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

Morte d'Arthur. A Fragment. Canto III.

Bp. Reginald Heber


Arthur departs on the hunt while Guinevere, averse to such activities, lingers behind in pastoral solitude. Tracing her melancholy way through the castle, the Queen discovers an elegant chapel, adorned with the records of Arthur's exploits and the mysterious grail. In a long ecphrastic passage she examines the legendary records of Britain inscribed on the walls, and is taken aback to discover the very image of the forester she had loved dying in a battle against the Saxons — with the name "Lancelot" inscribed above in silver threads. Guinevere rails against Arthur, then embraces the cross in a fit of remorse. She determines to learn more of Launcelot from Ygwerna, who relates his strange history — how, separated from his mother, he had been raised by a fairy. He disdains the love of women, though Ygwerna opines that his elfin dame has some say in the matter. The Queen inquires where this fairy lives, and is startled to learn that she makes her home near the River Derwent.



When I rehearse each gorgeous festival,
And knightly pomp of Arthur's elder day,
And muse upon these Celtic glories all,
Which, save some remnant of the minstrel's lay,
Are melted in oblivious stream away,
(So deadly bit the Saxon blade and sore)
Perforce I rue such perilous decay,
And, reckless of my race, almost deplore
That ever northern keel deflower'd the Logrian shore.

Oh thou the ancient genius of the land,
Who wont on old Belusium's sunny steep,
And nigh the holy mount, with armed hand,
In vision dimly seen, thy watch to keep,
Our angel guard, whose eagle pinions sweep
In circling flight around his rock-built nest,
Now soaring high, now dark'ning half the deep,
The broad wave bursting with his shadowy breast,
Oh did not his lament foreshow the nearer pest?

Say, did not he when Hengist plough'd the main,
With gathering mist the conqueror's track dismay,
And smite his radiant brows in parent pain
And sadly rend his samphire wreath away?
No, brighter beam'd his prescient eye that day,
And as the proud bark swept the waters free,
He bade the rustling waves around it play.
While softly stole across the sunny sea,
From many a twisted shell the mermaid's harmony.

Now forty times the golden-haired dawn
Had sprung from old Tithonus' dewy bed,
And forty times across the fading lawn,
Had summer eve her filmy mantle spread,
Since young Ganore to Mary's aisle was led
A pensive bride; and yet, I wot not why,
But those who best could read her blushes said,
Not now so much she droop'd the timid eye,
Nor paid her Arthur's warmth with so cold courtesy.

She was his wife! for this she strove to bear
Of that portentous eye the tawny glow;
And those deep indents of ambitious care
That mapp'd his dark and melancholy brow;
She was belov'd; for well the fair might know
How that stern heart was fix'd on her alone,
When, melted all in love's delirious flow,
The vanquish'd victor at her feet was thrown;
And she was inly vain to feel such power her own.

So was she pleas'd herself who sought to please;
Till on a day when all the court would ride
To drink in Cattraeth's woods the cooler breeze,
And rouse the dun deer from Terwathlin's side,
It chanced the queen within her bower to bide,
As one in boisterous pastime rarely seen;
Who little loved the hunter's cruel pride,
Or maddening shout that rends the forest green,
Or their poor quarry's groan the bugle notes between.

Loth was her lord to miss that livelong day,
Her soft sweet glances and her converse sweet;
Yet cared he not to cross her purposed stay;
And forth he fared, but still with ling'ring feet
And backward look, and "Oh when lovers meet
How blest," he thought "the evening's tranquil hour,
From care and cumbrous pomp a glad retreat."
Not since his youth first quaff'd the cup of power,
Had Arthur praised before the calm sequester'd bower.

And forth he fared; while from her turret high
That smiling form beheld his hunter crew;
Pleased she beheld, whose unacquainted eye
Found in each varying scene a pleasure new.
Nor yet had pomp fatigued her sated view,
Nor custom pall'd the gloss of royalty.
Like some gay child a simple bliss she drew
From every gaud of feudal pageantry,
And every broider'd garb that swept in order by.

And, sooth, it was a brave and antic sight,
Where plume, and crest, and tassel wildly blending,
And bended bow, and javelin flashing bright,
Mark'd the gay squadron through the copse descending;
The greyhound, with his silken leash contending,
Wreath'd the lithe neck; and, on the falconer's hand
With restless perch and pinions broad depending,
Each hooded goshawk kept her eager stand,
And to the courser's tramp loud rang the hollow land.

And over all, in accents sadly sweet,
The mellow bugle pour'd its plaintive tone,
That echo joy'd such numbers to repeat,
Who, from dark glade or rock of pumice-stone,
Sent to the woodland nymphs a softer moan;
While listening far from forth some fallow brown,
The swinked ploughman left his work undone;
And the glad schoolboy from the neighbouring town,
Sprang o'er each prisoning rail, nor reck'd his master's frown.

Her warm cheek pillow'd on her ivory hand,
Her long hair waving o'er the battlement,
In silent thought Ganora kept her stand,
Though feebly now the distant bugle sent
Its fading sound; and, on the brown hill's bent,
Nor horse, nor hound, nor hunter's pomp was seen.
Yet still she gaz'd on empty space intent,
As one, who spell-bound on some haunted green
Beholds a faery show, the twilight elms between.

That plaintive bugle's well remember'd tone
Could search her inmost heart with magic sway;
To her it spoke of pleasures past and gone,
And village hopes, and friends far, far away,
While busy memory's scintillating play
Mock'd her weak heart with visions sadly dear,
The shining lakelet, and the mountain grey,
And who is he, the youth of merriest cheer,
Who waves his eagle plume and grasps his hunting spear?

As from a feverish dream of pleasant sin,
She, starting, trembled, and her mantle blue,
With golden border bright, and silver pin,
Round her wet cheek and heaving bosom drew;
Yet still with heavy cheer and downcast view,
From room to room she wander'd to and fro,
Till chance or choice her careless glances threw
Upon an iron door, whose archway low,
And valves half open flung, a gorgeous sight might show.

It was a hall of costliest garniture,
With arras hung in many a purple fold;
Whose glistening roof was part of silver pure,
And silken part, and part of twisted gold,
With arms embroider'd and achievements old;
Where that rich metal caught reflected day,
As in the hours of harvest men behold
Amid their sheaves a lurking adder play,
Whose burnish'd back peeps forth amid the stubble grey.

And, in the midst, an altar richly dight
With ever-burning lamps of silver pale,
And silver cross, and chalice heavenly bright,
Before whose beam a sinful heart might quail,
And sinful eye to bear its beauty fail.
It was, to ween, that gracious implement
Of heavenly love, the three-times hallow'd Grayle
To Britain's realm awhile in mercy lent,
Till sin defil'd the land, and lust incontinent.

Strange things of that time-honour'd urn were told,
For youth it wont in aged limbs renew,
And kindle life in corpses deadly cold;
Yea palsy warmth, and fever coolness drew,
While faith knelt gazing on its heavenly hue.
For not with day's reflected beam it shone,
Nor fiery radiance of the taper's blue;
But from its hollow rim around was thrown
A soft and sunny light, eternal and its own.

And many a riven helm around was hung,
And many a shield revers'd, and shivered spear,
And armour to the passing footsteps rung,
And crowns that paynim kings were wont to wear;
Rich crowns, strange arms, but shatter'd all and sere;
Lo! this the chapel of that table round,
And shrine of Arthur and his warriors dear;
Where vent'rous knights by secret oaths were bound,
And blest by potent prayers their foemen to confound.

Nor less the scene such solemn use became,
Whose every wall in freshest colours dight,
Display'd in form, in feature, and in name,
The lively deeds of many a faithful knight;
And told of many a hardly foughten fight
Against the heathen host in gory field;
Of those who reap renown with falchion bright,
Or list in war the ponderous axe to wield,
Or press the courser's flank with spear and shield.

The stripling conqueror of a giant foe,
Belov'd of Heaven, was David there to see,
And wallowing wide the headless bulk below;
And there the self-devoted Maccabee,
Content in death to leave his Israel free,
Sustain'd unmov'd the towered elephant,
With javelin planted firm, and bended knee;
And grimly smiling on the monster's vaunt,
Slaying, was nobly slain, a martyr militant.

There too, she mark'd, in blood-red colours writ,
The Christian conqueror of British line,
Who seem'd aloft in golden car to sit,
Rais'd on the ruins of an idol shrine,
Lord of the earth, resistless Constantine!
And, blazing high above his chosen head,
The meteor cross shed forth its light divine;
That that great dragon shook with guilty dread,
And all his countless host from forth the heaven fled.

Nor less her own paternal Carmelide,
With arms begirt, and warrior faces round;
Nor less the queen with greedy wonder eyed
The giant form, whose uncouth mantle, bound
With beards of captive monarchs, swept the ground.
Vain-glorious Ryence! him the Christian host
With plunging spears in Mersey's current drown'd;
Who, wading through the river depths, almost
Had stemm'd th' indignant wave, and reach'd the farther coast.

But oh, what rage of war! what ghastly blows!
Where silver Avon ran with sanguine hue;
And fierce in fight the youth of Denmark rose,
And Arthur's strength his deadly falchion drew.
Her own brave lord Ganora there might view,
As 'mid the meaner trees a kingly oak;
How fast the fire-sparks from his armour flew;
How from his courser's panting side the smoke;
How high he bare his targe, how rose at every stroke!

Around the king, behind him and before,
Red ran the tide of death, and dark the throng;
And Merlin there his dragon standard bore,
Scattering dismay the mailed rands among;
A living standard, whose biforked tongue
Hiss'd with strange magic, and its brazen eye
Darted pernicious rays of poison strong;
Als were its threatful spires uplifted high,
And wings of molten brass outspread in air to fly.

Strange was it to behold the enchanter's mien,
Whose robe of various colours wildly roll'd,
And naked limbs in battle seldom seen,
And magic girdle all of graven gold,
In uncouth wise his prophet frenzy told.
Swart with his visage, and his raven hair
Hung loose and long in many a tangled fold;
And his large eyeballs, with unearthly stare,
Flash'd on the withering host a wild portentous glare.

Fast by that fiend-born sire was Gawain placed,
Gawain the gentlest of the knightly throng,
With ladies' love, and minstrel honour graced,
The good, the brave, the beautiful, the strong;
And, breathing fury, Modred spurr'd along,
Sir Modred, sternest of the table round,
Injurious chief, who reck'd nor right nor wrong;
Yet forward in his suzerain's service found,
And next to Arthur's self for princely lineage crown'd.

But who is he? the chief whose single might
Girt by the Saxon host in desperate ring,
With slender lance redeems the reeling fight,
While death and conquest poised on dubious wing
Hung o'er the strife his valour witnessing?
Cleft is his helmet, and his sanguine cheer
And beardless cheeks betoken manhood's spring,
Ah well-known glance, ah form to memory dear,
It is the nameless youth! it is the forestere!

Was it a dream? her unassured eye
Paused on the form awhile-awhile withdrew;
She chafes her lids their perfect sense to try;
It was no dream! alas, too well she knew
The locks of auburn and the eyes of blue,
And, her own work, the scarf and broider'd vest!
And her ears tingled, and a death-like dew
Through her cold marrow thrill'd and quivering breast,
And suffocating sobs the abortive shriek supprest.

When overpast was that strong agony,
And doubt and fear resumed their blended reign,
She on that arras bent her frenzied eye,
And line retraced, and well known line again.
"His locks were auburn, these a darker grain,
Fair is yon knight, yet sure than him less fair,
Yon shield, yon crownet mark a princely strain,
And sterner seems that brow." Ah fruitless care!
That lip! those eyes! that scarf! his pictur'd self is there!

"And art thou he?" for o'er his conquering head
In Gothic letters all of silver bright,
That chieftain's woven name Ganora read,
"And art thou he, thy sovereign's darling knight,
The wise in court, the matchless in the fight,
Strength of our Logrian land in danger's hour!
Oh Lancelot! (if thus I read aright
Thy lordly style,) 'mid pomp, and wealth, and power
Full soon hast thou forgot thy humble village flower!"

"Yet Arthur cull'd that flower!" (a female ire
Flush'd in her cheek, and sparkled in her eye)
"Yet Albion's lord could this poor form desire;
And thou shalt view thy rustic Emily
In pomp of queenly state enthroned high!
Then, Cadwal, shall thy soul new pangs endure,
And in each slighted charm new grace descry,
And, scorn'd in turn — Ah passion hard to cure!
Break, break my tempted heart while yet my will is pure."

Thus raved she long, till from her throbbing breast
Exhausted passion loos'd his iron sway;
And holier thoughts her struggling soul possest,
And that pure chalice with its saintly ray,
And that still chapel turned her heart to pray.
So prostrate at the marble altar's base,
With floating locks and folded hands she lay;
And moistening with her tears the sacred place,
Clung to the silver cross with Magdalen embrace.

So by that heavenly toil re-comforted,
She, slowly rising from the sacred ground,
Dried her moist eye, with streaming anguish red,
And those loose locks in decent fillet bound,
And cast, in matron guise, her mantle round,
And forth she went; yet ere the morrow's light,
She of her maidens fit occasion found
To ask the lineage of "that absent knight,
Who now in Albion's war fought for his suzerain's right.

"He of the Lake, whose empty seat was placed
And in the hall his banner waving wide,
A golden hound with chequer'd collar graced,
And the broad field with seeming verdure dyed?"
To whom the young Ygwerna swift replied
With arched brows and finger pointing sly,
"Oh who shall dare to praise that chief of pride,
Who, when the jealous Gwendolen is nigh,
Whose proffer'd love he meets with so cold courtesy?"

"Peevish Ygwerna!" Gwendolen rejoin'd,
"By forged tales to shroud thy secret care!
Who more than thou the myrtle branch has twined,
And ring'd with flowery wreath his auburn hair?
Ah wooing vainly spent! some absent fair
Has o'er the warrior hung her silken chain;
Witness the purple scarf he loves to wear,
Witness his wanderings o'er the nightly plain,
Witness Ygwerna's love and Lancelot's disdain!"

Ganora sigh'd; but all unmark'd the sigh
As Gwendolen pursued her eager word!
"Oh lady mine, long were the history
To reckon up the praise of that young lord,
In Logris and in distant Gaul ador'd,
And sprung from elder kings of Brutus' race;
But changeful fate, and war with ruthless sword
Could ancient Tribles' goodly towers deface,
And poppies wave the head in the tall banner's place.

"When bloody Claudas sack'd the Armoric shore,
The sire of Launcelot its sceptre held,
For wealth renown'd, for virtuous wisdom more,
And the fair peace of honourable eld.
But the base rabble from his rule repell'd,
And ancient Ban, no longer prompt to bear
(As when at Carohaise, the foe he quell'd)
The conquering falchion and the pennon'd spear,
Fled from his dangerous throne to wood and desart drear.

"There, wretched sire, by daily wrath pursued,
Himself, his infant heir, and beauteous dame,
A shelter seeking in the solitude,
To a wild cave with painful travel came,
Where toil and grief opprest his hoary frame:
A little space with arms to Heaven spread,
A little space, on cities wrapt in flame;
And ravaged fields, he gazed, but nothing said,
Then in his Helen's arms sank down his dying head.

"She, chafing his cold brows, and with her tears
Moistening in vain the breast was ever true,
Nor space, nor leisure found for other fears;
But when her much-loved lord deceased she knew,
All wildly frantic thro' the desart flew,
Reckless of him who, 'mid the bushes laid,
Her sleeping babe, a faery's pity drew;
Who haply wandering through the twilight glade.
Stoop'd from her phantom steed, and home the prize convey'd.

"Beneath the hollow waters is her home,
Upbuilt with arched waves of crystal cold,
Where never wight of mortal seed should come.
Yet did she there the beauteous infant hold,
And train'd in knightly lore and pastimes bold;
But luckless Helen, dame disconsolate,
When late her loss returning reason told,
Sought the sad shelter of a convent grate,
And wept with live-long grief her boy's untimely fate.

"Him, when his vigorous youth was ripe for war,
And downy cheek was cloth'd in darker shade,
On airy wheels and dragon-yoked car,
To Arthur's court his elfin nurse convey'd,
In polish'd arms of maiden white array'd,
And silver shield as princely youth became;
Who since untam'd, unrivall'd, undismay'd
In tourney strife and war's illustrious game,
Has borne from every knight the foremost meed of fame."

"All otherwise I deem," Ganora cried,
"Nor him account the best and bravest knight
Who, wrapt in sordid gain or warrior pride,
Is dead to ladies' pain and love's delight."
"Ah who," said Gwendolen, "shall read aright
The close-kept secret of a hero's love!
Yet some have said, in magic beauty bright,
His elfin dame has power his mind to move,
And urge his pensive steps along the twilight grove."

A livid blush the queen's pale face o'erspread,
"Yet, yet aread, where is that faery's wan?"
"Ah who shall tell her haunt," the maiden said,
"Who in the desart water dwells alone,
Or under hollow hill or cavern'd stone?
Yet beauteous Derwent claims her chiefest grace."
Ganora heard, but answer made she none,
And with her kerchief shrouding close her face,
Broke from th' unfinish'd tale and sadly left the place.

[New York (1830) 2:515-25]