Yvain, the Knight of the Lion

God Speed,  by Edmund Blair Leighton
God Speed, by Edmund Blair Leighton

Today’s poem is an excerpt from the medieval courtly romance Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by Chrétien de Troyes. It is a very long poem, and strongly influenced later English Arthurian romance. In this story, Yvain, for complicated family and honor reasons, has to defeat SuperKnight Esclados, and does. His widow, Laudine, is understandably distressed, and Yvain falls for her almost immediately (as one does). The excerpt below showcases her grief and his immediate devotion. (FYI, they do eventually marry and chivalry ensues.) The intensity of their emotions may seem a little strange to contemporary readers, but it’s really no stranger than Romeo and Juliet or Twilight– admittedly problematic relationships, but then, Yvain and Laudine have problems of their own. Anyway, I love this section for the questions it raises about the circumstances under which love can bloom. Yvain wonders if Laudine can ever love him, the murderer of her husband. Can you imagine the dinner party conversation? “How did you two kids meet?” “Standing in a pool of my husband’s still-warm blood– oh, honey, you tell it.” Yet love does happen in all kinds of improbable ways– maybe not involving a magical forest or murder, but who am I to judge? As we read below, “Places [Love] has always avoided/ Are places Love sometimes seeks.” Here is the excerpt, from Burton Raffel’s translation (lines 1339-1506).

So off she [Laudine’s servant] goes, and he [Yvain] stays,
Not knowing what he ought to do.
He sees them about to bury
The corpse, and he’s had no chance
To snatch some trophy for himself,
Something to prove beyond doubt
That he’d conquered and killed the man.
Without some evidence, some proof,
He might be utterly disgraed.
For Kay is so savage, so spiteful,
So full of insults, so mean,
He could never hold him off,
And Kay would go on, forever
Sniping and insulting, exactly
As he’d done the other day.
Those taunts had never left
His heart, still beat there, fresh,
And yet a new love had softened
That rancor with its sugar and honey
A love that had hunted in his heart
And completely conquered its prey.
His enemy had captured his heart,
He loved the creature who hated
Him most. Not suspecting a thing,
The lady had avenged her lord’s death. [from Susan: Love as VENGEANCE? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?)
She’d managed a greater vengeance
Than anything she could have accomplished
By herself, without Love’s assistance,
Who came to him so gently
That it struck his heart through his eyes.
And this is a longer-lasting
Wound than a sword or a spear
Can inflict, for a sword-blow is healed
And well once a doctor has care for it,
And the wounds of Love grow worse
The nearer they are to their cure.
And thus lord Yvain is wounded
And can never again be cured,
For Love itself has conquered him.
Places she has always avoided
Are places Love sometimes seeks:
She longs for no lodging, no landlord,
But this one, and the proof is that nothing
Can be bad, or too low, so long
As Love finds herself there.
Everywhere else is empty,
She searches so hard. How shameful
For Love to act this way,
Picking the worst of all places,
The lowest, the most base, as readily
As the best, though this time she’s chosen
The best of all possible homes.
Love is most welcome, here,
And here she’ll be shown great honor,
And here she’d do well to stay.
And so Love should, a creature
Of such nobility that it seems
Incredible she could dare descend
To shameful, vulgar places.
Like someone who carefully spreads
Balm on cinders and ashes,
Who hates honor and cherishes
Shame, who mixes sugar
And bile, and honey and fat.
But this time Love was different,
Choosing a highborn home
For which no one could possibly scold her.

And now the dead knight was buried,
And the crowds of his people were gone,
No priests, no knights, no soldiers,
No ladies remained, only
That lady who continued to grieve.
She stayed alone, often
Clutching at her throat, wringing
Her hands, beating her palms,
Reading psalms from a prayerbook
Illumined in letters of gold.
And lord Yvain still stands
At the window, watching her, staring,
And the more he watches the more
He loves her and the more she charms him.
She wept and she read, but he wishes
She would give them up, and turn
To him, and give him leave to speak.
Love had caught him at the window
And put this desire in his heart.
But his desire is foolish, and he knows it:
He could he believe, how
Could he trust it to happen? And he says:
“What a fool I am, to want
What I’ll never have. Her lord
Is dead of his wounds, and can I
Believe in peace between us?
By God, I understand nothing! [from Susan: I love this line]
She loathes me, now, and not
For nothing, and not wrongly.
But ‘now’ is the crucial word,
For a woman’s mind has a thousand
Directions. And perhaps that ‘now’
Will change. Oh, surely it will change,
And how stupid of me to stand here
Lost in despair. God grant
That she changes soon! For Love
Has decided to put me forever
In her power, and Love takes what it wants!
Not to accept Love’s wish
When Love comes, and Love asks, is more
Than wicked, it is treachery. And I say,
And whoever worships Love
Let him listen, that a deserter from Love
Deserves no happiness. I may lose,
But I’ll always love my enemy.
How could I ever hate her,
If I wish to loyal to Love?
What Love wants, I want. But she,
Should she accept me as a lover?
She should, for it is she I love.
I call her my enemy: she hates me,
And has reason to hate me, remembering
How I killed the man she loved.
And I, am I her enemy?
Never, but only her lover,
For who have I loved like this?
I feel pain, seeing her beautiful
Hair, finer than gold,
And gleaming. Pain and anger
Fill me, when she twists and breaks
That hair. I know nothing can dry
The tears falling from her eyes.
And all of it makes me miserable.
Her eyes are forever full
Of tears, tears without end,
And yet no eyes were ever
Lovelier. I weep because
She weeps, but my greatest pain
Is seeing how she wounds her face,
Though it can’t deserve it. I’ve never
Beheld such a perfect face,
So glowing and intense, so vividly
Colored. And how it afflicts me
To see her clutching at her throat!
Surely, she cannot help
Herself, she does the worst
She can. And yet no crystal,
No mirror, is as clear or as smooth.
Lord! Why is she so
Obsessed, why can’t she hurt herself
Less? Why wring those beautiful
Hands, and beat and scratch
At her breast? How wonderfully fine
To see her, in some happy mood,
If her beauty shines in such anger!
Oh yes, I can swear to that:
Never before has Nature
So outdone herself in beauty,
For here all boundaries are exceeded.
And how could it possibly have happened?
How could such beauty exist?
Where could such beauty have come from?
God must have made her Himself,
With His own bare hands, to make Nature
Gape. And it’s all used up,
Nature could not make another,
She’d only be wasting her time.
God Himself, if He wanted
To try, could not do it again,
No matter how hard He tried,
For it could not be done, not ever.”

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