Idylls of the King, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Passing of Arthur

That story which the bold Sir Bedivere,

First made and latest left of all the knights,

Told, when the man was no more than a voice

In the white winter of his age, to those

With whom he dwelt, new faces, other minds.

For on their march to westward, Bedivere,

Who slowly paced among the slumbering host,

Heard in his tent the moanings of the King:

‘I found Him in the shining of the stars,

I marked Him in the flowering of His fields,

But in His ways with men I find Him not.

I waged His wars, and now I pass and die.

O me! for why is all around us here

As if some lesser god had made the world,

But had not force to shape it as he would,

Till the High God behold it from beyond,

And enter it, and make it beautiful?

Or else as if the world were wholly fair,

But that these eyes of men are dense and dim,

And have not power to see it as it is:

Perchance, because we see not to the close; —

For I, being simple, thought to work His will,

And have but stricken with the sword in vain;

And all whereon I leaned in wife and friend

Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm

Reels back into the beast, and is no more.

My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death;

Nay — God my Christ — I pass but shall not die.’

Then, ere that last weird battle in the west,

There came on Arthur sleeping, Gawain killed

In Lancelot’s war, the ghost of Gawain blown

Along a wandering wind, and past his ear

Went shrilling, ‘Hollow, hollow all delight!

Hail, King! tomorrow thou shalt pass away.

Farewell! there is an isle of rest for thee.

And I am blown along a wandering wind,

And hollow, hollow, hollow all delight.’

And fainter onward, like wild birds that change

Their season in the night and wail their way

From cloud to cloud, down the long wind the dream

Shrilled; but in going mingled with dim cries

Far in the moonlit haze among the hills,

As of some lonely city sacked by night,

When all is lost, and wife and child with wail

Pass to new lords; and Arthur woke and called,

‘Who spake? A dream. O light upon the wind,

Thine, Gawain, was the voice — are these dim cries

Thine? or doth all that haunts the waste and wild

Mourn, knowing it will go along with me?’

This heard the bold Sir Bedivere and spake:

‘O me, my King, let pass whatever will,

Elves, and the harmless glamour of the field;

But in their stead thy name and glory cling

To all high places like a golden cloud

For ever: but as yet thou shalt not pass.

Light was Gawain in life, and light in death

Is Gawain, for the ghost is as the man;

And care not thou for dreams from him, but rise —

I hear the steps of Modred in the west,

And with him many of thy people, and knights

Once thine, whom thou hast loved, but grosser grown

Than heathen, spitting at their vows and thee.

Right well in heart they know thee for the King.

Arise, go forth and conquer as of old.’

Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:

‘Far other is this battle in the west

Whereto we move, than when we strove in youth,

And brake the petty kings, and fought with Rome,

Or thrust the heathen from the Roman wall,

And shook him through the north. Ill doom is mine

To war against my people and my knights.

The king who fights his people fights himself.

And they my knights, who loved me once, the stroke

That strikes them dead is as my death to me.

Yet let us hence, and find or feel a way

Through this blind haze, which ever since I saw

One lying in the dust at Almesbury,

Hath folded in the passes of the world.’

Then rose the King and moved his host by night,

And ever pushed Sir Modred, league by league,

Back to the sunset bound of Lyonnesse —

A land of old upheaven from the abyss

By fire, to sink into the abyss again;

Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,

And the long mountains ended in a coast

Of ever-shifting sand, and far away

The phantom circle of a moaning sea.

There the pursuer could pursue no more,

And he that fled no further fly the King;

And there, that day when the great light of heaven

Burned at his lowest in the rolling year,

On the waste sand by the waste sea they closed.

Nor ever yet had Arthur fought a fight

Like this last, dim, weird battle of the west.

A deathwhite mist slept over sand and sea:

Whereof the chill, to him who breathed it, drew

Down with his blood, till all his heart was cold

With formless fear; and even on Arthur fell

Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought.

For friend and foe were shadows in the mist,

And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew;

And some had visions out of golden youth,

And some beheld the faces of old ghosts

Look in upon the battle; and in the mist

Was many a noble deed, many a base,

And chance and craft and strength in single fights,

And ever and anon with host to host

Shocks, and the splintering spear, the hard mail hewn,

Shield-breakings, and the clash of brands, the crash

Of battleaxes on shattered helms, and shrieks

After the Christ, of those who falling down

Looked up for heaven, and only saw the mist;

And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights,

Oaths, insults, filth, and monstrous blasphemies,

Sweat, writhings, anguish, labouring of the lungs

In that close mist, and cryings for the light,

Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.

Last, as by some one deathbed after wail

Of suffering, silence follows, or through death

Or deathlike swoon, thus over all that shore,

Save for some whisper of the seething seas,

A dead hush fell; but when the dolorous day

Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came

A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew

The mist aside, and with that wind the tide

Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field

Of battle: but no man was moving there;

Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon,

Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave

Brake in among dead faces, to and fro

Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down

Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen,

And shivered brands that once had fought with Rome,

And rolling far along the gloomy shores

The voice of days of old and days to be.

Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere,

And whiter than the mist that all day long

Had held the field of battle was the King:

‘Hearest thou this great voice that shakes the world,

And wastes the narrow realm whereon we move,

And beats upon the faces of the dead,

My dead, as though they had not died for me? —

O Bedivere, for on my heart hath fallen

Confusion, till I know not what I am,

Nor whence I am, nor whether I be King.

Behold, I seem but King among the dead.’

Then spake the bold Sir Bedivere: ‘My King,

King everywhere! and so the dead have kings,

There also will I worship thee as King.

Yet still thy life is whole, and still I live

Who love thee; but who hates thee, he that brought

The heathen back among us, yonder stands,

Modred, unharmed, the traitor of thine house.’

Then spake the King: ‘My house hath been my doom.

But call not thou this traitor of my house

Who hath but dwelt beneath one roof with me.

My house are rather they who sware my vows,

Yea, even while they brake them, owned me King.

And well for thee, saying in my dark hour,

When all the purport of my throne hath failed,

That quick or dead thou holdest me for King.

King am I, whatsoever be their cry;

And one last act of kinghood shalt thou see

Yet, ere I pass.’ And uttering this the King

Made at the man: then Modred smote his liege

Hard on that helm which many a heathen sword

Had beaten thin; while Arthur at one blow,

Striking the last stroke with Excalibur,

Slew him, and all but slain himself, he fell.

So all day long the noise of battle rolled

Among the mountains by the winter sea;

Until King Arthur’s Table, man by man,

Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their lord,

King Arthur. Then, because his wound was deep,

The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,

And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,

A broken chancel with a broken cross,

That stood on a dark strait of barren land:

On one side lay the Ocean, and on one

Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:

‘The sequel of today unsolders all

The goodliest fellowship of famous knights

Whereof this world holds record. Such a sleep

They sleep — the men I loved. I think that we

Shall never more, at any future time,

Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds,

Walking about the gardens and the halls

Of Camelot, as in the days that were.

I perish by this people which I made —

Though Merlin sware that I should come again

To rule once more; but, let what will be, be,

I am so deeply smitten through the helm

That without help I cannot last till morn.

Thou therefore take my brand Excalibur,

Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how

In those old days, one summer noon, an arm

Rose up from out the bosom of the lake,

Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,

Holding the sword — and how I rowed across

And took it, and have worn it, like a king;

And, wheresoever I am sung or told

In aftertime, this also shall be known:

But now delay not: take Excalibur,

And fling him far into the middle mere:

Watch what thou seest, and lightly bring me word.’

To him replied the bold Sir Bedivere:

‘It is not meet, Sir King, to leave thee thus,

Aidless, alone, and smitten through the helm —

A little thing may harm a wounded man;

Yet I thy hest will all perform at full,

Watch what I see, and lightly bring thee word.’

So saying, from the ruined shrine he stept,

And in the moon athwart the place of tombs,

Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men,

Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang

Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam. He, stepping down

By zigzag paths, and juts of pointed rock,

Came on the shining levels of the lake.

There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,

And o’er him, drawing it, the winter moon,

Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth

And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt:

For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks,

Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work

Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long

That both his eyes were dazzled as he stood,

This way and that dividing the swift mind,

In act to throw: but at the last it seemed

Better to leave Excalibur concealed

There in the many-knotted waterflags,

That whistled stiff and dry about the marge.

So strode he back slow to the wounded King.

Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere:

‘Hast thou performed my mission which I gave?

What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?’

And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:

‘I heard the ripple washing in the reeds,

And the wild water lapping on the crag.’

To whom replied King Arthur, faint and pale:

‘Thou hast betrayed thy nature and thy name,

Not rendering true answer, as beseemed

Thy fealty, nor like a noble knight:

For surer sign had followed, either hand,

Or voice, or else a motion of the mere.

This is a shameful thing for men to lie.

Yet now, I charge thee, quickly go again,

As thou art lief and dear, and do the thing

I bade thee, watch, and lightly bring me word.’

Then went Sir Bedivere the second time

Across the ridge, and paced beside the mere,

Counting the dewy pebbles, fixed in thought;

But when he saw the wonder of the hilt,

How curiously and strangely chased, he smote

His palms together, and he cried aloud:

‘And if indeed I cast the brand away,

Surely a precious thing, one worthy note,

Should thus be lost for ever from the earth,

Which might have pleased the eyes of many men.

What good should follow this, if this were done?

What harm, undone? Deep harm to disobey,

Seeing obedience is the bond of rule.

Were it well to obey then, if a king demand

An act unprofitable, against himself?

The King is sick, and knows not what he does.

What record, or what relic of my lord

Should be to aftertime, but empty breath

And rumours of a doubt? But were this kept,

Stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings,

Some one might show it at a joust of arms,

Saying, “King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur,

Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake.

Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps

Upon the hidden bases of the hills.”

So might some old man speak in the aftertime

To all the people, winning reverence.

But now much honour and much fame were lost.’

So spake he, clouded with his own conceit,

And hid Excalibur the second time,

And so strode back slow to the wounded King.

Then spoke King Arthur, breathing heavily:

‘What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?’

And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:

‘I heard the water lapping on the crag,

And the long ripple washing in the reeds.’

To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:

‘Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,

Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!

Authority forgets a dying king,

Laid widowed of the power in his eye

That bowed the will. I see thee what thou art,

For thou, the latest-left of all my knights,

In whom should meet the offices of all,

Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt;

Either from lust of gold, or like a girl

Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes.

Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice,

And the third time may prosper, get thee hence:

But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur,

I will arise and slay thee with my hands.’

Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran,

And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged

Among the bulrush beds, and clutched the sword,

And strongly wheeled and threw it. The great brand

Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon,

And flashing round and round, and whirled in an arch,

Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,

Seen where the moving isles of winter shock

By night, with noises of the Northern Sea.

So flashed and fell the brand Excalibur:

But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm

Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,

And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him

Three times, and drew him under in the mere.

And lightly went the other to the King.

Then spoke King Arthur, drawing thicker breath:

‘Now see I by thine eyes that this is done.

Speak out: what is it thou hast heard, or seen?’

And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere:

‘Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems

Should blind my purpose, for I never saw,

Nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die,

Not though I live three lives of mortal men,

So great a miracle as yonder hilt.

Then with both hands I flung him, wheeling him;

But when I looked again, behold an arm,

Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,

That caught him by the hilt, and brandished him

Three times, and drew him under in the mere.’

And answer made King Arthur, breathing hard:

‘My end draws nigh; ’tis time that I were gone.

Make broad thy shoulders to receive my weight,

And bear me to the margin; yet I fear

My wound hath taken cold, and I shall die.’

So saying, from the pavement he half rose,

Slowly, with pain, reclining on his arm,

And looking wistfully with wide blue eyes

As in a picture. Him Sir Bedivere

Remorsefully regarded through his tears,

And would have spoken, but he found not words;

Then took with care, and kneeling on one knee,

O’er both his shoulders drew the languid hands,

And rising bore him through the place of tombs.

But, as he walked, King Arthur panted hard,

Like one that feels a nightmare on his bed

When all the house is mute. So sighed the King,

Muttering and murmuring at his ear, ‘Quick, quick!

I fear it is too late, and I shall die.’

But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge,

Clothed with his breath, and looking, as he walked,

Larger than human on the frozen hills.

He heard the deep behind him, and a cry

Before. His own thought drove him like a goad.

Dry clashed his harness in the icy caves

And barren chasms, and all to left and right

The bare black cliff clanged round him, as he based

His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang

Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels —

And on a sudden, lo! the level lake,

And the long glories of the winter moon.

Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge,

Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern,

Beneath them; and descending they were ware

That all the decks were dense with stately forms,

Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream — by these

Three Queens with crowns of gold: and from them rose

A cry that shivered to the tingling stars,

And, as it were one voice, an agony

Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills

All night in a waste land, where no one comes,

Or hath come, since the making of the world.

Then murmured Arthur, ‘Place me in the barge.’

So to the barge they came. There those three Queens

Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept.

But she, that rose the tallest of them all

And fairest, laid his head upon her lap,

And loosed the shattered casque, and chafed his hands,

And called him by his name, complaining loud,

And dropping bitter tears against a brow

Striped with dark blood: for all his face was white

And colourless, and like the withered moon

Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east;

And all his greaves and cuisses dashed with drops

Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls —

That made his forehead like a rising sun

High from the dais-throne — were parched with dust;

Or, clotted into points and hanging loose,

Mixed with the knightly growth that fringed his lips.

So like a shattered column lay the King;

Not like that Arthur who, with lance in rest,

From spur to plume a star of tournament,

Shot through the lists at Camelot, and charged

Before the eyes of ladies and of kings.

Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:

‘Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?

Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?

For now I see the true old times are dead,

When every morning brought a noble chance,

And every chance brought out a noble knight.

Such times have been not since the light that led

The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.

But now the whole Round Table is dissolved

Which was an image of the mighty world,

And I, the last, go forth companionless,

And the days darken round me, and the years,

Among new men, strange faces, other minds.’

And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:

‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?

I have lived my life, and that which I have done

May He within himself make pure! but thou,

If thou shouldst never see my face again,

Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.

For what are men better than sheep or goats

That nourish a blind life within the brain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer

Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

For so the whole round earth is every way

Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

But now farewell. I am going a long way

With these thou seest — if indeed I go

(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)—

To the island-valley of Avilion;

Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,

Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies

Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns

And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea,

Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.’

So said he, and the barge with oar and sail

Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan

That, fluting a wild carol ere her death,

Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood

With swarthy webs. Long stood Sir Bedivere

Revolving many memories, till the hull

Looked one black dot against the verge of dawn,

And on the mere the wailing died away.

But when that moan had past for evermore,

The stillness of the dead world’s winter dawn

Amazed him, and he groaned, ‘The King is gone.’

And therewithal came on him the weird rhyme,

‘From the great deep to the great deep he goes.’

Whereat he slowly turned and slowly clomb

The last hard footstep of that iron crag;

Thence marked the black hull moving yet, and cried,

‘He passes to be King among the dead,

And after healing of his grievous wound

He comes again; but — if he come no more —

O me, be yon dark Queens in yon black boat,

Who shrieked and wailed, the three whereat we gazed

On that high day, when, clothed with living light,

They stood before his throne in silence, friends

Of Arthur, who should help him at his need?’

Then from the dawn it seemed there came, but faint

As from beyond the limit of the world,

Like the last echo born of a great cry,

Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice

Around a king returning from his wars.

Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb

Even to the highest he could climb, and saw,

Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,

Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King,

Down that long water opening on the deep

Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go

From less to less and vanish into light.

And the new sun rose bringing the new year.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04