Back to top
King Marke of Cornwall sent Sir Tristan forth,
With goodly company in grand array,
On embassy to Anguish, Ireland's king;
That there his nephew's eloquence might move
The father's heart to give his daughter's hand;
For Marke had heard the minstrels sing of her,
La Belle Isonde, until his throne had seem'd
Empty without a queen, and listen'd then
His people's murmuring that he did not wed;
And so he chose the princess for his bride.
But on the way Sir Tristan met a lord,
With many peers, that in the name of might
Truage of Cornwall did demand with swords!
And Tristan slew him, but did get himself
Such serious hurt, that those about him pray'd
For his soul's rest, and begg'd him but to stay
His journey's progress till his wound was heal'd.
But the brave knight bound up his gaping side,
And bade them onward: -- "Duty could not wait
Because man should bleed! He will'd to live
Until his errand was all done, and then --
Why, God's good pleasure should hear his Amen!"
And so he came at last to Ireland's court,
And in the audience-hall, before the throne,
Stood pale and leaning on his sheathéd sword,
And told his message to the king and queen,
Fainting, in ending, at the princess' feet,
Whose tender eyes dropp'd tears amid the blood
That gush'd afresh, as trembling she essay'd
To quench its flowing with her own warm scarf;
And, as she was well skill'd in surgery's art,
They gave him to her charge to try his cure.
And long she wrestled with the angel Death,
Conquering through prayer, and won him back to life.
And Tristan watch'd her from his couch, and wish'd
He might be ill forever, thus to keep
So fair a picture always in his sight!
And she would do for him, with quiet grace,
All offices that only women can,
When, smote by sickness, men will humbly lean
On the strong tenderness that never fails!
The little hand smooth'd pillows for his head,
Bathed his hot brow, and dress'd his healing wound,
And, when he seem'd to slumber mid his pain,
Plied silken threads to aid her silent watch.
And if sometimes it met his own, 'twas but
The leech's touch to learn the fever's height.
And all about, within her was such sense
Of maiden purity, that Tristan ne'er,
Even by thought of passion, would have stirr'd
Th'unconscious calm of that white, virgin breast!
So day by day he grew to perfect health,
And, sitting by her in the summer morns,
He taught her how to tune the lute, and sang
Old ditties, mostly battle-songs, or lays
Of sunny France, the harvest-hymns, or plaints
Of captive slaves, -- but never sang of love!
And if her changing cheek did flush and pale,
And her heart throb, she knew 'twas but the tunes,
The music shaking all her inner soul;
And if she did not laugh as she was wont,
But from the castle-terrace gazed long hours
Toward distant Cornwall, all her maids would say,
"She's sad because she leaves us: this quick change
From home to husband weighs her spirits down.
She wonders if he'll love her like her sire!
He must be noble, since the knights he sent
Are gentle, and his herald like a king.
She's worn with watching. Sure her lord may count
Upon the goodness that did patient nurse
The proxy for his sake will call her queen!"
And so they gossip'd on her alter'd ways,
And -- for they knew her all her girlhood up --
Did never link her name, by sneer or hint,
In thought or speech, with aught that was not true.
And thus, with this fine honor in them both,
That knew her pledged, they kept them safe through all;
And if perchance o'er Tristan's soul would come
A sudden tempting, when she stept anear,
To seize her in his arms, and kiss her eyes,
Mouth, hands, once strain her to his heart, and then
Tear open his old wound, and pitied die,
He sternly fought it down, and school'd his thought
To say, unshrinkingly, "My uncle's wife!"
And when their ship was ready, all the court
Did bear her company to the water's edge,
And the whole country mourn'd to see her go.
She wept to know how she was loved, -- to leave
Her childhood's happy home for stranger roof, --
To see no more, perchance, the early friends
That fill'd her memory; and all sights and sounds
Seem'd but to make her sadder as she went,
Until she look'd on Tristan, and her heart
Took a sweet sense of something undefined,
That made her think but of the voyage with him,
Forgetful of the king would crown its end!
And, ere they sail'd, her mother gave in charge
Secretly to Governale, Sir Tristan's squire,
A golden flask full of enchanted wine,
That, on the day when they should wed, King Marke
And her Isonde should drink the same, and so
Either should other love through all their life,
And find expression by its potent spell.
The August days were languid on the sea;
The vessel linger'd on the glassy calm
Of heaveless waves; and, as they silent sate,
Watching from cabin-window a lone bird
Skimming the surface of the waters blue,
Then, more to break the stillness than from need,
Isonde did murmur that she was athirst;
And Tristan rose to search for welcome draught,
And came back, smiling, with a golden flask,
And told her how he found it in the case
Where Governale did keep his master's helm;
And so -- for such rare liquor fitted not
For lackey's palate, howsoe'er or why
He got and kept it -- Tristan pour'd the wine,
And gave the goblet to the ladye's taste,
Who drank it, saying she would pay instead
To the sly squire a good broad piece or two.
And, partly that the odor was so rich,
And partly that his mouth might touch the rim
Whereon her dewy lip had press'd, he too
Drain'd from the goblet love's o'erwhelming power.
For, sitting at her feet, with sudden thrill,
Their long-averted looks did meet at last,
As, scarcely heeding, stole his eager hand
Anear to hers, that trembled to his palm,
The while his other arm about her form
Bow'd down her blushing face towards his own.
Love compass'd them with circumstance; for them
The sea, the sky, were not, nor aught but love,
In that enraptured space when scarce time seem'd
To move, so fast th' unnoted moments flew.
The world was in the circle of their arms,
And their souls mingled in the speechless bliss
That almost grows to pain, and floods the eyes
With causeless tears that break the lofty spell
Of love's pure exaltation, lest the breath
Of the divine in man should waft his soul
So far towards the source that he should pierce
The mysteries of God's secret Paradise.
And, as her bright drops rain'd upon his brow,
He snatch'd her to his heart, and broken words
Restored them unto life, -- "Tristan!" "Isonde!" --
And one long kiss seal'd their eternal troth!