Does the land wait the sleeping lord
or is the wasted land
That very lord who sleeps?
– David Jones, The Sleeping Lord and other Fragments
In the high, hot summer, we are free to imagine our barbarous past. In bright July, the shape of history changes, bends, makes a tunnel to the golden summers of long ago.
We lean back in our minds to other green lawns, other wide fields stretched out languidly under the same sun. We use spades for swords, the good crystal for chalices, our mothers’ dressing gowns for cloaks. We wrap ourselves in the pages of myths and parade through town, knights and wizards and witches, fair maidens and kings and queens. We brook no disagreement with our way of life; we follow dreams and find lost curses, pick them up again like half-buried trip wire, call upon the forces of good and exercise cowboy diplomacy.
We are not subtle. We are not strategic. We let things fall as they may, adventures like leaves at the start of a love affair. We follow prophecies, not clues. We do not solve mysteries; mysteries solve us. Or they hover like suspended droplets on the air: a grail, a vision, a quest.
We ride into danger with visors up, clear-eyed and full of righteous causes. We expect no one to save us but ourselves. With the sun full still and beating in the sky, gold streaming like the cup itself, we ride hard to beat back the autumn. We expect to fall with the fading light.
There once was a king who was very ill, and who had been very ill for a long time. His children were despondent, and one day they went into the woods to hunt, to swallow their grief, but they could not disguise the sounds and shapes of their sorrow. An old peasant appeared in front of their horses and asked the siblings why they were so sad. They told him their father was very ill, and was going to die, and that nothing on earth could save him.
This is earth, said the old man. But there is one cure the king has not tried. If he should drink of a certain cup, the old man said, he would be well again, and hale.
The siblings begged the man to tell them where such a cup could be found. The old man shook his head and shook his head. It is a very difficult journey, he said.
We don’t mind the difficulty, the siblings said.
You would have to cross rivers and mountains and pass through black forests to find it, and fight many powerful enemies, said the old man.
We do not mind the journey and the fighting. We are young and strong, the king’s children said. We would do anything to save our father.
And then, continued the old man, at the end of your journey you would find bitter disappointment. You would find that your father, pure as he has never been, would not be able to drink a drop from the cup.
The siblings were furious. But then why did you tell us this story, they asked? Why tell us about a cup that can never be obtained? What kind of a fool are you?
The old man looked very surprised. This is the story that all men tell one another, he said. Don’t you know it? It is an old story. I am sure it is written in your books somewhere. It is the story of the immortal glory, forever unattainable. It is the story of the cruelty of faith and its impatience with anything less than perfection. It is supposed to fill you with hope, and love, and the bittersweet sadness of your own dark life. Does it not move you?
The siblings stared at the old man. One of the siblings drew a knife, and, faster than words, planted the blade in the old man’s heart. That, too, is an old story, he said. And the whole world rolled forward once more.
While the city still burned, the king so newly dead, while new widows still wept and tore at their dresses, while children ate their dreams and played at death in black silks—a man stood outside the castle and sold his morbid souvenirs. Two for one, he called, to all who’d gathered to watch the long fire take the century away. Two for one, and they crowded in to buy the slim fragments of molten glass, the blunted bricks, the warped and ruined boards, the pools of paints scooped up and sold like vials of tears. Greedy for the end of things, they pushed and pulled and shouted and each came away with their very own piece of the blessed city.
You were the first to declare the old century dead; you pulled all the firstborn children from their beds and you had them drowned at sunrise. You allowed them a last glimpse of the world before the wasted face of the sun looked out and blew them a soft, slow kiss.
Then, there was a new sun. Then, there were new children. Then, there was a new king, and you were crowned with thorns and honey, and you brought your wife, your lovers to the coronation. They sang beautiful songs about your virile strength, made tribute to your handsome profile, but in their own mental hives they saw one another other bent over and bleeding in your arms, hurt the way you liked to hurt your women.
You turned them into girl children, you drove them dotty, you asked too much and yet, asked nothing at all. You took them, one each night, by age and by weight, and in the morning you turned their faces to the window and warned them you would burn this city again someday. That you would burn these glass houses down for good.
Stevens says nobility is dead, an ancient dream, but they cling to it whether on horseback or at halftime or sailing off to foreign wars. We dare not denounce the old ideas, the fever that roils men’s blood and brings the grail vision swimming into focus, the thing that might give meaning to our deaths and make us bold and make us loved. We cannot bear the thought of the oblivion, can we? We cannot bear the thought of the bleakness before, the blackness after; we cannot bear to hear the gravestones crumbling slowly around our own houses.
Hopkins sent them off in a flurry of lovely words, but he sent them off to die just the same. So why do these words make us weep, why do raised swords for our god cut us off at the knees while the kingdom lies undefended? I have a kingdom to care for, a peace to keep, so I must be practical. I cannot indulge every moment’s weakness. But I, too, felt it. The old stories, they eat through our hearts and they sink iron in our blood. Is it because they are simple? Because they are easy to understand? They are not black and white; the Grail is a complex and wondrous mystery. There is no completing the journey of a mystic. There is only a beginning and a series of deaths along the way, yours included.
So why must I feel moved by the bodies burning in floating beds, the maiden white and bloodless in her watery bier, the bloody cloak over the still and ancient knight in the chapel? Can I fault the poets? These symbols dropped in our paths like bread crumbs, a way to follow the dead home and preach what they practice? These symbols burned into our myths now like fire alarms, like the rainless thunder, like the wasted land under which my once and future kingdom is buried? Like the selfish footfalls of my dying knights?
I do not know why we must dream of these things, scarlet and ruby against pale silver and plain hammered gold. I do not know why my coarse, uncouth men think they might become like this Jesus Christ was, if they shower and shave and drive toward the center of the universe. If they crawl through the temple and find the hurt one. If they take the leap of faith. It is a long way down, the steppe below littered with broken bones, with smashed swords and empty cups. Those who drink deeply will only increase their thirst, for the water of this Grail dream is bitter and salty. This water has cleaned my hall out and washed my kingdom away.
His head in her lap as they were borne away from the crowds, the sirens, the flashing lights, the people streaming to mourn him already. His head in her lap as the television sets blared, and the sword was given back to the water. His head in her lap, her tears bathing his face, his wounds, his life escaping naked through his open lips. His head in her lap as the barge bore them away, away, away.
His head in her lap and his heart burned to ashes, the future fertilized by the dream of his perfect kingdom. His head in her lap and she is falling, falling, the world is falling into blackness and the trees have lost their leaves forever. His head and his blood, his blood in her lap, his dream unfurled in scarlet, his dream the saddest words in the world*:
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.
Watch the screen now. Something is ending. Words fly away, leaving us behind saying goodbye with “long ago” and “far, far away.”
If words are the best we can do, isn’t our best a failure of sorts? Can’t we still admit that? Can’t we tell each other that our symbols were better, when a bird meant the landing of love? When shifting rock was a stand-in for drought?
When the Enchanted Ship pulls into port, we will greet it with our toes curled up inside our shoes, hiding our apprehension even as we weep for our losses. The water will lap calmly at the bier of the faithful sister, held to a higher standard than god. The water will wash away the blood she spilled, the martyr’s death of instant understanding and total incomprehension. The girl makes a pretty corpse, a thing to drape with flowers and garlands of green and white. The water is clean, is pure; it is a bright spark on the surface of the planet we once lived on.
From the heavens we watch, a fondness like warm bread spreading through our insides, and we dream of the dance hall music Eliot couldn’t kill, though of course he tried. Wood and water, a tight hard knot on the waves. A sword emerges from the pool and we breathe a little faster, confusion and desire surging through us like smoke. There is joy in this remembering. There is joy in our sudden understanding that we do not belong to this time. We undo our robes and lay bare in the sun and haze, mistaking symbol for symbol and having trouble remembering what tool to use this time. We have forgotten how to use these bodies. These bodies, white and cool in the mist, glisten like the water, like the scales on the sacred fish, like the opposite of this whole sun-drenched side of the planet.