Gottfried von Strassburg

Tristan: Part XIII - Tristan’s Marriage

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

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Last Modified 6th January 2020


Tristan debates Iseult the Fair’s constancy

TRISTAN’s heart was ever changing,

While his mind was ever musing

On how to quench longing’s fire,

With no means to gain his desire.

Thus did he think: ‘Iseult, dear friend,

Our lives move to a different end,

Now our love doth only serve

To deceive me; do I deserve,

To lose both joy and delight,

While you possess them day and night?

I live my life in misery,

Yours is delightful amity.

I do nothing but long for you,

While whate’er you choose to do,

Whate’er of love, and of delight,

You may do both day and night.

Thought of your body brings me pain,

While the king his wish doth gain.

He takes his delight and pleasure;

What was mine is his to treasure.

I must yield what I cannot own,

For I know she enjoys her own,

Forgets me, seeks her enjoyment,

While my sad heart, in discontent,

For Iseult, alone, scorns all others,

And she knows the pain it suffers,

All the anguish that doth befall;

Yet brings me no comfort at all;

For this other now longs for me,

One for whom I feel great pity;

And were I not so loved by her,

I could more willingly suffer.

Unless Iseult the Fair doth please,

Out of weariness I shall cease,

For, if I cannot have her love,

What I can have I must approve,

As he ought, that can do no other,

And as I shall, by taking another.

What is the use of waiting ever,

Denying all one’s joy forever?

Why seek a love from which no good

Doth now emerge, nor ever could?

I have suffered such grief and pain

For Iseult’s love, time and again,

I may surely cease from it now?

I’ll win no profit there, I vow.

For she has forgot me wholly,

Her heart is changed completely.

Ah, God, dear Father, Heavenly King,

How does it happen, such a thing?

How could she have altered so?

Since yet the fires of friendship glow

How can she let true love expire?

I cannot quench my true desire.

I know that were she to depart,

My heart would know it from her heart.

She did naught for good or ill,

That moved not my heart and will.

Through my own heart I did feel

That her heart bound me, so to heal

And comfort me whene’er it could.

And if I cannot have my good,

I have no right on that account

To alter, and to scorn the fount

Of love, and leave her for a stranger.

For we are bound to one another,

Our bodies so wounded by desire

That we can ne’er forgo the fire.

And as to what Iseult could do,

She lacks the means, wishing to,

And I must bear her no ill-will

For she desires our friendship still;

And if she fails to work my wish,

I know not the depth of anguish

She must feel. Iseult, your intent

Were good if fate would but relent.

How, indeed, could she change? No, I

Must not to my love admit a lie.

For, I know, if change moved in her,

Then in my own heart it must stir.

Lie or no, I feel our parting still,

And yet my heart doth ever fill

With the feeling that she loves not,

And that our love’s by her forgot.

For if she loved me in her heart,

She would ease me though apart.

“She, of what?” “Of my pain and woe.”

“Where, my friend, will she find you though?”

“Here, where I am.” “Yet she knows not

In what place you are.” “Does she not?”

Yet if, indeed, she sought for me,

Why, to what end? For my misery?

She dare not, because of her lord,

For though the wish she might afford

A hearing, she’ll not disobey him.

Let her love then and cleave to him.

I do not ask that she recalls me!

I blame her not if she forgets me,

She ought not to pine for me now.

Her great beauty should not allow

Such indulgence, tis not in nature

That she should long for another,

When the king obeys her pleasure.

She should love him at her leisure,

So much so that I am forgot,

For her delight now I am not,

And seek her joy in her master

And cease thus to recall her lover.

How should my desire mean more

To her than her joy in her lord?

Let her do as nature doth desire,

Since she seeks not her true sire.

Let what she has sufficient prove,

Since she must now forgo her love.

So let her take what she may hold,

And then to that her wishes mould.

In the act, and then the kisses,

One may find the joy one misses.

And she may be so pleased withal,

This love of mine she’ll ne’er recall.

And if she should not, why; what then?

Tell me why I should care again.

I think delight may her heart move,

Despite the absence of true love.

Tristan decides to wed Iseult of the White Hands

AND yet how could she find delight,

Without her true love and, despite

Love, cherish her lord and master,

And forget this long-loved other?

How should a man now learn to hate

What he has loved so well of late?

How can he bear anger toward

One whose love is his reward?

He must not hate his former love,

Though from her sphere he may remove;

He may withdraw, and so depart,

If he has lost that distant heart.

He must not love or hate reveal

Without good cause; or so I feel.

If he sees the good, then the ill,

He should cherish the good still,

And ne’er should ill for ill render,

But let the one balance the other;

Not show the good excess goodwill,

Not hate too much for what was ill.

Love the noble and fear the base,

For the one grant the other grace.

And yet, finding baseness, resist

The wish to do the base service.

Because Iseult the Fair loved me,

And gave me joy, most willingly,

Then I should not feel hate for her

Because of aught that might occur.

Yet seeing she has forgot our love,

From my mind I must her remove.

I ought not now to hate her more,

Nor yet should love her as before.

But I should now seek my retreat,

As she has done, and so complete

The thing, and see if I might find

A pleasure for the heart and mind

That needs not love, joy to afford,

As she doth find now with her lord.

How shall I find it, in this life,

Except I take to me a wife?

Iseult the Fair would be in error,

Were she not wed to another;

Indeed it is her lawful spouse

Who divides our sorry house.

She has no right now to retreat,

She should his true advances meet,

Howe’er she feels, yet I ought not

To act myself as she does not,

Except to see how it may be,

Such a life, and wed, equally,

To find if such union could make

Me forget her, who doth forsake

All memory of me. I will wed

The maid, but not from hatred

Of the other, whom I now wish

To love or leave, in doing this,

And so to learn from this thing

How my Iseult can love the king.’

Yet Tristan was in anguish still,

Concerning this new act of will,

Afflicted by this seeming treason,

For which he found no good reason,

Except the sole desire to know

If he might find pleasure or no,

Without love and, through pleasure,

Thus forget Iseult, his treasure;

Thinking that she did that same

With her lord, all free from blame.

Thus he wished to take a wife,

So that Iseult the Fair, his ‘life’,

Could blame him not for pleasure

Sought for without lawful measure,

That must then impair his honour.

Iseult the Maid he did favour,

For ‘Iseult’, and for her beauty;

Though the beauty alone, had she

Not borne the like name, had never

Won him, nor would he have ever

Wed her if she’d lacked the beauty,

That gave her such sweet sovereignty;

It was that pair of things in fact,

That brought him to embrace the act

Of marrying the girl, to find

The state of Iseult’s heart and mind,

The queen that is; and, without love,

The pleasures of such marriage prove.

He wished to know, by marrying,

How Iseult fared beside the king

And then to see what pleasure,

He might know with this other.

Thus Tristan, it seems, sought vengeance,

For his suffering at a distance,

Such vengeance though as would bless

His life with twice that sore distress.

For he would free himself from woe,

And yet drown himself in sorrow.

He thought thus to have his pleasure,

Since he was denied his treasure.

The name, the beauty of the queen

He’d noted of this girl, and seen,

Yet he’d not have sought to marry

Her, for her name or her beauty,

If not for his Iseult the Fair,

Whose very name the girl did bear.

For if she’d not been named Iseult,

Would fate have sought a like result?

And if she’d lacked Iseult’s beauty,

Would Tristan have sought her, truly?

Yet for the beauty, and the name,

Tristan now sought that very same;

He felt the longing and the wish

To have the girl to prove all this.

Thomas: on human changeability

HEAR now of this most wondrous thing,

How people are forever changing,

Nor can they stay in but one place!

By nature, they about must face,

And as they’re bound to their ill ways,

Must change the good for ill always.

They are so used to what is bad,

They think the contrary is mad;

Accustomed to depravity,

They know naught of nobility,

While so intent on villainy’s lot,

That all courtesy is forgot;

Devoted so to wickedness,

All their lives, they but regress,

Nor can retreat from evil when

Tis a habit ingrained in them.

Some are accustomed thus to ill,

Others of good have had their fill;

All their lives are seen to be

An endless search for novelty,

Abandoning the good they own

To pursue some ill they’re shown.

This thirst for novelty gone mad,

Makes them exchange the good for bad

And the good they could achieve

For evil’s pleasures they all leave.

Each one forsakes the better so

As to possess another’s woe.

They think their own is much the worse,

Some other has escaped the curse.

If their own good were not theirs,

They’d be content with their affairs,

But in their hearts find discontent

With everything that fate has lent.

If they had not what they possess

They would desire it, they confess,

But hope to find something better,

So cannot love their chain and fetter.

Novelty cheats a man in this,

If he wants not all that is his,

But yet desires what he has not,

And for a worse forsakes his lot.

And yet one should forsake the bad,

Abandoning the worse one had

For the better, and act wisely,

And leave off this endless folly.

Tis not through novelty a man

Ends far better than he began

Or doth escape from evil plight.

But many a heart finds delight

In strange things and hopes to find

What’s lost in the familiar grind.

Thus our thoughts are variable,

All our wishes prove unstable,

For we would try what we do lack,

And pay for it all on the way back.

Women too, would forgo all this

That they have, for what they miss,

And try to win, before they tire

Their deepest longing and desire.

I know not what more can be said,

Yet men and women, on this head,

Have too great a love of novelty,

Seek naught but variability,

Of aim, wish, desire, intention,

Against all sense and reason.

This one seeks to advance in love,

And yet doth his unfitness prove,

Another would cast love aside,

Yet but doubles the pain inside;

A third his vengeance doth pursue

Yet into sorrow he stumbles too.

While a fourth thinks to be free,

Yet burdens himself eternally.

Tristan’s dilemma

TRISTAN thought to forsake Iseult,

And quench heart’s love as a result.

By taking this other as his wife,

He hoped thus to escape his ‘life’;

Yet were it not for that first love

This had lacked the power to move

His heart; yet Iseult he had loved,

And thus by Iseult he was moved.

Because the first no longer beckoned,

So his desire was for the second,

Yet if he could have had the queen,

He’d not have loved the Maid, I ween.

So, it seems to me; I must state,

That it was neither love nor hate;

For if true love this thing had been

He would not thus have scorned the queen

To love the girl; nor was hate there,

Since twas because of his affair

With the queen, he loved the maid;

And wedding her he thus betrayed

No hatred, since love bore the thing.

Had he owned a cause for hating

Iseult the Fair, within his heart,

Tristan would then have kept apart

From the girl, not taken a wife

Because of his love for his ‘life’;

But had he been a faithful lover,

He would not have wed this other.

Yet twas the fact, one must confess,

That love had dealt him such distress,

He wished to work against his love,

To free himself, and so remove

The sorrow; yet in doing so,

He fell but deeper into woe.

It happens to many a person though.

Stricken by love, anguish, sorrow,

By great pain, when all’s contrary

They take such actions to win free,

Or seek revenge in some manner,

From which acts they only suffer.

We oft do, with rational intent,

That which adds to our discontent.

I have seen many a fool do thus.

Unable to have what pleases us,

Or win whate’er we love the best,

We do things, out of our distress,

Using whate’er lies in our power,

That afflict us, and doubles our

Pain, and, in seeking to be free,

We’re but trapped more certainly.

In such acts of vengeance, I find

Love and hatred fill the mind,

Neither love nor hatred purely,

But love mixed with hatred, strangely,

And hatred strangely mixed with love,

He whom a wish for love doth move

To do what he does not wish to do,

Desiring not what he doth pursue,

Does what he does despite that love;

And this is what Tristan did prove,

In acting against his deepest wish.

Suffering from one Iseult in this,

He’d save himself through the other;

And having kissed and embraced her,

And asked her parents for her hand,

The marriage was swiftly planned,

He to take her; they to bestow.

Tristan weds Iseult of the White Hands

THE day was named, the time also.

Tristan and his friends were here,

The Duke and all his folk drew near,

All was ready, the words were said,

Iseult of the White Hands was wed,

With all the service, Mass, and fees,

Discharged as Holy Church decrees.

They feasted, amid joy and laughter,

And amused themselves thereafter

With jousting, striking the quintain,

Hurling javelins, and then again

Wrestling, fencing, with each other,

Everything that gave them pleasure,

And seemed appropriate for the day,

Such games as e’er the worldly play.

The day was filled with true delight;

Their bed stood ready for the night.

Now they brought the maiden there,

While Tristan did himself prepare.

His tunic was removed, twas tight

About the wrists and, as the knight

Freed himself, it dragged the ring

From his finger; twas that same ring

Iseult had pledged in the orchard,

On that day when they had parted,

For she had yielded him the ring.

Tristan looked, and saw the thing,

And entered on a train of thought;

Yet thinking fresh anguish brought,

His doubts and fears returned anew,

Such that he knew not what to do.

Now he might readily do his will,

His mind would not the act fulfil,

For he thought so deeply indeed

He now repented of his deed;

The marriage seemed an ill affair;

Seeing the ring recalled the Fair

Iseult; he in his heart withdrew,

While all his sorrows did renew.

He recalled the pledge he’d made,

In the orchard, and now betrayed,

When they both were forced to part,

And sighed, deeply, from the heart.

Tristan broods on his dilemma

‘HOW shall I do this thing?’ he thought,

Tis contrary to all I’ve sought,

Yet I must bed my lawful wife,

For I am bound to her for life,

And I must not desert her now.

Twas my foolish heart, I avow,

Has rendered me so changeable.

When I asked her parents, all

Her kith and kin, for her hand,

Did I that folly yet understand,

And the betrayal it must prove,

Or think of Iseult my true love?

I must to bed; it grieves me so;

To the church I did gladly go,

I did wed her in the sight of all,

And she is mine whate’er befall!

Now a folly I must commit,

For I cannot retreat from it

Without great sin, and working ill,

Yet cannot do with her as I will,

Without an act of faithlessness

A betrayal of my oath, no less;

To that Iseult I swore loyalty,

So tis wrong for this to win me;

Yet my debt is great to this other,

I cannot keep faith with another;

Cannot betray that hope of bliss,

And yet may not abandon this.

If I take pleasure in another,

I break faith with my true lover,

Yet if from this Iseult I go,

I work sin, wrong, and evil so.

For now I may neither leave her

Nor yet take advantage of her,

Lying abed with her this night,

For my own pleasure and delight.

I have such feelings for the queen,

That I must not this girl demean,

And yet am so bound to the maid

That all due honour must be paid;

For I must not betray my ‘life’

Nor yet abandon thus my wife.

I cannot now depart from her,

And yet I cannot sleep with her.

I keep covenant with this maid,

And break the covenant I made,

Or keep faith with Iseult the Fair,

And not with the wife who lies there.

Thus this girl I must not betray,

Nor fail the other in any way.

I know not which one to deceive,

Since I must cheat one, I believe,

Trick one, or betray the other,

Or play false to both together.

Yet this girl’s now so close to me,

Iseult the Fair’s betrayed already;

While I love the queen so deeply,

This girl is deceived, completely,

And now I, too, am so betrayed!

Ill are the choices I have made.

Each Iseult suffers now through me,

And, through both, I suffer equally.

Both have granted me their love,

And yet disloyal to both I prove.

I’ve broken my oath to the queen,

Yet cannot keep my oath, I ween,

To this girl for whom I broke it.

Towards one, I may yet keep it.

Since I have deceived the former,

I must keep faith with the latter;

For I cannot now go my way,

And yet must not Iseult betray.

I know not what to do in this.

Every road leads to anguish,

Since I cannot betray my ‘life’,

Nor worse, abandon my own wife.

Whether I take her maidenhead

Or not, I’m bound to share her bed.

Vengeance on Iseult I have brought,

Yet am betrayed by what I sought.

For I wished vengeance on the fair,

Thus self-betrayal I must bear.

To harm her, I harmed myself too,

And know not what I should do.

If I should sleep with my wife,

Then I would offend my ‘life’,

Yet if I refuse to lie with her

Then reproach I’ll duly suffer,

And resentment and her anger,

While her father and her mother,

All will hate me and despise me,

Before God, a sinner I’ll be.

I fear sin, for honour I care;

What if I were to lie with her,

And yet refuse to play my part

In what I hate within my heart,

And am reluctant to perform?

To work the act must breed a storm,

For she will know by my sad state

That with another lies my fate.

She’s not so foolish, I am sure,

As not to know that I am more

Desirous of another, would lie

Where greater love doth joy supply.

If she were robbed of her delight,

She’d not wish me in her sight.

Hatred would be her right, in fact,

If I renounced the natural act,

With which marriage should commence.

Hatred is bred by abstinence.

Just as love may come of doing,

So hatred comes from abstaining.

If I refrain thus from the deed,

Then sorrow I shall reap indeed;

My nobility and prowess

All would turn to naught but baseness.

What by courage I once did prove,

Now will desert me through this love;

That affection she shows to me,

Abstinence would now deny me;

All my service will go for naught,

By an act with baseness fraught.

She has coveted me in thought,

Without the act of love I sought,

But if she fails of her desire,

She then will hate my lack of fire.

For that is what binds together,

The beloved and her lover.

And so I will not do the deed,

For my intent is to succeed

In drawing her from this love.

Indeed her hatred I would prove,

For I desire her hatred more.

And I have earned it I am sure.

For I have sinned against my ‘life’.

Why did I wish for in a wife?

Why all this longing and desire?

Whence the yearning to aspire

To this girl, and then to wed her,

Despite the faith I owe my lover,

Iseult the Fair, whom I deceive

Even more, in that I conceive

A closer union with this child?

By my words, I’d be reconciled

With my intent, I seek a reason

Or an excuse, or more than one,

For breaking faith with my ‘life’,

In seeking now to bed my wife.

Lacking love, tis justification

I must seek for such an action.

As long as Iseult the Fair’s alive,

I must not deceive and thrive;

How base a traitor I would be

To seek such love, what villainy!

Yet I’m so deep in this, I know,

That all my life I’ll suffer woe.  

And for the wrong I have done her,

I’ll insist on justice for her,

And bear penance, with its hurts,

According to my just deserts.

And now this bed I shall measure,

And yet abstain from all pleasure.

Surely no greater torment

Could e’er flow from such intent,

Nor pain afflict more frequently,

Nor greater anguish come to me,

Whether twixt us be love or hate;

For I sought pleasure, as I state,

And it will hurt me to refrain,

While if I seek not joy again,

How shall I endure this bed?

Whether I hate or love instead,

Great suffering shall I endure,

And thus, in woe, feel woe the more.

But since my love I now betray,

I must do penance in this way,

That when Iseult learns of my plight

She may, indeed, forgive outright.’

Tristan lay down; Iseult the Maid

Took Tristan in her arms, and made

To kiss his mouth, and then his face,

Treating him tenderly, with grace.

She pressed him to her breast, and sighed,

Till he desired, what he denied.

And yet to have his desire in this

Or not, both worked against his wish.

Nature now sought to run its course,

While reason yet stayed true, perforce,

To his Iseult; love of the queen

Quelled desire for the girl, I mean.

True longing robbed him of desire,

For Nature failed to rouse the fire,

Powerless, since love and reason

Constrained his bodily passion;

His feelings for Iseult the Fair,

Drowned Nature, and thus conquered there

The loveless urge within his mind,

The lust that ever burrows blind.

His will to do the deed was there,

But love his passion did impair.

He knew her charms, saw her beauty,

Willed desire, and loathed his duty

To Fair Iseult, but for that queen

Fair consummation there had been;

Yet he denied this his consent,

To his yearning he did assent.

He was in torment once again,

Deep anguish, wild confusion, pain.

How to be faithful to his ‘life’

How to act now towards his wife,

Behind what pretext could he hide?

And so he turned from side to side,

Ashamed, and fled from his desire;

Scorning his pleasure entire,

Fled from it in the dark of night,

So as to shun the heart’s delight.

Tristan fails to consummate the marriage

THEN Tristan said: ‘My sweet friend,

All your kindness to me now lend,

For there’s a thing I must confess,

But keep it hid of your kindness,

So none know of it for, I vow,

I’ve ne’er spoken of it till now.

I have a wound in my right side

That with me doth ever abide,

Tonight it deals me pain and woe,

The marriage feast has tired me so;

It has spread throughout my body,

And keeps me in such agony,

And is now so near my heart,

I dare not play a husband’s part,

Or give myself to true pleasure,

Till it abates in some measure.

I must not exert myself now

Or I shall swoon, for I avow

I’ve swooned thus three times before,

And then lain ill three days or more.

Be not vexed if we leave the matter,

We’ll have time enough hereafter,

When you and I both wish the same.’

Iseult the Maid replied, ‘No blame

Is yours, and this ill you suffer,

Pains me more than any other

In this world; while I can forgo,

And shall, what you spoke of so.’

End of Part XIII of Tristan