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- THE TALE OF BALEN - 1/14 -


by Algernon Charles Swinburne



Love that holds life and death in fee, Deep as the clear unsounded sea And sweet as life or death can be, Lays here my hope, my heart, and me Before you, silent, in a song. Since the old wild tale, made new, found grace, When half sung through, before your face, It needs must live a springtide space, While April suns grow strong.

March 24, 1896.


In hawthorn-time the heart grows light, The world is sweet in sound and sight, Glad thoughts and birds take flower and flight, The heather kindles toward the light, The whin is frankincense and flame. And be it for strife or be it for love The falcon quickens as the dove When earth is touched from heaven above With joy that knows no name.

And glad in spirit and sad in soul With dream and doubt of days that roll As waves that race and find no goal Rode on by bush and brake and bole A northern child of earth and sea. The pride of life before him lay Radiant: the heavens of night and day Shone less than shone before his way His ways and days to be.

And all his life of blood and breath Sang out within him: time and death Were even as words a dreamer saith When sleep within him slackeneth, And light and life and spring were one. The steed between his knees that sprang, The moors and woods that shone and sang, The hours where through the spring's breath rang, Seemed ageless as the sun.

But alway through the bounteous bloom That earth gives thanks if heaven illume His soul forefelt a shadow of doom, His heart foreknew a gloomier gloom Than closes all men's equal ways, Albeit the spirit of life's light spring With pride of heart upheld him, king And lord of hours like snakes that sting And nights that darken days.

And as the strong spring round him grew Stronger, and all blithe winds that blew Blither, and flowers that flowered anew More glad of sun and air and dew, The shadow lightened on his soul And brightened into death and died Like winter, as the bloom waxed wide From woodside on to riverside And southward goal to goal.

Along the wandering ways of Tyne, By beech and birch and thorn that shine And laugh when life's requickening wine Makes night and noon and dawn divine And stirs in all the veins of spring, And past the brightening banks of Tees, He rode as one that breathes and sees A sun more blithe, a merrier breeze, A life that hails him king.

And down the softening south that knows No more how glad the heather glows, Nor how, when winter's clarion blows Across the bright Northumbrian snows, Sea-mists from east and westward meet, Past Avon senseless yet of song And Thames that bore but swans in throng He rode elate in heart and strong In trust of days as sweet.

So came he through to Camelot, Glad, though for shame his heart waxed hot, For hope within it withered not To see the shaft it dreamed of shot Fair toward the glimmering goal of fame, And all King Arthur's knightliest there Approved him knightly, swift to dare And keen to bid their records bear Sir Balen's northern name.

Sir Balen of Northumberland Gat grace before the king to stand High as his heart was, and his hand Wrought honour toward the strange north strand That sent him south so goodly a knight. And envy, sick with sense of sin, Began as poisonous herbs begin To work in base men's blood, akin To men's of nobler might.

And even so fell it that his doom, For all his bright life's kindling bloom And light that took no thought for gloom, Fell as a breath from the opening tomb Full on him ere he wist or thought. For once a churl of royal seed, King Arthur's kinsman, faint in deed And loud in word that knew not heed, Spake shame where shame was nought.

"What doth one here in Camelot Whose birth was northward? Wot we not As all his brethren borderers wot How blind of heart, how keen and hot, The wild north lives and hates the south? Men of the narrowing march that knows Nought save the strength of storms and snows, What would these carles where knighthood blows A trump of kinglike mouth?"

Swift from his place leapt Balen, smote The liar across his face, and wrote His wrath in blood upon the bloat Brute cheek that challenged shame for note How vile a king-born knave might be. Forth sprang their swords, and Balen slew The knave ere well one witness knew Of all that round them stood or drew What sight was there to see.

Then spake the great king's wrathful will A doom for six dark months to fill Wherein close prison held him, still And steadfast-souled for good or ill. But when those weary days lay dead His lordliest knights and barons spake Before the king for Balen's sake Good speech and wise, of force to break The bonds that bowed his head.


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.


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