The Poet's Tale - The Wayside Inn - Part Third



    Olger the Dane and Desiderio,
    King of the Lombards, on a lofty tower
    Stood gazing northward o'er the rolling plains,
    League after league of harvests, to the foot
    Of the snow-crested Alps, and saw approach
    A mighty army, thronging all the roads
    That led into the city.    And the King
    Said unto Olger, who had passed his youth
    As hostage at the court of France, and knew
    The Emperor's form and face "Is Charlemagne
    Among that host?"    And Olger answered: "No."

    And still the innumerable multitude
    Flowed onward and increased, until the King
    Cried in amazement: "Surely Charlemagne
    Is coming in the midst of all these knights!"
    And Olger answered slowly: "No; not yet;
    He will not come so soon."    Then much disturbed
    King Desiderio asked: "What shall we do,
    if he approach with a still greater army!"
    And Olger answered: "When he shall appear,
    You will behold what manner of man he is;
    But what will then befall us I know not."

    Then came the guard that never knew repose,
    The Paladins of France; and at the sight
    The Lombard King o'ercome with terror cried:
    "This must be Charlemagne!" and as before
    Did Olger answer: "No; not yet, not yet."

    And then appeared in panoply complete
    The Bishops and the Abbots and the Priests
    Of the imperial chapel, and the Counts
    And Desiderio could no more endure
    The light of day, nor yet encounter death,
    But sobbed aloud and said: "Let us go down
    And hide us in the bosom of the earth,
    Far from the sight and anger of a foe
    So terrible as this!"    And Olger said:
    "When you behold the harvests in the fields
    Shaking with fear, the Po and the Ticino
    Lashing the city walls with iron waves,
    Then may you know that Charlemagne is come.
    And even as he spake, in the northwest,
    Lo! there uprose a black and threatening cloud,
    Out of whose bosom flashed the light of arms
    Upon the people pent up in the city;
    A light more terrible than any darkness;
    And Charlemagne appeared;--a Man of Iron!

    His helmet was of iron, and his gloves
    Of iron, and his breastplate and his greaves
    And tassets were of iron, and his shield.
    In his left hand he held an iron spear,
    In his right hand his sword invincible.
    The horse he rode on had the strength of iron,
    And color of iron.    All who went before him
    Beside him and behind him, his whole host,
    Were armed with iron, and their hearts within them
    Were stronger than the armor that they wore.
    The fields and all the roads were filled with iron,
    And points of iron glistened in the sun
    And shed a terror through the city streets.

    This at a single glance Olger the Dane
    Saw from the tower, and turning to the King
    Exclaimed in haste: "Behold! this is the man
    You looked for with such eagerness!" and then
    Fell as one dead at Desiderio's feet.


    Well pleased all listened to the tale,
    That drew, the Student said, its pith
    And marrow from the ancient myth
    Of some one with an iron flail;
    Or that portentous Man of Brass
    Hephaestus made in days of yore,
    Who stalked about the Cretan shore,
    And saw the ships appear and pass,
    And threw stones at the Argonauts,
    Being filled with indiscriminate ire
    That tangled and perplexed his thoughts;
    But, like a hospitable host,
    When strangers landed on the coast,
    Heated himself red-hot with fire,
    And hugged them in his arms, and pressed
    Their bodies to his burning breast.

    The Poet answered: "No, not thus
    The legend rose; it sprang at first
    Out of the hunger and the thirst
    In all men for the marvellous.
    And thus it filled and satisfied
    The imagination of mankind,
    And this ideal to the mind
    Was truer than historic fact.
    Fancy enlarged and multiplied
    The tenors of the awful name
    Of Charlemagne, till he became
    Armipotent in every act,
    And, clothed in mystery, appeared
    Not what men saw, but what they feared.
    Besides, unless my memory fail,
    Your some one with an iron flail
    Is not an ancient myth at all,
    But comes much later on the scene
    As Talus in the Faerie Queene,
    The iron groom of Artegall,
    Who threshed out falsehood and deceit,
    And truth upheld, and righted wrong,
    As was, as is the swallow, fleet,
    And as the lion is, was strong."

    The Theologian said: "Perchance
    Your chronicler in writing this
    Had in his mind the Anabasis,
    Where Xenophon describes the advance
    Of Artaxerxes to the fight;
    At first the low gray cloud of dust,
    And then a blackness o'er the fields
    As of a passing thunder-gust,
    Then flash of brazen armor bright,
    And ranks of men, and spears up-thrust,
    Bowmen and troops with wicker shields,
    And cavalry equipped in white,
    And chariots ranged in front of these
    With scythes upon their axle-trees."

    To this the Student answered: "Well,
    I also have a tale to tell
    Of Charlemagne; a tale that throws
    A softer light, more tinged with rose,
    Than your grim apparition cast
    Upon the darkness of the past.
    Listen, and hear in English rhyme
    What the good Monk of Lauresheim
    Gives as the gossip of his time,
    In mediaeval Latin prose."


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