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Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.

Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems

Tristram and Iseult. I. Tristram

[First published 1852. Reprinted 1853, ’54, ’57.]

IS she not come? The messenger was sure.

Prop me upon the pillows once again—

Raise me, my Page: this cannot long endure.

Christ! what a night! how the sleet whips the pane!

What lights will those out to the northward be?

The lanterns of the fishing-boats at sea.

Soft—who is that stands by the dying fire?


Ah! not the Iseult I desire.

What Knight is this so weak and pale,

Though the locks are yet brown on his noble head,

Propt on pillows in his bed,

Gazing seawards for the light

Of some ship that fights the gale

On this wild December night?

Over the sick man’s feet is spread

A dark green forest dress.

A gold harp leans against the bed,

Ruddy in the fire’s light.

I know him by his harp of gold,

Famous in Arthur’s court of old:

I know him by his forest dress.

The peerless hunter, harper, knight—

Tristram of Lyoness.

What Lady is this, whose silk attire

Gleams so rich in the light of the fire?

The ringlets on her shoulders lying

In their flitting lustre vying

With the clasp of burnish’d gold

Which her heavy robe doth hold.

Her looks are mild, her fingers slight

As the driven snow are white;

And her cheeks are sunk and pale.

Is it that the bleak sea-gale

Beating from the Atlantic sea

On this coast of Brittany,

Nips too keenly the sweet Flower?—

Is it that a deep fatigue

Hath come on her, a chilly fear,

Passing all her youthful hour

Spinning with her maidens here,

Listlessly through the window bars

Gazing seawards many a league

From her lonely shore-built tower,

While the knights are at the wars?

Or, perhaps, has her young heart

Felt already some deeper smart,

Of those that in secret the heart-strings rive,

Leaving her sunk and pale, though fair?—

Who is this snowdrop by the sea?

I know her by her mildness rare,

Her snow-white hands, her golden hair;

I know her by her rich silk dress,

And her fragile loveliness.

The sweetest Christian soul alive,

Iseult of Brittany.

Iseult of Brittany?—but where

Is that other Iseult fair,

That proud, first Iseult, Cornwall’s queen?

She, whom Tristram’s ship of yore

From Ireland to Cornwall bore,

To Tyntagel, to the side

Of King Marc, to be his bride?

She who, as they voyag’d, quaff’d

With Tristram that spic’d magic draught,

Which since then for ever rolls

Through their blood, and binds their souls,

Working love, but working teen?—

There were two Iseults, who did sway

Each her hour of Tristram’s day;

But one possess’d his waning time,

The other his resplendent prime.

Behold her here, the patient Flower,

Who possess’d his darker hour.

Iseult of the Snow-White Hand

Watches pale by Tristram’s bed.—

She is here who had his gloom,

Where art thou who hadst his bloom?

One such kiss as those of yore

Might thy dying knight restore—

Does the love-draught work no more?

Art thou cold, or false, or dead,

Iseult of Ireland?

Loud howls the wind, sharp patters the rain,

And the knight sinks back on his pillows again:

He is weak with fever and pain,

And his spirit is not clear.

Hark! he mutters in his sleep,

As he wanders far from here,

Changes place and time of year,

And his closed eye doth sweep

O’er some fair unwintry sea,

Not this fierce Atlantic deep,

As he mutters brokenly—

The calm sea shines, loose hang the vessel’s sails—

Before us are the sweet green fields of Wales,

And overhead the cloudless sky of May.—

‘Ah, would I were in those green fields at play,

Not pent on ship-board this delicious day.

Tristram, I pray thee, of thy courtesy,

Reach me my golden cup that stands by thee,

And pledge me in it first for courtesy.—’

Ha! dost thou start? are thy lips blanch’d like mine?

Child, ’tis no water this, ’tis poison’d wine!



Ah, sweet angels, let him dream!

Keep his eyelids! let him seem

Not this fever-wasted wight

Thinn’d and pal’d before his time,

But the brilliant youthful knight

In the glory of his prime,

Sitting in the gilded barge,

At thy side, thou lovely charge!

Bending gaily o’er thy hand,

Iseult of Ireland!

And she too, that princess fair,

If her bloom be now less rare,

Let her have her youth again—

Let her be as she was then!

Let her have her proud dark eyes,

And her petulant quick replies,

Let her sweep her dazzling hand

With its gesture of command,

And shake back her raven hair

With the old imperious air.

As of old, so let her be,

That first Iseult, princess bright,

Chatting with her youthful knight

As he steers her o’er the sea,

Quitting at her father’s will

The green isle where she was bred,

And her bower in Ireland,

For the surge-beat Cornish strand,

Where the prince whom she must wed

Dwells on proud Tyntagel’s hill,

Fast beside the sounding sea.

And that golden cup her mother

Gave her, that her future lord,

Gave her, that King Marc and she,

Might drink it on their marriage day,

And for ever love each other,

Let her, as she sits on board,

Ah, sweet saints, unwittingly,

See it shine, and take it up,

And to Tristram laughing say—

‘Sir Tristram, of thy courtesy,

Pledge me in my golden cup!’

Let them drink it—let their hands

Tremble, and their cheeks be flame,

As they feel the fatal bands

Of a love they dare not name,

With a wild delicious pain,

Twine about their hearts again.

Let the early summer be

Once more round them, and the sea

Blue, and o’er its mirror kind

Let the breath of the May wind,

Wandering through their drooping sails,

Die on the green fields of Wales.

Let a dream like this restore

What his eye must see no more.

Chill blows the wind, the pleasaunce walks are drear.

Madcap, what jest was this, to meet me here?

Were feet like those made for so wild a way?

The southern winter-parlour, by my fay,

Had been the likeliest trysting-place to-day.—

‘Tristram!—nay, nay—thou must not take my hand

Tristram—sweet love—we are betray’d—out-plann’d.

Fly—save thyself—save me. I dare not stay.’

One last kiss first!—‘’Tis vain—to horse—away!’


Ah, sweet saints, his dream doth move

Faster surely than it should,

From the fever in his blood.

All the spring-time of his love

Is already gone and past,

And instead thereof is seen

Its winter, which endureth still—

Tyntagel on its surge-beat hill,

The pleasaunce walks, the weeping queen,

The flying leaves, the straining blast,

And that long, wild kiss—their last.

And this rough December night

And his burning fever pain

Mingle with his hurrying dream

Till they rule it, till he seem

The press’d fugitive again,

The love-desperate banish’d knight

With a fire in his brain

Flying o’er the stormy main.

Whither does he wander now?

Haply in his dreams the wind

Wafts him here, and lets him find

The lovely Orphan Child again

In her castle by the coast,

The youngest, fairest chatelaine,

That this realm of France can boast,

Our Snowdrop by the Atlantic sea,

Iseult of Brittany.

And—for through the haggard air,

The stain’d arms, the matted hair

Of that stranger-knight ill-starr’d,

There gleam’d something that recall’d

The Tristram who in better days

Was Launcelot’s guest at Joyous Gard—

Welcom’d here, and here install’d,

Tended of his fever here,

Haply he seems again to move

His young guardian’s heart with love;

In his exil’d loneliness,

In his stately deep distress,

Without a word, without a tear.—

Ah, ’tis well he should retrace

His tranquil life in this lone place;

His gentle bearing at the side

Of his timid youthful bride;

His long rambles by the shore

On winter evenings, when the roar

Of the near waves came, sadly grand,

Through the dark, up the drown’d sand:

Or his endless reveries

In the woods, where the gleams play

On the grass under the trees,

Passing the long summer’s day

Idle as a mossy stone

In the forest depths alone;

The chase neglected, and his hound

Couch’d beside him on the ground.—

Ah, what trouble’s on his brow?

Hither let him wander now,

Hither, to the quiet hours

Pass’d among these heaths of ours

By the grey Atlantic sea.

Hours, if not of ecstasy,

From violent anguish surely free.

All red with blood the whirling river flows,

The wide plain rings, the daz’d air throbs with blows.

Upon us are the chivalry of Rome—

Their spears are down, their steeds are bath’d in foam.

‘Up, Tristram, up,’ men cry, ‘thou moonstruck knight!

What foul fiend rides thee? On into the fight!’—

Above the din her voice is in my ears—

I see her form glide through the crossing spears.—



Ah, he wanders forth again;

We cannot keep him; now as then

There’s a secret in his breast

That will never let him rest.

These musing fits in the green wood

They cloud the brain, they dull the blood.

His sword is sharp—his horse is good—

Beyond the mountains will he see

The famous towns of Italy,

And label with the blessed sign

The heathen Saxons on the Rhine.

At Arthur’s side he fights once more

With the Roman Emperor.

There’s many a gay knight where he goes

Will help him to forget his care.

The march—the leaguer—Heaven’s blithe air—

The neighing steeds—the ringing blows;

Sick pining comes not where these are.

Ah, what boots it, that the jest

Lightens every other brow.

What, that every other breast

Dances as the trumpets blow,

If one’s own heart beats not light

On the waves of the toss’d fight,

If oneself cannot get free

From the clog of misery?

Thy lovely youthful Wife grows pale

Watching by the salt sea tide

With her children at her side

For the gleam of thy white sail.

Home, Tristram, to thy halls again!

To our lonely sea complain,

To our forests tell thy pain.

All round the forest sweeps off, black in shade,

But it is moonlight in the open glade:

And in the bottom of the glade shine clear

The forest chapel and the fountain near.

I think, I have a fever in my blood:

Come, let me leave the shadow of this wood,

Ride down, and bathe my hot brow in the flood.

Mild shines the cold spring in the moon’s clear light.

God! ’tis her face plays in the waters bright.—

‘Fair love,’ she says, ‘canst thou forget so soon,

At this soft hour, under this sweet moon?’—



Ah poor soul, if this be so,

Only death can balm thy woe.

The solitudes of the green wood

Had no medicine for thy mood.

The rushing battle clear’d thy blood

As little as did solitude.

Ah, his eyelids slowly break

Their hot seals, and let him wake.

What new change shall we now see?

A happier? Worse it cannot be.

Is my Page here? Come, turn me to the fire.

Upon the window panes the moon shines bright;

The wind is down: but she’ll not come to-night.

Ah no—she is asleep in Cornwall now,

Far hence—her dreams are fair—smooth is her brow.

Of me she recks not, nor my vain desire.

I have had dreams, I have had dreams, my Page,

Would take a score years from a strong man’s age.

And with a blood like mine, will leave, I fear,

Scant leisure for a second messenger.

My Princess, art thou there? Sweet, ’tis too late.

To bed, and sleep: my fever is gone by:

To-night my Page shall keep me company.

Where do the children sleep? kiss them for me.

Poor child, thou art almost as pale as I:

This comes of nursing long and watching late.

To bed—good night!


She left the gleam-lit fire-place,

She came to the bed-side.

She took his hands in hers: her tears

Down on her slender fingers rain’d.

She rais’d her eyes upon his face—

Not with a look of wounded pride,

A look as if the heart complain’d:—

Her look was like a sad embrace;

The gaze of one who can divine

A grief, and sympathize.

Sweet Flower, thy children’s eyes

Are not more innocent than thine.

But they sleep in shelter’d rest,

Like helpless birds in the warm nest,

On the Castle’s southern side;

Where feebly comes the mournful roar

Of buffeting wind and surging tide

Through many a room and corridor.

Full on their window the Moon’s ray

Makes their chamber as bright as day;

It shines upon the blank white walls,

And on the snowy pillow falls,

And on two angel-heads doth play

Turn’d to each other:—the eyes clos’d—

The lashes on the cheeks repos’d.

Round each sweet brow the cap close-set

Hardly lets peep the golden hair;

Through the soft-open’d lips the air

Scarcely moves the coverlet.

One little wandering arm is thrown

At random on the counterpane,

And often the fingers close in haste

As if their baby owner chas’d

The butterflies again.

This stir they have and this alone;

But else they are so still.

Ah, tired madcaps, you lie still

But were you at the window now

To look forth on the fairy sight

Of your illumin’d haunts by night;

To see the park-glades where you play

Far lovelier than they are by day;

To see the sparkle on the caves,

And upon every giant bough

Of those old oaks, whose wet red leaves

Are jewell’d with bright drops of rain—

How would your voices run again!

And far beyond the sparkling trees

Of the castle park one sees

The bare heaths spreading, clear as day,

Moor behind moor, far, far away,

Into the heart of Brittany.

And here and there, lock’d by the land,

Long inlets of smooth glittering sea,

And many a stretch of watery sand

All shining in the white moon-beams.

But you see fairer in your dreams.

What voices are these on the clear night air?

What lights in the court? what steps on the stair?