Into Death's Face He Flung This Song

August 15, 2014

The Roland of Legend

The Song of Roland.
Vol. 49, pp. 166-173 of The Harvard Classics

(Roland died at Roncesvaux, Aug. 15, 778.)
Charlemagne's rear guard was attacked by the Basques in the valley of Roncesvaux. Roland, its leader, fought a courageous fight, and, though conquered, became immortal.

Part II: The Prelude of the Great Battle
Death of Olivier



The heathens said, “We were born to shame.
This day for our disaster came:
Our lords and leaders in battle lost,
And Karl at hand with his marshalled host;
We hear the trumpets of France ring out,
And the cry ‘Montjoie!’ their rallying shout.
Roland’s pride is of such a height,
Not to be vanquished by mortal wight;
Hurl we our missiles, and hold aloof.”
And the word they spake, they put in proof,—
They flung, with all their strength and craft,
Javelin, barb, and plumèd shaft.
Roland’s buckler was torn and frayed,
His cuirass broken and disarrayed,
Yet entrance none to his flesh they made.
From thirty wounds Veillantif bled,
Beneath his rider they cast him, dead;
Then from the field have the heathen flown:
Roland remaineth, on foot, alone.

The Last Benediction of the Archbishop


THE HEATHENS fly in rage and dread;
To the land of Spain have their footsteps sped;
Nor can Count Roland make pursuit—
Slain in his steed, and he rests afoot;
To succor Turpin he turned in haste,
The golden helm from his head unlaced,
Ungirt the corselet from his breast,
In stripes divided his silken vest;
The archbishop’s wounds hath he staunched and bound,
His arms around him softly wound;
On the green sward gently his body laid,
And, with tender greeting, thus him prayed:
“For a little space, let me take farewell;
Our dear companions, who round us fell,
I go to seek; if I haply find,
I will place them at thy feet reclined.”
“Go,” said Turpin; “the field is thine—
To God the glory, ’tis thine and mine.”


Alone seeks Roland the field of fight,
He searcheth vale, the searcheth height.
Ivon and Ivor he found, laid low,
And the Gascon Engelier of Bordeaux,
Gerein and his fellow in arms, Gerier;
Otho he found, and Berengier;
Samson the duke, and Anseis bold,
Gerard of Roussillon, the old.
Their bodies, one after one, he bore,
And laid them Turpin’s feet before.
The archbishop saw them stretched arow,
Nor can he hinder the tears that flow;
In benediction his hands he spread:
“Alas! for your doom, my lords,” he said,
“That God in mercy your souls may give,
On the flowers of Paradise to live;
Mine own death comes, with anguish sore
That I see mine Emperor never more.”


Once more to the field doth Roland wend,
Till he findeth Olivier his friend;
The lifeless form to his heart he strained,
Bore him back with what strength remained,
On a buckler laid him, beside the rest,
The archbishop assoiled them all, and blessed.
Their dole and pity anew find vent,
And Roland maketh his fond lament:
“My Olivier, my chosen one,
Thou wert the noble Duke Renier’s son,
Lord of the March unto Rivier vale.
To shiver lance and shatter mail,
The brave in council to guide and cheer,
To smite the miscreant foe with fear,—
Was never on earth such cavalier.”


Dead around him his peers to see,
And the man he loved so tenderly,
Fast the tears of Count Roland ran,
His visage discolored became, and wan,
He swooned for sorrow beyond control.
“Alas,” said Turpin, “how great thy dole!”


To look on Roland swooning there,
Surpassed all sorrow he ever bare;
He stretched his hand, the horn he took,—
Through Roncesvalles there flowed a brook,—
A draught to Roland he thought to bring;
But his steps were feeble and tottering,
Spent his strength, from waste of blood,—
He struggled on for scarce a rood,
When sank his heart, and drooped his frame,
And his mortal anguish on him came.


Roland revived from his swoon again;
On his feet he rose, but in deadly pain;
He looked on high, and he looked below,
Till, a space his other companions fro,
He beheld the baron, stretched on sward,
The archbishop, vicar of God our Lord.
Mea Culpa was Turpin’s cry,
While he raised his hands to heaven on high,
Imploring Paradise to gain.
So died the soldier of Carlemaine,—
With word or weapon, to preach or fight,
A champion over of Christian right,
And a deadly foe of the infidel.
God’s benediction within him dwell!


When Roland saw him stark on earth
(His very vitals were bursting forth,
And his brain was oozing from out his head),
He took the fair white hands outspread,
Crossed and clasped them upon his breast,
And thus his plaint to the dead addressed,—
So did his country’s law ordain:—
“Ah, gentleman of noble strain,
I trust thee unto God the True,
Whose service never man shall do
With more devoted heart and mind:
To guard the faith, to win mankind,
From the apostles’ days till now,
Such prophet never rose as thou.
Nor pain or torment thy soul await,
But of Paradise the open gate.”

The Death of Roland


ROLAND feeleth his death is near,
His brain is oozing by either ear.
For his peers he prayed—God keep them well;
Invoked the angel Gabriel.
That none reproach him, his horn he clasped;
His other hand Durindana grasped;
Then, far as quarrel from crossbow sent,
Across the march of Spain he went,
Where, on a mound, two trees between,
Four flights of marble steps were seen;
Backward he fell, on the field to lie;
And he swooned anon, for the end was nigh.


High were the mountains and high the trees,
Bright shone the marble terraces;
On the green grass Roland hath swooned away.
A Saracen spied him where he lay:
Stretched with the rest he had feigned him dead,
His face and body with blood bespread.
To his feet he sprang, and in haste he hied,—
He was fair and strong and of courage tried,
In pride and wrath he was overbold,—
And on Roland, body and arms, laid hold.
“The nephew of Karl is overthrown!
To Araby bear I this sword, mine own.”
He stooped to grasp it, but as he drew,
Roland returned to his sense anew.


He saw the Saracen seize his sword;
His eyes he oped, and he spake one word—
“Thou art not one of our band, I trow,”
And he clutched the horn he would ne’er forego;
On the golden crest he smote him full,
Shattering steel and bone and skull,
Forth from his head his eyes he beat,
And cast him lifeless before his feet.
“Miscreant, makest thou then so free,
As, right or wrong, to lay hold on me?
Who hears it will deem thee a madman born;
Behold the mouth of mine ivory horn
Broken for thee, and the gems and gold
Around its rim to earth are rolled.”


Roland feeleth his eyesight reft,
Yet he stands erect with what strength is left;
From his bloodless cheek is the hue dispelled,
But his Durindana all bare he held.
In front a dark brown rock arose—
He smote upon it ten grievous blows.
Grated the steel as it struck the flint,
Yet it brake not, nor bore its edge one dint.
“Mary, Mother, be thou mine aid!
Ah, Durindana, my ill-starred blade,
I may no longer thy guardian be!
What fields of battle I won with thee!
What realms and regions ’twas ours to gain,
Now the lordship of Carlemaine!
Never shalt thou possessor know
Who would turn from face of mortal foe;
A gallant vassal so long thee bore,
Such as France the free shall know no more.”


He smote anew on the marble stair.
It grated, but breach nor notch was there.
When Roland found that it would not break,
Thus began he his plaint to make.
“Ah, Durindana, how fair and bright
Thou sparklest, flaming against the light!
When Karl in Maurienne valley lay,
God sent his angel from heaven to say—
‘This sword shall a valorous captain’s be,’
And he girt it, the gentle king, on me.
With it I vanquished Poitou and Maine,
Provence I conquered and Aquitaine;
I conquered Normandy the free,
Anjou, and the marches of Brittany;
Romagna I won, and Lombardy,
Bavaria, Flanders from side to side,
And Burgundy, and Poland wide;
Constantinople affiance vowed,
And the Saxon soil to his bidding bowed;
Scotia, and Wales, and Ireland’s plain,
Of England made he his own domain.
What mighty regions I won of old,
For the hoary-headed Karl to hold!
But there presses on me a grievous pain,
Lest thou in heathen hands remain.
O God our Father, keep France from stain!”


His strokes once more on the brown rock fell,
And the steel was bent past words to tell;
Yet it brake not, nor was notched the grain,
Erect it leaped to the sky again.
When he failed at the last to break his blade,
His lamentation he inly made.
“Oh, fair and holy, my peerless sword,
What relics lie in thy pommel stored!
Tooth of Saint Peter, Saint Basil’s blood,
Hair of Saint Denis beside them strewed,
Fragment of holy Mary’s vest.
’Twere shame that thou with the heathen rest;
Thee should the hand of a Christian serve
One who would never in battle swerve.
What regions won I with thee of yore,
The empire now of Karl the hoar!
Rich and mighty is he therefore.”


That death was on him he knew full well;
Down from his head to his heart it fell.
On the grass beneath a pine-tree’s shade,
With face to earth, his form he laid,
Beneath him placed he his horn and sword,
And turned his face to the heathen horde.
Thus hath he done the sooth to show,
That Karl and his warriors all may know,
That the gentle count a conqueror died.
Mea Culpa full oft he cried;
And, for all his sins, unto God above,
In sign of penance, he raised his glove.


Roland feeleth his hour at hand;
On a knoll he lies towards the Spanish land.
With one hand beats he upon his breast:
“In thy sight, Ò God, be my sins confessed.
From my hour of birth, both the great and small,
Down to this day, I repent of all.”
As his glove he raises to God on high,
Angels of heaven descend him nigh.


Beneath a pine was his resting-place,
To the land of Spain hath he turned his face,
On his memory rose full many a thought—
Of the lands he won and the fields he fought;
Of his gentle France, of his kin and line;
Of his nursing father, King Karl benign;—
He may not the tear and sob control,
Nor yet forgets he his parting soul.
To God’s compassion he makes his cry:
“O Father true, who canst not lie,
Who didst Lazarus raise unto life agen,
And Daniel shield in the lions’ den;
Shield my soul from its peril, due
For the sins I sinned my lifetime through.”
He did his right-hand glove uplift—
Saint Gabriel took from his hand the gift;
Then drooped his head upon his breast,
And with claspèd hands he went to rest.
God from on high sent down to him
One of his angel Cherubim—
Saint Michael of Peril of the sea,
Saint Gabriel in company—
From heaven they came for that soul of price,
And they bore it with them to Paradise.

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