Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, FRAGMENTS OF THE MASQUE OF GWENDOLEN, by REGINALD HEBER

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FRAGMENTS OF THE MASQUE OF GWENDOLEN, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Gwendolen: what forms are these?
Last Line: (loud thunder)
Subject(s): Arthurian Legend; Fairies; Merlin; Arthur, King; Elves

* * * * *

Enter two Goblins bearing a casket.

Gwendolen. What forms are these?
Goblin. Spirits of nether earth
Are we, and servants to the mighty Merlin,
From whom we bear these treasures to his bride.
Or ere the raven twice hath flapt her wing
He will himself be here.
Gwendolen. Good angels guard me!

Enter two Sylphs and two Sea Nymphs.


Nymphs of air and ancient sea,
Bridal gifts we bring to thee!
Lo these plumes of rich device,
Pluck'd from birds of paradise!
Lo, these drops of essence rare,
Shook from a wand'ring meteor's hair!
Nymphs of air and ancient sea,
Such the gifts we bring to thee!

Take these shells, approach them near,
And they shall murmur in thine ear
Tunes that lull the slumbering sea
More than mermaid's harmony!
Take these pearls, no diving-slave
Drags their like from ocean cave, --
Nymphs of air and ancient sea,
Such can only bring to thee.

Enter two Genii of Fire with a vase.
First Genius. Loveliest of mortal mould! distant we kneel,
Lest our hot breath should mar thy snowy skin,
Or scorch thy raven locks! We are of fire
The swarthy ministers, whose active heat
Is as the soul of earth and sea and air;
Who sow the seeds of gold, who give the diamond
Its eye of flame, and wake the carbuncle
To rival day. Of such strange alchemy
We bring thee tokens; and before thy feet
Bow down our crisped heads, and in the dust
Abase our terrors!
* * * *
* * * *

Merlin. Am I proud, who lay

Mine empire at thy feet? All thou hast seen
Are but the least of wonders. Toiling fiends
Shall sweat to work thy bidding, and their claws
Rend from the greedy earth its buried treasure,
And drag the deep for thee. The sylphs of air
Shall fan thy slumber, and their viewless harps
Pour on thy waking ear strange melody.
The elfin nations, with fresh herbs and flowers,
Shall in thy chambers keep perennial spring;
And the wild mermaid sleek, with coral comb
Thy dark and perfumed tresses. Seek'st thou more?
More is in Merlin's power! Be thou my bride,
And I will place thee on a regal throne
Of solid adamant, hill above hill,
Ten furlongs high, to match whose altitude
Plinlimmon fails, and Idris' stony chair
Sinks like an infant's bauble; there, enshrin'd
A queen and goddess, shall the elements
Wait on thee, and the countless multitude
Of Genii worship thee supreme in hell!
I pause for thy reply.
Gwendolen. This then it is:
Thy power I know not, but thine art I know
For most unholy, and thy person hateful!
I own my folly, with remorse I own it,
Which play'd with such a visitor; but mine ears
Drank in thy wisdom, -- and it soothed my pride
To see the powers of magic tax'd for me,
And the strong features of a face like thine
Relaxing in my presence! This forgive me!
My last request! Nay look not thus on me,
Nor press my hand! I may not dally longer.

* * * *

Merlin. Ah, do not raise the fiend within my soul,
Nor arm, sweet petulance, against thyself
My worser nature! In this rugged breast
The heart which throbs is Etna's earthy fire,
Which, unprovok'd and slumbering in its strength,
Rejoiceth Ceres, and with fresher flowers
To Enna's valley lures back Proserpine:
But, if it burst its bounds, hath hellish mettle
Which is most dangerous! I was not made
To soothe a lady's scorn, or woo her lattice,
What time the cold moon on her garden bower
Flickers in silver whiteness, and the winds
Blend with mine amorous harp's sad lullaby.
My love or vengeance must be gratified. --
Wherefore, proud dame, I say to thee, Be wise!
In love unmatch'd, in hate unmatchable,
I have done that ere now which mine own eyes
Have wept to look upon. My Father's spirit
Is blent with mine, and schools me to such horrors!
Wherefore, I charge thee as thou lov'st thyself,
Be timely wise! One little moment more,
I feel the demon rush into my soul,
And prayer will then be vain! Be wise! Be wise!
Gwendolen. Oh horror, horror! Oh for leprosy
To scathe this fatal form! oh that the veil
Wherewith I shroud me from thy dreaded glance,
Were some wild thicket, some brake-tangled wood
Where this poor head might shelter, -- where no foot
Of man approacheth; that myself were made
A thing of loathing and of natural horror,
Such as is pain to look on! -- better so
Than thus to tempt thy wooing: take me, throw me
To the wild boar, or where the lioness
Seeks for her brindled young their human banquet;
Yea, rather marry me to death, and make
My bridal bed within the sepulchre,
Than bid me mount with thee thy guilty throne!
Merlin. Thy wish be on thine head, and thine own curse
Feed on thee till it waste thee! Exquisite maid;
Ev'n in the bitterness of my revenge
I love thy graceful passion! But my sire
Whose flames now burn within me, goads my purpose
To wittier malice! Shroud thee in thy veil,
Oh my fair enemy; -- for that withdrawn,
Thy face shall never win a suitor more!
Hear, spirits, hear! -- [Thunder.
I fix on thee
Curses, curses, one, two, three!
Fouler than a grandame ape,
Be thy features and thy shape;
Be thy face, so fresh and fair,
Worse than those of furies are;
Be thy snowy forehead dark,
And rougher than the maple bark;
In the greenwood range alone
Thy disastrous lot to moan;
Lion wild and bristly boar,
Let them fly thy face before;
And the wolves that round thee prowl,
More from fear than hunger howl;
As a thing most scorn'd and hated,
And with demons only mated,
Every kindly creature shun thee:
And this burden be upon thee,
Till a youth of form divine,
Sprung from Brutus' ancient line,
Of beauty careless, and delight,
Shall woo thee to the nuptial rite;
Shall his arms around thee twine,
Shall his warm lips press to thine,
And sign thee with the holy sign!
[Thunder. MERLIN sinks.

* * * *
* * * *

[GWENDOLEN asleep as transformed by MERLIN. Three Fairies
strewing flowers and leaves over her.


Rest thee on this mossy pillow
Till the morning light!
Softly wave this whispering willow
O'er thy bed to-night!
Every mortal grief forsake thee
As our drowsy spells o'ertake thee,
Nought from blessed sleep awake thee
Till the morning light!


Titania. Spirits, well done! for not of ruthless mood
Are we, the rangers of the nightly wood.
Where found ye this sad maid?
First Fairy. Down in yon dell
We found her, where the moonbeams brightest fell;
For Cynthia mark'd her with benignant eye,
And mourn'd, methought, a virgin's misery.
We mark'd her too, with what intense despair
She scatter'd on the winds her raven hair,
Invoking death: then with accurst intent
Of wilder madness, to the lake she went;
But, bending o'er its mirror, shriek'd to spy
In that wild glass her own deformity,
And fled apace. Anon, amid the brakes,
Like some pursued fawn a lair she makes,
And shrouding with her furry gown those eyes
Which not the curse of Merlin could disguise,
As at herself she trembled, till her grief
Found in a flood of gracious tears relief.
Titania. Poor wretch! ye soothed her, then?
First Fairy. Her tears we dried,
And pluck'd the brambles from her bleeding side;
O'er her hot brain a grateful vapour threw,
And sprinkled every limb with drowsy dew;
Then bore her slumb'ring to this green retreat,
And with star-jelly cool'd her blister'd feet,
And scatter'd every flower of purple dye,
And fann'd her rest with owlet's plumery.
Titania. Well have ye done! Sleep on, poor Gwendolen,
The hour of retribution is arrived,
And Merlin hath no longer power to harm. --
First Fairy. Is Merlin dead?
Titania. Ev'n now I heard the yell
Of ghastly merriment; in upper air
The fiends keep holiday. I knew their song,
A song of triumph: "Merlin is no more!
Merlin, the mighty one! Haste, haste to meet him,
Ye rulers of the damn'd, and open wide
Your everlasting gates, to entertain
The master of the spell! Such charms no more
Shall tax our labours till the final doom!"
First Fairy. How died he? Say --
Titania. By female wiles he fell.
She of the Lake, his elfin paramour,
Jealous of his late wanderings, -- in a tomb,
(First having won by sugar'd blandishment
From his dark soul the unutterable name
Which all things fear in hell, in earth and heaven,)
Inclosed the struggling wizard. Nine long nights
Within the rock the fairies heard him moan,
The tenth was silence!
First Fairy. May the merciless
Such fate meet ever! But, our Gwendolen,
Is she now free?
Titania. The Fates their course must have,
And Merlin's spells have power beyond the grave.
But Heaven, and those bright stars whose golden eyes
Behold the link of mortal destinies,
An equal lot of weal and woe prepare
To Harlech's virgin and to Albion's heir.
For this I came to shed a soft controul
Of Heavenly wisdom o'er her sleeping soul;
And bring to mind whate'er of secret lore
She from her wizard lover learnt before.
But soft, she stirs, -- our potent pharmacy
Has roused her dream, and oped her sealed eye.
Vanish, kind fays -- our forms she must not spy!
[GWENDOLEN awakes.
Gwendolen. Oh sacred hour of retribution,
Foredoom'd to dry the wretch's tear,
And rectify this dark confusion,
Of earthly sin and shame and fear;
And art thou then a fond delusion
Around our slumber hovering near,
Of Heavenly bliss a blest infusion
Too holy to be tasted here?
Oh, in my dreams I feel them, see them!
The days of bliss return again,
As victor angels tread beneath them,
The snare of fiends, the rage of men!
And evermore a sweet delusion
Above my slumber hovers near;
And tells of holy retribution,
And chides my doubt and soothes my fear:
I wake -- and all is dark and drear.
The oak wood rustles overhead;
The aspen sheds its foliage sere
Upon my wild and dewy bed:
Before the melancholy blast
Autumnal clouds are driving fast;
For canopy of state I see
The white moon glimmering through the tree;
I tremble as with woman fear
The wolf's approaching howl I hear;
In sickening doubt I turn mine eyes
From mine own self thus hideous grown;
And, ranging, in this goblin guise,
The thorny brake, unseen, unknown,
I curse my sleep, whose magic power
Hath mock'd with bliss my hopeless heart,
And trebly curse my waking hour,
Which bade that fancied bliss depart;
And doubt, so quick the changes seem,
If this or that were all a dream.
Alas! how know we which is true,
The night or day, the sun or shade,
The forms which glide in long review,
Before our eyes in slumber laid,
Or those our waking scenes renew?
Was it a dream that Harlech's hall
Received my wandering steps again,
As throbb'd my heart at rapture's call,
More rapt'rous from remember'd pain!
On my cold cheek in joyful thrill,
My brother's tear, I feel it still;
And, closer to my heart than he,
The youth's warm kiss who set me free!
Was this a dream? or, dream I now,
Of mourning weeds and desert wild;
Of whistling wind in hawthorn bough;
Of form by magic curse defiled?
Come, pitying death, dissolve the strife,
-- And wake me from the trance of life!
A footstep in the wood! an armed man,
And hither bound! Retire thee, Gwendolen.
Yet, what hast thou to fear? Thine alter'd form
Is safe from the worst danger, and thy life,
Not worth the keeping, mocks his cruelty. --
Yet must I hide me -- lend me your shade, kind boughs,
To shade this hideous face from earth and Heaven!

* * * *

SCENE, the Court.

ARTHUR on his throne, LLEWELLIN in chains, Guards, &c. &c.
Arthur. How wears the time?
Kay. The sun hath well nigh scaled
The pinnacle of Heaven.
Arthur. Oh say not so: --
Is it indeed so late? -- Where art thou, Gawain,
Too slow to save thy friend? Ah, cursed oath!
Which stops the mouth of mercy, and but leaves
A barren grief to after penitence --
That I might now recall thee! Yet again
Be it proclaim'd, -- if that mortal tongue
Can solve our oracle -- and solving save
Yon gallant gentleman, -- our kingdom's power
Is tax'd for their reward. Still, still, -- all still!
Oh, good Llewellin, when the headsman's blow
Redeems mine oath, my hoary hairs shall follow
(Believe it) to the grave. Oh, that thy wrath
Had cool'd betimes, or mine. Pardon, oh pardon!
As I forgive thee thine unruly brow
Triumphant o'er mine age, thy words of fire
And looks of mutiny, such as no king
Can brook without resistance, -- pardon thou
The rashness of mine oath, which sends thy youth
Untimely to the tomb.
Llewellin. My parting prayer
Waits on your silver locks; be brief, good king;
Dismiss a soul which on its tiptoe stands
Knocking at Heaven's high gates. I have met death
In uglier shapes before, nor find I now,
Save in this tardiness, his teeth or sting.
Have with you, headsman.
Arthur. Stay, I charge ye, stay! --
A noise -- I hear it well, -- a horse's tread
As one in speed -- and hark that shout, O Heaven!
Run some of ye and learn. (Cry without.)
Long live Earl Gawain!
* * * *
Arthur. Welcome, brave nephew,
Now more than ever welcome; have ye sped?
Is mine oath cancell'd? -- is the prisoner free?
Hath Merlin told his secret?
Gawain. He hath borne
That secret to the land of secrecy,
Nor can Llewellin claim a further sentence
Than Heaven hath pass'd on Merlin. O! my liege,
Strange things have chanced, which at fitting season
I shall unfold. Now to my chiefest care.
Unlock these rivets, jailor, for thy charge
By Arthur's oath is free; -- Arthur hath sought
What women mostly crave; -- my answer follows.
Power is their passion. From the lordly dame
To the brown maid that tends the harvest-field,
They prize it most. Wherefore is pleasure scorn'd,
But to increase their sway? -- why riches lavish'd,
But as an argument of queenly state?
Wherefore is virtue scorn'd? why vice thought comely?
But for the pride of taming him whose wiles
Have ruin'd many, -- why is beauty marr'd
By ceruse or by corset? -- wherefore love
Led like a blithe and perfumed sacrifice
To Phoebus' altar, but in hope to reign? --
Ye have mine answer. --
Arthur. Loose Llewellin's chain!
Gawain, thou hast thine earldom. Valiant friends,
This day be peace to all. Let me embrace you
With penitent fondness. Ah! what ghastly spectre
Troubles our happiness? -- Can this be human!
She kneels, she holds a ring --
Gwendolen. A boon, a boon
From Arthur and from Gawain! What I am,
What I have done, he knows. -- What he hath sworn,
This ring be witness.
Gawain. I acknowledge all,
And nobody will repay thee. Come, to-morrow, --
To-day, -- this even, -- only scare not now
This royal presence.
Gwendolen. I saved thy friend,
I brought thine earldom back; my wisdom sounded
The craft of Merlin; and the grateful Gawain
(For he was grateful then) sware by his sword,
This ring his sponsor, -- to reward my pains
With whatsoe'er I ask'd. I ask it now,
Before the king -- my hire, my righteous hire
Such as a knight must pay.
Gawain. Ask and receive!
I own my oath, -- and though my colder blood
Thrills to its fountain at thy gaze, and nature
Forebodes of something monstrous in thy soul,
Which I may shrink to answer -- I have sworn;
And bid me tame the brindled pard, or keep
Mine unarm'd vigil in a dragon's den, --
Be the king witness, and this table round,
I will perform thy bidding; speak and obtain.
Gwendolen. Give me thyself, -- be thou mine husband Gawain!
What! scared already, -- hast thou sworn in vain?
Am I so monstrous? -- Oh, I feel I am!
Yet have I saved thy friend.
* * * *
* * * *
Gawain. So we are married. Rule thou in my house,
Govern my treasure, -- prank thee in my jewels;
All, all is thine! -- for me, I mount my steed
And ramble forth to-night, an errant warrior,
To see thy face no more. --
Gwendolen. Alas for me!
Is this a marriage? -- thus did Gawain swear,
To mock me with himself, -- to leave me thus,
His lawful partner, to the scoffs of men,
And the constructions of a peevish world,
Weak and defenceless, childless, husbandless?
Oh, my good lord, -- shall it be said this face
Has robb'd my country of its bravest knight?
And shall the Saxon, and the ruthless Dane,
Triumphant in your absence, thank the foulness
Of Gawain's countess for their victory!
Far be such curse from me! If I am loathed,
Beyond endurance loathed, -- command me hence,
And I forsake your roof; -- I know my duty;
And your poor wife, from forth her wilderness,
Shall bless and pray for Gawain.
Gawain. Nay, not so;
For I have sworn to shield thee; rest thee here,
And ev'n in absence shall mine eye behold
Thy comforts and thy safety; weep not, dame,
I am thy guardian, and will well discharge
A guardian's office. Friendship may be ours,
Thy form forbids not that. What -- weeping still!
I will not leave thee; -- with a brother's zeal
For thy past service done I will watch over thee.
Be of good courage, -- come, one kiss of peace
To seal our bargain. -- Hateful! horrible!
And dost thou cling around me, cursed fiend,
To drag me to perdition! Out, aroint!
For in God's name I charge thee set me free,
And by this holy sign!
Gwendolen. Oh, bless'd be thou! --
Turn, Gawain, turn!
(Loud thunder)

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