The Ballad of Elaine…

In Memory of Tomas’ lovely Anka…

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The Ballad of Elaine…




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The Ballad of Elaine – by Sydney Fowler Wright

“What would ye that I did?” said Sir Lancelot.

“I would have you to my husband,” said Elaine.

“Fair damosel, I thank you,” said Sir Lancelot,

“but truly,” said he, “I cast me never to be wedded man.”

“Then, fair knight,” said she, “will ye be my paramour?”

“Jesu defend me,” said Sir Lancelot, “for then I

rewarded your father and your brother full evil

for their great goodness.”

“Alas,” said she, “then must I die for your love.”

Le Morte D’Arthur.

Book XVIII Chap. XIX.


She came when evening came, – her feet

The cool grass comforted, –

Where love through morn and noon-day heat

Her seeking steps had led

To him who had no love for her,

And nigh whose life was dead.

Lone through the lengthened days he lay

Within that hermit’s cave,

Since, on the fatal tourney day,

So deep the lancehead drave

It seemed nor any skill could heal,

Nor any love could save.

Was closed that riven hurt where-through

The restless life had drained.

No more the aching wound he knew,

No more its healing pained.

Quiet in the shadowed cave he lay,

As one whose goal was gained.

Only he would for speech with him

To whom in life he clave,

The good knight Bors, whose lance too well

That wound unweening gave,

That he might ere his parting tell

How well his heart forgave.

“Damsel, my space of days is sped,

I wot God’s night is near,

But could’st thou hold my life,” he said,

“Till that good knight is here,

You might not ask so great a thing

That you should ask in fear.”

“I’ll ask one boon of God’s Mother,

Ere aught I’ll ask of thee.

I’ll ask one gift of God’s Mother,

That she should grant it me,

Though needly at the feet of God

She lay my life in fee.”

She searched that closing wound anew,

Its utter depth she learned.

She dressed it with the skill she knew,

With herbs that waked and burned,

Till where the dying life withdrew

Its aching pain returned.

The changing day was night without,

The changing night was day.

Through the long hours with life in doubt

In ever pain he lay.

Only the weary day was night:

Only the night was day.

And still her constant watch she kept,

And gained nor glance nor word,

And still her constant prayer she wept

Till Mary Virgin heard,

And then in quiet ease he slept,

And then from sleep he stirred.

“Damsel, a lightsome dream was mine:

A dream of truth, I ween.

I saw that good knight’s harness shine

The singing shaws between.

I pray thee look thou forth a space,

He should not pass unseen.”

She said, “The bending shaws above

A goodly knight I view.

His helm it bears no lady’s glove,

No plume is trailed thereto;

His shield hath but a small white dove,

That soareth in the blue;

He rideth as thy kinsmen ride;

He cometh close hereto.”

They heard the stamping hooves anear,

They heard the ringing bit,

They heard his voice the charger cheer

As that good knight alit.

Before the low cave-entrance trod

Sir Bors de Ganis, knight of God,

And stooping entered it.

Beside the lowly couch he knelt

In grief he might not stay,

Whose hand the deathful thrust had dealt

On that sad tourney day,

The chief of his great House to see,

Whom most of mortal men loved he,

How reft of strength he lay.

“Lancelot, there may no grief atone

The woeful chance,” he said,

“That deeming from a knight unknown

Our gathered Table fled,

Late ere the ceasing trump was blown,

The fatal charge I led.

But not thy changed arms had missed

Thy comrades used of yore

Their lord in any guise to wist,

But that red sleeve you bore:

A damsel’s favour down the list,

Thy never wont before.”

“Good friend, for nought you mourn,” he said,

“The day for grief is done.

My life, that sought the silent dead,

This damsel’s care hath won,

And days are mine that had not been,

And other life begun.

Whate’er device of pride I hid,

In fameless guise to shine,

My boast thy better lance fordid.

For that sure thrust of thine

That drave the brittle point unbent,

May rest you in good heart content:

My folly’s price is mine.

But speak what outer chance hath been

While here my life hath lain,

Withholding nought thine eyes have seen,

For either peace or pain.

For thou hast known the Grail of God,

Where that is false is vain.”

“When wounded from the lists you drew,

And no man marked thy way,

Forthright the ceasing trumpet blew,

The dying strife to stay,

As Arthur charged, alone who knew

Thy questioned name to say.

And spake the King for all that would

To seek thee wide and near.

Eager from noble heart he spake,

Who loves thee for thy glory’s sake,

The while that Guenevere,

Entreated half, and half forbid,

As half in fear her wrath she hid,

And half in wrath her fear.

From those who rode thy fate to trace

Lord Gawain first returned.

At Guildford, from thy biding place,

Thy present need he learned,

But brought he from his halting there

Such word of damsel; worth and fair,

Who gave thee that red sleeve to wear,

That little thank he earned.

For when I spoke my thought aloud

That hither ride would I,

(Her wrath it was a waiting cloud

Where the still thunders lie),

Thy queen in bitter speech aside

Forgiveness of thy fault denied,

Yea, though the race of kind had died,

Until ye twain should die.”


NOT God shall stay the ending day

That closeth dole or good.

With guerdon earned for life returned,

At parting hour they stood.

To right the way the downland lay,

To left the hawthorn wood.

“Damsel there is no gold to give

The price of life shall pay,

But speak you all your heart,” he said,

“And in such things I may,

To serve thee is my part,” he said,

“It is but thine to say.”

“If I have won thy life,” she said,

“I will no gold in fee.

Except our willing hearts were wed,

There were no gain for me.

Men speak me for the fairest maid

From Guildford to the sea, –

I would no sooner flower should fade

If all be nought to thee.”

“Damsel, the bitter boon you would

I may not grant,” said he,

“Since by the heavy doom of God

The Grail I might not see,

I know till all my path be trod

A wrought sin clingeth me,

And I am nothing worth to God,

Nor fitting mate for thee.”

“If word of quick, or word of dead,

Or word of God Most High,

Should speak thee any shame,” she said,

“Or any worth deny,

In this thing were it shown,” she said,

“That very God could lie.”

“I may not change my word,” said he,

“Though well in heart I wot,

My grief before the throne of God

Shall be I loved thee not.”

“But there,” she said, “my boast shall be

That I loved Lancelot.”

“My Benoic lands are large,” he said,

“My sword is strong to friend;

My lands were thine to take,” he said,

“My wealth were thine to spend,

But well I wot such gifts as these

Were nought for love’s amend

The small dust of the balances

God brushes ere the end.”

“I’ll ask no holding bond to share,

“No lengthened price to pay.

My life is thine to take,” she said,

“Is thine to cast away.

The day thy love shall tire,” she said,

“Shall be our parting day,

And I will bless thy name in prayer,

Yea, before God, alway.”

“I will not waste thy life,” he said,

“God put it far from me.

Not any strain of strife,” he said,

“No sin that clingeth me,

Should close me from the courts of God

As this you speak should be,

The clean gift of thy love to take,

Who have no love for thee.

There is no woe of mortal kind

But God may cease,” he said,

“Believe, thy later days shall find

A better knight to wed,

And leave me in thy life behind,

As having loved the dead.”

She had no further hope to plead,

No other word to say.

She turned beneath the hawthorn seed,

Where once had blown the may.

The may was white as innocence,

But dark as blood were they.

The meaning of this thing to rede

There is no man that may.

But slow she clomb the upward way,

And slow she toiled the flat.

Nought saw she where her footsteps lay,

No word her heart forgat.

So won she at the fail of day

The towers of Astolat.

No more to meet the morn she rose,

No more she sought the sun,

But while she lay in wearihed,

And while she walked as one

Whose soul a living corse had shed,

Whose use of days was done.

“Bethink thy gentle birth,” they said,

“Bethink thy virgin name.

A love to seek unsought,” they said,

“There is no greater shame.

Would God that treasoned knight had died,

Ere to these lonely towers aside

To work our grief he came.”

But hotly in his sisters plea

Spake the young knight, Lavaine,

“What use in reasoned speech may be,

In urging customs vain?

For they that noble knight who see,

The nobler that themselves they be,

They love him to the like degree,

And are not whole again.

Myself since that red dusk of day

When here in hall he stood,

I have but thought to seek his way,

Nor other life I would,

Save but to serve his need alway,

For evil days or good.”

She said, “What God hath in me wrought,

That shall not God deny.

The noblest of my kind I sought.

And no way shamed am I,

Though love be given in gain of nought,

And glad of grief I die.

But you shall bear and lay me dead

The river barge within,

And tire it as the bridal bed

Of maid of loftiest kin,

For this way shall I gain,” she said,

“That only death should win.

Shall be one silent hand to steer

Down the still stream and wide,

Until the palace walls appear,

That rise in terraced marble sheer

From the full waterside;

And he shall turn his course anear,

And wait what things betide.”


LOOKED Arthur from a casement high,

O’er the long waterside.

He marked a black barge gliding by,

Down the full stream and wide;

And white as Mary’s lilies lie,

On the dark shrine when night is nigh,

And tired like a bride,

It seemed a sleeping damsel lay,

And while he watched await,

In marvel if some moonland fey

Besought a mortal mate,

The barge with steady lapse and slow

Turned to the watergate.

Then bade he two good knights anigh

That sleeping maid to meet,

And of her grace and courtesy

Her biding days entreat.

In haste of eager steps they sped,

But came they from that damsel dead

With slower-moving feet.

“None there,” they told, “for bridal sleeps,

But timeless tryst with death she keeps,

Nor showeth cause therefor,

Of violence in the wildwood ways,

Nor leaping plague that loathly slays,

Nor the slow feet of wasting days,

Nor wrong of rape or war.

But in the barge its course to steer,

There sits, and pointeth inward here,

A silent servitor.

No mortal maid thine eyes shall see,

Though the sweet life be there,

No damsel of the Southland sea,

Or lands where Freya’s daughters be,

Nor the fey-grace of Nimue,

More fainly formed and fair.”

Then to Brandiles spake the King

And Agravaine to inward bring

That wonder dole and rare.

Brandiles bent and Agravaine

That burden worth to bear,

Watched of the wonder-silenced throng

That leaned those terraced walls along,

And lined the shining stair.

For there, that marvelled sight to see,

Were dame and lord of most degree,

And chiefs of song and minstrelsy,

And knights in steel and cramoisie,

And gay-clad damsels fair.

No snowdrop of the breaking snows,

When the long snows delay;

Nor flower the sweet mid-season knows,

Wood-lilies white as they;

Nor fuller summer’s guelder-rose,

That falleth where the dogwood glows;

Nor the white chalice-flower that grows

In the green heart of May;

At lift of dawn or evenclose,

Unflawed than she or fairer shows,

As there in death she lay.

But Arthur marked a script secure

In the cold hand contained,

And spake he that its word be read.

“For haply shall it prove,” he said,

“That this way from the silent dead

Her living tale be gained,

By those with swords to venge her wrong,

If craft or guile or treason strong,

Or darker powers that night belong,

Her blossomed life have baned.”

Was silence while the scroll was read,

“Lo, that Elaine am I

Whose tourney sleeve Sir Lancelot wore,

Whose rootless hope was high,

And in reverse of heart therefor

Of love rejected die.

For this may ladies all who hear,

And know my passing day,

Even from the high queen Guenevere,

And thou, Sir Lancelot, pray,

Who wast God’s knight without a peer,

And my good lord alway.”

“O Lancelot,” said the King, “is wrought

A seldom tale and sad.

If every ventured realm ye sought

You might no fairer bride have brought.

For the pure love she had

I would thine heart some grace had thought,

Awhile to make her glad;

For thee no vow to Heaven withheld,

Nor other bond forbad.”

And answered Lancelot, “Sooth ye say,

That treadeth earthly ground,

Or mortal maid or night-land fey,

There were no fairer found.

All else I gaged of gain or good,

But nought but of my love she would,

And love will not be bound.

And grieving o’er this damsel’s death,

And whence its cause should spring,

For her much love that witnesseth,

Appeal to God I bring,

That ne’er in open wrong have I

Distressed her that her life should die,

Or any secret thing.”

Then drew the high queen Guenevere,

(In green and gold was she),

Out from the silent throng more near

That damsels face to see.

She knew not if her heart were glad

That death had loosed her free,

Though well she knew the joy she had

His living love to be.

“Fair lord,” she said, “such grace was here,

That whom she sought to grant her cheer

There were but few to shun.

I would that in thine heart had lain

Such comfort of her longing fain

As had her death foredone.”

“O Queen,” he said, “such love she sought

To take or yield as no man ought,

Save of clean heart and single thought,

And other might I none.”

And Arthur answered, “Yea, perde,

Is none may speak thee nay,

There was no better end to be,

Nor any blame to say.

The High God’s thought is mystery,

It is no mortal’s way.

Yet were it to our worship seen,

This maid of noble heart and clean,

And worth as any here, I ween,

In the like ground to lay.”


THEY laid her in the holy ground

Where the dead kings are laid.

They wrote her tale her tomb around

That whoso knelt and prayed

Might join her name, who seeking fain

Earth’s best, when showed her seeking vain,

Returned her life to God again,

And was of nought afraid.

But in a privy tower they met,

His queen and Lancelot.

Of that dark place his life had dured,

Of whom unblest his hurt had cured,

Of aught but of his faith assured,

Sufficing, recked she not.

Should she not other’s death forget,

Who when wellnear its sun was set

Had love itself forgot?

“O Lancelot, in thy love,” she said,

“You will not bear it blame,

When wrong that flying sleeve I read,

And tale of whispers round me spread

That joined a lowlier name

To thine, whose faith was hereward plight,

I held thee nevermore my knight,

And scorn to in like scorn requite,

Although with little heart I might,

I spake thee wrath and shame.”

“O Queen,” he said, “my service still,

For any tale untrue,

Is thine for guerdon fair or ill,

Thy given hest to do;

In all who only would thy will,

As ever yet you knew.”

When weaker faith shall pardon need

Shall surer love forgive.

Was here her secret joy to plead,

His larger joy to give;

And yet beyond their ceasing day

A further hope may live

That when shall God his bounty share,

And none her meed shall lack,

Not she, that jealous queen and fair

Who brought his life to wrack,

Nor she, more worth, his babe who bare,

And died at Carbonac.

Allied in that new mystery,

Which none of earth may wot,

Rejoiced shall stand. But then shall He

Her nearer place allot,

Found kindred in the courts of God,

Elaine and Lancelot.

The End

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