Gottfried von Strassburg

Tristan: Part XVI - The Poisoned Spear

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

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Last Modified 6th January 2020


Thomas: on the erroneous variants to the tale

THIS tale is told in many ways,

My lords, but only one I praise,

Which I shall keep to in my verse,

While others may the rest rehearse.

I would not wish so to digress;

Here the matter varies to excess.

Among those used to narration,

They yield many a variation,

In telling the tale of Tristan;

Such I’ve heard from many a man.

I know enough of how tis told,

And what the writings do enfold,

But judging by what I have heard,

They fail to follow Breri’s word,

Who knew all the tales, the doings

Of all the counts, and all the kings,

That had ever lived in Britain.

And, add to that, many again

Of us, are unwilling to agree

To the dwarf’s role in the story,

Whose wife, they claim, Kaedin loved;

For, in the version thus approved,

The dwarf it seems wounds Tristan,

Poisons him, by his cunning plan,

After Kaedin is maimed, no less,

While, on account of his distress,

Tristan sends Curvenal, his man,

To bring Queen Iseult from England.

Now, Thomas declines to assent

To this, indeed tis his intent

The error in that claim to show.

For Curvenal was famed also;

Familiar throughout that region,

Known by all folk in that kingdom

As a go-between in the affair,

A messenger to Iseult there.

King Mark, moreover, hated him,

And had his people watch for him,

So how could Curvenal have sought

To offer his services at court

To the king, the lords, and sergeants,

As one of these foreign merchants,

Without their knowing, instantly,

Who he was, in that wise country?

How could he make such an assay,

And therefore bring Iseult away?

Such folk have strayed from the tale,

Far from the truth they set their sail;

Yet if they will not grant the fact,

I seek not that they should retract;

Let them go their way, and I mine.

My tale will prove it, line by line!

Tristan the Dwarf

TRISTAN and Kaedin, happily,

Returned once more to Brittany,

And so amused themselves, ere long,

With their friends and folk, among

The forest wastes, about the chase;

Or at tourneys assumed their place.

They won great praise and renown

Beyond all others who were found

In that land, for their chivalry,

And honour; and when they were free

Of such things, the hall they’d view,

There gaze upon a face they knew,

Admire their loves in statue form,

And so keep their affections warm.

By day they thus could win delight

Against the torments of the night.

One day they went forth to the chase,

But, in a while, they slackened pace;

Their company had ridden ahead,

Leaving them there, as on they sped.

Across La Blanche Lande they crept,

The shore upon their right they kept,

And there a knight they saw proceed

Towards them, on a piebald steed

At pace, and rich arms he did bear.

And held a shield of gold and vair;

Of the same colours was his lance,

His pennant and his cognizance.

He came galloping down the track,

His shield placed ready for attack,

He was big and broad, a fine sight,

And altogether a splendid knight.

Tristan and Kaedin sat patiently,

Both wondering who he might be.

Arriving, courteously he bowed,

As Tristan his presence avowed,

Asking him where, in such haste,

He was riding across that waste.

‘Sir,’ he said, ‘my time is precious,

For tis Tristan the Amorous

I seek, where is he to be found?

Towards his castle I am bound.’

‘What do you want with the man?

And who are you?’ replied Tristan,

‘His castle we could lead you to,

But Tristan it is whom you view,

For Tristan is indeed my name.

What do you wish then of that same?’

‘Fair news is this!’ the knight did cry,

‘They call me Tristan the Dwarf, and I

Am of the Marches of Brittany;

I dwell by Biscay, the Spanish Sea.

A castle I own, but my mistress

Whom I love as my life, no less,

I’ve lost; in misadventure’s course,

She was taken from me by force;

For, the night before last, from there,

Estult l’Orgillius of Castel Fier,

Carried her to his home with ease,

To do with her whate’er he please.

I bear such grief for it in my heart,

That I am well-nigh torn apart,

By misery, woe, anguish true,

Knowing not what I should do.

I have no comfort without her,

Yet love’s absence I must suffer,

That of my joy and my delight,

The value of my life but slight.

I’ve heard it said, my lord Tristan,

Who loses what he loves, that man

Cares little for what may remain.

And I indeed ne’er knew such pain,

And that is why I sought for you;

As a knight both brave and true,

You are known and, feared on sight,

Are altogether the finest knight,

The noblest, truest on whom to call;

He who’s loved most deeply of all.

So I beg, sire, of your mercy,

And of your generosity,

Accompany me, in this affair,

And help regain my lover there;

For I will offer allegiance then

And true homage if aid you’ll lend.’

‘Indeed, I will aid you all I can,

My friend, but now,’ said Tristan,

‘We must return; at break of day,

Then will we start upon the way.’

Finding that Tristan would malinger,

‘I’faith, my friend,’ he cried, in anger,

You are never that famous man!

For I know, if you were Tristan,

You would feel the woe I suffer;

And Tristan loved so deeply ever

That he knows all a lover’s ills.

He would lend me all his skills

If he were to hear of my woe;

He would not subject me so

To the pain and anguish of delay.

Whoe’er you are, fair friend, I say

You have ne’er loved; if you knew

What true affection is, then you

Would have pity on my sorrow,

And not delay until the morrow.

He that ne’er knew love knows not

Sorrow either; dull is his lot.

Thus you, my friend, who love none,

Must feel scant pity for anyone.

Were you able to grieve with me,

Then you would keep me company.

God be with you! For I shall go

And seek Tristan and tell him so.

Only he now can comfort me.

Drowned as I am in misery!

Dear God, why then can I not die,

Having lost that for which I sigh?

I would rather that I was dead;

No solace shall I gain, instead,

No comfort or joy in my heart,

Since with my mistress did depart

The one alone whom I, above

All others in this world, do love.’

Tristan slays Estult l’Orgillius and his brothers

THUS did Tristan the Dwarf lament;

To take his leave he sought assent,

But now our Tristan’s aid was won:

‘Right noble sir, enough; have done!

For you have spoken rightly, and I

Must go with you,’ was his reply,

‘Since I am Tristan the Amorous;

I go willingly; your cause is just,

Let me send for lance and armour,

That I may fight with due honour.’

He sent for his arms and o’er the land

He rode beside that Dwarf Tristan,

For they went to lie in ambush there

For Estult l’Orgillius of Castel Fier.

They journeyed till his hold they found,

And by a wood they went to ground.

Estult was proud and, in a fight,

Called on his brothers, each a knight;

Six, and every one a warrior,

Though he surpassed them all in valour.

Two were returning from a tourney;

The two Tristans cut short the journey,

For, lying in wait beside the wood,

They struck as fiercely as they could.

The two brothers were swiftly slain,

Yet the cry was raised o’er the plain,

As far as the castle where Estult lay;

And he soon mounted a brave display,

Attacking the Tristans furiously,

Who, both well versed in chivalry,

Each a brave and valiant knight

Resisted him with all their might.

Tristan is wounded by the poisoned spear

IN this battle four more were slain,

But Tristan the Dwarf did gain

Naught but death, and our Tristan

Was wounded, where he did stand,

By a spear-thrust through the thigh,

And of its poison was like to die.

It was envenomed, yet, in anger,

He slew Estult, the seventh brother;

All were dead, so Dwarf Tristan,

The other a sorely disabled man.

Tristan’s wound seems incurable

TRISTAN, with great labour, returned,

Because of the pain that he had earned;

He yet reached home, in much distress,

Where his wound they did address,

He sent for doctors to aid his ill

Many were found, and yet were still

Unable to rid him of the poison,

For none knew of this rare venom,

All were deceived by its power;

No poultice would serve the hour,

And draw it forth; oft they pounded

Roots enough but were confounded;

They culled herbs, and made potions,

But failed in their several missions,

For Tristan only seemed the worse.

The venom spread now, like a curse,

Over his body which did swell,

Inside and out, as black as hell

Was his skin; and he so lost strength

His bones showed, until, at length,

He knew that he must die unless

Fair succour his life might bless,

For none there could cure him, say I,

And therefore he seemed bound to die.

No help had cured his malady,

Yet if Iseult had known that he

Had this foul wound, then, at his side,

By her, foul death had been defied.

And yet he could not go where she

Now dwelt across the raging sea;

Moreover he now feared that land,

Where he had foes on every hand;

Nor could Iseult the Fair come there.

Of her healing touch he did despair,

Thus he suffered great woe at heart,

Great anguish where he lay apart,

Of his languor, and his great ill,

And the stench of his wound, for still

His pain worsened; he railed at fate,

The poison’s evil would not abate.

Kaedin is sent to Iseult the Fair

NOW, Tristan sent for Kaedin,

And they talked privately within

His chamber, for he loved the man,

As Kaedin loved Lord Tristan.

He had the room in which he lay

Cleared of folk, for none might stay,

While they took counsel together,

Speaking thus one with the other.

But Iseult of the White Hands she

Wondered what his plan might be,

Whether the world he’d forsake,

Himself a monk or canon make.

She was greatly troubled withal,

And listened by the outer wall,

The far wall, opposite his bed,

So as to hear all that was said,

Requesting that a friend stand guard,

While she waited, listening hard.

And Tristan, straining not to fall,

Leaned his arm against that wall,

As Kaedin sat down beside him,

The pair grieving and lamenting,

That all their fine good fellowship,

Their mutual love and friendship,

Would be ended ere too long.

To their hearts did pain belong,

The anguish, pity, and the woe;

Each saddened for the other so.

They wept, and they felt great dolour

That this bond they soon must sever,

Which had proved so strong and true,

For none might forge the thing anew.

Tristan spoke to Kaedin: ‘Friend,

Upon your love I now depend,

For I am in a foreign land,

And have no kith or kin to hand.

Scant happiness have I found here,

Except the joy when you are near.

Now were I in my own country,

I could seek the one to cure me;

But since no comfort here have I,

It seems, dear friend, I can but die.

My life is done, for none, you see,

Can offer any remedy,

Except Queen Iseult, for in this

She alone might own the wish

To cure me, and possess the means;

Both wish and power are the queen’s.

If she but knew of my state here!

Yet how could she, and so appear?

If I found any who would take

A message to her, for my sake,

She would grant me aid indeed,

Once she had knowledge of my need.

My trust in her is such, I know

That she would strive to aid me so,

And bring me help in my distress,

For, know, our love doth ne’er grow less!

I cannot aid myself, tis true,

Tis why, my friend, I turn to you:

Generous in your friendship be,

And do this service now for me!

Bear me this message, for the sake

Of our companionship; I make

Much of the pledge given by you,

When Iseult gave Brangwen to you!

And I will give you my pledge now,

That if this thing you will allow,

Then I will be your liege man true,

Above all others I’ll love you.’

Kaedin, viewing Tristan’s tears,

Knowing his anguish and his fears,

Was moved at heart, and tenderly

Replied in kind, and lovingly:

‘Dear companion, weep not,’ he said,

‘For I will go there in your stead.

To cure you, my friend, I’d ever

Run the risk of mortal danger.

Be at ease; by the loyalty

I owe to you, no fault in me,

No act of mine, no mere distress

No hardship will mean that less

Than my all is employed in this;

I’ll journey to achieve your wish.

Tell me the message I must take;

Then swift preparation I’ll make.’

Tristan replied: ‘My thanks to you!

Listen, now, to what you must do.

With you, you must take this ring,

It is our token; be swift, take wing,

Sail to that land, aim for the court,

Say that you come there from the port,

A merchant, who fine silks doth bring;

And then be sure she sees the ring;

For, once it meets her eye, then she

Will seek some pretext, urgently,

To meet with you whene’er she can.

Greet her, as one come from Tristan;

Wish her good health from me, and say

That, lacking her, I’ve none this day;

I send such hopes for her well-being

That none remain for my relieving;

I wish her health in hopes of healing,

Good health rests there in my greeting,

Without her, none shall rest with me.

No thought of life have I, no ease,

No healing now, except she please

To bring them. If she brings not aid,

If on my lips no comfort’s laid,

Then my health will with her remain,

And I shall die of grief and pain.

End thus, in saying I must die,

Unless she ease me, by and by.

Make clear to her all my anguish;

All the ills by which I languish;

The need for her to comfort me.

Ask that she bring to memory

All the pleasure, the sweet delight

We once enjoyed, day and night,

All the sorrows, and all the woe,

Yet the sweetness and joy also

Of our great love, so fine and true;

And how I was healed, made anew,

Once before, and how we chanced

To drink the potion that advanced 

Our love, in which our death lay hid;

Nor shall be free from what we did;

It was given us in such an hour

As to leave us in death’s power.

Let her recall what I must suffer

And have suffered in loving her;

For her I’ve lost my kith and kin,

Banished by my uncle, the king,

Dismissed in shame, and exiled

To far lands and, unreconciled,

There endured great trouble and pain,

And life and worth could scarce maintain.

But naught could sever our great love,

Grief, pain, anguish, too weak did prove.

Those who sought the most to part us,

Least succeeded, none could part us,

Space twixt our bodies might approve,

But could not thus destroy our love.

Let her remember the pledge, I say,

She made me swear to, on that day,

In the garden, where we parted,

Ere I was banished, and departed,

And where she granted me the ring.

I pledged that though in some other

Land I’d never love another.

Nor have I loved another, ever,

For I cannot love your sister,

Not her, nor anyone, I mean,

As long as I yet love the queen.

I have so loved Iseult the Fair,

Your Iseult’s still a virgin there.

Oh, bid the queen, of loyalty,

In this my need, to come to me;

If she e’er loved me show it now!

Whate’er she has done, I avow,

Will profit me little indeed,

If she aids me not in my need

Nor will counter this great sorrow,

By bringing life to my morrow.

What is her love worth to me,

If she fails, in my misery?

What good her affection, indeed,

If absent in my hour of need?

Scant is its value, in a breath,

If she’ll not aid me against death.

What benefit is love’s fair wealth,

If she will not renew my health?’

Tristan’s instructions regarding the white and black sails

‘KAEDIN, what more could I ask

Of you than this most urgent task?

Do your utmost, and greet Brangwen,

Warmly, tell her my ills, and then

That, failing God’s aid, I must die,

And stir her pity for me, thereby.

I cannot live long in this state,

Of pain and distress that is my fate.

Seek, my friend, to accomplish this,

Your swift return is then my wish;

Except you soon are here again

You will not see me; that is plain.

Forty days I grant, or I am dead.

If you succeed in all I’ve said,

And Iseult the Fair sails with you,

Take care none knows of it too;

Conceal this love from your sister,

So she hears naught of the matter;

Pretend the queen is a doctor sent

To heal my wound: such the intent.

Carry a black sail, show a white,

On your journey anent my plight,

And if on Iseult you can prevail

To come to me, let the white sail

Show still, when you return to me;

If not, the black sail let it be!

I have no more to add, dear friend;

You to God, I do now commend,

And may He keep you safe and sound!’

Then Tristan’s tears did so abound,

That at his cries, laments and sighs,

Kaedin sorrowed and wept likewise.

Kissing Tristan, he took his leave,

Leaving Lord Tristan there to grieve.

With the first fair wind, he set sail.

Weighing anchor, at his prompt hail

They raised the yard and set a course

Before the breeze, its gentle force,

Driving them swiftly o’er the deep,

Cleaving the waves at every leap.

His vessel bore a handsome crew;

It carried rare dyed silk stuffs too,

Wine from Poitou, plate from Tours,

Hawks from Spain, among its stores,

Thus might he disguise his errand,

And so before Queen Iseult stand,

Whom Tristan longed for so deeply.

Kaedin crossed the ocean safely,

In twenty days he spied the island,

The looked-for coast of fair England,

Where for the king’s court he might ask;

And seek Iseult the Fair: his task.

Right fearsome is Woman’s anger,

Men must guard against the danger;

Where a woman loves the deepest,

There she’ll take her vengeance soonest.

As swiftly as her love is granted,

Just as swiftly, comes her hatred.

That hatred once aroused is worse

Than the love she showed at first.

She knows how her love to temper,

But not her hatred, nor her anger.

Yet I know not to sour the wine,

Her temper’s no concern of mine.

Recall: Iseult of the White Hands,

Nigh Tristan’s chamber wall did stand,

And listened to what Tristan said,

And every word rang in her head.

Thus of their love she was aware,

Filled now with anger and despair

That she’d thought Tristan her lover,

While his thoughts were of another;

And now it could be clearly seen,

Why she had won no joy of him.

She showed no sign that she had heard,

Yet she remembered every word,

And should the right moment come,

Would wreak vengeance on the one,

In all this world, she loved the most.

Once his door she might approach,

Iseult the Maid entered his room,

And, though her rage did her consume,

Concealed her ire, tended his need,

And showed him a fair face, indeed,

As a lady should show her lover;

Spoke to him sweetly moreover,

Kissed, embraced him, every action

Bent on showing him affection,

Yet in her anger, plotting now

When she might be avenged, and how,

And, often mentioning Kaedin,

Asked when his passage he might win,

And so with the doctor might appear

To heal Tristan whom she held dear;

Yet she asks not out of kindness,

In her heart brews wickedness,

That which she’ll do, if she but can,

For rage seeks vengeance on the man.

Kaedin reaches England

NOW Kaedin had sailed the sea,

Nor ceased from his voyage till he

Had come into that other land

Where he before Iseult might stand.

He’d found the Thames estuary,

And then sailed up-river swiftly,

Until, outside the harbour wall,

His crewmen let the anchor fall.

Then up to London, in his boat,

He went; beneath the bridge did float;

And landing did his wares display,

Spread out his silks, in fine array.

To noble London had he come,

No city finer in Christendom,

Of higher worth, or more renown;

Wealthy the folk in London town,

All fond of honour and largesse,

Bearing themselves with fair address.

And London is England’s mainstay,

No need to look beyond its sway.

By London Wall the Thames doth flow,

And merchandise doth come and go,

From where’er Christian men do sail,

To where’er such trade doth prevail,

For the folk there are ambitious.

Now, Kaedin, once landed thus,

With silk, and wine, and hawks

From Spain, at which no man balks,

Took a great goshawk on his fist,

Cloth dyed purple as amethyst,

And a goblet, most finely made,

Fairly wrought, chased and inlaid,

And presented them to King Mark,

And then courteously made remark,

That he’d come seeking benefit,

To trade his goods, all at a profit,

And asked the king for protection,

Lest he be charged without reason,

Or suffer any hurt through this,

From some chamberlain or sheriff;

And the king granted his request,

Greeting him openly, as his guest.

Kaedin delivers Tristan’s message

KAEDIN to the Queen would go

With the wares he had on show,

And then a brooch of purest gold,

For her, in his hand, he did hold;

No finer in the world was there;

He gifted it to Iseult the Fair,

Saying: ‘The gold in this is pure.’

No finer had Iseult viewed before;

But then the ring from his finger,

Tristan’s, he set beside the other,

Saying: ‘Your Majesty, tis richer

Than the ring’s gold is, in colour,

Yet nonetheless the ring seems fair.’

Now, the Queen, viewing it there,

Knew Tristan had sent Kaedin,

And Iseult’s heart quaked within;

She changed colour, she heaved a sigh,

Dreading the news he brought thereby.

She asked aloud if he’d sell the ring,

Then what price he’d take for the thing,

Or if he’d other wares to offer,

All this so none might discover

Her intent; then drew him aside,

So that he might in her confide,

And so evade the watchers there.

Once alone with Iseult the Fair,

Kaedin said: ‘Hark, my lady,

To what I say; oh, listen closely.

For Lord Tristan greets you through me,

As a lover doth greet his lady,

Offering his service, as a man

Ought to the one, in whose fair hand

There lies his life and lies his death;

He is your liegeman, in a breath,

And sends me to you in his need.

He says to you, through me, indeed,

That to counter death’s grim force

He finds himself with no recourse

Except yourself, nor health at all,

Nor life, and must upon you call.

A spear whose tip was envenomed,

Struck him, and the wound is poisoned,

And no physicians could we find

Who’d seen a sickness of this kind.

Although they all have sought a cure,

His frame proves weaker than before.

He languishes, he lives in pain,

The stench is evil, I say, again,

He will not live without your aid,

His plea to you I have conveyed.

He begs you, by that loyalty

That you owe to him, dear lady,

To let naught in this world deter

You from hastening to your lover,

For never was there greater need,

And so you must not fail to heed

His call; he asks you to remember,

All that you’ve endured together,

The love, the pain, the woe, in truth!

He now despairs of life and youth.

He suffered banishment for you,

Was, more than once, exiled anew,

Losing the favour of the king.

Think of the nature of the ring:

Of the covenant that was made,

Between you, in the orchard glade,

When you kissed him, declaring,

Love lay there, within this thing.

And so he cries to you, through me,

To aid him, lady, in your mercy!

For, unless you help him now,

He’ll find no cure; I here avow,

Without you he can ne’er recover;

Come! Or you will lose your lover.

These are his true words, as spoken,

And he sends the ring in token;

Keep what on you he doth bestow.’

Iseult and Brangwen set sail with Kaedin for Brittany

AS Iseult the Fair listened, woe,

Pain and anguish filled her heart,

Never, since they were torn apart,

Had she known a greater sorrow.

Deeply she mused, sigh did follow

Sigh, as she longed for her lover,

He whom she might yet recover,

Yet knew not how that might be.

With Brangwen she shared the story,

Telling her of the poisoned spear,

The wound it brought, and then the fear

That he must die; how he did suffer,

How, by Kaedin, he’d sent for her,

Or else his wound would ne’er be healed.

All his torment she thus revealed,

All the tale of how it befell,

Then asked Brangwen for counsel.

And now there began a sighing,

A sad, and a plaintive crying,

Sorrow for all his woe and grief,

Pitying his pain, that lacked relief.

Nonetheless, they had soon agreed

They must go to him in his need,

And having discussed it further,

Decided to resolve the matter,

Given the state Tristan was in,

By sailing back with Kaedin,

To bring their aid in time of need.

By evening this was all agreed,

They readied all that they required,

And when the other folk retired,

They left there, in the dark of night,

Most secretly, none else in sight,

And, by a postern in the wall,

Down to the Thames from the hall

They went, at the full of the tide;

A boat was ready, the Queen did ride

The wave, as with the ebb they rowed.

Swift they went, as the river flowed,

A mighty effort they made, and came

To his vessel, and boarded the same.

The yard was hoisted, and they set sail,

Gone while the wind did yet prevail.

They sailed then from that foreign land,

They reached the coastline of Wissant,

And then Boulogne and Le Tréport;

Twas a most happy breeze they caught,

And then, the vessel was swift indeed.

Past Normandy they ran, with speed;

With their passage they were content

The wind still favouring their intent.

Tristan waits and longs for Iseult the Fair

TRISTAN, abed and languishing,

Could win no ease from anything,

For medicine proved of no avail;

Naught they tried did there prevail.

He longed for his love to be there,

Desiring naught but Iseult the Fair.

Without her, he found scant relief;

For her he yet lived, his fond belief.

There in his bed he lay, in woe,

Hoping that she would come and, lo,

Her aid would heal his malady;

No cure without her could he see.

Each day he sent men to the shore

Lest the ship’s advent was in store,

No other wish was in his heart.

Then he had a bed set there apart,

And had himself borne down to it,

So that he might behold their ship,

What way it made, and with what sail?

No other thought in him did prevail,

But their voyage, and Iseult the Fair;

His mind, will, his desire, was there.

Whate’er the world held was naught,

Except to him the Queen it brought.

Yet oft they bore him back again,

For fear it prompted, with the pain,

That she had not kept faith, that she

Would ne’er grant him her company;

Twas best to gain news from another,

Than find the vessel sailed without her.

Ho longed to watch there for the sail,

Yet dared not so, lest all had failed.

Naught was in his heart but anguish,

To see her now his only wish.

He lamented to Iseult the Maid;

Not of what rendered him afraid,

But only of absent Kaedin,

And of the cure that he might win;

And yet he feared the long delay

Spoke ill of Kaedin’s assay.

The storm

NOW, hear of a sad circumstance,

A grave and pitiful mischance,

To grieve the heart of every lover.

Came there greater sorrow never

Of such love, and of such longing.

For as Tristan lay there, waiting,

And Iseult nearing, close at hand,

So eager now to reach the land,

As almost to forget her woes,

A wind from out the south arose,

And struck the yard with full force,

Checking the vessel in its course.

To luff, the crew dragged at the sail,

Against the wind could not prevail,

For the gale now gained in strength,

And roused the swell, until, at length,

The waves rose up, all dark the sky,

The sea grew black as, from on high,

The rain and sleet fell, dense as smoke,

The bowlines and the shrouds all broke;

They lowered the yardarm and did ride

The wind and waves, borne by the tide.

They had set the ships’ boat on the sea,

On nearing the shores of Brittany,

And yet neglected it, by mischance;

Over it now the waves did dance,

Smashed to pieces thus and lost;

While the ship was tempest-tossed,

So great the storm now had grown,

To and fro the crew were thrown;

The best of sailors now met defeat,

For not a man could keep his feet.

All on board wept and lamented,

Grief, and woe, and sorrow vented,

Such fear had they; full loud they cried.

‘Our Lord above,’ Fair Iseult sighed,

‘He wishes not that I reach land,

Nor live to see my love, Tristan;

He’d have me drown in sorrow too!

Tristan, if I’d but met with you,

And spoken to you, I’d not mind

That death was here; if death I find,

Love, when you hear that I am dead,

I know you’ll ne’er be comforted.

Your sorrow then would prove so great,

You would suffer so at my fate,

That you would ne’er again be well.

Nor could I counter what befell;

If God had wished it I’d have come,

And sought to heal you, for, in sum,

My only sorrow must be your woe,

Lacking all help and comfort so.

And I am grieved; if I should die,

You will be robbed of aid thereby.

My own death matters not to me,

If God so wills, then it must be,

Yet when you learn that I have passed,

I know that you must breathe your last.

Of such a nature our love doth prove,

I feel no ill but through you, my love.

Except through me, you cannot die,

Except through you, no more can I.

If I am drowned so must you be,

Thus have you come to visit me;

For on dry land you could not be so.

I see your death, and thus I know,

Foreseeing death, I soon must die.

Dear friend, I fail; I’d hoped to lie

In your arms, in the tomb with you,

But now I must lie so far from you.

And yet it still might happen so,

If I drown here, you must also,

Some sea-creature might swallow us,

And forge one sepulchre for us,

For perchance it might be caught

If any such mighty quarry sought,

Who our bodies might recognise,

And so inter them; in such wise,

Honouring our love. It cannot be!

Ah, if God wished it, it might be!

O’er the wave, what seek you here?

I know not why you thus appear!

For here I am, and here shall die,

Drown here without you, yet I sigh,

For tis sweet comfort, in a breath,

That you’ll know naught of my death.

None, after this, shall hear of me,

What could tell of it, but the sea?

After me, you will yet be living,

Still attendant on my coming;

Please God that you may yet be healed,

That some fair cure may be revealed,

For I long for that, and you alive,

More than that I myself survive;

More than my rescue from the sea,

I seek your own recovery,

So true the love I hold for you!

And yet I pray that yours is true,

For, indeed, if you should recover

After my death, I fear, my lover,

Lest you find comfort with another;

And thus forget me, my dear lover,

When I am dead, my own Tristan.

I fear Iseult of the White Hands,

My friend, though no clear reason

Have I, indeed, to fear her person.

And if you should die before I do,

Then I’ll not live long after you.

I know not what the future brings,

But you I desire above all things;

And God grant we may be together,

So I might heal you, love, as ever,

Or we two of one sorrow die,

And so beside you yet I’ll lie!’

Surviving the storm, they raise the white sail

WHILE the skies brought no relief,

Iseult gave way to woe and grief;

And the gale blew a full five days,

Bringing chill rain and hail always.

Then the wind fell, and all was fair.

They hoisted a white sail with care,

And made good speed o’er the sea

Till they found the coast of Brittany.

When Kaedin those shores did spy,

He ordered the sail raised on high,

So that whene’er they came in sight,

All could see if twas black or white.

He’d show it, bright against the sky,

For the last day of the term was nigh

Lord Tristan had assigned when they

Toward England had made their way.

The ship is becalmed

AS they sailed steadily on their course,

A warm breeze blew, but spent its force,

And then the wind dropped completely;

All smooth and still now was the sea.

The ship moved not, this way nor that,

Upon that surface, so calm and flat;

And they had lost the one ship’s boat,

And so in great distress did float,

Seeing the shore so close at hand,

But with no way to reach the land.

Back and forth, they drifted there,

To and fro, as the swell did bear.

They advanced not upon their way,

But, troubled, must endure delay.

Iseult was now distressed the more;

She saw the land that she longed for,

Yet could not reach it, must abide;

Of her longing, she well-nigh died.

Those in the ship wished for land,

But saw dead calm on every hand.

Iseult, endlessly, railed at fate.

Those ashore could do naught but wait,

For those folk saw not the ship as yet

From where they were, and so Tristan

Remained a wretched woeful man;

Oft he lamented, oft he sighed,

Hoping that Iseult reached his side;

He tossed and turned, tears flowing,

And well-nigh died of his longing.

Iseult of the White Hands deceives Tristan

IN his anguish, in his affliction,

Iseult his wife appeared; treason

She thought on and cruel deceit:

‘My love,’ she said, ‘I see the fleet!

Kaedin comes now o’er the sea;

They make small headway certainly,

But nonetheless I’ve seen them true,

Enough to know he returns to you.

God grant now that he bears good news,

To comfort you!’ Such was her ruse.

Now Tristan raised himself in bed,

And to Iseult, his wife, he said:

‘Fair friend, do you know for truth

It is his ship? Say now, in sooth,

What colour of sail does it show?

She answered: ‘It is his, I know,

And the sail that it bears is black!

Tis raised on high for wind they lack.’

The death of Tristan

AT this Tristan was plunged in grief,

None e’er grieved so, tis my belief;

Then he turned his face to the wall.

‘God save Iseult, and I,’ he did call;

‘Since you come not to me, my love,

Then of love for you, I must remove;

For I can cling to life no longer;

I die for you, Iseult, sweet lover.

You show no pity that I suffer,

And yet you will grieve hereafter;

It comforts me, my love, that you,

In pity, my sad death shall rue.’

‘Iseult, my love!’ three times he cried;

And at the fourth cry, thus, he died.

And all his knights and company,

Though all that house, wept bitterly,

The cries full loud, great the lament.

Then the knights and sergeants went

To bear him from his bed, and they,

Upon a cloth of samite, did lay

His body, and covered it withal,

With a long and broad striped pall.

Iseult reaches land to find Tristan dead

AND now the wind rose, out at sea,

And struck the white sail forcefully,

And so it brought the ship to land.

Iseult descended to the strand,

Hearing the tolling of the bells

From the minster and its chapels

And the mourning in the streets,

Asking the news of all she meets;

Who was it they bewailed so sore,

Who were these bells tolling for?

And an old man cried: ‘Fair lady

As the Lord above shall save me,

Of sorrow now we own full more

Than any folk e’er knew before.

Tristan, that noble soul, is dead:

Comfort he brought us; us he fed,

Generous to the needy, his hand

Ever an aid to the wretched man.

He died, but now, in his own bed,

All of a poisoned wound, they said.

Never did such mischance befall

This realm, that e’er I can recall.’

On hearing this, tis my belief,

Queen Iseult was struck dumb with grief,

So much so, she ran through the street,

Without her cloak; none ran so fleet,

Up to the palace thus, ran the queen,

Nor had the Bretons ever seen

A woman of so great a beauty.

All wondered, throughout the city,

Whence she came, who she might be?

Iseult went to where she might see

Tristan’s body, and then she prayed,

Turned to the east; farewell she bade:

‘Tristan, my love, I see you dead,

There is no reason why I, instead,

Live on; as you died for my love,

So I now die of grief, my love,

Grief that I could not come in time,

To heal you, no reason or rhyme

Is there in this, naught to console

Me now or ever, or ease my soul,

In naught now may I find delight,

Nor joy, nor pleasure: my sweet knight.

Cursed be the storm that brought delay,

So I might come not till this day!

If I had come, in time, to you,

I would have brought you life, anew,

And spoken tenderly of our love,

That between us so sweet did prove.

I would have then bewailed our fate,

Our joy, our rapture, the woe of late,

The pain and sorrow of our love;

I would have kissed you so, my love,

Recalled it all, embraced you here,

And if I had failed to cure you, dear,

We would yet be with one another,

For we would thus have died together!’

The death of Iseult

‘YET since I have come, all too late,

Fearful of what might be your fate,

And find you dead, then thus will I

Drink now of that same cup, and die!

You have laid down your life for me,

Then I shall a true lover be,

For now, in turn, I die for you.’

She took him in her arms, anew,

And, lying full length, kissed his face,

And mouth, as, in a tight embrace,

She held him strained to her closely,

Lips to lips, body to body;

And thus she rendered up her spirit;

Such was the death Iseult did merit,

Of grief for her love, her love beside,

Thus she ended, at Tristan’s side.

Tristan died of longing, that day,

Iseult, that time did her betray.

Tristan died of his love, no less,

Iseult of pity, and tenderness.

The Love Death

‘The Love Death’
Wagners Tristan and Isolde - Richard le Gallienne, Edward Zeigler and George Alfred Williams (p90, 1909)
Internet Archive Book Images

Thomas bids his farewell

THOMAS thus the tale did tell.

To all lovers he bids farewell,

The pensive, and the amorous,

The longing, and the envious,

The happy ones, and the reverse;

And all who hear or read this verse.

If I’ve not pleased with my dower,

Yet I have done all in my power

To tell the tale, and spoken true,

As I did promise, at first, to do.

The tale I’ve told, and for all time,

And have recounted it in rhyme,

As a model and to beautify

The story; and please, by and by,

All lovers, who, within my art,

May find what they then take to heart.

So let it comfort their condition,

Countering wrong, and alteration,

Countering pain, and woe, and cares,

Countering all Love’s nets and snares!

The death of the lovers

‘The death of the lovers’
The Story of Tristan and Iseult, Vol II - Jessie L Weston and Caroline Watts (p135, 1907)
Internet Archive Book Images

The End of the Tale of Tristan