THROUGH the lattice rushes the south wind, dense|
With fumes of the flowery frankincense
From hawthorn blossoming thickly;
And gold is shower’d on grass unshorn,
And poppy-fire on shuddering corn,
With May-dew flooded and flush’d with morn,
And scented with sweetness sickly.
The bloom and brilliance of summer days,
The buds that brighten, the fields that blaze,
The fruits that ripen and redden,
And all the gifts of a God-sent light
Are sadder things in my shameful sight
Than the blackest gloom of the bitterest night,
When the senses darken and deaden.
For the days recall what the nights efface,
Scenes of glory and seasons of grace,
For which there is no returning—
Else the days were even as the nights to me,
Now the axe is laid to the root of the tree,
And to-morrow the barren trunk may be
Cut down—cast forth for the burning.
Would God I had died the death that day
When the bishop blessed us before the fray
At the shrine of the Saviour’s Mother;
We buckled the spur, we braced the belt,
Arthur and I—together we knelt,
And the grasp of his kingly hand I felt
As the grasp of an only brother.
The body and the blood of Christ we shared,
Knees bended and heads bow’d down and bared,
We listened throughout the praying.
Eftsoon the shock of the foe we bore,
Shoulder to shoulder on Severn’s shore,
Till our hilts were glued to our hands with gore,
And our sinews slacken’d with slaying.
Was I far from Thy Kingdom, gracious Lord,
With a shattered casque and a shiver’d sword,
On the threshold of Mary’s chapel?
Pardie! I had well-nigh won that crown
Which endureth more than a knight’s renown,
When the pagan giant had got me down,
Sore spent in the deadly grapple.
May his craven spirit find little grace,
He was seal’d to Satan in any case,
Yet the loser had been the winner;
Had I waxed fainter or he less faint,
Then my soul was free from this loathsome taint,
I had died as a Christian knight—no saint
Perchance, yet a pardon’d sinner.
But I strove full grimly beneath his weight,
I clung to his poignard desperate,
I baffled the thrust that followed,
And writhing uppermost rose, to deal,
With bare three inches of broken steel,
One stroke—Ha! the headpiece crash’d piecemeal,
And the knave in his black blood wallow’d.
So I lived for worse—in fulness of time,
When peace for a season sway’d the clime,
And spears for a space were idle,
Trusted and chosen of all the court,
A favoured herald of fair report,
I travell’d eastward, and duly brought
A bride to a queenly bridal.
Pardie! ’Twas a morning even as this
(The skies were warmer if aught, I wis,
Albeit the fields were duller;
Or it may be that the envious spring,
Abash’d at the sight of a fairer thing,
Wax’d somewhat sadder of colouring
Because of her faultless colour).
With her through the Lyonesse I rode,
Till the woods with the noontide fervour glow’d,
And there for a space we halted,
Where the intertwining branches made
Cool carpets of olive-tinted shade,
And the floors with fretwork of flame inlaid
From leafy lattices vaulted.
And scarf and mantle for her I spread,
And strewed them over the grassiest bed,
And under the greenest awning,
And loosen’d latch and buckle, and freed
From selle and housing the red roan steed,
And the jennet of swift Iberian breed,
That had carried us since the dawning.
The brown thrush sang through the briar and bower,
All flush’d or frosted with forest flower
In the warm sun’s wanton glances;
And I grew deaf to the song bird—blind
To blossom that sweeten’d the sweet spring wind—
I saw her only—a girl reclined
In her girlhood’s indolent trances.
And the song and the scent and sense wax’d weak,
The wild rose withered beside the cheek
She poised on her fingers slender;
The soft spun gold of her glittering hair
Ran rippling into a wondrous snare,
That flooded the round arm bright and bare,
And the shoulder’s silvery splendour.
The deep dusk fires in those dreamy eyes,
Like seas clear-coloured in summer skies,
Were guiltless of future treason;
And I stood watching her, still and mute,
Yet the evil seed in my soul found root,
And the sad plant throve, and the sinful fruit
Grew ripe in the shameful season.
Let the sin be mine as the shame was hers,
In desolate days of departed years
She had leisure for shame and sorrow—
There was light repentance and brief remorse,
When I rode against Saxon foes or Norse,
With clang of harness and clatter of horse,
And little heed for the morrow.
And now she is dead, men tell me, and I,
In this living death must I linger and lie
Till my cup to the dregs is drunken?
I looked through the lattice worn and grim,
With eyelids darken’d and eyesight dim,
And weary body and wasted limb,
And sinew slacken’d and shrunken.
She is dead! Gone down to the burial-place,
Where the grave-dews cleave to her faultless face;
Where the grave-sods crumble around her;
And that bright burden of burnish’d gold,
That once on those waxen shoulders roll’d,
Will it spoil with the damps of the deadly mould?
Was it shorn when the church vows bound her?
Now I know full well that the fair spear shaft
Shall never gladden my hand, nor the haft
Of the good sword grow to my fingers;
Now the maddest fray, the merriest din,
Would fail to quicken this life-stream thin,
Yet the sleepy poison of that sweet sin
In the sluggish current still lingers.
Would God I had slept with the slain men, long
Or ever the heart conceived a wrong
That the innermost soul abhorred—
Or ever these lying lips were strained
To her lids, pearl-tinted and purple-vein’d,
Or ever those traitorous kisses stained
The snows of her spotless forehead.
Let me gather a little strength to think,
As one who reels on the outermost brink,
To the innermost gulf descending.
In that truce the longest and last of all,
In the summer nights of that festival—
Soft vesture of samite and silken pall—
The beginning came of the ending.
And one trod softly with sandal’d feet—
Ah! why are the stolen waters sweet?—
And one crept stealthily after;
I would I had taken him there and wrung
His knavish neck when the dark door swung,
Or torn by the roots his treacherous tongue,
And stifled his hateful laughter.
So the smouldering scandal blazed—but he,
My king, to the last put trust in me—
Aye, well was his trust requited!
Now priests may patter, and bells may toll,
He will need no masses to aid his soul;
When the angels open the judgment scroll,
His wrong will be tenfold righted.
Then dawn’d the day when the mail was donn’d,
And the steed for the strife caparison’d,
But not ’gainst the Norse invader.
Then was bloodshed—not by untoward chance,
As the blood that is drawn by the jouster’s lance,
The fray in the castle of Melegrance,
The fight in the lists with Mador.
Then the guilt made manifest, then the siege,
When the true men rallying round the liege
Beleaguer’d his base betrayer;
Then the fruitless parleys, the pleadings vain,
And the hard-fought battles with brave Gawaine,
Twice worsted, and once so nearly slain,
I may well be counted his slayer.
Then the crime of Modred—a little sin
At the side of mine, though the knave was kin
To the king by the knave’s hand stricken.
And the once-loved knight, was he there to save
That knightly king who that knighthood gave?
Ah, Christ! will he greet me as knight or knave
In the day when the dust shall quicken.
Had he lightly loved, had he trusted less,
I had sinn’d perchance with the sinfulness
That through prayer and penance is pardoned.
Oh, love most loyal! Oh, faith most sure!
In the purity of a soul so pure
I found my safeguard—I sinn’d secure,
Till my heart to the sin grew harden’d.
We were glad together in gladsome meads,
When they shook to the strokes of our snorting steeds;
We were joyful in joyous lustre
When it flush’d the coppice or fill’d the glade,
Where the horn of the Dane or the Saxon bray’d,
And we saw the heathen banner display’d,
And the heathen lances cluster.
Then a steel-shod rush and a steel-clad ring,
And a crash of the spear staves splintering,
And the billowy battle blended.
Riot of chargers, revel of blows,
And fierce, flush’d faces of fighting foes,
From croup to bridle, that reel’d and rose,
In a sparkle of sword-play splendid.
And the long, lithe sword in the hand became
As a leaping light, as a falling flame,
As a fire through the flax that hasted;
Slender, and shining, and beautiful,
How it shore through shivering casque and skull,
And never a stroke was void and null,
And never a thrust was wasted.
I have done for ever with all these things—
Deeds that were joyous to knights and kings,
In days that with songs were cherish’d.
The songs are ended, the deeds are done,
There shall none of them gladden me now, not one;
There is nothing good for me under the sun,
But to perish as these things perish’d.
Shall it profit me aught that the bishop seeks
My presence daily, and duly speaks
Soft words of comfort and kindness?
Shall it aught avail me? “Certes,” he said,
“Though thy soul is darken’d, be not afraid—
God hateth nothing that He hath made—
His light shall disperse thy blindness.”
I am not afraid for myself, although
I know I have had that light, and I know
The greater my condemnation.
When I well-nigh swoon’d in the deep-drawn bliss
Of that first long, sweet, slow, stolen kiss,
I would gladly have given, for less than this,
Myself, with my soul’s salvation.
I would languish thus in some loathsome den,
As a thing of naught in the eyes of men,
In the mouths of men as a by-word,
Through years of pain, and when God saw fit,
Singing his praises my soul should flit
To the darkest depth of the nethermost pit,
If hers could be wafted skyward.
Lord Christ! have patience a little while,
I have sinn’d because I am utterly vile,
Having light, loving darkness rather.
And I pray Thee deal with me as Thou wilt,
Yet the blood of Thy foes I have freely spilt,
And, moreover, mine is the greater guilt
In the sight of Thee and Thy Father.
That saint, Thy servant, was counted dear
Whose sword in the garden grazed the ear
Of Thine enemy, Lord Redeemer!
Not thus on the shattering visor jarr’d
In this hand the iron of the hilt cross-barr’d,
When the blade was swallow’d up to the guard
Through the teeth of the strong blasphemer.
If ever I smote as a man should smite,
If I struck one stroke that seem’d good in Thy sight,
By Thy loving mercy prevailing,
Lord! let her stand in the light of Thy face,
Cloth’d with Thy love and crown’d with Thy grace,
When I gnash my teeth in the terrible place
That is fill’d with weeping and wailing.
Shall I comfort my soul on account of this?
In the world to come, whatsoever it is,
There is no more earthly ill-doing—
For the dusty darkness shall slay desire,
And the chaff may burn with unquenchable fire,
But for green wild growth of thistle and briar
At least there is no renewing.
And this grievous burden of life shall change
In the dim hereafter, dreamy and strange,
And sorrows and joys diurnal.
And partial blessings and perishing ills
Shall fade in the praise, or the pang that fills
The glory of God’s eternal hills,
Or the gloom of His gulf eternal.
Yet if all things change to the glory of One
Who for all ill-doers gave His Own sweet Son,
To His goodness so shall He change ill,
When the world as a wither’d leaf shall be,
And the sky like a shrivell’d scroll shall flee,
And souls shall be summon’d from land and sea,
At the blast of His bright archangel.