Ambushed by some wild Basques at Thornydale
A baggage-train perishes in the Pyrenees —
So Einhard in his Life of Charlemagne —
Three centuries pass. A poet retells the tale;
Roland’s disaster, riding home from Spain,
Becomes more glorious than most victories.
History gives way to epic, as it should;
Heroic deeds from commonplace facts are born.
Still down the centuries, echoing from the steep,
As the long, desperate day goes down in blood,
Resound the dying notes of Roland’s horn.
But man’s imagination cannot sleep;
Epic in turn gives way to high romance;
The epic poets at most replaced a few
Basque bandits by that countless Saracen host,
A mere task force by the twelve peers of France;
But with the poets of romance is lost
All sense of the fantastic or the true;
And Durandal, great Durandal, the sword
Which Roland in the epic could not break,
Now in romance becomes a valiant Knight
Who fell at Roncesvalles beside his lord;
And Montesinos who survived that fight
— Unknown to epic — was at first a snake.
Things flow, things drift, things swirl and change like mist!
Belerma, O Belerma, what were you
Before you fondled Durandarte’s heart,
Cherished nine years and handled, mourned and kissed?
Were you perhaps you lover’s counterpart:
Belle Aude’s bare bodkin and her poignard too?
Ruidera next, six daughters and a niece
Or two, so wept at Durandarte’s grave
That Merlin, who by now was in the act,
Turned them, all nine, into a pond apiece.
Don Quixote had it told him for a fact
By Montesinos in his magic cave.
Three centuries of scholarship with its frost
Nipped back those tender crops of a new age
And ruined the harvest of Cervantes’ day.
Epic, romance, each in its turn, was lost
And, pure research having restored his page,
Now sober History is here to stay.
Truth, as they say, is great and shall prevail.
I have no quarrel with that; but what of Rhyme
Whose truth is vision, whose task to guard the pass
With Roland or seek with Galahad the Grail?
For those who gaze in her enchanted glass
Time has an end whose end is not in time.