"The Passing of Arthur" from Idylls Of The King
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)



1   That story which the bold Sir Bedivere, 
2   First made and latest left of all the knights, 
3   Told, when the man was no more than a voice 
4   In the white winter of his age, to those 
5   With whom he dwelt, new faces, other minds. 

6   For on their march to westward, Bedivere, 
7   Who slowly paced among the slumbering host, 
8   Heard in his tent the moanings of the King: 

9   'I found Him in the shining of the stars, 
10   I mark'd Him in the flowering of His fields, 
11   But in His ways with men I find Him not. 
12   I waged His wars, and now I pass and die. 
13   O me! for why is all around us here 
14   As if some lesser god had made the world, 
15   But had not force to shape it as he would, 
16   Till the High God behold it from beyond, 
17   And enter it, and make it beautiful? 
18   Or else as if the world were wholly fair, 
19   But that these eyes of men are dense and dim, 
20   And have not power to see it as it is: 
21   Perchance, because we see not to the close;--- 
22   For I, being simple, thought to work His will, 
23   And have but stricken with the sword in vain; 
24   And all whereon I lean'd in wife and friend 
25   Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm 
26   Reels back into the beast, and is no more. 
27   My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death: 
28   Nay---God my Christ---I pass but shall not die.' 

29   Then, ere that last weird battle in the west, 
30   There came on Arthur sleeping, Gawain kill'd 
31   In Lancelot's war, the ghost of Gawain blown 
32   Along a wandering wind, and past his ear 
33   Went shrilling, 'Hollow, hollow all delight! 
34   Hail, King! to-morrw thou shalt pass away. 
35   Farewell! there is an isle of rest for thee. 
36   And I am blown along a wandering wind, 
37   And hollow, hollow, hollow all delight.' 
38   And fainter onward, like wild birds that change 
39   Their season in the night and wail their way 
40   From cloud to cloud, down the long wind the dream 
41   Shrill'd; but in going mingled with dim cries 
42   Far in the moonlit haze among the hills, 
43   As of some lonely city sack'd by night, 
44   When all is lost, and wife and child with wail 
45   Pass to new lords; and Arthur woke and call'd, 
46   'Who spake? A dream. O light upon the wind, 
47   Thine, Gawain, was the voice---are these dim cries 
48   Thine? or doth all that haunts the waste and wild 
49   Mourn, knowing it will go along with me?' 

50   This heard the bold Sir Bedivere and spake: 
51   'O me, my King, let pass whatever will, 
52   Elves, and the harmless glamour of the field;
53   But in their stead thy name and glory cling 
54   To all high places like a golden cloud 
55   For ever: but as yet thou shalt not pass. 
56   Light was Gawain in life, and light in death 
57   Is Gawain, for the ghost is as the man;
58   And care not thou for dreams from him, but rise--- 
59   I hear the steps of Modred in the west, 
60   And with him many of thy people, and knights 
61   Once thine, whom thou hast loved, but grosser grown 
62   Than heathen, spitting at their vows and thee. 
63   Right well in heart they know thee for the King. 
64   Arise, go forth and conquer as of old.' 

65   Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere: 
66   'Far other is this battle in the west 
67   Whereto we move, than when we strove in youth, 
68   And brake the petty kings, and fought with Rome, 
69   Or thrust the heathen from the Roman wall, 
70   And shook him thro' the north. Ill doom is mine 
71   To war against my people and my knights. 
72   The king who fights his people fights himself. 
73   And they my knights, who loved me once, the stroke 
74   That strikes them dead is as my death to me. 
75   Yet let us hence, and find or feel a way 
76   Thro' this blind haze, which ever since I saw 
77   One lying in the dust at Almesbury, 
78   Hath folded in the passes of the world.' 

79   Then rose the King and moved his host by night 
80   And ever push'd Sir Modred, league by league, 
81   Back to the sunset bound of Lyonnesse--- 
82   A land of old upheavn from the abyss 
83   By fire, to sink into the abyss again; 
84   Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt, 
85   And the long mountains ended in a coast 
86   Of ever-shifting sand, and far away 
87   The phantom circle of a moaning sea. 
88   There the pursuer could pursue no more, 
89   And he that fled no further fly the King; 
90   And there, that day when the great light of heaven 
91   Burn'd at his lowest in the rolling year,
92   On the waste sand by the waste sea they closed. 
93   Nor ever yet had Arthur fought a fight 
94   Like this last, dim, weird battle of the west.
95   A deathwhite mist slept over sand and sea: 
96   Whereof the chill, to him who breathed it, drew 
97   Down with his blood, till all his heart was cold 
98   With formless fear; and ev'n on Arthur fell 
99   Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought. 
100   For friend and foe were shadows in the mist, 
101   And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew; 
102   And some had visions out of golden youth, 
103   And some beheld the faces of old ghosts 
104   Look in upon the battle; and in the mist 
105   Was many a noble deed, many a base, 
106   And chance and craft and strength in single fights, 
107   And ever and anon with host to host 
108   Shocks, and the splintering spear, the hard mail hewn, 
109   Shield-breakings, and the clash of brands, the crash 
110   Of battleaxes on shatter'd helms, and shrieks 
111   After the Christ, of those who falling down 
112   Look'd up for heaven, and only saw the mist; 
113   And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights, 
114   Oaths, insult, filth, and monstrous blasphemies,
115   Sweat, writhings, anguish, labouring of the lungs 
116   In that close mist, and cryings for the light, 
117   Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead. 

118   Last, as by some one deathbed after wail 
119   Of suffering, silence follows, or thro' death 
120   Or deathlike swoon, thus over all that shore, 
121   Save for some whisper of the seething seas, 
122   A dead hush fell; but when the dolorous day 
123   Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came 
124   A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew 
125   The mist aside, and with that wind the tide 
126   Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field 
127   Of battle: but no man was moving there; 
128   Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon, 
129   Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave 
130   Brake in among dead faces, to and fro 
131   Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down 
132   Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen, 
133   And shiver'd brands that once had fought with Rome, 
134   And rolling far along the gloomy shores 
135   The voice of days of old and days to be.

136   Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere, 
137   And whiter than the mist that all day long 
138   Had held the field of battle was the King: 

139   'Hearest thou this great voice that shakes the world, 
140   And wastes the narrow realm whereon we move, 
141   And beats upon the faces of the dead, 
142   My dead, as tho' they had not died for me?--- 
143   O Bedivere, for on my heart hath fall'n 
144   Confusion, till I know not what I am, 
145   Nor whence I am, nor whether I be King. 
146   Behold, I seem but King among the dead.' 

147   Then spake the bold Sir Bedivere: 'My King, 
148   King everywhere! and so the dead have kings, 
149   There also will I worship thee as King. 
150   Yet still thy life is whole, and still I live 
151   Who love thee; but who hates thee, he that brought 
152   The heathen back among us, yonder stands, 
153   Modred, unharm'd, the traitor of thine house.' 

154   Then spake the King: 'My house hath been my doom. 
155   But call not thou this traitor of my house 
156   Who hath but dwelt beneath one roof with me. 
157   My house are rather they who sware my vows, 
158   Yea, even while they brake them, own'd me King. 
159   And well for thee, saying in my dark hour, 
160   When all the purport of my throne hath fail'd, 
161   That quick or dead thou holdest me for King. 
162   King am I, whatsoever be their cry; 
163   And one last act of kinghood shalt thou see 
164   Yet, ere I pass.' And uttering this the King 
165   Made at the man: then Modred smote his liege 
166   Hard on that helm which many a heathen sword 
167   Had beaten thin; while Arthur at one blow, 
168   Striking the last stroke with Excalibur, 
169   Slew him, and all but slain himself, he fell. 

170   So all day long the noise of battle roll'd 
171   Among the mountains by the winter sea; 
172   Until King Arthur's Table, man by man, 
173   Had fall'n in Lyonnesse about their lord, 
174   King Arthur. Then, because his wound was deep, 
175   The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him, 
176   And bore him to a chapel nigh the field, 
177   A broken chancel with a broken cross, 
178   That stood on a dark strait of barren land: 
179   On one side lay the Ocean, and on one 
180   Lay a great water, and the moon was full. 

181   Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere: 
182   'The sequel of to-day unsolders all 
183   The goodliest fellowship of famous knights 
184   Whereof this world holds record. Such a sleep 
185   They sleep---the men I loved. I think that we 
186   Shall never more, at any future time, 
187   Delight our souls with talk of knightly deeds, 
188   Walking about the gardens and the halls 
189   Of Camelot, as in the days that were. 
190   I perish by this people which I made,--- 
191   Tho' Merlin sware that I should come again 
192   To rule once more; but, let what will be, be, 
193   I am so deeply smitten thro' the helm 
194   That without help I cannot last till morn. 
195   Thou therefore take my brand Excalibur, 
196   Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how 
197   In those old days, one summer noon, an arm 
198   Rose up from out the bosom of the lake, 
199   Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, 
200   Holding the sword---and how I row'd across 
201   And took it, and have worn it, like a king; 
202   And, wheresoever I am sung or told 
203   In aftertime, this also shall be known: 
204   But now delay not: take Excalibur, 
205   And fling him far into the middle mere: 
206   Watch what thou sest, and lightly bring me word.' 

207   To him replied the bold Sir Bedivere: 
208   'It is not meet, Sir King, to leave thee thus, 
209   Aidless, alone, and smitten thro' the helm--- 
210   A little thing may harm a wounded man; 
211   Yet I thy hest will all perform at full, 
212   Watch what I see, and lightly bring thee word.' 

213   So saying, from the ruin'd shrine he stept, 
214   And in the moon athwart the place of tombs, 
215   Where lay the mighty bones of ancient men, 
216   Old knights, and over them the sea-wind sang 
217   Shrill, chill, with flakes of foam. He, stepping down 
218   By zigzag paths, and juts of pointed rock, 
219   Came on the shining levels of the lake. 

220   There drew he forth the brand Excalibur, 
221   And o'er him, drawing it, the winter moon, 
222   Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth 
223   And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt: 
224   For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks, 
225   Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work 
226   Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long 
227   That both his eyes were dazzled as he stood, 
228   This way and that dividing the swift mind, 
229   In act to throw: but at the last it seem'd 
230   Better to leave Excalibur conceal'd 
231   There in the many-knotted waterflags, 
232   That whistled stiff and dry about the marge. 
233   So strode he back slow to the wounded King. 

234   Then spake King Arthur to Sir Bedivere: 
235   'Hast thou perform'd my mission which I gave? 
236   What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?' 

237   And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere: 
238   I heard the ripple washing in the reeds, 
239   And the wild water lapping on the crag.' 

240   To whom replied King Arthur, faint and pale: 
241   'Thou hast betray'd thy nature and thy name, 
242   Not rendering true answer, as beseem'd 
243   Thy falty, nor like a noble knight: 
244   For surer sign had follow'd, either hand, 
245   Or voice, or else a motion of the mere. 
246   This is a shameful thing for men to lie. 
247   Yet now, I charge thee, quickly go again, 
248   As thou art lief and dear, and do the thing 
249   I bad thee, watch, and lightly bring me word.' 

250   Then went Sir Bedivere the second time 
251   Across the ridge, and paced beside the mere, 
252   Counting the dewy pebbles, fix'd in thought; 
253   But when he saw the wonder of the hilt, 
254   How curiously and strangely chased, he smote 
255   His palms together, and he cried aloud: 

256   'And if indeed I cast the brand away, 
257   Surely a precious thing, one worthy note, 
258   Should thus be lost for ever from the earth, 
259   Which might have pleased the eyes of many men. 
260   What good should follow this, if this were done? 
261   What harm, undone? Deep harm to disobey, 
262   Seeing obedience is the bond of rule. 
263   Were it well to obey then, if a king demand 
264   An act unprofitable, against himself? 
265   The King is sick, and knows not what he does. 
266   What record, or what relic of my lord 
267   Should be to aftertime, but empty breath 
268   And rumours of a doubt? But were this kept, 
269   Stored in some treasure-house of mighty kings, 
270   Some one might show it at a joust of arms, 
271   Saying, "King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, 
272   Wrought by the lonely maiden of the Lake. 
273   Nine years she wrought it, sitting in the deeps 
274   Upon the hidden bases of the hills." 
275   So might some old man speak in the aftertime 
276   To all the people, winning reverence. 
277   But now much honour and much fame were lost.' 

278   So spake he, clouded with his own conceit, 
279   And hid Excalibur the second time, 
280   And so strode back slow to the wounded King. 

281   Then spoke King Arthur, breathing heavily: 
282   'What is it thou hast seen? or what hast heard?' 

283   And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere: 
284   'I heard the water lapping on the crag, 
285   And the long ripple washing in the reeds.' 

286   To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath: 
287   'Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue, 
288   Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me! 
289   Authority forgets a dying king, 
290   Laid widow'd of the power in his eye 
291   That bow'd the will. I see thee what thou art, 
292   For thou, the latest-left of all my knights, 
293   In whom should meet the offices of all, 
294   Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt; 
295   Either from lust of gold, or like a girl 
296   Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes. 
297   Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice, 
298   And the third time may prosper, get thee hence: 
299   But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur, 
300   I will arise and slay thee with my hands. 

301   Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran, 
302   And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged 
303   Among the bulrush beds, and clutch'd the sword, 
304   And strongly wheel'd and threw it. The great brand 
305   Made lightnings in the splendour of the moon, 
306   And flashing round and round, and whirl'd in an arch,
307   Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
308   Seen where the moving isles of winter shock 
309   By night, with noises of the Northern Sea. 
310   So flash'd and fell the brand Excalibur: 
311   But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm 
312   Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, 
313   And caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him 
314   Three times, and drew him under in the mere 
315   And lightly went the other to the King. 

316   Then spoke King Arthur, drawing thicker breath
317   'Now see I by thine eyes that this is done. 
318   Speak out: what is it thou hast heard, or seen?' 

319   And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere: 
320   'Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems 
321   Should blind my purpose, for I never saw, 
322   Nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die, 
323   Not tho' I live three lives of mortal men, 
324   So great a miracle as yonder hilt. 
325   Then with both hands I flung him, wheeling him; 
326   But when I look'd again, behold an arm, 
327   Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, 
328   That caught him by the hilt, and brandish'd him 
329   Three times, and drew him under in the mere.' 

330   And answer made King Arthur, breathing hard: 
331   'My end draws nigh; 'tis time that I were gone. 
332   Make broad thy shoulders to receive my weight, 
333   And bear me to the margin; yet I fear 
334   My wound hath taken cold, and I shall die.' 

335   So saying, from the pavement he half rose, 
336   Slowly, with pain, reclining on his arm, 
337   And looking wistfully with wide blue eyes 
338   As in a picture. Him Sir Bedivere 
339   Remorsefully regarded thro' his tears, 
340   And would have spoken, but he found not words; 
341   Then took with care, and kneeling on one knee, 
342   O'er both his shoulders drew the languid hands, 
343   And rising bore him thro' the place of tombs. 

344   But, as he walk'd, King Arthur panted hard, 
345   Like one that feels a nightmare on his bed 
346   When all the house is mute. So sigh'd the King, 
347   Muttering and murmuring at his ear, 'Quick, quick! 
348   I fear it is too late, and I shall die.' 
349   But the other swiftly strode from ridge to ridge, 
350   Clothed with his breath, and looking, as he walk'd, 
351   Larger than human on the frozen hills. 
352   He heard the deep behind him, and a cry 
353   Before. His own thought drove him like a goad. 
354   Dry clash'd his harness in the icy caves 
355   And barren chasms, and all to left and right 
356   The bare black cliff clang'd round him, as he based 
357   His feet on juts of slippery crag that rang 
358   Sharp-smitten with the dint of armed heels--- 
359   And on a sudden, lo! the level lake, 
360   And the long glories of the winter moon. 

361   Then saw they how there hove a dusky barge, 
362   Dark as a funeral scarf from stem to stern, 
363   Beneath them; and descending they were ware 
364   That all the decks were dense with stately forms, 
365   Black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream---by these 
366   Three Queens with crowns of gold: and from them rose 
367   A cry that shiver'd to the tingling stars, 
368   And, as it were one voice, an agony 
369   Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills 
370   All night in a waste land, where no one comes, 
371   Or hath come, since the making of the world. 

372   Then murmur'd Arthur, 'Place me in the barge.' 
373   So to the barge they came. There those three Queens 
374   Put forth their hands, and took the King, and wept. 
375   But she, that rose the tallest of them all 
376   And fairest, laid his head upon her lap, 
377   And loosed the shatter'd casque, and chafed his hands, 
378   And call'd him by his name, complaining loud, 
379   And dropping bitter tears against a brow 
380   Striped with dark blood: for all his face was white 
381   And colourless, and like the wither'd moon
382   Smote by the fresh beam of the springing east; 
383   And all his greaves and cuisses dash'd with drops 
384   Of onset; and the light and lustrous curls--- 
385   That made his forehead like a rising sun 
386   High from the das-throne---were parch'd with dust; 
387   Or, clotted into points and hanging loose, 
388   Mix'd with the knightly growth that fringed his lips. 
389   So like a shatter'd column lay the King; 
390   Not like that Arthur who, with lance in rest, 
391   From spur to plume a star of tournament, 
392   Shot thro' the lists at Camelot, and charged 
393   Before the eyes of ladies and of kings. 

394   Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere: 
395   'Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go? 
396   Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes? 
397   For now I see the true old times are dead, 
398   When every morning brought a noble chance, 
399   And every chance brought out a noble knight. 
400   Such times have been not since the light that led 
401   The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh. 
402   But now the whole Round Table is dissolved 
403   Which was an image of the mighty world, 
404   And I, the last, go forth companionless, 
405   And the days darken round me, and the years, 
406   Among new men, strange faces, other minds.' 

407   And slowly answer'd Arthur from the barge: 
408   'The old order changeth, yielding place to new, 
409   And God fulfils himself in many ways, 
410   Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. 
411   Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me? 
412   I have lived my life, and that which I have done 
413   May He within himself make pure! but thou, 
414   If thou shouldst never see my face again, 
415   Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer 
416   Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice 
417   Rise like a fountain for me night and day. 
418   For what are men better than sheep or goats 
419   That nourish a blind life within the brain, 
420   If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer 
421   Both for themselves and those who call them friend? 
422   For so the whole round earth is every way 
423   Bound by gold chains about the feet of God. 
424   But now farewell. I am going a long way 
425   With these thou sest---if indeed I go 
426   (For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)--- 
427   To the island-valley of Avilion; 
428   Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow, 
429   Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies 
430   Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard lawns 
431   And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea, 
432   Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.' 

433   So said he, and the barge with oar and sail 
434   Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan 
435   That, fluting a wild carol ere her death, 
436   Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood 
437   With swarthy webs. Long stood Sir Bedivere 
438   Revolving many memories, till the hull 
439   Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn, 
440   And on the mere the wailing died away. 

441   But when that moan had past for evermore, 
442   The stillness of the dead world's winter dawn 
443   Amazed him, and he groan'd, 'The King is gone.' 
444   And therewithal came on him the weird rhyme, 
445   'From the great deep to the great deep he goes.'

446   Whereat he slowly turn'd and slowly clomb 
447   The last hard footstep of that iron crag; 
448   Thence mark'd the black hull moving yet, and cried, 
449   'He passes to be King among the dead, 
450   And after healing of his grievous wound 
451   He comes again; but---if he come no more--- 
452   O me, be yon dark Queens in yon black boat, 
453   Who shriek'd and wail'd, the three whereat we gazed 
454   On that high day, when, clothed with living light, 
455   They stood before his throne in silence, friends 
456   Of Arthur, who should help him at his need?' 

457   Then from the dawn it seem'd there came, but faint
458   As from beyond the limit of the world, 
459   Like the last echo born of a great cry, 
460   Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice 
461   Around a king returning from his wars. 

462   Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb 
463   Ev'n to the highest he could climb, and saw, 
464   Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand, 
465   Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King, 
466   Down that long water opening on the deep 
467   Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go 
468   From less to less and vanish into light.
469   And the new sun rose bringing the new year.