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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

During which the just mentioned irreparable


Unfortunately

the blots of constant tautology and verbiage, with not infrequent flatness, are on all this gracious story as told by Chrestien.[25] Among the traps and temptations which are thrown in Lancelot's way to the Queen is one of a highly "sensational" nature. In the night Lancelot hears a damsel, who is his hostess, though he has refused her most thorough hospitality, shrieking for assistance; and on coming to the spot finds her in a situation demanding instant help, which she begs, if the irreparable is not to happen. But the poet not only gives us a heavily figured description of the men-at-arms who bar the way to rescue, but puts into the mouth of the intending rescuer a speech (let us be exact) of twenty-eight lines and a quarter, during which the just mentioned irreparable, if it had been seriously meant, might have happened with plenty of time to spare. So, in the crowning scene (excellently told in Malory), where the lover forces his way through iron bars to his love, reckless of the tell-tale witness of his bleeding hands, the circumlocutions are _plusquam_ Richardsonian--and do not fall far short of a serious anticipation of Shakespeare's burlesque in _A Midsummer Night's Dream_. The mainly gracious description is spoilt by terrible bathetics from time to time. Guinevere in her white nightdress and mantle of scarlet and _camus_[26] on one side of the bars, Lancelot outside, exchanging sweet salutes, "for much was he fain of her and she of him," are excellent. The next couplet,
or quatrain, almost approaches the best poetry. "Of villainy or annoy make they no parley or complaint; but draw near each other so much at least that they hold each other hand by hand." But what follows? That they cannot come together vexes them so immeasurably that--what? They blame the iron work for it. This certainly shows an acute understanding[27] and a very creditable sense of the facts of the situation on the part of both lovers; but it might surely have been taken for granted. Also, it takes Lancelot forty lines to convince his lady that when bars are in your way there is nothing like pulling them out of it. So in the actual pulling-out there is the idlest exaggeration and surplusage; the first bar splits one of Lancelot's fingers to the sinews and cuts off the top joint of the next. The actual embraces are prettily and gracefully told (though again with otiose observations about silence), and the whole, from the knight's coming to the window to his leaving it, takes 150 lines. Now hear the prose of the so-called "Vulgate _Lancelot_."

"And he came to the window: and the Queen, who waited for him, slept not, but came thither. And the one threw to the other their arms, and they felt each other as much as they could reach. "Lady," said Lancelot, "if I could enter yonder, would it please you?" "Enter," said she, "fair sweet friend? How could this happen?" "Lady," said he, "if it please you, it could happen lightly." "Certainly," said she, "I should wish it willingly above everything." "Then, in God's name," said he, "that shall well happen. For the iron will never hold." "Wait, then," said she, "till I have gone to bed." Then he drew the irons from their sockets so softly that no noise was made and no bar broke."

In this simple prose, sensuous and passionate for all its simplicity, is told the rest of the story. There are eighteen lines of it altogether in Dr. Sommer's reprint, but as these are long quarto lines, let us multiply them by some three to get the equivalent of the "skipping octosyllables." There will remain fifty to a hundred and fifty, with, in the prose, some extra matter not in the verse. But the acme of the contrast is reached in these words of the prose, which answer to some forty lines of the poet's watering-out. "Great was the joy that they made each other that night, for long had each suffered for the other. And when the day came, they parted." Beat that who can!


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