Here is Post #8 in the Series on Taliessin through Logres! Please visit the INTRODUCTION to this series first, and here is the INDEX to the other posts in the series.
Robert Ghrist is the Andrea Mitchell PIK Professor of Mathematics and Electrical & Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s a leading researcher in applied algebraic topology and an award-winning teacher, with a recent series of graphical texts and on-line courses on Calculus.
In “Bors to Elayne: the Fish of Broceliande” we have, as usual, a puzzle text. I believe it to be one of the deepest and most cryptic of the entire work. I should begin with the typical caveats: though I’ve been reading Williams for a decade, I am surely at a loss to explain this poem completely. I could dwell on personal notes – this particular poem greatly moves me – but that’s not what I would wish to read. Following the Golden Rule, I’ll try to write what I would wish to read: an explanation. I’m not accustomed to writing in a non-technical style, and, like CW, I am prone to patterns and often in need of an editor. The reader will perhaps have need for patience in separating plain fact from speculation in what follows.
Some background is in order. Bors is one of Arthur’s knights, present since the battle of Badon and continuing true as one of the three companions of the Grail quest. The poem imagines a felicitous reunion with Elayne, his wife. This happens early in the cycle, long before the Grail quest: Camelot is being established, and Arthur has sent Bors home to be lieutenant of the southern coast. The entire poem is Bors speaking (or perhaps anticipating speaking) to Elayne at their reunion after long absence. Their meeting, like that of Palomides and Iseult in a parallel court, is electric.
This, like so many poems in the cycle, is a poem of Love: in this case, wedded love. Of the three who will achieve the Grail, Bors alone is married. His is the way of affirmation. The poem explores how love lives along this way.
Bors’ thoughts begin with the king, the building of Camelot, and the court. When Taliessin sings of the mystical way and of Broceliande, Bors declares it means “all things to all men, and you to me.” This sung echo of the Grail quest to come, in which the vessel provides to each the food most greatly desired, is the spark to the poem’s drama. When Bors hears songs of Broceliande, he thinks on his wife. The shifting, brooding, marching Wood between the worlds that carries Mystery and Gospel, speciates to the Beloved: Elayne, Bors’ Beatrix.
Bors declares that he has brought home with him a fish caught from the stream of Broceliande. This fish – “bright-scaled, red-tailed” – is alive, wild, and eager to dive into the hand to whom it is given.
The poem’s central symbol is this fish. I believe it is an image of Love, but blended with CW’s romantic theology in a complex manner. So much can here be said, as Christ, signed with the fish, partook of fish as testament to his resurrection corporeality: it is the image of “substantial flesh,” the poem’s closing phrase. The fish of Broceliande is neither dead nor food, but is alive, active, and eager to dive into the body of the Beloved.
The most dramatic and imaginative part of the poem follows the action of the fish when passed by hand from the Lover to the Beloved.
“it darts up the muscles of the arm, to swim
round the clear boulder of the shoulder, stung with spray,
and down the cataract of the backed spine leaps
into bottomed waters at once clear and dim”
The electric thrill of the first hand-hold of young love is the best instance of this instant shock of pleasure and thrill. But Bors’ love is not young but wed and consummated, and the fish courses over the back, down the spine, around the mountains of Caucasia to reside in a pool of hidden depth.
How love here operates in a marriage is a mystery: only a fool would presume to understand, and Nimue [Nature] herself may not know its name. There is perhaps a way:
“Some say a twy-nature only can utter the cry
(what? how?) to bring it from the stirred stream,
and if – inhumanly flashing a sudden scale,
aboriginally shaking the aboriginal man.”
Some truths of love are discoverable only in a merger of two natures: God and man; husband and wife; spirit and sense. The poem, upon introducing this route to truth, declares its road to be two-fold as “double tracks.”
These twin tracks are the two ways familiar to students of CW – Affirmation and Negation. The latter way is the way of the Unicorn and Catacomb, the way of waiting. Bors’ way is the way of Affirmation. In this former track, the “forked, dominant tail flicks, beats the reddened plane of the smooth flesh.” This is a love wholly incarnated in skin and nerve: it is physical, sharp, and enervating. [The reader, especially those who have read Grevel Lindop’s excellent biography of CW, is encouraged to resist the temptation to tut-tut at this juncture: please let the poem be what it is.]
Now that Bors has seen “the branches of Broceliande”, caught the electric inexpressible fish, and returned home from (long?) absence, one thing remains. The poem ends with the question from Bors to Elayne: “Will you open your hand? … Accipe, take the fish.”
I can imagine other interpretations, more or less theological, and I look forward to the ensuing discussion to see what I have missed. Let me close with one more of the poem’s mysteries, which leads me to some small observation about CW’s architecture.
At the poem’s end, Bors declares that though “the king sits on the throne” [Logres – logic, reason, the head – reigns] nevertheless, the branches of Broceliande “probes everywhere through the frontier of head and hands.” This is a clue: I posit that the Wood that stretches across vast domains, that is concentrated in the head and hands, represents the Nerves of the Body. Given CW’s comprehensive world-body architecture, the lack of a bodily locale for Broceliande is glaring. Broceliande borders most closely to Logres [the brain] but its branches stretch over the waters to many parts of the world. If the land mass of CW’s map corresponds to the female body, perhaps the ocean depths are best thought of as the psychological world: separate, deeper, bordering the physical. The branches of Broceliande are the connection between these two worlds of land and sea.