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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. III. Iseult of Brittany

A YEAR had flown, and o’er the sea away,

In Cornwall, Tristram and queen Iseult lay;

In King Marc’s chapel, in Tyntagel old:

There in a ship they bore those lovers cold.

The young surviving Iseult, one bright day,

Had wander’d forth: her children were at play

In a green circular hollow in the heath

Which borders the sea-shore; a country path

Creeps over it from the till’d fields behind.

The hollow’s grassy banks are soft inclin’d

And to one standing on them, far and near

The lone unbroken view spreads bright and clear

Over the waste:—This cirque of open ground

Is light and green; the heather, which all round

Creeps thickly, grows not here; but the pale grass

Is strewn with rocks, and many a shiver’d mass

Of vein’d white-gleaming quartz, and here and there

Dotted with holly trees and juniper.

In the smooth centre of the opening stood

Three hollies side by side, and made a screen

Warm with the winter sun, of burnish’d green,

With scarlet berries gemm’d, the fell-fare’s food.

Under the glittering hollies Iseult stands

Watching her children play: their little hands

Are busy gathering spars of quartz, and streams

Of stagshorn for their hats: anon, with screams

Of mad delight they drop their spoils, and bound

Among the holly clumps and broken ground,

Racing full speed, and startling in their rush

The fell-fares and the speckled missel-thrush

Out of their glossy coverts: but when now

Their cheeks were flush’d, and over each hot brow

Under the feather’d hats of the sweet pair

In blinding masses shower’d the golden hair—

Then Iseult called them to her, and the three

Cluster’d under the holly screen, and she

Told them an old-world Breton history.

Warm in their mantles wrapt, the three stood there,

Under the hollies, in the clear still air—

Mantles with those rich furs deep glistering

Which Venice ships do from swart Egypt bring.

Long they stayed still—then, pacing at their ease,

Mov’d up and down under the glossy trees;

But still as they pursued their warm dry road

From Iseult’s lips the unbroken story flow’d,

And still the children listen’d, their blue eyes

Fix’d on their mother’s face in wide surprise;

Nor did their looks stray once to the sea-side,

Nor to the brown heaths round them, bright and wide,

Nor to the snow which, though ’twas all away

From the open heath, still by the hedgerows lay,

Nor to the shining sea-fowl that with screams

Bore up from where the bright Atlantic gleams,

Swooping to landward; nor to where, quite clear,

The fell-fares settled on the thickets near.

And they would still have listen’d, till dark night

Came keen and chill down on the heather bright;

But, when the red glow on the sea grew cold,

And the grey turrets of the castle old

Look’d sternly through the frosty evening air,—

Then Iseult took by the hand those children fair,

And brought her tale to an end, and found the path,

And led them home over the darkening heath.

And is she happy? Does she see unmov’d

The days in which she might have liv’d and lov’d

Slip without bringing bliss slowly away,

One after one, to-morrow like to-day?

Joy has not found her yet, nor ever will:—

Is it this thought that makes her mien so still,

Her features so fatigued, her eyes, though sweet,

So sunk, so rarely lifted save to meet

Her children’s? She moves slow: her voice alone

Has yet an infantine and silver tone,

But even that comes languidly: in truth,

She seems one dying in a mask of youth.

And now she will go home, and softly lay

Her laughing children in their beds, and play

Awhile with them before they sleep; and then

She’ll light her silver lamp, which fishermen

Dragging their nets through the rough waves, afar,

Along this iron coast, know like a star,

And take her broidery frame, and there she’ll sit

Hour after hour, her gold curls sweeping it,

Lifting her soft-bent head only to mind

Her children, or to listen to the wind.

And when the clock peals midnight, she will move

Her work away, and let her fingers rove

Across the shaggy brows of Tristram’s hound

Who lies, guarding her feet, along the ground:

Or else she will fall musing, her blue eyes

Fix’d, her slight hands clasp’d on her lap; then rise,

And at her prie-dieu kneel, until she have told

Her rosary beads of ebony tipp’d with gold,

Then to her soft sleep: and to-morrow’ll be

To-day’s exact repeated effigy.

Yes, it is lonely for her in her hall.

The children, and the grey-hair’d seneschal,

Her women, and Sir Tristram’s agèd hound,

Are there the sole companions to be found.

But these she loves; and noisier life than this

She would find ill to bear, weak as she is:

She has her children too, and night and day

Is with them; and the wide heaths where they play,

The hollies, and the cliff, and the sea-shore,

The sand, the sea-birds, and the distant sails,

These are to her dear as to them: the tales

With which this day the children she beguil’d

She glean’d from Breton grandames when a child

In every hut along this sea-coast wild.

She herself loves them still, and, when they are told,

Can forget all to hear them, as of old.

Dear saints, it is not sorrow, as I hear,

Not suffering, that shuts up eye and ear

To all which has delighted them before,

And lets us be what we were once no more.

No: we may suffer deeply, yet retain

Power to be mov’d and sooth’d, for all our pain,

By what of old pleas’d us, and will again.

No: ’tis the gradual furnace of the world,

In whose hot air our spirits are upcurl’d

Until they crumble, or else grow like steel—

Which kills in us the bloom, the youth, the spring—

Which leaves the fierce necessity to feel,

But takes away the power—this can avail,

By drying up our joy in everything,

To make our former pleasures all seem stale.

This, or some tyrannous single thought, some fit

Of passion, which subdues our souls to it,

Till for its sake alone we live and move—

Call it ambition, or remorse, or love—

This too can change us wholly, and make seem

All that we did before, shadow and dream.

And yet, I swear, it angers me to see

How this fool passion gulls men potently;

Being, in truth, but a diseas’d unrest,

And an unnatural overheat at best.

How they are full of languor and distress

Not having it; which, when they do possess,

They straightway are burnt up with fume and care,

And spend their lives in posting here and there

Where this plague drives them; and have little ease,

Are fretful with themselves, and hard to please.

Like that bold Caesar, the fam’d Roman wight,

Who wept at reading of a Grecian knight

Who made a name at younger years than he:

Or that renown’d mirror of chivalry,

Prince Alexander, Philip’s peerless son,

Who carried the great war from Macedon

Into the Soudan’s realm, and thundered on

To die at thirty-five in Babylon.

What tale did Iseult to the children say,

Under the hollies, that bright winter’s day?

She told them of the fairy-haunted land

Away the other side of Brittany,

Beyond the heaths, edg’d by the lonely sea;

Of the deep forest-glades of Broce-liande,

Through whose green boughs the golden sunshine creeps,

Where Merlin by the enchanted thorn-tree sleeps.

For here he came with the fay Vivian,

One April, when the warm days first began;

He was on foot, and that false fay, his friend,

On her white palfrey; here he met his end,

In these lone sylvan glades, that April day.

This tale of Merlin and the lovely fay

Was the one Iseult chose, and she brought clear

Before the children’s fancy him and her.

Blowing between the stems the forest air

Had loosen’d the brown curls of Vivian’s hair,

Which play’d on her flush’d cheek, and her blue eyes

Sparkled with mocking glee and exercise.

Her palfrey’s flanks were mired and bath’d in sweat,

For they had travell’d far and not stopp’d, yet.

A brier in that tangled wilderness

Had scor’d her white right hand, which she allows

To rest unglov’d on her green riding-dress;

The other warded off the dropping boughs.

But still she chatted on, with her blue eyes

Fix’d full on Merlin’s face, her stately prize:

Her ’haviour had the morning’s fresh clear grace,

The spirit of the woods was in her face;

She look’d so witching fair, that learnèd wight

Forgot his craft, and his best wits took flight,

And he grew fond, and eager to obey

His mistress, use her empire as she may.

They came to where the brushwood ceas’d, and day

Peer’d ’twixt the stems; and the ground broke away

In a slop’d sward down to a brawling brook,

And up as high as where they stood to look

On the brook’s further side was clear; but then

The underwood and trees began again.

This open glen was studded thick with thorns

Then white with blossom; and you saw the horns,

Through the green fern, of the shy fallow-deer

Which come at noon down to the water here.

You saw the bright-eyed squirrels dart along

Under the thorns on the green sward; and strong

The blackbird whistled from the dingles near,

And the light chipping of the woodpecker

Rang lonelily and sharp: the sky was fair,

And a fresh breath of spring stirr’d everywhere.

Merlin and Vivian stopp’d on the slope’s brow

To gaze on the green sea of leaf and bough

Which glistering lay all round them, lone and mild,

As if to itself the quiet forest smil’d.

Upon the brow-top grew a thorn; and here

The grass was dry and moss’d, and you saw clear

Across the hollow: white anemonies

Starr’d the cool turf, and clumps of primroses

Ran out from the dark underwood behind.

No fairer resting-place a man could find.

‘Here let us halt,’ said Merlin then; and she

Nodded, and tied her palfrey to a tree.

They sate them down together, and a sleep

Fell upon Merlin, more like death, so deep.

Her finger on her lips, then Vivian rose,

And from her brown-lock’d head the wimple throws,

And takes it in her hand, and waves it over

The blossom’d thorn-tree and her sleeping lover.

Nine times she wav’d the fluttering wimple round,

And made a little plot of magic ground.

And in that daisied circle, as men say,

Is Merlin prisoner till the judgement-day,

But she herself whither she will can rove,

For she was passing weary of his love.