Menella Bute Smedley

The Lay of the fearless De Courcy

 Next Poem          

The fame of the fearless De Courcy
Is boundless as the air;
With his own right hand he won the land
Of Ulster, green and fair!
But he lieth low in a dungeon now,
Powerless, in proud despair;
For false King John hath cast him in,
And closely chain'd him there.
The noble knight was weary
At morn, and eve, and noon;
For chilly bright seem'd dawn's soft light,
And icily shone the moon:
No gleaming mail gave back the rays
Of the dim unfriendly sky,
And the proud free stars disdain'd to gaze
Through his lattice, barr'd and high.
But when the trumpet-note of war
Rang through his narrow room,
Telling of banners streaming far,
Of knight, and steed, and plume;
Of the wild mêlée, and the sabre's clash,
How would his spirit bound!
Yet ever after the lightning's flash
Night closeth darker round.

Down would he sink on the floor again,
Like the pilgrim who sinks on some desert plain,
Even while his thirsting ear can trace
The hum of distant streams;
Or the maimèd hound, who hears the chase
Sweep past him in his dreams.

The false king sate in his hall of state
'Mid knights and nobles free;
“Who is there,” he cried, “who will cross the tide,
And do battle in France for me?
There is cast on mine honour a fearful stain,
The death of the boy who ruled Bretagne;

And the monarch of France, my bold suzerain,
Hath bidden a champion for me appear,
My fame from this darkening blot to clear.
Speak—is your silence the silence of fear,
My knights and my nobles? Frowning and pale
Your faces grow as I tell my tale!
Is there not one of this knightly ring
Who dares do battle for his king?”

The warriors they heard, but they spake not a word;
The earth some gazed upon,
And some did raise a stedfast gaze
To the face of false King John.
Think ye they fear'd? They were Englishmen all,
Though mutely they sate in their monarch's hall;
The heroes of many a well-fought day,
Who loved the sound of a gathering fray,

Even as the lonely shepherd loves
The herds' soft bell in the mountain-groves.
Why were they silent? There was not one
Who could trust the word of false King John;
And their cheeks grew pallid as they thought
On the deed of blood by his base hand wrought;
Pale, with a brave heart's generous fear,
When forced a tale of shame to hear.

'Twas a coward whiteness then did chase
The glow of shame from the false king's face;
And he turn'd aside, in bootless pride,
That witness of his guilt to hide;
Yet every heart around him there
Witness against him more strongly bare!

Oh, out then spake the beauteous queen:
“A captive lord I know,
Whose loyal heart hath ever been
Eager to meet the foe;
Were true De Courcy here this day,
Freed from his galling chain,
Never, oh never, should scoffers say,
That amid all England's rank and might,
Their king had sought him a loyal knight,
And sought such knight in vain!”
Up started the monarch, and clear'd his brow,
And bade them summon De Courcy now.
Swiftly his messengers hasted away,
And sought the cell where the hero lay;
They bade him arise at his master's call,
And follow their steps to the stately hall.

He is brought before the council,—
There are chains upon his hands;
With his silver hair, that aged knight,
Like a rock o'erhung with foam-wreaths white,
Proudly and calmly stands.
He gazes on the monarch
With a stern and starlike eye;
And the company muse and marvel much,
That the light of the old man's eye is such,
After long captivity.
His fetters hang upon him
Like an unheeded thing;
Or like a robe of purple, worn
With graceful and indifferent scorn
By some great-hearted king.
And strange it was to witness
How the false king look'd aside;
For he dared not meet his captive's eye!
Thus ever the spirit's royalty
Is greater than pomp and pride!

The false king spake to his squires around,
And his lifted voice had an angry sound;
“Strike ye the chains from each knightly limb!
Who was so bold as to fetter him?
Warrior, believe me, no hest of mine
Bade them fetter a form like thine;
Thy sovereign knoweth thy fame too well.”
He paused, and a cloud on his dark brow fell;
For the knight still gazed upon him,
And his eye was like a star;
And the words on the lips of the false king died,
Like the murmuring sounds of an ebbing tide
By the traveller heard afar.

From the warrior's form they loosed the chain;
His face was lighted with calm disdain;
Nor cheek, nor lip, nor eye, gave token
Even that he knew his chains were broken.
He spake—no music, loud or clear,
Was in the voice of the grey-hair'd knight;
But a low stern sound, like that ye hear
In the march of a mail-clad host by night.
“Brother of Cœur de Lion,” said he,
“These chains have not dishonour'd me!”
There was crushing scorn in each simple word,
Mightier than battle-axe or sword.

Not long did the heart of the false king thrill
To the touch of passing shame,
For it was hard, and mean, and chill;
As breezes sweep o'er a frozen rill,
Leaving it cold and unbroken still,—
That feeling went and came;
And now to the knight he made reply,
Pleading his cause right craftily;
Skill'd was his tongue in specious use
Of promise fair and of feign'd excuse,
Blended with words of strong appeal
To love of fame and to loyal zeal.
At length he ceased; and every eye
Gazed on De Courcy wistfully.
“Speak!” cried the king in that fearful pause;
“Wilt thou not champion thy monarch's cause?”

The old knight struck his foot on the ground,
Like a war-horse hearing the trumpet sound;
And he spake with a voice of thunder,
Solemn and fierce in tone,
Waving his hand to the stately band
Who stood by the monarch's throne,
As a warrior might wave his flashing glaive
When cheering his squadrons on;
“I will fight for the honour of England,
Though not for false King John!”

He turn'd and strode from the lofty hall,
Nor seem'd to hear the sudden cheer
Which burst, as he spake, from the lips of all.
And when he stood in the air without,
He paused as if in joyful doubt;
To the forests green and the wide blue sky
Stretching his arms embracingly,
With stately tread and uplifted head,
As a good steed tosses back his mane
When they loose his neck from the servile rein;
Ye know not, ye who are always free,
How precious a thing is liberty!
“O world!” he cried; “sky, river, hill!
Ye wear the garments of beauty still;
How have ye kept your youth so fair,

While age has whiten'd this hoary hair?”
But when the squire, who watch'd his lord,
Gave to his hand his ancient sword,
The hilt he press'd to his eager breast,
Like one who a long-lost friend hath met;
And joyously said, as he kiss'd the blade,
“Methinks there is youth in my spirit yet.
For France! for France! o'er the waters blue;
False king, dear land, adieu, adieu!”

He hath cross'd the booming ocean,
On the shore he plants his lance;
And he sends his daring challenge
Into the heart of France:
“Lo, here I stand for England,
Queen of the silver main!
To guard her fame and to cleanse her name
From slander's darkening stain!
Advance, advance! ye knights of France;
Give answer to my call!
Lo, here I stand for England!
And I defy ye all!”

From the east and the north came champions forth—
They came in a knightly crowd;
From the south and the west each generous breast
Throbb'd at that summons proud.
But though brave was each lord, and keen each sword,
No warrior could withstand
The strength of the hero-spirit
Which nerved that old man's hand.
He is conqueror in the battle;
He hath won the wreath of bay;
To the shining crown of his fair renown
He hath added another ray;
He hath drawn his sword for England;
He hath fought for her spotless name;
And the isle resounds to her farthest bounds
With her grey-hair'd hero's fame.
In the ears of the craven monarch
Oft must this burthen ring,—
“Though the crown be thine and the royal line,
He is in heart thy king!”

So they gave this graceful honour
To the bold De Courcy's race,
That they ever should dare their helms to wear
Before the king's own face:
And the sons of that line of heroes
To this day their right assume;
For, when every head is unbonneted,
They walk in cap and plume!

Next Poem 

 Back to
Menella Bute Smedley