King Arthur in Avalon
"The hymn of the conquered, who fell in the battle of life,
The hymn of the wounded, the beaten, who died overwhelmed in the strife,
The weary, the broken in heart,
Who strove and who failed, acting bravely a silent and desperate part;
Whose hopes burned in ashes away;
From whose hands slipped the prize they had grasped at; who stood at the dying of day,
With the wreck of their life all around them, unpitied, unheeded, alone,
With Death swooping down on their failure, and all but their faith overthrown."
"Io Victis," by William Story.
The day was ending. Uther's mighty son
Had put forth all his strength, and all in vain.
Fate was his foes' ally; and Fate had won
The battle. All around him on the plain
Lay the stark bodies of his warriors slain,
With faces to the sky and wounds in front.
They echoed not his war-cry to their wont.
Oh, day of anguish! Strange and awful day
Of pain more piercing than the pain of wounds,--
Wounds scarcely felt, numbed by the great dismay
Unspeakable that a great soul astounds,--
His soul that, never taught in any strife
Before to spell the ungly word defeat,
Just in the very crisis of his life,
Hath done his best of bests but to be foiled,
He knows not why, and strives and strives amain
But to be beaten o'er and o'er again,
His onslaughts baffled and his standard moiled!
And Launcelot was not there, nor Lionel,
Villyars, nor Melyas brave, nor Sir Lavayne;
They who erewhile around him fought so well,
With many another, now were worse than slain.
Treason had broken up the Table Round.
He who can patch burst bubbles on the mere,
Let him old broken fellowships make sound,
By discord sundered,--once how leal and dear!--
And he who hath the power, by witchcraft deft,
The crumbled eggs the cuckoo's beak hath cleft,
Filled with new life, without a scar to mend,
Bid him with magic skill to join once more
The ties undone, once knit through friend to friend,
Round heart and heart as closely as before.
Still Arthur fought and struggled, e'en as one
Fights with a grisly dream and strives to wake.
He saw that he was more and more alone.
A spell was on him that he could not break.
He called on Galahad and Percivale,
And then remembered they had long been dead.
He rallying led his dwindling squadrons on,
That melted as the surf upon the rock,
And set his lonely breast to meet the shock
Of foemen still more swarming to make head
Against him; for 'tis something, not to quail,
When comes the time no longer to prevail.
And Mordred marked,-- his kinsman traitor black,--
And bode his time; till Arthur 'gainst an oak
His heaving shoulder leaned a breathing-space.
He dared not look him in the royal face,
But ran behind and stabbed him in the back,
As the sly coward snake doth glide and sting,
Then fled content. Oh, kindred glaives cut deep!
As the shot stag his antlers high doth fling,
So threw his hands aloft the stricken king,
And fell at last. He fell and rose no more,
Pierced to the soul,-- oh, kindred steel stabs sore!--
While unawares a cry from out him broke
Of more than any fleshly pang, and woke
Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere, who lay
Fast in a deathly swoon, and made them leap,
Two ghastly wights, as from two graves two ghosts
All pale and wavering, quick to seize on him
And steal him from the trampling of the hosts.
They reared the mighty frame; each drooping limb
They gathered up. O'erpowered beneath the weight,
Fell Lucan back, and breathed his last life out,
With patient looks, before his master's feet.
And Arthur saw and moaned, with sobbing breath,
"Oh, loyal,--dear,-- oh, trusty one!-- thy death,--
I thank thee,-- makes death easier unto me.
Hark,-- nearer,-- hear the rebels how they shout!
Go, leave me, Bedivere; and save one life.
Mine canst thou not; nor would I that thou shouldst,
Having lost all that makes it life to live.
Win bays hereafter in some happier strife.
To-day and aye, thou hast done all thou couldst."
He gasped away to dumbness; and again
Strove Bedivere to lift him from the plain,
But could not till he'd stripped him of his mail,
Helm, shield, and breast-plate,-- weakly then did heave
His master up. Excalybur 'gan trail
Down from his hand, and still a furrow ploughed
Unevenly along the dust, as slow
The knight set staggering footsteps one by one,
With head bent down and burdened shoulders bowed.
King Arthur could not lift, nor would let go,
The mystic sword,-- not yet,-- till, on a strand,
A ruined chapel, buried half in sand
And half in ivy, met and took them in.
They saw themselves unseen and all alone;
And their stunned ears were sheltered from the din
Of following battle. Panting Bedivere
Stooped lower still, and eased him of his load,
And laid his sovereign on a tomb, both broad
And long, above the nettles which there grew,
And loosed his sinews from their cramp and ache.
And Arthur writhed his neck; the gathering dew
He sucked from the cold stone; and thus he spake:
"So!-- Good it is for me that I am here.
My goodly knights are earth on the dead earth;
Myself henceforth am only a dead knight,--
Dead in their deaths more dear than life to me,--
And I shall never be myself again!
Oh, Bedivere, a kinsman's blade is keen!
My woful body's homesick for the mould.
Fast draws on me a never-waking sleep;
And soon my burning fever shall be cold.
Mourn not; for thus Death ever followed Birth
Since first the hapless race of Man began;
Thus shall it ever do till Time shall end.
Mine eyes grows dim; and, throbbing on my ear,
I hear the beating of a shoreless sea.
Pray for my soul.-- Thou art not gone?-- O friend,
One service more,-- one only,-- do thy lord.
Take, Bedivere, and drown, my vanquished sword
Where never man shall look upon it more;
Hurl't from some beetling cliff the waters o'er;
Then lightly bring me word if aught thou seest."
Sir Bedivere went sadly forth to turn
His beaded forehead to the windy west.
The sun was setting, angry, wild, and red,
Going like a wounded warrior to his bed,
With threats of rising to a fiercer morn.
A double sunset weltered in the flood;
And swam beneath his feet a sea of blood,
As on the brink he stood. With stronger hold
He clutched Excalybur, and slowly wound
The baldrick rich the jewelled hilt around,
And took a parting look at all the gold,
Emeralds, pearls, rubies,-- looked again below
Among the waves, considering where to throw,
Then at the sword,-- till, gazing to and fro,
He said, "King Arthur's crazed with wounds and woe,
And knows not what he'd have. The leech's skill
Oft serves the sick man's weal against his will;
And so must I. He will be healed anon.
His troops will rally. If his sword be gone,
I shall be sorely blamed, with reason, when
He strides in steel once more before his men,
And Future cancels Past;-- for, sad or gay,
To-morrow never will be as To-day."
He looked behind him; and a hollow tree
Stood like a beckoning sentry on a height:
"Here shall Excalybur in safety be
Until my lord demands it back of me."
He thrust it up the trunk and, from the sight
Of hind or fisherman by Chance led by,
Smothered its sparkles close, with sea-weeds dry,
Then hurried to his master languishing.
And "Hast thou done my errand?" sighed the king.
With looks askance, as one unused to lie,
And faltering tongue, Sir Bedivere said, "Ay."
"What saw'st thou?"
"Naught but waves that fawned, and licked,
Like hungry hounds, the wet feet of the rocks."
Upstarting to his elbow, "Am I tricked,"
Cried Arthur, "on my death-bed, and by thee?
Know that a dying king is still a king!"
Straight find my sword, and in the waters fling;
Or I!"-- His wounds burst forth afresh; and he
Sank back in speechless rage, with eyes that glared.
And Bedivere, "'Twas for thy sake, I dared
To disobey. I did but for the best";
And, more than his mild words, his loyal face,
Dyed with unwonted shame, did plead for him,
And with his master well-nigh made his peace.
"Then go and do thy best,-- not 'for the best';
That often is the worst."
"I go, thy hest,
My dearest liege, most throughly to fulfil;
Yet oh, bethink thee once! The matchless brand
Alone of all befits thy matchless hand;
And thou mayst sorely miss it yet one day,
When the vain mermen with it sport and play.
Take heart, and live. These hurts are not to death."
Moaned Arthur: "Wouldst thou waste my parting breath,
Due all to prayers? Go thou, and do my will.
Mine arm is broken; and my veins are drained.
To everything on earth there comes an end.
O comrade, comrade, kinsmen's cuts are keen,
I shall never do my best again!
I tell thee it is time for me to die.
But if I lived to sit at slothful ease,
Mid women and their works, as Hercules
Of yore behind the wheel of Omphale,
Would the brave sword be a reproach to me,
And on the wall hang like mine effigy."
Sir Bedivere unto the seashore hied.
The west was paling like a dying man.
He peered into the hollow trunk. A spark,--
A diamond,-- twinkled downward through the dark
And rubbish, that to hide it vainly tried.
Excalybur came forth; and he began
Anew its jewelled hilt and sheath to scan,
Till failed his heart once more; for every gem
Seemed to him like an angry tear to flash,
With wrathful lightnings through the gathering gloom,
As chafing hotly at the unworthy doom,
That gave it brine for blood. "I cannot do 't"
With answering tears he said; "Oh, 'twere too rash!
My king himself, too late, the deed would chide
And claim his weapon of the unyielding tide.
And, when thus recklessly away we cast
From us the sacred heirlooms of the past,
We throw away our past that cleaves to them.
He will be whole and cheered, and on his throne
Sit calmly, come again unto his own,
With wise gray heads around the council-board;
And they will lift slow eyes from scroll and seal
And chartered ordinance for the public weal,
To see the glory of the mighty sword
Fling from the wall its mystic splendours down
Confronted with the sceptre and the crown;
And they will smile and say, 'All things in turn.
He is scarce greater now than in his morn,--
In counsel than, in youth, he was in war.--
Behold the witness there, Excalybur.'
And he may leave it to a doughty son,
When all his earthly deeds in sooth are done."
He gave it back unto the hollow thorn,
And sought the ruin with a fearful foot.
"Now hast thou done my biding?-- Sawst thou aught?"
Sir Bedivere made answer, "Nay" and "Naught;
But hear me."
Groaned the king, "I cannot hear.
Will none obey? Oh, is 't too late?-- too late!--
Methougtht it lay in me to conquer Fate.
Why heeds me no one? Where are all my train?"
He moaned aloud, scarce witting what he said.
The knight knelt down and sobbed: "Oh, master dear,
Dost thou not know me? I am Bedivere."
"I know thee not. The man who bore that name
Was true and trusty to me."
"I, the same."
"Prove it. If Arthur can command no more,
Then, in my utmost need will I implore:
Spare not Excalybur, but cast it in.
To mock a dying man, it is a sin.
My heart is broken; and my hope is dead."
Then saw the knight, that it was all in vain.
With tottering speed unto the cliffs he ran.
Now all the glow was quenched within the sky;
But, o'er the sea, a light sepulchral gleamed
Like corpse-lights o'er the graves of buried men.
He dared not face the magic sword again,
But, groping, tore it forth and hurled it high
And far; when, lo, a wonder! For there seemed
A hand and arm,--no human hand and arm!--
To start to meet the hilt from out a wave;
And thrice they brandishèd the mystic glaive,
Then vanished with it, as if they a charm
Had wrought, of meaning never to be told.
He flew unto his master. "It is done!"
Him King Arthur answered not.
The knight stooped quick unto him, as he lay;
Like the dim shimmer of a mist-quenched moon,
The phantom of a dying smile was caught,
And seen the questioning of a speechless look,
"When I threw thy sword away,
This marvel did my watery eyes behold:
A hand and arm from out the billows broke,
And caught and brandished it with threefold sweep,
Then drew it down with them into the deep."
And Arthur lifted up his trembling hands,
Like a sick infant, with the dumb commands
Of helplessness, when it would carried be,
And pointed where he heard the sounding sea;
And bearing him, with toil and travail sore,
His loyal liegeman reached again the shore.
A cloud came forth out of the cloudy west;
And in its darkness darkling shapes took shape,
Till, ere they found the shuddering Bedivere,
He dimly might descry a sable barge
That held right on without an oar or sail;
And those within it sang a hollow dirge;
And, as it neared him, 'mid the shadowy crew,
The black-stoled Queen of North Galys he knew,
And her of the Waste Lands; and loud did weep,
Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's sister, wail,
And beat her breast between them.
Straight her veil
Blew over the knight's eyes; and, lo, his charge
Was gone out of his arms, he wist not how!
He stood forsaken on the strand, and cried,
"My lord, my loved, come back! What should I do
Not serving thee? Come back! What should betide
Me lonely in the emptied world? If fled
From it forever, take me!-- Take my breath,
Faint and far, from o'er the surge,
King Arthur answered with the voice of death,
"Look to thyself. Heaven help thee! I am sped.
I go unto the Isle of Avalon;
For there they say, at last I shall find rest
For all my stormy years of sovereignty."
King Arthur sailed along a sea unknown.
Met him the misty Night, and drew him in
Unto the cherishing shelter of her breast.
He glided onward toward the land of rest.
In his parched throat, his burning thirst was drowned
By draughts of coolness, brought by hands unseen.
Upon his long-lost mother's lap, his head,
Worn out with toil and woe, was softly laid,--
Or so he deemed. Her tender palms were pressed
Unto his temples; and his brow was kissed
By her fond lips, that murmured love and peace
As in some shildish sickness long ago.
Far Uther called before, "Well done,-- well done!
Here grow thy laurels, son,-- my worthy son!"
The waves sang lullabies to him, and rocked
His weary frame all bruised and battle-shocked,
And soothed it slowly into slumberous ease;
And thus he slept, to wake in Avalon,--
If waking e'er was calm as any dream,--
Half wake, and sleep again.
Around did seem,
Or were, his knights all laid, as oft of yore
In lusty bivouac; but frost or snow
Or wind or rattling hail came nigh no more.
Sunrise and sunset, these made all their day.
Around them, for the most part, moonbeams lay
Exchanging watch with starlight, to the sound
Of rippling brooks, that played a harmony
Unto the nightingales' weird melody,
Or to the distant surgings of the surf
Below them, where they pressed some steep's scant turf.
No uttered speech among them now was there,
Nor any need of speech amid the dear
Unuttered sympathy of love and cheer.
In sentient trance, without a look or word,
He saw the vanished and the voiceless heard.
Heart answered unto heart, and mind to mind,
In a most eloquent silence. Now a hymn
Swelled upward from the soul of Galahad,
And lulled King Arthur with its sweetness dim;
And now he laughed in slumber at some whim
That, tickling, crossed the freakish brain of Kay.
Sometimes they round him camped, in many a tent,
Whereon soft rains their drowsy patterings spent,
With cosey whisperings bidding still their sleep,
In shelter snug, to grow more sound and deep,
(The dog that loved him once, and died in pain,
Slept at his feet or licked his hand again.)
Sometimes they rested in a curchyard calm,
A troop of spirits, on the graves' thick grass.
Sometimes amid a minister's painted glooms
They seemed to lie, (like Templars on their tombs),
And he among them carved, a marble knight,
To hear, within the sacred candles' light,
The holy choirs unseen chant laud or psalm.
No more was he forsaken anywhere.
At first he heard the voices of his foes
That, on their hurried way, seemed nigh to pass
Ere, into silence swept away, they went
Before a judgment-seat, where Justice sat
And waited them. Sir Lancelot, following, wrung
Unmailèd hands and, with a noiseless tongue,
Forgiveness asked, with eyes that gazed through tears
And rained remorseful sorrow o'er his woes.
All Arthur's wrath was melted straight thereat;
And, through his sleep, he murmured his assent
With answering tears of pity; and anon
Foes and their bitteer memories were gone;
Not any lingering rancour left behind,
Nor any power to vex him more they had.
No longer haunted him light Guinevere;
But watching o'er him often did appear
Instead, his boyhood's love, her sister fair,
Who loved him, only him, and loved him well,--
Sweet maid, too early crowned with asphodel.--
The joy of youth came back to him. He thrilled
With growing powers that all his being filled.
Each innocent Yearning that was starved to death
Erst, by the hard conditions of this life,
Arose new-born, and smiled on him full-fed.
Despair in turn was killed and, deep beneath
The past's old ruins, buried by the years;
And anywhere was balm, and nowhere strife.
So still he sleeps, and does not care to wake;
But Merlin saith, at length a day shall break
And ripen onward to another noon
When, master of his fate and blithe and whole,
And all renewed in body, mind, and soul,
King Arthur, with his knights, shall come again,
To weild Excalybur, and not in vain.