Tristram

A poem by Matthew Arnold

Tristram

Is she not come? The messenger was sure.
Prop me upon the pillows once again
Raise me, my page! this cannot long endure.
Christ, what a night! how the sleet whips the pane!
What lights will those out to the northward be?

The Page

The lanterns of the fishing-boats at sea.

Tristram

Soft who is that, stands by the dying fire?

The Page

Iseult.

Tristram

Ah! not the Iseult I desire.
. . . . .
What Knight is this so weak and pale,
Though the locks are yet brown on his noble head,
Propt on pillows in his bed,
Gazing seaward for the light
Of some ship that fights the gale
On this wild December night?
Over the sick man’s feet is spread
A dark green forest-dress;
A gold harp leans against the bed,
Ruddy in the fire’s light.
I know him by his harp of gold,
Famous in Arthur’s court of old;
I know him by his forest-dress
The peerless hunter, harper, knight
Tristram of Lyoness.

What Lady is this, whose silk attire
Gleams so rich in the light of the fire?
The ringlets on her shoulders lying
In their flitting lustre vying
With the clasp of burnish’d gold
Which her heavy robe doth hold.
Her looks are mild, her fingers slight
As the driven snow are white;
But her cheeks are sunk and pale.
Is it that the bleak sea-gale
Beating from the Atlantic sea
On this coast of Brittany,
Nips too keenly the sweet flower?
Is it that a deep fatigue
Hath come on her, a chilly fear,
Passing all her youthful hour
Spinning with her maidens here,
Listlessly through the window-bars
Gazing seawards many a league,
From her lonely shore-built tower,
While the knights are at the wars?
Or, perhaps, has her young heart
Felt already some deeper smart,
Of those that in secret the heart-strings rive,
Leaving her sunk and pale, though fair?
Who is this snowdrop by the sea?
I know her by her mildness rare,
Her snow-white hands, her golden hair;
I know her by her rich silk dress,
And her fragile loveliness
The sweetest Christian soul alive,
Iseult of Brittany.

Iseult of Brittany? but where
Is that other Iseult fair,
That proud, first Iseult, Cornwall’s queen?
She, whom Tristram’s ship of yore
From Ireland to Cornwall bore,
To Tyntagel, to the side
Of King Marc, to be his bride?
She who, as they voyaged, quaff’d
With Tristram that spiced magic draught,
Which since then for ever rolls
Through their blood, and binds their souls,
Working love, but working teen?
There were two Iseults who did sway
Each her hour of Tristram’s day;
But one possess’d his waning time,
The other his resplendent prime.
Behold her here, the patient flower,
Who possess’d his darker hour!
Iseult of the Snow-White Hand
Watches pale by Tristram’s bed.
She is here who had his gloom,
Where art thou who hadst his bloom?
One such kiss as those of yore
Might thy dying knight restore!
Does the love-draught work no more?
Art thou cold, or false, or dead,
Iseult of Ireland?

Loud howls the wind, sharp patters the rain,
And the knight sinks back on his pillows again.
He is weak with fever and pain,
And his spirit is not clear.
Hark! he mutters in his sleep,
As he wanders far from here,
Changes place and time of year,
And his closéd eye doth sweep
O’er some fair unwintry sea,
Not this fierce Atlantic deep,
While he mutters brokenly:

Tristram

The calm sea shines, loose hang the vessel’s sails;
Before us are the sweet green fields of Wales,
And overhead the cloudless sky of May.
“Ah, would I were in those green fields at play,
Not pent on ship-board this delicious day!
Tristram, I pray thee, of thy courtesy,
Reach me my golden phial stands by thee,
But pledge me in it first for courtesy. ”
Ha! dost thou start? are thy lips blanch’d like mine?
Child, ’tis no true draught this, ’tis poison’d wine!
Iseult!. . . .
. . . . .
Ah, sweet angels, let him dream!
Keep his eyelids! let him seem
Not this fever-wasted wight
Thinn’d and paled before his time,
But the brilliant youthful knight
In the glory of his prime,
Sitting in the gilded barge,
At thy side, thou lovely charge,
Bending gaily o’er thy hand,
Iseult of Ireland!
And she too, that princess fair,
If her bloom be now less rare,
Let her have her youth again
Let her be as she was then!
Let her have her proud dark eyes,
And her petulant quick replies
Let her sweep her dazzling hand
With its gesture of command,
And shake back her raven hair
With the old imperious air!
As of old, so let her be,
That first Iseult, princess bright,
Chatting with her youthful knight
As he steers her o’er the sea,
Quitting at her father’s will
The green isle where she was bred,
And her bower in Ireland,
For the surge-beat Cornish strand;
Where the prince whom she must wed
Dwells on loud Tyntagel’s hill
High above the sounding sea.
And that potion rare her mother
Gave her, that her future lord,
Gave her, that King Marc and she,
Might drink it on their marriage-day,
And for ever love each other
Let her, as she sits on board,
Ah, sweet saints, unwittingly!
See it shine, and take it up,
And to Tristram laughing say:
“Sir Tristram, of thy courtesy,
Pledge me in my golden cup!”
Let them drink it let their hands
Tremble, and their cheeks be flame,
As they feel the fatal bands
Of a love they dare not name,
With a wild delicious pain,
Twine about their hearts again!
Let the early summer be
Once more round them, and the sea
Blue, and o’er its mirror kind
Let the breath of the May-wind,
Wandering through their drooping sails,
Die on the green fields of Wales!
Let a dream like this restore
What his eye must see no more!

Tristram

Chill blows the wind, the pleasaunce-walks are drear
Madcap, what jest was this, to meet me here?
Were feet like those made for so wild a way?
The southern winter-parlour, by my fay,
Had been the likeliest trysting-place to-day!
“Tristram! nay, nay thou must not take my hand!
Tristram! sweet love! we are betray’d out-plann’d.
Fly save thyself save me! I dare not stay.”
One last kiss first! “’Tis vain to horse away!”
. . . . .
Ah! sweet saints, his dream doth move
Faster surely than it should,
From the fever in his blood!
All the spring-time of his love
Is already gone and past,
And instead thereof is seen
Its winter, which endureth still
Tyntagel on its surge-beat hill,
The pleasaunce-walks, the weeping queen,
The flying leaves, the straining blast,
And that long, wild kiss their last.
And this rough December-night,
And his burning fever-pain,
Mingle with his hurrying dream,
Till they rule it, till he seem
The press’d fugitive again,
The love-desperate banish’d knight
With a fire in his brain
Flying o’er the stormy main.
Whither does he wander now?
Haply in his dreams the wind
Wafts him here, and lets him find
The lovely orphan child again
In her castle by the coast;
The youngest, fairest chatelaine,
Whom this realm of France can boast,
Our snowdrop by the Atlantic sea,
Iseult of Brittany.
And for through the haggard air,
The stain’d arms, the matted hair
Of that stranger-knight ill-starr’d,
There gleam’d something, which recall’d
The Tristram who in better days
Was Launcelot’s guest at Joyous Gard
Welcom’d here, and here install’d,
Tended of his fever here,
Haply he seems again to move
His young guardian’s heart with love;
In his exil’d loneliness,
In his stately, deep distress,
Without a word, without a tear.
Ah! ’tis well he should retrace
His tranquil life in this lone place;
His gentle bearing at the side
Of his timid youthful bride;
His long rambles by the shore
On winter-evenings, when the roar
Of the near waves came, sadly grand,
Through the dark, up the drown’d sand,
Or his endless reveries
In the woods, where the gleams play
On the grass under the trees,
Passing the long summer’s day
Idle as a mossy stone
In the forest-depths alone,
The chase neglected, and his hound
Couch’d beside him on the ground.
Ah! what trouble’s on his brow?
Hither let him wander now;
Hither, to the quiet hours
Pass’d among these heaths of ours
By the grey Atlantic sea;
Hours, if not of ecstasy,
From violent anguish surely free!

Tristram

All red with blood the whirling river flows,
The wide plain rings, the dazed air throbs with blows.
Upon us are the chivalry of Rome
Their spears are down, their steeds are bathed in foam.
“Up, Tristram, up,” men cry, “thou moonstruck knight!
What foul fiend rides thee? On into the fight!”
Above the din her voice is in my ears
I see her form glide through the crossing spears.
Iseult!. . . .
. . . . .
Ah! he wanders forth again;
We cannot keep him; now, as then,
There’s a secret in his breast
That will never let him rest.
These musing fits in the green wood
They cloud the brain, they dull the blood!
His sword is sharp his horse is good
Beyond the mountains will he see
The famous towns of Italy,
And label with the blessed sign
The heathen Saxons on the Rhine.
At Arthur’s side he fights once more
With the Roman Emperor.
There’s many a gay knight where he goes
Will help him to forget his care;
The march the leaguer Heaven’s blithe air
The neighing steeds the ringing blows
Sick pining comes not where these are.
Ah! what boots it, that the jest
Lightens every other brow,
What, that every other breast
Dances as the trumpets blow,
If one’s own heart beats not light
On the waves of the toss’d fight,
If oneself cannot get free
From the clog of misery?
Thy lovely youthful Wife grows pale
Watching by the salt sea-tide
With her children at her side
For the gleam of thy white sail.
Home, Tristram, to thy halls again!
To our lonely sea complain,
To our forests tell thy pain!

Tristram

All round the forest sweeps off, black in shade,
But it is moonlight in the open glade;
And in the bottom of the glade shine clear
The forest-chapel and the fountain near.
I think, I have a fever in my blood;
Come, let me leave the shadow of this wood,
Ride down, and bathe my hot brow in the flood.
Mild shines the cold spring in the moon’s clear light;
God! ’tis her face plays in the waters bright
“Fair love,” she says, “canst thou forget so soon,
At this soft hour, under this sweet moon?”
Iseult!. . . .
. . . . .
Ah, poor soul! if this be so,
Only death can balm thy woe.
The solitudes of the green wood
Had no medicine for thy mood;
The rushing battle clear’d thy blood
As little as did solitude.
Ah! his eyelids slowly break
Their hot seals, and let him wake;
What new change shall we now see?
A happier? Worse it cannot be.

Tristram

Is my page here? Come, turn me to the fire!
Upon the window-panes the moon shines bright;
The wind is down but she’ll not come to-night.
Ah no she is asleep in Cornwall now,
Far hence her dreams are fair smooth is her brow.
Of me she recks not, nor my vain desire.
I have had dreams, I have had dreams, my page,
Would take a score years from a strong man’s age;
And with a blood like mine, will leave, I fear,
Scant leisure for a second messenger.
My princess, art thou there? Sweet, ’tis too wait!
To bed, and sleep: my fever is gone by:
To-night my page shall keep me company.
Where do the children sleep? kiss them for me!
Poor child, thou art almost as pale as I;
This comes of nursing long and watching late.
To bed good night!
. . . . .
She left the gleam-lit fireplace,
She came to the bed-side;
She took his hands in hers her tears
Down on his wasted fingers rain’d.
She raised her eyes upon his face
Not with a look of wounded pride,
A look as if the heart complained:
Her look was like a sad embrace;
The gaze of one who can divine
A grief, and sympathise.
Sweet flower! thy children’s eyes
Are not more innocent than thine.
But they sleep in shelter’d rest,
Like helpless birds in the warm nest,
On the castle’s southern side;
Where feebly comes the mournful roar
Of buffeting wind and surging tide
Through many a room and corridor.
Full on their window the Moon’s ray
Makes their chamber as bright as day.
It shines upon the blank white walls,
And on the snowy pillow falls,
And on two angel-heads doth play
Turn’d to each other the eyes clos’d
The lashes on the cheeks repos’d.
Round each sweet brow the cap close-set
Hardly lets peep the golden hair;
Through the soft-open’d lips the air
Scarcely moves the coverlet.
One little wandering arm is thrown
At random on the counterpane,
And often the fingers close in haste
As if their baby-owner chased
The butterflies again.
This stir they have, and this alone;
But else they are so still!
Ah, tired madcaps! you lie still;
But were you at the window now,
To look forth on the fairy sight
Of your illumined haunts by night,
To see the park-glades where you play
Far lovelier than they are by day,
To see the sparkle on the eaves,
And upon every giant-bough
Of those old oaks, whose wet red leaves
Are jewell’d with bright drops of rain
How would your voices run again!
And far beyond the sparkling trees
Of the castle park one sees
The bare heaths spreading, clear as day,
Moor behind moor, far, far away,
Into the heart of Brittany.
And here and there, lock’d by the land,
Long inlets of smooth glittering sea,
And many a stretch of watery sand
All shining in the white moon-beams
But you see fairer in your dreams!

What voices are these on the clear night-air?
What lights in the court? what steps on the stair?

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