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Sir Tristem

Sir Tristem built a golden bark,
     With snowy pinions like a bird,
And went afloat on waters dark,
     Whose sobbing waves were blackly stirred;
And on those waters of the dead,
Along the moveless night he fled,
With shining mail around him,
And a white light that crowned him.
Saying, "I go to realms unknown,
     Upon a homeless quest to meet
The flower of kings, whose light has flown
     And left the world in night complete:
Caparison'd in shining mail,
Across the self-same waves I sail,
Whereon his bright boat bore him,
With fairies beaming o'er him.
"And setting on my quest divine,
     Behind I leave all earthly things,
The lust of women and of wine,
     And seek the lily white flower of kings;
In whose left court degenerate knights
Wanton like swine in gross delights,
Killing the heart's pure quiet
With petty rage and riot!"
He laid him, in his knightly strength,
     Along the bottom of the boat,
And crossed his hands, and lay at length,
     And closed his eyes, and went afloat;
And slowly, at their own strange will,
The magic sails began to fill,
And the boat, helmless wholly,
Like a bright bird, swam slowly.
Sir Tristem slumbered quietly!
     But on his forehead there was light,
And in a trance he seemed to see
     The ghostly shores on left and right;
A cold wind murmured in his crest,
A weight like lead was on his breast,
He heard the waters sobbing,
Like his own pulses throbbing.
Past lonely kingdoms of the dead,
     Dim-gleaming coves and shadowy bays,
Led by the radiance round his head,
     Sir Tristem journeyed many days;
By ghostly shores without a name,
Whereon grim phantoms went and came:
He sailed 'mid alien noises,
But in his ears sweet voices.
Through twilight majesties of shade,
     He sailed upon his sacred quest,
And where the falling waters made
     A hollow murmur, seeking rest;
Through swollen shadows of the rain,
Whose music tingled in his brain
Like blood, and where white fountains
Spilt light down sombre mountains.

Then saw Sir Tristem, in his dream,
     A stately figure hush'd in woe,
Who, leaning o'er a silver stream,
     Was darkly calentured below;
Her face, as passed that golden bark,
Flash'd like a jewel from the dark,
And in the distance shaded,
It, star-like, came and faded.
She said, "I am that Guinevere,
     Upon whose mouth sin's self seemed sweet,
And, looking on my foulness here,
     I penance do, till made complete,
To cut my heart from earthly things,
And join the lily white flower of kings,
Whose heart, once mine completely,
Now pleads my pardon sweetly. 

"Here, hid from eyes of living men,
     I, seeing my woman's shame revealed,
Mind me of kingly Arthur when
     His pity was a fountain sealed!"
Whereon Sir Tristem cried in tones
Hollow as waves 'mong pebble-stones,
"Where is the King, my master?"
The boat sped onward faster.
"Sail onward yet – be strong and sure,
     Till thy dark fantasies are gone,"
Murmured the voice, "and seek the pure
     King in remote Avilion."
Whereat Sir Tristem's snowy swound
Deepened to loss of sight and sound,
And the white light that crowned him
Brightened the waves around him.
Past hills where yellow moonlight steamed,
     Low shores where vapours dim did move,
He sailed, in pathless tracks, where gleamed
     Stars with no fellows up above;
Netted in cloud the winds reposed,
The golden valves of heaven were closed,
Like living things the enchanted
Waters fell calm and panted.
Then, in his slumber, he was ware
     Of a dark isle where calm was not,
And on whose banks a dome of air
     Mimick'd the palace at Camelot;
The dingy walls were sad and stern,
The courts were rusted o'er with fern,
Rank weeds and grasses many
Choked up each nook and cranny.

And through the dark transparent wall
     He saw a crew of knights carouse,
Within the centre of the hall,
     With haggard beards and wine-flushed brows;
And marked a sombre knight and tall,
Who stood upon the moated wall,
And watched the dim and foamless
Waters with eyes most homeless.
Who, standing helmless, trembled not,
     But leant upon a sheathless sword:
"I am that same Sir Lancelot
     Who turned against his blameless lord;
I, Tristem, am thy sometime friend,
Who here a weary way must wend,
Amid rude blows and broiling,
In heartache, shame, and toiling.
"Thou journeyest on with quiet heart;
     While, bound in tears that find no pause,
I haunt the shadowy counterpart
     Of the decay myself did cause;
A devil gnaws me day and night,
While, guided by that stainless light,
Though sailest to thy master."
The boat sped onward faster.
Whereat Sir Tristem stirred in dream;
     And the light, brightening in his trail,
In fading, shed a ghastly gleam
     Upon Sir Lancelot, grim and pale;
And then Sir Tristem sank again
To mute oblivion of the brain,
And the white light that crowned him
Illumed the waters round him.
Past forests, netted in moonlit air,
     Sir Tristem sailed for many an hour,
And under the shade of mountains, where
     The thyme fulfilled its purple flower;
Until he reached a flowery land,
With night and day on either hand,
A land of endless bowers,
Languid with scent of flowers.
No wind was here, the air was thick
     With its own load, and under eaves
Of giant poppy it grew sick
     With a deep breath of lotus leaves;
The waters, impotent to cool
Parch'd lips, lay in a seething pool,
And made a burning summer
Around the bright new-comer.
And here abode, with mad acclaims
     And frivolous songs and idle jests,
A troop of chattering knights and dames,
     In flashing robes and gaudy crests;
Some lay among the lotus bowers,
Some quaffed red wine on beds of flowers,
And some with gleaming faces
Lay clasped in soft embraces.
Then to Sir Tristem came a voice:
     "Go on in peace, thou stainless knight,
Here, for a time, we must rejoice,
     Sick, satiate with our own delight;
We are the wanton lords and knights,
Who lived lewd lives of soft delights,
And first brought thoughts unstable
Unto the good Round Table."
Faster and faster sped the boat,
     While spicy perfumes filled the sail,
And dumb Sir Tristem lay afloat,
     Caparison'd in shining mail;
And in his trance he saw afar
A twilight like the morning star,
Beyond the mirror'd shadows
Of cool green hills and meadows.
The murmuring waters closed behind,
     The channel narrow'd on either side,
Making a current swift as wind,
     To suck him onward.  Far and wide
Lay pleasant hills of yellow and green,
With shady vales of hills between;
And the white light that crowned him
Subdued the joy around him.
And on the summer hills around
     Were happy shepherds and their flocks,
And the cool streamlets made a sound
     As soft as tears down mossy rocks;
And in the broad midmorn on high
Stars swung their censers from the sky,
Whence, in a pearly wonder,
Dews dropp'd and glimmered under.
There was a busy hum of bees,
     And bleating sheep on distant heights;
And underneath the shade of trees
     Walked snowy dames and arméd knights.
Then good Sir Tristem opened eyes,
And heard a whispering voice, "Arise,"
And patient to his duty,
He stood erect in beauty.
Caparison'd from head to heel,
     He stood erect and found no speech
To utter wonder, till the keel
     Grazed softly on a silver beech;
And a soft breeze, like the sweet south,
Beat balm upon his eyes and mouth,
And while his blood flushed brightly,
He to the short leapt lightly.
Then, lifting up a mailéd head,
     Hoary with honours past and gone,
He knelt upon the beach, and said:
     "Here, surely, is Avilion;
Here, after honourable blows,
A worthy knight may find repose,
Here the sweet vale makes bridal
With heaven, and nought seems idle.
"Hither, to shade of quiet leaves,
     I bring the mind no fortunes flout,
Which half confers and half perceives
     The peace it sees around about;
Here day and night at last unite
To make a very calm delight
Of beautiful romances,
Cool pulses, and pure fancies.
"Here Nature is her own sweet law,
     Beauty completes her mission here!"
When, rising up his height, he saw
     A train in white attire draw near!
And in the midst, in peaceful power,
He saw of kings the lily-white flower,
Prepared to be the donor
Of a white robe of honour.