The sky veiled in nun’s grey
cloisters Iseult on a sloping island
of evergreen and slate.
A raw wind rubs against leaf and thistle,
moss and timber — the small frame of her ribs.
Its harp echoing the song;
of white hands, love potion, and long
ship with dark sails, the cracked shell of a heart
floating in the seaweed at dawn.
The poem centers around a lamenting Iseult, a character from Arthurian tales of the Middle ages. Iseult, a beautiful Irish princess, fell in love with Tristan, a knight of King Arthur’s court though she was betrothed to another, King Mark of Cornwall. Tristan had already married another woman with the same name, only she was from Brittany and called “Iseult of the white hands”. However, Tristan was entrusted with the task of escorting King Mark’s fiancé, the first Iseult, to his castle in Cornwall. Aboard ship, Iseult and Tristan accidentally swallow a love potion meant for another purpose, originally brewed for Iseult to fall madly in love with her future husband , King Mark. However, she and Tristan stare at each other and because of the magic effect, fall hopelessly in love. They have an affair and enrage the ire and jealousy of Tristan’s wife, the other Iseult of the white hands. The couple are separated and go on to lead very sad lives.