Gottfried von Strassburg

Tristan: Part XI - Separation

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

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Last Modified 6th January 2020


King Mark comes upon the lovers’ retreat

NOW King Mark had suffered great woe,

Mourning his wife and honour so,

And each succeeding day did find

A greater burden to his mind;

Thus he neglected wealth and fame.

It happened at this very same

Time that he rode forth to the chase,

Hunting through the woodland waste,

More to ease his sorrowful thought,

Than in hopes of discovering aught.

When the hunt to the forest came,

The huntsmen called their hounds by name,

And sent them to start a herd of deer,

From which a strange stag ran clear,

Maned like a horse, tall, strong, pure white,

With fresh horns scarcely yet in sight,

As though he’d shed but recently.

The whole pack chased him furiously,

Vying to catch him, until night,

When the scent was lost outright,

For the stag had fled whence he came,

Over towards that very same

Cave that hid the lovers inside;

The stag fled thence to save his hide.

Now Mark was struck with sore dismay,

And the huntsmen, in disarray,

More so, on losing this creature,

Given its mane, and strange nature;

For all were annoyed at its flight,

But gathered the hounds for the night,

And then camped there, in need of rest.

The hunting horns, in the deep forest,

Tristan and Iseult had heard all day,

And the hounds, as they went away;

And thought that it must be the king.

To their hearts great fear did it bring,

Lest their presence aught should betray.

Next morning, at the break of day,

The master-huntsman rose, and told

The rest to wait, for the trail was cold,

But to follow when the sun appeared;

Then he leashed a hound and steered

The dog to where the scent was lost,

For it could track well; they crossed

The savage country, rocks and stones,

Wasteland, grass-land, barren zones,

Where the stag had made its flight,

As it had travelled through the night;

Hard on its trail, till they came nigh,

As the sun rose higher in the sky, 

The stream that ran through Tristan’s glade.

Now, Iseult and Tristan had strayed

That way, at dawn, and hand in hand,

Made their way, as they had planned,

Through dew, to the flowering meadow,

Close to where the clear stream did flow.

Calendar-lark and nightingale,

Blending their notes, did regale

The ears of their fellow creatures,

Tristan and Iseult, those lovers.

And all the wild woodland birds

Greeted them, in as many words,

Singing out their fair matins,

In what is their own sweet Latin.

Many a songbird trilled welcome,

As o’er the mead they did come,

Singing a song to bring them joy.

Sweet variations they did employ,

Those sweet tongues, in endless song,

Delighting them as they went along;

Tenor, descant, song, and refrain.

Once at the cold clear stream again,

It leapt to greet them with its beauty,

Murmuring with yet greater beauty,

As it flowed with gentle whispers,

To welcome and receive the lovers.

They were greeted by linden-trees,

From which there blew a scented breeze,

Soothing them, both outside and in,

All the senses, without, within.

Blossoming trees and meadow bright,

The flowers, the green grass, all alight

With beauty smiled a welcome there.

And the dew too gave tender greeting

Cooling their feet, and so completing

Its gift of solace, easing the heart.

Now when the dawn had played its part,

They slipped back into their cavern,

And pondered on their situation;

For they feared, and they were right,

That somehow those huntsmen might,

In following up the hounds, appear,

Seeking the quarry, and riding near.

Against discovery, my lord Tristan,

Conceived of the following plan:

Both to the bed did now return,

And, well apart, lay down in turn,

As men might lie, you understand,

Not like a woman and a man.

They lay there, body by body,

As if estranged; each solitary.

And Tristan set his sword on view,

Carefully placed, between the two.

He lay on this side, she lay there,

Quite separate were that loving pair;

They lay asunder, one and one,

And feigned to sleep, two yet one.

The huntsman I spoke of, but now,

Who had reached the stream, I vow,

On seeing the tracks o’er the dew,

Thought the stag that he did pursue

Had passed where Iseult and Tristan

Had gone before it, hand in hand.

He dismounted, and followed apace,

On their fresh trail, till face to face,

With the fissure, and its bronze door.

Since twas barred, he could no more

Than circle around, and as he did go

About it, he spied, a high window.

Through this, cautiously, he peered;

Lo, there, Love’s retinue appeared,

A man, and a fair woman below,

And he wondered to see them so;

For as to her he thought no other

Was born more fair, to any mother,

None as perfect as she seemed there.

Not for long did he cling, and stare,

For, catching sight of a naked sword,

He clambered down to the greensward,

Thinking, of this most strange affair,

That enchantment lay upon all there.

Then, fearfully, he sought his hound,

And rode back to familiar ground.

Now King Mark was well in advance

Of the hunt, and thus, by chance,

Found the trail, and met the man.

‘Oh, my lord, quite close at hand,

A wonder I have seen,’ he cried.

‘Of what nature?’ the king replied.

‘A lovers’ fair, enchanted space.’

And how then did you find the place?

‘Why, as the white stag I did chase.’

‘And it lies here in this wild waste?’

‘Yes, sire.’ ‘And are there people there?

‘Yes, sire, a man, and a goddess fair.

On one bed, they do lie asleep,

And both are lost in slumber deep.

The man is as any other man,

She, I’d say, is more than human,

For she is lovelier than a fay;

And tis not possible, I’d say,

That aught more lovely e’er had birth,

As flesh and blood, upon this earth.

Though I know not the reason why,

A naked sword twixt them doth lie,

A fine blade, bright and gleaming.’

‘Then, lead me there!’ cried the king.

The master-huntsman led him then,

Back, by the rough track, to the den.

They both dismounted and, as before,

The huntsman approached the bronze door.

Mark followed, and then, obstructed,

Circled the cliff face, as instructed,

Climbed the rock up to the narrow

Summit of the cave; at the window,

Gazing, to his joy and sorrow,

He saw the pair, slumbering below,

Set well apart on the crystal bed,

All just as the huntsman had said,

With the naked sword set between.

He knew them both, as soon as seen;

And a cold tremor seized his heart,

Joyful that they lay there apart,

Sorrowful at his own suspicion;

Sorrow and joy then his position,

Thinking them thus proved innocent,

Yet pained by his suspicious intent.

‘Merciful Lord, what may this mean,

If aught here has passed between

These to, as I’ve long suspected,

Why apart, as if rejected?

A woman should cling to her man,

And lie there close at his left hand;

Why do these lovers lie there thus?’

This with himself he did discuss:

‘So, is there aught in this, or not?

Is guilt or innocence their lot?’

Yet doubt gripped his thoughts again:

‘Guilty?’ he asked. ‘Yes, surely!’ then

‘Guilty?’ he asked. ‘Why, surely, no!

He tossed these doubts to and fro,

Till the poor indecisive man

Knew no more than when he began,

Uncertain as to their love, or no.

Then Love the Reconciler did show

Her face, she came to him direct,

Twas painted to wondrous effect;

No longer white, it did beguile

Him, with the gold of Denial,

Ever her most benign disguise;

‘No!’ the word, gleaming, flies

Straight to the king’s troubled heart,

While the painful ‘Yes!’ by her art,

Is hid from him, and Suspicion,

Fleeing with Doubt, is swiftly gone.

Love’s gilding, golden Innocence,

Draws his eyes, and mind, and sense,

With the power of her enchantment

To where, still seeming innocent,

Lies the Eastertide of all his joys.

His eyes, gazing, he now employs

On Iseult, she his heart’s delight,

Who ne’er has seemed so sweet a sight.

Heaven knows what exertions brought

The colour to her cheeks and caught

His eye; the tale dwells not thereon;

But the radiance toward him shone,

With the sweet freshness of a rose,

Where red and white softly glows;

Her lips he could not but admire,

Like red-hot embers in the fire.

Yet her exertions I might recall,

For Iseult, as I’ll remind you all,

Had gone to the meadow that morn,

Walking midst the dews of dawn,

Perchance that had raised her colour.

A shaft of sunlight now did linger

On those cheeks, and on those lips,

As the light through some curtain slips;

A double beauty there shone bright,

Twin brilliancies blent their light;

Heaven’s sun, and then this other,

Had mingled their rays together,

To spread this high-feast of delight,

In Iseult’s honour; fair the sight.

Her mouth, her face, her skin, her hue,

Were so sweet, and alluring too,

That Mark was dipped in the fire;

He longed to kiss her; his desire

Love fuelled, setting him ablaze;

Love lit pure beauty neath his gaze,

Drew his mind towards that form,

And stirred within him passion’s storm.

His eyes were alight with ardour,

His gaze dwelt upon her further;

Her throat, her breast, an arm, her hand,

All that her robe disclosed, he scanned;

A clover-wreath in her hair she wore,

And never had she seemed before

So alluring to her watching lord;

No lovelier did this world afford.

Seeing the sunlight shining down

Upon her face, Mark gave a frown.

Fearing harm to her complexion,

He plucked a plentiful collection

Of grass, and flowers, and leaves to block

The narrow opening through the rock.

Commending her to God, he blessed

The woman’s beauty, then, distressed,

Quite moved to tears, he turned to go;

Re-joined his hounds, a man in sorrow;

Broke off the chase; and told his men

To lead the pack to the court again.

This he did with the clear intent

Of throwing others off the scent,

So up above no man might creep

And view the lovers in their sleep.

He’d scarce departed when Tristan

And Iseult woke there and began

To look about, and found the sun

Shone through two windows, yet one

Was blocked, and thus gave no light.

They rose together, climbed outright

The outer cavern wall, and found

Leaves, flowers and grass, all bound

Tight, and crammed into the window,

And on the ground, above, below,

Saw human footprints, freshly there,

Alarming, and troubling, the pair.

Mark, or his huntsmen they guessed,

Had been there; they were fearful lest

They had been observed, although,

They had scant proof that it was so;

But hoped and trusted that whoe’er

Had seen them, found them lying there,

Set well apart from one another,

Asleep, and each far from the other.

Mark called his council and kinsmen,

From country and court, to meet again,

So he might seek their best advice,

Telling them all, more than twice,

How he had discovered the pair,

As I told you, but to declare

That he refused now to believe

That they’d intended to deceive.

The councillors realised his intent,

That in his mind he was content,

To restore both Iseult and Tristan

To their roles, and such was his plan;

And they, of course, being most wise,

Heard his wishes, without surprise,

And then advised him, in accord

With those same wishes, that this lord,

Tristan, his nephew, and his own wife,

Should now take up their former life,

And, with naught to mar their honour,

Close his ears to wanton slander.

Mark allows Tristan and Iseult to return to court

AT once they appointed Curvenal,

As messenger, one who knew all

Regarding Tristan and the Queen,

To act now as the go-between,

Express the king’s love and respect

Towards the pair, and then request

That they return now, and forgo

All thoughts of ill, by doing so.

So Curvenal sped on his way,

With Mark’s request, without delay,

Expressed to them the king’s love,

And wish, which they did approve;

They were glad at heart moreover,

For the sake of God and honour,

More than aught else; and, that day,

They returned, by the same way,

To the honour they’d known before.

And yet these two could nevermore

Appear close and familiar, nor

Was there such opportunity for

Their love-trysts as there had been.

Mark and his court granted them

Honour, and yet never again

Were they as open or as free.

While, to preserve propriety,

Mark, the doubter, did command

And implore Iseult and Tristan

To behave with proper modesty,

Refrain from shows of intimacy,

Ardent glances and tender looks,

Conversations in hidden nooks,

All that such are accustomed to,

All that this pair had used to do.

All this brought the lovers pain.

Yet Mark seemed content again.

In Iseult he had his true desire,

In possession, though not entire;

Neither her love nor affection,

Had he garnered by his action,

None of the blessings of this life,

God grants, except that his wife

Was nonetheless his Queen in name,

By virtue of his title and claim.

And Mark accepted his lot, I fear,

Treating her as if she were dear.

Here was a case of that blindness,

Unfeeling, and foolish to excess,

Of which the saying doth declare,

Whilst telling all folk to beware,

That: ‘Love’s blindness blinds within,

And blinds without; both out and in’.

One’s eyes Love doth surely blind,

Yet Love doth also blind the mind,

Such that neither can plainly see,

What both do know of a certainty.

And so with Mark, at every breath

He knew his fate, as sure as death;

And saw that Iseult loved the man,

Drowned in longing for her Tristan,

Heart and soul; yet wished not to know.

And who is to blame for living so?

Like Mark and Iseult, without honour?

To lay all the blame upon her

And accuse her of deception,

Trust me, is but misperception.

Neither she nor my lord Tristan,

Had conceived of any such plan;

Mark saw it with his own eyes,

Knew the thing, without disguise,

That Iseult loved him not at all,

Yet he loved her, in spite of all.

‘Why?’ you ask, ‘for what reason

Did he treat her in this fashion?’

Yet he but did as many today.

Desire and longing have their way,

And stubbornly consent to suffer

What fate brings, and so forever.

Gottfried: on the blindness of Love

HOW many a King Mark we see

And many an Iseult, equally,

Who are, in truth, just as blind

Or more so, in both eyes and mind!

Far from none; more a multitude,

So blind they take the attitude

Of not wishing to see or know

What their two eyes do plainly show,

And think it but mere illusion.

Who’s to blame for such delusion?

Who dare single the women out?

If the men can see all they’re about,

They’re innocent of hidden crimes.

If the fault is obvious, at all times,

Tis desire obstructs men’s vision,

And longing conjures the illusion

That so obscures clear-seeing eyes.

So why should we express surprise?

Whate’er may be said of blindness,

Naught achieves such thoroughness

As the blindness of our longing.

For we’d wish not to hear the thing,

Yet the proverb states most truly:

‘Ever danger where there’s beauty.’

Blind was Mark, without, within,

In mind and eyes, as he had been;

Such was Iseult’s beauty, in truth,

She in the flower of her youth;

For he could find no fault in her

And thought the very best of her,

And, to be brief, he so aspired

To be with her, and her desired,

That he ignored the grievous wrong

He’d suffered at her hands so long.

Yet how hard for lovers to part

From what lies hidden in the heart!

How we forever long to do

What our hearts would wish us to!

The eye seeks what gives us pleasure;

Hearts and eyes range, at their leisure,

Along the paths that bring them joy.

And he that would such sport annoy,

Makes lovers but desire it more.

The need seems greater than before

And the more times you deny them

The more you commend it to them,

And thus the closer they will cling.

To Tristan and Iseult, it did bring

Much pain and suffering, once they,

Watched and obstructed every day,

Were hedged about by prohibition,

Tormented by their false position,

Beguiled more readily than before;

Their need for one another more

Anguished, urgent, than it had been.

Hateful surveillance now did seem

A mountain of lead on their hearts,

Surveillance, with its devilish arts,

Love’s foe, drove them to distraction;

Iseult, above all, pained by inaction.

The loss of Tristan was death to her.

The more that her lord and master

Did, to deny all chance of meeting,

The greater her desire to see him,

The more on him her thoughts did dwell.

Gottfried: on the virtues of a good woman

OF Surveillance, as wise folk tell:

‘Those that watch, raise briar and thorn’,

Of Surveillance, those chains are born

That chafe and gall praise and honour,

And many a woman thus dishonour,

Who, if plain justice were her lot,

Had kept the honour she had got.

But when injustice proves her fate,

Her love of honour doth then abate,

And, therefore, with regard to her,

Surveillance spoils the character.

When said and done, close-guarding

Is all in vain, once she is straying.

A virtuous woman needs no guard,

She guards herself; yet if she’s barred

From what she wishes, she will hate

The man who seeks thus to dictate.

For he is bent on her destruction,

Mind and body, with every action,

So thoroughly, she’ll not conform

Without some wicked briar or thorn

Clinging to her ever after.

For, having struck root, thereafter,

The bramble’s harder to destroy,

Whate’er the means that you employ,

If found in fertile soil, not barren.

Well do I know, if tis his pattern

To hurt that willing heart so long

That ill-treatment sends it wrong,

Spoils all its fruitfulness, why then

Twill yield fruit more bitter again

Than if it was wrong at the start.

Tis true, I’ve read it; tis wiser art,

To grant a woman her self-respect.

All surveillance he should reject

That’s counter to her own intent,

Yet grant her counsel; be content

To offer kindness and tenderness;

And let that prove his sole excess.

Guard her in that way, for be sure

No other watch proves more secure.

Whether she be wayward or good,

Let him yet treat her as he should.

For if a man wrongs a woman,

And treats her ill once too often,

Then she may start to think about

All that he’d rather live without.

Every true man, who’s anyone,

Or who would yet be counted one,

Should trust himself and his wife,

And she will shun the wanton life.

No man, however much he tries,

Ever wins love from angry eyes;

That’s the way to extinguish love.

Close surveillance will ever prove,

An evil rousing deadly passion,

That leads to utter degradation.

I think that the wise should abstain

From prohibitions that are the bane

Of any woman, and disrespect her.

Women do many things, in error,

Merely because they are forbidden,

That would from their eyes be hidden,

If they were not; for, every thorn

And barb, God knows, is inborn.

Women, in this way, I believe,

Are but daughters of mother Eve,

Who broke the primal prohibition.

For the Lord God gave us freedom,

To savour the wealth of paradise,

The flowers, fruits, grass, before our eyes,

Except one fruit, on pain of death,

That he forbade, yet, in a breath,

She’d plucked the same from that tree,

Fig, apple, or pear, as it may be,

Ignored God’s warning, to her cost,

And so herself, and God, she lost.

The priests claim that it was the fig,

Yet she’d not have done as she did,

Had it not been forbidden her.

She proved true to our own nature

That ever seeks what is forbidden.

And yet, as all must in truth agree,

Eve might have ignored that tree,

For she, when all is said and done,

Had every kind to pluck fruit from,

Yet she desired that, for her succour,

And so she lost the fruits of honour.

Thus are they all daughters of Eve,

Formed in her image, as I believe.

Ah, if the Eves that now are found,

In this, our age, could but be bound

Only to do as they were bidden,

Rather than long for what’s forbidden,

Losing themselves and God, thereby!

Yet since they’re heirs to it, say I,

And nature indeed placed it there,

All honour and praise in this affair

To the woman who nonetheless abstains.

For when a woman true virtue claims,

Despite the frailties of her nature,

Keeps intact her name and honour,

And herself, she is a woman

Equal, in mind, to any man.

Therefore men should show her honour,

And a right true verdict offer

On all she does, and esteem her.

When she overrides her nature,

And adopts the heart of a man,

Then tis as if the fir began

To ooze honey, the hemlock yield

Sweet balm, the nettle of the field

 From its root to send up the rose.

What more perfect could we suppose

Than a woman, honour at her side,

Who wars with the body, out of pride,

For the sake of body and honour?

She must neither of them favour,

But do justice to both that pair,

So that for each she shows her care.

She is not worthy if she denies

Honour, or doth the body despise,

If she may yet uphold them both.

Let her not deny either on oath;

Let her, instead, sustain the two,

Granting joy and sorrow their due,

Howe’er she may achieve the thing.

God knows, a woman may bring

About an advance in worth only

By great labour; so let her be

Temperate, and let her restrain

Her instincts; and her acts maintain,

And herself, with moderation so.

For moderation is such, we know,

As to bring fresh honour to her,

Advancing both herself and honour.

Of all the things one brings to mind

On which the sun did ever shine,

None is so blessed as the woman,

Who to the powers of moderation

Has entrusted her life and body,

And doth respect herself wholly.

And as long as she respects herself,

It follows then that everyone else,

Must so respect her, while if she

Becomes her own worst enemy,

Who shall love her? If she will treat

Herself with contempt, indiscreet

Before all folk, then what honour

Or affection should one grant her?

To quell desire at the first urge,

Only to let Love’s title merge

With that of mere blind activity?

Tis not Love, but her enemy,

Licentiousness, devoid of honour;

On Woman’s name it brings dishonour,

It is but lust in Love’s fair clothes,

For, as the honest saying goes,


‘She who would love all and any,

Finds herself unloved by many.’

Let her who would be loved by all,

First love herself then show to all

The path love went; if fair that be,

Then all shall love, in sympathy.

Folk should love and praise a woman,

Who seeks to find favour with them,

By caring for her womanhood.

We should garland her, tis good

That we seek out her company,

Add, in her presence, to our glory.

And on whom she doth bestow

Her love and person, he will know

That he was born most fortunate.

And destined for his present state

Of bliss, for in his heart likewise

Is found the living paradise.

No fear is his of barbed power,

When he reaches for the flower;

Or that the thorn, as we suppose,

Might pierce, as he culls the rose.

There are no barbs or sharp thorns there;

No angry thistle deals sad care,

Rose-like Conciliation now,

Barbs, thorns, thistles, I avow,

Has levelled; in that paradise,

All that grows delights the eyes,

All that doth bud, or show green;

All that flourishes there, I mean,

Is due to a woman’s virtue.

There is naught else there on view,

But true love, and true devotion,

And that honourable emotion,

That doth take the earthly prize.

Ah, in so sweet a paradise,

So full of joy, and so vernal,

As if springtime were eternal,

The man, who is so blessed by fate,

With his heart’s desire shall mate,

And view what delights his sight.

How would he share less delight

Than did Iseult and her Tristan?

If he’d but take my word that man

Need never envy Tristan’s life.

For whoe’er shall take for his wife

A virtuous woman, who to him

Renders her honour, and to him

Devotes her person, he will see

How she will then love him truly,

And tenderly, and clear away

From his path the thorns each day,

All of the sorrow and the strain.

She will free him from heart’s pain;

No better did Iseult free Tristan;

And I’d say this to every man,

That I believe if one now sought,

Whether in country or at court;

Some living Iseult one might find

To ease the body, and the mind.

Mark finds Tristan and Iseult entwined together

NOW to Surveillance we return.

The watch so set, as you did learn,

On Iseult, and on Lord Tristan,

Troubled the woman and the man;

Such pain the prohibition brought,

That, more than ever, they gave thought

To how they might see each other;

And, in the end, they were together;

Yet from it rose fresh woe and pain,

For mortal suffering was their gain.

Twas full noon, and hotly the sun

Shone as their honour was undone.

Twin suns shone, into the queen’s

Heart and soul, for one was seen

In the heavens, the other was Love.

Longing, and that fierce light above,

Vied in oppressing her, till she

Though to counter her misery,

Though of the plan she’d soon repent.

Into the orchard Iseult went,

To probe its possibilities,

Seeking shadows, and privacy,

A place ensuring deep seclusion.

And on finding a quiet position,

She ordered that a bed be made,

Rich and fine, in its pleasant shade;

Quilts, linen, silk, and gold brocade,

Adorned that couch in the cool glade.

Once it was made, and all away,

In only her shift, there Iseult lay.

Only Brangwen must now remain,

And then she sent to Tristan again,

Saying that he must come to her,

So that he might with her confer.

As Adam did once, so now Tristan,

Taking the fruit, as his Eve planned;

Together with her, he ate death.

He came, and Brangwen, in a breath,

Vanished, to sit among the women,

Anxious and fearful at his coming.

She asked the chamberlain to close

The doors, and bar whom she chose.

The doors were shut, and Brangwen

Dwelt, once she’d sat down again,

On the whole affair in her mind,

Sorrowing that her lady was blind

To all the watchers, and the spies.

While she was brooding, in this guise,

The chamberlain there, at the door,

Stepped outside; a moment more

And the king himself, in he came,

And asked for the queen by name

In a most commanding manner.

Her young ladies answered together:

‘Sire, she is sleeping!’ Not a word

Said Brangwen, suddenly stirred

From thought, by his appearance.

Her heart, it sank in an instant,

Her head bowed, her hands were trembling;

The king asked: ‘Where is she sleeping?’

They motioned him towards the orchard,

So King Mark at once stepped forward,

And went to encounter his heart’s care.

He found his wife and nephew there,

Entwined together, in close embrace,

Mouth on mouth, face turned to face.

All that the covers did now reveal,

All that the sheets did not conceal,

Hand and arm, shoulder and breast,

Each to each was so closely pressed

Had they been, clasped in that hold,

A work cast whole in bronze or gold,

None had wrought more seamlessly.

Tristan and Iseult slept peacefully,

Entwined in that same position,

After I know not what exertion.

The king, seeing his sorrow plain,

Felt with full force his heart’s pain.

He no longer wavered, his doubt,

All his suspicion, was driven out,

For he no longer guessed; he knew.

All he’d suspected now proved true.

Yet proof was not, in my opinion,

Better for him than mere suspicion;

Banishing doubt had, in a breath,

Consigned the man to living death.

In silence, now, the king went in,

Summoned his councillors and kin,

And told them he knew, for a fact,

The pair had been caught in the act,

Tristan and the Queen, and that they,

His friends, were to make their way

To the place, and take note of all;

For he would on the council call

To give judgement, by his command,

According to the law of the land.

The lovers’ parting

NOW Mark was scarce from the bedside,

When Tristan woke; the king he spied:

‘Ah, Brangwen, what is’t you’ve done!

Dear God, Brangwen, we are undone;

This sleep of ours will prove our death.

Iseult, my heart’s queen, in a breath

You must know we are betrayed.’

‘How so, my lord?’ ‘The king has made

To venture here, stood by the bed,

And saw us; I his features read,

And know, as surely as I must die,

He’ll bring witnesses, by and by,

And means to have our lives, lady.

I must from here, and right swiftly.

My sweet Iseult, ah, my dear heart,

It seems fated that we must part,

In such a manner, I think, that we

May lose our opportunity

Of happiness, and yet, remember

The perfect love we shared ever,

And see it doth endure forever;

Forget me not, forget me never;

Keep me thus in your heart; whate’er

Befalls my own you’ll yet dwell there.

Iseult shall dwell in Tristan’s heart!

Dear mistress mine, though we must part,

Let not your strong affection fade.

Though time and distance cast their shade,

Do not forget me! Now, kiss me, 

Bêl Iseult, dûz amie,

Fair Iseult, sweet; come kiss me, so,

And grant me your kind leave to go!’

Iseult stepped back a pace and sighed,

‘My lord,’ with sadness, she replied,

‘Our hearts and minds have belonged

To each other, for oh so long

A time, have been so truly bound,

So closely knit, so tightly wound,

They can scarcely know as yet

The meaning of the word ‘forget’.

Whether we are near, or far apart,

There is no life within my heart,

Nor aught living, save this Tristan,

My life and being. Ah, my dear man,

It is long since I surrendered

My life to you, my body rendered.

See that no living woman may

Come between us in any way

So naught prevents our affection

Remaining fresh, this perfection

We have wrought these many days.

Take this, my ring, guard it always,

A sign of loyalty and love;

And if aught should ever move

Your heart to love aught but me,

Let it remind you, secretly,

Of all my heart is now feeling.

And remember this, our parting,

How it hurts both heart and life.

Remember then the pain and strife

I have endured, and for your sake,

And then, with every breath you take,

Let none, for on this I depend,

Be dearer to you than your friend,

Iseult, and thus for some other

Neglect me not, we two have ever,

Companions in joy and sorrow,

Lived so, that come the morrow,

The memory of it will remain,

Till death the two of us shall claim.

My lord, there is no need, I know,

For me to thus exhort you so.

If Iseult and Tristan were one,

One heart, one faith, then what’s done

Will yet endure, forever true.

But one thing I request of you,

Where’er in this world you may go,

Take care, my life, for you must know,

If I’m bereft of you, then I,

Who am your life, must also die.

I’ll guard myself, your life, with care

Not for my sake, but yours, aware

That your life is yet one with mine.

We are one life, one flesh; incline

Your thoughts to me, your life,

Your Iseult, in this world of strife.

Let me, my life in you, soon see,

And may you soon see yours in me.

The life we share lies in your hands.

Come kiss me; you and I, Tristan

And Iseult, now joined forever;

Here is a bond that none can sever.

Let this kiss be the seal, the sign,

That I am yours and you are mine,

Steadfast, till death shall take our hand;

But one Iseult and one Tristan.’

Once these words had sealed it so,

Tristan departed, in pain and woe;

While his other self, Iseult there,

Was left in anguish and despair;

Both on parting filled with more

Pain than they’d ever felt before.

Meanwhile the king had returned,

To reap the sorrow he had earned,

With all his councillors, together;

They’d arrived too late however.

They found Iseult, alone in bed,

Lost in thought. Not a word was said,

For the king had thereby revealed

None but Iseult, naught lay concealed;

But then, later, the councillors

Said to the king: ‘Sire, this course

Of action is wrong, without reason,

To bring so false a charge of treason,

Against your wife and your honour.

You decry your honour, your wife,

And above all yourself! What life

Is this, where you seek to injure

Your happiness, your trust in her?

She is the talk of court and land,

Yet there’s no proof we understand;

There is naught against her honour.

Why then load all this upon her?

The Queen has proved false? Why say you

Such a thing when she proves true?

My lord, desist; have done with this,

For God’s sake and your own bliss.’

So they turned him from his intent;

With their counsel he proved content;

Permitting his anger to die away,

No vengeance did he take that day.

Tristan wins martial fame abroad

NOW Tristan to his quarters went,

Gathered his folk, with this intent,

Of boarding the first ship he found,

And, swiftly covering the ground,

Made for the harbour, and set sail

For Normandy, so runs the tale.

And yet he did not rest there long,

For the urge in his heart was strong

To find a life that could provide

Some relief from the woe inside.

Strange! He fled toil and suffering,

And yet pursued those very things,

Suffering and toil; fled Mark and death,

To counter perils, that, in a breath

Were death to his heart, since they brought

Absence from Iseult, whom he sought.

Why flee from death, why haste away,

To seek out death, in another way?

Why escape from Cornwall and woe,

Yet, night and day, bear a burden so?

Save his life for a woman’s sake,

Yet a life condemned to heart-ache?

Naught brought death to life and body,

But his best life, Iseult, his lady.

Thus was he left, twixt death and death,

Yet thought, if he but gave his breath

To martial exploit, this agony

Might be relieved, and he win free.

Rumour came of war in the land

Of Germany, and reached Tristan,

Who made for Champagne, and thence

To Germany where, in their defence,

He served the Crown and Sceptre so

Immeasurably that none did know

Of any knight who might aspire

In all the Holy Roman Empire,

To such deeds of arms, or fame.

Success and fortune he did attain,

In the wars, and perilous ventures.

I’ll not relate all his adventures

As the, books give them, yet the tale

Might endlessly your ears regale.

To the wind I’ll loose those leaves,

Cautious of fables none believes,

For, in handling this true story,

I have burden enough to carry.

Iseult’s lament

FAIR Iseult, Tristan’s death and life,

His living death, and yet his life,

Lived on, in torment and in pain.

Yet her heart broke not, her bane,

On watching Tristan’s ship depart,

Because he lived; and in her heart

Knowing that Tristan was alive

Gave her the strength to survive.

Without him she could neither

Live nor die, careless of either.

Death and life had naught to give,

Yet she could neither die nor live.

The light of her eyes was in eclipse.

Her tongue silent behind her lips,

Oft, when needed, naught she said;

They were neither alive nor dead,

For they had lost their rightful use,

Through her sorrow; of the disuse

Of their powers she was unaware. 

Watching the sail vanishing there,

And seeing her heart’s love depart,

She said to herself, in her heart:

‘Alas, alas, my lord Tristan,

How my heart clings to the man!

My eyes follow you, as you flee,

Swift as an arrow, gone from me!

Why do you haste away so fast,

When I do know that, first and last,

If you flee Iseult, tis life you flee,

For all your life resides with me?

You can live no longer, tis true,

Without me, than I without you.

Our lives and spirits are so bound

Together now, so tightly wound,

My life you bear now o’er the sea,

And yet you leave your life with me.

No two lives, I say, were ever

So intermingled with each other.

We are each other’s life and death,

Since neither one can draw a breath,

Or cease to do so, if their friend

Gives not consent; thus, in the end,

Poor Iseult is not quite alive,

Nor yet quite dead; both are denied.

Now Sir Tristan, now, my lord,

Since you must be, although aboard

That ship, one life, one soul, with me,

You must teach me now, you see,

How to survive, firstly for you,

Then for myself. Come now, so do!

What? Silence now? Yet we have need

Of all the wisest counsel, indeed.

Foolish Iseult, what’s this I say?

Tristan’s speech sails on its way,

With my spirit, for Iseult’s life,

And Iseult’s soul, must face the strife

Of sea and storm, abandoned now

To what the wind and waves allow.

How shall I find myself once more?

Where shall I search, on sea or shore?

I am here, and yet I am there,

And yet am neither here nor there.

Oh, who was ever so torn apart?

Or ever so bewildered at heart?

On the waves there, I must stand,

And yet I am here, on dry land.

Now must I sit here, at Mark’s side,

And yet with Tristan’s vessel ride!

Life and death fight a bitter war

Within me; poisoned, as before,

If I but could, I would gladly die,

Yet he who’s my life doth deny

Me that ease, nor can I live well

Neither for him, nor for myself,

Since without him I must endure.

Now he is leaving me once more,

And yet he knows, when all is said,

That without him my heart is dead.

God knows, I need not tell him so,

For, he and I, we share one woe,

Nor do I suffer this pain alone,

His sorrow proves as great, I own,

Greater perchance e’en than mine;

More, yet, doth he grieve and pine;

His going weighs upon my heart,

Yet heavier on his, as now we part.

If I grieve that he’s not at my side,

It grieves him more that wind and tide

Bear him away; if for him I mourn

He mourns for me; yet cannot mourn

With such good reason as now I do,

I have reason, and mourn him too;

Tis my right to grieve and lament,

For my life rests on his consent,

Yet Tristan’s death depends on me,

Such that he has no right to grieve.

Tis good that he sails away to save

Both life and honour; if he stayed,

Then he would not survive for long.

So I must live without him. Wrong

Though it seems, better he’s absent

Than here, with danger ever-present.

For God knows, whoe’er doth seek

Their own advantage, week on week,

At a friend’s expense shows scant love.

Howe’er great my hurt should prove,

I would wish to be Tristan’s friend

And thus not bring about his end.

If he meets with true happiness

What matter if I live in distress?

Gladly will I constrain myself,

In every way, to forgo myself

And him, so he may live for both;

And this would I declare on oath.’

Tristan returns to Parmenie

WHEN Tristan had been in Germany

Six months, he longed for Parmenie,

For he’d conceived a great desire

To know how events did conspire,

For or against Iseult, his lady.

He chose then to leave Germany,

And travelled back by the same

Road to Normandy, and came,

By way of there, to Parmenie,

And Rual’s sons for, though he thought

To find Rual, and his counsel sought,

He, and Floraete, his wife were dead,

Yet their sons greeted him instead,

With a welcome both kind and true;

For they kissed his hands, his feet too,

His eyes and mouth, once and again.

‘My lord,’ they said, ‘God doth deign

To send us, in you, father and mother.

Most good and faithful lord, forever,

Rule here; take back all that is yours,

And ours; upon a prosperous course,

With you here, acting as our father,

He who was e’er your true retainer,

We too shall gladly prove the same.

Tis true that your friend, our mother,

Is dead, and that dear man, our father.

And yet, in bringing you here anew,

God satisfies our needs through you.’

Tristan, already sorrowing,

Found fresh sadness in this greeting,

Deep sighs of anguish he now gave,

And asked to see his ‘parents’ grave.

He stood in sorrow there, weeping

Then he made this speech, in mourning:

‘May the Lord God hear my word:

If e’er it may be, as I have heard

Since childhood, that true loyalty

And honour may be buried deep,

In the earth, they lie buried here.

Yet if these two with God appear

In company, as all folk do say,

Rual and Floraete are this day

With God, who did grant them honour,

And ever clothed them in splendour

In this world; now they are crowned,

Where God’s children are thus crowned!’

Rual’s sons, of their sincerity,

Placed all their land, and property,

And themselves, in Tristan’s hand,

Ready to serve at his command,

With true devotion, willingly;

Eager to prove their loyalty,

At all times, in Tristan’s service.

Whate’er he stated as his wish

They did, if it were in their power,

And accompanied him each hour,

When visiting some loyal knight,

And his fair lady, ever in sight

At tournaments, and at the chase,

Whate’er the sport, where’er the place.

End of Part XI of Gottfried’s Tristan