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"The island valley of Avilion,
Where falls not hail, nor rain, nor any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea!"
Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur."
"ARTHUR should come again!" the prophet said
The kingdom waited long, and each great soul
That star-like rose upon the nation's sky
Was watch'd for token of expected fate
That should achieve the change and good desired.
But never one fulfill'd the perfect dream
Of stainless character and lofty aim
That in tradition lived and hoping minds.
And, reading this, I murmur'd to myself,
"'Tis better so: the people must be great
That keep such standard of high excellence
Their best do never reach! So let me use
The gift the fairies gave me at my birth
To set in common view, with Saxon words,
A living image of the ideal knight,
Lest men forget, amid these restless times
Of hollow shows and worshipping of gold,
That truth and pureness once were in the world,
Nor lose their faith that they will come again!
And so I sang the songs of other days, --
Have ta'en to modern homes and modern hearts
The ghosts of ancient dead that lived their lives
As grandly or as weakly as their age
Or natures wrought on them! with my witch-wand
I open'd Fancy's portal, and led forth
In their own shapes, to breathe earth's air again,
The storied men who had become a name,
And group'd them all about the British king,
As once they circled him at Table Round,
And that fair queen, so frail because she loved,
That, false herself, kept her one lover true,
Whom Arthur trusted, blind to his great wrong,
Since his large, royal soul in others saw
Only the good and truth was in his own.
And then I said, with that vague, quenchless thirst
We dreamers know when mingles sorrow's shade
With discontent at our own labor done,
That seems so poor beside the vivid thought,
"And what reward is mine for this my work?
Men will forget it in a little while,
And when this brain is dust, how few will care
That once it throbb'd with Inspiration's heat!
Would I could go away from all the doubt,
The pain and turmoil of this weary life,
Into Avilion, where the good king went,
And rest me in the Happy Isle, like him!"
And so I closed my tired eyes, that press'd
Two tears between the lids, that, as they touch'd
The level ground, into a wonder grew;
For, lo! a lake that spread its waters up
Nigh to my feet, while through the sunset glow
A black barge hove in sight, like one that came
For wounded Arthur, only now it bore
No fair, crown'd queens, no hooded, weeping dames!
Only a pallid steersman stood at helm,
With white garb stirless as a statue's robe,
That seem'd to sweep adown o'er folded wings.
The boat came slowly to the coast, and paused.
I inland turn'd an instant's sight, and saw
That darkness gather'd o'er the fields, and light
Was all before, then stepp'd into the stern,
And o'er the rising tide the vessel moved.
We floated on; my comrade never spoke,
And I sat silent, with a lonely sense
Born from the far-off look in his sad eyes.
But once, remembering Charon, I arose
And laid a coin within his idle hand;
He gazed at it in wonder, curved his arm,
And dropp'd it in the waves; and, half abash'd,
I turn'd towards the glories of the sky.
The slanting rays shot up the azure arch
In silver streaks that waned in motes away,
Tinging the fleecy clouds with rainbow hues;
We sail'd on golden ripples, whose light foam
Died on th' horizon's verge, where, half in heaven,
A purple island hung with rosy shores;
While stretching off on either side there shone
White lustrous mountains edged with peaks of fire.
We came anear at last. Delicious airs
Play'd o'er my brow, that brought a faint, rare sound
Of distant harmony; while through my limbs
New vigor ran, that sent the dancing blood
Tingling in languid veins, as each heart-throb
More quick and eager with expectance grew.
In buoyant feelings I had long forgot,
My youth and hope came back to me once more;
And, like the slow uprising of a mist,
There roll'd away the darkness that was laid
Between my mind and things I strove to solve;
Deep, secret meanings dawn'd upon my brain,
That had been dull'd with dust, but in this clime
Saw clear the hidden truth. Sorrow and pain,
That woke such wild, blind prayers, look'd only now
As ministers to purify desire;
And e'en the earth's great riddle that we beat
Rebellious will 'gainst, -- ah! I may not show
What grand significance e'en evil took!
And, as I leap'd upon the shining beach,
I cried, "How few in that old world of woe
E'er dream'd the Happy Island lay so near!"
And such rich rapture stirr'd my grateful soul,
I bent my knee in worship's ecstasy,
Thanking my God that, after years of toil
To know the Truth, and fallings by the way,
My Faith in Him had stood the test of Thought!
But most my spirit thank'd Him that He is!
And, as I rose, one that I knew stood by,
And look'd in mine with eyes as tender, soft
As when we parted -- ah! so long ago!
"I knew that you would come!" he said, when first
The bliss of meeting yielded feeling words;
"And I have waited here; for all the joys
Of this fair home were incomplete and poor
Till I had you once more, my life's beloved!
See these green lawns, these shaded, quiet woods,
Where we will walk together, as of yore,
And never change or part, or weep or yearn!
Was it not worth the tears we shed on earth
To love forever in Avilion thus?"
And so we talk'd a while, until I ask'd,
"I marvel that 'tis light here still! 'twas dusk
Beyond there when I started! Does the sun
Ne'er set on this bless'd land?" He gently said,
"At eventime there shall be light!" and then
I knew no night would e'er dispel the glow
That rested on this isle from unseen source.
And afterwards I question'd of the prince,
If yet he dwelt here while the nations wait;
And my dear comrade took my willing hand,
And led me through the shadowy lanes, wherein
He said we might meet Arthur and the queen.
I think mine eyes had glimpses of the views,
Through opening glades, that once my dreams believed
Were parts of all fair countries far away
That I had never seen, -- green slopes and swells,
And high hills veil'd in floating, silver mists,
And countless waterfalls, and limpid streams
Where trees droop'd o'er and shaded lotus buds;
And 'neath our feet and all about us bloom'd
Rich, unknown blossoms, and the twining leaves
A dewy freshness bore; and in the midst
I walk'd in silent rapture, such as comes
To human hearts in love's divinest hour,
When speechless bliss o'erfloods the tender gaze
And lifts th' aspiring soul through joy to God!
And there was nothing of the sadness here
That stole through all the Nature I had known,
And made it ever seem like some vain show
In which a spirit grieves; but flowers and sky,
Meadow and stream, were freely, fully bright,
As if the soul of happiness inspired
Their life and beauty, where no sorrow came;
And all the higher pleasures of mere sense
Were so etherealized, we could but feel
A fine expansion, taintless of all flesh!
And, as we walk'd together as of yore,
Slow pacing mid the avenues of trees,
Then through an arching vista I beheld
A street of gold that ran 'twixt crystal domes,
And two that came adown its sparkling slope;
And, as we drew anear, I saw that one
Was grand in presence, kingly, and yet wore
Such courteous, kindly mien, that one who begg'd
Might call him "brother," though he graced a throne!
And clinging to his arm, with white hands link'd,
And small head thrown aback with all its wealth
Of flowing hair, that thus the loving eyes
Might seek the lofty face, was one that seem'd
The very fairest creature e'er I saw.
"Ah! see! they come!" my dear companion said,
"The king and Guinevere!" and, as he ceased,
We met them face to face, and Arthur spake
To one he knew a stranger, in sweet tones
Of simple welcome; and then, mid our talk,
He ask'd, at last, "Do those you left behind
Still keep a thought of me? Do men still hope
That I will come again, as Merlin told,
To do my best to win for them the right?"
And when I drew a picture of the times,
And how the nations groan'd because was found
No strong, true leader pure in life and aim,
He turn'd aside, as if to muse alone;
And one came slowly up between the glades,
On whose worn face there shone a holy smile,
That might have been a seraph's, and stood by
The while the queen ask'd, with a watchful glance
Towards the prince, "Do men on earth still love
As in the olden time? Do ladies keep
Their faith the same in spite of keen despair?"
I answer'd not, but fondly clasp'd the hand
That touch'd mine own, and something in our looks
Spoke more than words unto her woman-sense.
"Ah, well!" she said, without a sigh, or shade
On her smooth brow, "we too loved well as you
In years that are a dream, Isonde and I!
But then we loved with wrong, and pray'd to God,
Long ere we died, to wipe our deep sin out;
And when we came here, all our feelings clung
Whereto they ought, ere led astray by flesh!
See, now I stand by Launcelot, and no thrill
Stirs him or me: I love my lord the king!"
And I, remembering oft-repeated tales
Of their great passion, then towards Launcelot turn'd,
A sudden pity quivering on my mouth;
But he, with glowing brow and shining eyes,
Look'd up as if a vision met his view,
And murmur'd softly, through his parted lips,
"My God! my God! I love but Thee, my God!"
And just then Arthur came to me, and spoke
Like one whose mind has measured some resolve
And master'd it: "The time at last is ripe!
I will go back again! The people need
A chief whose soul knows glories that will lift
His deeds and motives o'er all petty price.
I wore a crown before, and felt its thorns;
And I have known since what it is to live
In heavens won by duty: so I go
To lead the way to truth through seas of blood!
Come with me, while I sit me down once more
Among the knights that shared my Table Round;
For who may tell if I can keep myself
Unscath'd by sin, and here return again?
My own dear queen! I never thought to see
A tear in sweet Avilion! Pray to God,
Who sends me on His errand, that His love
Shall compass me about until the end;
'Twill not be long to wait: you know, beloved,
A thousand years in His sight are a day!
And so we went together to a vale
Bosom'd in verdant hills, where waters lay,
And round about, upon the lilied lawns,
A goodly company of noble men.
And Arthur sat him on a rising knoll,
With Guinevere's bow'd head upon his breast,
And told his high resolve, and ask'd of each
Some counsel of their wisdom, that his soul
Might carry back into the lives of men
The teachings won through death by heavenly thought.
And as they throng'd about him with deep words,
And deeper meanings, answering to his need
With wondrous axioms that each one had wrung
The pith of from a sharp experience,
I soon was 'ware that, mid the knightly shades
That once for right clash'd swords at Camelot,
Come large-brow'd, lifted heads, light-crown'd like kings;
And these with tuneful voices utter'd slow
Such music, knowledge, and prophetic sense,
I scarce knew which most marvellous seem'd to hear,
So blended with a simple, quiet ease
Was tone melodious and thought sublime.
And in a pause my comrade softly said,
"These are the poets, dear: before, we knew
Their minds by flashes; but from their own lips,
Oft wandering by these everlasting streams,
We now shall share the fulness of their growth,
And hear old strains completed that were left
With something wanting in our other sphere!"
The poets! O my poets! how I long'd
To see your faces once! How your sweet words
Have stirr'd the pulses of my hot young heart
Or still'd its fever! Masters, singers, skalds!
Ye were my friends that never play'd me false,
The teachers ever pointing to the True!
Your names lie gather'd in my inmost soul,
As cherish'd as the flowers that we keep
In token of great happiness and love!
O souls inspired, through whom amid my woe
I stretch'd my hands to God! I look'd on you,
Saw your grand foreheads, heard your voices clear,
And could not tell, for gazing in your eyes,
If white shapes hovering round your steps were they
Whose names your songs made glorious for aye,
The women ye had loved, or angels charm'd
From other heavens by the music here.
I saw ye all, my bards! ay, mine and earth's,
God's and eternity's! Albeit I saw
Where thorns had pierced your brows, and naked feet
Were scarr'd from treading ploughshares red with pain!
My stately Sophocles with Shakspeare walk'd,
Two royal natures mated, with a space
Betwixt their purple and the next who came;
Yet they were men too grand to look on men,
And blinded that they should but see the gods!
One sang to Grecian harp the world's child-faith,
And one its manhood's to a loftier lyre!
Homer and Milton, with majestic eyes,
That saw us tremble at their awful runes!
Then Sappho, with her hand in Tasso's twined,
Her fruitless passion spent in that wild leap
When flashing of her robe the ages thrill'd!
And he sublime through sorrow born of love,
Without a speck of prison-dust to float
'Twixt his fond hope and glories of his dream!
And crush'd Italia's boast, that sets her high
Above the thrones that cannot seize at least
Her great crown-gems, outshining all their power!
Virgil and Dante, with the sadness fled
Their human brows once caught among the lost!
Then Spenser, Chaucer, that had lived so near
To Nature's heart, they show'd us how our own
Throbb'd pulse to pulse with hers! While two grand forms
Came, with a prince between, who loved them well,
And made himself a prouder tomb than his
Of the same name who slept enthroned at Aix!
For, dropping out the sceptre from his hand,
He laid him down at last betwixt the dust
That bore eternal fames, and link'd his grave
On either side to sacred soil for aye!
The rare completed man of many lives,
Whose eager search strove ever towards the truth,
And sang the gleams he caught in deathless notes,
Great Goethe show'd in meanings of his speech
That earth's unquiet quest was found at last!
And that fine nature, brother of his mind,
True lover of the beautiful and free,
Schiller, who trod the highest paths of Art,
With Carl of Weimar looking upon both
As Saul might once have gazed upon the seer
That pour'd anointing oil upon his head!
Byron and Burns, those passionate, rich souls,
That here, unfetter'd from all scorn and ill
And weakness of the flesh, had grown sublime
By living purely out their higher selves;
Inspired of genius still, whose burning words
Startled a glance of fire to Arthur's eyes,
That faded into awe as solemn rose
The voice of one amid the moment's hush
That might have been a prophet of the Lord
To shake and gather spirits in the world,
If time and reason could have cast from life
The hot dreams of his youth ere death had led
His seeing mind unto the Fount of Light!
And after Shelley, with his trembling lips
Uttering low music into language breathed,
Endymion pass'd, who left to mark his rest
The record of a name in water writ,
And found his high thoughts known beyond the stars!
And as they moved aside, they group'd around
A fair, slight form but late come in their midst,
That stood within the circle of their tones
Calmly as one who long had known each soul,
Yet with a gladness shining on her face
Like to an exile's who is welcomed home
By old familiar voices, answering all
With some remember'd token of the past!
The mighty ancients spoke to her in words
As musical as choruses they sung;
The soul-blind minstrels of dim, distant days
Stood side by side with martyrs who had mix'd
The last triumphant strains of holy lives
With hatred's incense of ascending flames;
And all sublime and tender hearts that loved
And gave love language in their native tongues
That won new harmony from notes divine;
And they who play'd on lutes by sorrow tuned,
Or lifted nations, in a burst of song,
From deep despair to heights of conquering faith, --
These talk'd with her as one whom their blest sight
Saw worthy evermore to walk with them
In amaranthine fields 'neath trees that bear
The leaves of knowledge and the fruit of life!
And some there were that breathed in broken sounds
Such thrilling, earnest thoughts, I could but feel
That they had been the voiceless ones of earth,
Trying their new-won power with timid lips,
As children stammer ere they learn to speak!
Yet, as all cluster'd round the central shape,
As in the skies the constellations range
About a single star, ofttimes less bright
And smaller than the suns that orbit it,
She spoke some reverent word that drew reply,
Pointing her hands towards the far-off world,
Then towards the glowing beams of changeless light
Wherein the good king sat among his knights;
And all the streams and woods, and hills and vales,
Gave solemn echo to the glad refrain,
Suiting all time when wrong by right is slain,
Of "Pan, Great Pan is dead! Pan, Pan is dead!"
And, as the last note floated low away,
Arthur arose, and shoreward turn'd his steps,
And all the company went with him there;
Launcelot and Galahad on either side
Walk'd, with their lustrous faces, though one show'd
That pureness had belong'd to it from birth,
And to the other came through pain and death;
Then Bors and Bedivere, Sir Gareth, Kaye,
Tristan and Pellinore, Gawaine and Urre,
And all the other proud, familiar names
That shook the lists with shouting in old days.
And the fair queen after quick rain of tears,
With head uplifted like to one who sees
The bow of promise, all the storm forgot
In listening to the music of the bards.
And when we came upon the sparkling beach,
The barge was waiting, but the helmsman now
Was a great seraph, crown'd, with wings outspread,
Whose glory circled him as rays the sun.
And Arthur enter'd in, and round his form
The angel's radiance made wondrous light.
And some would fain have shared with him again
This new adventure; but he simply said,
"'Twas written I should go alone! my work
Needs not that more be banish'd from their heaven!
Nay, nay, dear friends! It is the will of God!"
And at the sacred Name all bow'd their heads
And let him pass, and, as the vessel heaved
On waves of golden light, the air seem'd full
Of glorious faces and of snowy plumes,
And over us unnumber'd voices join'd
In such sweet harmony, it swell'd the tears
In speechless ecstasy from my touch'd heart.
And then -- and then -- was it the stirring sail
Or sudden silence broke the marvellous spell?
Alas! I know not! only, in a flash,
I found myself once more within this world,
On which the shades had gather'd into night,
And mid the throng that wait the Coming King!