Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, GUNHILDA, by FREDERICK GODDARD TUCKERMAN

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

GUNHILDA, by                 Poet's Biography
First Line: Gunhilda, lady of my love and theme
Last Line: She stands with rich sad eyes and ambern hair.
Subject(s): Beauty; Love

Gunhilda, lady of my love and theme,
Sister of kings, and daughter of the Dane,
Was by her brother Hardicanute betrothed
To him of France, the monarch of his time:
Henry the First of France, Niger surnamed,
A prince not overwise, and in his mood
Weak, passionate, superfluous, and proud;
But fond of honor, loving justice too,
If holding hard by cruel law be just,
Whose aim in his tumultuous reign had been
To keep his kingdom; to beat back the Hun
When from their fastnesses across the Rhine
Hand over head they came; to dine and sup;
To gather in his rents and royalties;
To poise and punish, and, for service done,
Reward in kind: though knowing but in truth
To mete and part his purple with the sword
Right regally and like that king of men
Who dipped his pearls by helmetfuls at once,
And with a spear sounded his depth of gold.

Not such the Princess: nor fit mate for such
In temper or in years. But that was naught:
He was a king who wooed, or sought to woo.
But she, a votaress whose vow had been
To dedicate her beauty and her youth
To God alone; whose earliest hope had been
To build and to endow a house to God;--
Turned from these tidings with a cry for help,
Knowing the king and fearing what she knew.
A nature too, averse from violence,
Cloistered and cold and nurtured in the shade
And like the nunflower swerving from the sun.
What wonder then that the king's flaming love
Among the convent shadows broke in at once
On her secluded mind unwelcomely?
And, like a window opened in a wall
When comes the day to faded bloodshot eyes,
No faint irresolute light, but like a blow!

So, and like one doubteth of the morrow,
Knowing the present and the peaceful past,
Is happy and desires not any change,
Among the rocks about the twilight bay,
Or lost in driftless musings on the sands
Where her great father bade the surge retire,
Gunhilda stood. And while her thoughtful eyes
Watched the decaying color in the cloud,
Watched the wave curl and pour, the pebbled beach,
And water running over water white,
Her deep heart trembled and her fear grew great.

But forward went the hours; the day was fixed
And Henry crossed the sea to claim his bride.
Small respite gave the fiery king, and she
Walked to her fate upon a cloth of gold
That stretched so far she could not see the end--
Through arch and column vibrating with light,
And drops wherein the live light seemed to hang
Like sunshine in the dew, all gleams and gems!
For the high porch was gay with essonite,
With amianth and mossagate, motherpearl,
Asterias and rockrubies, whilst the floor
With sanders sweet and safflower reeked in dust.
With pomp of music and with clash of swords:
So they were wed, and great rejoicings rose.

Nor seemed their happy progress stayed at length
When they arrived the king's voluptuous court.
So deep the draughts of love he daily drank
Unsatisfied from her angelic eyes,
So grew the rapture in his own, the queen
Began to fear such sunshine could not last,
And so it proved. There came about a change.
Perhaps 'twas overlove, the bitterness
Of too sweet kisses, or mere mad caprice--
Like him of whom the cruel story tells
Who slew his wife because she was so fair:
Slew her as she was stooping unawares,
Incensed at that white wonder of her neck!
Or that the king indeed in his dark heart,
Knowing his heart and hers, could not believe,
Unworthy as he was, such majesty,
Grace, goodness, piety divine, could be
For him, or if for him, for him alone.

So, when a whisper stirred about the court
The queen was false, disloyal to her vow,
To all but her it broke expectedly.
And though none knew whence came the charge, or whose
The arrow, all knew in whose bow 'twas shot:
The purport too not less significant,
For in that day and time with such a charge
To be confronted was to be condemned.
And men began to talk below their breath
Of Judgment and the Fiery Ordeal,
The convent and the stake. But while they talked
With mouth to ear, or slunk in groups together
And questioned low whether the queen would be
Called over the coals for this, or what would be,

The word went forth that by the king's command,
In his great mercy not assigning death--
The instant death--for the committed crime,
In ten days' space, and at the hour of noon,
The cause itself should be contested by
Arbitrament of battle in the field,
And combatants, arms and armor left at choice.
Wherefore let him, the proclamation said,
The champion of the accusation, cite
Him of the vindication, if such there be,
Into the lists upon that place and time,
Before the judges ... and God save the Queen!

God save her! yes, for the succor seemed
Farther than Heaven's, farther than heaven from earth!
Alone, without a friend or friend of friend:
A stranger among strangers! Of her train
All had returned before or been sent back
But Mimecan, the little Englishman:
Too slight to be accounted when they went,
Too young to give suspicion in that kind
For which she was arraigned before the world,
Too weak to aid in this her last distress.
So the poor queen sat shelterless like one
Around whose head the storms accumulate
When through cloud-ranges of the upper air,
Through cloudy clefts and pinnacles to cloud
From peak to peak, from vault to archevault
The thunders boom, the lightnings branch and glare.

Nor Henry walked at ease in his high halls.
Infuriate with himself and with the world
Whose censure yet he feared, as weak men will,
Now cursed, now wept, half-anguished in his mind
For her he had reprieved to certain death,
And all diffused; wherefore, at times, the king
To stun his thought, the noises in his ears
Bade all his trumpets blow at once, or sate
Buried in wine and made the daylight dark;
Or in the beat and blaze of fiery lamps
Looked upon troops of girls in crimson dight;
Yet still through all, taste, touch, form, silence, sound,
Or darkness or fierce carnal color, felt
The wakening of the worm that cannot die.

Thus when the morn rose dark of that dread day
It brought relief to both: respite to one
Eternal and most final for her pain
Unless a miracle should come between.
So, at the time appointed and the place,
From all sides in a mighty concourse rushed
Like winds that beat about their central calm:
A calm of death, for in that centre sat
The king with all his court, and near them drawn,
The judges and the judged. Gunhilda there,
Clad in attesting white, her eyes unraised,
Alone and with a lily in her hand;
Once she looked up and quickly saw the whole,
The barbarous king, the headsman with his axe,
The faces massed and the despairing sky;
Then thought of England and her wedding day:
This was the ending of the cloth of gold.

But why prolong the measure of her woe?
The pathos of a grief inestimable?
At the first trumpet's challenge, into the lists
Strode the King's Champion, huge, iron helmed
In back and breast with long stript battle brand,
And paused disdainfully, for no one came,
Though once again the bitter trumpet wailed.
Vast was the wonder and the pity too
When from the farther end, not near the queen,
At the last trumpet's charge, came Mimecan
Dressed like a page and tripping like a girl;
His station took and, at the encountering word,
Drew forth his trinket blade. The giant grinned,
Lashed at him with his sword, and grinned,
Then, and like one who sought upon the place
To stamp the boy's life out among the stones,
Or puff him with a scornful breath away,
Sank point and stood. Instantly Mimecan
Sprang in, within his guard, and backwardly,
Before the other could wheel round his weight,
Hock-strung and felled him with one little blow.

Wild was the roar that rose and shook the heaven
With cry on cry, none louder than the king's,
Who left his throne to take her to his heart;
Proffered himself with all indemnity
Of life and love, jewels and nameless wealth,
For justice had been done! But she at once
Turned from the worldly king herself away
With a few parting and proud words.

"I go
To God," she said, "and leave this cruel world,
This cruel scene of terror and of shame
By thee devised I hardly know for what.
If thou believed me innocent, 'twas ill;
If guilty, then am I no wife for thee.
Nor could you bar my steps from this intent,
Not though you placed your throne across my path!
Or poured about my feet, to block the way,
Bullions of gold, billets of ebony,
Great opals, balais rubies, peregrine pearls!
For Heaven is just and will not see the wrong.
Wherefore take heed, O king! lest God himself,
In whose hand lie the hearts and thoughts of kings,
Should from thy brow set off the royal crown,
That gold incirculation, and pass down
The Sceptre haft incrustated with gems!
I go, but leave my place; and may it be
More worthily filled; and thou, if not more just
To her who comes, at least more merciful."

So ends the story of my tale. But she
Has gone to take her part in other fields
With others who have lived: with Imogen,
Rhotrude, Giserida, and she who died,
The Moorish Andamana. Among the rest,
And halfway turned, as if to view once more
The world that she was leaving, stands the Queen!
Alone and with a lily in her hand:
Gunhilda, lady of my love and theme.
She stands with rich sad eyes and ambern hair.

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