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Arthurian Poems: a collection of the best Arthurian poems by Michael R. Burch
These are poems based on ancient Celtic mythology and legends

Most of the Arthurian poems below were written in a brief flurry after I had spent a good deal of time reading and studying the ancient Celtic myths that eventually crystallized―or, more properly, were "Christianized"―into the Arthurian legends. I've long felt that I owe much of my success as a poet to Merlyn & Co., because my career didn't really take off until I became inspired to write about the "real" Arthur, who may have been historical, but was almost certainly was not a Christian "knight in shining armor." His original name was probably Artur or Artos—both mean "the Bear." So he was probably a big, strong, burly man. The ancient Celts were renowned for their ferociousness in battle, but they were also known for their mysticism, gregariousness and love of art: poetry, music, bright colors, golden torques, etc. The British Celts fought against equally ferocious invaders such as the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, and were slowly assimilated into what we now call the "English." They remain with us in many ways, including their tales of the "otherworld" and supernatural events such as a "once and future king" who pulled a magical sword from a stone with the help of the wildest and wiliest of mages. Their names have become the stuff of legend in their Christianized forms: Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Galahad, Percival, Bedivere, Kay, Gawain, Geraint, Gaheris, Gareth, Lionel, Lucan, Bors, Lamorak, Palamedes, Agravain, Owain, Igraine, Tristram/Tristan, Isolde, Morgause, Mordred, Uther Pendragon, Ambrosius, Vortigern, Ector, Pellinore, et al. (Editors, anthologists and archivists please note that the poems included here are the definitive versions.) — Michael R. Burch

At Tintagel
by Michael R. Burch

The legend of what happened "on a dark and stormy" night at Tintagel is endlessly intriguing. Supposedly, Merlin transformed Uther Pendragon to look like Gorlois so that Uther could sleep with Ygraine, the lovely wife of the unlucky duke. While Uther was enjoying Ygraine’s lovemaking, Gorlois was off getting himself killed. Did Igraine suspect that her lover was not her husband? In any case, Artur/Artos/Arthur was the child conceived out of this supernatural (?) encounter.

That night,
at Tintagel,
there was darkness such as man had never seen ...
darkness and treachery,
and the unholy thundering of the sea ...

In his arms,
who can say how much she knew?
And if he whispered her name ...
... could she tell above the howling wind and rain?

Could she tell, or did she care,
by the length of his hair
or the heat of his flesh, ...
that her faceless companion
was Uther, the dragon,

and Gorlois lay dead?

Originally published by Songs of Innocence, then subsequently by Celtic Twilight, Fables, Fickle Muses and Poetry Life & Times

Isolde’s Song
by Michael R. Burch

According to legend, Isolde and Tristram/Tristan were lovers who died, were buried close to each other, then reunited in the form of plants growing out of their graves. A rose emerged from Isolde's grave, a vine from Tristram's, then the two became one. Tristram was the Celtic Orpheus, a minstrel whose songs set women and even nature a-flutter.

Through our long years of dreaming to be one
we grew toward an enigmatic light
that gently warmed our tendrils. Was it sun?
We had no eyes to tell; we loved despite
the lack of all sensation—all but one:
we felt the night’s deep chill, the air so bright
at dawn we quivered limply, overcome.

To touch was all we knew, and how to bask.
We knew to touch; we grew to touch; we felt
spring’s urgency, midsummer’s heat, fall’s lash,
wild winter’s ice and thaw and fervent melt.
We felt returning light and could not ask
its meaning, or if something was withheld
more glorious. To touch seemed life’s great task.

At last the petal of me learned: unfold
and you were there, surrounding me. We touched.
The curious golden pollens! Ah, we touched,
and learned to cling and, finally, to hold.

Originally published by The Raintown Review

Morgause’s Song
by Michael R. Burch

According to legend, Morgause was Arthur's half-sister. She seduced him and their son Mordred grew up to bring about the division of Arthur's kingdom, and his death.

Before he was my brother,
he was my lover,
though certainly not the best.

I found no joy
in that addled boy,
nor he at my breast.

Why him? Why him?
As the candles dim,
it grows harder and harder to say ...

Perhaps girls and boys
are the god’s toys
when they lose their way.

Originally published by Celtic Twilight as "The First Time"

I have three different endings for this poem. I went with “when they lose their way” because it seems a bit darker and eerier to me. Do the gods take advantage of children who have lost their way? They certainly don’t do anything to help them, apparently. My original ending was “when the skies are gray,” suggesting that when the children were forced to play inside by bad weather, which happens a lot in rainy England, they chose an adult form of indoor play. But I didn’t like doubling the passive “are” when I wanted a strong closing stanza. My third ending was “when it’s time to play,” which suggests that as the children were playing with each other, the gods were toying with them. But Morgause’s “perhaps” leaves everything up in the air. Perhaps it was the gods, or perhaps it was just nature taking its course, or perhaps it was something she doesn’t want to admit about herself. Morgause was an enchantress. Did she lure Arthur into having sex, knowing what would result? If so, why?

Pellinore’s Fancy
by Michael R. Burch

King Pellinore spent most of his time hunting an elusive "questing beast" ... or was it just an excuse not to go home to the nagging missus?

What do you do when your wife is a nag
and has sworn you to hunt neither fish, fowl, nor stag?
When the land is at peace, but at home you have none,
Is that, perchance, when the Questing Beasts run?

by Michael R. Burch

What happened to the mysterious Tuatha De Danann, to the Ban Shee (from which we get the term “banshee”) and, eventually, to the druids? One might assume that with the passing of Merlyn, Morgause and their ilk, the time of myths and magic ended. This poem is an epitaph of sorts.

In the ruins
of the dreams
and the schemes
of men;

when the moon
begets the tide
and the wide
sea sighs;

when a star
appears in heaven
and the raven

we will dance
and we will revel
in the devil’s
fen ...

if nevermore again.

Originally published by Penny Dreadful

The Pictish Faeries
by Michael R. Burch

Smaller and darker
than their closest kin,
the faeries learned only too well
never to dwell
close to the villages of larger men.

Only to dance in the starlight
when the moon was full
and men were afraid.
Only to worship in the farthest glade,
ever heeding the raven and the gull.

The Kiss of Ceridwen
by Michael R. Burch

The kiss of Ceridwen
I have felt upon my brow,
and the past and the future
have appeared, as though a vapor,
mingling with the here and now.

And Morrigan, the Raven,
the messenger, has come,
to tell me that the gods, unsung,
will not last long
when the druids’ harps grow dumb.

The Wild Hunt
by Michael R. Burch

Our Halloween is an inheritance from the ancient Celts. The Celts believed the "otherworld" can sometimes merge with the "real world," so that elves, fairies, witches, warlocks and other fantastical entities are able to either help or harm human beings. Artur and Bedwyr were later anglicized as Arthur and Bedivere.

Near Devon, the hunters appear in the sky
with Artur and Bedwyr sounding the call;
and the others, laughing, go dashing by.
They only appear when the moon is full:

Valerin, the King of the Tangled Wood,
and Valynt, the goodly King of Wales,
Gawain and Owain and the hearty men
who live on in many minstrels’ tales.

They seek the white stag on a moonlit moor,
or Torc Triath, the fabled boar,
or Ysgithyrwyn, or Twrch Trwyth,
the other mighty boars of myth.

They appear, sometimes, on Halloween
to chase the moon across the green,
then fade into the shadowed hills
where memory alone prevails.

Originally published by Celtic Twilight, then by Celtic Lifestyles and Auldwicce

Ysgithyrwyn was one of three fabled boars of ancient Celtic myth. Torc Triath and Twrch Trwyth were others. According to legend, King Arthur hunted Ysgithyrwyn because he wanted to present the boar’s tusk to the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr, the “Chief of Giants.” Apparently this tusk was the only implement the giant could shave with, in order to attend the wedding of his daughter Olwen to Culhwch.

Northern Flight: Lancelot’s Last Love Letter to Guinevere
by Michael R. Burch

"Get thee to a nunnery . . ."

Now that the days have lengthened, I assume
the shadows also lengthen where you pause
to watch the sun and comprehend its laws,
or just to shiver in the deepening gloom.

But nothing in your antiquarian eyes
nor anything beyond your failing vision
repeals the night. Religion’s circumcision
has left us worlds apart, but who’s more wise?

I think I know you better now than then—
and love you all the more, because you are
. . . so distant. I can love you from afar,
forgiving your flight north, far from brute men,
because your fear’s well-founded: God, forbid,
was bound to fail you here, as mortals did.

Originally published by Rotary Dial

The Last Enchantment
by Michael R. Burch

This poem imagines Arthur speaking to his best friend, Lancelot, in some hazy underworld about Merlin's last enchantment, which was supposed to restore him to power ...

Oh, Lancelot, my truest friend,
how time has thinned your ragged mane
and pinched your features; still you seem
though, much, much changed—somehow unchanged.

Your sword hand is, as ever, ready,
although the time for swords has passed.
Your eyes are fierce, and yet so steady
meeting mine ... you must not ask.

The time is not, nor ever shall be.
Merlyn’s words were only words;
and now his last enchantment wanes,
and we must put aside our swords ...

by Michael R. Burch

Preposterous bird!
Inelegant! Absurd!

Until the great & mighty heron
brandishes his fearsome sword.

by Michael R. Burch

We must sometimes wonder if all the fighting related to King Arthur and his knights was really necessary. In particular, it seems that Lancelot fought and either captured or killed a fairly large percentage of the population of England. Could it be that Arthur preferred to fight than stay at home and do domestic chores? And, honestly now, if he and his knights were such incredible warriors, who would have been silly enough to do battle with them? Wygar was the name of Arthur’s hauberk, or armored tunic, which was supposedly fashioned by one Witege or Widia, quite possibly the son of Wayland Smith. The legends suggest that Excalibur was forged upon the anvil of the smith-god Wayland, who was also known as Volund, which sounds suspiciously like Vulcan ...

Artur took Cabal, his hound,
and Carwennan, his knife,
     and his sword forged by Wayland
     and Merlyn, his falcon,
and, saying goodbye to his sons and his wife,
he strode to the Table Rounde.

“Here is my spear, Rhongomyniad,
and here is Wygar that I wear,
     and ready for war,
     an oath I foreswore
to fight for all that is righteous and fair
from Wales to the towers of Gilead.”

But none could be found to contest him,
for Lancelot had slewn them, forsooth,
so he hastened back home, for to rest him,
till his wife bade him, “Thatch up the roof!”

Originally published by Neovictorian/Cochlea, then by Celtic Twilight

Small Tales
by Michael R. Burch

According to legend, Arthur and Kay grew up together in Ector’s court, Kay being a few years older than Arthur. Borrowing from Mary Stewart, I am assuming that Bedwyr (later Anglicized to Bedivere) might have befriended Arthur at an early age. By some accounts, Bedwyr was the original Lancelot. In any case, imagine the adventures these young heroes might have pursued (or dreamed up, to excuse tardiness or “lost” homework assignments). Manawydan and Llyr were ancient Welsh gods. Cath Pulag was a monstrous, clawing cat. (“Sorry teach! My theme paper on Homer was torn up by a cat bigger than a dragon! And meaner, too!”) Pen Palach is more or less a mystery, or perhaps just another old drinking buddy with a few good beery-bleary tales of his own. This poem assumes that many of the more outlandish Arthurian legends began more or less as “small tales,” little white lies which simply got larger and larger with each retelling. It also assumes that most of these tales came about just as the lads reached that age when boys fancy themselves men, and spend most of their free time drinking and puking . . .

When Artur and Cai and Bedwyr
were but scrawny lads
they had many a boozy adventure
in the still glades
of Gwynedd.
When the sun beat down like an oven
upon the kiln-hot hills
and the scorched shores of Carmarthen,
they went searching
and found Manawydan, the son of Llyr.
They fought a day and a night
with Cath Pulag (or a screeching kitten),
rousted Pen Palach, then drank a beer
and told quite a talltale or two,
till thems wasn’t so shore which’un’s tails wus true.

And these have been passed down to me, and to you.

Merlyn, on His Birth
by Michael R. Burch

Legend has it that Zephyr was an ancestor of Merlin. I suggest here that Merlin was an albino, which could have led to claims that he had no father, due to radical physical differences between father and son. This would have also added to his appearance as a mystical figure. The reference to Ursa Major, the bear, ties the birth of Merlin to the future birth of Arthur, whose Welsh name (Artos or Artur) means “bear.” Morydd is another possible ancestor of Merlin’s. The "dd" in Welsh names is pronounced "th."

I was born in Gwynedd,
or not born, as some men claim,
and the Zephyr of Caer Myrddin
gave me my name.

My father was Madog Morfeyn
but our eyes were never the same,
nor our skin, nor our hair;
for his were dark, dark
—as our people’s are—
and mine were fairer than fair.

The night of my birth, the Zephyr
carved of white stone a rune;
and the ringed stars of Ursa Major
outshone the cool pale moon;
and my grandfather, Morydd, the seer
saw wheeling, a-gyre in the sky,
a falcon with terrible yellow-gold eyes
when falcons never fly.

Originally published by Songs of Innocence

Merlyn’s First Prophecy
by Michael R. Burch

Child sacrifice was a terrible but supposedly potent form of magic. The blood of an albino child might have been thought to be particularly potent. This poem suggests how the ability to "prophesy" might have saved the young Merlyn from death. Ambrosius Pendragon defeated Vortigern and so established a new dynasty ... did Merlyn predict his ascendency, and so earn undying fame?

Vortigern commanded a tower to be built upon Snowden,
but the earth would churn and within an hour its walls would cave in.

Then his druid said only the virginal blood of a fatherless son,
recently shed, would ever hold the foundation.

“There is, in Caer Myrrdin, a faery lad, a son with no father;
his name is Merlyn, and with his blood you would have your tower.”

So Vortigern had them bring the boy, the child of the demon,
and, taciturn and without joy, looked out over Snowden.

“To kill a child brings little praise, but many tears.”
Then the mountain slopes rang with the brays of Merlyn’s jeers.

“Pure poppycock! You fumble and bumble and heed a fool.
At the base of the rock the foundations crumble into a pool!”

When they drained the pool, two dragons arose, one white and one red,
and since the old druid was blowing his nose, young Merlyn said:

“Vortigern is the white, Ambrosius the red; now, watch, indeed.”
Then the former died as the latter fed and Vortigern peed.

Originally published by Celtic Twilight

Uther’s Last Battle
by Michael R. Burch

Uther Pendragon was the father of Arthur, but he had given his son to the wily Merlyn and knew nothing of his whereabouts. Did Uther meet his son just before his death, as one of the legends suggests?

When Uther, the High King,
unable to walk, borne upon a litter
went to fight Colgrim, the Saxon King,
his legs were weak, and his visage bitter.
     “Where is Merlyn, the sage?
     For today I truly feel my age.”

All day long the battle raged
and the dragon banner was sorely pressed,
but the courage of Uther never waned
till the sun hung low upon the west.
     “Oh, where is Merlyn to speak my doom,
     for truly I feel the chill of the tomb.”

Then, with the battle almost lost
and the king besieged on every side,
a prince appeared, clad all in white,
and threw himself against the tide.
     “Oh, where is Merlyn, who stole my son?
     For, truly, now my life is done.”

Then Merlyn came unto the king
as the Saxons fled before a sword
that flashed like lightning in the hand
of a prince that day become a lord.
     “Oh, Merlyn, speak not, for I see
     my son has truly come to me.

     And today I need no prophecy
     to see how bright his days will be.”
So Uther, then, the valiant king
met his son, and kissed him twice—
the one, the first, the one, the last—
and smiled, and then his time was past.

Originally published by Songs of Innocence

It Is NOT the Sword!
by Michael R. Burch

This poem illustrates the strong correlation between the names that appear in Welsh and Irish mythology. Much of this lore predates the Arthurian legends, and was assimilated as Arthur’s fame (and hyperbole) grew. Caladbolg is the name of a mythical Irish sword, while Caladvwlch is its Welsh equivalent. Caliburn and Excalibur are later variants.

“It is not the sword,
     but the man,”
           said Merlyn.
           But the people demanded a sign—
     the sword of Macsen Wledig,
Caladbolg, the “lightning-shard.”

“It is not the sword,
     but the words men follow.”
           Still, he set it in the stone
           —Caladvwlch, the sword of kings—
     and many a man did strive, and swore,
and many a man did moan.

But none could budge it from the stone.

“It is not the sword
     or the strength,”
           said Merlyn,
           “that makes a man a king,
     but the truth and the conviction
that ring in his iron word.”

“It is NOT the sword!”
     cried Merlyn,
           crowd-jostled, marveling
           as Arthur drew forth Caliburn
     with never a gasp,
with never a word,

and so became their king.

Originally published by Songs of Innocence, then by Romantics Quarterly, Neovictorian/Cochlea and Celtic Twilight

The Song of Amergin
by Michael R. Burch

Amergin is, in the words of Morgan Llywelyn, “the oldest known western European poet.” Robert Graves said: “English poetic education should, really, begin not with The Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin.” Amergin was one of the Milesians, or sons of Mil: Gaels who invaded Ireland and defeated the mysterious Tuatha De Danann, thereby establishing a Celtic beachhead, not only on the shores of the Emerald Isle, but also in the annals of Time and Poetry.

He was our first bard
and we feel in his dim-remembered words
the moment when Time blurs . . .

and he and the Sons of Mil
heave oars as the breakers mill
till at last Ierne—green, brooding—nears,

while Some implore seas cold, fell, dark
to climb and swamp their flimsy bark
. . . and Time here also spumes, careers . . .

while the Ban Shee shriek in awed dismay
to see him still the sea, this day,
then seek the dolmen and the gloam.

by Michael R. Burch

Here where the wind imbues life within stone,
I once stood
and watched as the tempest made monuments groan
as though blood
boiled within them.

Here where the Druids stood charting the stars
I can tell
they longed for the heavens ... perhaps because
boiled beneath them?

The Celtic Cross at Īle Grosse
by Michael R. Burch

“I actually visited the island and walked across those mass graves [of 30,000 Irish men, women and children], and I played a little tune on me whistle. I found it very peaceful, and there was relief there.” – Paddy Maloney of The Chieftans

There was relief there,
and release,
on Īle Grosse
in the spreading gorse
and the cry of the wild geese . . .

There was relief there,
without remorse
when the tin whistle lifted its voice
in a tune of artless grief,
piping achingly high and longingly of an island veiled in myth.
And the Celtic cross that stands here tells us, not of their grief,
but of their faith and belief—
like the last soft breath of evening lifting a fallen leaf.

When ravenous famine set all her demons loose,
driving men to the seas like lemmings,
they sought here the clemency of a better life, or death,
and their belief in God gave them hope, a sense of peace.

These were proud men with only their lives to owe,
who sought the liberation of a strange new land.
Now they lie here, ragged row on ragged row,
with only the shadows of their loved ones close at hand.

And each cross, their ancient burden and their glory,
reflects the death of sunlight on their story.

And their tale is sad—but, O, their faith was grand!

At Cędmon’s Grave
by Michael R. Burch

“Cędmon’s Hymn,” composed at the Monastery of Whitby (a North Yorkshire fishing village), is one of the oldest known poems written in the English language, dating back to around 680 A.D. According to legend, Cędmon, an illiterate Anglo-Saxon cowherd, received the gift of poetic composition from an angel; he subsequently founded a school of Christian poets. Unfortunately, only nine lines of Cędmon’s verse survive, in the writings of the Venerable Bede. Whitby, tiny as it is, reappears later in the history of English literature, having been visited, in diametric contrast, by Lewis Carroll and Bram Stoker’s ghoulish yet evocative Dracula.

At the monastery of Whitby,
on a day when the sun sank through the sea,
and the gulls shrieked wildly, jubilant, free,

while the wind and time blew all around,
I paced those dusk-enamored grounds
and thought I heard the steps resound

of Carroll, Stoker and good Bede
who walked there, too, their spirits freed
—perhaps by God, perhaps by need—

to write, and with each line, remember
the glorious light of Cędmon’s ember,
scorched tongues of flame words still engender.

Here, as darkness falls, at last we meet.
I lay this pale garland of words at his feet.

Originally published by The Lyric

Michael R. Burch poems about: Ireland, Time, Aging, Loss and Death, Anglo-Saxon Poems

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