower'd the golden hair—
Then Iseult call'd them to her, and the three
Cluster'd under the holly-screen, and she
Told them an old-world Breton history.

Warm in their mantles wrapt the three stood there,
Under the hollies, in the clear still air—
Mantles with those rich furs deep glistering
Which Venice ships do from swart Egypt bring.
Long they stay'd still—then, pacing at their ease,
Moved up and down under the glossy trees.
But still, as they pursued their warm dry road,
From Iseult's lips the unbroken story flow'd,
And still the children listen'd, their blue eyes
Fix'd on their mother's face in wide surprise;
Nor did their looks stray once to the sea-side,
Nor to the brown heaths round them, bright and wide,
Nor to the snow, which, though 't was all away
From the open heath, still by the hedgerows lay,
Nor to the shining sea-fowl, that with screams
Bore up from where the bright Atlantic gleams,
Swooping to landward; nor to where, quite clear,
The fell-fares settled on the thickets near.
And they would still have listen'd, till dark night
Came keen and chill down on the heather bright;
But, when the red glow on the sea grew cold,
And the grey turrets of the castle old
Look'd sternly through the frosty evening-air,
Then Iseult took by the hand those children fair,
And brought her tale to an end, and found the path,
And led them home over the darkening heath.

And is she happy? Does she see unmoved
The days in which she might have lived and loved
Slip without bringing bliss slowly away,
One after one, to-morrow like to-day?
Joy has not found her yet, nor ever will—
Is it this thought which makes her mien so still,
Her features so fatigued, her eyes, though sweet,
So sunk, so rarely lifted save to meet
Her children's? She moves slow; her voice alone
Hath yet an infantine and silver tone.
But even that comes languidly; in truth,
She seems one dying in a mask of youth.
And now she will go home, and softly lay
Her laughing children in their beds, and play
Awhile with them before they sleep; and then
She'll light her silver lamp, which fishermen
Dragging their nets through the rough waves, afar,
Along this iron coast, know like a star,
And take her broidery-frame, and there she'll sit
Hour after hour, her gold curls sweeping it;
Lifting her soft-bent head only to mind
Her children, or to listen to the wind.
And when the clock peals midnight, she will move
Her work away, and let her fingers rove
Across the shaggy brows of Tristram's hound
Who lies, guarding her feet, along the ground;
Or else she will fall musing, her blue eyes
Fixt, her slight hands clasp'd on her lap; then rise,
And at her prie-dieu kneel, until she have told
Her rosary-beads of ebony tipp'd with gold,
Then to her soft sleep—and to-morrow'll be
To-day's exact repeated effigy.

Yes, it is lonely for her in her hall.
The children, and the grey-hair'd seneschal,
Her women, and Sir Tristram's aged hound,
Are there the sole companions to be found.
But these she loves; and noisier life than this
She would find ill to bear, weak as she is.
She has her children, too, and night and day
Is with them; and the wide heaths where they play,
The hollies, and the cliff, and the sea-shore,
The sand, the sea-birds, and the distant sails,
These are to her dear as to them; the tales
With which this day the children she beguiled
She gleaned from Breton grandames, when a child,
In every hut along this sea-coast wild.
She herself loves them still, and, when they are told,
Can forget all to hear them, as of old.

Dear saints, it is not sorrow, as I hear,
Not suffering, which shuts up eye and ear
To all that has delighted them before,
And lets us be what we were once no more.
No, we may suffer deeply, yet retain
Power to be moved and soothed, for all our pain,
By what of old pleased us, and will again.
No, 'tis the gradual furnace of the world,
In whose hot air our spirits are upcurl'd
Until they crumble, or else grow like steel—
Which kills in us the bloom, the youth, the spring—
Which leaves the fierce necessity to feel,
But takes away the power—this can avail,
By drying up our joy in everything,
To make our former pleasures all seem stale.
This, or some tyrannous single thought, some fit
Of passion, which subdues our souls to it,
Till for its sake alone we live and move—
Call it ambition, or remorse, or love—
This too can change us wholly, and make seem
All which we did before, shadow and dream.

And yet, I swear, it angers me to see
How this fool passion gulls men potently;
Being, in truth, but a diseased unrest,
And an unnatural overheat at best.
How they are full of languor and distress
Not having it; which when they do possess,
They straightway are burnt up with fume and care,
And spend their lives in posting here and there
Where this plague drives them; and have little ease,
Are furious with themselves, and hard to please.
Like that bald Caesar, the famed Roman wight,
Who wept at reading of a Grecian knight
Who made a name at younger years than he;
Or that renown'd mirror of chivalry,
Prince Alexander, Philip's peerless son,
Who carried the great war from Macedon
Into the Soudan's realm, and thundered on
To die at thirty-five in Babylon.

What tale did Iseult to the children say,
Under the hollies, that bright winter's day?

She told them of the fairy-haunted land
Away the other side of Brittany,
Beyond the heaths, edged by the lonely sea;
Of the deep forest-glades of Broce-liande,
Through whose green boughs the golden sunshine creeps,
Where Merlin by the enchanted thorn-tree sleeps.
For here he came with the fay Vivian,
One April, when the warm days first began.
He was on foot, and that false fay, his friend,
On her white palfrey; here he met his end,
In these lone sylvan glades, that April-day.
This tale of Merlin and the lovely fay
Was the one Iseult chose, and she brought clear
Before the children's fancy him and her.

Blowing between the stems, the forest-air
Had loosen'd the brown locks of Vivian's hair,
Which play'd on her flush'd cheek, and her blue eyes
Sparkled with mocking glee and exercise.
Her palfrey's flanks were mired and bathed in sweat,
For they had travell'd far and not stopp'd yet.
A brier in that tangled wilderness
Had scored her white right hand, which she allows
To rest ungloved on her green riding-dress;
The other warded off the drooping boughs.
But still she chatted on, with her blue eyes
Fix'd full on Merlin's face, her stately prize.
Her 'haviour had the morning's fresh clear grace,
The spirit of the woods was in her face.
She look'd so witching fair, that learned wight
Forgot his craft, and his best wits took flight;
And he grew fond, and eager to obey
His mistress, use her empire as she may.

They came to where the brushwood ceased, and day
Peer'd 'twixt the stems; and the ground broke away,
In a sloped sward down to a brawling brook;
And up as high as where they stood to look
On the brook's farther side was clear, but then
The underwood and trees began again.
This open glen was studded thick with thorns
Then white with blossom; and you saw the horns,
Through last year's fern, of the shy fallow-deer
Who come at noon down to the water here.
You saw the bright-eyed squirrels dart along
Under the thorns on the green sward; and strong
The blackbird whistled from the dingles near,
And the weird chipping of the woodpecker
Rang lonelily and sharp; the sky was fair,
And a fresh breath of spring stirr'd everywhere.
Merlin and Vivian stopp'd on the slope's brow,
To gaze on the light sea of leaf and bough
Which glistering plays all round them, lone and mild,
As if to itself the quiet forest smiled.
Upon the brow-top grew a thorn, and here
The grass was dry and moss'd, and you saw clear
Across the hollow; white anemonies
Starr'd the cool turf, and clumps of primroses
Ran out from the dark underwood behind.
No fairer resting-place a man could find.
"Here let us halt," said Merlin then; and she
Nodded, and tied her palfrey to a tree.

They sate them down together, and a sleep
Fell upon Merlin, more like death, so deep.
Her finger on her lips, then Vivian rose,
And from her brown-lock'd head the wimple throws,
And takes it in her hand, and waves it over
The blossom'd thorn-tree and her sleeping lover.
Nine times she waved the fluttering wimple round,
And made a little plot of magic ground.
And in that daisied circle, as men say,
Is Merlin prisoner till the judgment-day;
But she herself whither she will can rove—
For she was passing weary of his love.