Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

shall say as little as possible, till we have leisure to recommend a pretty free use of the sponge. That which has happened at the Vandal court, however, leads to other events, which are well managed, and which bear closely on the subsequent progress of the tale.

Arthur, pursuing his journey, sleeps in a desolate forest, near the roofless temple of some old Teutonic creed, in which Faul, the priestly chief of a wandering Aleman horde, watches to seize and sacrifice a predicted enemy of heathenism. The King rescues the assassin from a wolf, binds up his wounds, and teaches him the heavenly lessons of love and forgiveness. The savage idolater bows in reverence to the agent of Divine Benevolence, and, with his band, follows at a distance to protect him from threatened danger.

They have soon an opportunity of saving his life. Harold, a Mercian earl, having been sent to ask for the alliance of the Vandal prince, in an invasion of Wales, which was about to be undertaken by Crida the King of Mercia, has pursued Arthur in the hope of making him captive. Harold, who becomes an important personage towards the close of the poem, is here made known to us with noble and generous attributes; and we are also now first informed what the danger was which immediately threatened the Cymrians, and which was to be averted by Arthur's acquisition of the enchanted gifts.

But from the quest of these he is drawn aside by the fascinations of the Happy Valley. This part of the story, occupying nearly three of the twelve Books of the poem, is full of classically beautiful scenery, and touching tenderness of feeling. At first we are apt to suppose it merely episodical. Yet, it is not really so. The external connexion is, indeed, somewhat slight; but, as a poetical representation of one of the steps in the evolution of Arthur's character, the adventure has a significance, in respect of which the conception of it does seem to us to be one of the finest thoughts embraced in the design.

In the long-past days of early Rome, a fugitive colony of Etruscans had found shelter in a romantic valley, deep in the recesses of the Alps. There, shutting themselves up from all intercourse with those without, they had preserved the serenity of an ideally rural life, unimpaired even in the dark ages which had now arrived, when all Europe besides was agitated with the throes of a new life. Into this Happy Valley, however, state-policy had found its way, veiling itself under the forms of an effete religious system. The sovereignty is hereditary; the ruling family survives only in the person of the young queen Ægle; and, in obedience to time-honoured prece

dents, the continuance of the royal line is to be secured by the admission of a foreign bridegroom, who is to enter the valley through one of its two gates, and is afterwards to be dismissed to death through the other.

6

Arthur has heard from Faul, his Aleman convert, a wild tradition, leading him to believe that in the southern regions of Europe should be sought the phantom and the bark,' by whose aid he is to reach the forest beneath the waters, and gain the talismanic sword. The Dove, too, has flown invitingly before him, when, leaving the Aleman, he travels towards Italy. He arrives at the entrance of the Happy Valley, is allured to enter, and conducted to the Maiden Queen. There, sitting at the feet of the artless Egle, he forgets, during months of pure and gentle happiness, the mandate which had consecrated him as the champion of his mountain-land. If he thinks at all of home, or remembers duty, conscience is hushed by the sweet hope of teaching to the innocent daughter of the Rasena, the faith which grew up amidst the palms of Palestine.

At this point there is a temptation to quote profusely. And a few stanzas must be given, at all events, as specimens, both of the style of the poem in its passages of serious repose, and of the manner in which it interweaves imagery and sentiment: 'Before them, at the distance, o'er the blue

[ocr errors]

Of the sweet waves which girt the rosy isle,
Flitted light shapes the inwoven alleys through;
Remotely mellowed, musical the while,
Floated the hum of voices, and the sweet
Lutes chimed with timbrels to dim glancing feet.

The calm swan rested on the breathless glass
Of dreamy waters; and the snow-white steer
Near the opposing margin, motionless,

Stood, knee deep, gazing wistful on its clear
And life-like shadow, shimmering deep and far,
Where on the lucid darkness fell the star.

Light as the soul, whose archetype it was,

The Genius touched, yet spurned, the pedestal;

Behind, the foliage, in its purple mass,

Shut out the flushed horizon. Clasping all,
Nature's hushed giants stood, to guard and girth
The only home of peace upon the earth.

She spoke of youth's lost years, so lone before,
And, coming to the present, paused and blushed:
As if Time's wing were spell-bound evermore,

And Life, the restless, in that hour were hushed:

The pause, the blush, said, more than words, " And thou
Art found!-thou lovest me!-Fate is powerless now!"
'That hand in his- that heart his own entwining

With its life's tendrils,-youth his pardoner be,
If in his heaven no loftier star were shining-

If round that haven boom'd unheard the sea-
If in the wreath forgot the thorny crown,
And the harsh duties of severe renown.

Now, as Night gently deepens round them, while
Oft to the moon upturn their happy eyes-
Still, hand in hand, they range the lulled isle:
Air knows no breeze, scarce sighing to their sighs;
No bird of night shrieks bode from drowsy trees;
Nought lives between them and the Pleïades;
'Save where the moth strains to the moon its wing,
Deeming the Reachless near:- -the prophet race
Of the cold stars forewarned them not; the Ring
Of great Orion, who for the embrace

:

Of Morn's sweet Maid had died, look'd calm above
The last unconscious hours of human love.'

(Book iv.)

The dream of youth is abruptly broken. There alights beside Arthur a raven, the well-known messenger of Merlin. A scroll tied to its wing is reluctantly unrolled:

'And these the words: "Weak Loiterer from thy toil!
The Saxon's march is on thy father's soil!"

'Bounded the Prince!-As when the sudden sun
Looses the ice-chains on the halted rill,

Smites the dumb snow-mass, and the cataracts run
In molten thunder down the clanging hill;
So from his heart the fetters burst; and strong
In its rough course the great soul rush'd along.'

Vast precipices make escape impossible, except through the shut and guarded gates. He demands dismissal from the priest; who at length, in phrases studiously ambiguous, promises that, if Ægle consents, his wish shall be granted. He hurries to his promised bride, pours forth his tale with headlong vehemence, and vows by the honour of knighthood to return and claim her when his father-land is free.

'Dim through her struggling sense the light came slow,
Struck from those words of fire. Alas, poor child!
What, in thine isle of roses, shouldst thou know

[blocks in formation]

"Thou bid'st me trust thee! - This is my reply:
Trust is my life—to trust thee is to live!
And ev'n farewell less bitter than thy sigh

For something Egle is too poor to give.
Thou speak'st of dread and terror, strife and woe;
And I might wonder why they tempt thee so;
'And I might ask how more can mortals please

The heavens, than thankful to enjoy the earth:
But through its mist my soul, though faintly, sees
Where thine sweeps on beyond this mountain girth : .
And, awed and dazzled, bending I confess

Life may have holier ends than happiness!"

Then, as she felt his tears upon her hand,

Sorrow woke sorrow; and her face she bow'd:
As when the silver gates of heaven expand,
And on the earth descends the melting cloud,
So sunk the spirit from sublimer air,
And all the woman rushed on her despair.

"To lose thee oh, to lose thee! To live on

And see the sun, not thee! Will the sun shine,
Will the birds sing, flowers bloom, when thou art gone?
Desolate desolate! Thy right hand in mine,
Swear, by the Past, thou wilt return! - Oh, say,
Say it again!" Voice died in sobs away!

(Book iv.)

The pressing need for Arthur's return to England is now exhibited through a short scene in Carduel. Merlin announces the speedy approach of the Saxon host: the beacons are lighted from hill to hill; and preparations are made to concentrate the force of the kingdom for the defence of the city. In the council hall of the Cymrians are seated the Twelve Knights of the heroic Table; the three chiefs of council, the three of war, the three of eloquence, and the three knights of love. Most of the names are taken from the Welsh, not the Norman sources; and this, by the way, with the repeated use of the mystical number three, appears to be nearly the sum of the author's obligations to the Triads and the Mabinogion. In the descriptions of these knights, - which, though spirited, are neither very poetical nor very characteristic,we ought, as we are assured, to recognise portraits of modern English statesmen and warriors. But we have neither patience nor ingenuity for reading such riddles; and we do fret a little at being called away, to parliamentary debates in Westminster, from the approaching catastrophe of the romance of the Etruscan valley.

-

The Augur, having conducted Arthur into the dark recesses of the Temple of the Shades, sternly points out, as the only means of egress, a raft floating on a lurid stream, which flows

swiftly into a cavern, whence is heard the portentous roar of falling waters. Arthur, seizing a torch, leaps on the raft, and drifts along the torrent. The Dove, unseen during his repose of love, has now, in his hour of peril, returned to nestle on his breast. Fluttering before him through the rocky vault, she guides him to a path by which he may escape. But Egle, awaking from a swoon, has rushed to the temple, has seen the raft entering the darkness, and has thrown herself into the stream: her pale face gleams from the surface as she is swept past; and her lover plunges in and grasps her. They are precipitated together down the stupendous cataract, and cast ashore at its foot.

Near this spot, by the banks of a mountain Lake, lingers Lancelot, who had been dispatched by Merlin, and led southward by a magic ring, which now refuses to guide him farther. The Dove, already heard of in his wanderings as the king's companion, flies to his side; and he follows it to the place where the lovers lie,Arthur senseless, and Egle dead! In one and the same hour, the Etruscan maidens in the Valley celebrate, in fanciful song, the carrying away of their queen by a god that had loved her; and in a grey convent on the bank of the Lake, Christian monks are chaunting a beautiful hymn over her corpse on the happiness of the soul, when angels take the young.

Arthur mourns over Egle's grave; while Lancelot soothes, and the Dove caresses, unheeded. But Lancelot had heard from the king the secret of his triple quest; and he, the fairy-nursling, had the power of discerning fairy-forms that were invisible to others. Now when, through the breathless night-air, the moonlight shines upon the glassy lake, the knight discovers, gliding like mist along the water, the phantom and the bark.' Arthur sees nothing, till the Dove comes, carrying in its beak a leaf from the grave of the dead. Then he remembers the words of Merlin, describing the charm which was to reveal the Lake that hid the sword. He receives the bitter treasure;' and straightway he beholds the Phantom Lady, and the land blooming beneath the waters.

The first of the three adventures is now begun. It may be well that, before watching the course of it and the rest, we collect a few of the poet's scattered hints, both as to the import which these are designed to convey, and as to the relation between them and the incidents that have already been exhibited to us.

The quest of the talismanic gifts evidently represents poetically the probation and development of Arthur's character. By that quest he is to approve himself worthy of being the defender of his country, the founder of a race of kings, and the

« AnteriorContinuar »