Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Gift Without the Giver Is Bare

 One of the more charming modern Grail takes is James Russell Lowell's "The Vision of Sir Launfal". It's too long to quote in full here (although it's a very manageable reading size), but here's the best part of a very good poem (VIII & IX):

His words were shed softer than leaves from the pine,
And they fell on Sir Launfal as snows on the brine,
Which mingle their softness and quiet in one
With the shaggy unrest they float down upon;
And the voice that was calmer than silence said,
“Lo it is I, be not afraid!
In many climes, without avail,
Thou hast spent thy life for the Holy Grail;
Behold it is here, -- this cup which thou
Didst fill at the streamlet for me but now;
This crust is my body broken for thee,
This water His blood that died on the tree;
The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
 In whatso we share with another's need;
 Not what we give, but what we share,--
 For the gift without the giver is bare;
 Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,--
 Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.” 

 Sir Launfal awoke as from a swound:--
 “ The Grail in my castle here is found !
 Hang my idle armor up on the wall,
 Let it be the spider's banquet hall;
 He must be fenced with stronger mail
 Who would seek and find the Holy Grail.”

Sir Launfal is not a particularly important knight, and in the tradition we know nothing of his participation in the Grail quest at all (he's not even a side character in another's hunt), but I suspect Lowell picked him because in the best known storyline about him, he both undergoes poverty himself and shows himself to be generous. The Grail in most Grail tales admits easily of allegorical (Eucharist) and anagogical (Heaven) readings; I like the idea of a tropological reading.