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Poem by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning
Aurora Leigh. Fifth Book
AURORA LEIGH, be humble. Shall I hope To speak my poems in mysterious tune With man and nature,–with the lava-lymph That trickles from successive galaxies Still drop by drop adown the finger of God, In still new worlds?–with summer-days in this, That scarce dare breathe, they are so beautiful?– With spring's delicious trouble in the ground Tormented by the quickened blood of roots. And softly pricked by golden crocus-sheaves In token of the harvest-time of flowers?– With winters and with autumns,–and beyond, With the human heart's large seasons,–when it hopes And fears, joys, grieves, and loves?–with all that strain Of sexual passion, which devours the flesh In a sacrament of souls? with mother's breasts, Which, round the new made creatures hanging there, Throb luminous and harmonious like pure spheres?– With multitudinous life, and finally With the great out-goings of ecstatic souls, Who, in a rush of too long prisoned flame, Their radiant faces upward, burn away This dark of the body, issuing on a world Beyond our mortal?–can I speak my verse So plainly in tune to these things and the rest, That men shall feel it catch them on the quick, As having the same warrant over them To hold and move them, if they will or no, Alike imperious as the primal rhythm Of that theurgic nature? I must fail, Who fail at the beginning to hold and move One man,–and he my cousin, and he my friend, And he born tender, made intelligent, Inclined to ponder the precipitous sides Of difficult questions; yet, obtuse to me,– Of me, incurious! likes me very well, And wishes me a paradise of good, Good looks, good means, and good digestion!–ay, But otherwise evades me, puts me off With kindness, with a tolerant gentleness,– Too light a book for a grave man's reading! Go, Aurora Leigh: be humble. There it is; We women are too apt to look to one, Which proves a certain impotence in art. We strain our natures at doing something great, Far less because it's something great to do, Than, haply, that we, so, commend ourselves As being not small, and more appreciable To some one friend. We must have mediators Betwixt our highest conscience and the judge; Some sweet saint's blood must quicken in our palms. Or all the life in heaven seems slow and cold: Good only, being perceived as the end of good, And God alone pleased,–that's too poor, we think, And not enough for us, by any means. Ay–Romney, I remember, told me once We miss the abstract, when we comprehend! We miss it most when we aspire, . . and fail. Yet, so, I will not.–This vile woman's way Of trailing garments, shall not trip me up. I'll have no traffic with the personal thought In art's pure temple. Must I work in vain, Without the approbation of a man? It cannot be; it shall not. Fame itself, That approbation of the general race, Presents a poor end, (though the arrow speed, Shot straight with vigorous finger to the white,) And the highest fame was never reached except By what was aimed above it. Art for art, And good for God Himself, the essential Good! We'll keep our aims sublime, our eyes erect, Although our woman-hands should shake and fail; And if we fail . . But must we?– Shall I fail? The Greeks said grandly in their tragic phrase, 'Let no one be called happy till his death.' To which I add,–Let no one till his death Be called unhappy. Measure not the work Until the day's out and the labour done; Then bring your gauges. If the day's work's scant, Why, call it scant; affect no compromise; And, in that we have nobly striven at least, Deal with us nobly, women though we be, And honour us with truth, if not with praise. My ballads prospered; but the ballad's race Is rapid for a poet who bears weights Of thought and golden image. He can stand Like Atlas, in the sonnet,–and support His own heavens pregnant with dynastic stars; But then he must stand still, nor take a step. In that descriptive poem called 'The Hills,' The prospects were too far and indistinct. 'Tis true my critics said, 'A fine view, that!' The public scarcely cared to climb the book For even the finest; and the public's right, A tree's mere firewood, unless humanised; Which well the Greeks knew, when they stirred the bark With close-pressed bosoms of subsiding nymphs, And made the forest-rivers garrulous With babble of gods. For us, we are called to mark A still more intimate humanity In this inferior nature,–or, ourselves, Must fall like dead leaves trodden underfoot By veritabler artists. Earth shut up By Adam, like a fakir in a box Left too long buried, remained stiff and dry, A mere dumb corpse, till Christ the Lord came down, Unlocked the doors, forced opened the blank eyes, And used his kingly chrisms to straighten out The leathery tongue turned back into the throat: Since when, she lives, remembers, palpitates In every lip, aspires in every breath, Embraces infinite relations. Now, We want no half-gods, Panomph&alig;ean Joves, Fauns, Naiads, Tritons, Oreads, and the rest, To take possession of a senseless world To unnatural vampire-uses. See the earth, The body of our body, the green earth, Indubitably human, like this flesh And these articulated veins through which Our heart drives blood! There's not a flower of spring, That dies ere June, but vaunts itself allied By issue and symbol, by significance And correspondence, to that spirit-world Outside the limits of our space and time, Whereto we are bound. Let poets give it voice With human meanings; else they miss the thought, And henceforth step down lower, stand confessed Instructed poorly for interpreters,– Thrown out by an easy cowslip in the text. Even so my pastoral failed: it was a book Of surface-pictures–pretty, cold, and false With literal transcript,–the worse done, I think, For being not ill-done. Let me set my mark Against such doings, and do otherwise. This strikes me.–if the public whom we know, Could catch me at such admissions, I should pass For being right modest. Yet how proud we are, In daring to look down upon ourselves! The critics say that epics have died out With Agamemnon and the goat-nursed gods– I'll not believe it. I could never dream As Payne Knight did, (the mythic mountaineer Who travelled higher than he was born to live, And showed sometimes the goitre in his throat Discoursing of an image seen through fog,) That Homer's heroes measured twelve feet high. They were but men!–his Helen's hair turned grey Like any plain Miss Smith's, who wears a front: And Hector's infant blubbered at a plume As yours last Friday at a turkey-cock. All men are possible heroes: every age, Heroic in proportions, double-faced, Looks backward and before, expects a morn And claims an epos. Ay, but every age Appears to souls who live in it, (ask Carlyle) Most unheroic. Ours, for instance, ours! The thinkers scout it, and the poets abound Who scorn to touch it with a finger-tip: A pewter age,–mixed metal, silver-washed; An age of scum, spooned off the richer past; An age of patches for old gabardines; An age of mere transition, meaning nought, Except that what succeeds must shame it quite, If God please. That's wrong thinking, to my mind, And wrong thoughts make poor poems. Every age, Through being beheld too close, is ill-discerned By those who have not lived past it. We'll suppose Mount Athos carved, as Persian Xerxes schemed, To some colossal statue of a man: The peasants, gathering brushwood in his ear, Had guessed as little of any human form Up there, as would a flock of browsing goats. They'd have, in fact, to travel ten miles off Or ere the giant image broke on them, Full human profile, nose and chin distinct, Mouth, muttering rhythms of silence up the sky, And fed at evening with the blood of suns; Grand torso,–hand, that flung perpetually The largesse of a silver river down To all the country pastures. 'Tis even thus With times we live in,–evermore too great To be apprehended near. But poets should Exert a double vision; should have eyes To see near things as comprehensibly As if afar they took their point of sight, And distant things, as intimately deep, As if they touched them. Let us strive for this. I do distrust the poet who discerns No character or glory in his times, And trundles back his soul five hundred years, Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court, Oh not to sing of lizards or of toads Alive i' the ditch there!–'twere excusable; But of some black chief, half knight, half sheep-lifter Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen, As dead as must be, for the greater part, The poems made on their chivalric bones. And that's no wonder: death inherits death. Nay, if there's room for poets in the world A little overgrown, (I think there is) Their sole work is to represent the age, Their age, not Charlemagne's,–this live, throbbing age, That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires, And spends more passion, more heroic heat, Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms, Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles. To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce, Cry out for togas and the picturesque, Is fatal,–foolish too. King Arthur's self Was commonplace to Lady Guenever; And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat, As Regent street to poets. Never flinch, But still, unscrupulously epic, catch Upon a burning lava of a song, The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age: That, when the next shall come, the men of that May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say 'Behold,–behold the paps we all have sucked! That bosom seems to beat still, or at least It sets ours beating. This is living art, Which thus presents, and thus records true life.' What form is best for poems? Let me think Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit, As sovran nature does, to make the form; For otherwise we only imprison spirit, And not embody. Inward evermore To outward,–so in life, and so in art, Which still is life. Five acts to make a play. And why not fifteen? Why not ten? or seven? What matter for the number of the leaves, Supposing the tree lives and grows? exact The literal unities of time and place, When 'tis the essence of passion to ignore Both time and place? Absurd. Keep up the fire And leave the generous flames to shape themselves. 'Tis true the stage requires obsequiousness To this or that convention; 'exit' here And 'enter' there; the points for clapping, fixed, Like Jacob's white-peeled rods before the rams; And all the close-curled imagery clipped In manner of their fleece at shearing time. Forget to prick the galleries to the heart Precisely at the fourth act,–culminate Our five pyramidal acts with one act more,– We're lost so! Shakspeare's ghost could scarcely plead Against our just damnation. Stand aside; We'll muse for comfort that, last century, On this same tragic stage on which we have failed, A wigless Hamlet would have failed the same. And whosoever writes good poetry, Looks just to art. He does not write for you Or me,–for London or for Edinburgh; He will not suffer the best critic known To step into his sunshine of free thought And self-absorbed conception, and exact An inch-long swerving of the holy lines. If virtue done for popularity Defiles like vice, can art for praise or hire Still keep its splendour, and remain pure art? Eschew such serfdom. What the poet writes, He writes: mankind accepts it, if it suits, And that's success: if not, the poem's passed From hand to hand, and yet from hand to hand, Until the unborn snatch it, crying out In pity on their fathers' being so dull, And that's success too. I will write no plays. Because the drama, less sublime in this, Makes lower appeals, defends more menially, Adopts the standard of the public taste To chalk its height on, wears a dog chain round Its regal neck, and learns to carry and fetch The fashions of the day to please the day; Fawns close on pit and boxes, who clap hands, Commending chiefly its docility And humour in stage-tricks; or else indeed Gets hissed at, howled at, stamped at like a dog, Or worse, we'll say. For dogs, unjustly kicked, Yell, bite at need; but if your dramatist (Being wronged by some five hundred nobodies Because their grosser brains most naturally Misjudge the fineness of his subtle wit) Shows teeth an almond's breath, protests the length Of a.modest phrase,–' My gentle countrymen, 'There's something in it, haply of your fault,'– Why then, besides five hundred nobodies, He'll have five thousand, and five thousand more, Against him,–the whole public,–all the hoofs Of King Saul's father's asses, in full drove,– And obviously deserve it. He appealed To these,–and why say more if they condemn, Than if they praised him?–Weep, my Æschylus, But low and far, upon Sicilian shores! For since 'twas Athens (so I read the myth) Who gave commission to that fatal weight, The tortoise, cold and hard, to drop on thee And crush thee,–better cover thy bald head; She'll hear the softest hum of Hyblan bee Before thy loud'st protesting.–For the rest, The risk's still worse upon the modern stage; I could not, in so little, accept success, Nor would I risk so much, in ease and calm, For manifester gains; let those who prize, Pursue them: I stand off. And yet, forbid, That any irreverent fancy or conceit Should litter in the Drama's throne-room, where The rulers of our art, in whose full veins Dynastic glories mingle, sit in strength And do their kingly work,–conceive, command, And, from the imagination's crucial heat, Catch up their men and women all a-flame For action all alive, and forced to prove Their life by living out heart, brain, and nerve, Until mankind makes witness, 'These be men As we are,' and vouchsafes the kiss that's due To Imogen and Juliet–sweetest kin On art's side. 'Tis that, honouring to its worth The drama, I would fear to keep it down To the level of the footlights. Dies no more The sacrificial goat, for Bacchus slain,– His filmed eyes fluttered by the whirling white Of choral vestures,–troubled in his blood While tragic voices that clanged keen as swords, Leapt high together with the altar-flame, And made the blue air wink. The waxen mask, Which set the grand still front of Themis' son Upon the puckered visage of a player;– The buskin, which he rose upon and moved, As some tall ship, first conscious of the wind, Sweeps slowly past the piers;–the mouthpiece,where The mere man's voice with all its breaths and breaks Went sheathed in brass, and clashed on even heights Its phrasèd thunders;–these things are no more, Which once were. And concluding, which is clear, The growing drama has outgrown such toys Of simulated stature, faces and speech, It also, peradventure, may outgrow The simulation of the painted scene, Boards, actors, prompters, gaslight, and costume; And take for a worthier stage the soul itself, Its shifting fancies and celestial lights, With all its grand orchestral silences To keep the pauses of the rhythmic sounds. Alas, I still see something to be done, And what I do falls short of what I see, Though I waste myself on doing. Long green days, Worn bare of grass and sunshine,–long calm nights, From which the silken sleeps were fretted out,– Be witness for me, with no amateur's Irreverent haste and busy idleness I've set myself to art! What then? what's done? What's done, at last? Behold, at last, a book. If life-blood's necessary,–which it is, (By that blue vein athrob on Mahomet's brow, Each prophet-poet's book must show man's blood!) If life-blood's fertilising, I wrung mine On every leaf of this,–unless the drops Slid heavily on one side and left it dry. That chances often: many a fervid man Writes books as cold and flat as grave-yard stones From which the lichen's scraped; and if St. Preux Had written his own letters, as he might, We had never wept to think of the little mole 'Neath Julie's drooping eyelid. Passion is But something suffered, after all. While art Sets action on the top of suffering: The artist's part is both to be and do, Transfixing with a special, central power The flat experience of the common man, And turning outward, with a sudden wrench, Half agony, half ecstasy, the thing He feels the inmost: never felt the less Because he sings it. Does a torch less burn For burning next reflectors of blue steel, That he should be the colder for his place 'Twixt two incessant fires,–his personal life's, And that intense refraction which burns back Perpetually against him from the round Of crystal conscience he was born into If artist born? O sorrowful great gift Conferred on poets, of a twofold life, When one life has been found enough for pain! We staggering 'neath our burden as mere men, Being called to stand up straight as demi-gods, Support the intolerable strain and stress Of the universal, and send clearly up With voices broken by the human sob, Our poems to find rhymes among the stars! But soft!–a 'poet' is a word soon said; A book's a thing soon written. Nay, indeed, The more the poet shall be questionable, The more unquestionably comes his book! And this of mine,–well, granting to myself Some passion in it, furrowing up the flats, Mere passion will not prove a volume worth Its gall and rags even. Bubbles round a keel Mean nought, excepting that the vessel moves. There's more than passion goes to make a man, Or book, which is a man too. I am sad: I wonder if Pygmalion had these doubts, And, feeling the hard marble first relent, Grow supple to the straining of his arms, And tingle through its cold to his burning lip, Supposed his senses mocked, and that the toil Of stretching past the known and seen, to reach The archetypal Beauty out of sight, Had made his heart beat fast enough for two, And with his own life dazed and blinded him! Not so; Pygmalion loved,–and whoso loves Believes the impossible. And I am sad: I cannot thoroughly love a work of mine, Since none seems worthy of my thought and hope More highly mated. He has shot them down, My Phoebus Apollo, soul within my soul, Who judges by the attempted, what's attained, And with the silver arrow from his height, Has struck down all my works before my face, While I say nothing. Is there aught to say? I called the artist but a greatened man: He may be childless also, like a man. I laboured on alone. The wind and dust And sun of the world beat blistering in my face; And hope, now for me, now against me, dragged My spirits onward,–as some fallen balloon, Which, whether caught by blossoming tree or bare, Is torn alike. I sometimes touched my aim, Or seemed,–and generous souls cried out, 'Be strong, Take courage; now you're on our level,–now! The next step saves you!' I was flushed with praise, But, pausing just a moment to draw breath, I could not choose but murmur to myself 'Is this all? all that's done? and all that's gained? If this then be success, 'tis dismaller Than any failure.' O my God, my God, O supreme Artist, who as sole return For all the cosmic wonder of Thy work, Demandest of us just a word . . a name, 'My Father!'–thou hast knowledge, only thou, How dreary 'tis for women to sit still On winter nights by solitary fires, And hear the nations praising them far off; Too far! ay, praising our quick sense of love, Our very heart of passionate womanhood, Which could not beat so in the verse without Being present also in the unkissed lips, And eyes undried because there's none to ask The reason they grew moist. To sit alone, And think, for comfort, how, that very night, Affianced lovers, leaning face to face With sweet half-listenings for each other's breath, Are reading haply from some page of ours, To pause with a thrill, as if their cheeks had touched, When such a stanza, level to their mood, Seems floating their own thoughts out–'So I feel For thee,'–'And I, for thee: this poet knows What everlasting love is!'–how, that night. A father, issuing from the misty roads Upon the luminous round of lamp and hearth And happy children, having caught up first The youngest there until it shrunk and shrieked To feel the cold chin prick its dimple through With winter from the hills, may throw i' the lap Of the eldest, (who has learnt to drop her lids To hide some sweetness newer than last year's) Our book and cry, . . 'Ah you, you care for rhymes; So here be rhymes to pore on under trees, When April comes to let you! I've been told They are not idle as so many are, But set hearts beating pure as well as fast: It's yours, the book: I'll write your name in it,– That so you may not lose, however lost In poet's lore and charming reverie, The thought of how your father thought of you In riding from the town.' To have our books Appraised by love, associated with love, While we sit loveless! is it hard, you think? At least 'tis mournful. Fame, indeed, 'twas said, Means simply love. It was a man said that. And then there's love and love: the love of all (To risk, in turn, a woman's paradox,) Is but a small thing to the love of one. You bid a hungry child be satisfied With a heritage of many corn-fields: nay, He says he's hungry,–he would rather have That little barley-cake you keep from him While reckoning up his harvests. So with us; (Here, Romney, too, we fail to generalise!) We're hungry. Hungry! but it's pitiful To wail like unweaned babes and suck our thumbs Because we're hungry. Who, in all this world, (Wherein we are haply set to pray and fast, And learn what good is by its opposite) Has never hungered? Woe to him who has found The meal enough: if Ugolino's full, His teeth have crunched some foul unnatural thing: For here satiety proves penury More utterly irremediable. And since We needs must hunger,–better, for man's love, Than God's truth! better, for companions sweet, Than great convictions! let us bear our weights, Preferring dreary hearths to desert souls. Well, well, they say we're envious, we who rhyme; But I, because I am a woman, perhaps, And so rhyme ill, am ill at envying. I never envied Graham his breadth of style, Which gives you, with a random smutch or two, (Near-sighted critics analyse to smutch) Such delicate perspectives of full life; Nor Belmore, for the unity of aim To which he cuts his cedarn poems, fine As sketchers do their pencils; not Mark Gage, For that caressing colour and trancing tone Whereby you're swept away and melted in The sensual element, which, with a back wave, Restores you to the level of pure souls And leaves you with Plotinus. None of these, For native gifts or popular applause, I've envied; but for this,–that when, by chance, Says some one,–'There goes Belmore, a great man! He leaves clean work behind him, and requires No sweeper up of the chips,' . . a girl I know, Who answers nothing, save with her brown eyes, Smiles unawares, as if a guardian saint Smiled in her:–for this, too,–that Gage comes home And lays his last book's prodigal review Upon his mother's knees, where, years ago, He had laid his childish spelling-book and learned To chirp and peck the letters from her mouth, As young birds must. 'Well done,' she murmured then, She will not say it now more wonderingly; And yet the last 'Well done' will touch him more, As catching up to-day and yesterday In a perfect chord of love; and so, Mark Gage, I envy you your mother!–and you, Graham, Because you have a wife who loves you so, She half forgets, at moments, to be proud Of being Graham's wife, until a friend observes, 'The boy here, has his father's massive brow, Done small in wax . . if we push back the curls.' Who loves me? Dearest father,–mother sweet,– I speak the names out sometimes by myself, And make the silence shiver: they sound strange, As Hindostanee to an Ind-born man Accustomed many years to English speech; Or lovely poet-words grown obsolete, Which will not leave off singing. Up in heaven I have my father,–with my mother's face Beside him in a blotch of heavenly light; No more for earth's familiar household use, No more! The best verse written by this hand, Can never reach them where they sit, to seem Well-done to them. Death quite unfellows us, Sets dreadful odds betwixt the live and dead, And makes us part as those at Babel did, Through sudden ignorance of a common tongue. A living Cæsar would not dare to play At bowls, with such as my dead father is. And yet, this may be less so than appears, This change and separation. Sparrows five For just two farthings, and God cares for each. If God is not too great for little cares, Is any creature, because gone to God? I've seen some men, veracious, nowise mad, Who have thought or dreamed, declared and testified, They've heard the Dead a-ticking like a clock Which strikes the hours of the eternities, Beside them, with their natural ears, and known That human spirits feel the human way, And hate the unreasoning awe which waves them off From possible communion. It may be. At least, earth separates as well as heaven. For instance, I have not seen Romney Leigh Full eighteen months . . add six, you get two years. They say he's very busy with good works,– Has parted Leigh Hall into almshouses. He made an almshouse of his heart one day, Which ever since is loose upon the latch For those who pull the string.–I never did. It always makes me sad to go abroad; And now I'm sadder that I went to-night Among the lights and talkers at Lord Howe's. His wife is gracious, with her glossy braids, And even voice, and gorgeous eyeballs, calm As her other jewels. If she's somewhat cold, Who wonders, when her blood has stood so long In the ducal reservoir she calls her line By no means arrogantly? she's not proud; Not prouder than the swan is of the lake He has always swum in;–'tis her element, And so she takes it with a natural grace, Ignoring tadpoles. She just knows, perhaps, There are men, move on without outriders, Which isn't her fault. Ah, to watch her face, When good Lord Howe expounds his theories Of social justice and equality– 'Tis curious, what a tender, tolerant bend Her neck takes: for she loves him, likes his talk, Such clever talk–that dear, odd Algernon!' She listens on, exactly as if he talked Some Scandinavian myth of Lemures, Too pretty to dispute, and too absurd. She's gracious to me as her husband's friend, And would be gracious, were I not a Leigh, Being used to smile just so, without her eyes, On Joseph Strangways, the Leeds mesmerist, And Delia Dobbs, the lecturer from 'the States' Upon the 'Woman's question.' Then, for him, I like him . . he's my friend. And all the rooms Were full of crinkling silks that swept about The fine dust of most subtle courtesies. What then?–why then, we come home to be sad. How lovely One I love not, looked to-night! She's very pretty, Lady Waldemar. Her maid must use both hands to twist that coil Of tresses, then be careful lest the rich Bronze rounds should slip :–she missed, though, a grey hair, A single one,–I saw it; otherwise The woman looked immortal. How they told, Those alabaster shoulders and bare breasts, On which the pearls, drowned out of sight in milk, Were lost, excepting for the ruby-clasp! They split the amaranth velvet-boddice down To the waist, or nearly, with the audacious press Of full-breathed beauty. If the heart within Were half as white!–but, if it were, perhaps The breast were closer covered, and the sight Less aspectable, by half, too. I heard The young man with the German student's look– A sharp face, like a knife in a cleft stick, Which shot up straight against the parting line So equally dividing the long hair,– Say softly to his neighbour, (thirty-five And mediæval) 'Look that way, Sir Blaise. She's Lady Waldemar–to the left,–in red– Whom Romney Leigh, our ablest man just now, Is soon to marry.' Then replied Sir Blaise Delorme, with quiet, priest-like voice, Too used to syllable damnations round To make a natural emphasis worth while: 'Is Leigh your ablest man? the same, I think, Once jilted by a recreant pretty maid Adopted from the people? Now, in change, He seems to have plucked a flower from the other side Of the social hedge.' 'A flower, a flower,' exclaimed My German student,–his own eyes full-blown Bent on her. He was twenty, certainly. Sir Blaise resumed with gentle arrogance, As if he had dropped his alms into a hat, And had the right to counsel,–'My young friend, I doubt your ablest man's ability To get the least good or help meet for him, For pagan phalanstery or Christian home, From such a flowery creature.' 'Beautiful!' My student murmured, rapt,–'Mark how she stirs Just waves her head, as if a flower indeed, Touched far off by the vain breath of our talk.' At which that bilious Grimwald, (he who writes For the Renovator) who had seemed absorbed Upon the table-book of autographs, (I dare say mentally he crunched the bones Of all those writers, wishing them alive To feel his tooth in earnest) turned short round With low carnivorous laugh,–'A flower, of course! She neither sews nor spins,–and takes no thought Of her garments . . falling off.' The student flinched, Sir Blaise, the same; then both, drawing back their chairs As if they spied black-beetles on the floor, Pursued their talk, without a word being thrown To the critic. Good Sir Blaise's brow is high And noticeably narrow; a strong wind, You fancy, might unroof him suddenly, And blow that great top attic off his head So piled with feudal relics. You admire His nose in profile, though you miss his chin; But, though you miss his chin, you seldom miss His golden cross worn innermostly, (carved For penance, by a saintly Styrian monk Whose flesh was too much with him,) slipping trough Some unaware unbuttoned casualty Of the under-waistcoat. With an absent air Sir Blaise sate fingering it and speaking low, While I, upon the sofa, heard it all. 'My dear young friend, if we could bear our eyes Like blessedest St. Lucy, on a plate, They would not trick us into choosing wives, As doublets, by the colour. Otherwise Our fathers chose,–and therefore, when they had hung Their household keys about a lady's waist, The sense of duty gave her dignity: She kept her bosom holy to her babes; And, if a moralist reproved her dress, 'Twas, 'Too much starch!'–and not, 'Too little lawn!' 'Now, pshaw!' returned the other in a heat, A little fretted by being called 'young friend,' Or so I took it,–'for St. Lucy's sake, If she's the saint to curse by, let us leave Our fathers,–plagued enough about our sons!' (He stroked his beardless chin) 'yes, plagued, sir, plagued: The future generations lie on us As heavy as the nightmare of a seer; Our meat and drink grow painful prophecy: I ask you,–have we leisure, if we liked, To hollow out our weary hands to keep Your intermittent rushlight of the past From draughts in lobbies? Prejudice of sex, And marriage-laws . . the socket drops them through While we two speak,–however may protest Some over-delicate nostrils, like our own, 'Gainst odours thence arising.' 'You are young,' Sir Blaise objected. 'If I am,' he said With fire,–'though somewhat less so than I seem. The young run on before, and see the thing That's coming. Reverence for the young, I cry. In that new church for which the world's near ripe, You'll have the younger in the elder's chair, Presiding with his ivory front of hope O'er foreheads clawed by cruel carrion birds Of life's experience.' 'Pray your blessing, sir,' Sir Blaise replied good-humouredly,–'I plucked A silver hair this morning from my beard, Which left me your inferior. Would I were Eighteen, and worthy to admonish you! If young men of your order run before To see such sights as sexual prejudice And marriage-law dissolved,–in plainer words, A general concubinage expressed In a universal pruriency,–the thing Is scarce worth running fast for, and you'd gain By loitering with your elders.' 'Ah,' he said, 'Who, getting to the top of Pisgah-hill, Can talk with one at the bottom of the view, To make it comprehensible? Why Leigh Himself, although our ablest man, I said, Is scarce advanced to see as far as this, Which some are: he takes up imperfectly The social question–by one handle–leaves The rest to trail. A Christian socialist, Is Romney Leigh, you understand.' 'Not I. I disbelieve in Christians-pagans, much As you in women-fishes. If we mix Two colours, we lose both, and make a third Distinct from either. Mark you! to mistake A colour is the sign of a sick brain, And mine, I thank the saints, is clear and cool: A neutral tint is here impossible. The church,–and by the church, I mean, of course, The catholic, apostolic, mother-church,– Draws lines as plain and straight as her own wall; Inside of which, are Christians, obviously, And outside . . dogs.' 'We thank you. Well I know The ancient mother-church would fain still bite For all her toothless gums,–as Leigh himself Would fain be a Christian still, for all his wit; Pass that; you two may settle it, for me. You're slow in England. In a month I learnt At Göttingen, enough philosophy To stock your English schools for fifty years; Pass that, too. Here, alone, I stop you short, –Supposing a true man like Leigh could stand Unequal in the stature of his life To the height of his opinions. Choose a wife Because of a smooth skin?–not he, not he! He'd rail at Venus' self for creaking shoes, Unless she walked his way of righteousness: And if he takes a Venus Meretrix (No imputation on the lady there) Be sure that, by some sleight of Christian art, He has metamorphosed and converted her To a Blessed Virgin.' 'Soft!' Sir Blaise drew breath As if it hurt him,–'Soft! no blasphemy, I pray you!' 'The first Christians did the thing; Why not the last?' asked he of Göttingen, With just that shade of sneering on the lip, Compensates for the lagging of the beard,– 'And so the case is. If that fairest fair Is talked of as the future wife of Leigh, She's talked of, too, at least as certainly, As Leigh's disciple. You may find her name On all his missions and commissions, school, Asylums, hospitals,–he has had her down, With other ladies whom her starry lead Persuaded from their spheres, to his country-place In Shropshire, to the famed phalanstery At Leigh Hall, christianised from Fourier's own, (In which he has planted out his sapling stocks Of knowledge into social nurseries) And there, they say, she has tarried half a week, And milked the cows, and churned, and pressed the curd, And said 'my sister' to the lowest drab Of all the assembled castaways; such girls! Ay, sided with them at the washing-tub– Conceive, Sir Blaise, those naked perfect arms, Round glittering arms, plunged elbow-deep in suds, Like wild swans hid in lilies all a-shake.' Lord Howe came up. 'What, talking poetry So near the image of the unfavouring Muse? That's you, Miss Leigh: I've watched you half an hour, Precisely as I watched the statue called A Pallas in the Vatican;–you mind The face, Sir Blaise?–intensely calm and sad, As wisdom cut it off from fellowship,– But that spoke louder. Not a word from you! And these two gentlemen were bold, I marked, And unabashed by even your silence.' 'Ah,' Said I, 'my dear Lord Howe, you shall not speak To a printing woman who has lost her place, (The sweet safe corner of the household fire Behind the heads of children) compliments As if she were a woman. We who have clipt The curls before our eyes, may see at least As plain as men do: speak out, man to man; No compliments, beseech you.' 'Friend to friend, Let that be. We are sad to-night, I saw, (–Good night, Sir Blaise! Ah, Smith–he has slipped away) I saw you across the room, and stayed, Miss Leigh, To keep a crowd of lion-hunters off, With faces toward your jungle. There were three; A spacious lady, five feet ten and fat, Who has the devil in her (and there's room) For walking to and fro upon the earth, From Chippewa to China; she requires Your autograph upon a tinted leaf 'Twixt Queen Pomare's and Emperor Soulouque's; Pray give it; she has energies, though fat: For me, I'd rather see a rick on fire Than such a woman angry. Then a youth Fresh from the backwoods, green as the underboughs, Asks modestly, Miss Leigh, to kiss your shoe, And adds, he has an epic, in twelve parts, Which when you've read, you'll do it for his boot,– All which I saved you, and absorb next week Both manuscript and man,–because a lord Is still more potent that a poetess, With any extreme republican. Ah, ah, You smile at last, then.' 'Thank you.' 'Leave the smile, I'll lose the thanks for't,–ay, and throw you in My transatlantic girl, with golden eyes, That draw you to her splendid whiteness, as The pistil of a water-lily draws, Adust with gold. Those girls across the sea Are tyrannously pretty,–and I swore (She seemed to me an innocent, frank girl) To bring her to you for a woman's kiss, Not now, but on some other day or week: –We'll call it perjury; I give her up.' 'No, bring her.' 'Now,' said he, 'you make it hard To touch such goodness with a grimy palm. I thought to tease you well, and fret you cross, And steel myself, when rightly vexed with you, For telling you a thing to tease you more.' 'Of Romney?' 'No, no; nothing worse,' he cried, 'Of Romney Leigh, than what is buzzed about,– That he is taken in an eye-trap too, Like many half as wise. The thing I mean Refers to you, not him.' 'Refers to me,' He echoed,–'Me! You sound it like a stone Dropped down a dry well very listlessly, By one who never thinks about the toad Alive at the bottom. Presently perhaps You'll sound your 'me' more proudly–till I shrink. Lord Howe's the toad, then, in this question?' 'Brief, We'll take it graver. Give me sofa-room, And quiet hearing. You know Eglinton, John Eglinton, of Eglinton in Kent?' 'Is he the toad?–he's rather like the snail; Known chiefly for the house upon his back: Divide the man and house–you kill the man; That's Eglinton of Eglinton, Lord Howe.' He answered grave. 'A reputable man, An excellent landlord of the olden stamp, If somewhat slack in new philanthropies; Who keeps his birthdays with a tenants' dance, Is hard upon them when they miss the church Or keep their children back from catechism, But not ungentle when the aged poor Pick sticks at hedge-sides; nay, I've heard him say 'The old dame has a twinge because she stoops: 'That's punishment enough for felony.'' 'O tender-hearted landlord! May I take My long lease with him, when the time arrives For gathering winter-faggots?' 'He likes art, Buys books and pictures . . of a certain kind; Neglects no patient duty; a good son' . . . 'To a most obedient mother. Born to wear His father's shoes, he wears her husband's too: Indeed, I've heard its touching. Dear Lord Howe, You shall not praise me so against your heart, When I'm at worst for praise and faggots.' 'Be Less bitter with me, for . . in short,' he said, 'I have a letter, which he urged me so To bring you . . I could scarcely choose but yield Insisting that a new love passing through The hand of an old friendship, caught from it Some reconciling perfume.' 'Love, you say? My lord, I cannot love. I only find The rhymes for love,–and that's not love, my lord. Take back your letter.' 'Pause: you'll read it first?' 'I will not read it: it is stereotyped; The same he wrote to,–anybody's name,– Anne Blythe, the actress, when she had died so true, A duchess fainted in an open box: Pauline, the dancer, after the great pas, In which her little feet winked overhead Like other fire-flies, and amazed the pit: Or Baldinacci, when her F in alt Had touched the silver tops of heaven itself With such a pungent soul-dart, even the Queen Laid softly, each to each, her white-gloved palms, And sighed for joy: or else (I thank your friend) Aurora Leigh,–when some indifferent rhymes, Like those the boys sang round the holy ox On Memphis-road, have chanced, perhaps, to set Our Apis-public lowing. Oh, he wants, Instead of any worthy wife at home, A star upon his stage of Eglinton! Advise him that he is not overshrewd In being so little modest: a dropped star Makes bitter waters, says a Book I've read,– And there's his unread letter,' 'My dear friend,' Lord Howe began . . In haste I tore the phrase. 'You mean your friend of Eglinton, or me?' 'I mean you, you,' he answered with some fire. 'A happy life means prudent compromise; The tare runs through the farmer's garnered sheaves; But though the gleaner's apron holds pure wheat, We count her poorer. Tare with wheat, we cry, And good with drawbacks. You, you love your art, And, certain of vocation, set your soul On utterance. Only, . . in this world we have made, (They say God made it first, but, if He did, 'Twas so long since, . . and, since, we have spoiled it so, He scarce would know it, if He looked this way, From hells we preach of, with the flames blown out,) In this bad, twisted, topsy-turvy world, Where all the heaviest wrongs get uppermost,– In this uneven, unfostering England here, Where ledger-strokes and sword-strokes count indeed, But soul-strokes merely tell upon the flesh They strike from,–it is hard to stand for art, Unless some golden tripod from the sea Be fished up, by Apollo's divine chance, To throne such feet as yours, my prophetess, At Delphi. Think,–the god comes down as fierce As twenty bloodhounds! shakes you, strangles you, Until the oracular shriek shall ooze in froth! At best it's not all ease,–at worst too hard: A place to stand on is a 'vantage gained, And here's your tripod. To be plain, dear friend, You're poor, except in what you richly give; You labour for your own bread painfully, Or ere you pour our wine. For art's sake, pause.' I answered slow,–as some wayfaring man, Who feels himself at night too far from home, Makes stedfast face against the bitter wind. 'Is art so less a thing than virtue is, That artists first must cater for their ease Or ever they make issue past themselves To generous use? alas, and is it so, That we, who would be somewhat clean, must sweep Our ways as well as walk them, and no friend Confirm us nobly,–'Leave results to God, But you be clean?' What! 'prudent compromise Makes acceptable life,' you say instead, You, you, Lord Howe?–in things indifferent, well. For instance, compromise the wheaten bread For rye, the meat for lentils, silk for serge, And sleep on down, if needs, for sleep on straw; But there, end compromise. I will not bate One artist-dream, on straw or down, my lord, Nor pinch my liberal soul, though I be poor, Nor cease to love high, though I live thus low. So speaking, with less anger in my voice Than sorrow, I rose quickly to depart; While he, thrown back upon the noble shame Of such high-stumbling natures, murmured words, The right words after wrong ones. Ah, the man Is worthy, but so given to entertain Impossible plans of superhuman life,– He sets his virtues on so raised a shelf, To keep them at the grand millennial height, He has to mount a stool to get at them; And meantime, lives on quite the common way, With everybody's morals. As we passed, Lord Howe insisting that his friendly arm Should oar me across the sparkling brawling stream Which swept from room to room, we fell at once On Lady Waldemar. 'Miss Leigh,' she said, And gave me such a smile, so cold and bright, As if she tried it in a 'tiring glass And liked it; 'all to-night I've strained at you, As babes at baubles held up out of reach By spiteful nurses, ('Never snatch,' they say,) And there you sate, most perfectly shut in By good Sir Blaize and clever Mister Smith, And then our dear Lord Howe! at last, indeed, I almost snatched. I have a world to speak About your cousin's place in Shropshire, where I've been to see his work . . our work,–you heard I went? . . and of a letter yesterday, In which, if I should read a page or two, You might feel interest, though you're locked of course In literary toil.–You'll like to hear Your last book lies at the phalanstery, As judged innocuous for the elder girls And younger women who still care for books. We all must read, you see, before we live: But slowly the ineffable light comes up, And, as it deepens, drowns the written word,– So said your cousin, while we stood and felt A sunset from his favorite beech-tree seat: He might have been a poet if he would, But then he saw the higher thing at once, And climbed to it. It think he looks well now, Has quite got over that unfortunate . . Ah, ah . . I know it moved you. Tender-heart! You took a liking to the wretched girl. Perhaps you thought the marriage suitable, Who knows? a poet hankers for romance, And so on. As for Romney Leigh, 'tis sure He never loved her,–never. By the way, You have not heard of her . .? quite out of sight. And out of saving? lost in every sense?' She might have gone on talking half-an-hour, And I stood still, and cold, and pale, I think, As a garden-statue a child pelts with snow For pretty pastime. Every now and then I put in 'yes' or 'no,' I scarce knew why; The blind man walks wherever the dog pulls, And so I answered. Till Lord Howe broke in; 'What penance takes the wretch who interrupts The talk of charming women? I, at last, Must brave it. Pardon, Lady Waldemar! The lady on my arm is tired, unwell, And loyally I've promised she may say Nor harder word this evening, than . . goodnight; The rest her face speaks for her.'–Then we went. And I breathe large at home. I drop my cloak, Unclasp my girdle, loose the band that ties My hair . . now could I but unloose my soul! We are sepulchred alive in this close world, And want more room. The charming woman there– This reckoning up and writing down her talk Affects me singularly. How she talked To pain me! woman's spite!–You wear steel-mail; A woman takes a housewife from her breast, And plucks the delicatest needle out As 'twere a rose, and pricks you carefully 'Neath nails, 'neath eyelids, in your nostrils,–say, A beast would roar so tortured,–but a man, A human creature, must not, shall not flinch, No, not for shame. What vexes after all, Is just that such as she, with such as I, Knows how to vex. Sweet heaven, she takes me up As if she had fingered me and dog-eared me And spelled me by the fireside, half a life! She knows my turns, my feeble points,–What then? The knowledge of a thing implies the thing; Of course she found that in me, she saw that, Her pencil underscored this for a fault, And I, still ignorant. Shut the book up! close! And crush that beetle in the leaves. O heart, At last we shall grow hard too, like the rest, And call it self-defence because we are soft. And after all, now, . . why should I be pained, That Romney Leigh, my cousin, should espouse This Lady Waldemar? And, say, she held Her newly-blossomed gladness in my face, . . 'Twas natural surely, if not generous, Considering how, when winter held her fast, I helped the frost with mine, and pained her more Than she pains me. Pains me!–but wherefore pained? 'Tis clear my cousin Romney wants a wife,– So, good!–The man's need of the woman, here, Is greater than the woman's of the man, And easier served; for where the man discerns A sex, (ah, ah, the man can generalise, Said he) we see but one, ideally And really: where we yearn to lose ourselves And melt like white pearls in another's wine, He seeks to double himself by what he loves, And make his drink more costly by our pearls. At board, at bed, at work, and holiday, It is not good for a man to be alone,– And that's his way of thinking, first and last; And thus my cousin Romney wants a wife. But then my cousin sets his dignity On personal virtue. If he understands By love, like others, self-aggrandisement, It is that he may verily be great By doing rightly and kindly. Once he thought, For charitable ends set duly forth In heaven's white judgement-book, to marry . . ah, We'll call her name Aurora Leigh, although She's changed since then!–and once, for social ends, Poor Marian Erle, my sister Marian Erle, My woodland sister, sweet Maid Marian, Whose memory moans on in me like the wind Through ill-shut casements, making me more sad Than ever I find reasons for. Alas, Poor pretty plaintive face, embodied ghost, He finds it easy, then, to clap thee off From pulling at his sleeve and book and pen,– He locks thee out at night into the cold, Away from butting with thy horny eyes Against his crystal dreams,–that, now, he's strong To love anew? that Lady Waldemar Succeeds my Marian? After all, why not? He loved not Marian, more than once he loved Aurora. If he loves, at last, that Third, Albeit she prove as slippery as spilt oil On marble floors, I will not augur him Ill luck for that. Good love, howe'er ill-placed, Is better for a man's soul in the end, Than if he loved ill what deserves love well. A pagan, kissing, for a step of Pan, The wild-goat's hoof-print on the loamy down, Exceeds our modern thinker who turns back The strata . . granite, limestone, coal, and clay, Concluding coldly with, 'Here's law! Where's God?' And then at worse,–if Romney loves her not,– At worst,–if he's incapable of love, Which may be–then indeed, for such a man Incapable of love, she's good enough; For she, at worst too, is a woman still And loves him as the sort of woman can. My loose long hair began to burn and creep, Alive to the very ends, about my knees: I swept it backward as the wind sweeps flame, With the passion of my hands. Ah, Romney laughed One day . . (how full the memories came up!) '–Your Florence fire-flies live on in your hair,' He said, 'it gleams so.' Well, I wrung them out, My fire-flies; made a knot as hard as life, Of those loose, soft, impracticable curls, And then sat down and thought . . 'She shall not think Her thoughts of me,'–and drew my desk and wrote. 'Dear Lady Waldemar, I could not speak With people around me, nor can sleep to-night And not speak, after the great news I heard Of you and of my cousin. My you be Most happy; and the good he meant the world, Replenish his own life. Say what I say, And let my word be sweeter for your mouth, As you are you . . I only Aurora Leigh.' That's quiet, guarded! Though she hold it up Against the light, she'll not see through it more Than lies there to be seen. So much for pride; And now for peace, a little! Let me stop All writing back . . 'Sweet thanks, my sweetest friend, 'You've made more joyful my great joy itself.' –No, that's too simple! she would twist it thus, 'My joy would still be as sweet as thyme in drawers, However shut up in the dark and dry; But violets, aired and dewed by love like yours, Out-smell all thyme! we keep that in our clothes, But drop the other down our bosoms, till they smell like' . . ah, I see her writing back Just so. She'll make a nosegay of her words, And tie it with blue ribbons at the end To suit a poet;–pshaw! And then we'll have The call to church; the broken, sad, bad dream Dreamed out at last; the marriage-vow complete With the marriage-breakfast; praying in white gloves, Drawn off in haste for drinking pagan toasts In somewhat stronger wine than any sipped By gods, since Bacchus had his way with grapes. A postscript stops all that, and rescues me. 'You need not write. I have been overworked, And think of leaving London, England, even, And hastening to get nearer to the sun, Where men sleep better. So, adieu,'–I fold And seal,–and now I'm out of all the coil; I breathe now; I spring upward like a branch, A ten-years school-boy with a crooked stick May pull down to his level, in search of nuts, But cannot hold a moment. How we twang Back on the blue sky, and assert our height, While he stares after! Now, the wonder seems That I could wrong myself by such a doubt. We poets always have uneasy hearts; Because our hearts, large-rounded as the globe, Can turn but one side to the sun at once. We are used to dip our artist-hands in gall And potash, trying potentialities Of alternated colour, till at last We get confused, and wonder for our skin How nature tinged it first. Well–here's the true Good flesh-colour; I recognise my hand,– Which Romney Leigh may clasp as just a friend's, And keep his clean. And now, my Italy. Alas, if we could ride with naked souls And make no noise and pay no price at all, I would have seen thee sooner, Italy,– For still I have heard thee crying through my life, Thou piercing silence of ecstatic graves, Men call that name! But even a witch, to-day, Must melt down golden pieces in the nard Wherewith to anoint her broomstick ere she rides; And poets evermore are scant of gold, And, if they find a piece behind the door, It turns by sunset to a withered leaf. The Devil himself scarce trusts his patented Gold-making art to any who make rhymes, But culls his Faustus from philosophers And not from poets. 'Leave my Job,' said God; And so, the Devil leaves him without pence, And poverty proves, plainly, special grace. In these new, just, administrative times, Men clamour for an order of merit. Why? Here's black bread on the table, and no wine! At least I am a poet in being poor; Thank God. I wonder if the manuscript Of my long poem, it 'twere sold outright, Would fetch enough to buy me shoes, to go A-foot, (thrown in, the necessary patch For the other side the Alps)? it cannot be: I fear that I must sell this residue Of my father's books; although the Elzevirs Have fly-leaves over-written by his hand, In faded notes as thick and fine and brown as cobwebs on a tawny monument Of the old Greeks–conferenda hoec cum his– Corruptè citat–lege potiùs, And so on, in the scholar's regal way Of giving judgment on the parts of speech, As if he sate on all twelve thrones up-piled, Arraigning Israel. Ay, but books and notes Must go together. And this Proclus too, In quaintly dear contracted Grecian types, Fantastically crumpled, like his thoughts Which would not seem too plain; you go round twice For one step forward, then you take it back Because you're somewhat giddy! there's the rule For Proclus. Ah, I stained this middle leaf With pressing in't my Florentine iris-bell, Long stalk and all; my father chided me For that stain of blue blood,–I recollect The peevish turn his voice took,–'Silly girls, Who plant their flowers in our philosophy To make it fine, and only spoil the book! No more of it, Aurora.' Yes–no more! Ah, blame of love, that's sweeter than all praise Of those who love not! 'tis so lost to me, I cannot, in such beggared life, afford To lose my Proclus. Not for Florence, even. The kissing Judas, Wolff, shall go instead, Who builds us such a royal book as this To honour a chief-poet, folio-built, And writes above, 'The house of Nobody:' Who floats in cream, as rich as any sucked From Juno's breasts, the broad Homeric lines, And, while with their spondaic prodigious mouths They lap the lucent margins as babe-gods, Proclaims them bastards. Wolff's an atheist; And if the Iliad fell out, as he says, By mere fortuitous concourse of old songs, We'll guess as much, too, for the universe. That Wolff, those Platos: sweep the upper shelves As clean as this, and so I am almost rich, Which means, not forced to think of being poor In sight of ends. To-morrow: no delay. I'll wait in Paris till good Carrington Dispose of such, and, having chaffered for My book's price with the publisher, direct All proceeds to me. Just a line to ask His help. And now I come, my Italy, My own hills! are you 'ware of me, my hills, How I burn toward you? do you feel to-night The urgency and yearning of my soul, As sleeping mothers feel the sucking babe And smile?–Nay, not so much as when, in heat, Vain lightnings catch at your inviolate tops, And tremble while ye are stedfast. Still, ye go Your own determined, calm, indifferent way Toward sunrise, shade by shade, and light by light; Of all the grand progression nought left out; As if God verily made you for yourselves, And would not interrupt your life with ours.
Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's other poems:
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