Into my heart. It will be death to me. The fairness of the lady that I see Roaming the garden yonder to and fro Is all the cause, and I cried out my woe. Woman or Goddess, which? I cannot say. I guess she may be Venus – well she may!’ He fell upon his knees before the sill And prayed: ‘O Venus, if it be thy will To be transfigured in this garden thus Before two wretched prisoners like us, O help us to escape, O make us free! Yet, if my fate already is shaped for me By some eternal word, and I must pine And die in prison, have pity on our line And kindred, humbled under tyranny!’
Now, as he spoke, Arcita chanced to see This lady as she roamed there to and fro, And, at the sight, her beauty hurt him so That if his cousin had felt the wound before, Arcite was hurt as much as he, or more, And with a deep and piteous sigh he said: ‘The freshness of her beauty strikes me dead, ‘Hers that I see, roaming in yonder place! Unless I gain the mercy of her grace, Unless at least I see her day by day, I am but dead. There is no more to say.’
On hearing this young Palamon looked grim And in contempt and anger answered him, ‘Do you speak this in earnest or in jest? ‘ ‘No, in good earnest,’ said Arcite, ‘the best! So help me God, I mean no jesting now.’
Then Palamon began to knit his brow: ‘It’s no great honour, then,’ he said, ‘to you To prove so false, to be a traitor too To me, that am your cousin and your brother,
Both deeply sworn and bound to one another, Though we should die in torture for it, never To loose the bond that only death can sever, And when in love neither to hinder other, Nor in what else soever, dearest brother, But truly further me in all I do As faithfully as I shall further you. This was our oath and nothing can untie it, And well I know you dare not now deny it. I trust you with my secrets, make no doubt, Yet you would treacherously go about To love my lady, whom I love and serve And ever shall, till death cut my heart’s nerve. No, false Arcite! That you shall never do! I loved her first and told my grief to you As to the brother and the friend that swore To further me, as I have said before, So you are bound in honour as a knight To help me, should it lie within your might; Else you are false, I say, your honour vain!’ Arcita proudly answered back again: ‘You shall be judged as false,’ he said, ‘not me; And false you are, I tell you, utterly! I loved her as a woman before you. What can you say? Just now you hardly knew If she were girl or goddess from above! Yours is a mystical, a holy love, And mine is love as to a human being, And so I told you at the moment, seeing You were my cousin and sworn friend. At worst What do I care? Suppose you loved her first, Haven’t you heard the old proverbial saw “Who ever bound a lover by a law?”? Love is law unto itself. My hat! What earthly man can have more law than that?
All man-made law, all positive injunction Is broken every day without compunction For love. A man must love, for all his wit; There’s no escape though he should die for it, Be she a maid, a widow or a wife.
‘Yet you are little likely, all your life, To stand in grace with her; no more shall I. You know yourself, too well, that here we lie Condemned to prison both of us, no doubt Perpetually. No ransom buys us out. We’re like two dogs in battle on their own; They fought all day but neither got the bone, There came a kite above them, nothing loth, And while they fought he took it from them both. And so it is in politics, dear brother, Each for himself alone, there is no other. Love if you want to; I shall love her too, And that is all there is to say or do. We’re prisoners and must endure it, man, And each of us must take what chance he can.’
Great was the strife for many a long spell Between them had I but the time to tell, But to the point. It happened that one day, To tell it you as briefly as I may, A certain famous Duke, Perotheus, Friend and companion of Duke Theseus Since they were little children, came to spend A holiday in Athens with his friend, Visiting him for pleasure as of yore, For there was no one living he loved more. His feelings were as tenderly returned; Indeed they were so fond, as I have learned, That when one died (so ancient authors tell) The other went to seek him down in Hell; But that’s a tale I have no time to treat.
Now this Perotheus knew and loved Arcite In Theban days of old for many years, And so, at his entreaty, it appears, Arcita was awarded his release Without a ransom; he could go in peace And was left free to wander where he would On one condition, be it understood, And the condition, to speak plain, went thus, Agreed between Arcite and Theseus, That if Arcite were ever to be found Even for an hour, in any land or ground Or country of Duke Theseus, day or night, And he were caught, it would to both seem right That he immediately should lose his head, No other course or remedy instead.
Off went Arcite upon the homeward trek. Let him beware! For he has pawned his neck. What misery it cost him to depart! He felt the stroke of death upon his heart, He wept, he wailed. How piteously he cried And secretly he thought of suicide. He said, ‘Alas the day that gave me birth! Worse than my prison is the endless earth, Now I am doomed eternally to dwell Not in Purgatory, but in Hell. Alas that ever I knew Perotheus! For else I had remained with Theseus. Fettered in prison and without relief I still had been in bliss and not in grief. Only to see her whom I love and serve, Though it were never granted to deserve Her favour, would have been enough for me. O my dear cousin Palamon,’ said he, ‘Yours is the victory in this adventure. How blissfully you serve your long indenture
In prison – prison? No, in Paradise! How happily has Fortune cast her dice For you! You have her presence, I the loss. For it is possible, since your paths may cross And you’re a knight, a worthy one, and able, That by some chance – for Fortune is unstable – You may attain to your desire at last. But I, that am an exile and outcast, Barren of grace and in such deep despair That neither earth nor water, fire nor air, Nor any creature that is made of these Can ever bring me help, or do me ease, I must despair and die in my distress. Farewell my life, my joy, my happiness!
‘Alas, why is it people so dispraise God’s providence or Fortune and her ways, That oft and variously in their scheme Includes far better things than they could dream? One man desires to have abundant wealth, Which brings about his murder or ill-health; Another, freed from prison as he’d willed, Comes home, his servants catch him, and he’s killed. Infinite are the harms that come this way; We little know the things for which we pray. Our ways are drunkard ways – drunk as a mouse; A drunkard knows quite well he has a house, But how to get there puts him in a dither, And for a drunk the way is slip and slither. Such is our world indeed, and such are we. How eagerly we seek felicity, Yet are so often wrong in what we try! Yes, we can all say that, and so can I, In whom the foolish notion had arisen That if I only could escape from prison I should be well, in pure beatitude,
Whereas I am an exile from my good, For since I may not see you, Emily, I am but dead and there’s no remedy.’
Now, on the other hand, poor Palamon, When it was told him that Arcite had gone, Fell in such grief, the tower where he was kept Resounded to his yowling as he wept. The very fetters on his mighty shins Shine with his bitter tears as he begins, ‘Alas, Arcite, dear cousin! In our dispute And rivalry God knows you have the fruit. I see you now in Thebes, our native city, As free as air, with never a thought of pity For me! You, an astute, determined man Can soon assemble all our folk and clan For war on Athens, make a sharp advance, And by some treaty or perhaps by chance She may become your lady and your wife For whom, needs must, I here shall lose my life. For, in the way of possibility, As you’re a prisoner no more, but free, A Prince, you have the advantage to engage In your affair. I perish in a cage, For I must weep and suffer while I live In all the anguish that a cell can give And all the torment of my love, O care That doubles all my suffering and despair.’
With that he felt the fire of jealousy start, Flame in his breast and catch him by the heart So madly that he seemed to fade and fail, Cold as dead ashes, or as box-wood pale. He cried, ‘O cruel Gods, whose government Binds all the world to your eternal bent, And writes upon an adamantine table All that your conclave has decreed as stable,
What more is man to you than to behold A flock of sheep that cower in the fold? For men are slain as much as other cattle, Arrested, thrust in prison, killed in battle, In sickness often and mischance, and fall, Alas, too often for no guilt at all. Where is right rule in your foreknowledge, when Such torments fall on innocent, helpless men? Yet there is more, for added to my load, I am to pay the duties that are owed To God, for Him I am to curb my will In all the lusts that cattle may fulfil. For when a beast is dead, he feels no pain, But after death a man must weep again That living has endured uncounted woe; I have no doubt that it may well be so. I leave the answer for divines to tell, But that there’s pain on earth I know too well.
‘I have seen many a serpent, many a thief Bring down the innocent of heart to grief, Yet be at large and take what turn they will. But I lie languishing in prison still. Juno and Saturn in their jealous rage Have almost quelled our Theban lineage; Thebes stands in waste, her walls are broken wide. And Venus slays me on the other side With jealous fears of what Arcite is doing.’
Now I will turn a little from pursuing Palamon’s thoughts, and leave him in his cell, For I have something of Arcite to tell.
The summer passes, and long winter nights Double the miseries and appetites Of lover in jail and lover free as air. I cannot tell you which had most to bear. To put it shortly, Palamon the pale
Lies there condemned to a perpetual jail, Chained up in fetters till his dying breath; Arcita is exiled on pain of death For ever from the long-desired shore Where lives the lady he will see no more.
You lovers, here’s a question I would offer, Arcite or Palamon, which had most to suffer? The one can see his lady day by day, But he must dwell in prison, locked away. The other’s free, the world lies all before, But never shall he see his lady more. Judge as you please between them, you that can, For I’ll tell on my tale as I began.
Now when Arcita got to Thebes again Daylong he languished, crying out in pain ‘Alas!’ for never could he hope to see His lady more. To sum his misery, There never was a man so woe-begone, Nor is, nor shall be while the world goes on. Meat, drink and sleep – he lay of all bereft, Thin as a shaft, as dry, with nothing left. His eyes were hollow, grisly to behold, Fallow his face, like ashes pale and cold, And he went solitary and alone, Wailing away the night and making moan; And if the sound of music touched his ears He wept, unable to refrain his tears. So feeble were his spirits and so low, And changed so much, one could not even know Him by his voice; one heard and was in doubt. And so for all the world he went about Not merely like a lover on the rack Of Eros, but more like a maniac
In melancholy madness, under strain Of fantasy – those cells that front the brain. Briefly, his love had turned him upside-down In looks and disposition, toe to crown, This poor distracted lover, Prince Arcite.
But I shall take all day if I repeat All that he suffered for the first two years, In cruel torment and in painful tears At Thebes, in his home-country, as I said. Now as he lay one night asleep in bed The winged god Mercury, he thought, came near And stood before him, bidding him have good cheer. His sleep-imbuing wand he held in air, He wore a hat upon his golden hair, Arrayed (Arcita noticed) in the guise He wore when closing up the hundred eyes Of Argus, and he said, ‘You are to go To Athens. There shall be an end to woe.’ He spoke; Arcita started and woke up. ‘Truly, however bitter be my cup, To Athens I will go at once!’ he said, ‘Nor will I change my purpose for the dread Of death, for I will see her. I can die Gladly enough, if she be standing by.’
He rose and snatched a mirror from its place And saw what change had come upon his face, The colour gone, the features redesigned, And instantly it came into his mind That being so disfigured and so wan From the long sickness he had undergone, He might, if he assumed a humble tone, Live out his life in Athens unbeknown And see his lady almost every day. So, on the spot, he doffed his lord’s array, And dressed as a poor labourer seeking hire.
Then all alone, except for a young squire, Who knew the secret of his misery And was disguised as wretchedly as he, He went to Athens by the shortest way And came to Court. And on the following day Arcita proffered at the gate for hire To do what drudgery they might require. And briefly (there is little to explain) He fell in service with a chamberlain Who had his dwelling there with Emily. The man was cunning and was quick to see What work the servants did and which were good. Arcite could carry water or hew wood, For he was young and powerfully grown, A tall young fellow too, and big of bone, Fit to do any work that was ordained.
Thus, for a year or two, Arcite remained With Emily the bright, her page-of-state, And gave it out his name was Philostrate. And half so well beloved a man as he There never was at Court, of his degree. He was so much a gentleman by breed He grew quite famous through the Court indeed, And it would be a charitable notion (They said) if Theseus offered him promotion And put him to a service less despised In which his virtues might be exercised. Thus in a little while his fame had sprung Both for good deeds and for a courteous tongue, And Theseus took him and advanced him higher, Made him his personal and chamber-squire, And gave him money to maintain his station. There came, moreover, men of his own nation Secretly, year by year, and brought his dues. He spent them cunningly, these revenues,
But honestly; none wondered at his wealth. Three years went by in happiness and health; He bore himself so well in peace and war That there was no one Theseus valued more. I leave him there in bliss, though bliss is brittle, And turn to speak of Palamon a little.
In darkness horrible and prison tears Poor Palamon has sat for seven years, Pining away in sorrow and distress. Who feels a two-fold grief and heaviness But Palamon, whom love oppresses so That he has lost his very wits for woe? Added to which, he must lie prisoner there Perpetually, not only for a year.
Who could make rhymes in English fit to vie With martyrdom like that? Indeed, not I. Let me pass lightly over it and say It happened in the seventh year, in May, The third of May (my ancient sources give This detail in their fuller narrative), Whether by accident or destiny, For as events are shaped they have to be, Soon after midnight, ere the sun had risen, Helped by a friend, Palamon broke from prison And fled the town as fast as he could go. A drink had proved his jailer’s overthrow, A kind of honeyed claret he had fixed With Theban opium and narcotics mixed. The jailer slept all night; had he been shaken He would have been impossible to waken. So off runs Palamon as best he may. The night was short and it was nearly day, So it was necessary he should hide. Into a grove that flanked the city’s side Palamon stalked with terror-stricken feet.
Here was, in his opinion, a retreat In which he could conceal himself all day And whence at nightfall he could make his way On towards Thebes and rally at his back A host of friends all eager to attack Duke Theseus. He would either lose his life Or conquer and win Emily to wife. That was his whole intention, fair and plain.
I turn my story to Arcite again. He little knew how close he was to care Till Fortune brought him back into the snare.
The busy lark, the messenger of day, Sings salutation to the morning grey, And fiery Phoebus rising up so bright Sets all the Orient laughing with the light, And with his streams he dries the dewy sheaves And silver droplets hanging on the leaves. And now Arcita, at the royal court, Principal squire to Theseus, seeking sport Has risen from bed and greets the merry day. Thinking to do observances to May, And musing on the point of his desires He rode a courser full of flickering fires Into the fields for pleasure and in play A mile or two from where the palace lay, And to the very grove you heard me mention He chanced to hold his course, with the intention To make himself a garland. There he weaves A hawthorn-spray and honeysuckle leaves And sings aloud against the sunny sheen, ‘O Month of May, with all thy flowers and green, Welcome be thou, O fairest, freshest May, Give me thy green, in hope of happy day!’
Quickly dismounting from his horse, he started To thrust his way into the grove, light-hearted,
And roamed along the pathway, on and on, Until he came by chance where Palamon Crouched in a bush, scarce daring to draw breath Lest he be seen, in deadly fear of death. He little knew it was Arcite he heard, It would have seemed incredible, absurd; Yet there’s a saying, known these many years: Fields have their eyes, and forests have their ears. It’s well to be upon one’s guard, I mean, Since all day long we meet the unforeseen. And little knew Arcite that there, beside him, Palamon lay, with but a bush to hide him, So close to him, and hearing all he said But keeping still and silent as the dead.
Now when at last Arcite had roamed his fill And sung his roundel with a lusty will He felt a change of humour, for the nonce, And fell into a study all at once, As do these lovers in their quaint desires, Now on the spray, now down among the briars, Now up, now down, like buckets in a well, Just as upon a Friday, truth to tell, It shines one moment, and the next rains fast; For thus can whimsical Venus overcast The spirits of her folk, just as her day, Friday is changeable, and so too are they, Seldom is Friday like the rest of the week. And, having sung, Arcite began to speak, And sat him down, unutterably forlorn. ‘Alas!’ he said, ‘the day that I was born! How long, O Juno, in thy cruelty, Wilt thou make war and bring to misery The city of Thebes, and those that played the lion, The royal blood of Cadmus and Amphion! Cadmus, the first of men to win renown
By building Thebes, or first in laying down Her strong foundations, first to be crowned her king; And I that share his lineage, I that spring By right descent out of the royal stock, Have fallen captive and am made a mock, Slave to my mortal enemy, no higher Than a contemptible, a menial squire! Yet Juno does me even greater shame; I dare no more acknowledge my own name. Time was Arcita was my name by right; Now I’m called Philostrate, not worth a mite! Alas, fell Mars! Ah, Juno, stern of face, You have undone our lineage and our race Save for myself and Palamon, who dwells In martyrdom, poor wretch, in Theseus’ cells. On top of this, to slay me utterly, The fiery dart of love so burningly Thrusts through my faithful heart with deadly hurt! My death was shaped for me before my shirt. You kill me with your eyes, my Emily, You are the cause that brings my death on me! All the remainder of my cares and needs I’d rate no higher than a mound of weeds Could I but please or earn a grateful glance!’
And on the word he fell into a trance A long, long time, then woke and moved apart.
Palamon felt a cleaving in his heart As of a cold sword suddenly gliding through. He quaked with anger; hiding would not do Now that he’d listened to Arcita’s tale, And with a madman’s face, extinct and pale, He started up out of his bushy thicket And cried, ‘Arcita! Traitor! False and wicked, Now you are caught that love my lady so, For whom I suffer all this pain and woe,
And of my blood – sworn friend – for so we swore As I have told you many times before, And you have cheated Theseus with this game, False as you are, of a pretended name! Let it be death for you or death for me. You shall not love my lady Emily. I, no one else, will love her! Look and know That I am Palamon your mortal foe. And though I have no weapon in this place, Having escaped from prison by God’s grace, I doubt it not you shall be slain by me Or else yield up the love of Emily. You shan’t escape me, therefore choose your part!’
Arcite, however, full of scorn at heart, Knowing his face and hearing what he said, Fierce as a lion drew his sword instead And answered him, ‘By God that sits above, Were you not sick, and lunatic for love, And weaponless moreover in this place, You never should so much as take a pace Beyond this grove, but perish at my hand. And I denounce all covenants that stand Or are alleged, as between you and me. Fool that you are, remember love is free And I will love her! I defy your might. Yet, as you are an honourable knight Willing by battle to decide your claim, Tomorrow, by the honour of my name I will not fail you, nor will make it known To anyone. To-morrow, here, alone You’ll find me as a knight, and on my oath I shall bring arms and harness for us both; And you shall have the right of choosing first, Taking the best and leaving me the worst. I’ll bring you meat and drink, let that be said,
Enough for you, and clothes to make your bed. As for my lady, should you chance to win And kill me in this thicket we are in, Then you can have your lady, as for me.’ And Palamon gave answer, ‘I agree.’ And thus they parted at the coppice-edge Until the morning. Each had given pledge.
O Cupid, Cupid, lost to charity! O realm that brooks no fellow-king in thee! Well is it said that neither love nor power Admit a rival, even for an hour. Arcite and Palamon had found that out.
So back to town Arcite turned about, And the next morning, ere the day was light, He filched two suits of armour by a sleight, Fully sufficient for the work in hand, The battle in the fields, that they had planned. Alone as at his birth Arcita rode And carried all the armour in a load. There in the grove where time and place were set This Palamon and this Arcite are met.
Then slowly changed the colour in each face Just as when hunters in the realm of Thrace That standing in the gap will poise a spear And wait for bear or lion to appear, Then hear him coming, breaking through the branches, And hear the swish of leaves upon his haunches, And think, ‘Here comes my mortal enemy! It’s either death for him or death for me. For either I must slay him at this gap Or he slay me, if I should have mishap.’ Just so these knights changed colour when they met, Knowing each other and the purpose set.
There was no salutation, no ‘Good day’, But without word or prelude straight away
Each of them gave his help to arm the other As friendly as a brother with his brother; And after that with spears of sharpened strength They fought each other at amazing length. You would have thought, seeing Palamon engage, He was a lion fighting-mad with rage, Arcite a cruel tiger, as they beat And smote each other, or as boars that meet And froth as white as foam upon the flood. They fought till they were ankle-deep in blood. And in this rage I leave them fighting thus And turn once more to speak of Theseus.
Now Destiny, that Minister-General Who executes on earth and over all What God, from everlasting, has foreseen, Is of such strength, that though the world had been Sure of the contrary, by Yea and Nay, That thing will happen on a certain day, Though never again within a thousand years. And certainly our appetites and fears, Whether in war or peace, in hate or love, Are governed by a providence above.
Thus must explain why mighty Theseus found A sudden wish to hunt with horse and hound Especially the hart in early May. About his bed there never dawned a day But he was up and ready dressed to ride With horn and hound and hunter at his side. Hunting to him was such a keen delight It was his ruling joy and appetite To be a stag’s destroyer, for the stars Ruled he should serve Diana after Mars.
Clear was the day, as I have told ere this, And Theseus, bathed in happiness and bliss, With fair Hippolyta, his lovely Queen,