Lyrics & Poetry — August 28, 2014 at 6:14 am

The Vision of Sir Launfal (or, Poetry for People with the Time to Learn Pity)

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One day, without much fanfare, my Mother handed me a beautiful leather-covered book. Its cover was dark blue, and the softly brushed leather embedded with gold letters. I read it. Stunned, I read it again. Though I cannot now put my hand to that book, its message is repeated below. I hope I still have eyes to see, ears to hear. And you?

THE VISION OF SIR LAUNFAL

by James Russell Lowell

PRELUDE TO PART FIRST.

Over his keys the musing organist,
Beginning doubtfully and far away,
First lets his fingers wander as they list,
And builds a Bridge from
Dreamland for his lay:

5

Then, as the touch of his loved instrument
Gives hope and fervor, nearer draws his theme,
First guessed by faint auroral flushes sent
Along the wavering vista of his dream.
Not only around our infancy

10

Doth heaven with all its splendors lie;
Daily, with souls that cringe and plot,
We Sinais climb and know it not.
Over our manhood bend the skies;
Against our fallen and traitor lives

15

The great winds utter prophecies:
With our faint hearts the mountain strives;
Its arms outstretched, the druid wood
Waits with its benedicite;
And to our age’s drowsy blood

20

Still shouts the inspiring sea.
Earth gets its price for what Earth gives us;
The beggar is taxed for a corner to die in,
The priest hath his fee who comes and shrives us,
We bargain for the graves we lie in;

25

At the Devil’s booth are all things sold,
Each ounce of dross costs its ounce of gold;
For a cap and bells our lives we pay,
Bubbles we buy with a whole soul’s tasking:
‘T is heaven alone that is given away,

30

‘T is only God may be had for the asking;
No price is set on the lavish summer;
June may be had by the poorest comer.
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days;

35

Then Heaven tries the earth if it be in tune,
And over it softly her warm ear lays:
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten;
Every clod feels a stir of might,

40

An instinct within it that reaches and towers,
And, groping blindly above it for light,
Climbs to a soul in grass and flowers;
The flush of life may well be seen
Thrilling back over hills and valleys;

45

The cowslip startles in meadows green,
The buttercup catches the sun in its chalice,
And there’s never a leaf nor a blade too mean
To be some happy creature’s palace;
The little bird sits at his door in the sun,

50

Atilt like a blossom among the leaves,
And lets his illumined being o’errun
With the deluge of summer it receives;
His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings,
And the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings;

55

He sings to the wide world, and she to her nest,—
In the nice ear of Nature which song is the best?
Now is the high-tide of the year,
And whatever of life hath ebbed away
Comes flooding back with a ripply cheer,

60

Into every bare inlet and creek and bay;
Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it,
We are happy now because God wills it;
No matter how barren the past may have been,
‘Tis enough for us now that the leaves are green;

65

We sit in the warm shade and feel right well
How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;
We may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowing
That skies are clear and grass is growing;
The breeze comes whispering in our ear,

70

That dandelions are blossoming near,
That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,
That the river is bluer than the sky,
That the robin is plastering his house hard by;
And if the breeze kept the good news back,

75

For other couriers we should not lack;
We could guess it all by yon heifer’s lowing,—
And hark! how clear bold chanticleer,
Warmed with the new wine of the year,
Tells all in his lusty crowing!

80

Joy comes, grief goes, we know not how;
Everything is happy now,
Everything is upward striving;
‘T is as easy now for the heart to be true
As for grass to be green or skies to be blue,—

85

‘T is the natural way of living:
Who knows whither the clouds have fled?
In the unscarred heaven they leave no wake,
And the eyes forget the tears they have shed,
The heart forgets its sorrow and ache;

90

The soul partakes of the season’s youth,
And the sulphurous rifts of passion and woe
Lie deep ‘neath a silence pure and smooth,
Like burnt-out craters healed with snow.
What wonder if Sir Launfal now

95

Remembered the keeping of his vow?

PART FIRST.

I.

“My golden spurs now bring to me,
And bring to me my richest mail,
For to-morrow I go over land and sea,
In search of the Holy Grail;

100

Shall never a bed for me be spread,
Nor shall a pillow be under my head,
Till I begin my vow to keep;
Here on the rushes will I sleep,
And perchance there may come a vision true

105

Ere day create the world anew.”
Slowly Sir Launfal’s eyes grew dim,
Slumber fell like a cloud on him,
And into his soul the vision flew.

II.

The crows flapped over by twos and threes,

110

In the pool drowsed the cattle up to their knees,
The little birds sang as if it were
The one day of summer in all the year,
And the very leaves seemed to sing on the trees:
The castle alone in the landscape lay

115

Like an outpost of winter, dull and gray:
‘Twas the proudest hall in the North Countree,
And never its gates might opened be,
Save to lord or lady of high degree;
Summer besieged it on every side,

120

But the churlish stone her assaults defied;
She could not scale the chilly wall,
Though around it for leagues her pavilions tall
Stretched left and right,
Over the hills and out of sight;

125

Green and broad was every tent,
And out of each a murmur went
Till the breeze fell off at night.

III.

The drawbridge dropped with a surly clang,
And through the dark arch a charger sprang,

130

Bearing Sir Launfal, the maiden knight,
In his gilded mail, that flamed so bright
It seemed the dark castle had gathered all
Those shafts the fierce sun had shot over its wall
In his siege of three hundred summers long,

135

And, binding them all in one blazing sheaf,
Had cast them forth: so, young and strong,
And lightsome as a locust-leaf,
Sir Launfal flashed forth in his unscarred mail,
To seek in all climes for the Holy Grail.

IV.

140

It was morning on hill and stream and tree,
And morning in the young knight’s heart;
Only the castle moodily
Rebuffed the gifts of the sunshine free,
And gloomed by itself apart;

145

The season brimmed all other things up
Full as the rain fills the pitcher-plant’s cup.

V.

As Sir Launfal made morn through the darksome gate,
He was ‘ware of a leper, crouched by the same,
Who begged with his hand and moaned as he sate;

150

And a loathing over Sir Launfal came;
The sunshine went out of his soul with a thrill,
The flesh ‘neath his armor ‘gan shrink and crawl,
And midway its leap his heart stood still
Like a frozen waterfall;

155

For this man, so foul and bent of stature,
Rasped harshly against his dainty nature,
And seemed the one blot on the summer morn,—
So he tossed him a piece of gold in scorn.

The old leper

VI.

The leper raised not the gold from the dust:

160

“Better to me the poor man’s crust,
Better the blessing of the poor,
Though I turn me empty from his door;
That is no true alms which the hand can hold;
He gives nothing but worthless gold

165

Who gives from a sense of duty;
But he who gives but a slender mite,
And gives to that which is out of sight
That thread of the all-sustaining
Beauty Which runs through all and doth all unite,—

170

The hand cannot clasp the whole of his alms,
The heart outstretches its eager palms,
For a god goes with it and makes it store
To the soul that was starving in darkness before.”

PRELUDE TO PART SECOND.

Down swept the chill wind from the mountain peak,

175

From the snow five thousand summers old;
On open wold and hill-top bleak
It had gathered all the cold,
And whirled it like sleet on the wanderer’s cheek;
It carried a shiver everywhere

180

From the unleafed boughs and pastures bare;
The little brook heard it and built a roof
‘Neath which he could house him, winter-proof;
All night by the white stars frosty gleams
He groined his arches and matched his beams;

185

Slender and clear were his crystal spars
As the lashes of light that trim the stars;
He sculptured every summer delight
In his halls and chambers out of sight;
Sometimes his tinkling waters slipt

190

Down through a frost-leaved forest-crypt,
Long, sparkling aisles of steel-stemmed trees
Bending to counterfeit a breeze;
Sometimes the roof no fretwork knew
But silvery mosses that downward grew;

195

Sometimes it was carved in sharp relief
With quaint arabesques of ice-fern leaf;
Sometimes it was simply smooth and clear
For the gladness of heaven to shine through, and here
He had caught the nodding bulrush-tops

200

And hung them thickly with diamond-drops,
That crystalled the beams of moon and sun,
And made a star of everyone:
No mortal builder’s most rare device
Could match this winter-palace of ice;

205

‘Twas as if every image that mirrored lay
In his depths serene through the summer day,
Each fleeting shadow of earth and sky,
Lest the happy model should be lost,
Had been mimicked in fairy masonry

210

By the elfin builders of the frost.
Within the hall are song and laughter,
The cheeks of Christmas grow red and jolly,
And sprouting is every corbel and rafter
With lightsome green of ivy and holly;

215

Through the deep gulf of the chimney wide
Wallows the Yule-log’s roaring tide
The broad flame-pennons droop and flap
And belly and tug as a flag in the wind;
Like a locust shrills the imprisoned sap,

220

Hunted to death in its galleries blind;
And swift little troops of silent sparks,
Now pausing, now scattering away as in fear,
Go threading the soot-forest’s tangled darks
Like herds of startled deer.

225

But the wind without was eager and sharp,
Of Sir Launfal’s gray hair it makes a harp,
And rattles and wrings The icy strings,
Singing, in dreary monotone,

230

A Christmas carol of its own,
Whose burden still, as he might guess,
Was—”Shelterless, shelterless, shelterless!”
The voice of the seneschal flared like a torch
As he shouted the wanderer away from the porch,

235

And he sat in the gateway and saw all night
The great hall-fire, so cheery and bold,
Through the window-slits of the castle old,
Build out its piers of ruddy light
Against the drift of the cold.

PART SECOND.

I.

240

There was never a leaf on bush or tree,
The bare boughs rattled shudderingly;
The river was dumb and could not speak,
For the weaver Winter its shroud had spun,
A single crow on the tree-top bleak

245

From his shining feathers shed off the cold sun;

Again it was morning, but shrunk and cold,
As if her veins were sapless and old,
And she rose up decrepitly
For a last dim look at earth and sea.

II.

250

Sir Launfal turned from his own hard gate,
For another heir in his earldom sate;
An old, bent man, worn out and frail,
He came back from seeking the Holy Grail;
Little he recked of his earldom’s loss,

255

No more on his surcoat was blazoned the cross,
But deep in his soul the sign he wore,
The badge of the suffering and the poor.

III.

Sir Launfal’s raiment thin and spare
Was idle mail ‘gainst the barbed air,

260

For it was just at the Christmas time;
So he mused, as he sat, of a sunnier clime,
And sought for a shelter from cold and snow
In the light and warmth of long-ago;
He sees the snake-like caravan crawl

265

O’er the edge of the desert, black and small,
Then nearer and nearer, till, one by one,
He can count the camels in the sun,
As over the red-hot sands they pass
To where, in its slender necklace of grass,

270

The little spring laughed and leapt in the shade,
And with its own self like an infant played,
And waved its signal of palms.

IV.

“For Christ’s sweet sake, I beg an alms;”—
The happy camels may reach the spring,

275

But Sir Launfal sees only the grewsome thing,
The leper, lank as the rain-blanched bone,
That cowers beside him, a thing as lone
And white as the ice-isles of Northern seas
In the desolate horror of his disease.

V.

280

And Sir Launfal said,—”I behold in thee
An image of Him who died on the tree;
Thou also hast had thy crown of thorns,—
Thou also hast had the world’s buffets and scorns,—
And to thy life were not denied

285

The wounds in the hands and feet and side;
Mild Mary’s Son, acknowledge me;
Behold, through him, I give to Thee!”

VI.

Then the soul of the leper stood up in his eyes
And looked at Sir Launfal, and straightway he

290

Remembered in what a haughtier guise
He had flung an alms to leprosie,
When he girt his young life up in gilded mail
And set forth in search of the Holy Grail.
The heart within him was ashes and dust;

295

He parted in twain his single crust,
He broke the ice on the streamlet’s brink,
And gave the leper to eat and drink:
‘T was a mouldy crust of coarse brown bread,
‘T was water out of a wooden bowl,—

300

Yet with fine wheaten bread was the leper fed,
And ‘t was red wine he drank with his thirsty soul.

VII.

As Sir Launfal mused with a downcast face,
A light shone round about the place;
The leper no longer crouched at his side,

305

But stood before him glorified,
Shining and tall and fair and straight
As the pillar that stood by the Beautiful Gate,—
Himself the Gate whereby men can
Enter the temple of God in Man.

VIII.

310

His words were shed softer than leaves from the pine,
And they fell on Sir Launfal as snows on the brine,
That mingle their softness and quiet in one
With the shaggy unrest they float down upon;
And the voice that was calmer than silence said,

315

“Lo it is I, be not afraid!
In many climes, without avail,
Thou hast spent thy life for the Holy Grail;
Behold, it is here,—this cup which thou
Didst fill at the streamlet for Me but now;

320

This crust is My body broken for thee,
This water His blood that died on the tree;
The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
In whatso we share with another’s need:
Not what we give, but what we share,—

325

For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,—
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and Me.”

IX.

Sir Launfal awoke as from a swound:—
“The Grail in my castle here is found!

330

Hang my idle armor up on the wall,
Let it be the spider’s banquet-hall;
He must be fenced with stronger mail
Who would seek and find the Holy Grail.”

X.

The castle gate stands open now,

335

And the wanderer is welcome to the hall
As the hangbird is to the elm-tree bough;
No longer scowl the turrets tall,
The Summer’s long siege at last is o’er;
When the first poor outcast went in at the door,

340

She entered with him in disguise,
And mastered the fortress by surprise;
There is no spot she loves so well on ground,
She lingers and smiles there the whole year round;
The meanest serf on Sir Launfal’s land

345

Has hall and bower at his command;
And there’s no poor man in the North Countree
But is lord of the earldom as much as he.

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