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Gawain and the Lady of Avalon

Came tidings unto Caerleon,
   Where Arthur kept Shrovetide,
How, far away in Avalon,
   A scaly dragon's pride,
With visage like a woman's, wan,
   Wasted the country-side.

Arthur let cry through all his land,
   "Who curses me for wrong?"
Then flowed there in on every hand
   The stream of loyal song,
"If right could make a king's throne stand,
   Then Arthur's would stand long."

When Arthur's praise was duly sung,
   A way-worn maiden came,
And said, with duteous faltering tongue,
   "Ye are not much to blame,
My liege, for we were very young,
   Though ye forgat our game.

"We played at guessing thoughts," she said.
   "Ye did not guess aright.
Ye sware to give me one to wed,
   To be my lord and knight.
Now twenty years, methinks, are fled,
   And ye forget our plight."

The dew was on her raven hair
   And her blue glistering eye;
No dust on foot or ankle bare,
   Though all the land was dry;
And every knight was ready there
   To wed with her or die.

"But I," she said, "am dowerless,
   And comfortless of men,
And sojourn in the wilderness,
   And in the dragon's den."
Pale looks were plentiful, I guess,
   About the Table then.

Lancelot looked in her pleading face,
   And sighed, "If I were free;"
Quoth Tristram as he left the place,
   "His answer serves for me."
Galahad said something of God's grace;
   She said, "I choose not thee."

Geraint bowed over Enid's veil;
   His visage was more white.
Lamorack buckled up his mail,
   And looked into the night.
Gawain, whose face was always pale,
   Seemed ruddy in the light.

She laid her little hand in his,
   He chose to let it stay;
She put her rosy cheek to his,
   He did not turn away;
She put her cherry lips to his,
   Which were as dim as clay.

He spake, as soon as it was time,
   Of pleasant ways of love,
That rules the sweetly-ordered chime
   Of stars and saints above,
And bade the minstrels sing the rhyme
   Of the true turtle-dove;

And bade them call the holy priest
   To knit the twain in one.
She said, "I keep my marriage-feast
   Not here, at Avalon."
None knew why all men as she ceased
   Trembled in Caerleon.

"Where shall we find a priest to wait
   And bless the marriage-bed?
And if your house be desolate,
   How shall your guests be fed?
And who will guide them to our gate?"
   The courteous bridegroom said.

"The dragon's scales of woven glass
   Will light my banquet well;
Iscariot will sing the mass,
   And Pilate toll the bell;
And all my marriage guests will pass
   Over the mouth of hell.

"I go to the great wilderness,
   And to the dragon's lair,
Where the great hills are harbourless,
   And the sharp rocks are bare;
And if thou pity my distress,
   Then thou wilt meet me there.

"But sit thou with thy master here
   For three days yet," saith she;
"Then shalt thou ride in desert drear,
   Three days alone to me;
The seventh day with lordly cheer
   Our marriage-feast shall be."

She kissed Sir Gawain on the mouth,
   He kissed her on the hand;
Then she departed to the south,
   Between the sea and sand,
Leaving behind a bitter drouth
   In all King Arthur's land.

Thereat the King was full of woe,
   The princes of dismay.
A bolder man had feared to go,
   But Gawain feared to stay,
And parted in a storm of snow,
   Alone, on the third day.

The seventh day, by Grammarie,
   And by the dragon's power,
He saw beside a leaden sea
   A rosy granite tower,
That fronted to a sunny lea,
   Blood-red with wild windflower.

Thereon went many quick and dead,
   And some who do not die;
Each wore a garland on the head,
   Each laughed within the eye.
No flower was bent beneath their tread,
   No dewy leaf brushed dry.

They passed within the granite gate,
   And there was room for all;
Gawain could see his lady wait,
   In green and purple pall.
As he lit down, the cloud of fate
   Went up from Arthur's hall.

Beneath Gawain his feet seemed lame,
   He stumbled and he fell;
There lived for him a subtle flame
   In every crushed wind-bell.
She said, "No marvel, for ye came
   Over the mouth of hell."

He saw an altar to the west,
   He saw the incense sink,
And in the bag on the priest's breast
   He heard the silver chink.
One stood to serve in purple vest,
   Whose hands were washed in ink.

Black serpents round the altar ran,
   But Judas chanted well,
And sweetly rang his sacristan
   The silver sacring bell;
And so the marriage rite began,
   Over the pit of hell.

Sweet gusts of music from below
   Lifted the lady's veil;
Soft sudden flakes of rosy snow
   Flecked the black serpent's mail.
'Mid happy faces all aglow
   The bridegroom's face was pale.

The altar sank beneath the floor,
   Arose the marriage feast,
Sweeter and merrier and more
   The melody increased;
None started as grim graveworms tore
   The sacristan and priest.

In shifting many-coloured light,
   Too bright to look upon,
You saw the guests, you saw the knight,
   Where that wild radiance shone;
You did not see the lady bright
   Who reigns in Avalon.

Yet all, as though beneath her eye,
   Were busy to rejoice;
And now the music mounted high
   To glorify her choice,
Who felt the dragon sliding by,
   And heard the lady's voice.

A moment not a guest was seen
   Within the marriage room;
A moment, and the magic sheen
   Faded in magic gloom,
Through which, half seen, the fairy queen
   Scattered a sweet perfume.

Gawain bent low for courtesie,
   And thanked her for her grace;
He laid his hand upon her knee
   And looked into her face,
And wondered if he did not see
   The dragon in her place.

The lady his weak hand hath ta'en,
   And bidden him be of cheer;
He asked her, "Is the dragon slain?"
   She said, "He is not here.
The dragon will not waste again
   In Arthur's golden year."

Arose a happy fairy sound,
   As of a little well
By the first break of spring unbound;
   Cool flowers began to swell
From underneath the burning ground,
   To veil the mouth of hell.

The moon above the misty lea
   Hung like a globe of fire,
Whereby Gawain a hag might see
   In ghastly gay attire,
Whose wrinkled face flushed horribly
   With jubilant desire.

He knew her, for she held the hand
   He gave to one more fair;
He knew her by the magic band
   His lady used to wear,
With jewels from an unknown land
   Bound in her raven hair.

Fondly she lisped, "My honey knight,
   It needs not to rehearse
Wherefore I lifted up the blight,
   And took away the curse,
Because ye took me in God's sight
   For better and for worse.

"Though thou be very fair to see,
   And I a loathly crone,
Yet what is that to thee and me
   Before King Arthur's throne?
And when I hunger after thee,
   I hunger for mine own."

Gawain, the knight of courtesie,
   Bowed down his stately head,
And said, "Sweet wife, most certainly
   We in God's sight are wed,"
As he drew back the canopy
   Over the bridal bed.

Full still he lay till break of day
   In counterfeited bliss,
Nor turned his loyal cheek away
   From any loathly kiss,
And saw the while the lightnings play,
   And heard her serpents hiss.

There lay beside Gawain at morn
   A maiden undefiled,
As rosy as the blooming thorn
   When eves in May are mild;
As tender as the babe unborn,
   To life scarce reconciled.

Her brow was veiled with woven brass,
   And bonds were on the hands,
Which held an emerald hourglass
   Wherein few golden sands;
Her feet seemed quivering to pass
   Into untravelled lands.

She kissed her husband thick and fast
   On lip and brow and cheek,
Her captive arms round him she cast,
   And then she tried to speak,
Until the love came out at last,
   Although the voice was weak.

"Wilt have by day a lovely may,
   By night a loathly crone,
That other men may see and say,
   His bride becomes a throne;
Or have me foul for them by day,
   And fair for thee alone?"

He thought, "Whate'er my choice may be,
   I cannot choose but ill,
For she by slight of Grammarie
   Would fool my simple skill."
He said, "This is too hard for me,
   Use your own gentle will."

Oh, sweetly smiled the lady then,
   And sweetly laughed the lea,
Sweet roses veiled the dragon's den;
   "Henceforth my face shall be
Fair when I will for other men,
   And all day long for thee!"

She laughed, "'Tis well ye did not play
   When Arthur lost the game,
For you have guessed aright to-day
   The wish of every dame."
"Yet," said Gawain, "I cannot say
   My lady's lovesome name."

The colours of the dragon's mail
   Flashed in the dewy grass;
The lady's face flushed red and pale,
   "And I had hoped, alas!
That thou shouldst rend the brazen veil,
   And loose the bonds of glass.

"Ah! woe is me, it may not be,
   And I have loved thee so;
But henceforth thou shalt never see
   My footprints where I go,
To wake the flowers upon the lea,
   And kiss away the snow."

He smiled farewell, her colour rose;
   She cried aloud, "For shame!
I sojourn seven years with those
   Who do not ask my name.
Hence with thee and thy painted shows;
   Hence by the road ye came!

"Go home and boast in Caerleon,
   Below thy courtly breath,
About the bonny bride ye won,
   For whom hell hungereth!
But come no more to Avalon,
   For that will be thy death."

Low fell the veil of woven brass,
   On heavy eyelids bound;
On folded hands the bonds of glass
   Clanked softly without sound;
And so Gawain beheld her pass
   Over the dewy ground.