Gottfried von Strassburg

Tristan: Part VII - The Love Potion

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2020 All Rights Reserved

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Last Modified 6th January 2020


Tristan and King Gurmun confirm their agreement

NOW, the king, when all was done,

Told them, every knight and baron,

All the companions of the realm,

All his knights of sword and helm,

That the man who there did stand,

Was, in plain truth, the lord Tristan.

Then he the tale for them began,

Of why Tristan was in Ireland,

And how he’d promised sureties,

On all the various points that he,

Gurmun, demanded, every one,

In the presence of Mark’s barons.

The nobles of Ireland were glad

To hear of this news, and bade

The king to make peace, the thing

Being, indeed, more than fitting,

Since the passage of time only

Brought greater mutual enmity.

The king now asked if Tristan

Would ratify the matter in hand,

Which he had said was his intent,

And Tristan gave it his assent.

Then he and Mark’s barons swore

That Cornwall should, for evermore,

Be Iseult’s, twas her dower, I mean,

And of all England would be queen.

So Gurmun did Iseult the Fair

Surrender to her enemy there,

Tristan; her enemy yet, I say,

For she still hated him alway.

Tristan now took her by the hand,

‘Sire, fair Lord and King of Ireland,

We now request, this lady and I,

In both our names, that those who lie

Here, sent as tribute to this land,

From Cornwall or from England,

Whether they be page or knight,

Be delivered to her, for tis right,

That they should now be legally

Hers, as the queen of their country.’

‘Willingly,’ said the king, ‘tis done.

For my pleasure is that every one

Depart with you.’ And many a heart

Joyed at this, and the word ‘depart’.

Tristan prepares to depart with Iseult the Fair

TRISTAN then asked for a vessel,

While readying his own, as well,

For himself, Iseult, and for those

Of their company that he chose.

And once this had been secured,

He made arrangements on shore

To learn of all his countrymen,

Now exiled there, and send for them,

Whether elsewhere or yet at court,

And bring them together once sought.

Iseult the Elder prepares a Love-Potion

NOW, while Tristan and company

Were about this, and making ready,

Iseult the wise, with skill and care,

Did a compound in a vial, prepare,

A love-potion, subtly conceived,

Imbued with powers that deceived

Those who sipped it, in such a way,

That any man must love whomever

He drank it with, above any other,

Whether he wished it so, or no,

While she must love that man, also.

They one life, one death would share,

One joy and one sorrow would bear.

Glory to Tristan

‘The Magic Casket’
Wagners Tristan and Isolde - Richard le Gallienne, Edward Zeigler and George Alfred Williams (p28, 1909)
Internet Archive Book Images

This potion the wise queen then

Gave, speaking softly, to Brangwen:

‘Brangwen, dear niece, trouble not

Though parting now proves your lot,

Go with my daughter, set your mind

To that, and harken, here you’ll find

A draught within that you must keep

Secure, whether you wake or sleep.

Make certain none upon this earth

Learns aught of it, or of its worth.

And take care that none there sip,

Nor touch this vessel to their lip.

Yet now there comes the hardest part:

Once you know that Iseult and Mark

Are joined in true union together,

Then have them both drink this liquor,

As if twere wine, and drink it all.

Yet beware lest it should befall

That any share the drink with them;

Beware such, and then again

Drink not yourself when they do;

For this love-potion I did brew.

Bear that in mind; now sincerely,

I commend her, and most dearly,

To your care, my Iseult; the better

Part of my life’s bound up in her.

Now she and I are in your hands,

And I express no more demands,

But, as you hope for blessedness,

Show her all your loving kindness.’

‘Dear lady,’ came Brangwen’s reply,

‘If you both wish it, then shall I

Go with her, and guard her honour,

In all that may reflect upon her,

As well, indeed, as ever I can.’

Tristan and Iseult set sail

SO they all took their leave, Tristan

And his company, of whoever,

And then left Wexford together,

Joyfully, while the king and queen,

Out of love for Iseult, were seen

To follow them to the harbour;

Indeed the whole court was there.

His undreamed of love-to-be,

His unending heart’s-agony,

Iseult the fair and wondrous,

Went grieving, sadly anxious,

Oft weeping, at Tristan’s side.

Her father and mother beside

Passed the precious moments left

Grieving. Iseult brought distress

To many a heart; many an eye

Filled with tears; many a sigh

Was uttered, once and yet again,

For she stirred many a heart’s-pain.

For fair Iseult, their eyes’ delight

They wept, it was a grievous sight

To view their sorrow, everywhere,

Many a heart and eye wept there,

Whether they grieved so, publicly,

Or privately, and secretly.

And now was there anguish and grief,

Now that they must take their leave,

And Iseult the Fair must depart,

The sun from her dawn must part,

Iseult from Iseult, Brangwen too,

The bright Full Moon, must go, the two

Saying their farewells to the one,

Pain and sorrow seemed scarce begun.

That loyal company of three

Was severed, while repeatedly

Iseult the wise kissed the two.

Once the ladies’ Irish retinue,

And the Cornishmen were aboard,

Having cast their farewells abroad,

Tristan was the last to embark

With the bride to be of King Mark,

Leading that flower of Ireland,

The fair princess, by the hand,

She as saddened as ere before.

And then they bowed toward the shore,

And bade God’s blessing on that land,

Its folk, and those who there did stand.

And then the ships put out to sea

While, as they left that fair country,

They sang an anthem, one and all:

‘Whenas we sail, on God we call!’

In high clear voices; then once more,

As they sped swiftly from the shore.

Tristan and Iseult at odds

NOW Tristan had, for the ladies,

Decked out a cabin, its privacy

Arranged for their ease aboard;

The best the vessel could afford.

There Iseult the Fair could rest,

And, but for Tristan, as a guest,

No other folk might enter there

Except her ladies who did share.

There he would comfort her as she

Sorrowed, weeping copiously,

Saddened at leaving her own land

Where her friends were e’er to hand,

Journeying to wed some stranger,

Sailing now she knew not whither.

Tristan would seek to console her,

His attentions gentle and tender,

Whenever he came to ease her woe,

Taking her hands, in her sorrow,

And yet in no other manner

Than the most faithful courtier,

Loyally seeking to express

His sympathy for her distress.

Yet when he offered to support

Her on his arm, she but thought,

That lovely girl, about the death

Of Morholt, and drew in a breath.

‘Let be, master,’ she said, ‘and stay

Apart from me; no, further away.

What a tiresome man you prove,

Touch me not, your arm remove.’

‘Ah, lovely one, do I offend you?

‘Indeed tis so, since I do hate you.’

‘Blessed girl, why should that be?’

‘Why? Because you did mortally

Wound Morholt, my uncle, no less.’

But that is settled.’ Nonetheless,

I hate you yet, since but for you

Never such care had then ensued.

You, you alone, brought misery,

With your cunning and trickery.

What sent you to our fair land,

From Cornwall to our Ireland,

To work me ill? For you have torn

Me from the place where I was born

And my kin, and brought such care,

Carrying me to I know not where;

Bartered twixt country and country,

Who knows what will become of me?’

‘No, lovely Iseult, ease is at hand;

Better a queen in a foreign land,

Than weak and powerless at home.

Ease and honour, beyond the foam,

Surely seem to promise better

Than a humble place with your father?’

‘No, master, no, whate’er you say;

For I tell you I’d choose, any day,

The most humble place you’ll find,

With affection, and peace of mind,

Than the pain and trouble that goes

With wealth, and all that from it flows.’

‘Well, you are right.’ replied Tristan;

‘You will have here, you understand,

Wealth and contentment, however,

And those two blessings together,

Are better than either one alone.

And then again, recall that at home

You saw no other choice but to be

The steward’s bride, well now, tell me,

Did you not truly desire my aid?

Is this my thanks for the effort I made,

That delivered you from such a fate?’

‘You will have long indeed to wait,

Ere I thank you; if you have saved

Me from the steward, you behaved

In such a way that I’d rather bear

With that marriage than feel such care

And trouble, in setting sail with you,

For his cause he claimed was true.

However worthless he did appear,

If he were with me, have no fear,

He would quickly mend his ways.

Thus he might prove, all his days,

Being finer than you suppose,

That he doth love me, God knows.’

‘Tristan replied: ‘Why, what a tale,

With which my fancy you regale!

To act so against one’s nature

Takes courage. And then win honour?

Why, no one in this world believes

That he will change who once deceives.

Lovely woman, forgo your grief.

You shall have, tis my firm belief,

A king to be your lord that ever

Will bring you both wealth and honour,

With whom you shall find, as his wife,

Great joy, and live the virtuous life.’

Tristan and Iseult drink the Love-Potion

How Tristan and Iseult unknowing drank

‘How Tristan and Iseult unknowing drank’
The Story of Tristan and Iseult, Vol II - Jessie L Weston and Caroline Watts (p1, 1907)
Internet Archive Book Images

MEANWHILE, the vessels held their course,

The wind blowing with steady force,

So that that they swiftly forged ahead.

Yet Iseult and her ladies, instead,

Unused to the wild wind and water,

Of this voyage, made heavy weather;

And soon they were in sore distress.

Tristan, the master, this did address

By seeking shelter, close at hand,

As they were now in sight of land.

After anchoring they, as oft before,

Or the most of them, went ashore,

To seek diversion, while Tristan

Sought out Iseult the Fair, his hand

He gave her, they spoke together,

And, while sitting there beside her,

Talking of one thing and another,

Of mutual interest to each other,

He called for a cooling beverage.

Only some maids of tender age,

Her youngest ladies-in-waiting,

Were present, and one child, knowing

Of the glass vial, promptly cried:

‘There’s wine, already set aside.’

And yet no wine from that would flow, 

But only ever-lasting sorrow,

That anguish, their true heart’s-pain,

That brought but death in its sad train.

Yet that the child could not know;

She rose at once, and she did go

To where the vial had been stowed,

And to Tristan the vial she showed,

And he to Iseult gave the drink,

And she, uncertain what to think,

Delaying long, drank deep, and then

Handed the vial to him again.

Tristan drank deep; there was no sign

The bottle contained aught but wine.

At that moment, Brangwen entered,

Saw the empty vial, and gathered

What had happened and was then

So shocked and fearful her strength

Deserted her, yet, pale as death,

She seized the vial and, in a breath,

Hastened to drown it in the sea.

‘Alas!’ cried Brangwen, ‘woe is me;

Alas that ever I was born!

Honour, and trust, both now I mourn!

May God forgive me, and show pity

That ever I came upon this journey,

That swift death did not prevent me,

From voyaging with Iseult for, see,

What sad fortune befalls them there,

In this fatal, ill-starred, affair!

Tristan, Iseult; it shall prove true,

This potion will bring death to you!’

The Love Philtre

‘The Love Philtre’
Wagners Tristan and Isolde - Richard le Gallienne, Edward Zeigler and George Alfred Williams (p48, 1909)
Internet Archive Book Images

Tristan and Iseult are overcome by Love

NOW when the maiden and the man,

Iseult the Fair, and this Tristan,

Drank the draught, then instantly,

Came Love, that all tranquility

Disturbs, the troubler of the heart,

And entered into theirs; Love’s art

Is such, ere either was aware,

She planted her brave standard there,

Bringing them both beneath her sway,

For both were overcome that day.

They who were two hearts divided,

Became as one and, there, united,

Their minds at variance no longer,

For Iseult’s ire had fled from her;

It was not Tristan now she feared,

For Love, the Reconciler, cleared

Their hearts of all antipathy,

And so bound them in amity,

That each was, before the other,

Bright and clear as any mirror.

They shared but a single heart,

For neither was at peace apart;

Now her sorrow was his pain,

And his pain her sorrow again,

The two were one in joy or woe,

And yet they hid the fact also,

In their uncertainty and shame;

For shame she felt, and he the same,

She was uncertain, as was he,

Both shared the like uncertainty.

However blind the heart’s desire,

Fuelled by that same inner fire,

They knew not yet how to begin,

And hid their longing deep within.

When Tristan felt the pangs of love,

The ties of faith and honour proved

Full strong, he sought then to retreat.

‘No, forgo this,’ he would repeat

In his thoughts, ‘distract yourself,

Tristan, and think about aught else

But this.’ Yet, ever drawn to her,

His heart her presence did prefer;

Against his wishes, he wished still,

And willed contrary to his will,

Dragged one way and then another.

Held captive, an imprisoned lover,

Tristan struggled thus in the snare,

Yet, endlessly entangled there,

Ever persisted in that state.

It was this true man’s bitter fate

To be cursed with a dual pain:

For, on viewing her face again,

Sweet Love piercing heart and mind

Through her, he was forced to bind

Himself to true Honour once more,

And so be healed, yet evermore

Love, who was now his liege lady,

Whom his father had served gladly,

Armed herself, took to the field,

And forced him yet again to yield.

Honour then, and fair Loyalty,

Tormented Tristan endlessly,

But Love the sharper weapon bore,

For she indeed harassed him more,

Than Honour and Loyalty together,

Seeing Iseult his heart smiled ever,

And yet he turned his gaze away;

And yet his greatest grief, I say,

Was when his eyes failed to see her.

Oft, like any poor prisoner,

Escape was foremost in his mind,

As he sought some new path to find

To evade her, and oft he thought:

‘Come take this way or that! If caught

Then you must seek a fresh passion,

Grasp whate’er restores your reason,

Find love and friendship elsewhere.’

And yet the noose but tightened there.

He searched within his heart and mind,

Some alteration thought to find,

But naught in either one did move

That spoke not of Iseult and Love.

And for Iseult it proved the same.

Harassed so by longing and shame,

She would change this life of pain.

Feeling the birdlime spread, again

And again, by bewitching Love,

Finding that she could barely move,

She endeavoured to quit the bough

But the birdlime clung to her now

And drew her ever down and back.

The lovely woman, caught alack,

Struggled hard but now stuck fast,

Yielding, against her will, at last,

Twisted and turned, that way and this,

Strove to fly, and yet, all amiss,

With her limbs mired ever deeper

Simply entangled them further,

In the blind sweetness of Love

And the man, and failed to move.

Ne’er could her limed senses find

Any bridge, path, twig to climb,

Take half a step, an inch or two,

Without Love being present too.

Think though she might, she would find

Whatever first entered her mind

There was naught within its span,

Other than Love and this Tristan.

And yet all that none could surmise;

At variance were her heart and eyes.

Though Modesty turned her eyes away,

Love drew her heart to him alway.

From all this warring company,

Man, maid, Love and Modesty,

Her doubt and confusion began;

For the maid desired the man,

And yet she turned her eyes away,

Though he drew her heart alway;

Modesty longed for Love yet she

Told no one of her plight, you see;

What good in that? All are agreed,

A maid, her modesty, is indeed

But a delicate and transient thing,

As brief as the blossom in spring,

And only a moment doth endure.

And thus Iseult struggled no more

And yielded, as she had to do.

Vanquished, without more ado,

Body and soul both, hand in hand,

She rendered to Love and the man.

She sent out glances, now and then,

Watching him secretly, then again,

With clear eyes and mind likewise.

Covertly, lovingly, heart and eyes

Darted eagerly towards the man,

While he with tender looks began

Quietly, then, to return her gaze,

Now yielding in similar ways,

Since Love declined to let him go.

Whenever they met they did so;

On every suitable occasion,

Yet within the bounds of reason,

Feasting their eyes on each other,

For lover seemed fairer to lover,

As is Love’s law, affection’s way,

And ever has been so, as today,

And shall be so for evermore,

As long as Love shall yet endure;

For among all lovers everywhere,

As love grows and then doth bear

Its blossom, and forth doth bring

Each loved and beloved thing,

Then they please each other more

Than ever the pair did before

When their love at first did spring;

Each to each doth pleasure bring;

For Love makes, as it doth rise,

Each fairer in the other’s eyes.

This is the seed of Love, say I,

Such that true Love shall never die.

For Love seems fairer than before,

And so Love’s rule shall endure.

If Love remained as heretofore,

Then Love’s rule would be no more.

The lovers reveal their love

THE ships put out to sea again,

Sailing happily o’er the main,

Except that Love had now waylaid

Two hearts that from their course had strayed;

Two lovers there were much oppressed,

Burdened now by that sweet unrest

That works its miracles on all,

And can convert honey to gall,

And can render the sweetness sour,

And burn the dewfall, such its power,

And true balm can turn to poison,

And can every heart dishearten,

And turn the whole world upside down.

And had so in its meshes bound

Iseult the Fair and this Tristan.

One woe the woman and the man

Afflicted, in the strangest way,

For neither could find rest, I say,

Except they gazed upon each other;

Yet when they gazed at one another,

The pair seemed troubled ever,

For they could do naught together,

Due to the modesty and shyness,

That ever thwarted their happiness.

For when they tried, all covertly,

With their enraptured eyes to see

Each other, then the heart and mind

The aspect of each face defined.

Love the colourist, thought it not

Sufficient to lie, but half-forgot,

In the depths of each noble heart,

In their faces she showed her art.

Indeed in both was there manifest

The sign of what they both suppressed,

Since but briefly the colour stayed.

Each blushed or paled, as Love bade,

Whene’er the other paled or blushed;

This face paled, those cheeks seemed flushed,

In turn, as Love applied each hue.

It was not long then ere they knew,

As is common in such affairs,

That all their thoughts and their cares

Were enmeshed, and spoke of Love,

And they began at once to prove,

And venture, signs of affection,

Sought each other’s conversation,

Whispering the when and where.

Oft now, as Love’s hunting pair,

They’d set an ambush or a blind,

Lay nets and snares now for the mind,

With every question, every answer.

The words that Iseult used were ever

Those appropriate to a maid,

For her approach was subtly made,

She circled her friend and lover,

At a distance she would hover,

Nearing from afar, but gently.

She reminded him of how he

Had come floating on the foam,

To Dublin, wounded and alone;

How her mother had cared for him;

How she’d skilfully healed him;

How she, Iseult the Fair, had learned,

With him as tutor, and discerned

The arts of reading, of writing,

And then learned music, and Latin;

And she recalled all she had heard

Of his manly exploits, every word,

And thereby of the dragon too;

And then how twice she saw and knew

That it was he, as twould appear,

Both in his bath, and in the mere.

Thus they conversed with one another;

She spoke with him, and he with her.

‘Alas,’ cried Iseult, ‘had I again

The means to slay you, as I did then,

In that bath! Heaven, tell me why

I did not kill you, watch you die.

Had I known then what I know now,

I would have slain you, I avow!’

‘Why, fair Iseult?’ he cried, ‘Why so?

What troubles you? What is’t you know?’

‘That which I know, it troubles me.

It brings me pain, that which I see.

The sky above me, the wide sea,

Body and soul, all weigh on me!’

With her arm she leant against him;

And thus it was they dared begin.

The bright mirrors of her eyes filled

With tears, the heart within her swelled,

Her lips distended, her head bowed

As far as plain modesty allowed,

Towards her breast; as for her friend,

His arms about her he did extend;

He held her close, yet not too tight,

Appropriately, as a friend might.

Then he whispered, softly and gently:

‘Sweet lovely woman, come tell me

What vexes you, what brings you woe?’

Lameir it is that troubles me so,’

Said Iseult, Love’s Falcon, then,

Lameir it is that brings me pain,

Lameir it is that oppresses me.’

As she’d cried lameir repeatedly,

Tristan began to think, and weigh

The meaning of the word, and say

It to himself, and then review

The sound carefully, for he knew

L’amer was ‘the beloved’ or ‘love’,

L’amer whatever ‘bitter’ did prove,

And then la mer it was ‘the sea’;

Indeed it meant at least these three.

He ignored the first and asked her

About the other two; rather

Than Love that surely ruled the pair,

Their mutual hope and despair.

All he mentioned was ‘sea’ and ‘bitter’.

‘I think, fair Iseult,’ he told her,

‘The bitter brine is troubling you,

Sea spray and the wind’s taste too.

Is it those two you find so bitter?’

‘No, my lord, no; tis not either;

Why say so? Neither troubles me,

Neither the wind’s taste nor the sea

Distress me, though I say again,

Lameir alone doth bring me pain.’

When on the word he did begin,

He found ‘beloved’ there within,

And whispered to her, tenderly:

‘Truly, fair one, tis so with me;

Lameir and you are my distress,

For here are love and bitterness.

Beloved Iseult, dear heart,

You alone, through Love’s sweet art,

Have so occupied my mind,

And stolen my senses, that I find

Myself so utterly astray

I ne’er again shall find my way.

Much it troubles and oppresses,

Much it weakens and distresses,

All else that I now see about me.

In all the world naught’s dear to me

Naught occupies my heart but you.’

Said Iseult: ‘Tis thus with me, too.

Now when the two lovers did find

That both of them were of one mind,

With but one heart, and but one will

Between them, this fair balm did fill

Their hearts, and assuage their pain,

And yet exposed the wound again.

For each addressed more openly,

The other, and more daringly,

The man the maid, the maid the man.

They continued as they began,

He kissed her, and she kissed him,

Sweetly, lovingly, and on whim.

Here indeed was a blissful start

To Love’s remedy for the heart.

Each poured and drank again, full slow,

Sweetness that from the heart did flow.

As they found opportunity,

So, to and fro, yet secretly,

This sweet traffic flowed between

Such that by none was their love seen;

None knew their mind, or thought it so,

Except one, who could not but know.

Brangwen questions the lovers

THAT one was Brangwen, the wise,

Who cautiously would cast her eyes

Towards them, and seeing how they

Behaved, oft to herself did say:

‘Alas, for now I see tis true,

Love indeed doth enchant these two.’

Nor had it taken her long to see

That they were in earnest, for she

Detected, with little need for art,

The pain deep in each one’s heart.

And she grieved at their suffering,

Watching them pining and sighing,

And sorrowing and languishing,

And musing deeply and dreaming,

Their faces, oft changing colour.

They were so entranced, moreover,

That they took scant nourishment,

Until the lack and their discontent,

So undermined their health that she,

Brangwen, feared what she did see,

And that twould kill them in the end,

For pain and hunger that way tend,

And said to herself: ‘Come, my dear,

Reflect on what is happening here!’

One day the girl, wise, discerning,

Was seated beside them talking,

Full privately, and quietly.

‘There are none here but we three,’

She declared: ‘So tell me true,

What is it ails the pair of you?

I see you ever lost in thought,

Moping, sorrowing, distraught.’

‘Noble lady, Tristan replied,

 ‘If I dared, I would,’ and sighed.

‘My lord, you may so dare; speak now;

For you may tell me aught, I vow.’

‘Lady most blest,’ he thus did say,

 ‘I shall speak no more this day,

Unless your give your word of honour,

Kindness, goodness you will show her,

And I, poor wretches that we are,

Or else tis dim and lost, our star.’

Brangwen gave them both her word,

Swore to them that aught she heard

Would be between them, and further,

As God was her witness, whatever

They wished of her, that she would do.

Said Tristan: ‘My lady, fair and true,

Think of God and your salvation,

And then consider our situation,

The pain and trouble we endure.

I know, of all this, nothing more

Than you, the ills Iseult and I

Suffer; yet we are like to die

Of this love that’s driven us mad,

In a trice, bringing torments sad;

For we can win no time together,

Nor e’en speak one with the other,

For you go always to and fro,

And if we die of your doing so

Twill be no one’s fault but yours.

In you doth lie our sole recourse,

Our life or death is in your hand,

What more now need you understand?

Brangwen, have mercy upon us,

Lady, help me, and your mistress.’

Brangwen acts as go-between

BRANGWEN turned to Iseult again:

‘My lady, is your own heart’s-pain

As great as this man here implied?’

‘Yes, dearest cousin,’ Iseult replied.

‘God have pity then,’ Brangwen said,

Sighing deeply, bowing her head,

‘The Devil himself thus has sought

To make mock of us, for his sport!

Now I see there’s no help for it;

I must act, to my sorrow, in this.

For your sakes, and to your shame,

Rather than let you die of this same,

I’ll grant you opportunity

To do whate’er you would, privately.

Apart from aught which you forgo

Because your honour tells you so,

You shall not from aught abstain.

Yet if you can, from this, refrain;

Command yourselves, and restrain

Your love; my counsel is: refrain.

Let this affair a secret be,

Known, indeed, only to us three.

If tis but whispered in conversation,

Then it costs each your reputation.

If any knows of it but we three,

It will bring death to you and me.

Lovely Iseult, my mistress dear,

To your own hands I render here

Your life, your death; you may do

With death and life as pleases you;

Have no fear or concern for me,

But as you wish it, so let it be.’

And that night, as Iseult the Fair

Lay pining for her beloved there,

To her cabin came that same man

Her love, with the true physician

Love, who indeed led in the man;

Love, her physician, led Tristan

Her patient there; and by the hand,

She took Iseult, and there did stand,

Gave her to him, and he to her,

To prove a balm to each other.

What else could have saved them

From the ills that enslaved them,

But that union, beyond all defence,

That knot that binds body and sense?

Love the Ensnarer, snared their hearts

In the net of her sweetness, her arts

Being such, all her wondrous power,

That all their days, for ne’er an hour

Was their bond loosened, nor were they

Free of love, for one single day.

Invocation to Night

‘Invocation to Night’
Wagners Tristan and Isolde - Richard le Gallienne, Edward Zeigler and George Alfred Williams (p70, 1909)
Internet Archive Book Images

Gottfried’s discourse on Love

A long discourse regarding Love

To true minds doth wearisome prove.

But a brief discourse on true Love,

Of benefit to true minds doth prove.

However brief a time I’ve spent

Suffering from the sweet torment,

That soft and tender heart’s pain

That in the heart’s depths doth reign, 

All gentle in its ungentleness,

Something tells me nonetheless

What I am inclined to believe,

That those two lovers were relieved

And comforted, and truly happy

That Watchfulness, the enemy

The plague oft visited on Love,

From its post had been removed.

Much have I thought, as yet I do,

And ever shall, about those two.

And when I set Love and longing

Before my inward eye, seeking

To know their nature, my yearning

Grows, and my passion, expanding,

The true companion, soars on high,

As if twould mount unto the sky.

And when in detail I consider,

All the wonders upon wonders,

That a man would find in Love

If he could but her virtues prove,

And all the joy in Love he’d know

If he practised those virtues so,

My heart grows, it would appear,

Vaster than the seventh sphere,

And from my heart I pity Love,

Seeing that so many approve

Her; cling to her, and hold her fast,

Yet value her little, at the last.

We all would our passions prove,

And keep fair company with Love.

No Love is not created thus,

As others display her to us,

And we to them, spuriously.

We see things not as they should be.

We sow a patch of bitter weed,

And yet expect that from the seed

Lilies and roses then will grow.

Believe me, truly, tis not so.

We have no choice but to reap

What was sown, shallow or deep,

And accept what the crop bears.

Sow deceit and you gather cares.

We must harvest as we have sown,

Ours the grass that must be mown.

Love we cultivate, every action

Filled with guile and deception,

Thinking then to reap the pleasure,

For body and heart, at leisure,

And yet the harvest is only pain,

Ill crop, ill fruit, and but ill gain;

Just as the field was tilled, I say.

Yet when we bear the crop away,

Sorrow that weighs down the heart,

And ruins us, we claim Love’s art

Has worked its way, hers the crime,

Blaming the guiltless, time on time.

We all sow seeds of falsehood; then

Let us all reap but sorrow and pain.

And if the sorrow doth pain a man,

Let him think on woe, beforehand,

Let us sow better, and so reap better.

Oh, we who desire the world ever,

Whether the world be good or ill,

How we squander our days still,

Abusing our lives in Love’s name,

And reaping naught but the self-same

Crop that we ever sowed in her,

Ever misconception and failure;

Naught of the good that we desire,

The good which we fail to inspire,

And are denied, and yet approve;

I mean friendship’s steadfast love,

Which comforts all of woman born,

And bears the rose, and bears the thorn;

Friendship, in which there lies ever

Love and sorrow bound together,

Yet, in such friendship, joy doth go

There concealed amongst the woe,

To bring forth gladness in the end

Howe’er to cloud its sky doth tend.

A man can hardly find such though,

So badly do we plough and sow.

For it is true what people say,

That: ‘Love is ever chased away,

Hounded to the ends of the Earth.’

None know what the word is worth,

For only the name remains to us,

Being so common among us,

And so debased and so abused,

That Love would ne’er have it used,

Being ashamed of her own name,

And dismayed by that very same.

She loathes herself, and goes weary,

Deprived of honour and dignity,

Begging humbly, from door to door,

Dragging a tattered sack, to store,

Within, what she can get or steal,

And from herself her trove conceal,

So she may trade it on the street.

Alas, in that market we compete,

We do such things to her, and yet

That we are the guilty we forget.

Love, our hearts’ mistress truly,

The freely given, one and only,

Is for sale in the marketplace.

For we have brought on her disgrace,

Sold her name, ta’en the profit,

And yet we’d have her pay for it!

We’ve set a false stone in our ring,

And cheat ourselves with the thing.

Tis a sad deception, in the end,

When a man so deceives a friend

That he deceives himself as well,

Yet such is the tale that I do tell.

We lovers who but false do prove,

We cheats and tricksters in love,

How vainly our days slip past,

When tis so seldom, at the last,

That we our sorrows can mend,

By achieving some joyful end!

How we waste our lives upon it,

Lacking love, and lacking profit!

Yet something that concerns us not,

May often serve to ease our lot;

For when we hear a love-story

Or we retell, in poetry,

The tale of people long ago,

Centuries it may be, we know

Our hearts are warmed by the same,

And to our minds it lays such claim,

That there are none, loyal and true

To their lover, and guileless too,

Who’d refuse to create such bliss

In their own heart; yet there’s this:

The very thing that gives it birth,

I mean true faithfulness on Earth,

But lies there trampled underfoot.

And in vain her case she would put;

For we all look the other way,

We’d tread upon her, any day.

We stamp upon her in the dust.

Were we to seek as yet we must

Where she doth lie, we at first

Would know not where the accursed

Creature cowered. If fidelity

Is good and wholesome equally,

Twixt friends and lovers, both,

Why to praise it are we so loth?

A tender look, a glance, a gaze,

From loving eyes must soon erase

The hundred thousand pangs that start

Within the body; soothe the heart.

But one kiss from a loving mouth

Will surely end all pain and drouth;

Ah, one kiss from the heart’s depths there,

Must that not banish hurt and care!

Tristan and Iseult reach Cornwall.

I know that Iseult and Tristan,

That ardent girl, that eager man,

Rid themselves of many a woe

In reaching their conclusion so,

Achieving now their sole desire,

The goal to which both did aspire.

The longing that constrains the mind

Was sated thus, and left behind.

Whenever circumstance allowed

They paid and gathered tribute now

To and from Love and each other,

Willingly, heart and mind together.

Deep satisfaction they both found,

Voyaging, as if heaven-bound.

Once they were from shyness free

Riches they found, in intimacy,

And this was sensible and wise;

For lovers who do hide their eyes,

Suppress their feelings once revealed,

And out of modesty yet conceal

Themselves and act as strangers,

Of themselves are turned robbers.

The more they restrain themselves

The more they but rob themselves,

Tainting all their joy with sadness.

But this pair, loving to excess,

Held nothing back, they were free

In looks and speech, both he and she.

And so all that voyage they spent

In a world of rapturous intent,

Yet not completely free from care,

Both anxious as to how they’d fare

In Cornwall, feeling, in advance,

The weight of future circumstance,

All that indeed now came to pass,

And spoilt their happiness, just as

It brought about many a danger.

For Iseult must wed a stranger,

Whose wife, indeed, she would not be;

And then her lost virginity,

That was a cause of unease too,

It deeply troubled both these two

And yet such cares were readily

Borne, since the pair repeatedly

Had their joy of one another,

Freely seeking love together.

Now when, at last, they made landfall,

On viewing the shores of Cornwall,

The whole company felt delight,

All save Iseult and our brave knight

To whom it brought unease and fear,

For, if they’d had their way, tis clear

They would never have touched land.

For now they feared, you understand,

That dishonour would be their fate,

With no way to hide Iseult’s state,

The loss of her maidenhood; indeed,

Could think of naught, in their need,

No means to hide it from the king.

Yet, as ignorant of everything

As childlike lovers may appear

In the childhood of love, yet here

An answer was granted the child,

A way that Mark might be beguiled.

Brangwen’s deception

WHEN Love with guileless children

Starts to toy; when such we find,

Then, in those guileless children,

Guile and cunning we may find.

No long tale need now be wrought.

Iseult, though but a child, had thought

Of the best way by which they might

Fool Mark; that, on the first night,

They should ask Brangwen to lie

Beside Mark and, without a sigh,

Grant him her voiceless company.

Thus he’d be deceived utterly,

For Brangwen was a virgin still,

Her loveliness would serve his will.

So Love teaches the honest mind

To work deceit, full oft we find.

Though honest minds should not know

How to exercise pure cunning so.

This then is what they did occasion.

After a good deal of persuasion,

Brangwen weakened, and agreed

To their plea that she do the deed;

Yet her reluctance was full great,

More than once she blushed, I state,

And then turned pale at the thought,

Much disturbed by what they sought,

So shameful the strange task did seem.

‘Your dear mother, our blessed queen,

Entrusted me,’ declared Brangwen,

‘With your care, sweet lady, and then

Expected me to shield you from care,

And the dangers that lurk everywhere,

All throughout that accursed journey,

For such was the task she gave to me.

And yet the carelessness was mine,

For sorrow and dishonour you find,

And little cause have I to complain,

If subterfuge I must now maintain,

And thus bear the shame with you;

And twould be right and proper too

If I were to bear my shame alone,

As long as you escaped your own.

Merciful Lord above, how though

Could you forget your servant so!’

Iseult now addressed Brangwen:

‘Dear cousin, come, tell me then

What mean you, what did you do?

‘My lady, that glass vial I threw

From the vessel.’ ‘Well, and then?

‘Alas, that vial,’ replied Brangwen,

‘And all within, did, in a breath,

On both the pair of you bring death!’

‘How cousin?’ cried Iseult, ‘How so?

‘In this way,’ said Brangwen, and lo,

Revealed the tale from end to end.

‘God wills it so, my dear friend.’

Tristan said. ‘Whether life or death,

It poisons with the sweetest breath;

I know not how true death may be,

But this one suits me well indeed!

If my fair Iseult would, forever,

Bring me death in such a manner,

And this the fruit of her bringing,

I’d wish such death everlasting.’

When all the talk is set aside,

If Love is not to be denied,

Then none can set the pain aside;

Pain too is not to be denied.

However easeful love might be,

Before our eyes we yet must see

The raised banner of true honour.

If we seek but bodily pleasure

Then we say farewell to honour.

Howe’er sweet was the pleasure

Of Tristan’s life now, yet honour

Restrained him, for his loyalty,

Constrained him greatly, such that he

Forgot it not, in that sweet life,

But brought King Mark a noble wife.

Those two, Honour and Loyalty,

Pressed sore upon him, equally,

Upon his heart, upon his mind,

Seeking to seize him, and bind;

Those two who had lost to Love

When Tristan did her cause approve,

Those two now sought to conquer

Love, and claim the knight forever.  

Tristan sent messengers on shore,

In two vessels, who tidings bore

To Mark, the news of his mission,

And how his embassy had gone,

And of the fair Irish princess;

Mark spread the news of his success,

And summoned whoe’er he might

Every lord, and every knight,

Rode forth a thousand messengers.

He greeted the natives and strangers,

Alike, those who from Ireland came.

The best and worst among that same,

The pair with whom he’d spend his life,

He welcomed, one who’d be his wife,

And the one whom he most esteemed,

As warmly as ever honour deemed.

Mark did now the barons appraise

Of his wish, that in eighteen days

They were all to attend the court,

Ready for this marriage he sought.

All was achieved and on that day,

They came there in splendid array.

For came many a wondrous train

Of knights and ladies, eager to gain

A sight of this girl, Iseult the Fair,

And with delight they saw her there,

Bright her beauty, and as they gazed

On her with joy, they cried, amazed:

Iseult, Iseult la blonde,

Marveil de tout le monde!

Marvel indeed, Iseult the Fair,

Seen as a wonder everywhere,

For what they say of her is true,

This heavenly girl, I tell you

She brings joy to everyone,

Shining here like a living sun;

Never did any mortal kingdom

Gain so beautiful a maiden.’

Now once she was formally wed

And before all the nobles led,

And her rights announced to all,

Namely that she should hold Cornwall

And England too, but that Tristan

Should inherit both of those lands,

If she failed to produce an heir,

And once homage was done her there,

That very night, when she was due

To sleep with Mark, the lovely two,

Brangwen and she, with Lord Tristan,

Began to execute their plan,

Having prepared the time and place

Wisely; then all drew on apace;

There were these three and no more,

In the room, and the king made four.

And now King Mark lay in the bed;

Brangwen, in Iseult’s robes instead

Of her own, they wore each other’s,

Was led to him by Tristan, to suffer

Her martyrdom at King Mark’s hands.

Iseult had quenched the burning brands,

Such that all there was dim and dark;

Brangwen now was clasped by Mark,

And I know not how she liked it;

For in deep quiet she endured it.

Whate’er demands the king now made,

Whate’er he sought, the lovely maid

Paid all, if I may make so bold,

In the silence, with brass like gold,

To his total satisfaction;

Nor have I at least heard mention

That brass of such fine quality

Has paid the bride-price, secretly,

For a like payment due in gold;

No never indeed in times of old;

For in truth, I’d wager my life,

That, since the days of Adam’s wife,

False coin of such nobility

Has ne’er been struck, nor equally

So true a counterfeit supplied

To any man, to have at his side.

Now, while these two lay together,

Iseult was in greater fear than ever,

Full deep was her anxiety,

As to fair Brangwen’s loyalty:

‘The good Lord save and preserve me,

Let my cousin not betray me!’

This she murmured constantly,

Oft aloud, and yet secretly;

‘If this thing’s carried on too long,

I fear, yet hope that I am wrong,

That she may so enjoy this night

She’ll lie there till broad daylight,

We shall be of honour stripped,

The truth of it on all men’s lips.’

But no, Brangwen played her role

With a loyalty sound and whole,

And once his demands were met,

And for Iseult she’d paid the debt,

She left the bed, while Iseult there,

Alert and waiting, sealed the affair,

Sitting down beside him as if she

Was, in truth, the same fair lady.

Now the king called out for wine,

As was the custom at that time,

The tradition being that once wed

When he’d taken her maidenhead,

Then the wine would be supplied

To the husband and his new bride,

And they would drink it together

From the same cup as each other,

As one; and now came the man,

Mark’s nephew, it was, Tristan,

Brought the wine, and lit the scene:

The king drank as did the queen.

Many there are who tell the tale,

Who will their listeners regale

With the falsehood that they sipped

The very brew that passed the lips

Of Tristan and Iseult, fatally,

And brought that pair heart’s agony;

But no, since none remained, for she,

Brangwen, had drowned it in the sea.

Now they had drunk as the custom

Required, honouring the tradition,

The young queen, in great distress,

With many a pain, and no less

Anxiety, in her heart and mind,

Joined the king who soon did find

In her, as he clasped her tight,

All that he had found that night;

To him a woman was a woman,

And it seemed, as a virile man,

That this Iseult suited him well,

At least as far as he could tell.

Both of them had paid their dues,

And naught was known of the ruse;

For gold he took brass, in the two;

And of their scheme he never knew.

End of Part VII of Gottfried’s Tristan