Saturday, November 29, 2014


A romantic re-writing though it does not really enrich the original tale


This poem is surprising in its very shape.

The first part stages Tristram waiting for Iseult who is to arrive in Brittany to heal him from his latest poisoning after his latest battle, but we know better and we know it was his last battle. He is going to die. He comes and goes back in and out of consciousness. The small sections of his own discourse are sad but the most interesting sections are the long poetic ranting and raving in-between the short conscious declarations or calls. These long sections are in a very strange rhythmic pattern indeed.

The basic lines have three or four feet but the longer ones are split into two parts and we end up with short two feet or three feet units that are sounding, due to the heavy rhyming or sound patterns like rap more than romantic poetry. For example these six lines, each cut up in two, with the rhyming pattern

What Knight is this
so weak and pale, (1)
Though the locks are yet
brown on his noble head, (2)
Propt on pillows
in his bed, (2)
Gazing seawards
for the light (3)
Of some ship
that fights the gale (1)
On this wild
December night? (3)

And this very first section of this type at the very beginning of this first part of the poem has not yet caught its most vivid rhythm. It will evolve and it will remain irregular yet though pounding very strongly in our ears. It sounds like a poetry that has to be read aloud and listened to, not just plain read. This indeed is in phase with the old medieval poetry of the minstrels who went from castle to castle just to play their harps or their lutes and sing their romances and poems. The evolution leads to some sections like the following that are a lot stronger in their hammering.

Ah, sweet angels,
let him dream! (1)
Keep his eyelids!
let him seem (1)
Not this fever-
wasted wight (2)
Thinn’d and pal’d
before his time, (3)
But the brilliant
youthful knight (2)
In the glory
of his prime, (3)
Sitting in the
gilded barge, (4)
At thy side, thou
lovely charge! (4)

The general rhyming pattern is A-A-B-C-B-C-D-D, two rhymed couplets embracing two crossed pairs. And the rhythm is very fast and regular. You have to deliver each small piece in one breath of course but also in practically the same intonation, monotonous and flat though slightly climbing up on the rhymes. You add to this the systematic couples of words or sounds that balance every line, most of the time from the first half onto the second half and you have that throbbing or tormenting, why not lancinating music like death lurking around Tristram and waiting for its/his hour.

The second part starts with the dialogue between Tristram and Iseult. Tristram dies in the middle and then Iseult dies in her turn. We note this version suppresses the vengeful and trite if not mean lie of the Iseult of Brittany about the black or white sail. Alternating four line stanzas of pentameters with one rhyme on the second and third lines. This rhyming pattern thus expands the pentameters to a vaster and hence slower rhythm that fits both the dying and the love of these two doomed lovers. After nine alternating stanzas, Iseult delivers nine stanzas of her own, nine twice or eighteen, the number of the beast, three times six, but also nine the number of death, the ninth hour of Jesus dying on his cross. Then an alternating pair of stanzas and Tristram dies at the end of four and a half stanzas. His death is the completion of the pentacle closed up by the second half of the fifth stanzas said by Iseult who dies in her turn. And exceptionally these four lines are rhymed and crossed

Now to sail the seas of Death I leave thee
One last kiss upon the living shore!
Tristram!—Tristram!—stay—receive me with thee!
Iseult leaves thee, Tristram, never more.

And she dies. The last part is then a long reflection of the poet onto the events and then later the tapestry itself representing a hunting scene speaks to us and wonders about what it sees at its feet. And the conclusion is the evocation of a hunting scene as if we were finally at peace contemplating the tapestry itself, or maybe contemplating the vast landscape of the world beyond, the prairie of the almighty God in which Tristram will forever gallop after some boar or deer. Once a knight, forever a knight.

The most surprising section is the third one since it is a later vision of the heritage of Tristram but seen with the eyes of Iseult of Brittany. The section is not really needed. It does not amplify the lovers’ fate. It rather dilutes the tragic and sad ending into some mishy-mashy situation especially since Iseult has a couple of children, a boy and a girl and we are not really able to see the connection of these children with Tristram since Tristram was supposed never to have had any intercourse with his wife. Is it the idea from the author of this poem that such doomed couples will always exist, that the heritage of Tristram and Iseult is in this very doomed lot or is it sacrifice? And the poet uses a similar trick to that of the end of the second part. Iseult of Brittany tells a tale to the children to make them sleep and the tale is about Merlin and Vivian, the woman he is supposed to have loved. Then is it the meaning that humanity is doomed to repeat what happened between Merlin and Vivian, this doomed love from Merlin to the absolutely off-limit Vivian that cannot be loved by anyone. Merlin was then the prisoner of the curse that came with his love.

Is human love cursed? That’s what this poem sounds like. The curse of the philter, the “lovedrink,” the “vin herbé” prepared by Iseult’s mother was only a curse when it was not drunk by those targeted by the “magician” or the “witch,” hence when it was hijacked. Otherwise it is only a link between the two people who are supposed to drink it, a link comparable to a prison. Love is doomed, love is slavery in a way or another, a happy slavery if not misplaced, or a tragic slavery if diverted or misappropriated.

This apocalyptic vision of love is quite in phase with the romantic period of Matthew Arnold but in the medieval period, in fact in the long period before the romance ever was written down and during which it was invented, elaborated, created, imagined or whatever by many people, some poets, some not, and transmitted from one generation to the next orally with or without harp or lute music, maybe pipes and flutes, certainly some light percussions, the tale was different and corresponded to the emergence of love and the conflict it brought into society since it went against the tradition, the social rules and habits of marrying young girls to older men. Marriage was nothing but a social market where peace or war could be peddled in full light. Love could only disturb this established custom if not rule or even law. This whole mental revolution is behind the tale and will find some marvelous development with Romeo and Juliet or of course the doomed pairs of the romantic age like in the stories of Faust, Werther, Siegfried and so many others, English, French or German alike.


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