Monday, May 9, 2011

"The Queen's Servant"

On request, I'm posting a poem of Charles Williams, from his second Arthurian collection "The Region of the Summer Stars." The poem is called "The Queen's Servant." I am posting this poem without permission, but the relevant books are out of print, and used editions come only expensively. Any typographical errors are mine alone; I found none in the edition I'm using ("Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso," (CW and C. S. Lewis, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974).

The lord Kay wrote to the lord Taliessin:
'Now the queen's majesty has need of a maid
for certain works -- to read Greek and translate,
to manage the building of rose-gardens, to wait
about her in actions of office; one who knows
the rhythms of ceremony, also of the grand art.
The house of Your Sublimity, besides its name in battle,
sends forth a fame of such knowledgeable creatures; please
the king's poet to sign this warrant I send,
adding what name he choose to bear it back.'

Taliessin sent for one of his proved household,
proper to the summons, near his thought. She came;
he exhibited the warrant, saying: 'Now be free.
The royalties of Logres are not slavishly served,
nor have you deserved these years less of Us
than to go to the queen's meinie.' She said: 'So.
Freedom, I see, is the final task of servitude.
Yet buy, sir, still what was bought in your thought --
myself with a clear sum purchased from the world.
Though I pay the ransom now, it is but with your gold;
hold well now to the purpose of the purchase.
How shall I serve else?' He said: 'The spells
of Merlin were mighty in time, but rhyme trebles
the significance of time. Where once did We buy you?'
She answered: 'In a shire of Caucasia, when my lord,
growing in glory of song, passed from Byzantium
eastward through Caucasia.' He said: 'The lambs
that wander among roses of Caucasia are golden-lamped.
I have seen from its blue skies a flurry of snow
bright as a sudden irrepressible smile
drive across a golden-fleeced landscape.'
'Nay,' she said, 'though I was bought there,
have I ever seen such a place? Sir, what shire
is noted for such fair weather?' He answered: 'Read
the maps in Merlin's books or Ours or the one
small title We brought by the Emperor's leave from Byzantium.
Or even learn it a quicker way. Unclothe.
We who bought you furnish you. As was Our thought,
so be the truth, for Our thought was as the truth.
Know by Our sight the Rite that invokes Sarras
lively and lifelong. O We most unworthy!'
She cast her garments from her; shining-naked
and rose-flushed she stood; in that calm air,
fair body and fair soul one organic
whole -- so the purchase, so the purpose,
the prayer of Dindrane in the convent at Almesbury so
and the benediction (unspoken yet) of Galahad
on all the derivations. The lord Taliessin
said: 'And so, in a high eirenical shire,
are flashing flaunts of snow across azure skies,
golden fleeces, and gardens of deep roses.
There, through the rondures, eyes as quick as clear
see, small but very certain, Byzantium,
or even in a hope the beyond-sea meadows
that, as in a trope of verse, Caucasia shadows.
Uncurtain the roses.' He named a blessing from Merlin,
and she stretched her open hands to the air; there
they were full at once of roses; again and again
she gathered and flung them at Taliessin's feet --
brushing off buds that clung to her, crimson, centifoliae,
Caucasian roses gently falling in Camelot.
Art-magic spiritual, they neither faded
nor vanished; so holy, over all wizards, was Merlin.
The whole room was shaded crimson from them.
Taliessin lifted his hand; she stayed; he sang
a sweet borrowed craft from Broceliande,
and the room grew full at once of the bleat of lambs.
Visibly forming, there fell on the heaped roses
tangles and curds of golden wool; the air
was moted gold in the rose-tinctured chamber --
as in the land of the Trinity those few
who have seen say that the light is clear or roseal
or golden-cream, each in each and again in each.
Taliessin said: 'Thus the gathering through Broceliande
of the riches of Caucasia; but We -- did We not see
a poet in Italy do more for a beggar
by the grace of the Lord? neither wizard nor saint
are We; yet something perhaps -- Let the Flesh-taking
aid Us now for the making of Your Excellency's coat,
if it please the Mercy.' Thrice he genuflected,
thrice he murmured inaudible Latin, thrice
with blessed hands he touched the roses and the wool.
The roses climbed around her; shoulder to knee,
they clung and twined and changed to a crimson kirtle.
The wool rose gently on no wind,
and it was flung to her shoulders; behind her, woven of itself,
it feel in full folds to a gold-creamed cloak;
hued almost as the soft redeemed flesh
hiding the flush of the rich redeemed blood
in the land of the Trinity, where the Holy Ghost works
creation and sanctification of flesh and blood.
Taliessin fastened the cloak with his own brooch
at her throat; only he drew round her the old leathern
girdle, for a bond and a quiet oath
to gather freedom as once she gathered servitude.
Shoes he fetched her from the household's best store,
to wear still the recollection of her peers,
under whatever election she graced them still.
Clothed and brilliant, she faced the king's poet.
He said: 'So bright? yet be seen now in Camelot.'
The colour's height about her a little quenched
its power; she, still drenched by the power,
murmured: 'Let my lord end this hour with a gift
other than the Rite; that the Rite be certain, let
my lord seal me to it and it to me.'
Gravely, considering the work, the king's poet said:
'As the Roman master sets his bondman free?
or the bishop in the Roman rite the instructed neophyte
at his proper confirmation?' She said: 'To choose
were insolence too much and of too strange a kind;
my lord knows my mind.' Her eyes were set
upon him, companion to companion, peer to peer.
He sent his energy wholly into hers.
'Nay,' he said, 'henceforth, in the queen's house,
be the nothing We made you, making you something.'
Lightly he struck her face; at once the blast
of union struck her heart, the art-magic
blended fast with herself, while all she
burned before him, colour of cloak and kirtle
surpassed by colour of flesh and blood and soul
whole and organic in the divined redemption
after the kind of Christ and the order of Logres.
He said: 'Till death and after,' and she: 'Till death,
and so long as the whole creation has any being,
the derivation in certain, and the doom accomplished.'

In his room at Camelot the king's poet signed
the warrant; he gave it to the queen's free servant,
saying: 'Carry this to the lord Kay, companion.
Be as Ourself in Logres; be as Dindrane
under the Protection, and in the Protection prosper.
Depart, with God.' She said: 'Remain, in God.'