1815 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Morte d'Arthur. A Fragment. Canto I.

The Life of Reginald Heber D.D. Lord Bishop of Calcutta. By his Widow. With Selections from his Correspondence, unpublished Poems, and Private Papers. 2 Vols.

Bp. Reginald Heber


An epic fragment in 56 + 61 + 42 Spenserian stanzas, posthumously published in 1830. Milton had once considered Arthur as the subject for a British epic, and it is to Milton rather than Spenser that Reginald Heber turns as a primary model in Morte d'Arthur. A pattern of allusions parallels Arthur with Adam, Guinevere with Eve, Morgan with Satan, and Modred with Death. While the narrative lacks the full epic amplitude of manner, it develops Mallory's characters and story in original ways, and would have been a considerable poem had Heber elected to pursue a poetical rather than a religious vocation.

Amelia Heber: "About this time [1812] he began the poem on the Morte d'Arthur, now given at the conclusion of these volumes, in which he made considerable progress, but which was interrupted and finally suspended by higher occupations" Life of Reginald Heber (New York, 1830) 1:353.

Morte d'Arthur was not reprinted in Heber's Poetical Works (1841). The Life of Heber contains another Arthurian poem, "Fragments of the Masque of Gwendolen." For Heber's views on imitating Spenser, see his review of Mary Tighe's Psyche in Quarterly Review 5 (May 1811) 471-85.

The first canto opens with Arthur's bridal procession; the citizens sing a nuptial song. Arthur introduces Guinevere to his principle knights, and unaccustomed to such august surroundings she declares that she feels out of place at court. Arthur praises her humility, but the Queen is really thinking fondly about a forester she knew in her native solitude near the River Derwent. The bard Iola sings of the unhappy love of Tristran. The wedding banquet is suddenly interrupted by the sound of hunting horns, and a white doe, bleeding from its wounds, rushes into the hall and lays its head in Guinevere's lap. The doe is followed by a spectral huntress, who in dark words demands that the Queen dispatch the wounded beast. She refuses out of pity for the poor animal. The company fall silent, and Arthur bids grim defiance to his sister Morgan as the pair retire for the night.



It was the blessed morn of Whitsuntide,
And Carduel echoed to the festive call,
As his shrill task the clear-voiced herald plied,
And shriller trumpet shook the castle wall.

Ye whom the world has wrong'd, whom men despise,
Who sadly wander through this vale of tears,
And lift in silent dread your wistful eyes
O'er the bleak wilderness of future years,
Where from the storm no sheltering bourn appears;
Whom genius, moody guide, has led astray,
And pride has mock'd, and want with chilling fears,
Quench'd of each youthful hope the timid ray;
Yet envy not the great, yet envy not the gay!

Say, can the silken bed refreshment bring,
When from the restless spirit sleep retires?
Or, the sharp fever of the serpent's sting,
Pains it less shrewdly for his burnish'd spires?
Oh, worthless is the bliss the world admires,
And helpless whom the vulgar mightiest deem;
Tasteless fruition, impotent desires,
Pomp, pleasure, pride, how valueless ye seem
When the poor soul awakes, and finds its life a dream!

And those, if such may ponder o'er my song,
Whose light heart bounds to pleasure's minstrelsy;
To whom the faery realms of love belong;
And the gay motes of young prosperity,
Dance in thy sunshine and obscure thine eye;
Suspect of earthly good the gilded snare,
When sorrow wreathes her brow with revelry,
And friendship's hollow smiles thy wreck prepare!
Alas! that demon forms should boast a mask so fair!

See'st thou yon flutterer in the summer sky,
Wild as thy glance, and graceful as thy form?
Yet, lady, know, yon beauteous butterfly
Is parent of the loathsome canker-worm,
Whose restless tooth, worse than December's storm,
Shall mar thy woodbine bower with greedy rage.—
Fair was her face as thine, her heart as warm,
Whose antique story marks my simple page;
Yet luckless youth was hers, and sorrowful old age!

'Twas merry in the streets of Carduel,
When Pentecost renew'd her festive call,
And the loud trumpet's clang and louder bell
The moss-grown abbey shook and banner'd wall;
And still, from bower to mass, from mass to hall,
A sea of heads throughout the city flowed;
And, robed in fur, in purple, and in pall,
Of knights and dames the gaudy pageant yode,
And conquering Arthur last, and young Ganora rode.

Still as they pass'd, from many a scaffold high,
And window-lattice scatter'd roses flew,
And maidens, leaning from the balcony,
Bent their white necks the stranger bride to view,
Whom that same morn, or ere the sparkling dew
Had from his city's herb-strewn pavement fled,
A village maid, who rank nor splendour knew,
To Mary's aisle the conqueror's hand had led,
To deck her monarch's throne, to bless her monarch's bed.

Who then was joyful but the Logrian king?
Not that his hand a five-fold sceptre bore;
Not that the Scandian raven's robber wing
Stoop'd to his dragon banner, and the shore
Of peopled Gallia, and where ocean hoar
Girds with his silver ring the island green
Of saints and heroes; not that paynim gore
Clung to his blade, and, first in danger seen,
In many a forward fight his golden shield had been.

Nor warrior fame it was, nor kingly state
That swell'd his heart, though in that thoughtful eye
And brow that might not, even in mirth, abate
Its regal care and wonted majesty,
Unlike to love, a something seem'd to lie;
Yet love's ascendant planet rul'd the hour.
And as he gaz'd with lover's ecstacy,
And blended pride upon that beauteous flower,
Could fame, could empire vie with such a paramour?

For many a melting eye of deepest blue,
And many a form of goodliest mould were there,
And ivory necks and lips of coral hue,
And many an auburn braid of glossy hair.
But ill might all those gorgeous dames compare
With her in flowers and bridal white array'd;
Was none so stately form nor face so fair
As hers, whose eyes, as mournful or afraid,
Were big with heavy tears, the trembling village maid.

Yet whoso list her dark and lucid eye,
And the pure witness of her cheek to read,
Might written mark in nature's registry,
That this fair rustic was not such indeed,
But high-born offspring of some ancient seed.
And, sooth, she was the heir of Carmelide,
And old Ladugan's blood, whose daring deed
With rebel gore Lancastrian meadows dyed,
Or ere that Uther's son his mightier aid supplied.

But, when the murderous Ryence' archer band
With broad destruction swept the Ribble side,
Ladugan forth from that devoted land
His daughter sent, a smiling babe, to bide
Where Derwent's lonely mirror dark and wide
Reflects the dappled heaven and purple steep,
Unhonour'd there, unown'd and undescried,
Till fate compell'd her from her tended sheep,
In Arthur's kingly bower to wear a crown and weep.

There are who teach such crystal drops express
(So near is each extreme of joy or woe)
Alike, the burst of painful happiness,
And the still smart of misery's inward throe.
From man's perturbed soul alike they flow,
Where bitter doubt and recollected sorrow
Blend with the cup of bliss, and none can know
From human grief how short a space to borrow,
Or how the fairest eve may bring the darkest morrow.

Say, fared it thus with young Ganora's heart?
Did hope, did Hymen call the rapturous tear?
Or mourn'd perchance the village maid to part
From all the humble joys her heart held dear?
And, turning from that kingly front severe,
Roam'd her sad memory o'er each milder grace
Of him her earliest love, the forestere?
Ah lost for ever now! yet sweet to trace
The silver studded horn, green garb, and beardless face.

The chanted anthem's heaven-ascending sound
Her spirit mov'd not with its sacred swell;
And, all in vain, for twenty steeples round
Crash'd with sonorous din the festive bell;
Upon her tranced ear in vain it fell!
As little mark'd she, that the monarch's tongue
Would oft of love in courtly whisper tell;
While from the castle bridge a minstrel throng,
To many a gilded harp attun'd the nuptial song.

"Ah see," 'twas thus began the lovely lay,
"The warrior-god hath laid his armour by,
And doft his deadly sword, awhile to play
In the dark radiance of Dione's eye;
Snared in her raven locks behold him lie,
And on her lap his dreadful head reclined;
May every knight such silken fetters try,
Such mutual bands may every lady bind!
How blest the soldier's life if love were always kind!

"Oh Goddess of the soul-entrancing zone,
Look down and mark a fairer Venus here,
Call'd from her hamlet to an empire's throne,
As meet of womankind the crown to wear,
And of a nobler Mars the consort dear!
Oh fairest, mildest, best, by heaven design'd
With soothing smiles his kingly toil to cheer,
Still may thy dulcet chain the conqueror bind.
Sure earth itself were heaven if love were always kind!"

So sang they till the gaudy train had past
The sullen entrance of that ancient tower,
Which o'er the trembling wave its shadow cast,
Grim monument of Rome's departed power.
That same, in Albion's tributary hour,
The Latian lords of earth had edified,
Which all unharm'd in many a martial stour,
Might endless as the steadfast hills abide,
Or as the eternal stream that crept its base beside.

And Arthur here had fix'd his kingly see,
And hither had he borne his destin'd bride,
Amid those civil storms secure to be
That rock'd the troublous land on every side.
For not the fell balista, bristling wide
With barbed death, or whirling rocks afar,
Nor aught by that Trinacrian artist tried,
To save his leagured town such strength could mar.
How easy then to mock the barbarous Saxon war.

Austere and stern, a warrior front it wore,
The long dim entrance to that palace pile,
And crisped moss, and lichen ever hoar,
Trail'd their moist tresses in the portal aisle.
But, past the gate, like some rude veteran's smile
Kindly, through dark, a milder grace it show'd;
And music shook the courts, and all the while
Fair stripling youths along the steepy road,
Fresh flowers before their feet and myrtle branches strew'd.

By them they pass, and now the giant hall
Bids to the train its oaken valves unfold,
From whose high rafter'd roof and arched wall,
Five hundred pennons, prize of war, unroll'd,
In various silk display'd and waving gold,
The armories of many a conquer'd knight;
And some of Arthur's sword the fortune told,
Of Gawain some, but most were redde aright,
"These Lancelot du Lake achieved in open fight."

Here might I sing (what many a bard has sung)
Each gorgeous usage of that kingly hall;
How harp, and voice, and clashing goblet rung,
Of page and herald, bard and seneschall.
But antique times were rude and homely all;
And ill might Arthur's nuptial banquet vie,
With theirs who nature's kindly fruits forestall,
And brave the seas for frantic gluttony,
And every various bane of every clime supply,

Nor car'd the king, a soldier tried and true,
For such vain pampering of impure delight.
His toys, his gauds, were all of manlier hue,
Swift steeds, keen dogs, sharp swords, and armour bright;
Yet wanted nought that well became a knight
Of seemly pomp; the floor with rushes green,
And smooth bright board with plenteous viands dight,
That scant the load might bear, though well be seen
With ribs and rafters strong, and ponderous oak between.

And shame it were to pass the warrior state
Of those, the favour'd few, whose table round,
Fast by their sovereign and his beauteous mate,
Apart from all the subject train, was crowned,
Whose manly locks with laurel wreaths were bound,
And ermine wrapt their limbs; yet on the wall
Their helms, and spears, and painted shields were found,
And mails, and gilded greaves, at danger's call,
Aye prompt for needful use whatever chance might fall.

And bounded high the monarch's heart of pride,
Who gazed exulting on that noble crew;
And leaning to his silent spouse, he cried,
"Seest thou, Ganore, thy band of liegemen true?
Lo, these are they whose fame the liquid blue
Of upper air transcends; nor lives there one
Of all who gaze on Phoebus' golden hue,
From earth's cold circle to the burning zone,
To whom of Arthur's knights the toil remains unknown.

"Yes, mark him well, the chief whose auburn hair
So crisply curls above his hazel eye,
And parted leaves the manly forehead bare.
That same is Gawain, flower of courtesy;
Yet few with him in listed field may vie.
Gahriet the next, in blood the next and might;
And Carados whose lady's loyalty
The mantle gain'd and horn of silver bright;
And stout Sir Kay, stout heart, but not so strong in fight.

"But he, the best of all and bravest peer
That drinks this hour the crystal air of day;
The most renowned and to me most dear,
As ill befalls, is journey'd far away,
A strange and stern adventure to essay,
Whom Heaven defend, and to his friend's embrace
Again resistless Lancelot convey!"
So spake the king, and more his words to grace,
An unsuspected tear stole down his manly face.

To whom with faltering voice Ganora spake,
"Oh happy knights of such a king," she said,
"And happy king for whose revered sake
So valiant knights unsheathe the deadly blade!
And worthless I, an untaught village maid,
In Arthur's court to fill the envied throne,
Who meeter far in russet weeds array'd,
Had fed my flock on Skiddaw's summit lone,
Unknowing of mankind and by mankind unknown."

The monarch smiled, a proud protecting smile,
That spoke her lovelier for her lowliness;
And, bending from his loftier seat the while,
Hung o'er her heaving form, yet ill could guess
What terror strove within, what deep distress
Rose in her painful throat, while struggling there,
A stronger awe the sob would fain repress;
Nor other cause he sought than maiden fear
To chill the shrinking hand, to call the trickling tear.

"Mine own Ganore!" he said, "my gentle maid!
Oh deem not of thyself unworthily;
By charms like thine a king were well repaid,
Who yielded up for love his royalty.
And heroes old, and they that rule the sky,
Have sought in lowly cot, as fables tell,
A purer love than gems or gold can buy,
And beauty oftener found in mountain cell,
Than with the lofty dames in regal court who dwell.

"Go, ask the noblest of my knightly power,
Ask of Sir Lancelot, what secret pain
So oft hath drawn him forth at twilight hour,
To woods and wilds, his absent love to plain,
Whom many a courtly fair hath sought in vain?
Oh, he will tell thee that the greenwood tree
Recalls the hour of happier youth again,
When blithe he wont to range the forest free,
With her, his earliest choice, the maid of low degree."

He ceased, to whom the maiden nought replied,
But in the patience of her misery
Possess'd her secret soul, and inly sigh'd.
"Why ponder thus on what no more may be?
Why think on him who never thinks on thee?
For now seven autumns have with changing hue
Embrown'd the verdure of our trysting tree,
Since that shrill horn the wonted signal blew,
Or that swift foot was heard brushing the twilight dew.

"Then rouse thee yet thy silent griefs to bear,
And rein the troublous thoughts so far that rove:
Faithless or dead, he little needs thy care;
And ill such thoughts a wedded wife behove;
Then turn to him who claims thy plighted love;
Nor weeping thus, thine inward shame confess,
Whom knightly worth nor regal state may move;
Nor he whom Albion's sister islands bless,
Can tame thy stubborn grief and minion frowardness!"

So sadly past the festal eve away,
While at each courteous word her bosom bled,
And every glance her heart could ill repay,
Through the chill conscience like a dagger sped.
Yet still with secret prayer her soul she fed,
And burst with holier thoughts each inward snare,
Which in that wither'd heart, where hope was dead,
Yet hopeless passion wove, and darkest there,
The dreadful whisper crept of comfortless despair.

And softer seem'd her silent grief to flow,
And sweeter far her unrestrained tear,
While soft and sweet, a tale of tender woe
Iola wove, the bard, whose harp to hear
Even the rude warder, leaning on his spear,
Prest to the further door; and squire, and knight,
And lingering pages on those accents dear,
Paus'd round the unserved board; and ladies bright,
Breathless, with lips unclos'd, drank in the wild delight.

A strange and melancholy tale it was,
"Of one who, for a tyrant uncle's right,
Lay bleeding, breathless, on the crimson grass,
All vainly victor in th' unequal fight;
And who is she whose hands of lily white,
Too beauteous leech! his festering hurt would bind?
Ah, fly thee, princess, from the Cornish knight,
Who, now preserv'd, a sorer fate must find,
By guilt, and late remorse, and hopeless passion pin'd.

"Yet pleasant was the dawn of early love,
And sweet the faery bowl of magic power!
But following mists the early heat reprove,
And April frosts abash the timid flower.
Behold him now at midnight's harmful hour,
His pale cheek pillow'd on his trembling knees,
Whose frantic brain rejects the shelt'ring bower,
Whose parched bosom woos the autumnal breeze,
And whose poor broken heart sighs with the sighing trees.

"Ah, sweet it seem'd when, through the livelong day,
'Mid tall Ierne's forest dark and wide,
In hunter garb he took his tireless way,
Love in his breast and Yseult at his side!
Gone are those days! Oh Yseult, oft he cried,
Relentless Yseult, beauteous enemy!
May happier fate thy gentle life betide,
Nor ever may'st thou waste a tear on me,
Nor guess the nameless tomb of him who pined for thee!

"And Lancelot! (for, Lordings, well ye know
How Tristan aye to Lancelot was dear)
Sir Lancelot! he sung, of all below
The best, the bravest, and the worthiest peer!
To thee my helm I leave, and shield and spear,
That not from harm their wretched lord might save.
Yet, noblest friend, my last petition hear,
By thine own secret love a boon I crave,
Defend mine Yseult's fame when I am laid in grave."

Here ceas'd the harp; but o'er its trembling chord
In silent grief the minstrel's sorrow fell,
And silence hush'd the throng where all deplor'd
The recent woes of knight who lov'd so well,
And most had known the heir of Lionelle;
And sweet it seem'd for others' woe to weep
To her whose secret anguish none could tell;
Yet nigh such strain could lull her pangs to sleep;
And now the star of eve beam'd o'er the twilight deep.

When, in that sober light and sadness still,
Arose a madd'ning hubbub hoarse and rude,
Like hunters on the brow of dewy hill,
And panting deer by nearer hounds pursued:
And a cold shudder thrill'd the multitude,
As, at the breath of that mysterious horn,
Each with inquiring gaze his neighbour view'd,
For never peal on woodland echoes borne,
So ghastly and so shrill awoke the spangled morn.

At once the steely bars in twain were rent;
At once the oaken valves asunder flew;
And warrior breasts, in iron corslets pent,
Their tighten'd breath with painful effort drew;
For louder, louder far the tumult grew,
That earth's firm planet quaked at the din,
And the thick air assumed a browner hue,
Such as on Nilus' bank hath whilom bin,
When Amram's mighty son rebuked the tyrant's sin.

And through the portal arch that open'd wide
(How came she or from whence no thought could tell)
The wedding-guests with fearful wonder eyed,
A hind of loveliest mould, whose snowy fell
Was dyed, alas! with dolorous vermeill.
For down her ruffled flank the current red,
From many a wound issued in fatal well,
As staggering faint with feeble haste she sped,
And on Ganora's lap reclin'd her piteous head.

With claws of molten brass, and eyes of flame,
A grisly troop of hell-hounds thronging near,
And on her foamy steed a damsel came,
A damsel fair to see, whose maiden cheer
But ill beseem'd the ruthless hunting spear;
Whose golden locks in silken net were twin'd,
And pure as heaving snow her bosom dear;
Yet ceased she not that dreadful horn to wind,
And strain'd a quivering dart for fatal use design'd.

Reckless of loathed life, and free from stain
Of deep transgression, could Ganora fear!
Forlorn herself, she felt for others' pain,
And cast her sheltering robe around the deer.
To whom that magic maid with brow severe
And glaring eye, "Oh, doom'd to lasting woe,
Waste not, unhappy queen, thy pity here,
Nor bid my righteous rage its prey forego,
Who keener pangs thyself, Ganora, soon shalt know!

"Poor wither'd heart, that hid'st from human eye
The bitter secret of thine inward wound,
Go, doff the cumbrous garb of royalty,
And seek betimes the cloister's sacred bound!
Ah, warn'd in vain! I hear the clarion sound;
Rings to the charger's tread the shadowy glen;
For thee, for thee, the guarded list is crown'd;
For thee dark treason quits her snaky den;
The battle's roar resounds for thee, and groans of mangled men!

"Heap high the wood, and bid the flames aspire!
Bind her long tresses to th' accursed tree!
A queen, a queen, must feed the funeral fire!
Ah, hope not thou, though love shall set thee free,
With that restored love in peace to be.
And shall my country bend her awful head
To lick the bitter dust of slavery?
Illustrious isle! is all thy glory fled?
How soon thy knightly boast is number'd with the dead!

"Yet art thou safe, and Arthur's throne may stand."
(Down from the lofty saddle, bending low,
The dart she proffer'd to Ganora's hand;)
"Nay, shrink not, maiden, from the needful blow,
Nor spare, in yonder hind, thy fiercest foe,
Whose secret hate from forth her dark recess,
Besets thy guiltless life with snares of woe.
Take, take the steel! thy wrongs and mine redress!
Mercy were impious here! — be strong, be merciless!"

Giddy and faint, unknowing where she was,
Or if, indeed, were sooth that ghastly view,
Pale as some wintry lake, whose frozen glass
Steals from the snow-clad heaven a paler hue,
Ganora sate; but still, to pity true,
Her milk-white arms around the quarry spread,
Then rais'd to Heaven her eyes of mildest blue,
And to her cheek return'd a dawning red,
As, with collected soul, she bow'd herself and said:—

"And I can suffer! let the storm descend;
Let on this helpless head the thunder break;
Yet, exercis'd in grief, yet, God to friend,
I can endure the worst for mercy's sake!
No, wretched suppliant!" (to the hind she spake
That lick'd her hand, and with large tearful eye
Dwelt on her gentle face:) "thy fears forsake!
Be thou my friend, I doom thee not to die,
And thy mute love shall cheer my joyless royalty."

"Have then thy wish!" the spectre damsel cried,
And call'd her dogs, and wheel'd her courser round,
And with the javelin smote his quivering side;
When, swifter than the rocket's fiery bound,
Aloft they sprang, huntress, and horse, and hound,
And, dimly mixing with the horizon grey,
Fled like a winged dream, yet traces found
Of gore and talons told their recent way;
And still before the queen that wounded quarry lay.

How fares the knightly court of Carduel?
How fare the wedding guests and warrior throng,
Where all conspired the nuptial mirth to swell,
The dance, the feast, the laugh, the wine, the song?
Oh they are silent all! the nimble tongue
Of him, whose craft, by motley kirtle known,
Had graver wits with seeming folly stung;
The vaunting soldier and the simpering crone,
And breath'd in beauty's ear the sighs of softest tone.

As one who, stretch'd upon a battle-field,
Looks to the foeman's hand who laid him low,
And, with faint effort, rears his broken shield,
And dreads, where needeth none, a second blow.—
Or, likest him who, where the surges' flow
Bares the bleak surface of some wave-beat steep,
A shipwreck'd man, expects in breathless woe,
Till the returning wave, with giant sweep,
Unlock his desperate hold, and whelm him in the deep.

So blended fears, the future and the past,
The past yet seen by terror's glazed eye,
That, tearless still and wild, those phantoms traced,
Peopling the twilight's dismal vacancy
With fancied shapes, and shades of fiendish dye;
The future wildest, darkest, unexprest,
Danger untry'd, unfancy'd agony,
In the mute language of dismay confest,
Thrill'd in the bristling hair, throbb'd in th' expanded breast.

Sternly the monarch rose, and o'er his brow
A horrent pang of dark anxiety
Shot like the stormy shadow, scudding low
Along the surface of the purple sea.
A smile succeeded. Not to mine, or me,
Be that portentous smile of hate and scorn,
Which each strong furrow, stronger made to be,
By toil, and care, and ruthless passion worn,
And recollected guilt of youth's tempestuous morn!

"Sister!" he spake, (half-utter'd, half-represt,
From his shut teeth the sullen accents stole;)
"And deem'st thou, sister, that thine arts unblest
Can tame the settled bent of Arthur's soul?
No; let the stars their fiery circles roll;
Let dreams of woe disturb the prophet's breast:
Can these, or those, the warrior's will controul?
'Tis chance, 'tis errour all! — Oh, trusted best!
Be thou mine omen, sword! I reck not of the rest!"

The wedded pair are to their chamber gone,
While minstrel sounds of breath, and beat, and string
Pour on the dewy breeze their blended tone;
And wreathed maidens, link'd in jocund ring,
"Hymen" around them, "Io Hymen" sing.
So, trampling roses in their path, they sped,
The veiled bride and the triumphant king,
A festal glare while hundred torches shed,
Tinging the cheek of night with all unwonted red.

[New York (1830) 2:485-99]

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