Idylls of the King, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Holy Grail

From noiseful arms, and acts of prowess done

In tournament or tilt, Sir Percivale,

Whom Arthur and his knighthood called The Pure,

Had passed into the silent life of prayer,

Praise, fast, and alms; and leaving for the cowl

The helmet in an abbey far away

From Camelot, there, and not long after, died.

And one, a fellow-monk among the rest,

Ambrosius, loved him much beyond the rest,

And honoured him, and wrought into his heart

A way by love that wakened love within,

To answer that which came: and as they sat

Beneath a world-old yew-tree, darkening half

The cloisters, on a gustful April morn

That puffed the swaying branches into smoke

Above them, ere the summer when he died

The monk Ambrosius questioned Percivale:

‘O brother, I have seen this yew-tree smoke,

Spring after spring, for half a hundred years:

For never have I known the world without,

Nor ever strayed beyond the pale: but thee,

When first thou camest — such a courtesy

Spake through the limbs and in the voice — I knew

For one of those who eat in Arthur’s hall;

For good ye are and bad, and like to coins,

Some true, some light, but every one of you

Stamped with the image of the King; and now

Tell me, what drove thee from the Table Round,

My brother? was it earthly passion crost?’

‘Nay,’ said the knight; ‘for no such passion mine.

But the sweet vision of the Holy Grail

Drove me from all vainglories, rivalries,

And earthly heats that spring and sparkle out

Among us in the jousts, while women watch

Who wins, who falls; and waste the spiritual strength

Within us, better offered up to Heaven.’

To whom the monk: ‘The Holy Grail! — I trust

We are green in Heaven’s eyes; but here too much

We moulder — as to things without I mean —

Yet one of your own knights, a guest of ours,

Told us of this in our refectory,

But spake with such a sadness and so low

We heard not half of what he said. What is it?

The phantom of a cup that comes and goes?’

‘Nay, monk! what phantom?’ answered Percivale.

‘The cup, the cup itself, from which our Lord

Drank at the last sad supper with his own.

This, from the blessed land of Aromat —

After the day of darkness, when the dead

Went wandering o’er Moriah — the good saint

Arimathaean Joseph, journeying brought

To Glastonbury, where the winter thorn

Blossoms at Christmas, mindful of our Lord.

And there awhile it bode; and if a man

Could touch or see it, he was healed at once,

By faith, of all his ills. But then the times

Grew to such evil that the holy cup

Was caught away to Heaven, and disappeared.’

To whom the monk: ‘From our old books I know

That Joseph came of old to Glastonbury,

And there the heathen Prince, Arviragus,

Gave him an isle of marsh whereon to build;

And there he built with wattles from the marsh

A little lonely church in days of yore,

For so they say, these books of ours, but seem

Mute of this miracle, far as I have read.

But who first saw the holy thing today?’

‘A woman,’ answered Percivale, ‘a nun,

And one no further off in blood from me

Than sister; and if ever holy maid

With knees of adoration wore the stone,

A holy maid; though never maiden glowed,

But that was in her earlier maidenhood,

With such a fervent flame of human love,

Which being rudely blunted, glanced and shot

Only to holy things; to prayer and praise

She gave herself, to fast and alms. And yet,

Nun as she was, the scandal of the Court,

Sin against Arthur and the Table Round,

And the strange sound of an adulterous race,

Across the iron grating of her cell

Beat, and she prayed and fasted all the more.

‘And he to whom she told her sins, or what

Her all but utter whiteness held for sin,

A man wellnigh a hundred winters old,

Spake often with her of the Holy Grail,

A legend handed down through five or six,

And each of these a hundred winters old,

From our Lord’s time. And when King Arthur made

His Table Round, and all men’s hearts became

Clean for a season, surely he had thought

That now the Holy Grail would come again;

But sin broke out. Ah, Christ, that it would come,

And heal the world of all their wickedness!

“O Father!” asked the maiden, “might it come

To me by prayer and fasting?” “Nay,” said he,

“I know not, for thy heart is pure as snow.”

And so she prayed and fasted, till the sun

Shone, and the wind blew, through her, and I thought

She might have risen and floated when I saw her.

‘For on a day she sent to speak with me.

And when she came to speak, behold her eyes

Beyond my knowing of them, beautiful,

Beyond all knowing of them, wonderful,

Beautiful in the light of holiness.

And “O my brother Percivale,” she said,

“Sweet brother, I have seen the Holy Grail:

For, waked at dead of night, I heard a sound

As of a silver horn from o’er the hills

Blown, and I thought, ‘It is not Arthur’s use

To hunt by moonlight;’ and the slender sound

As from a distance beyond distance grew

Coming upon me — O never harp nor horn,

Nor aught we blow with breath, or touch with hand,

Was like that music as it came; and then

Streamed through my cell a cold and silver beam,

And down the long beam stole the Holy Grail,

Rose-red with beatings in it, as if alive,

Till all the white walls of my cell were dyed

With rosy colours leaping on the wall;

And then the music faded, and the Grail

Past, and the beam decayed, and from the walls

The rosy quiverings died into the night.

So now the Holy Thing is here again

Among us, brother, fast thou too and pray,

And tell thy brother knights to fast and pray,

That so perchance the vision may be seen

By thee and those, and all the world be healed.”

‘Then leaving the pale nun, I spake of this

To all men; and myself fasted and prayed

Always, and many among us many a week

Fasted and prayed even to the uttermost,

Expectant of the wonder that would be.

‘And one there was among us, ever moved

Among us in white armour, Galahad.

“God make thee good as thou art beautiful,”

Said Arthur, when he dubbed him knight; and none,

In so young youth, was ever made a knight

Till Galahad; and this Galahad, when he heard

My sister’s vision, filled me with amaze;

His eyes became so like her own, they seemed

Hers, and himself her brother more than I.

‘Sister or brother none had he; but some

Called him a son of Lancelot, and some said

Begotten by enchantment — chatterers they,

Like birds of passage piping up and down,

That gape for flies — we know not whence they come;

For when was Lancelot wanderingly lewd?

‘But she, the wan sweet maiden, shore away

Clean from her forehead all that wealth of hair

Which made a silken mat-work for her feet;

And out of this she plaited broad and long

A strong sword-belt, and wove with silver thread

And crimson in the belt a strange device,

A crimson grail within a silver beam;

And saw the bright boy-knight, and bound it on him,

Saying, “My knight, my love, my knight of heaven,

O thou, my love, whose love is one with mine,

I, maiden, round thee, maiden, bind my belt.

Go forth, for thou shalt see what I have seen,

And break through all, till one will crown thee king

Far in the spiritual city:” and as she spake

She sent the deathless passion in her eyes

Through him, and made him hers, and laid her mind

On him, and he believed in her belief.

‘Then came a year of miracle: O brother,

In our great hall there stood a vacant chair,

Fashioned by Merlin ere he past away,

And carven with strange figures; and in and out

The figures, like a serpent, ran a scroll

Of letters in a tongue no man could read.

And Merlin called it “The Siege perilous,”

Perilous for good and ill; “for there,” he said,

“No man could sit but he should lose himself:”

And once by misadvertence Merlin sat

In his own chair, and so was lost; but he,

Galahad, when he heard of Merlin’s doom,

Cried, “If I lose myself, I save myself!”

‘Then on a summer night it came to pass,

While the great banquet lay along the hall,

That Galahad would sit down in Merlin’s chair.

‘And all at once, as there we sat, we heard

A cracking and a riving of the roofs,

And rending, and a blast, and overhead

Thunder, and in the thunder was a cry.

And in the blast there smote along the hall

A beam of light seven times more clear than day:

And down the long beam stole the Holy Grail

All over covered with a luminous cloud.

And none might see who bare it, and it past.

But every knight beheld his fellow’s face

As in a glory, and all the knights arose,

And staring each at other like dumb men

Stood, till I found a voice and sware a vow.

‘I sware a vow before them all, that I,

Because I had not seen the Grail, would ride

A twelvemonth and a day in quest of it,

Until I found and saw it, as the nun

My sister saw it; and Galahad sware the vow,

And good Sir Bors, our Lancelot’s cousin, sware,

And Lancelot sware, and many among the knights,

And Gawain sware, and louder than the rest.’

Then spake the monk Ambrosius, asking him,

‘What said the King? Did Arthur take the vow?’

‘Nay, for my lord,’ said Percivale, ‘the King,

Was not in hall: for early that same day,

Scaped through a cavern from a bandit hold,

An outraged maiden sprang into the hall

Crying on help: for all her shining hair

Was smeared with earth, and either milky arm

Red-rent with hooks of bramble, and all she wore

Torn as a sail that leaves the rope is torn

In tempest: so the King arose and went

To smoke the scandalous hive of those wild bees

That made such honey in his realm. Howbeit

Some little of this marvel he too saw,

Returning o’er the plain that then began

To darken under Camelot; whence the King

Looked up, calling aloud, “Lo, there! the roofs

Of our great hall are rolled in thunder-smoke!

Pray Heaven, they be not smitten by the bolt.”

For dear to Arthur was that hall of ours,

As having there so oft with all his knights

Feasted, and as the stateliest under heaven.

‘O brother, had you known our mighty hall,

Which Merlin built for Arthur long ago!

For all the sacred mount of Camelot,

And all the dim rich city, roof by roof,

Tower after tower, spire beyond spire,

By grove, and garden-lawn, and rushing brook,

Climbs to the mighty hall that Merlin built.

And four great zones of sculpture, set betwixt

With many a mystic symbol, gird the hall:

And in the lowest beasts are slaying men,

And in the second men are slaying beasts,

And on the third are warriors, perfect men,

And on the fourth are men with growing wings,

And over all one statue in the mould

Of Arthur, made by Merlin, with a crown,

And peaked wings pointed to the Northern Star.

And eastward fronts the statue, and the crown

And both the wings are made of gold, and flame

At sunrise till the people in far fields,

Wasted so often by the heathen hordes,

Behold it, crying, “We have still a King.”

‘And, brother, had you known our hall within,

Broader and higher than any in all the lands!

Where twelve great windows blazon Arthur’s wars,

And all the light that falls upon the board

Streams through the twelve great battles of our King.

Nay, one there is, and at the eastern end,

Wealthy with wandering lines of mount and mere,

Where Arthur finds the brand Excalibur.

And also one to the west, and counter to it,

And blank: and who shall blazon it? when and how? —

O there, perchance, when all our wars are done,

The brand Excalibur will be cast away.

‘So to this hall full quickly rode the King,

In horror lest the work by Merlin wrought,

Dreamlike, should on the sudden vanish, wrapt

In unremorseful folds of rolling fire.

And in he rode, and up I glanced, and saw

The golden dragon sparkling over all:

And many of those who burnt the hold, their arms

Hacked, and their foreheads grimed with smoke, and seared,

Followed, and in among bright faces, ours,

Full of the vision, prest: and then the King

Spake to me, being nearest, “Percivale,”

(Because the hall was all in tumult — some

Vowing, and some protesting), “what is this?”

‘O brother, when I told him what had chanced,

My sister’s vision, and the rest, his face

Darkened, as I have seen it more than once,

When some brave deed seemed to be done in vain,

Darken; and “Woe is me, my knights,” he cried,

“Had I been here, ye had not sworn the vow.”

Bold was mine answer, “Had thyself been here,

My King, thou wouldst have sworn.” “Yea, yea,” said he,

“Art thou so bold and hast not seen the Grail?”

‘“Nay, lord, I heard the sound, I saw the light,

But since I did not see the Holy Thing,

I sware a vow to follow it till I saw.”

‘Then when he asked us, knight by knight, if any

Had seen it, all their answers were as one:

“Nay, lord, and therefore have we sworn our vows.”

‘“Lo now,” said Arthur, “have ye seen a cloud?

What go ye into the wilderness to see?”

‘Then Galahad on the sudden, and in a voice

Shrilling along the hall to Arthur, called,

“But I, Sir Arthur, saw the Holy Grail,

I saw the Holy Grail and heard a cry —

‘O Galahad, and O Galahad, follow me.’”

‘“Ah, Galahad, Galahad,” said the King, “for such

As thou art is the vision, not for these.

Thy holy nun and thou have seen a sign —

Holier is none, my Percivale, than she —

A sign to maim this Order which I made.

But ye, that follow but the leader’s bell”

(Brother, the King was hard upon his knights)

“Taliessin is our fullest throat of song,

And one hath sung and all the dumb will sing.

Lancelot is Lancelot, and hath overborne

Five knights at once, and every younger knight,

Unproven, holds himself as Lancelot,

Till overborne by one, he learns — and ye,

What are ye? Galahads? — no, nor Percivales”

(For thus it pleased the King to range me close

After Sir Galahad); “nay,” said he, “but men

With strength and will to right the wronged, of power

To lay the sudden heads of violence flat,

Knights that in twelve great battles splashed and dyed

The strong White Horse in his own heathen blood —

But one hath seen, and all the blind will see.

Go, since your vows are sacred, being made:

Yet — for ye know the cries of all my realm

Pass through this hall — how often, O my knights,

Your places being vacant at my side,

This chance of noble deeds will come and go

Unchallenged, while ye follow wandering fires

Lost in the quagmire! Many of you, yea most,

Return no more: ye think I show myself

Too dark a prophet: come now, let us meet

The morrow morn once more in one full field

Of gracious pastime, that once more the King,

Before ye leave him for this Quest, may count

The yet-unbroken strength of all his knights,

Rejoicing in that Order which he made.”

‘So when the sun broke next from under ground,

All the great table of our Arthur closed

And clashed in such a tourney and so full,

So many lances broken — never yet

Had Camelot seen the like, since Arthur came;

And I myself and Galahad, for a strength

Was in us from this vision, overthrew

So many knights that all the people cried,

And almost burst the barriers in their heat,

Shouting, “Sir Galahad and Sir Percivale!”

‘But when the next day brake from under ground —

O brother, had you known our Camelot,

Built by old kings, age after age, so old

The King himself had fears that it would fall,

So strange, and rich, and dim; for where the roofs

Tottered toward each other in the sky,

Met foreheads all along the street of those

Who watched us pass; and lower, and where the long

Rich galleries, lady-laden, weighed the necks

Of dragons clinging to the crazy walls,

Thicker than drops from thunder, showers of flowers

Fell as we past; and men and boys astride

On wyvern, lion, dragon, griffin, swan,

At all the corners, named us each by name,

Calling, “God speed!” but in the ways below

The knights and ladies wept, and rich and poor

Wept, and the King himself could hardly speak

For grief, and all in middle street the Queen,

Who rode by Lancelot, wailed and shrieked aloud,

“This madness has come on us for our sins.”

So to the Gate of the three Queens we came,

Where Arthur’s wars are rendered mystically,

And thence departed every one his way.

‘And I was lifted up in heart, and thought

Of all my late-shown prowess in the lists,

How my strong lance had beaten down the knights,

So many and famous names; and never yet

Had heaven appeared so blue, nor earth so green,

For all my blood danced in me, and I knew

That I should light upon the Holy Grail.

‘Thereafter, the dark warning of our King,

That most of us would follow wandering fires,

Came like a driving gloom across my mind.

Then every evil word I had spoken once,

And every evil thought I had thought of old,

And every evil deed I ever did,

Awoke and cried, “This Quest is not for thee.”

And lifting up mine eyes, I found myself

Alone, and in a land of sand and thorns,

And I was thirsty even unto death;

And I, too, cried, “This Quest is not for thee.”

‘And on I rode, and when I thought my thirst

Would slay me, saw deep lawns, and then a brook,

With one sharp rapid, where the crisping white

Played ever back upon the sloping wave,

And took both ear and eye; and o’er the brook

Were apple-trees, and apples by the brook

Fallen, and on the lawns. “I will rest here,”

I said, “I am not worthy of the Quest;”

But even while I drank the brook, and ate

The goodly apples, all these things at once

Fell into dust, and I was left alone,

And thirsting, in a land of sand and thorns.

‘And then behold a woman at a door

Spinning; and fair the house whereby she sat,

And kind the woman’s eyes and innocent,

And all her bearing gracious; and she rose

Opening her arms to meet me, as who should say,

“Rest here;” but when I touched her, lo! she, too,

Fell into dust and nothing, and the house

Became no better than a broken shed,

And in it a dead babe; and also this

Fell into dust, and I was left alone.

‘And on I rode, and greater was my thirst.

Then flashed a yellow gleam across the world,

And where it smote the plowshare in the field,

The plowman left his plowing, and fell down

Before it; where it glittered on her pail,

The milkmaid left her milking, and fell down

Before it, and I knew not why, but thought

“The sun is rising,” though the sun had risen.

Then was I ware of one that on me moved

In golden armour with a crown of gold

About a casque all jewels; and his horse

In golden armour jewelled everywhere:

And on the splendour came, flashing me blind;

And seemed to me the Lord of all the world,

Being so huge. But when I thought he meant

To crush me, moving on me, lo! he, too,

Opened his arms to embrace me as he came,

And up I went and touched him, and he, too,

Fell into dust, and I was left alone

And wearying in a land of sand and thorns.

‘And I rode on and found a mighty hill,

And on the top, a city walled: the spires

Pricked with incredible pinnacles into heaven.

And by the gateway stirred a crowd; and these

Cried to me climbing, “Welcome, Percivale!

Thou mightiest and thou purest among men!”

And glad was I and clomb, but found at top

No man, nor any voice. And thence I past

Far through a ruinous city, and I saw

That man had once dwelt there; but there I found

Only one man of an exceeding age.

“Where is that goodly company,” said I,

“That so cried out upon me?” and he had

Scarce any voice to answer, and yet gasped,

“Whence and what art thou?” and even as he spoke

Fell into dust, and disappeared, and I

Was left alone once more, and cried in grief,

“Lo, if I find the Holy Grail itself

And touch it, it will crumble into dust.”

‘And thence I dropt into a lowly vale,

Low as the hill was high, and where the vale

Was lowest, found a chapel, and thereby

A holy hermit in a hermitage,

To whom I told my phantoms, and he said:

‘“O son, thou hast not true humility,

The highest virtue, mother of them all;

For when the Lord of all things made Himself

Naked of glory for His mortal change,

‘Take thou my robe,’ she said, ‘for all is thine,’

And all her form shone forth with sudden light

So that the angels were amazed, and she

Followed Him down, and like a flying star

Led on the gray-haired wisdom of the east;

But her thou hast not known: for what is this

Thou thoughtest of thy prowess and thy sins?

Thou hast not lost thyself to save thyself

As Galahad.” When the hermit made an end,

In silver armour suddenly Galahad shone

Before us, and against the chapel door

Laid lance, and entered, and we knelt in prayer.

And there the hermit slaked my burning thirst,

And at the sacring of the mass I saw

The holy elements alone; but he,

“Saw ye no more? I, Galahad, saw the Grail,

The Holy Grail, descend upon the shrine:

I saw the fiery face as of a child

That smote itself into the bread, and went;

And hither am I come; and never yet

Hath what thy sister taught me first to see,

This Holy Thing, failed from my side, nor come

Covered, but moving with me night and day,

Fainter by day, but always in the night

Blood-red, and sliding down the blackened marsh

Blood-red, and on the naked mountain top

Blood-red, and in the sleeping mere below

Blood-red. And in the strength of this I rode,

Shattering all evil customs everywhere,

And past through Pagan realms, and made them mine,

And clashed with Pagan hordes, and bore them down,

And broke through all, and in the strength of this

Come victor. But my time is hard at hand,

And hence I go; and one will crown me king

Far in the spiritual city; and come thou, too,

For thou shalt see the vision when I go.”

‘While thus he spake, his eye, dwelling on mine,

Drew me, with power upon me, till I grew

One with him, to believe as he believed.

Then, when the day began to wane, we went.

‘There rose a hill that none but man could climb,

Scarred with a hundred wintry water-courses —

Storm at the top, and when we gained it, storm

Round us and death; for every moment glanced

His silver arms and gloomed: so quick and thick

The lightnings here and there to left and right

Struck, till the dry old trunks about us, dead,

Yea, rotten with a hundred years of death,

Sprang into fire: and at the base we found

On either hand, as far as eye could see,

A great black swamp and of an evil smell,

Part black, part whitened with the bones of men,

Not to be crost, save that some ancient king

Had built a way, where, linked with many a bridge,

A thousand piers ran into the great Sea.

And Galahad fled along them bridge by bridge,

And every bridge as quickly as he crost

Sprang into fire and vanished, though I yearned

To follow; and thrice above him all the heavens

Opened and blazed with thunder such as seemed

Shoutings of all the sons of God: and first

At once I saw him far on the great Sea,

In silver-shining armour starry-clear;

And o’er his head the Holy Vessel hung

Clothed in white samite or a luminous cloud.

And with exceeding swiftness ran the boat,

If boat it were — I saw not whence it came.

And when the heavens opened and blazed again

Roaring, I saw him like a silver star —

And had he set the sail, or had the boat

Become a living creature clad with wings?

And o’er his head the Holy Vessel hung

Redder than any rose, a joy to me,

For now I knew the veil had been withdrawn.

Then in a moment when they blazed again

Opening, I saw the least of little stars

Down on the waste, and straight beyond the star

I saw the spiritual city and all her spires

And gateways in a glory like one pearl —

No larger, though the goal of all the saints —

Strike from the sea; and from the star there shot

A rose-red sparkle to the city, and there

Dwelt, and I knew it was the Holy Grail,

Which never eyes on earth again shall see.

Then fell the floods of heaven drowning the deep.

And how my feet recrost the deathful ridge

No memory in me lives; but that I touched

The chapel-doors at dawn I know; and thence

Taking my war-horse from the holy man,

Glad that no phantom vext me more, returned

To whence I came, the gate of Arthur’s wars.’

‘O brother,’ asked Ambrosius — ‘for in sooth

These ancient books — and they would win thee — teem,

Only I find not there this Holy Grail,

With miracles and marvels like to these,

Not all unlike; which oftentime I read,

Who read but on my breviary with ease,

Till my head swims; and then go forth and pass

Down to the little thorpe that lies so close,

And almost plastered like a martin’s nest

To these old walls — and mingle with our folk;

And knowing every honest face of theirs

As well as ever shepherd knew his sheep,

And every homely secret in their hearts,

Delight myself with gossip and old wives,

And ills and aches, and teethings, lyings-in,

And mirthful sayings, children of the place,

That have no meaning half a league away:

Or lulling random squabbles when they rise,

Chafferings and chatterings at the market-cross,

Rejoice, small man, in this small world of mine,

Yea, even in their hens and in their eggs —

O brother, saving this Sir Galahad,

Came ye on none but phantoms in your quest,

No man, no woman?’

Then Sir Percivale:

‘All men, to one so bound by such a vow,

And women were as phantoms. O, my brother,

Why wilt thou shame me to confess to thee

How far I faltered from my quest and vow?

For after I had lain so many nights

A bedmate of the snail and eft and snake,

In grass and burdock, I was changed to wan

And meagre, and the vision had not come;

And then I chanced upon a goodly town

With one great dwelling in the middle of it;

Thither I made, and there was I disarmed

By maidens each as fair as any flower:

But when they led me into hall, behold,

The Princess of that castle was the one,

Brother, and that one only, who had ever

Made my heart leap; for when I moved of old

A slender page about her father’s hall,

And she a slender maiden, all my heart

Went after her with longing: yet we twain

Had never kissed a kiss, or vowed a vow.

And now I came upon her once again,

And one had wedded her, and he was dead,

And all his land and wealth and state were hers.

And while I tarried, every day she set

A banquet richer than the day before

By me; for all her longing and her will

Was toward me as of old; till one fair morn,

I walking to and fro beside a stream

That flashed across her orchard underneath

Her castle-walls, she stole upon my walk,

And calling me the greatest of all knights,

Embraced me, and so kissed me the first time,

And gave herself and all her wealth to me.

Then I remembered Arthur’s warning word,

That most of us would follow wandering fires,

And the Quest faded in my heart. Anon,

The heads of all her people drew to me,

With supplication both of knees and tongue:

“We have heard of thee: thou art our greatest knight,

Our Lady says it, and we well believe:

Wed thou our Lady, and rule over us,

And thou shalt be as Arthur in our land.”

O me, my brother! but one night my vow

Burnt me within, so that I rose and fled,

But wailed and wept, and hated mine own self,

And even the Holy Quest, and all but her;

Then after I was joined with Galahad

Cared not for her, nor anything upon earth.’

Then said the monk, ‘Poor men, when yule is cold,

Must be content to sit by little fires.

And this am I, so that ye care for me

Ever so little; yea, and blest be Heaven

That brought thee here to this poor house of ours

Where all the brethren are so hard, to warm

My cold heart with a friend: but O the pity

To find thine own first love once more — to hold,

Hold her a wealthy bride within thine arms,

Or all but hold, and then — cast her aside,

Foregoing all her sweetness, like a weed.

For we that want the warmth of double life,

We that are plagued with dreams of something sweet

Beyond all sweetness in a life so rich —

Ah, blessed Lord, I speak too earthlywise,

Seeing I never strayed beyond the cell,

But live like an old badger in his earth,

With earth about him everywhere, despite

All fast and penance. Saw ye none beside,

None of your knights?’

‘Yea so,’ said Percivale:

‘One night my pathway swerving east, I saw

The pelican on the casque of our Sir Bors

All in the middle of the rising moon:

And toward him spurred, and hailed him, and he me,

And each made joy of either; then he asked,

“Where is he? hast thou seen him — Lancelot? — Once,”

Said good Sir Bors, “he dashed across me — mad,

And maddening what he rode: and when I cried,

‘Ridest thou then so hotly on a quest

So holy,’ Lancelot shouted, ‘Stay me not!

I have been the sluggard, and I ride apace,

For now there is a lion in the way.’

So vanished.”

‘Then Sir Bors had ridden on

Softly, and sorrowing for our Lancelot,

Because his former madness, once the talk

And scandal of our table, had returned;

For Lancelot’s kith and kin so worship him

That ill to him is ill to them; to Bors

Beyond the rest: he well had been content

Not to have seen, so Lancelot might have seen,

The Holy Cup of healing; and, indeed,

Being so clouded with his grief and love,

Small heart was his after the Holy Quest:

If God would send the vision, well: if not,

The Quest and he were in the hands of Heaven.

‘And then, with small adventure met, Sir Bors

Rode to the lonest tract of all the realm,

And found a people there among their crags,

Our race and blood, a remnant that were left

Paynim amid their circles, and the stones

They pitch up straight to heaven: and their wise men

Were strong in that old magic which can trace

The wandering of the stars, and scoffed at him

And this high Quest as at a simple thing:

Told him he followed — almost Arthur’s words —

A mocking fire: “what other fire than he,

Whereby the blood beats, and the blossom blows,

And the sea rolls, and all the world is warmed?”

And when his answer chafed them, the rough crowd,

Hearing he had a difference with their priests,

Seized him, and bound and plunged him into a cell

Of great piled stones; and lying bounden there

In darkness through innumerable hours

He heard the hollow-ringing heavens sweep

Over him till by miracle — what else? —

Heavy as it was, a great stone slipt and fell,

Such as no wind could move: and through the gap

Glimmered the streaming scud: then came a night

Still as the day was loud; and through the gap

The seven clear stars of Arthur’s Table Round —

For, brother, so one night, because they roll

Through such a round in heaven, we named the stars,

Rejoicing in ourselves and in our King —

And these, like bright eyes of familiar friends,

In on him shone: “And then to me, to me,”

Said good Sir Bors, “beyond all hopes of mine,

Who scarce had prayed or asked it for myself —

Across the seven clear stars — O grace to me —

In colour like the fingers of a hand

Before a burning taper, the sweet Grail

Glided and past, and close upon it pealed

A sharp quick thunder.” Afterwards, a maid,

Who kept our holy faith among her kin

In secret, entering, loosed and let him go.’

To whom the monk: ‘And I remember now

That pelican on the casque: Sir Bors it was

Who spake so low and sadly at our board;

And mighty reverent at our grace was he:

A square-set man and honest; and his eyes,

An out-door sign of all the warmth within,

Smiled with his lips — a smile beneath a cloud,

But heaven had meant it for a sunny one:

Ay, ay, Sir Bors, who else? But when ye reached

The city, found ye all your knights returned,

Or was there sooth in Arthur’s prophecy,

Tell me, and what said each, and what the King?’

Then answered Percivale: ‘And that can I,

Brother, and truly; since the living words

Of so great men as Lancelot and our King

Pass not from door to door and out again,

But sit within the house. O, when we reached

The city, our horses stumbling as they trode

On heaps of ruin, hornless unicorns,

Cracked basilisks, and splintered cockatrices,

And shattered talbots, which had left the stones

Raw, that they fell from, brought us to the hall.

‘And there sat Arthur on the dais-throne,

And those that had gone out upon the Quest,

Wasted and worn, and but a tithe of them,

And those that had not, stood before the King,

Who, when he saw me, rose, and bad me hail,

Saying, “A welfare in thine eye reproves

Our fear of some disastrous chance for thee

On hill, or plain, at sea, or flooding ford.

So fierce a gale made havoc here of late

Among the strange devices of our kings;

Yea, shook this newer, stronger hall of ours,

And from the statue Merlin moulded for us

Half-wrenched a golden wing; but now — the Quest,

This vision — hast thou seen the Holy Cup,

That Joseph brought of old to Glastonbury?”

‘So when I told him all thyself hast heard,

Ambrosius, and my fresh but fixt resolve

To pass away into the quiet life,

He answered not, but, sharply turning, asked

Of Gawain, “Gawain, was this Quest for thee?”

‘“Nay, lord,” said Gawain, “not for such as I.

Therefore I communed with a saintly man,

Who made me sure the Quest was not for me;

For I was much awearied of the Quest:

But found a silk pavilion in a field,

And merry maidens in it; and then this gale

Tore my pavilion from the tenting-pin,

And blew my merry maidens all about

With all discomfort; yea, and but for this,

My twelvemonth and a day were pleasant to me.”

‘He ceased; and Arthur turned to whom at first

He saw not, for Sir Bors, on entering, pushed

Athwart the throng to Lancelot, caught his hand,

Held it, and there, half-hidden by him, stood,

Until the King espied him, saying to him,

“Hail, Bors! if ever loyal man and true

Could see it, thou hast seen the Grail;” and Bors,

“Ask me not, for I may not speak of it:

I saw it;” and the tears were in his eyes.

‘Then there remained but Lancelot, for the rest

Spake but of sundry perils in the storm;

Perhaps, like him of Cana in Holy Writ,

Our Arthur kept his best until the last;

“Thou, too, my Lancelot,” asked the king, “my friend,

Our mightiest, hath this Quest availed for thee?”

‘“Our mightiest!” answered Lancelot, with a groan;

“O King!”— and when he paused, methought I spied

A dying fire of madness in his eyes —

“O King, my friend, if friend of thine I be,

Happier are those that welter in their sin,

Swine in the mud, that cannot see for slime,

Slime of the ditch: but in me lived a sin

So strange, of such a kind, that all of pure,

Noble, and knightly in me twined and clung

Round that one sin, until the wholesome flower

And poisonous grew together, each as each,

Not to be plucked asunder; and when thy knights

Sware, I sware with them only in the hope

That could I touch or see the Holy Grail

They might be plucked asunder. Then I spake

To one most holy saint, who wept and said,

That save they could be plucked asunder, all

My quest were but in vain; to whom I vowed

That I would work according as he willed.

And forth I went, and while I yearned and strove

To tear the twain asunder in my heart,

My madness came upon me as of old,

And whipt me into waste fields far away;

There was I beaten down by little men,

Mean knights, to whom the moving of my sword

And shadow of my spear had been enow

To scare them from me once; and then I came

All in my folly to the naked shore,

Wide flats, where nothing but coarse grasses grew;

But such a blast, my King, began to blow,

So loud a blast along the shore and sea,

Ye could not hear the waters for the blast,

Though heapt in mounds and ridges all the sea

Drove like a cataract, and all the sand

Swept like a river, and the clouded heavens

Were shaken with the motion and the sound.

And blackening in the sea-foam swayed a boat,

Half-swallowed in it, anchored with a chain;

And in my madness to myself I said,

‘I will embark and I will lose myself,

And in the great sea wash away my sin.’

I burst the chain, I sprang into the boat.

Seven days I drove along the dreary deep,

And with me drove the moon and all the stars;

And the wind fell, and on the seventh night

I heard the shingle grinding in the surge,

And felt the boat shock earth, and looking up,

Behold, the enchanted towers of Carbonek,

A castle like a rock upon a rock,

With chasm-like portals open to the sea,

And steps that met the breaker! there was none

Stood near it but a lion on each side

That kept the entry, and the moon was full.

Then from the boat I leapt, and up the stairs.

There drew my sword. With sudden-flaring manes

Those two great beasts rose upright like a man,

Each gript a shoulder, and I stood between;

And, when I would have smitten them, heard a voice,

‘Doubt not, go forward; if thou doubt, the beasts

Will tear thee piecemeal.’ Then with violence

The sword was dashed from out my hand, and fell.

And up into the sounding hall I past;

But nothing in the sounding hall I saw,

No bench nor table, painting on the wall

Or shield of knight; only the rounded moon

Through the tall oriel on the rolling sea.

But always in the quiet house I heard,

Clear as a lark, high o’er me as a lark,

A sweet voice singing in the topmost tower

To the eastward: up I climbed a thousand steps

With pain: as in a dream I seemed to climb

For ever: at the last I reached a door,

A light was in the crannies, and I heard,

‘Glory and joy and honour to our Lord

And to the Holy Vessel of the Grail.’

Then in my madness I essayed the door;

It gave; and through a stormy glare, a heat

As from a seventimes-heated furnace, I,

Blasted and burnt, and blinded as I was,

With such a fierceness that I swooned away —

O, yet methought I saw the Holy Grail,

All palled in crimson samite, and around

Great angels, awful shapes, and wings and eyes.

And but for all my madness and my sin,

And then my swooning, I had sworn I saw

That which I saw; but what I saw was veiled

And covered; and this Quest was not for me.”

‘So speaking, and here ceasing, Lancelot left

The hall long silent, till Sir Gawain — nay,

Brother, I need not tell thee foolish words —

A reckless and irreverent knight was he,

Now boldened by the silence of his King —

Well, I will tell thee: “O King, my liege,” he said,

“Hath Gawain failed in any quest of thine?

When have I stinted stroke in foughten field?

But as for thine, my good friend Percivale,

Thy holy nun and thou have driven men mad,

Yea, made our mightiest madder than our least.

But by mine eyes and by mine ears I swear,

I will be deafer than the blue-eyed cat,

And thrice as blind as any noonday owl,

To holy virgins in their ecstasies,

Henceforward.”

‘“Deafer,” said the blameless King,

“Gawain, and blinder unto holy things

Hope not to make thyself by idle vows,

Being too blind to have desire to see.

But if indeed there came a sign from heaven,

Blessed are Bors, Lancelot and Percivale,

For these have seen according to their sight.

For every fiery prophet in old times,

And all the sacred madness of the bard,

When God made music through them, could but speak

His music by the framework and the chord;

And as ye saw it ye have spoken truth.

‘“Nay — but thou errest, Lancelot: never yet

Could all of true and noble in knight and man

Twine round one sin, whatever it might be,

With such a closeness, but apart there grew,

Save that he were the swine thou spakest of,

Some root of knighthood and pure nobleness;

Whereto see thou, that it may bear its flower.

‘“And spake I not too truly, O my knights?

Was I too dark a prophet when I said

To those who went upon the Holy Quest,

That most of them would follow wandering fires,

Lost in the quagmire? — lost to me and gone,

And left me gazing at a barren board,

And a lean Order — scarce returned a tithe —

And out of those to whom the vision came

My greatest hardly will believe he saw;

Another hath beheld it afar off,

And leaving human wrongs to right themselves,

Cares but to pass into the silent life.

And one hath had the vision face to face,

And now his chair desires him here in vain,

However they may crown him otherwhere.

‘“And some among you held, that if the King

Had seen the sight he would have sworn the vow:

Not easily, seeing that the King must guard

That which he rules, and is but as the hind

To whom a space of land is given to plow.

Who may not wander from the allotted field

Before his work be done; but, being done,

Let visions of the night or of the day

Come, as they will; and many a time they come,

Until this earth he walks on seems not earth,

This light that strikes his eyeball is not light,

This air that smites his forehead is not air

But vision — yea, his very hand and foot —

In moments when he feels he cannot die,

And knows himself no vision to himself,

Nor the high God a vision, nor that One

Who rose again: ye have seen what ye have seen.”

‘So spake the King: I knew not all he meant.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tennyson/alfred/idylls/chapter8.html

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