Context: Vivien, the beautiful, wily, and malignant daughter of a man killed fighting against King Arthur, leaves Tintagel, the court of Mark of Cornwall, to go to Camelot. There she intends to sow seeds of suspicion concerning the honor and purity of Lancelot's devotion to Guinevere. Vivien swears to return with the hearts of all the Round Table in her hand and perhaps a curl from Arthur's beard. Gaining access to Arthur's castle, she spreads her vicious rumors and then steals away "as an enemy that has left/ Death in living waters and withdrawn." Her next project is to win the heart of the aging wizard, Merlin. Even while doubting Vivien's honesty, Merlin "felt the flattery and at times/ Would flatter his own wish in age for love." Foreseeing the doom poised to fall on Camelot, Merlin leaves the court consumed with melancholy. Vivien accompanies him to Broceliande where she attempts to extract from him a charm which ensnares its victim forever, invisible to all but the enchanter. Merlin agrees that he owes her a boon for breaking his melancholy, but he asserts that this particular charm should not be shared. Vivien replies that Merlin should trust her "not at all or all in all," a line from a song she once heard Lancelot sing. Making a strong plea for her wish, she sings the whole song to Merlin, who replies:
"But, Vivien, when you sang me that sweet rhyme,I felt as tho' you knew this cursed charm,Were proving it on me, and that I layAnd felt them slowly ebbing, name and fame."And Vivien answer'd smiling mournfully:"O, mine have ebb'd away for evermoreAnd all for following you to this wild wood. . .–So is it with this rhyme–. . .It lives dispersedly in many handsAnd every minstrel sings it differently;Yet is there one true line, the pearl of pearls:'Man dreams of fame while woman wakes to love.'"