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Isolt's Return

The Prelude

In castle-chamber, Lady Adela
Her banner sewed, the victory of Saint George
With silk of every hue, while at her feet
Contemplative and idle mused Isolda,
A pale-complexioned niece, with passionate eyes
Of inward exultation. On the floor
Awkward and deft lounged Pierre the jongleur,
Proved sleight-of-hand, maintained six balls in air,
Broke jests, and now and then, for change of mirth,
Chanted romances sweetly to the rote.
Quaint melodies, and quainter garmented,
Brief coat, hose blue and russet leg by leg,
Broad saffron hat by ribbon now dependent,
Brown curls to left a-cluster, rightward clipped;
Tall, spare, and odd, nose arching, head a-droop,
Gray meditative orbs, where while he sang,
Flickered and darted gay sarcastic lights,
That died, as glimmer of a highland pool
Its tarn abandoneth to wonted shade.
Satirical and free the lays he told,
How Reynard duped Sir Isengrim the Wolf,
Aping a holy pilgrim; of the minstrel,
Who, demon-charged with boiling of the damned,
Against Saint Peter diced with souls for stake,
To forfeit all, at every separate throw
Less by one pip, till Satan, late at eve
From hunt returning, found his kettle void,
And raging, cast the player forth from Hell,
Where never since hath poet been allowed;
With more as laughable, until Isolda,
Impatient, tapped her foot and cried: "Your mercy!
To farce adieu! Now hear we of my namesake,
Isolt of Cornwall, she whom the love-draught
Forever and forever bound to Tristran."
"Your pardon, lady fair," returned the singer,
Another way the old romance proceedeth;
Four summers, and no longer, wrought the potion;
Its magic lost, the lovers grew a-weary,
As might have been foretold." Outflamed Isolda:
"How? when he languished of a poisonous wound,
Hath he not summoned her from Brittany?
Brooked he not heart-break, when his cruel wife
Belied the silver sail that wafted healing?
Breathed not the queen her life upon his bier?"
"Lady," the stranger said, "ere thousand circles,
Minstrels in Rome had joy to tell how Athens
Paid woful tribute of her youth and beauty
To sate a flaming dragon, until Theseus
Adventurous sailed, and quelled the evil custom;
Long while on island-cliff his aged father
Gazed after gleaming of the silver sheet
Himself had lent to hoist for victory,
Requiting sable cloth of sacrifice;
Yet Theseus conquering forgot the emblem;
When looked the sire upon a shadowy sail,
Ocean received him. From the Roman fable,
Did Norman Berol, in a month of leisure,
The history improve by weeping sequel,
To charm yourself, and maids as tender-hearted."
With wordless indignation burned Isolda,
While Adela commanded: "Friend, your mercy,
Recount your lay after the ancient manner."
The wanderer made reply: "I know not, lady,
If reached your ear the veritable record
That minstrels spoil, and wantonly embroider.
At age impassioned for achievement, Tristran,
Who ardently desired that fame and fortune
Arrive his merit's earning, not a title
Conceded to the prince, from Tintagel
Took ship for Cornwall, for his uncle's country,
Where nameless he remained, and earned his life
A soldier of the king. Austere Morholt
Arrived, demanding tribute due from Ireland;
What while none other dared take up the challenge,
Tristran arose, and since the royal rank
No adversary owneth save a peer,
Perforce revealed his birth, and from his uncle
Took arms and knighthood. Toward the isle of combat
The warriors oared, each in his shallop, swimming
A steed behind, while from the shore both armies
Breathless admired; then Tristran insolent,
As though one boat would be enough for one,
Thrust seaward Morholt's bark, and moored his own.
Both heroes charged, broke spears, and Tristran, hurt
By Morholt's venomed glaive, in after sword-play
His rival smote, and deeply notched the brand,
So that in foeman's skull adhered a fragment.
Haughty, he bade be freighted home to Ireland
The body, lawful tribute due from Cornwall.
Invaders sailed, and came with grief to Dublin.
Shining Isolt, a princess skilled in herbs,
Hung o'er her eme, but could no more avail
Than draw the piece to bury in her shrine.
In Tintagel reaped Tristran fruitful harvest
Of love and praises, till that festering wound
Embittered the sweet fountain of his life;
Wherefore he pleaded with his dear companions,
On ocean to be launched, alone and oarless,
At mercy wafted of the winds and waters;
If pleased the saints bestow upon him healing,
Return he vowed within the year to Cornwall.
A tempest rose, and drove the bark toward Ireland,
Where forfeited lay life; his name he altered,
To pass for Pro, a trader out of Britain.
Secure he dwelt, and had a saving balsam
From fair Isolt, yet never viewed the maiden.
With twelvemonth's end he parted, and through Britain
Arrived in Cornwall, where his advent made
A common holiday, by grateful Mark
Allowed inheritor; yet jealous barons
Would have their lord create a prince for Cornwall,
And force upon him marriage, though he liked not;
While eagerly in palace they debated,
Through dim and smoky rafters of the hall
A swallow chased a swallow, that in beak
Freighted the treasure of a lady's hair,
From over-sea conveyed for nest-building;
Between their wrangle it escaped, and fluttered
To feet of Mark, who raised the shining thread,
Pale-golden, lustrous, like no dame's of Cornwall;
The king set foot upon this path of refuge,
And vowed before the saints to wed no woman,
Beside this foreign wonder of the world,
Whose token wings had wafted to their presence.
Lords fared to seek, and at their head went Tristran;
Again a storm compelled the keel to Ireland.
Himself he called Trantris, his ship forerunner
Of cornfleet, and in time of dearth found welcome.
Meantime, on shore, a beast of flaming throat
Ravaged the island; for deliverer's meed,
The sovereign promised Isolt his one daughter.
Adventurous fared Tristran, slew the dragon,
And in his hose concealed the tongue for trophy;
Then, parched and blackened by the fiery breath,
Plunged in a chilly bog, and lay a-swoon.
Another found the worm, and claimed the prize.
Fair Isolt, with Brengain her governess,
Went forth to wonder at the scaly bulk
O'er verdant marshes knotted coil on coil;
Soon, admiration weary, raising eyes,
By yellow glimmer of a reedy pool
Was guided errant toward a golden helm,
And neighboring, the body of a knight,
Black, and half mergèd in the water cold;
The youth she bade take up, cherished, and balsamed
Within her bower to slow recovery.
Upon a morn, while lay the guest in bath,
Scouring his sword, she marked the jagged breach,
With unreflecting motion, from her casket
Drew forth the fragment, and behold! it fitted!
Her savior and her nursling was the slayer,
On whom her uncle's blood cried out for vengeance!
The brand she seized, and would have slain her friend
E'en as he bathed; while through his peril, Tristran
Admired the glory of the golden tress,
And smiled, perceiving that his quest had prospered.
With pleadings innocent he soothed the maid
Who owed him debt so deep, and her own mother,
Loth for her child to wed her husband's man,
Joined intercession; Tristran was forgiven,
While from her father took the maid a promise
Of safety, that the slayer of the dragon,
Whatever doom oppressed his life in Cornwall,
Might prove his prowess on a day of judgment;
Shown was the token, the impostor shamed.
When came the hour of Tristran's recompense,
He made his wooing for the king of Cornwall;
Rejoiced was Ireland with the royal marriage
That war concluding, opened ports for traffic,
While Isolt was content to be a queen.
Her mother, mindful that the foreign husband
Might own the soul together with the body,
A love-drink blended out of amorous herbs,
Effectual that man and maid partaking
Four years must cling so close to one another
As every day to meet, or else to die;
With tears and wishes sailed the ship from Cornwall;
On sultry ocean fell an August calm;
Tristran demanded drink; a ready varlet,
The vase mistaking, brought the cup for wine.
He quaffed, and gave Isolt; after this fashion
Joined were the twain, who until hour of tasting,
Had cherished will nor thought. At Tintagel
Landed the bride, and royal was the wedding;
Affectionate, the master named his nephew
Lord of the chamber; so two years went by,
And never day bereft of looks and kisses.
Howbeit, in the third summer, jealous lords
Blamed Tristran to his eme, who lent no credit;
But firm the truth, in ecstasy of passion,
Was prompt to burn the pair; arrived a lazar,
With band of reprobates, and begged the queen,
Whom Mark conceded as the sterner vengeance.
On road to death, entreated Tristran leave
To pray for the acquittance of his soul
In tiny chapel high above the sea;
From window down he leapt, to safety swam,
And had through Governal both horse and sword.
Isolt he saved, and carried to Moresse,
A waste near Tintagel, where twelve-month long,
They lay perdu for outlaws of the wild.
In that sweet season, when the early year
Hath girlish glee of her new emerald gown,
Happened a mighty hunting in Moresse,
Where thousand beaters drove the frightened deer
Toward clearing where Mark waited; then befell,
That ranger speeding down a woodland brook
In tangled coppice chancèd on a booth
Woven of willow branches, where behold!
On couch of fir the exiles lay and slept.
Round-eyed with fear, the servant sought the king,
Who bade him hush, took horse, and after rode;
But ere arriving, parted from his guide,
Alone advanced, and tiptoe neared the shelter.
Mark stared, and for a space beheld no more
Than radiancy of the loosened hair
That dazzled eyes; then raging, marked the queen
In slumber stir, and sway toward her companion;
With countenance averted Tristran lay,
And bright between the twain a naked blade.
The gazer paused; what errand here? awaken?
Be slain or slay, and then, remorse for ever?
He stooped, and gently raising Tristran's brand,
In lieu deposed his own. A noontide ray
Through branches stealing, gilded Isolt's breast;
Mark closed the crevice with his hunting-glove,
And stealthily withdrew. The queen, who felt
Through sleep his glances, stirred, threw out an arm,
And shook the bower; the glove, from height descending,
With ermine brushed her cheek. She opened eyes,
Looked languidly, then wakened with a cry;
Afoot stood Tristran, in his hand the weapon:
Whose? Lo, within his grasp a gilded hilt,
The king's! Dismayed, the exiles leapt to horse,
Moresse abandoned, and by lonely paths
Went flying toward the wilderness of Wales.
Henceforward, lady, doth proceed the lay."

The minstrel hushed, and from his instrument,
Preparing, drew romantic melody,
Love-music over-sweet, that in its bosom
Cherished a seed of contrary emotion,
To prosper in its death. Prophetical,
Once and again arose a mocking note,
Like upward bubble of an icy fount
O'erwashed by tepid wave. Such preface o'er,
He sang, with interlude for every pause.

The Lay

The alley of the forest, dim, thorny, and o'ergrown,
Mystic, as though a wizard had cursed and changed to stone
Of savage region, riders, who in their merry day,
Far-glimmered through the leafage, court-bound and laughing gay,
Neighbored a brook, that silent, with rushes crowned the track,
Reposed neath arching fir-root, or hemlock marred and black;
Abandoned by the pathway, from height cascaded cool,
In water-leap of silver, or golden-gravelled pool.
The gorge grew deep and deeper as bolder rose the fell,
Gray rocks were freshly plumèd with fern and blue harebell;
Beside the foamy torrent, a table broad and dry,
Between eve-darkened ridges, a shining sunset-sky.
On road dismounted Tristran, his horse by bridle led
O'er shale, and rolling pebbles that basined the brook-bed;
In hollow recess stabled, for evening-fodder brought
Sweet river-grass by armfuls, and fragrant fir-boughs sought,
To weave the nest of Isolt, outwearied by their flight.

At dawn the exiles wakened, and with the morrow light
As anxiously were errant along the selfsame way,
Through dark and dreadful pine-wood, where fallen columns lay
Long age of man to rot, and framed a ceiling so
That bough to bare bough striding, a woodsman well might go
O'er hidden earth a fathom, and finally despair
To save the deer, whose carcass lay arrow-piercèd there
Within a bowshot's circle. At last the land ascended,
The forest cleared, the passage, at a wide burning, ended
In smoother way, by mule-hoofs more confidently trod,
And black with charcoal-droppings. The lane, that now they rode,
Through blither country wandered, and guided to a glade,
Where old oaks, rising domelike, lent separate sun and shade
To dapple deer-cropped verdure. A falling rivulet,
With footpath fringed, by music attention drew, and let
Through interval of branches appear a windowed cell,
From whose foundation forth the water seemed to well,
Both walls and roof as mossy as ledges of the stone.
Tristran, who hoped for tidings within that hospice lone,
By rising path ascended; but had not pacèd long,
Ere came to him the cadence and swell of holy song;
Wherefore he paused, alighted, set Isolt down, and tied
Against a bough his charger, hung up his sword beside,
Then footed toward the chapel, of decoration bare,
And brown the frock of hermit who mass was chanting there;
A low and rustic altar was draped with woolen cloth.
The knight and lady lingered, of worship nothing loth;
Their presence the room darkened; devout, the celebrant
In pious recollection proceeded with his chant,
Pronounced the awful scripture, that through a mystery
Doth wafer-bread transform to offered deity,
And made the elevation; by entrance of the cell,
Upon their knees before him Tristran and Isolt fell;
The office he continued, till uttered missa est.
When all was over, Tristran he studied, and addressed:
"How, exile, bandit, here? In noontide of thy fame
Once rally-word of Cornwall, now traitor, in whose name
The lust-fiend singeth matins! What wage receivest thou?
The evergreen thy castle, the bear thy comrade now,
A wild wolf of the wood!" Tristran, with flushing cheek:
"Old man, how canst thou tell? Thy years, thy tonsure, speak;
King Mark in queenless Cornwall no palace hath so fair;
The venison, the cresses, with her, more perfect fare
Than Virgil the enchanter's!" Thus Tristran in his pride,
From wall where he had risen; Isolt, who knelt beside,
Threw wide both arms, shrieked out, and lay on pavement prone,
While bursting from their net, her locks concealed the stone:
"Nay, never curse him, no! If we have trespassed, think,
It is that we have sharèd the poison, the love-drink;
Such cup my mother mingled for binding other twain;
Upon the sultry sea her care forgot Brengain;
Hers be the fault!" The monk: "What benefit therein,
To chasten soul that's dead in trespass and in sin?"
With step imperious to closet he withdrew.
Forth from the hermitage in sadness fared the two,
Within a burner's hut found solace, and abode.
The forest and the stream their nourishment bestowed;
Months changed; for April, glad with rainbow-colored sheen,
Grave August donned her mantle of deep and sober green;
The years were full accomplished, the potion lost its power;
Arrived a destined season, and struck the fatal hour.

Within the wood lay Tristran, in covert near the trace
Whereby the game descendeth to reach the drinking-place;
He loosed a shaft; straightforward the gleaming arrow flew,
And the fleet stag lay stricken both haunches through and through;
He leapt to seize the quarry, made bare the hunting-knife,
And with o'er-easy triumph let flow the streaming life;
Then paused to gaze, absorbing the temper of the day,
Its mood of recollection, its veil of sober gray,
A silence that forebodeth the falling of the year.
He mused: "I lurk in forest, destroy the timid deer;
Afield, this moment, Cornwall her banner doth advance;
I see the pennon shining, behold the levelled lance;
Ranks meet, and shafts are broken; knights wheel, and swords are out;
Alas! in whirling mellay is wanting my war-shout,
They fly, for lack of me!" The sullen morning's cloud
Came over, and o'er-darkened a temper hot and proud;
Of venery forgetful, apart he left the game,
Along the path roved pensive, and toward the cottage came.

At entrance waited Isolt, and his dismay partook;
In silence met their glances; two lives lay in the look;
On surface, swift repulsion, when the heart, satiate
With viand of its craving, from hunger turns toward hate;
Below, the human terror, if voyager forlorn,
Oarless and unbefriended, behold his vessel borne
Adown the leaping rapid with fleeter, dreader speed,
While murmureth low thunder, and saving shores recede;
Not yet hath he collected his courage for the fall.
Embracing every passion, and still retaining all,
Like golden armor, meshes of closely woven chain
That lately blunted arrows of misery and pain,
From now, to Thought and Conscience will leave the naked life.
Tristran was first to utter, with accent passion-rife:
"What hardship hast thou suffered for my sake, Isolt, queen!
Harsh setting of thy beauty the rude and savage scene!
My madness curseth Cornwall, of aid and comfort crost;
Thy maidens sit neglected, their dower and wedlock lost,
With burners of the forest their lady hid the while!"
She presently responded, with sad and tender smile:
"Go seek Ogrin the hermit: be all within his will,
If thy desire he censure, or inward hope fulfill."

In vicinage of Tintagel, and prospect of its wall,
The king enjoyed a pleasance, retreat of flowers all,
Rose-tangle, lily-mead, and linden-alley long,
Of verdure fetlock-deep: and did thereto belong
A royal bower; apart, scant furlong from the place,
Where beeches one by one enclosed a circle-space,
Below a pine, that storied green floors of light and shade,
An ancient fount its basin and stepping-stone displayed;
From mouths of mossy lions the laughing water streamed,
And plashing in the cistern, gray marble over-gleamed;
By flower-crownèd channel the merry rill did go,
Beneath the house dive laughing, and hence emergent, flow
To brim the neighboring river. At eve of hunting, slept
Below that roof its lord, whose knights about him kept
Their rest, and tapers burned. Red-golden dawned the day;
The sovereign woke; dark-couchant his drowsy vassals lay,
And pale the waning tapers. A hand the window smote,
And a voice called: "The King!" Mark wondered, and took note;
A rider halted by, a letter slipt to floor;
The gazer leapt from couch, and Tristran viewed once more.

Toward palace-hall of Tintagel, up marble of the stair,
Trooped knights, and by precedence were ranked on benches there;
Their ruler throned on dais, of aspect dark and proud.
His chaplain held a letter, and rising, read aloud;
"To him who hath of Cornwall control and right,
Salute and greeting sendeth Ogrin the Anchorite.
King, when thy lords debated thy marriage in the hall,
Twain swallows in their chaffer a lady's hair let fall,
Ell-long, pale-golden-gleaming; then didst thou say and swear
By father's soul in blessing, to wed no other fair
Beside the world's one beauty; to seek her island home,
Thy nephew on adventure hath wandered ocean-foam;
Her hath he found in Ireland, and met in her the maid
Whose eme he slew in battle, and with the body paid
Arrear of Cornwall's tribute: the champion did she take
Cold from the bog, and blasted by breath of the fire-drake;
To Tintagel he brought her, in freshness of her youth:
Before the saints thy promise, to render love and truth,
In self thyself discrowning, to cherish her instead.
Tristran thou madest lord of chamber and of bed;
Soon, in thy jealous frenzy, to world's rebuke and blame,
This jewel of thine owning hast destined for the flame,
Then thrown away on lazars; to that accursed band
Hath Tristran meted justice denied by thine own hand;
Toward safety of the forest did he convey the queen;
Thyself hast seen them lying, a naked sword between.
Declareth thy confessor, not so mayest thou disown
Her part by vow conceded in thee and in thy throne;
To her unbar thy heaven, hereafter unto thee
As thou hast hope that Peter may turn with ready key.
Thus saith Ogrin: thine answer suspend to the Red Cross."

The chaplain read no further. Mark listened at a loss,
Half loth, half inly yielding. He bade his knights bestow
Their counsel; words were bartered, and looks shot to and fro,
Till spake with words of wisdom an ancient vavasor:
"The man who loseth jewel that quickened him before
With confidence and courage, hath sorrow and heart-pain,
Till time that he recover that pearl of price again;
Below if he espy a gleam of his desire,
He hath no pride, but stoopeth, to rescue from the mire,
And carry into palace, where pure it rayeth so,
That oft for evening-banquet unlit may candles go,
While feasters linger peaceful in radiancy mild.
So she, our gentle planet that vanished in the wild,
And left our joy benighted, henceforth may reappear
From long eclipse more lucent, and reign in heavens clear,
Full orbèd moon of Cornwall. For Tristran, let him go
Abroad to serve, where rulers their friendship may bestow
On knight that lendeth sword, and with heroic essay
Doth Fortune court. Elapsed a twelvemonth and a day,
In Cornwall live his welcome, when he hath yielded oath,
Upon the saints avouching his innocence and troth."
The barons praised the speaker, and Mark declared assent;
His chaplain wrote a letter, and forth the summons went.

Pale shone the yellow dawning, and dewy-white the road,
As over march of Cornwall Tristran and Isolt rode,
In russet vesture kirtled like burners of the wood.
With prime emerged from forest, their journey they pursued,
Till highways twain protecting, rose holy the Red Cross.
On verdure they alighted, and foliage across,
Had glimpse of gold and azure, the splendor and the sheen
Of knights by Mark commanded for home-bringing his queen.
In arms they clasped each other, heart beating faint to heart;
Now time had come to sever; yet breathing, how depart
From courage and refreshment, relief and gratitude,
From privileged asylum against a world at feud?
With sustenance of living, seemed life itself would cease.
The gleams draw near and nearer; each other they release,
And quiet on grassy meadow wait linking hand in hand.
The seneschal advanced, departing from his band;
He spake no word, lit down, from his own shoulder drew
A mantle rich with vair, and over Isolt threw;
Undid a belted sword, bestowed with courteous hand
On Tristran, and in lieu received his master's brand.
He becked: obedient, advanced a youth, who led
For Isolt's sake a mule, fleet-paced and gently bred,
To halt below the cross, with hand on jewelled rein.
Milk-white the mule, and argent shone head-gear and lorain,
But ivory the saddle, a craftsman wise had wrought
Five years, and through the carving delivered his life-thought:
Upon the mount knelt Isaac, both arms behind him bound,
In childish terror gazing; his father on that ground
Stood with averted eyes, and raised a curving sword;
From firmament descended the angel of the Lord.
In front so much; the rear a sterner legend bore;
Jephthah on way to meet, his daughter dancèd o'er,
Arms wide for her embrace, and tresses backward blown;
Toward Heaven the knight raised palms, in attitude of stone.
The baron raised his dame, and with the lady rode
Where clustering the lances of his companions showed;
Before, twelve maids a-row sat mounted on the green;
A little Isolt reddened; they bowed, and bowed the queen.
The spaces of the greenwood were lit with colors clear;
Below the cross stood Tristran, and saw them disappear.

In Tintagel, at morning prime, the air with freshness beamed;
Saints rang from all their belfries, and forth the city streamed
Toward minster, where their lady, from exile saved, should greet
Saint Samson, her protector, with thanks and praises meet.
She walked not penitential, gray-smocked and ancle-bare,
But robe of clinging purple, and mantle starry-fair.
In front, twelve maidens pairwise, whose order children four,
White-innocent, preceded, and Cornwall's banner bore.
She knelt by the main altar, and adoration paid,
While anthems clear and clearer rose climbing grade on grade
The shining stair celestial. She signed: advanced a child,
Who bore upon both elbows a cloth irradiate mild,
Of pale and shimmering change, that gloriously told
The passion of the saint; such web of mystic gold
A bishop blest; from him, an acolyte received,
And reverent, draped the altar. Her offering achieved,
Retired the queen, to find by minster-steps prepared
Her palfrey and her knights; with seneschal, she fared
To court, where welcomed Mark his wife at mounting-stone,
Kissed on the lips, and led to hall and ivory throne.

At sea, from purple heights swooped down a freshening gale,
Tugged at the lines, and bellied the square and painted sail.
With forward face sat Tristran, in that inanimate mood
When the exhausted spirit, resigned to lassitude,
Worn out by fruitless labor, of idle hardship tired,
Weary of all it hoped for, expected, or admired,
Doth feel nor consolation, defiance, nor distress,
But only that it fainteth in world-wide loneliness.
He made a thoughtless motion; an idly-dropping hand
On swordhilt smote; half conscious, he bared the shining brand,
His own, King Mark's no longer! As reek bursts into flame,
Such upward-soaring ardor his spirit overcame,
As burneth warrior, passioned to change in battle-hour
Dull wistfulness to courage, and pining into power;
He heard the northwind whistle, beheld the billows flow:
"Roll on, blue Waves my cousins! Thou, Wind, my brother, blow!"
He turned toward fading Cornwall; horizonward did dwell,
Vague, aery, and cloudlike, the towers of Tintagel.

The song was ended, but its after-play
Reversed the prelude; for the lighter strain,
That latterly had risen up and reigned
Emergent from love-languish, opened now
The secret of its being, and revealed
A grieving heart of deeper melancholy.
Isolda, who had listened with contempt,
Unsoftened by the plaintive music, cried:
"Clothes, and a throne!" Half-jesting, Adela:
"Think, child, to live on berries!" For her part,
The maid looked boundless scorn. The countess laughed,
And putting all her mind upon her work,
Among her silk preferred a vermeil skein,
To lend the dragon's tongue an ardency.

[In the original publication, this poem is followed by Newell's essay on the Tristan and Isolt legend.]