The Argosy of Pure Delight.

The Gothic Quest

By Ralph Adams Cram

“ ‘The round, squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,’ the citadel of ugliness, emptiness, and pretence, the first barrier that balks all those that course on the Gothic Quest”—that is the enemy to be overcome. Ralph Adams Cram, possibly the greatest Gothic architect the United States ever produced, understands that the enemy will never be defeated, but the quest brings us beauty and art. This little essay is the key to Cram’s work: he was both a poet in stone and the knight of the Grail whose adventures the stone chronicled.

In the old legends that tell us so far more of the truths of history than do those chronicles that concern themselves with the doings and death of Kings, we read of the mighty quest, the Quest of the Holy Grail, and how, year after year, right valorous and stainless Knights out of every land in Christiantie rode into the four winds of heaven searching for, and never finding, the sacred Chalice wherein St. Joseph of Aramathie had gathered the very Blood of God that had been shed for men on Calvary.

So the search became a passion, and the ardour thereof a consuming flame, driving men from their own lands, their own kin, their own loves, out into the paynim wildernesses:

   “Desperate and done with (so a fool finds mirth,
Makes a thing and then mars it, ’till his mood
Changes, and off he goes!) within a rood—
   Bog, clay and rubble, sand and stark black dearth.”

And always the quest failed, for the Grail had been taken up into heaven, and their eyes, seared with blown sand and blind with long watching, were to see it never again, nor their hands unclasp from bridle or sword or spear to touch in reverence the Wonder of their worship. The quest failed, as men count failure, but it brought to all brave, knightly adventure and the doing of great deeds of chivalry, while over all the world it poured a radiance of poetry and devotion such as men had never seen nor were to see again.

In the Quest of the Grail is the type of the Gothic Quest, which followed close upon and was, indeed, its lawful heir. Here, also, the achievement was not for them that sought, for it was none other than the Beatific Vision in quest of which they rode: Beauty and Truth, absolute and unmingled of any imperfection, and these are attributes of God, not of man, and not to be perceived by eyes of flesh and blood.

Yet, as before, the hopeless quest brought marvellous adventure, and more, for it established forever a type of beauty, a method of creation and the mark of possible accomplishment never before achieved. The wild riders rode in vain in their quest of the unattainable, but they brought back a wonderful thing in its place, none other indeed than the mystical knowledge of Art, what it is, and what it does, and what it signifies. Therefore, the quest was not in vain, for Christian Art was the guerdon gained.

This was the Gothic Quest, and if we think of it as an historical episode, dead long since with chivalry and faith and the fear of God, we think foolishly. The Quest is never at an end for the world is never at pause. Paynim and infidel roll up in surging ranks, break, ebb, and are sucked back into their night, or, as happens now and again, sweep on in victory over fields won from them once by the Knights of the Gothic Quest, and all is to do again. There is neither rest nor pause, neither final defeat, nor definite victory:

…“We are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight
When ignorant armies clash by night.”

Well, the fight is good and the prize ennobles all, but the fight is never ending, for true beauty is too wonderful a thing to be lightly held and without challenge. The quest to-day is the Gothic Quest in a varied guise, as that was the Quest of the Grail under another form. Set in wide desolation, rampired about with scarp and intrenchment, looms the Dark Tower of Childe Roland’s pilgrimage:

“The round, squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,” the citadel of ugliness, emptiness, and pretence, the first barrier that balks all those that course on the Gothic Quest; and yet not one draws rein, nor rides aside, but with unsheathed sword rises in his stirrups and takes upon his lips the words of Childe Roland:

“Not hear? when noise was everywhere! it tolled
   Increasing like a bell. Names in my ears
   Of all the lost adventurers my peers,—
How such an one was strong, and such was bold,
And such was fortunate, yet each of old
   Lost, lost! one moment knelled the woe of years.”

“There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met
   To view the last of me, a living frame
   For one more picture! in a sheet of flame
I saw them and I knew them all. And yet
Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set
   And blew. ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.’ ”

Introduction to The Gothic Quest, 1907.

A side door of Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, designed by Ralph Adams Cram.