A tale of Arthur's court, translated from the French in 26 Prior stanzas. The volume appeared anonymously, with extensive notes supplied by the translator's friend George Ellis, and engravings by John and Thomas Bewick.
George Ellis: "M. Le Grand informs us, that in the ancient French manuscripts this tale is called Court Mantel; (the short mantle;) but that the copy he had chosen for abridgment was a prose one of the sixteenth century, printed by Didier, under the title of Le Manteau mal taille. Some magical test of female fidelity seems to have been fashionable among the romance writers. In this tale we have a mantle: in the romance of Tristran, and in that of Perceval, it is a drinking-horn or cup; a fiction which has been borrowed both by Ariosto and Fontane; as the mantle probably suggested to Spenser his Florimel's girdle. 'The Boy and Mantle' in Percy's Reliques of English Poetry has rendered the story familiar to every reader" 1:227n.
British Critic: "The tale of The Mantle made amiss is rendered in stanzas of ten lines; not built at all upon the stanza of Spenser (which contains only nine) but composed of two elegiac stanzas of four lines each, followed by a couplet, the second line of which is an Alexandrine" 9 (1797) 166.
William Taylor of Norwich: "It has long been a desideratum in our language to form, by a congruous mixture of antique and current words, a sort of English Gaulois; which, without being unintelligible like the style of Chatterton, or that of Chaucer, should yet carry back the imagination to times of yore, and prepare it to tolerate the honest simplicity of idea and incident, which form so prominent and pleasing a characteristic in the natural manners of the age of knighthood.... This end has not, in our opinion, been completely attained by the ensuing models. Too many unintelligible words have been admitted: words not allied to any that remain in use, and which have already their equivalents in the language: while, on the other hand, words too modern occur, — recent importations from the Latin, — which have their equivalents in the old and Saxon portion of the language. Thus are produced an anachronism of style, and a sentiment of incongruity, which displease. For example, p. 4: 'Ten livelong years of exterminating war.' Of these epithets, the first is growing obsolete, and is well suited to the antique style: but the second has too much modern pomposity to be woven into the same sentence" Monthly Review NS 23 (June 1797) 174-75.
George L. Craik: "The contest of the ladies for Florimel's girdle ... is founded on the same favourite fiction with the story of King Arthur's drinking horn in the Lai du Corn, and the Morte d'Arthur, or that of the drinking horn in the romances of Tristan and of Percival, the fabliau called Le Court Mantel (translated by Way under the title of the Mantle Made Amiss), the ballad of The Boy and the Mantle in Percy's Reliques, the tale of the enchanted cup in the second Canto of the Orlando Furioso, and Fontaine's La Coupe Enchantee" Spenser and his Poetry (1845; 1871) 2:110.
Samuel Austin Allibone: "The woodcuts are by Bewick. Roscoe, 1440, £3 5s." Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1858-71; 1882) 3:2617.
Sweet cousin mine, since well I ween your eye
Scans with delight the deeds of Arthur's day,
And since, before all other things, I try
To win you solace howsoe'er I may;
Lo here, recorded of his table-round
A goodly tale, with pain compil'd, I send:
This in an ancient volume late I found,
And scant could read, so rudely was it penn'd:
Please you accept it kind; for name I wis
It may be well yclep'd "The Mantle made amiss."
It was the time of Pentecost the feast,
When royal Arthur will'd high court to hold,
Statlier than e'er beforetime: thither press'd,
At his command, kings, dukes, and barons bold:
And for great jousts and tourneys were design'd,
Each he ordain'd his chosen fair to bring,
Damsel or spouse, the mistress of his mind:
So all was done, all stood before the king,
Damsel and dame, with many a matchless knight;
That never England's realm beheld so proud a sight.
Each one to sport, to merrimake, was bent,
To merrimake beyond all former joy;
But Mourge the fay bethought her to prevent,
To work fair Guenever the Queen's annoy;
Long had she envied those superiour charms
Which wan the heart of Launcelot du Lake;
Jealous she was, for he had shunn'd her arms;
So all were punish'd for their sovereign's sake:
And yet, perchance, had Guenever the Queen
Besought her presence there, this harm might not have been.
Now were the tables all prepar'd to dine,
Whiles at a window that o'erlook'd the street
Join'd with Sir Gawaine Arthur did recline,
In social converse mingling, as was meet:
Soon they beheld a youth advance, whose steed
An ample case of costliest velvet bore;
Now he dismounts, now climbs the steps with speed;
Now bends with humbled knee the King before:
"Sovereign, a boon!" he cried, "with heart sincere
A boon my mistress craves, as she that loves you dear.
"No ill, no damage or reproach, shall spring;
Thus doth my princely dame command me say;
Pass but your word ere I reveal the thing,
You never will have cause to rue the day."
Won with his words, the monarch rais'd his head,
And, "Friend, we grant thy boon unknown," he cried:
Low louts the youth; "his princely dame," he said,
"Told, by his mouth, her wish was satisfied."
Then to the ground he bent, and 'gan unlace
The bands, embroider'd brave, that fast secur'd his case.
Well may ye guess King Arthur long'd amain
To see this costly crimson case unbound;
Curious he was, and so were all his train,
Though doughty warriours of the table-round.
Forth from its womb the youth a mantle drew,
Such ne'er was seen in England's realm before,
So lovely did it seem, so rich, so new;
Let the kind reader marvel ne'er the more;
For all of fairy filaments 'twas wrought,
By fairy fingers spun, with power of fairy fraught.
Damsel and dame behov'd them well beware,
Such were its virtues, and so strange its power,
If loose inconstancy had wanton'd e'er
In those soft breasts which should be true love's bower;
For to all such, whene'er they might assay
To deck them therewithal, 'twould shrink, 'twould swell,
Now long, now short 'twould be: — Ah wicked fay!
Thou know'st thy fellow-females' mood too well!
Had they but guess'd what silk 'twas wove withal,
The world might not have won their stay near Arthur's hall.
Now nigh the King the gentle youth advanc'd,
And to his hands the wondrous charge consign'd;
Told how its secret properties enhanc'd
Its outward excellence, and then rejoin'd;
"Sire, let each fair who now adorns your court,
In turn assay the adventure to achieve;
Who best shall speed, nor find it long nor short,
Let her, so wills my dame, alone receive,
Fit guerdon of her worth, the mantle brave:—
This is the nameless boon, the boon you freely gave."
Sore chaf'd King Arthur now, and seem'd to see
Much lurking mischief in his promise made,
Inly he fum'd, in moody reverie,
Till thus at length the sage Sir Gawaine said:
"Sire, since your word is past, 'twere meet you send,
And bid your royal consort to the hall;
Let her with all her comely train attend,
Damsel and dame, to try this wondrous pall."
"Go then," the King replied, "our consort bring;
Sacred should be the word, the promise, of a king."
So to the Queen the sage Sir Gawaine hies,
As one who conn'd his lesson passing well,
And fair salutes, and paints how fair a prize
The King decrees the worthiest bonnibell;
But of those passing virtues nought to tell
Which lay conceal'd within the mystick pall
He well aviz'd, for sure that searching spell
Had scar'd these gentle dames from Arthur's hall:
Now to the royal presence all are sped,
A blithe and buxom band, their sovereign at their head:
And Arthur now, who deem'd it shame full sore
To be so cozen'd that crafty boy,
The gorgeous pall unfolding on the floor,
Thus briefly spake, with looks of little joy:
"High dames and fair! to her of all the train
Whose shape this curious mantle best may fit,
To her 'tis doom'd of right to appertain,
And may some mighty blessing wend with it!"
So spake the King; the mantle all admir'd;
And first, as first in place, the Queen the proof requir'd.
In luckless hour she first requir'd the proof,
And o'er her shoulders first the mantle flung;
For all too short before it shrunk aloof,
Albe a length of train behind there hung;
Thereat Sir Ewaine, good King Urien's son,
Who spied this sovereign lady chang'd in hue,
And she who ween'd some secret shame was won,
Such loudly-buzzing laughter thence there grew;
Thus turn'd the shrewd surmisings of the rest;
For ill he bore the Queen should be her subjects' jest:
"Leave, lady dear, that mantle, all too short
For stately mien and stature straight like thine,
And let this damsel here, the next in court,
Around her dainty limbs the prize entwine."
Hector-the-son's fair friend the lass was hight;
E'en as he spoke the pall she deftly raught,
And round her cast; full jocund was her spright;
But the shrewd cloak soon sham'd her all to nought:
For, howsoe'er she turn, or stretch, or hale,
Full half a foot or more its shrivell'd length would fail.
Of all the knights who grac'd King Arthur's board
For flouting jests Sir Kay was most renown'd;
Nor might he now refrain his wanton word,
But to the Queen would every whit expound.
So, gently bending to his sovereign's ear,
"Great Queen," he whisper'd, "mirrour of all grace,
Thy loyalty excels this damsel's here."—
"Sir Kay!" the Queen replied, "unfold the case:
This strange device I will thou straight declare,
And why this wayward cloak hath left our skirts so bare."
Therewith Sir Kay recounts the varlet's tale;
From end to end the venom'd sleight he told:
Nought did the Queen of sage advisement fail
To bear with gree where little boots to scold;
And, well she ween'd, as one aggriev'd to rail,
Would but the more their piteous plight unfold,
So loud exclaims, "What silly wight would quail
At Mourgue the fay's devices, known of old?
Come, damsels all, partake the fairy's jest,
And see who first in place may bide this gamesome test."
And, as she spake, the Seneschal Sir Kay,
Who joy'd to see these dames so ill bested,
Cries "On, fair lasses! gladly greet the day
That showers such honour on each loyal head:
Now be it known how tender and how true
These looks of love, and breasts of ivory pure;
Now may those knights, so sad for lack of you,
With fresh delight their patient pains endure."
So spake Sir Kay; the damsels one and all
Now wish'd them far away escap'd from Arthur's hall.
Their sorry cheer, their looks deject and wan,
Did move the monarch's noble heart to rush;
Thence to that stripling page he thus began;—
"This cloak meseems most vilely made, in sooth:
For aught I read, there wons not here in court
One dame or damsel, be she low or tall.
But finds this luckless garment long or short:
Hence — bear it back! — it suits not here at all."
"Ah sire! your word is pass'd;" the youth replied;
"The promise of a king must evermore abide."
What needs it further stretch my tale's extent,
To tell how fail'd each dame, and fum'd each knight?
How Kay's o'erweening mirth was fitly shent
When his frail spouse betook herself to flight:
Or how Sir Ydier's paramour so bright,
(Sir Ydier, doubtless she of all was chaste,)
With that quaint garb in front full fairly dight,
Behind was scarcely clad beneath the waist:
Or how 'twas whisper'd in Sir Ydier's ear,
"Right well the dame is vail'd whose hinder parts appear."
In fine, upon a bench, all wo-begone,
These luckless ladies side by side were plac'd;
In all that crowded court there was not one
But more or less she found herself disgrac'd.
Whereat the stripling varlet loudly cried,
As well aviz'd none there the pall might claim,
"I pray thee, sire! be every chamber tried,
Lest some perchance there lurk of purer fame;
For so alone 'tis given me to fulfil
As fits in every point my sovereign lady's will."
With that the King commission'd Girflet straight:
In every nook and crevice Girflet pried;
Yet, though his peering search he nought would bate,
One only damsel hath his zeal espied;
And she, for ailment fain in bed to bide,
Excuse did plead, for that her strength was spent;
But he, forsooth, might not be so denied;
There would he be till she her clothes had hent:
No help the damsel saw, she needs must go;
So to the hall she pass'd with feeble steps and slow.
Her mate was there, the foremost wight in hall:
His name to learn perchance might please you well:
'Twas Karados Brise-Bras, approv'd of all
A good and hardy knight, the sooth to tell.
Soon as he spied his mistress enter in,
As doom'd that dire adventure to assay,
Through all his frame he felt a war begin,
His face with crimson stain'd, his heart like clay;
And, for her absence glad of spright whilere,
So now his troubled sense was overwhelm'd with fear.
"Dear lady mine!" (he thus was heard to say,)
If aught misgives thee, shun that baleful robe!
To see thy shame, to feel my love decay,
I would not bide for all this earthly globe:
Far better were it aye in doubt remain,
Than read the truth by such disastrous test;
Than see thee now thy sex's honour stain,
And marshall'd there on bench, the vulgar jest."
"Nay, why so sore torment thee?" Girflet cried,
"Lo, there two hundred sit, so lately deified."
The loyal damsel, ne'er a whit dismay'd,
Around her neck the mantle boldly threw;
The same so meetly all her limbs array'd,
No seamstress e'er might make it half so true:
Whereat the stripling page did loudly cry,
"Now, lady fair! thy lover joy betide!
Thine be the pall, who winn'st the victory!
Thine be the pall! thy virtue well is tried!"
E'en as he spoke the King declar'd assent:
The rest with feigned scorn would vail their discontent.
But for Sir Karados, the damsel's friend,
Him glad of heart I read as man might be;
Forth with the mantle straight that pair did wend,
And choicely priz'd, and hoarded charily.
Since then, whenas both these were dead and gone,
It close was stow'd where none the place might see,
Nor lives there wight on earth but I alone,
Of power, sweet cousin mine, to shew it thee.
Avize thee then; for, should ye crave the test,
Thou or thy friends so fair may presently be dress'd.
But should it chance the wiser counsel seem
In its dark den to let it slumber still,
There shall it bide; which way soe'er thou deem,
Thy wish alone can rule my yielding will;
For bent am I, and shall for aye remain,
So long as life within this frame may stay,
To count thy friendship as my greatest gain,
To strive how best I may thy will obey.
But should the pall some whit too scanty prove,
In sooth, sweet cousin mine, I might not leave to love.
And thus, meseems, the tale is fully done,
Save that I fail'd that damsel's name to tell
Whose worth of yore the perlous mantle won;
Known be it then that peerless bonnibell
Was clep'd of all — so stay thee, story mine!
Come, bear around a brimmed bowl of wine!