1815 ca.

Morte d'Arthur. A Fragment. Canto II.

Bp. Reginald Heber

The second canto opens in Carduel Castle, where Morgan, who had concealed herself as the white doe, resumes her stately form: "Her wreath was nightshade, and her sable vest | All spangled o'er with magic imagery." As such appears at Arthur's bedside where, after expressing remorse for her hateful actions, she proceeds to poison the nuptial couch. She then speeds away to a nocturnal interview with her son Modred, who inquires of her the name of his father. Morgan relates the history of her love for Arthur, since turned to hate, and describes how she has trained their son Modred in the ways of ambition and the arts of power. But her intentions have been thwarted by Merlin and Arthur's chance meeting with Guinevere, intended for Modred. He departs for Scotland in pursuit of a magical ring. Dawn breaks; the celebrations for Authur's wedding are interrupted by the appearance of a stranger dame complaining of the depredations committed in Scotland by an invisible menace that can only be removed by one who can draw a magical sword she bears from its scabbard. Arthur and all the court try and fail (Launcelot is absent), until Sir Balin, imprisoned by Arthur, demands a turn and at the insistence of the mob is brought forth. Successful, he is released . The white doe, which had withdrawn at the appearance of the lady with the sword, gambols before the Queen by day, and by night discerns the secret of her love for the young forester.

Blest is the midnight of the cradled boy,
Along whose dimply cheek in slumbers mild
The warm smile basks of visionary joy!
And blest is she, who by her sleeping child
Has the long hours in watchful love beguil'd;
And blest the weary man whose wistful eyes
From his tall frigate scan the ocean wild,
When the fair beacon paints the ruddy skies,
And on his tearful heart the thoughts of home arise.

And dear to faithful love that lovely hour,
And dear to him beyond the beam of day,
Who tracks the footsteps of eternal power,
Where the broad Heavens their starry map display.
Guilt, only guilt detests the silent ray
Of that soul-searching moon, whose lustre sad
Restores neglected conscience to her sway,
And bitter memory of all things bad,
In crowds forgotten erst, or drown'd in revel mad.

The harp was silent, and the tapers' light
Had faded from the walls of Carduel,
Which late, through many a window's latticed height,
On the dark wave in fitful lustre fell;
And far and faintly peal'd the drowsy bell
That wakes the convent to unwilling prayer;
When she, that seeming hind of snowy fell,
Erect upstarted from her secret lair,
Erect, in awful grace, a woman goodly fair.

Dark o'er her neck the glossy curls descending
Half hid and half reveal'd her ivory breast;
And dark those eyes, where pride with sorrow blending,
Of hate and ruth a mingled tale confest.
Her wreath was nightshade, and her sable vest
All spangled o'er with magic imagery,
In tighter fold her stately form exprest,
As when the empress of the silent sky
Explores her sleeping love on Latmos' summit high.

Or likest her whose melancholy feet
In Stygian valleys wander lonelily,
Singing sad airs, and culling flowers sweet,
(Yet sweeter flowers in Enna wont to be)
Daughter of Ceres, sad Persephone!
Oh, not of hell the adamantine throne
Nor golden bough from Acherusian tree,
Can for the balmy breeze of Heaven atone,
Or match the common light of earth's supernal zone!

So sad, so beautiful, so sternly bright,
Skimming the silent air with magic tread,
And fairer seen beneath the fair moonlight,
That elfin lady stood by Arthur's bed.
A tear, in spite of strong disdain, she shed;
One little tear, as o'er the sleeping twain
Her dark eye glanc'd; then, with averted head,
"Ye whom I serve forgive this transient pain;
I little thought," she sigh'd, "that Morgue would weep again."

Again she gazed, again a softer dew
Dimm'd of her lucid eye the fiery ray,
As sad remembrance waken'd at the view
Of those who wrapt in dewy slumber lay.
Nor could the Chian's mimic art display
A goodlier pair; yet did Ganora's cheek
A hectic flush unlike to joy display;
And from her half-clos'd lips, in accent weak,
Would ever and anon a mournful murmur break.

"Oh brother once most dear," the faery said,
"A little while sleep on, a little while
On that warm breast pillow thy careless head,
And bless thy waking eyes with beauty's smile.
But danger hovers near, and thorny guile
And jealous love that borders close on hate,
And angry doubt in impotent turmoil,
Whose murderous purpose not for proof shall wait,
With following sorrow join'd and penitence too late!

"And thou, poor victim of another's crime,
Hell knows I hate not thee, — thy simple breast
Sought not to so sad eminence to climb!
Yet can I bear to see Ganora blest,
Who blesses him my foe? Oh dire unrest!
Oh Morgue condemn'd with frustrate hope to groan!
I sought to lure her from her cottage nest;
I sought to plant her on an empire's throne;
I sought and I obtain'd; would it were all undone!

"For this, alas, I watch'd those op'ning charms,
In the cool covert of her native grove;
And with a mother's hope, for Modred's arms
Foredoom'd Ganora's crown compelling love!
Now shall that spell-bound life a bulwark prove
To Arthur's reign! Ah me, whose feeble power
In fate's perplexing maze with Merlin strove,
And with my rival of the watery bower,
Of that too potent Mage the elfin paramour!

"What yet remains? — to blast with mutter'd spell
The budding promise of their nuptial bed;
Of jealous doubt to wake the inward hell,
And evil hopes of wandering fancy bred!"
She spake, and from her dewy chaplet shed
Pernicious moisture o'er each dewy limb,
And such strange words of imprecation said,
That Heaven's own everburning lamp grew dim,
And shuddering, ceased a while the saints' triumphal hymn.

But all in vain o'er young Ganora's breast,
Guarded by prayer, the demon whisper stole;
Sorrow, not sin disturb'd that tranquil rest;
Yet 'gan her teeth to grind and eyes to roll,
As troublous visions shook her sleeping soul;
And scalding drops of agony bedew'd
Her feverish brow more hot than burning coal.
Whom with malignant smile the faery view'd,
And through the unopen'd door her nightly track pursued.

Like as that evil dame whose sullen spell,
To love dire omen, and to love's delight,
(If all be sooth that ancient rabbins tell,)
With death and danger haunts the nuptial night,
Since Adam first her airy charms could slight;
Her Judah's daughters scare with thrilling cry,
Lilith! fell Lilith! from her viewless flight,
What time with flowers their jetty locks they tie,
And swell the midnight dance with amorous harmony.

With slope flight winnowing the winds of Heaven,
So sped king Uther's child, till her dark eye
Glanc'd on a stately knight, whose steps uneven
And folded arms might inward grief imply,
Or love's wild sting, or canker'd jealousy.
Above whose lucid mail and shoulders strong,
The furred mantle flow'd of royalty,
And, coil'd around his crest, a dragon long
Upwreath'd its golden spires the wavy plumes among.

Alone he paced, from all the band afar
Who kept with equal watch their sovereign's bower.
Alone with gloomy mien and visage bare,
Courting the cool breeze of that early hour.
Of sterner eye than Arthur's, and the flower
Of youth as yet on his dark features glow'd;
Yet seem'd like Arthur's brows his brows to lower;
The same of giant height his stature show'd,
His raven locks the same, but not with silver strow'd.

"Modred!" in accent low and bending near,
"Modred, my son!" the beauteous faery said,
"Ah, wherefore, at my voice that glance severe,
And that dear cheek suffus'd with angry red?
Yes, I deserve thy frown, thy mother's head,
Child of my pangs, thy keenest curse shall bear,
Who with warm hope thy young ambition fed,
And weaved the secret spell with nightly care,
Vain hopes, and empty spells to win thy promis'd fair!"

"And com'st thou yet, mother unfortunate!
To mock with dreams of transport and of power
My gloomy path, whom, with a common hate,
Since first thy shame disgrac'd my natal hour,
Of Heaven the curses, and of hell devour!
What spell-bound virgin may thy charms pursue?
What hovering diadems in golden shower
Shall mock mine oft-defeated hopes anew?"
He ceas'd, and o'er his eyes his hollow beaver drew.

To whom, deep sighing, Uther's daughter spake,
"Ah, never more may mother hope to find,
Who weeps and watches for her infant's sake,
The boy obedient, or the warrior kind!
Our toil, our hope is theirs, our heart, our mind;
For them we meditate, for them we pray;
The soul for them in sinful chain we bind;
And for their weal we cast our own away;
Yet when did filial love a parent's grief repay?

"O thou, for whom of mortal things alone,
Unthankful as thou art, yet ever dear,
My soul bends downwards from its cloudy zone,
And on mine elfin cheek a mortal tear
Warm ling'ring, tells me of the times that were!
Accursed for whose sake, my restless wing
And more than mother's pangs condemn'd to bear,
(Till time and fate mine hour of torment bring,)
Circles the arch of Heaven in melancholy ring!

"My Son! by all I feel, by all I dread,
If either parent's fate thy sorrow move,
(A father slain, a mother worse than dead,)
Grudge not the little payment of thy love!
Nor scorn my power! though spell unfaithful prove,
Though Merlin's mightier skill my hope have crost,
Yet not the fiends below, nor saints above,
Nor elfin tribes in airy tempests tost,
Can tame my stedfast will. All, Modred, is not lost!"

"Then tell me," cried the youth, "who was my sire,
And wherefore thou, estrang'd from mortal clay,
Bearest so dark a doom of penal fire,
A wretched wanderer on the Heavens' high way,
Once Albion's princess, now an elfin grey?
Too long thou tir'st with boding saws my breast,
Mocking thy son with phantoms of dismay,
Whose ardent soul by feverish doubt opprest,
Burns o'er the unfinish'd tale, and longs to hear the rest."

The faery grasp'd his mailed hand, and led
Where the deep waters rolling silently,
Beneath the western gate their mirror spread,
And on the giant walls and arches high,
A lonely horrour sate continually.
No warder there with beacon flaming bright,
Needed with weary pace his watch to ply,
But cold and calm the sinking stars of night,
Play'd on the rippling wave with ineffectual light.

There, where adown the solitary steep,
With foxglove twin'd, and mosses silver grey,
A trickling runnel seem'd the fate to weep
Of one whose rustic tomb beside it lay,
That lovely sorceress bent her mournful way;
And gathering strength — "Behold the honours here
Bestow'd by Arthur on thy parent's clay!
Behold! forgive, my boy, this coward tear;
Blood, blood alone should soothe the ghost who wanders near!

"He, when of downy youth the vernal light
Play'd on thy mother's cheek now wan with care,
And many a peer of fame, and many a knight,
To Britain's princess pour'd the tender prayer,
He, only he, the valiant and the fair,
To this weak heart an easy entrance found;
An humble squire; but not an empire's heir
Could vie with Paladore on listed ground;
With every manly grace, and every virtue crown'd.

"Oh days of bliss, oh hope chastis'd by fear,
When on my lap reclin'd the careless boy,
Chid my faint sighs, and kiss'd my falling tear!
He knew not, he, what bitter doubts annoy
Of unpermitted love the trembling joy;
He knew not till my brother's thirsty blade
Flash'd o'er his head, impetuous to destroy.
I clasp'd the tyrant's knees, I wept, I pray'd;
Oh God, on Arthur's soul be all my griefs repay'd!

"When from a trance of senseless agony
I woke to keener pangs, by frenzy stung,
Reckless of Arthur's late repentant cry,
Fire in my brain and curses on my tongue,
From yonder cliff my wretched frame I flung;
Alas, th' enchanted wind my weight upbore,
While in mine ears an elvish chorus rung,
—'Come, kindred spirit, to our cloudy shore!
With fays, thyself a fay, come wander evermore!'

"Since, on the rolling clouds or ocean blue,
Or 'mid the secrets of our nether sphere,
The goblin leader of a goblin crew,
I wander wide; but ill may mortal ear
Of faery land the mystic revels hear!
Short be my tale! one earthly thing alone,
One helpless infant to my heart was dear,
Bright in whose eyes his either parent shone,
Rear'd by their pitying foe, my son, my blessed son!"

She ceas'd, and round his linked hauberk threw
Her mother arms, and on his iron breast
(The rough mail moistening with tender dew)
A kiss, the seal of bitter love, imprest.
He, stern and dark, no kindly glow confest,
With face averted and with frozen eye,
Where softer passion never dared to rest,
But cunning seem'd with sullen pride to vie,
Calm, calculating hate, and damned cruelty.

"How I have train'd thee, with what potent charms
My magic care thy tender frame imbu'd,
How nurs'd thy youth for empire and for arms,
And how in Derwent's mountain solitude
I rear'd thy destin'd bride," the fay pursu'd,
"And what strange chance o'erthrew mine airy skill,
Alas, thou know'st it all! yet to delude
The force we cannot stem is triumph still,
And from reluctant fate t' extort our good or ill.

"Oh earth! how many wonders wonderful,
In thy large lap and parent bosom lie,
Which whoso knows (few know them all) to cull,
May drag the struggling planets from on high,
And turn the land to sea, the sea to dry;
Yea, not man's will, by God created free,
Can match their strange mysterious potency,
Nor love nor hate so firmly fixed be,
But love must yield and hate to magic's dark decree.

"A ring there is of perfect diamond stone,
Such as no mining slave is train'd to seek,
Nor Soldan numbers on his orient throne,
Nor diving Ethiop from his sultry creek
Has borne so rich a prize; for who shall speak
What unseen virtue in its orbit dwell?
Press it, the fiends attend in homage meek;
Turn it, the bearer walks invisible;
Ah who the hidden force of smallest things may tell?

"That same to one of regal race I lent,
Who now perforce must render back the prize,
For of his stars the danger imminent,
And guiltless blood loud crying to the skies
Alarm all hell; do thou as I desire;
This self-same morn depart for Scottish land,
There Urgan seek, king Pellea's uncle wise,
And bid him yield to thy deputed hand
That ring of diamond stone, for such is Morgue's command.

"Have we not heard how shepherd Gyges bare,
By like deceit from old Candaule's bed,
In naked beauty seen, the Lydian fair,
And kingly circle from his dotard head,
Thenceforth himself a king?" — "No more!" he said—
"Mother, no more! or ere the sun's bright round
Have tinged yon eastern cloud with lively red,
My fiery steed shall paw the spangled ground,
And on the Cattraeth's side my clashing arms resound."

Like as the hawk from hidden durance free
Springs from the falc'ner's wrist, the eager knight,
His dark cheek warm with savage ecstacy,
Burst from his parent's hold. She with delight
His warrior mien beheld and giant height,
Awhile beheld, then, rapt in mist away,
Back to the bridal turret bent her flight,
There closely couch'd amid the rushes grey,
O power of wicked spells! — a seeming hind she lay.

By this the fiery wheeled charioteer
Had raised above the fringed hills his head,
And o'er the skies in molten amber clear
A flood of life and liquid beauty shed,
When sun-like, rising from his fragrant bed,
All glorious in his bliss, the bridegroom king
Pass'd to the common hall, and with him led,
Blushing and beauteous as that morn of spring,
The fair foredoomed cause of Albion's sorrowing.

The mass was ended, and the silver tone
Of shawm and trumpet bade the courtier crew
In martial pastime round their monarch's throne,
That livelong day their mimic strife pursue,
As each the thirst of various pleasure drew;
Some launch'd the glossy bowl in alleys green,
Some the stiff bar with sturdy sinews threw,
Some in bright arms and wavy plumage seen,
Wielded the quivering lance the guarded lists between.

So was there mirth in stately Carduel;
Till in the midst a stranger dame was seen,
Whose snowy veil in graceful wimple fell
Above the sable garb of velvet sheen;
Als in her hand, of metal deadly keen,
A sheathed sword and studded belt she bare.
Golden the hilt, the sheath of silver clean,
Whose polish'd mirror back reflected fair
Her cheeks of vermeil tinge, her auburn length of hair.

Stately she rode along, and keen her eye
That scann'd with eager glance that warrior crew;
Yet was her blush so meek and maidenly,
That never village lass in apron blue
With purer roses caught the passing view.
Stately she rode along, and in her train,
With floating locks and beards of silver hue,
Two goodly squires array'd in mourning grain,
On either side controul'd her palfrey's silken rein.

Like as that lovely month to lovers dear,
Unlocks the green bud on the scented spray,
And laps in freshest flowers the tender year,
And tunes the songs of nature, — blessed May;
Such was the joy this damsel to survey.
But that deceitful hind who by the bride,
Licking her hand, in treacherous fondness lay,
Arose, and skulking to the farther side
In guilty darkness sought her harmful head to hide.

Alighting from her steed, some little space
Propt on that antique sword the maiden leant;
While silence gave her blushing cheek more grace,
And her warm tears touchingly eloquent,
Through warrior hearts a pleasing anguish sent.
Then, with collected voice she told her grief,
Of bitter wrong, and treason imminent
Done to her kindred by a Scottish chief,
'Gainst whom at Arthur's court she, suppliant, sought relief.

Her lands he wasted, and with tortuous wrong
Herself had banish'd from her native right;
A felon warrior, neither bold nor strong,
But safe and reckless of all human might
By charms impregnable and magic sleight.
"For, as some evil thought, he walks unseen
Scattering around in murderous despight
From viewless bow his arrows deadly keen,
That strength and courage fail t' oppose so fatal teen."

"Alas," said Arthur, "and can mortal wight
With trenchant steel a viewless life invade,
Or probe with dagger point his pall of night?"
"Who," she replied, "can draw this charmed blade
Worn by my sire, on him my doom is laid.
But now seven years through many a distant land,
Patient of ill, my weary course has stray'd,
Nor knight is found so brave whose stainless hand
Can from its burnish'd sheath unlock my fatal brand."

She ceas'd, and through the crowded fort there spread
A deep hoarse murmur, as th' autumnal sound
In hazel bower, when Sherwood's rustling head
Shakes in the blast, and o'er the dusty ground,
And in mid sky the falling leaves abound.
Beneath her bramble screen the crouching hare
Erects her ears, and quaking as astound,
Shrinks from the breath of that inclement air,
And the fast driving sleet that strips the branches bare.

Then sudden from a hundred tongues arose
Harsh words and high, and hand to hilt was laid,
And taunt and threat portended deadly blows,
Each claiming for himself that charmed blade,
And envied guidance of the noble maid.
But Arthur, rising from his gilded throne,
"Back, on your lives, presumptuous subjects!" said,
"For this adventure I resign to none,
Not Lancelot himself of knights the paragon!"

Awed, yet reluctant, back the crowd withdrew
While Arthur from the maid her sword required,
And poising in his hands with curious view,
Its antique frame and massy weight admired.
Then, bending low, with gripple might, desired
Forth from its silver sheath the blade to strain,
Which, following for a space, again retired,
Mocking with magic sleight his fruitless pain;
Seven times the king essay'd, seven times essay'd in vain.

As some stout churl by sinewy toil embrown'd,
Foil'd by a stranger in the wrestler's play
Arises, mourning, from the plashy ground,
His batter'd limbs and face deform'd with clay,
And cursing oft that luckless holiday;
So Arthur back the charmed steel restor'd,
And turn'd with sullen scowl his eyes away,
As many a knight of fame, and warlike lord
In long succession strove to drag that fatal sword.

But not Sir Carados thine iron arm,
Nor Kay's stout heart and vaunted pedigree,
Nor Gahriet's youthful grace could break the charm,
Nor Gawain's force and faith and courage free;
Though when he strove, the knight of courtesy,
The conscious sword awhile his hand obey'd,
That men a span's length of its edge might see,
As sunbeam radiant and with gold inlaid;
Yet would not all suffice to bear that stubborn blade.

Whereat the damsel made exceeding moan,
Shedding salt tears; nor did her sorrow spare
Her breast more lovely white than marble stone,
Nor the long radiance of her sunny hair;
That not the rudest groom such sight could bear:
But a sudden murmur through the palace spread
"Alas the while that Lancelot were there!
Then had not Arthur's court been shamed" — they said,
"Nor those love-darting eyes so bitter fountains shed."

A knight there was, whose erring hardihood
And fiery soul, that insult ill could bear,
Had bath'd his falchion in Cucullin's blood,
Who yearly made to Britain's court repair;
(Haughty Cucullin, Erin's haughty heir,)
Condemn'd for this (such vengeance Arthur vow'd)
To the chill dungeon's damp and stony lair;
Through the close-grated loop he call'd aloud,
And what that tumult meant, besought the passing crowd.

Which, when he heard, so strangely confident,
With such warm hope he crav'd his chance to try,
That through the court a louder murmur went,
As pity kindled into mutiny;
And Arthur, yielding to his people's cry,
"Let him come forth! — his doom in sooth was hard;
A soldier's fault!" he mutter'd carelessly;
"And knight so long in listless prison barr'd,
Has well such fault aton'd — Go bring him hitherward!"

So was Sir Balin brought before the throne,
A gaunt and meagre man, of hue forlorn;
For forty months of lingering care were gone,
Since on his flinty couch the smile of morn
Had rested, or, on dewy pinions borne,
The fragrant summer blest his solitude.
His limbs were with the linked iron worn,
And his long raven hair in tresses rude
Hung o'er his hollow cheeks with prison damps embued.

Around him wildly gazing, (for his sight
Shrank from th' unwonted beam of perfect day,
And those embattled guards whose armour bright
Flash'd in the sunshine like the torch's ray,)
He to the stranger damsel bent his way.
And, "Lady, scorn me not! the time has been
Or ere this bondage," he began to say,
"That gayer robes, and knights of statelier mien,
Have felt mine arm as strong, my lance as deadly keen."

"I pray thee give the sword!" — the sword she gave;
"Long, very long it seems," the captive cried,
"Since these poor hands have felt a battle glaive!"
Yet as the pommel's wieldy grasp he tried,
Dawn'd on his hollow cheek a martial pride,
And the dark smile of warrior ecstacy
Across his care-worn visage seem'd to glide;
And, flashing like a meteor to the sky,
Forth sprang the charmed blade, the blade of victory!

Say, have ye mark'd what winged moments fall
Between the distant cannon's flash and roar?
Such was the pause ensued, and such the swell
Of following rapture shook the ocean shore.
Rung every vaulted gate and turret hoar;
Rung the far abbey spires, and cloister'd bound;
While, as they sail'd the moss-grown rampart o'er,
The sea-bird reel'd on giddy pinions round,
And the wood-fringed rocks return'd a hollow sound.

When all was hush'd, the not unmindful king
From Balin bade the guard unloose his chain,
While robes of knightly blue the pages bring,
And furred mantle of majestic train.
He, with a settl'd smile of calm disdain,
Receiv'd the gifts; but when his well-known mail,
And shield, and rusted helm were brought again,
Quak'd his dark lip, and voice began to fail,
And the fast-falling tear bedew'd his features pale.

So when the feast was ended in the hall,
Nor longer wonld remain th' impatient maid,
Though Arthur much, and much his nobles all,
But most her presence young Ganora pray'd;
To each with courtly smile her thanks she paid,
And graceful on that docile palfrey sprung;
While close beside, in wonted steel array'd,
Victorious Balin's clashing armour rung,
Whom many a knight beheld, with serpent envy stung.

But while o'er many a wood-fringed hill
And heath of purple tint their journey lay,
That seeming hind, fair architect of ill,
In Arthur's palace sojourn'd many a day,
Expert in fraud, and watchful to betray.
Expert with pliant limb, and bounding high
Before the queen, her gambols to display;
Or fond and flattering at her feet to lie,
And mirror every thought in her large lucid eye.

So past the day; but when the seven-fold team,
That fear to tinge their feet in ocean deep,
Shot from the topmost north their twinkling beam,
And over mortal lids the dews of sleep
(To weary man blest visitation) creep,
Forth in the silence of the world she sped,
A nymph of air her unblest watch to keep;
Or, wrapt in mist, beside the bridal bed
Of poor Ganora's heart the wandering wishes read.

The early trace of youthful love was there,
And airy hope that flatter'd to betray;
But disappointment, with salt smarting tear,
Had blotted half the simple lines away;
The other half too deeply graven lay,
And, though contending with that earthly flame,
Celestial ardours sent their purer ray,
Though late — Ah, female heart, of feeble frame,
Of pomp, and rank, and power, the novel rapture came.

Yet in the midst, and sov'reign o'er her breast,
Cadwal, young Cadwal, held his fatal throne,
And, e'en to wakeful conscience unconfest,
Her fear, her grief, her joy were his alone:
Yes, every sigh that heav'd her silken zone,
From hapless love a dearer sorrow drew,
And, to Ganora's secret self unknown,
Arose before the faery's eager view;
Ah me! what airy spies our silent thoughts pursue!

And think'st thou, man, thy secret wish to shroud
In the close bosom's sealed sepulchre?
Or, wrapt in saintly mantle from the crowd,
To hug thy darling sin that none may see?
A thousand, thousand eyes are bent on thee;
And where thy bolts the babbling world exclude,
And in the darkness where thou lov'st to be,
A thousand, thousand busy sprites intrude;
Earth, air, and heaven are full, there is no solitude.

[New York (1830) 2:499-514]