The Dread Voyage Poems

by William Wilfred Campbell


 

SIR LANCELOT


 

HE rode, a king, amid the armoured knights,
The glory of day tossing on helm and shield,
And all the glory of his youth and joy,
In the strong, wine-like splendour of his face.
He rode among them, the one man of men,
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Their lordliest, loveliest, he who might have been,
Because of very human breadth of love,
And his glad, winning sympathy for earth,
Greater than even Arthur under heaven.

Kindlier than the morning was his face,

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Swift, like the lightning, was his eagle glance,
No bit of beauty earth had ever held,
Of child or flower or dream of woman’s face,
Or noble, passing godliness of mood,
In man toward man, but garnered in his eye,
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As in some mere that gathereth all earth’s face,
And foldeth it in beauty to its breast.

He rode among them, Arthur’s own right hand,
Arthur, whom he loved as John loved Christ,
And watched each day with joy that lofty brow

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Lift up its lonely splendour, isolate,
Half god-like, o’er that serried host of spears,
And knew his love the kingliest, holiest thing,
’Twixt man and man upon this glowing earth.

So passed those days of splendour and of peace,

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When all men loved his majesty and strength
And kindliness of spirit which the king,
Great Arthur, with his lofty coldness lacked.
’Twas Lancelot fought the mightiest in the lists,
And beat with thunders back the brazen shields,
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And stormed the fastness of the farthest isles,
Slaying the grizzly warriors of the meres,
And winning all men’s fealty and love,
And worship of fair women in the towers,
Who laid their distaffs down to watch him pass;
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And made the hot blood mantle each fair cheek,
With sweet sense of his presence, till all men
Called Arthur half a god, and Lancelot
The greatest heart that beat in his great realm.

Then came that fatal day that brake his life,

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When he, being sent of Arthur, all unknowing,
Saw Guinevere, like some fair flower of heaven,
As men may only see in dreams the gods
Do send to kill the common ways of earth,
And make all else but drear and dull and bleak;
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Such magic she did work upon his soul,
Till Arthur, God and all the Table Round,
Were but a nebulous mist before his eyes,
In which the splendour of her beauty shone.

Henceforth the years would rise and wane and die,

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And glory come and glory pass away,
And battles pass as in a troubled dream,
And Arthur be a ghost, and his knights ghosts;—
The castles and the lists and the mad fights,
Sacking of cities, scourging of country-sides,
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All dreams before his eyes;—all, save her love.

So girded she her magic round his heart,
And meshed him in a golden mesh of love,
And marred his sense of all earth’s splendour there.

But in the after-days when brake the end,

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And she had fled to Glastonbury’s cells,
With all the world one clamour at her sin;
And Arthur like a storm-smit pine-tree stood,
Alone amid his kingdom’s blackened ruins;—
Then Lancelot knew his life an evil dream,
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And thought him of the friendship of their youth,
And all the days that they had been together,
And “Arthur, Arthur,” spake from all the meres,
And “Arthur, Arthur,” moaned from days afar.
And Lancelot grieved him of his woeful sin:—
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“And this the hand that smote mine Arthur down,
That brake his glory, ruined his great hope
Of one vast kingdom built on noble deeds,
And truth and peace for many days to be.
This hand that should have been his truest strength,
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Next to that high honour which he held.”
And all the torrents of his sorrow brake
For his own Arthur, Arthur standing lone,
Like some unriven pine that towers alone
Amid the awful ruins of a world.
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And then a woeful longing smote him there,
To ride by murk and moon, by mere and waste,
To where the king made battle with his foes,
And look, unknown, upon his face, and die.

So thinking he fled, and the queen’s wraith,

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A memory, in the moonlight fled with him.
But stronger with him fled his gladder youth
And all the memories of the splendid past,
Until his heart yearned for the days that were,
And that great, noble soul who fought alone.
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Then coming by cock-crow and the glimmering dawn,
He reached the grey-walled castle of the land,
Where the king tarried ere he went to fight
The last dread battle of the Table Round.
And the grim sentinels who guarded there,
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Thinking only of him as Arthur’s friend,
And knowing not the Lancelot scandal named,
And judging by the sorrow of his face,
Deemed him some knight who came to aid the king,
And pointing past the waning beacon fires,
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Said, “There he sleeps as one who hath no woes.”

And Lancelot passing silent left them there,
And entering the old abbey, (’twas some ruin
Of piety and worship of past days,)
Saw in the flicker of a dying hearth,

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Mingled with faint glimmering of the dawn,
The great king sleeping, where a mighty cross
Threw its dread shadow o’er his moving breast.

And Lancelot knew the same strong, god-like face
That he had worshipped in the days no more,

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And all their olden gladness smote him now,
And he had wept, but that his awful sin,
That made a wall of flame betwixt them there,
Had seared the very fountains of his soul.
Whereat he moaned, “O, noble, saintly heart,
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Couldst thou but know amidst thine innocent sleep,
Save for the awful sin that flames between,
That here doth stand the Lancelot of old days,
The one of all the world who loved thee most,
The joyous friend of all thy glorious youth;
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O noble! god-like! Lancelot, who hath sinned
As none hath sinned against thee, now hath come
To gaze upon thy majesty and die.
O Arthur! thou great Arthur of my youth,
My sun, my joy, my glory! ”
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                                         Here the king
Stirred in his sleep, and murmured, “Guinevere!”

And Lancelot feeling that an age of ages,
Hoary with all anguish of old crime
And hideous bloodshed, were now builded up

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Betwixt him and the king at that one name,
Clothed with the mad despairings of his shame,
Stole like some shrunken ghost-life from that place,
To look no more upon great Arthur’s face.

Then it did smite upon him he must die;

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And in him the old ghost of honour woke
That he must die in battle, and go out
Where no dread sorrow could gnaw at his heart,
But all forgetting and eternal sleep.

Whereat the madness of old battle woke,

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For his dread sin now burned all softness out,
And the glad kindliness of the Table Round,
And left him, shorn of all the Christian knight,
The gentle lord who only smote to save,
Or shield the helpless from the brutal stroke;
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And flamed his heart there with the lust to slay,
And slaying be slain as his grim sires went out.

Then some far trumpet startled all the morn,
Trembling westward from its dewy sleep.
And with the day new battle woke the meres,

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And as a wood-wolf scents the prey afar,
The noise of coming battle smote his ears,
And woke in him the fierceness of his race,
And the old pagan, joyous lust of fight.
And crying, “Farewell, Arthur, mine old youth,
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Farewell, Lancelot, mine old kinder self,
Lancelot, Arthur’s brother, lie there low,
Slain with the glory wherewithal you fell,
While this new Lancelot, new-bred of old time,
Before the new hope of the loftier day,
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Before the reign of mercy and glad law,
Thunders in old madness forth to war.”
And as in some bleak ruin of a house
Where all the sweet, home joys are ravaged out,
And some grim, evil pack hath entered in
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To tear and snarl, so the old Lancelot passed.
And where he closed the battle’s fiercest shock
Did hem him round, till as a mighty surf,
That clamours, thundering round some seaward tower,
Toward him the battle roared, and clanged his shield,
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And fast his blade went circling in the sun,
Like some red, flaming wheel, where’er he went;
Nor cared for friend or foe, so that he slew,
And drank his cup of madness to the death.
Till those he fought with dreamed a giant earl
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Of grim old days had come once more to earth,
To fight anew the battles of his youth.

But some huge islesmen of the west were there:
And they were fain to hew him down, and came
Like swift, loud storm of autumn at him there.

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Then there grew clamour of the reddest fight
That ever man beheld, and all outside
Were stayed in awe to see that one man fight
With that dread host of wilding warriors there.
Nor stayed his awful brand, but left and right
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Whirled he its bloody flamings in the sun,
And men went down as in October woods
Do crash the mighty trunks before the blast,
Till all were slain but one grim islesman left.
But Lancelot by this was all one stream
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Of ruddy wounds, and like some fire his brain.
And, with one awful shout of battle joy,
He sent his sword-blade wheeling in the sun,
And cleft that mighty islesman to the neck;
And crying, “Arthur!” smote the earth, and died.
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Then spread such terror over all the foe,
That gods did fight with them there, that they fled.
And all that day the battle moved afar,
Out to the west by distant copse and mere,
Till died the tumult, and the night came in,
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With mighty hush far over all that waste.
And one by one the lonely stars came out,
And over the meres the wintry moon looked down,
Unmindful of poor Lancelot and his wounds,
His dead, lost youth, the stillness of his face,
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And all that awful carnage silent there.