Gottfried von Strassburg

Tristan: Part XIV - Sorrows

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

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Last Modified 6th January 2020


Iseult the Fair yearns for Tristan

ISEULT the Fair sighed in her chamber,

Longing for Tristan her lover,

With no thought but for the man,

Her heart still yearning for Tristan.

She had indeed no other wish,

Nor other love, nor hope, than this.

All her desire was lodged in him,

And yet she’d had no news of him.

She knew not if he were alive,

Was dead, indeed, or yet did thrive,

If so, in what land he might be,

While not knowing spelt misery.

Though he was now in Brittany,

She thought in Spain he might yet be,

Where he’d despatched a giant, who

Was Orgillos the Great’s nephew,

Orgillos who from Africa came,

To seek out, and to kill or maim

Kings and princes, of every land.

Orgillos had great strength of hand,

Brave and bold he fought with all,

Before him many a man did fall.

He took the beard from each face,

And set each beard in its own place

In a cloak he wove that was strong,

And very large in size, and long.

Now he had heard of King Arthur,

To whom all the world showed honour,

And was steadfast, of such mettle,

That he’d never lost a battle,

For he had fought with many a man,

And conquered all, you understand.

When the giant learnt of the king,

He sent, as to a friend, saying

That he had a cloak, all woven

Of the beards of princes, cloven

In close combat, barons, kings,

Of other lands, not underlings.

Some he’d also slain in battle,

But it lacked collar and tassels.

Such the garment he had made,

With its beards of kings displayed,

Except it lacked the fringe, and so

Since Arthur was, as he did know,

The greatest in land and honour,

He requested that he sever

His beard too, so runs the story,

And send it to him, in his glory,

For he would grant him the honour

Of setting his above the others;

As he was the greatest sovereign,

It was right that he should reign

Above the others on his cloak,

That nest of beards of which he spoke.

He’d crown the cloak for his sake,

Collar and tassels he would make.

And if Arthur refused his plea,

He’d do, as was customary,

Wager the cloak against his beard,

And take the fight to him, he feared,

And the one who should conquer

Would have both, to keep forever.

When Arthur heard the message he

Was sore grieved at heart, and angry.

He sent the giant his reply,

That he would sooner fight and die

Than yield his beard out of fear,

Like a coward. When he did hear,

The giant I mean, that this mad king

Had answered so, he came seeking

Combat, and reaching the frontier,

All set for battle he did appear.

And so the two met in the fight,

To win both beard and cloak outright,

Furiously they fought together,

In anger, flailing at each other.

Hard the battle, and great the strife,

For each was fighting for his life,

Thus, all day; but on the morrow,

Arthur proved his boasting hollow,

And had from him cloak and head,

For now the giant was slain instead,

Overcome by skill and valour,

Adding to King Arthur’s honour.

Tis good that I your ears regale

With this addition to my tale,

Since it was this giant’s nephew,

Who came seeking a beard too;

That of the king, the giant would gain,

Whom Tristan served while in Spain,

Before he went to Brittany.

This second giant had asked, you see,

For his beard, but the king said no.

The king lacked a champion though,

Nor friend nor kinsman would defend

It, none on whom he could depend.

The king was troubled and he spoke

Sadly of this before his folk.

Tristan, out of love for him, then

Took up the challenge, and again

A giant fell in bitter conflict,

And yet fierce blows he did inflict;

Tristan with many a wound bled,

Though the giant himself lay dead.

Of that dire battle he had fought,

Queen Iseult the Fair heard naught,

For it is rumour’s way to speak

Ill, but naught of the good we seek,

Envy will hide a man’s good deed,

But soon doth news of evil breed.

That is why the wise man says

To his son, in the ancient phrase:

‘Better live lacking company,

Than accompanied by envy;

Unaccompanied day and night,

Than unloved, all met with spite.’

An envious ‘friend’ the good will hide,

Yet speak the ill that doth betide;

He’ll conceal the virtuous deed,

Yet the damaging tale will breed.

Better to lack all companions,

Than gain a false and evil one.

Enough companions had Tristan

That held little love for the man.

Plenty of folk, who loved him not,

About King Mark, such was his lot,

Hid from Iseult the good they heard,

Spread their evil with every word.

Good news they had no wish to hear,

While Queen Iseult, in love and fear,

Longed for such; yet, full of envy,

They spoke of all she hated deeply.

The arrival of Count Cariado

ONE day, sitting in her chamber,

She wrought a lay about a lover:

Of how Lord Gurun fell in love,

And yet his love his death did prove,

Slain for the love of that lady

Whom Lord Gurun loved supremely;

And how her lord, unknown to her,

Served her the heart of her lover,

And how she ate, and all her woe

When she learned she had done so.

Iseult played sweetly, every chord,

Voice and instrument in accord.

Her touch was good, the lay her own,

Sweet was the voice, and soft the tone.

And now, there entered Cariado,

A noble Count, right rich also,

With fine castles and fertile land,

Who’d come to court, as he had planned,

To sue for the queen’s love, while she,

Iseult the Fair, deemed it mere folly.

He’d sued for love, you understand,

Since Lord Tristan had left that land,

And now the Queen’s chamber sought;

Yet Cariado had ne’er won aught

Of her heart, not as much of love

As would earn that man a glove,

Either by gift, or by promise;

Naught at all did he accomplish,

Though he had dwelt long time at court,

And stayed yet, while her love he sought.

Cariado brings news of Tristan’s marriage

CARIADO was a courteous knight,

Proud and haughty, though in a fight

Little deserving of any praise,

Nor famed in fair chivalry’s ways.

Yet he was handsome, spoke well,

Gallant, witty, could cast a spell,

And finding Iseult as she did play

And sing, he said, in a mocking way:

‘Now when one hears the owl, lady,

It speaks of a man’s death plainly,

For the song it sings tells of death.

And your singing doth, in a breath,

As the owl doth, speak but of strife,

And that some man has lost his life.’

‘And you speak truly,’ Iseult replied,

‘For death indeed the song implied,

And one who sings what must dismay

Another, the owl’s part doth play.

Death you should fear, if tis true

You fear my singing as you do,

Yet owl enough are you that sing,

Because of the news that you bring.

For I believe that you have never

Brought news that delighted ever,

Nor did you ever meet with me,

Unless bad news kept company.

For tis ever the same with you,

Like that fool by the fireside who

Never rose from his hearth at all,

But to anger some man in the hall.

You never leave your seat likewise

Except with ill news to surprise,

Yet never stir yourself to tell

Of anything that augurs well.

No news will e’er be heard of you

Such that your friends shall accrue

Honour, nor other men feel woe;

For still, tomorrow and tomorrow,

Of others’ deeds you’ll ever speak,

And yet your own we’ll ever seek.’

‘You seem angry,’ was his reply,

‘Yet I know not the reason why.

A fool is he such words dismay;

Since I’m a screech-owl, you say,

Let be the matter of my death,

I bring you ill news, in a breath,

Concerning Tristan your lover;

My lady, he is lost forever;

In another land he has wed,

You may take another instead,

For he disdains your true amour,

And he has married with honour,

The Duke of Brittany’s daughter.’

Iseult gave him a subtle answer:

‘Ever the screech-owl you have been

In speaking ill of Tristan, I deem!

God aid me not, if I am not

The screech-owl that cries your lot!

You cry ill news through the wood,

Well, today, I cry you naught good.

You will never win love from me,

Nor find favour, eternally;

Neither you, fine sir, nor your love,

Shall I, in this life of mine, approve.

If I received your love, then I

Would have a poor bargain thereby.

For, a thousand times, I’d rather

Lose his love than be your lover.

You bring ill news, and yet I swear

That you will gain no profit there.’

Her anger now waxed still greater,

As Cariado could see, and rather

Than cause more distress, or berate

His beloved, with the queen irate,

He chose to leave the room, while she

Gave full vent to her misery.

For, at heart, she felt sore distress,

While angered by his news no less.

Tristan’s jealousy

(Meanwhile Tristan had created a hall of statues, including those of Iseult the Fair, and Brangwen. Wed to a wife for whom he showed no love, he would go there to embrace the statue of Iseult the Fair, his distant love.)

ALL the delights of Iseult’s love,

All their travails, that ill did prove,

All the torments that did befall,

Through her statue, he would recall.

When Tristan was happy he would kiss

Her image, and revive his bliss,

But, vented his ire, when angered,

Because some ill dream lingered,

Some thought that clouded his eyes,

And mind. Or he, deceived by lies

In his heart thought she’d forgot her

Love, and found some other lover,

Could not help but love that other,

Who, perchance, might love her better.

This thought filled his mind with doubt,

And doubt drove all his courage out.

He thought her affections might flow

Towards that handsome Cariado,

Who was about her night and day,

And served and flattered her alway.

Oft, about him, upbraiding her.

He feared that, failing of her lover,

She might accept whate’er was there,

And if of her love she did despair,

She would seek the thing elsewhere.

Now, pondering this whole affair,

And maddened by a vain desire,

He loathed her statue, in his ire,

Scorning to see, or speak to her,

But to Brangwen’s, he did utter

These words: ‘Lovely one, I complain

Of Iseult the Fair, my love, again,

Of her change, and the treachery,

That the Queen shows towards me.’

He told the statue what he thought,

Then withdrew a little, and caught

The expression on Iseult’s face

For the features there did trace,

Her look when the two had parted,

When the gold ring she had started

To hand to him; and remembered,

The pledge he then had rendered.

At this he wept, and begged her mercy,

For his thoughts, mere idle folly,

Knowing he has been deceived

By jealousy in anger conceived.

For this he made the work of art,

To tell it what was in his heart,

His fair thoughts, his mad errors,

All the pain and joy of lovers,

Knowing none to whom he might

Speak of his sorrow and delight.

Thus Tristan behaved in his love,

Oft went there, and oft did remove,

Oft, as I said, showed a fair face,

Yet as oft an ill one, in its place.

It was Love that made him that way,

Twas Love that sent his heart astray.

If he’d loved her not above all others,

He’d not have feared other lovers.

He was possessed by suspicion,

Because above her he loved none.

If he had loved another lover,

He’d not have been jealous of her,

Yet he was jealous of her ever,

Because he feared he might lose her.

He’d not have feared to lose her though,

If Love had not oppressed him so;

For a man cares naught if a thing

Fares well or ill that means nothing

To him at all; how should he fear

What in his mind doth ne’er appear?

The sorrows of the four lovers

STRANGE was the love among those four,

All filled with pain, and with dolour;

Each lived in sorrow, day and night,

And none had there the least delight.

First Mark the king, who dreaded lest

Iseult was queen of faithlessness,

And loved not him but some other;

He, despite himself, did suffer.

And well he might, thus torn apart,

Riven with anguish in his heart,

Since none but her did he desire,

Who yet withdrew from him, her sire.

Of her body he might win pleasure,

But of contentment small measure,

For another man did own her heart.

This enraged him; they drew apart;

All for this Tristan was her love;

Never-ending, his grief did prove.

After the king, Iseult felt she

Had what she wished not, certainly,

And yet for her part could not win

All that she longed for; not the king.

The king had but the one suffering,

But to the queen double did cling,

Double the pain, seeking Tristan,

And yet wedded to this other man,

Whom she could neither love nor leave,

Neither depart, nor joy conceive;

Had the body, loved not the heart;

So the one torment wove its art,

While the second was her longing

For Tristan, thwarted by the king

So they could not meet together,

While she desired no other lover.

She was convinced the skies above

Looked on no other he could love;

Tristan desired her, and she him.

Her torment? She could ne’er have him.

Then, Lord Tristan felt double woe

And double pain, from loving so.

To the other Iseult he was wed,

Yet longed not for the marriage bed,

Nor could abandon her, on whim,

For she’d no wish to part from him;

Whate’er he wished, he was bound,

To cleave to her; when she was wound

In his arms, it brought him scant joy,

All but her name seemed mere alloy.

He was saddened by what he’d got,

Sadder still for what he had not,

His beloved, that fair, sweet queen,

Who was his life and death, I mean.

And so it seemed double the pain

Lord Tristan suffered, for a name.

Because of his love and its demands,

Woe to Iseult of the White Hands!

Howe’er it was with Iseult the Fair,

This Iseult knew not joy but care;

She had no pleasure of her sire,

Nor for another man felt desire;

For she desired the man she had,

Yet little delight of him she had.

She was the opposite of the king,

Since Mark could ask everything

Of Iseult his queen, and yet no art

Would serve to win him her heart,

Whereas this other Iseult had naught

Of Tristan, yet her love she brought;

She longed to have of him delight,

Yet had naught of him day or night,

She wished to try his fond embrace

Further, to kiss his handsome face,

But Tristan would not allow it,

And she cared not to demand it.

Nor would I care to say, in this,

Which of the four felt most anguish;

And that, indeed, I cannot know,

Since I have never felt such woe.

I’ll put the matter, again, to you.

Let lovers pass their judgement true:

From love, who the most did gain,

Or, without, felt the greatest pain?

Mark possessed Iseult’s body,

And thus took his pleasure freely,

Yet he was vexed, deep in his heart,

That she loved Tristan, though apart,

Since he loved no one more than her.

Iseult was the king’s to do whatever

He pleased with her body, and so

The queen was often filled with woe,

Because of the pain this did bring,

Since she had no love for the king.

She suffered him for he was her sire,

Yet only Tristan did she desire,

Her love, who, on the other hand,

Had wed a wife in a foreign land.

She feared that he chased the new,

Yet hoped her lover was yet true.

Tristan desired Iseult the Fair,

Alone, and he was well aware

Mark possessed her body entire

Yet had no joy, except in desire.

Tristan had a wife, whom in bed

He loved not, though they were wed,

And yet did naught against his heart.

Iseult of the White Fingers, apart

From Tristan, sought naught on earth;

His body she had, but not its worth

In love; she had her handsome sire,

Yet lacked what she did most desire.

Let whoe’er knows the answer say:

Which of these four lovers, I pray,

Had the best of love’s bargain so,

And which one felt the greatest woe?

The bold water

LOVELY Iseult of the White Hands

Still virgin, slept with Lord Tristan.

They lay there in one bed together,

Of their joy or pain I know neither,

But as a spouse there he did never

A thing to grant her any pleasure.

I know not if she thought of pleasure,

Or if she loved that life, or whether

She hated it, but I can say

Had it troubled her in any way

She’d not have hidden it, as she did,

From her friends, and kept it hid.

Now it so happened in this land,

That Kaedin and my lord Tristan,

Rode forth, with neighbourly intent,

To a feast, for entertainment.

Lord Tristan took Iseult with him,

And on her right rode Kaedin,

Leading her horse by the rein,

While they spoke, as they were fain

To do of such festive amusement.

Now, on talk they were so intent,

That they let their horses wander

As they wished, hither and yonder,

Till Kaedin’s mount crossed indeed

Her path, and clashed with her steed.

Iseult spurred her mount, and it reared,

And, as she struck again, and steered

The creature, she parted her thighs,

As she steadied herself in surprise.

Her palfrey ran on; in doing so

It slipped on the wet ground below,

And being newly shod sank deep

Into the mud as it sought to leap.

As it plunged in the hollow there,

A plume of water leapt in the air,

And splashed cold against her thighs

As she parted them so as to rise

And strike hard with her spurs again.

Iseult, shocked, still grasped the rein,

Let out a brief cry, but said naught,

Yet laughter to her heart it brought,

So great, though she’d been in mourning,

She could scarce have kept from smiling.

Kaedin saw her laugh, and thought,

Though indeed she’d uttered naught,

That she had heard him say a thing

Foolish, shameful, or demeaning;

For he was diffident, though true,

And good, and ever gallant too.

He feared what might follow after

On hearing his sister’s laughter,

And that he must bear the blame,

So he questioned her on this same:

‘Iseult, you laughed with laughter deep,

Yet I know not why you should keep

This to yourself; unless I know

The truth I shall mistrust you so.

You can try to deceive me now,

But if I learn of it later, I vow,

No loyalty or love hereafter

Shall you have of me, dear sister!’

Iseult on hearing his strong intent,

Knew it would cause true discontent

If she refused, so she replied:

‘I laughed at a thought deep inside,

After what happened, for I recalled

How my mount it leapt and stalled,

And the water it splashed my thigh

Higher than ever a hand came nigh,

Higher than ever Tristan sought.

My brother, this was all my thought.’

(Kaedin was troubled by the dishonour to their family that her admission revealed, and reproached Tristan for it. Tristan revealed his love for, and loyalty towards, Iseult the Fair, and how even Brangwen, her lady-in-waiting outshone Kaedin’s sister in beauty. Kaedin demanded proof of that. Tristan showed Kaedin the Hall of Statues, and promised that he should have the living Brangwen for his own. They set out for England together.)

Tristan and Kaedin in England

STRAIGHT to England they journeyed then,

To see Iseult, and seek Brangwen,

Kaedin wishing to find her there,

Tristan to view Iseult the Fair.

Now why draw out each element,

Or speak what is irrelevant?

I’ll give the outcome and the sum.

Tristan and Kaedin had come,

After journeying through England

To a city, in that fair land,

Where King Mark was to spend the night.

Since the king was not yet in sight,

Tristan, knowing the road, set out

With Kaedin, to search about.

On and on they rode, to view

The land, and seek his retinue,

And when the king had ridden by,

The queen’s company met their eye.

They dismounted beside the way,

While the squires were told to stay,

And climbed into a large oak-tree,

From which the road they might see.

There her passage they could view,

Unseen by all her retinue.

Came the footmen, and the boys,

Came hounds and bitches, midst their noise

The kennel-lads, the messengers,

The grooms, and the harbingers,

The scullions and sumpters too,

All the vast and motley crew,

The huntsmen astride their hunters,

And the palfreys, and the chargers,

Led by the reins, in the right hand,

While falcons on the left did stand.

Great was the crowd upon that road.

And great the splendour it did bode.

Kaedin gazed at these wonders,

Amazed by the wealth and numbers,

But saw not Iseult or Brangwen,

The queen or the lovely maiden.

But then the laundresses appeared,

And the outer chambermaids neared,

Who managed the lesser chambers,

Moved and made the beds, moreover,

Sewed the clothes, and did folks’ hair,

And aught else that was their affair.

Then Kaedin cried: ‘Now I see her!’

‘No,’ said Tristan, ‘they’re no other

Than her mere outer chambermaids.’

The chamberlain his passage made,

And then a dense throng of knights,

And young gentlemen came in sight,

All noble, brave, fair as angels,

Singing sweet airs and pastourelles.

And a host of ladies then they saw,

Daughters of princes, and of lords,

Come from many a distant land

All riding together, hand in hand,

Singing delightful tunes also,

And their lovers then did follow,

The well-bred, and the valiant;

Of love and loving, they did chant.

‘Now,’ Kaedin cried, ‘now I see her!’

Thinking he viewed Tristan’s lover,

‘The one in front must be the queen,

Yet no Brangwen as yet I’ve seen!’

(Kaedin later identified the pair correctly, and testified to the queen’s beauty and that of Brangwen. Tristan and Kaedin then penetrated the palace in disguise. Tristan slept with Iseult, secretly, while the virgin Brangwen, persuaded by Iseult, after some prevarication, took Kaedin as her lover. Cariado and his allies learnt of her indiscretion, however, though Tristan and Kaedin escaped unrecognised. Cariado returned and confronted Brangwen for having slept with a cowardly man who had simply fled when challenged.)

End of Part XIV of Tristan