"Bones and I"/Chapter 12
AMONGST all the works of our great poet, works in which criticism, searching diligently for flaws, discovers every day new beauties, surely this noble poem is the very crown and masterpiece.
Compared even, with the productions of his own genius, Guinevere always seems to me like a statue in the midst of oil-paintings. So lofty is it in conception, so grand in treatment, so fair, so noble, so elevating, and yet so real. As the Californian digger in his prospect "washes, and sifts, and searches, till from a mass of rubbish and impurities he separates the nugget of virgin ore, so from the lavish confusion of rich material to be found in that collection of early romance called "La Morte d'Arthur," the Laureate has wrought out a poem precious in its own intrinsic merit as the purest metal that was ever beaten into a crown of gold. One other has been over the same ground before him, the great magician who with a wave of his wand has created for us gleaming blade and glittering hauberk, mail and plate, and managed steeds caparisoned, lances shivered to the grasp, sweet pale faces looking down on the mimic war beneath, and all the pomp, panoply, and prestige of an ideal chivalry, when
"The champions, armed in martial sort,
Have thronged into the list,
And but three knights of Arthur's court
Are from the tourney missed.
And still those lovers' fame survives
For faith so constant shown;
There were two that loved their neighbours' wives,
And one that loved his own."
Alas! that the very first of these in arms, in courtesy, in personal advantages, and, but for the one foul blot, in honourable fame, should have been Lancelot de Lac, the ornament of chivalry Alas! that the lady of his guilty love should have been that
"Flower of all the west and all the world,"
whose rightful place was on the bosom of "the stainless king."
Their fatal passion, that grew so insensibly in those fair May-days, long ago, when the pair
"Rode under groves that looked a paradise
Of blossom, over sheets of hyacinth,
That seemed the heavens upbreaking thro' the earth,"
has struck root now, deep, deep in the hearts of both, and spreading like the deadly upas-tree, has blighted every other sentiment and affection beneath its shade. There is no happiness for Lancelot without Guinevere, no sweetness in the breath of evening nor speculation in the stars of night, no gladness in the summer, no glamour in the greenwood, no glory in the day. Her whisper lurks in the hollow of his helmet when he shouts his war-cry, her image rouses his desire for fame, and points his trusty lance. But for the keen, unholy stimulant his arm would be nerveless and his courage dull, while all the time
"The great and guilty love he bare the queen,
In battle with the love he bare his lord.
Hath marred his face, and marked it ere his time."
Yes, there is retribution even here for the sweet, seductive sin. "The worm that dieth not, the fire that is not quenched," begin their work long ere the cup has been emptied of its tempting poison; and the one gnaws fiercer, the other burns deeper, in proportion to the capability of good from which the sinner has fallen—in proportion to the truth and tenderness of the tortured heart that seems meant for better things.
And Guinevere. Who can fathom that woman's anguish, her shame, her self-reproach, her bitter, hopeless remorse, for whom the holy plighted love that should have made her shield, her honour, and her happiness through life, has been pierced, and shattered, and defiled by that other love which drags her to perdition, and to which she yet clings closer and closer with a warped instinct of womanly fidelity for the very sorrow and suffering it entails? The sense of personal degradation is perhaps the least of her punishment, for it is her nature when she loves to merge her own identity in another; but what of her children, if she have any? How can she bear the clear, guileless faces, the little hands clasped in prayer on her knee, the loving, trustful eyes of those simple believers to whom she, the sinner, is in the place of God? Many a woman, hesitating and hovering on the very brink of ruin, has been withheld by the tiny clasp of an infant's hand. If that last chance should have failed her, such failure has been ever after the heaviest and least endurable of the penalties she has brought on herself.
But she may be childless, she may be spared the bitter pain of estrangement from those who are indeed part and parcel of her being. What, then, of her husband? The man whom once she believed she loved, who has cherished her, trusted her, given up for her sake many of the realities and all the illusions of life, whose care has surrounded her so constantly, every day and all day long, that, like the air she breathes, she can only be made sensible of its existence when withdrawn, whose indulgence was perhaps so unvaried as to escape notice, whose affection, expressed by deeds, not words, she has forgotten because it has not been repeated, like that other love, in burning whispers every hour. So she not only strikes him a deadly blow, such as his bitterest enemy would scarce deal in fair fight, but poisons her weapon besides, and leaves it sticking in the wound to burn and rankle and fester, that every passing hand in careless jest or wanton outrage may inflict on him mortal agony at will. Once perhaps she was proud of that brave, kind face, which she could not imagine blanched by fear nor clouded with shame. Can she bear to think of it now, quivering at the chance allusion of every idle tongue, warped into agony, like that of a man shot through the lungs, when her own name is spoken, purposely or otherwise, by some impertinent gossip or some rancorous, ungenerous foe? His sorrow has become a jest; that offence will soon pass away to make room for fresher scandal. His home is broken up; he can make himself another. The woman he loved has left him, yet there are plenty more as fond and fair ready to pity and console; but his trust is broken, and not even in an angel from heaven can he believe again. This is the worst injury of all. The strongest, the purest, the noblest of earthly motives to well-doing has failed him, and from henceforth the man is but a lamp without a light, a watch without a mainspring, a body without a soul. It is well for him now if he have some lofty aspiration, some great and generous object, to lift him out of his depth of sorrow, to rouse him from his apathy of despair. Thus only can he wrestle with the demon that has entered into his heart, thus only cast him out and, trampling on him, so rise to a higher sphere than that from which he has been dragged down. In self-sacrifice and self-devotion he shall find the talisman to set him free, not at once, but, like other permanent results, gradually and in the lapse of time; so, mounting step by step and gaining strength as he ascends, he shall look down from the unassailable heights of forgiveness on the lesser souls that can never reach to wound him now—forgiveness, free, complete, and unconditional as that which he himself pleads for from his God.
And here it is that the character of Arthur, as drawn by Tennyson, exemplifies the noblest type of Christianity, chivalry, and manhood with which we are acquainted in the whole range of fiction. Poetry has yet to disclose to us a more godlike, more elevating sentiment than the king's pardon to his guilty and repentant wife. It breathes the very essence of all those qualities which humanity, at best "a little lower than the angels," is ever striving unsuccessfully to attain. There is courage, abiding by the award of its own conscience and appealing to a higher tribunal than the verdict of its kind; there is contempt for consequences; there is scrupulous, unswerving persistence in the path of duty, such as constitutes the soldier and the hero; there is large-hearted, far-seeing benevolence, that weighs its own crushed happiness and blighted life but as dust in the balance against the well-being of its fellows. Above all, there is that grand trust in a better world and an immortal identity, without which man, despite his strength of will and pride of intellect, were little superior to the beasts of the field. Such is the diapason, so to speak, of this mighty march of feeling—the march of an unconquered spirit and a kingly soul; while through it all, ever present, though ever modulated and kept down, runs the wild, mournful accompaniment, the wail of a kindly, tortured heart, of a love that can never die—
"And in thy bowers of Camelot or of Usk
Thy shadow still would glide from room to room,
And I should evermore be vext with thee,
In hanging robe—or vacant ornament,
Or ghostly footfall echoing on the stair.
For think not, though thou wouldst not love thy lord,
Thy lord has wholly lost his love for thee.
I am not made of such slight elements.
Yet must I leave thee, woman, to thy shame."
How wonderful, how exhaustive, and how practical seems the familiarity of great poets with the niceties and workings of the human heart! It has been said of them, prettily enough, that
"They learn in suffering what they teach in song."
God forbid! If it were so, their lot would indeed be unenviable; and what an eternity of torture would such a genius as Byron, or Shelley, or Tennyson himself have condensed into a single life! No, theirs must be rather the intuitive knowledge that springs from sympathy with all things, animate and inanimate, in summer and winter, in light and darkness, in sorrow and in joy—a sympathy receiving freely as it gives, and thus cozening them out of nine-tenths of their own private sorrows, which such liner temperaments as theirs would otherwise be too sensitive to endure.
The wide scope of this sympathy, the facility with which genius can handle extreme contrasts of the same passion with equal skill, is, I think, finely exemplified in the two poems of "Maud" and "Guinevere." I have already compared the latter to an exquisite piece of sculpture. The former seems to me like a wild, fanciful, highly-coloured painting, in which some true artist has striven to embody the unattainable conceptions of a dream. Was ever colouring mixed on palette more vivid and glowing than this description of a lover waiting for his mistress in her garden:—
"There falls a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate;
She is coming—my love—my dear!
She is coming—my life, my fate!
The red rose cries, She is near—she is near!
The white rose weeps,—She is late!
The larkspur listens,—I hear—I hear!
And the lily whispers,—I wait 1"
Is there not in these lines, besides grace, sentiment, pathos, tenderness, a wealth of pictorial fancy, such as Landseer himself has not outdone in his magical representation of clown and elves and stars and flowers grouped round Titania in Fairyland?
As in "clear-faced Arthur" is rendered the ideal dignity of love, so in Maud's hapless suitor we find exemplified its mad enthusiasm and passion. With both, self is unhesitatingly sacrificed to the welfare of another. When the fatal shot has been fired, and the exile faces a foreign shore in utter hopelessness that he shall ever look on the face he loves again, the pity for himself that cannot but chill his sorrowing heart merges in anxiety and tenderness for Maud. Even now—perhaps now more than ever—in grief, danger, and privation, his first thought flies to the idol for whom he has built his life into a throne, that she may reign there unrivalled and supreme. May his be the shame, the sorrow, and the suffering!—such is his wild, pathetic prayer—and let the treasure of his heart go free. If there be danger, let it lower round his unprotected head. If there be punishment, let him bear it for both! Ay, though she may never reward him for it, never even know it; for in this world these two are surely parted not to meet again. What of that? She is still his queen—his goddess—his love—the aim of his existence, the darling of his care.
"Comfort her, comfort her, all things good,
While I am over the sea;
Let me and my passionate love go by,
But speak to her all things holy and high.
Whatever happen to me.
Me and my harmful love go by.
But come to her waking, or find her asleep,
Powers of the height, powers of the deep,
And comfort her though I die."
Surely this is the pure, unadulterated metal. Alas ! that it should sometimes lack the glitter of that counterfeit which women grasp at so eagerly in preference to the true gold. So, in extremity of danger, shattered in battle against the chosen friend and comrade whose treachery was only less galling to his noble heart than the disloyalty of his queen, beset by
"The godless hosts
Of heathen swarming o'er the Northern sea,"
stern old foes of himself and Christendom, erst by prowess of that "glorious company,"
The Table Round,
In twelve great battles ruining overthrown,"
now panting for reprisal and revenge, menaced with open rebellion by a sister's son, his army melting, his adherents failing, his sceptre sliding from his grasp, Arthur can yet provide tenderly and carefully for her safety who has brought down on him all this shame, ruin, and defeat.
"And many more when Modred raised revolt,
Forgetful of their troth and fealty, clave
To Modred, and a remnant stays with me.
And of this remnant will I leave a part—
True men who love me still, for whom I live—
To guard thee in the wild hour coming on;
Lest but a hair of this low head be harmed.
Fear not: thou shalt be guarded till my death."
Well might the Queen, when he had passed from her sight for ever, reflect bitterly on the comparative merits of lover and husband, having, like all such women, proved to extremity of torture the devotion of both.
"I wanted warmth and colour, which I found
In Lancelot. Now I see thee what thou art—
Thou art the highest, and most human, too,
Not Lancelot, nor another."
Could she but have seen him as he really was in the golden days long ago, when her court formed the centre of all that was bravest and fairest in the world of Christendom, when her life seemed one long holiday of dance and revel in the lighted halls of Camelot, of tilt and tournament and pageantry of mimic war, held in honour of her own peerless beauty, in the Lists of Caerleon, of horn and hound and rushing chase and willing palfrey speeding over the scented moors of Cornwall, or through the sunny glades of Lyonesse, of sweet May mornings when she went forth fresh and lovely, fairer than the very smile of spring, amongst her courtiers, all
"Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,"
to walk apart, nevertheless, with flushing cheek and eyes cast down, while she listened to his whispers, whose voice was softer and sweeter than fairy music in her ears! Could she but have known then where to seek her happiness and find it! Alas! that we see things so differently in different lights and surroundings—in serge and velvet, in the lustre of revelry and the pale cold grey of dawn, in black December frosts and the rich glow of June. Alas! for us, that so seldom till too late to take our bearings, and avoid impending shipwreck, can we make use of that fearful gift described by another great poet as
"The telescope of truth,
Which strips the distance of its fantasies,
And brings life near, in utter nakedness,
Making the cold reality too real!"
but still reality, and, as such, preferable to all the baseless visions of fancy, all the glitter and glamour and illusion of romance. We mortals must have our dreams; doubtless it is for a good purpose that they are so fair and sweet, that their duration is so short, the waking from them so bitter and forlorn. But at last most of us find ourselves disenchanted, weary, hopeless, memory-haunted, and seeking sanctuary after all, like Guinevere, when Lancelot had gone
"Back to his land, but she to Almesbury
Fled all night long by glimmering waste and weald,
And heard the spirits of the waste and weald
Moan as she fled, or thought she heard them moan,—
And in herself she moaned—'Too late! too late!' "
What a picture of desolation and despair! Mocking phantoms all about her, now gibing, now pitying, now goading her to the recklessness of despair. Before her, darkness uncheered by a single beacon; behind her, the sun of life and love gone down to rise no more, and, lifting helpless, hopeless eyes above,
"A blot in heaven, the raven flying high."
Deep must be the guilt for which such hours as these are insufficient to atone!
But the queen's penance hath only just begun, for the black drop is not yet wrung out of her heart, and even in her cloister at Almesbury it is remorse rather than repentance that drives the iron into her soul. As it invariably does in moments of extreme feeling, the master-passion takes possession of her once more, and "my Lancelot" comes back in all his manly beauty and his devoted tenderness, so touching and so prized, that for him too it must make the sorrow of a life-time. Again, she sees him in the lists, best, bravest, and knightliest lance of all the Round Table, Again, sitting fair and courtly and gentle among dames in hall, his noble face none the less winsome, be sure, to her, for that she could read on it the stamp of sorrow set there by herself as her own indelible seal.
Again she tastes the bitter torture of their parting agony, and her very spirit longs only to be released that it may fly to him for ever, far away in his castle beyond the sea.
This, with true dramatic skill, is the moment chosen by the poet for the arrival of her injured, generous, and forgiving lord—
"While she brooded thus,
And grew half guilty in her thoughts again,
There rode an armed warrior to the doors."
And now comes that grand scene of sorrow and penitence and pardon, for which this poem seems to me unequalled and alone.
Standing on the brink of an uncertainty more ghastly than death, for something tells him that he is now to lead his hosts in his last battle, and that the unearthly powers to whom he owes birth, fame, and kingdom, are about to reclaim him for their own, he stretches the hands of free forgiveness, as it were, from the other world.
How short, in the face of doom so imminent, so inevitable, appears that span of life, in which so much has been accomplished! Battles have been fought, victories gained, a kingdom established, a bulwark raised against the heathen, an example set to the whole of Christendom, and yet it seems but yesterday
"They found a naked child upon the sands
Of wild Dundagil by the Cornish sea,
And that was Arthur."
Now in the height of glory, in the fulfilment of duty, in the prime of manhood, such sorrows have overtaken him, as must needs whisper their prophetic warning that his task is done, and it is time to go. Where, he sees not, cares not. True to himself and his knighthood, he is ready now, as always, to follow the path of honour, wherever it may lead, and meet unflinching
"Death, or I know not what mysterious doom."
Arthur, dethroned, ruined, heart-broken, mortally wounded, and unhorsed, will be no less Arthur than when on Badon Hill he stood
"High on a heap of slain, from spur to plume,
Red as the rising sun with heathen blood,"
and shouted victory with a great voice in the culminating triumph of his glory.
For him too at this supreme moment the master-passion asserts its sway, and even that great soul thrills to its centre with the love that has been wasted for half a life-time on her who is only now awaking to a consciousness of its worth. He cannot leave her for ever without bidding farewell to his guilty queen. So riding through the misty night to the convent where she has taken refuge, he looks his last in this world on her from whom in his great loyalty of affection neither her past disgrace nor his own approaching death shall part him for ever. With that instinct of pure love which clings to a belief in its eternity, he charges her to cleanse her soul with repentance and sustain her hopes with faith, that
"Hereafter in that world where all are pure
We two may meet before high God, and thou
Wilt Spring to me, and claim me thine, and know
I am thine husband."
Thus, with all his soul flowing to his lips, this grand heroic nature blesses the guilty woman, grovelling in the dust, and moves off stately and unflinching to confront the doom of Fate.
Then, true to the yearning nature of her sex, yearning ever with keenest longings for the lost and the impossible, Guinevere leaps to her feet, the tide of a new love welling up in her wayward heart, fierce, cruel, and irresistible because it must be henceforth. utterly hopeless and forlorn. With her own hand she has put away her own happiness; and what happiness it might have been she feels too surely, now that no power on earth can ever make it hers again!
Oh! for one word more from the kind, forgiving voice! Oh! for one look in the brave, clear, guileless face! But no. It is never to be. Never, never more! She rushes indeed to the casement, but Arthur is already mounted and bending from the saddle, to give directions for her safety and her comfort.
"So she did not see the face,
Which then was as an angel, but she saw—
Wet with the mists and smitten by the lights—
The dragon of the great Pendragon-ship
Blaze, making all the night a steam of fire.
And even then he turned; and more and more
The moony vapours rolling round the king.
Who seemed the phantom of a giant in it,
Enwound him, fold by fold, and made him gray
And grayer, till himself became as mist
Before her, moving ghostlike to his doom."
"I think I like it better without your explanations and remarks," observed Bones. "There is a proverb, my friend, about 'refined gold,' and 'the lily,' that you would do well to remember. Hang it! man, do you think nobody understands or appreciates poetry but yourself?"
Perhaps I have over-aired him lately; but it seems to me that Bones is a good deal "above himself." If I can only get him back into the cupboard, I have more than half a mind to lock him up for good and all.
ROBSON AND SONS, PRINTERS, PANCRAS ROAD, N.W.