Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935). Collected Poems. 1921.

VI. Lancelot


GAWAINE, aware again of Lancelot

In the King’s garden, coughed and followed him;

Whereat he turned and stood with folded arms

And weary-waiting eyes, cold and half-closed—

Hard eyes, where doubts at war with memories

Fanned a sad wrath. “Why frown upon a friend?

Few live that have too many,” Gawaine said,

And wished unsaid, so thinly came the light

Between the narrowing lids at which he gazed.

“And who of us are they that name their friends?”

Lancelot said. “They live that have not any.

Why do they live, Gawaine? Ask why, and answer.”

Two men of an elected eminence,

They stood for a time silent. Then Gawaine,

Acknowledging the ghost of what was gone,

Put out his hand: “Rather, I say, why ask?

If I be not the friend of Lancelot,

May I be nailed alive along the ground

And emmets eat me dead. If I be not

The friend of Lancelot, may I be fried

With other liars in the pans of hell.

What item otherwise of immolation

Your Darkness may invent, be it mine to endure

And yours to gloat on. For the time between,

Consider this thing you see that is my hand.

If once, it has been yours a thousand times;

Why not again? Gawaine has never lied

To Lancelot; and this, of all wrong days—

This day before the day when you go south

To God knows what accomplishment of exile—

Were surely an ill day for lies to find

An issue or a cause or an occasion.

King Ban your father and King Lot my father,

Were they alive, would shake their heads in sorrow

To see us as we are, and I shake mine

In wonder. Will you take my hand, or no?

Strong as I am, I do not hold it out

For ever and on air. You see—my hand.”

Lancelot gave his hand there to Gawaine,

Who took it, held it, and then let it go,

Chagrined with its indifference.

“Yes, Gawaine,

I go tomorrow, and I wish you well;

You and your brothers, Gareth, Gaheris,—

And Agravaine; yes, even Agravaine,

Whose tongue has told all Camelot and all Britain

More lies than yet have hatched of Modred’s envy.

You say that you have never lied to me,

And I believe it so. Let it be so.

For now and always. Gawaine, I wish you well.

Tomorrow I go south, as Merlin went,

But not for Merlin’s end. I go, Gawaine,

And leave you to your ways. There are ways left.”

“There are three ways I know, three famous ways,

And all in Holy Writ,” Gawaine said, smiling:

“The snake’s way and the eagle’s way are two,

And then we have a man’s way with a maid—

Or with a woman who is not a maid.

Your late way is to send all women scudding,

To the last flash of the last cramoisy,

While you go south to find the fires of God.

Since we came back again to Camelot

From our immortal Quest—I came back first—

No man has known you for the man you were

Before you saw whatever ’t was you saw,

To make so little of kings and queens and friends

Thereafter. Modred? Agravaine? My brothers?

And what if they be brothers? What are brothers,

If they be not our friends, your friends and mine?

You turn away, and my words are no mark

On you affection or your memory?

So be it then, if so it is to be.

God save you, Lancelot; for by Saint Stephen,

You are no more than man to save yourself.”

“Gawaine, I do not say that you are wrong,

Or that you are ill-seasoned in your lightness;

You say that all you know is what you saw,

And on your own averment you saw nothing.

Your spoken word, Gawaine, I have not weighed

In those unhappy scales of inference

That have no beam but one made out of hates

And fears, and venomous conjecturings;

Your tongue is not the sword that urges me

Now out of Camelot. Two other swords

There are that are awake, and in their scabbards

Are parching for the blood of Lancelot.

Yet I go not away for fear of them,

But for a sharper care. You say the truth,

But not when you contend the fires of God

Are my one fear,—for there is one fear more.

Therefore I go. Gawaine, I wish you well.”

“Well-wishing in a way is well enough;

So, in a way, is caution; so, in a way,

Are leeches, neatherds, and astrologers.

Lancelot, listen. Sit you down and listen:

You talk of swords and fears and banishment.

Two swords, you say; Modred and Agravaine,

You mean. Had you meant Gaheris and Gareth,

Or willed an evil on them, I should welcome

And hasten your farewell. But Agravaine

Hears little what I say; his ears are Modred’s.

The King is Modred’s father, and the Queen

A prepossession of Modred’s lunacy.

So much for my two brothers whom you fear,

Not fearing for yourself. I say to you,

Fear not for anything—and so be wise

And amiable again as heretofore;

Let Modred have his humor, and Agravaine

His tongue. The two of them have done their worst,

And having done their worst, what have they done?

A whisper now and then, a chirrup or so

In corners,—and what else? Ask what, and answer.”

Still with a frown that had no faith in it,

Lancelot, pitying Gawaine’s lost endeavour

To make an evil jest of evidence,

Sat fronting him with a remote forbearance—

Whether for Gawaine blind or Gawaine false,

Or both, or neither, he could not say yet,

If ever; and to himself he said no more

Than he said now aloud: “What else, Gawaine?

What else, am I to say? Then ruin, I say;

Destruction, dissolution, desolation,

I say,—should I compound with jeopardy now.

For there are more than whispers here, Gawaine:

The way that we have gone so long together

Has underneath our feet, without our will,

Become a twofold faring. Yours, I trust,

May lead you always on, as it has led you,

To praise and to much joy. Mine, I believe,

Leads off to battles that are not yet fought,

And to the Light that once had blinded me.

When I came back from seeing what I saw,

I saw no place for me in Camelot.

There is no place for me in Camelot.

There is no place for me save where the Light

May lead me; and to that place I shall go.

Meanwhile I lay upon your soul no load

Of counsel or of empty admonition;

Only I ask of you, should strife arise

In Camelot, to remember, if you may,

That you’ve an ardor that outruns your reason,

Also a glamour that outshines your guile;

And you are a strange hater. I know that;

And I’m in fortune that you hate not me.

Yet while we have our sins to dream about,

Time has done worse for time than in our making;

Albeit there may be sundry falterings

And falls against us in the Book of Man.”

“Praise Adam, you are mellowing at last!

I’ve always liked this world, and would so still;

And if it is your new Light leads you on

To such an admirable gait, for God’s sake,

Follow it, follow it, follow it, Lancelot;

Follow it as you never followed glory.

Once I believed that I was on the way

That you call yours, but I came home again

To Camelot—and Camelot was right,

For the world knows its own that knows not you;

You are a thing too vaporous to be sharing

The carnal feast of life. You mow down men

Like elder-stems, and you leave women sighing

For one more sight of you; but they do wrong.

You are a man of mist, and have no shadow.

God save you, Lancelot. If I laugh at you,

I laugh in envy and in admiration.”

The joyless evanescence of a smile,

Discovered on the face of Lancelot

By Gawaine’s unrelenting vigilance,

Wavered, and with a sullen change went out;

And then there was the music of a woman

Laughing behind them, and a woman spoke:

“Gawaine, you said ‘God save you, Lancelot.’

Why should He save him any more to-day

Than on another day? What has he done,

Gawaine, that God should save him?” Guinevere,

With many questions in her dark blue eyes

And one gay jewel in her golden hair,

Had come upon the two of them unseen,

Till now she was a russet apparition

At which the two arose—one with a dash

Of easy leisure in his courtliness,

One with a stately calm that might have pleased

The Queen of a strange land indifferently.

The firm incisive languor of her speech,

Heard once, was heard through battles: “Lancelot,

What have you done to-day that God should save you?

What has he done, Gawaine, that God should save him?

I grieve that you two pinks of chivalry

Should be so near me in my desolation,

And I, poor soul alone, know nothing of it.

What has he done, Gawaine?”

With all her poise,

To Gawaine’s undeceived urbanity

She was less queen than woman for the nonce,

And in her eyes there was a flickering

Of a still fear that would not be veiled wholly

With any mask of mannered nonchalance.

“What has he done? Madam, attend your nephew;

And learn from him, in your incertitude,

That this inordinate man Lancelot,

This engine of renown, this hewer down daily

Of potent men by scores in our late warfare,

Has now inside his head a foreign fever

That urges him away to the last edge

Of everything, there to efface himself

In ecstasy, and so be done with us.

Hereafter, peradventure certain birds

Will perch in meditation on his bones,

Quite as if they were some poor sailor’s bones,

Or felon’s jettisoned, or fisherman’s,

Or fowler’s bones, or Mark of Cornwall’s bones.

In fine, this flower of men that was our comrade

Shall be for us no more, from this day on,

Than a much remembered Frenchman far away.

Magnanimously I leave you now to prize

Your final sight of him; and leaving you,

I leave the sun to shine for him alone,

Whiles I grope on to gloom. Madam, farewell;

And you, contrarious Lancelot, farewell.”