Read CHAPTER II of The Tale of Balen , free online book, by Algernon Charles Swinburne, on

In linden-time the heart is high
For pride of summer passing by
With lordly laughter in her eye;
A heavy splendour in the sky
Uplifts and bows it down again.
The spring had waned from wood and wold
Since Balen left his prison hold
And lowlier-hearted than of old
Beheld it wax and wane.

Though humble heart and poor array
Kept not from spirit and sense away
Their noble nature, nor could slay
The pride they bade but pause and stay
Till time should bring its trust to flower,
Yet even for noble shame’s sake, born
Of hope that smiled on hate and scorn,
He held him still as earth ere morn
Ring forth her rapturous hour.

But even as earth when dawn takes flight
And beats her wings of dewy light
Full in the faltering face of night,
His soul awoke to claim by right
The life and death of deed and doom,
When once before the king there came
A maiden clad with grief and shame
And anguish burning her like flame
That feeds on flowers in bloom.

Beneath a royal mantle, fair
With goodly work of lustrous vair,
Girt fast against her side she bare
A sword whose weight bade all men there
Quail to behold her face again.
Save of a passing perfect knight
Not great alone in force and fight
It might not be for any might
Drawn forth, and end her pain.

So said she: then King Arthur spake:
“Albeit indeed I dare not take
Such praise on me, for knighthood’s sake
And love of ladies will I make
Assay if better none may be.”
By girdle and by sheath he caught
The sheathed and girded sword, and wrought
With strength whose force availed him nought
To save and set her free.

Again she spake: “No need to set
The might that man has matched not yet
Against it: he whose hand shall get
Grace to release the bonds that fret
My bosom and my girdlestead
With little strain of strength or strife
Shall bring me as from death to life
And win to sister or to wife
Fame that outlives men dead.”

Then bade the king his knights assay
This mystery that before him lay
And mocked his might of manhood. “Nay,”
Quoth she, “the man that takes away
This burden laid on me must be
A knight of record clean and fair
As sunlight and the flowerful air,
By sire and mother born to bear
A name to shame not me.”

Then forth strode Launcelot, and laid
The mighty-moulded hand that made
Strong knights reel back like birds affrayed
By storm that smote them as they strayed
Against the hilt that yielded not.
Then Tristram, bright and sad and kind
As one that bore in noble mind
Love that made light as darkness blind,
Fared even as Launcelot.

Then Lamoracke, with hardier cheer,
As one that held all hope and fear
Wherethrough the spirit of man may steer
In life and death less dark or dear,
Laid hand thereon, and fared as they.
With half a smile his hand he drew
Back from the spell-bound thing, and threw
With half a glance his heart anew
Toward no such blameless may.

Between Iseult and Guenevere
Sat one of name as high to hear,
But darklier doomed than they whose cheer
Foreshowed not yet the deadlier year
That bids the queenliest head bow down,
The queen Morgause of Orkney: they
With scarce a flash of the eye could say
The very word of dawn, when day
Gives earth and heaven their crown.

But bright and dark as night or noon
And lowering as a storm-flushed moon
When clouds and thwarting winds distune
The music of the midnight, soon
To die from darkening star to star
And leave a silence in the skies
That yearns till dawn find voice and rise,
Shone strange as fate Morgause, with eyes
That dwelt on days afar.

A glance that shot on Lamoracke
As from a storm-cloud bright and black.
Fire swift and blind as death’s own track
Turned fleet as flame on Arthur back
From him whose hand forsook the hilt:
And one in blood and one in sin
Their hearts caught fire of pain within
And knew no goal for them to win
But death that guerdons guilt.

Then Gawain, sweet of soul and gay
As April ere he dreams of May,
Strove, and prevailed not: then Sir Kay,
The snake-souled envier, vile as they
That fawn and foam and lurk and lie,
Sire of the bastard band whose brood
Was alway found at servile feud
With honour, faint and false and lewd,
Scarce grasped and put it by.

Then wept for woe the damsel bound
With iron and with anguish round,
That none to help her grief was found
Or loose the inextricably inwound
Grim curse that girt her life with grief
And made a burden of her breath,
Harsh as the bitterness of death.
Then spake the king as one that saith
Words bitterer even than brief.

“Methought the wide round world could bring
Before the face of queen or king
No knights more fit for fame to sing
Than fill this full Round Table’s ring
With honour higher than pride of place:
But now my heart is wrung to know,
Damsel, that none whom fame can show
Finds grace to heal or help thy woe:
God gives them not the grace.”

Then from the lowliest place thereby,
With heart-enkindled cheek and eye
Most like the star and kindling sky
That say the sundawn’s hour is high
When rapture trembles through the sea,
Strode Balen in his poor array
Forth, and took heart of grace to pray
The damsel suffer even him to assay
His power to set her free.

Nay, how should he avail, she said,
Averse with scorn-averted head,
Where these availed not? none had sped
Of all these mightier men that led
The lists wherein he might not ride,
And how should less men speed? But he,
With lordlier pride of courtesy,
Put forth his hand and set her free
From pain and humbled pride.

But on the sword he gazed elate
With hope set higher than fear or fate,
Or doubt of darkling days in wait;
And when her thankful praise waxed great
And craved of him the sword again,
He would not give it. “Nay, for mine
It is till force may make it thine.”
A smile that shone as death may shine
Spake toward him bale and bane.

Strange lightning flickered from her eyes.
“Gentle and good in knightliest guise
And meet for quest of strange emprise
Thou hast here approved thee: yet not wise
To keep the sword from me, I wis.
For with it thou shalt surely slay
Of all that look upon the day
The man best loved of thee, and lay
Thine own life down for his.”

“What chance God sends, that chance I take,”
He said. Then soft and still she spake;
“I would but for thine only sake
Have back the sword of thee, and break
The links of doom that bind thee round.
But seeing thou wilt not have it so,
My heart for thine is wrung with woe.”
“God’s will,” quoth he, “it is, we know,
Wherewith our lives are bound.”

“Repent it must thou soon,” she said,
“Who wouldst not hear the rede I read
For thine and not for my sake, sped
In vain as waters heavenward shed
From springs that falter and depart
Earthward. God bids not thee believe
Truth, and the web thy life must weave
For even this sword to close and cleave
Hangs heavy round my heart.”

So passed she mourning forth. But he,
With heart of springing hope set free
As birds that breast and brave the sea,
Bade horse and arms and armour be
Made straightway ready toward the fray.
Nor even might Arthur’s royal prayer
Withhold him, but with frank and fair
Thanksgiving and leave-taking there
He turned him thence away.