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Poem by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning
Aurora Leigh. Third Book
'TO-DAY thou girdest up thy loins thyself, And goest where thou wouldest: presently Others shall gird thee,' said the Lord, 'to go Where thou would'st not.' He spoke to Peter thus, To signify the death which he should die When crucified head downwards. If He spoke To Peter then, He speaks to us the same; The word suits many different martyrdoms, And signifies a multiform of death, Although we scarcely die apostles, we, And have mislaid the keys of heaven and earth. For tis not in mere death that men die most; And, after our first girding of the loins In youth's fine linen and fair broidery, To run up hill and meet the rising sun, We are apt to sit tired, patient as a fool, While others gird us with the violent bands Of social figments, feints, and formalisms, Reversing our straight nature, lifting up Our base needs, keeping down our lofty thoughts, Head downward on the cross-sticks of the world. Yet He can pluck us from the shameful cross. God, set our feet low and our forehead high, And show us how a man was made to walk! Leave the lamp, Susan, and go up to bed. The room does very well; I have to write Beyond the stroke of midnight. Get away; Your steps, for ever buzzing in the room, Tease me like gnats. Ah, letters! throw them down At once, as I must have them, to be sure, Whether I bid you never bring me such At such an hour, or bid you. No excuse. You choose to bring them, as I choose perhaps To throw them in the fire. Now, get to bed, And dream, if possible, I am not cross. Why what a pettish, petty thing I grow,– A mere, mere woman,–a mere flaccid nerve,- A kerchief left out all night in the rain, Turned soft so,–overtasked and overstrained And overlived in this close London life! And yet I should be stronger. Never burn Your letters, poor Aurora! for they stare With red seals from the table, saying each, 'Here's something that you know not.' Out alas, 'Tis scarcely that the world's more good and wise Or even straighter and more consequent Since yesterday at this time–yet, again, If but one angel spoke from Ararat, I should be very sorry not to hear: So open all the letters! let me read. Blanche Ord, the writer in the 'Lady's Fan,' Requests my judgment on . . that, afterwards. Kate Ward desires the model of my cloak, And signs, 'Elisha to you.' Pringle Sharpe Presents his work on 'Social Conduct,' . . craves A little money for his pressing debts . . From me, who scarce have money for my needs,– Art's fiery chariot which we journey in Being apt to singe our singing-robes to holes, Although you ask me for my cloak, Kate Ward! Here's Rudgely knows it,–editor and scribe– He's 'forced to marry where his heart is not, Because the purse lacks where he lost his heart.' Ah,–lost it because no one picked it up! That's really loss! (and passable impudence.) My critic Hammond flatters prettily, And wants another volume like the last. My critic Belfair wants another book Entirely different, which will sell, (and live?) A striking book, yet not a startling book, The public blames originalities. (You must not pump spring-water unawares Upon a gracious public, full of nerves–) Good things, not subtle, new yet orthodox, As easy reading as the dog-eared page That's fingered by said public, fifty years, Since first taught spelling by its grandmother, And yet a revelation in some sort: That's hard, my critic, Belfair! So–what next? My critic Stokes objects to abstract thoughts; 'Call a man, John, a woman, Joan,' says he, 'And do not prate so of humanities:' Whereat I call my critic, simply Stokes. My critic Jobson recommends more mirth, Because a cheerful genius suits the times, And all true poets laugh unquenchably Like Shakspeare and the gods. That's very hard, The gods may laugh, and Shakspeare; Dante smiled With such a needy heart on two pale lips, We cry, 'Weep rather, Dante.' Poems are Men, if true poems: and who dares exclaim At any man's door, 'Here, 'tis probable The thunder fell last week, and killed a wife, And scared a sickly husband–what of that? Get up, be merry, shout, and clap your hands, Because a cheerful genius suits the times–'? None says so to the man,–and why indeed Should any to the poem? A ninth seal; The apocalypse is drawing to a close. Ha,–this from Vincent Carrington,–'Dear friend, I want good counsel. Will you lend me wings To raise me to the subject, in a sketch I'll bring to-morrow–may I? at eleven? A poet's only born to turn to use; So save you! for the world . . and Carrington.' '(Writ after.) Have you heard of Romney Leigh, Beyond what's said of him in newspapers, His phalansteries there, his speeches here, His pamphlets, pleas, and statements, everywhere? He dropped me long ago; but no one drops A golden apple–though, indeed, one day, You hinted that, but jested. Well, at least, You know Lord Howe, who sees him . . whom he sees, And you see, and I hate to see,–for Howe Stands high upon the brink of theories, Observes the swimmers, and cries 'Very fine,' But keeps dry linen equally,–unlike That gallant breaster, Romney. Strange it is, Such sudden madness, seizing a young man, To make earth over again,–while I'm content To make the pictures. Let me bring the sketch. A tiptoe Danae, overbold and hot: Both arms a-flame to meet her wishing Jove Halfway, and burn him faster down; the face And breasts upturned and straining, the loose locks All glowing with the anticipated gold. Or here's another on the self-same theme. She lies here–flat upon her prison-floor, The long hair swathed about her to the heel, Like wet sea-weed. You dimly see her through The glittering haze of that prodigious rain, Half blotted out of nature by a love As heavy as fate. I'll bring you either sketch. I think, myself, the second indicates More passion. ' Surely. Self is put away, And calm with abdication. She is Jove, And no more Danae–greater thus. Perhaps The painter symbolises unawares Two states of the recipient artist-soul; One, forward, personal, wanting reverence, Because aspiring only. We'll be calm, And know that, when indeed our Joves come down. We all turn stiller than we have ever been. Kind Vincent Carrington. I'll let him come. He talks of Florence,–and may say a word Of something as it chanced seven years ago,– A hedgehog in the path, or a lame bird, In those green country walks, in that good time, When certainly I was so miserable . . I seem to have missed a blessing ever since. The music soars within the little lark, And the lark soars. It is not thus with men. We do not make our places with our strains,– Content, while they rise, to remain behind, Alone on earth instead of so in heaven. No matter–I bear on my broken tale. When Romney Leigh and I had parted thus, I took a chamber up three flights of stairs Not far from being as steep as some larks climb, And, in a certain house in Kensington, Three years I lived and worked. Get leave to work In this world,–'tis the best you get at all; For God, in cursing, gives us better gifts Than men in benediction. God says, 'Sweat For foreheads;' men say 'crowns;' and so we are crowned, Ay, gashed by some tormenting circle of steel Which snaps with a secret spring. Get work; get work; Be sure 'tis better than what you work to get. So, happy and unafraid of solitude, I worked the short days out,–and watched the sun On lurid morns or monstrous afternoons, Like some Druidic idol's fiery brass, With fixed unflickering outline of dead heat, In which the blood of wretches pent inside Seemed oozing forth to incarnadine the air,– Push out through fog with his dilated disk, And startle the slant roofs and chimney-pots With splashes of fierce colour. Or I saw Fog only, the great tawny weltering fog, Involve the passive city, strangle it Alive, and draw it off into the void, Spires, bridges, streets, and squares, as if a sponge Had wiped out London,–or as noon and night Had clapped together and utterly struck out The intermediate time, undoing themselves In the act. Your city poets see such things, Not despicable. Mountains of the south, When, drunk and mad with elemental wines, They rend the seamless mist and stand up bare, Make fewer singers, haply. No one sings, Descending Sinai; on Parnassus mount, You take a mule to climb, and not a muse, Except in fable and figure: forests chant Their anthems to themselves, and leave you dumb. But sit in London, at the day's decline, And view the city perish in the mist Like Pharaoh's armaments in the deep Red Sea,– The chariots, horsemen, footmen, all the host, Sucked down and choked to silence–then, surprised By a sudden sense of vision and of tune, You feel as conquerors though you did not fight, And you and Israel's other singing girls, Ay, Miriam with them, sing the song you choose. I worked with patience which means almost power I did some excellent things indifferently, Some bad things excellently. Both were praised, The latter loudest. And by such a time That I myself had set them down as sins Scarce worth the price of sackcloth, week by week, Arrived some letter through the sedulous post, Like these I've read, and yet dissimilar, With pretty maiden seals,–initials twined Of lilies, or a heart marked Emily, (Convicting Emily of being all heart); Or rarer tokens from young bachelors, Who wrote from college (with the same goosequill, Suppose, they had been just plucked of) and a snatch From Horace, 'Collegisse juvat,' set Upon the first page. Many a letter signed Or unsigned, showing the writers at eighteen Had lived too long, though every muse should help The daylight, holding candles,–compliments, To smile or sigh at. Such could pass with me No more than coins from Moscow circulate At Paris. Would ten rubles buy a tag Of ribbon on the boulevard, worth a sou? I smiled that all this youth should love me,–sighed That such a love could scarcely raise them up To love what was more worthy than myself; Then sighed again, again, less generously, To think the very love they lavished so, Proved me inferior. The strong loved me not, And he . . my cousin Romney . . did not write. I felt the silent finger of his scorn Prick every bubble of my frivolous fame As my breath blew it, and resolve it back To the air it came from. Oh, I justified The measure he had taken of my height: The thing was plain–he was not wrong a line; I played at art, made thrusts with a toy-sword, Amused the lads and maidens. Came a sigh Deep, hoarse with resolution,–I would work To better ends, or play in earnest. 'Heavens, I think I should be almost popular If this went on!'–I ripped my verses up, And found no blood upon the rapier's point: The heart in them was just an embryo's heart, Which never yet had beat, that it should die: Just gasps of make-believe galvanic life; Mere tones, inorganised to any tune. And yet I felt it in me where it burnt, Like those hot fire-seeds of creation held In Jove's clenched palm before the worlds were sown; But I–I was not Juno even! my hand Was shut in weak convulsion, woman's ill, And when I yearned to loose a finger–lo, The nerve revolted. 'Tis the same even now: This hand may never, haply, open large, Before the spark is quenched, or the palm charred, To prove the power not else than by the pain. It burns, it burnt–my whole life burnt with it, And light, not sunlight and not torchlight, flashed My steps out through the slow and difficult road. I had grown distrustful of too forward Springs, The season's books in drear significance Of morals, dropping round me. Lively books? The ash has livelier verdure than the yew; And yet the yew's green longer, and alone Found worthy of the holy Christmas time. We'll plant more yews if possible, albeit We plant the graveyards with them. Day and night I worked my rhythmic thought, and furrowed up Both watch and slumber with long lines of life Which did not suit their season. The rose fell From either cheek, my eyes globed luminous Through orbits of blue shadow, and my pulse Would shudder along the purple-veined wrist Like a shot bird. Youth's stern, set face to face With youth's ideal: and when people came And said, 'You work too much, you are looking ill,' I smiled for pity of them who pitied me, And thought I should be better soon perhaps For those ill looks. Observe–' I,' means in youth Just I . . the conscious and eternal soul With all its ends,–and not the outside life, The parcel-man, the doublet of the flesh, The so much liver, lung, integument, Which make the sum of 'I' hereafter, when World-talkers talk of doing well or ill. I prosper, if I gain a step, although A nail then pierced my foot: although my brain Embracing any truth, froze paralysed, I prosper. I but change my instrument; I break the spade off, digging deep for gold, And catch the mattock up. I worked on, on. Through all the bristling fence of nights and days Which hedges time in from the eternities, I struggled, . . never stopped to note the stakes Which hurt me in my course. The midnight oil Would stink sometimes; there came some vulgar needs: I had to live, that therefore I might work. And, being but poor, I was constrained, for life, To work with one hand for the booksellers, While working with the other for myself And art. You swim with feet as well as hands Or make small way. I apprehended this,– In England, no one lives by verse that lives; And, apprehending, I resolved by prose To make a space to sphere my living verse. I wrote for cyclopædias, magazines, And weekly papers, holding up my name To keep it from the mud. I learnt the use Of the editorial 'we' in a review, As courtly ladies the fine trick of trains, And swept it grandly through the open doors As if one could not pass through doors at all Save so encumbered. I wrote tales beside, Carved many an article on cherry-stones To suit light readers,–something in the lines Revealing, it was said, the mallet-hand, But that, I'll never vouch for. What you do For bread, will taste of common grain, not grapes, Although you have a vineyard in Champagne,– Much less in Nephelococcygia, As mine was, peradventure. Having bread For just so many days, just breathing room For body and verse, I stood up straight and worked My veritable work. And as the soul Which grows within a child, makes the child grow,– Or as the fiery sap, the touch from God, Careering through a tree, dilates the bark, And roughs with scale and knob, before it strikes The summer foliage out in a green flame– So life, in deepening with me, deepened all The course I took, the work I did. Indeed, The academic law convinced of sin; The critics cried out on the falling off Regretting the first manner. But I felt My heart's life throbbing in my verse to show It lived, it also–certes incomplete, Disordered with all Adam in the blood, But even its very tumours, warts, and wens, Still organised by, and implying life. A lady called upon me on such a day. She had the low voice of your English dames, Unused, it seems, to need rise half a note To catch attention,–and their quiet mood, As if they lived too high above the earth For that to put them out in anything: So gentle, because verily so proud; So wary and afeared of hurting you, By no means that you are not really vile, But that they would not touch you with their foot To push you to your place; so self-possessed Yet gracious and conciliating, it takes An effort in their presence to speak truth: You know the sort of woman,–brilliant stuff, And out of nature. 'Lady Waldemar.' She said her name quite simply, as if it meant Not much indeed, but something,–took my hands, And smiled, as if her smile could help my case, And dropped her eyes on me, and let them melt. 'Is this,' she said, 'the Muse?' 'No sibyl even,' I answered, 'since she fails to guess the cause Which taxed you with this visit, madam.' 'Good,' She said, 'I like to be sincere at once; Perhaps, if I had found a literal Muse, The visit might have taxed me. As it is, You wear your blue so chiefly in your eyes, My fair Aurora, in a frank good way, It comforts me entirely for your fame, As well as for the trouble of my ascent To this Olympus. ' There, a silver laugh Ran rippling through her quickened little breaths The steep stair somewhat justified. 'But still Your ladyship has left me curious why You dared the risk of finding the said Muse?' 'Ah,–keep me, notwithstanding, to the point Like any pedant. Is the blue in eyes As awful as in stockings, after all, I wonder, that you'd have my business out Before I breathe–exact the epic plunge In spite of gasps? Well, naturally you think I've come here, as the lion-hunters go To deserts, to secure you, with a trap For exhibition in my drawing-rooms On zoologic soirées? Not in the least. Roar softly at me; I am frivolous, I dare say; I have played at lions, too Like other women of my class,–but now I meet my lion simply as Androcles Met his . . when at his mercy.' So, she bent Her head, as queens may mock,–then lifting up Her eyelids with a real grave queenly look, Which ruled, and would not spare, not even herself, 'I think you have a cousin:–Romney Leigh.' 'You bring a word from him? '–my eyes leapt up To the very height of hers,– 'a word from him? ' 'I bring a word about him, actually. But first,'–she pressed me with her urgent eyes– 'You do not love him,–you?' 'You're frank at least In putting questions, madam,' I replied. 'I love my cousin cousinly–no more.' 'I guessed as much. I'm ready to be frank In answering also, if you'll question me, Or even with something less. You stand outside, You artist women, of the common sex; You share not with us, and exceed us so Perhaps by what you're mulcted in, your hearts Being starved to make your heads: so run the old Traditions of you. I can therefore speak, Without the natural shame which creatures feel When speaking on their level, to their like. There's many a papist she, would rather die Than own to her maid she put a ribbon on To catch the indifferent eye of such a man,– Who yet would count adulteries on her beads At holy Mary's shrine, and never blush; Because the saints are so far off, we lose All modesty before them. Thus, to-day. 'Tis I, love Romney Leigh.' 'Forbear,' I cried. 'If here's no muse, still less is any saint; Nor even a friend, that Lady Waldemar Should make confessions' . . 'That's unkindly said. If no friend, what forbids to make a friend To join to our confession ere we have done? I love your cousin. If it seems unwise To say so, it's still foolisher (we're frank) To feel so. My first husband left me young, And pretty enough, so please you, and rich enough, To keep my booth in May-fair with the rest To happy issues. There are marquises Would serve seven years to call me wife, I know: And, after seven, I might consider it, For there's some comfort in a marquisate When all's said,–yes, but after the seven years; I, now, love Romney. You put up your lip, So like a Leigh! so like him!–Pardon me, I am well aware I do not derogate In loving Romney Leigh. The name is good, The means are excellent; but the man, the man– Heaven help us both,–I am near as mad as he In loving such an one.' She slowly wrung Her heavy ringlets till they touched her smile, As reasonably sorry for herself; And thus continued,– 'Of a truth, Miss Leigh, I have not, without a struggle, come to this. I took a master in the German tongue, I gamed a little, went to Paris twice; But, after all, this love! . . . you eat of love, And do as vile a thing as if you ate Of garlic–which, whatever else you eat, Tastes uniformly acrid, till your peach Reminds you of your onion! Am I coarse? Well, love's coarse, nature's coarse–ah there's the rub! We fair fine ladies, who park out our lives From common sheep-paths, cannot help the crows From flying over,–we're as natural still As Blowsalinda. Drape us perfectly In Lyons' velvet,–we are not, for that, Lay-figures, like you! we have hearts within, Warm, live, improvident, indecent hearts, As ready for distracted ends and acts As any distressed sempstress of them all That Romney groans and toils for. We catch love And other fevers, in the vulgar way. Love will not be outwitted by our wit, Nor outrun by our equipages:–mine Persisted, spite of efforts. All my cards Turned up but Romney Leigh; my German stopped At germane Wertherism; my Paris rounds Returned me from the Champs Elysées just A ghost, and sighing like Dido's. I came home Uncured,–convicted rather to myself Of being in love . . in love! That's coarse you'll say I'm talking garlic.' Coldly I replied. 'Apologise for atheism, not love! For, me, I do believe in love, and God. I know my cousin: Lady Waldemar I know not: yet I say as much as this– Whoever loves him, let her not excuse But cleanse herself; that, loving such a man, She may not do it with such unworthy love He cannot stoop and take it.' 'That is said Austerely, like a youthful prophetess, Who knits her brows across her pretty eyes To keep them back from following the grey flight Of doves between the temple-columns. Dear, Be kinder with me. Let us two be friends. I'm a mere woman–the more weak perhaps Through being so proud; you're better; as for him, He's best. Indeed he builds his goodness up So high, it topples down to the other side, And makes a sort of badness; there's the worst I have to say against your cousin's best! And so be mild, Aurora, with my worst, For his sake, if not mine.' 'I own myself Incredulous of confidence like this Availing him or you.' 'I, worthy of him? In your sense I am not so–let it pass. And yet I save him if I marry him; Let that pass too.' 'Pass, pass, we play police Upon my cousin's life, to indicate What may or may not pass?' I cried. 'He knows what's worthy of him; the choice remains with him; And what he chooses, act or wife, I think I shall not call unworthy, I, for one.' 'Tis somewhat rashly said,' she answered slow. Now let's talk reason, though we talk of love. Your cousin Romney Leigh's a monster! there, The word's out fairly; let me prove the fact. We'll take, say, that most perfect of antiques, They call the Genius of the Vatican, Which seems too beauteous to endure itself In this mixed world, and fasten it for once Upon the torso of the Drunken Fawn, (Who might limp surely, if he did not dance,) Instead of Buonarroti's mask: what then? We show the sort of monster Romney is, With god-like virtue and heroic aims Subjoined to limping possibilities Of mismade human nature. Grant the man Twice godlike, twice heroic,–still he limps, And here's the point we come to.' 'Pardon me, But, Lady Waldemar, the point's the thing We never come to.' 'Caustic, insolent At need! I like you'–(there, she took my hands) 'And now my lioness, help Androcles, For all your roaring. Help me! for myself I would not say so–but for him. He limps So certainly, he'll fall into the pit A week hence,–so I lose him–so he is lost! And when he's fairly married, he a Leigh, To a girl of doubtful life, undoubtful birth, Starved out in London, till her coarse-grained hands Are whiter than her morals,–you, for one, May call his choice most worthy.' 'Married! lost! He, . . . Romney!' 'Ah, you're moved at last,' she said. 'These monsters, set out in the open sun, Of course throw monstrous shadows: those who think Awry, will scarce act straightly. Who but he? And who but you can wonder? He has been mad, The whole world knows, since first, a nominal man, He soured the proctors, tried the gownsmen's wits, With equal scorn of triangles and wine, And took no honours, yet was honourable. They'll tell you he lost count of Homer's ships In Melbourne's poor-bills, Ashley's factory bills,– Ignored the Aspasia we all dared to praise, For other women, dear, we could not name Because we're decent. Well, he had some right On his side probably; men always have, Who go absurdly wrong. The living boor Who brews your ale, exceeds in vital worth Dead Caesar who 'stops bungholes' in the cask; And also, to do good is excellent, For persons of his income, even to boors: I sympathise with all such things. But he Went mad upon them . . madder and more mad, From college times to these,–as, going down hill, The faster still, the farther! you must know Your Leigh by heart; he has sown his black young curls With bleaching cares of half a million men Already. If you do not starve, or sin, You're nothing to him. Pay the income-tax, And break your heart upon't . . . he'll scarce be touched; But come upon the parish, qualified For the parish stocks, and Romney will be there To call you brother, sister, or perhaps A tenderer name still. Had I any chance With Mister Leigh, who am Lady Waldemar, And never committed felony?' 'You speak Too bitterly,' I said, 'for the literal truth.' 'The truth is bitter. Here's a man who looks For ever on the ground! you must be low; Or else a pictured ceiling overhead, Good painting thrown away. For me, I've done What women may, (we're somewhat limited, We modest women) but I've done my best. –How men are perjured when they swear our eyes Have meaning in them! they're just blue or brown,– They just can drop their lids a little. In fact, Mine did more, for I read half Fourier through, Proudhon, Considerant, and Louis Blanc With various other of his socialists; And if I had been a fathom less in love, Had cured myself with gaping. As it was, I quoted from them prettily enough, Perhaps, to make them sound half rational To a saner man than he, whene'er we talked, (For which I dodged occasion)–learnt by heart His speeches in the Commons and elsewhere Upon the social question; heaped reports Of wicked women and penitentiaries, On all my tables, with a place for Sue; And gave my name to swell subscription-lists Toward keeping up the sun at nights in heaven, And other possible ends. All things I did, Except the impossible . . such as wearing gowns Provided by the Ten Hours' movement! there, I stopped–we must stop somewhere. He, meanwhile, Unmoved as the Indian tortoise 'neath the world Let all that noise go on upon his back; He would not disconcert or throw me out; 'Twas well to see a woman of my class With such a dawn of conscience. For the heart, Made firewood for his sake, and flaming up To his very face . . he warmed his feet at it: But deigned to let my carriage stop him short In park or street,–he leaning on the door With news of the committee which sate last On pickpockets at suck.' 'You jest–you jest.' 'As martyrs jest, dear (if you read their lives), Upon the axe which kills them. When all's done By me, . . for him–you'll ask him presently The color of my hair–he cannot tell, Or answers 'dark' at random,–while, be sure, He's absolute on the figure, five or ten, Of my last subscription. Is it bearable, And I a woman?' 'Is it reparable, Though I were a man?' 'I know not. That's to prove. But, first, this shameful marriage?' 'Ay?' I cried. 'Then really there's a marriage.' 'Yesterday I held him fast upon it. 'Mister Leigh,' Said I, 'shut up a thing, it makes more noise. 'The boiling town keeps secrets ill; I've known 'Yours since last week. Forgive my knowledge so: 'You feel I'm not the woman of the world 'The world thinks; you have borne with me before 'And used me in your noble work, our work, 'And now you shall not cast me off because 'You're at the difficult point, the join. 'Tis true 'Even if I can scarce admit the cogency 'Of such a marriage . . where you do not love '(Except the class), yet marry and throw your name 'Down to the gutter, for a fire-escape 'To future generation! it's sublime, 'A great example,–a true Genesis 'Of the opening social era. But take heed; 'This virtuous act must have a patent weight, 'Or loses half its virtue. Make it tell, 'Interpret it, and set it in the light, 'And do not muffle it in a winter-cloak 'As a vulgar bit of shame,–as if, at best, 'A Leigh had made a misalliance and blushed 'A Howard should know it.' Then, I pressed him more– 'He would not choose,' I said, 'that even his kin, . . 'Aurora Leigh, even . . should conceive his act 'Less sacrifice, more appetite.' At which He grew so pale, dear, . . to the lips, I knew I had touched him. 'Do you know her,' he inquired, 'My cousin Aurora?' 'Yes,' I said, and lied (But truly we all know you by your books), And so I offered to come straight to you, Explain the subject, justify the cause, And take you with me to Saint Margaret's Court To see this miracle, this Marian Erle, This drover's daughter (she's not pretty, he swears), Upon whose finger, exquisitely pricked By a hundred needles, we're to hang the tie 'Twixt class and class in England,–thus indeed By such a presence, yours and mine, to lift The match up from the doubtful place. At once He thanked me, sighing, . . murmured to himself 'She'll do it perhaps; she's noble,'–thanked me, twice, And promised, as my guerdon, to put off His marriage for a month.' I answered then. 'I understand your drift imperfectly. You wish to lead me to my cousin's betrothed, To touch her hand if worthy, and hold her hand If feeble, thus to justify his match. So be it then. But how this serves your ends, And how the strange confession of your love Serves this, I have to learn–I cannot see.' She knit her restless forehead. 'Then, despite, Aurora, that most radiant morning name, You're dull as any London afternoon. I wanted time,–and gained it,–wanted you, And gain you! You will come and see the girl In whose most prodigal eyes, the lineal pearl And pride of all your lofty race of Leighs Is destined to solution. Authorised By sight and knowledge, then, you'll speak your mind, And prove to Romney, in your brilliant way, He'll wrong the people and posterity (Say such a thing is bad for you and me, And you fail utterly), by concluding thus An execrable marriage. Break it up. Disroot it–peradventure, presently, We'll plant a better fortune in its place. Be good to me, Aurora, scorn me less For saying the thing I should not. Well I know I should not. I have kept, as others have, The iron rule of womanly reserve In lip and life, till now: I wept a week Before I came here.'–Ending, she was pale; The last words, haughtily said, were tremulous. This palfrey pranced in harness, arched her neck, And, only by the foam upon the bit, You saw she champed against it. Then I rose. 'I love love: truth's no cleaner thing than love. I comprehend a love so fiery hot It burns its natural veil of august shame, And stands sublimely in the nude, as chaste As Medicean Venus. But I know, A love that burns through veils will burn through masks And shrivel up treachery. What, love and lie! Nay–go to the opera! your love's curable.' 'I love and lie!' she said–'I lie, forsooth?' And beat her taper foot upon the floor, And smiled against the shoe,–'You're hard, Miss Leigh, Unversed in current phrases.–Bowling-greens Of poets are fresher than the world's highways: Forgive me that I rashly blew the dust Which dims our hedges even, in your eyes, And vexed you so much. You find, probably, No evil in this marriage,–rather good Of innocence, to pastoralise in song: You'll give the bond your signature, perhaps, Beneath the lady's work,–indifferent That Romney chose a wife, could write her name, In witnessing he loved her.' 'Loved!' I cried; 'Who tells you that he wants a wife to love? He gets a horse to use, not love, I think: There's work for wives as well,–and after, straw, When men are liberal. For myself, you err Supposing power in me to break this match. I could not do it, to save Romney's life, And would not, to save mine.' 'You take it so,' She said, 'farewell then. Write your books in peace, As far as may be for some secret stir Now obvious to me,–for, most obviously, In coming hither I mistook the way.' Whereat she touched my hand and bent her head, And floated from me like a silent cloud That leaves the sense of thunder. I drew breath, As hard as in a sick-room. After all, This woman breaks her social system up For love, so counted–the love possible To such,–and lilies are still lilies, pulled By smutty hands, though spotted from their white; And thus she is better, haply, of her kind, Than Romney Leigh, who lives by diagrams, And crosses out the spontaneities Of all his individual, personal life With formal universals. As if man Were set upon a high stool at a desk, To keep God's books for Him, in red and black, And feel by millions! What, if even God Were chiefly God by living out Himself To an individualism of the Infinite, Eterne, intense, profuse,–still throwing up The golden spray of multitudinous worlds In measure to the proclive weight and rush Of his inner nature,–the spontaneous love Still proof and outflow of spontaneous life? Then live, Aurora! Two hours afterward, Within Saint Margaret's Court I stood alone, Close-veiled. A sick child, from an ague-fit, Whose wasted right hand gambled 'gainst his left With an old brass button, in a blot of sun, Jeered weakly at me as I passed across The uneven pavement; while a woman, rouged Upon the angular cheek-bones, kerchief torn, Thin dangling locks, and flat lascivious mouth, Cursed at a window, both ways, in and out, By turns some bed-rid creature and myself,– 'Lie still there, mother! liker the dead dog You'll be to-morrow. What, we pick our way, Fine madam, with those damnable small feet! We cover up our face from doing good, As if it were our purse! What brings you here, My lady? is't to find my gentleman Who visits his tame pigeon in the eaves? Our cholera catch you with its cramps and spasms, And tumble up your good clothes, veil and all, And turn your whiteness dead-blue.' I looked up; I think I could have walked through hell that day, And never flinched. 'The dear Christ comfort you,' I said, 'you must have been most miserable To be so cruel,'–and I emptied out My purse upon the stones: when, as I had cast The last charm in the cauldron, the whole court Went boiling, bubbling up, from all its doors And windows, with a hideous wail of laughs And roar of oaths, and blows perhaps . . I passed Too quickly for distinguishing . . and pushed A little side-door hanging on a hinge, And plunged into the dark, and groped and climbed The long, steep, narrow stair 'twixt broken rail And mildewed wall that let the plaster drop To startle me in the blackness. Still, up, up! So high lived Romney's bride. I paused at last Before a low door in the roof, and knocked; There came an answer like a hurried dove– 'So soon! can that be Mister Leigh? so soon?' And, as I entered, an ineffable face Met mine upon the threshold. 'Oh, not you, Not you!' . . the dropping of the voice implied; 'Then, if not you, for me not any one.' I looked her in the eyes, and held her hands, And said 'I am his cousin,–Romney Leigh's; And here I'm come to see my cousin too.' She touched me with her face and with her voice, This daughter of the people. Such soft flowers From such rough roots? The people, under there, Can sin so, curse so, look so, smell so . . . faugh! Yet have such daughters! Nowise beautiful Was Marian Erle. She was not white nor brown, But could look either, like a mist that changed According to being shone on more or less: The hair, too, ran its opulence of curls In doubt 'twixt dark and bright, nor left you clear To name the color. Too much hair perhaps (I'll name a fault here) for so small a head, Which seemed to droop on that side and on this, As a full-blown rose uneasy with its weight, Though not a breath should trouble it. Again, The dimple in the cheek had better gone With redder, fuller rounds; and somewhat large The mouth was, though the milky little teeth Dissolved it to so infantile a smile! For soon it smiled at me; the eyes smiled too, But 'twas as if remembering they had wept, And knowing they should, some day, weep again. We talked. She told me all her story out, Which I'll re-tell with fuller utterance, As coloured and confirmed in aftertimes By others, and herself too. Marian Erle Was born upon the ledge of Malvern Hill, To eastward, in a hut, built up at night, To evade the landlord's eye, of mud and turf, Still liable, if once he looked that way, To being straight levelled, scattered by his foot, Like any other anthill. Born, I say; God sent her to his world, commissioned right, Her human testimonials fully signed, Not scant in soul–complete in lineaments; But others had to swindle her a place To wail in when she had come. No place for her, By man's law! born an outlaw, was this babe; Her first cry in our strange and strangling air, When cast in spasms out by the shuddering womb, Was wrong against the social code,–forced wrong. What business had the baby to cry there? I tell her story and grow passionate. She, Marian, did not tell it so, but used Meek words that made no wonder of herself For being so sad a creature. 'Mister Leigh Considered truly that such things should change. They will, in heaven–but meantime, on the earth, There's none can like a nettle as a pink, Except himself. We're nettles, some of us, And give offence by the act of springing up; And, if we leave the damp side of the wall, The hoes, of course, are on us.' So she said. Her father earned his life by random jobs Despised by steadier workmen–keeping swine On commons, picking hops, or hurrying on The harvest at wet seasons,–or, at need, Assisting the Welsh drovers, when a drove Of startled horses plunged into the mist Below the mountain-road, and sowed the wind With wandering neighings. In between the gaps Of such irregular work, he drank and slept, And cursed his wife because, the pence being out, She could not buy more drink. At which she turned, (The worm), and beat her baby in revenge For her own broken heart. There's not a crime But takes its proper change out still in crime If once rung on the counter of this world: Let sinners look to it. Yet the outcast child, For whom the very mother's face forewent The mother's special patience, lived and grew; Learnt early to cry low, and walk alone, With that pathetic vacillating roll Of the infant body on the uncertain feet, (The earth being felt unstable ground so soon) At which most women's arms unclose at once With irrepressive instinct. Thus, at three, This poor weaned kid would run off from the fold, This babe would steal off from the mother's chair, And, creeping through the golden walls of gorse, Would find some keyhole toward the secrecy Of Heaven's high blue, and, nestling down, peer out– Oh, not to catch the angels at their games, She had never heard of angels, but to gaze She knew not why, to see she knew not what, A-hungering outward from the barren earth For something like a joy. She liked, she said, To dazzle black her sight against the sky, For then, it seemed, some grand blind Love came down, And groped her out, and clasped her with a kiss; She learnt God that way, and was beat for it Whenever she went home,–yet came again, As surely as the trapped hare, getting free, Returns to his form. This grand blind Love, she said, This skyey father and mother both in one, Instructed her and civilised her more Than even the Sunday-school did afterward, To which a lady sent her to learn books And sit upon a long bench in a row With other children. Well, she laughed sometimes To see them laugh and laugh, and moil their texts; But ofter she was sorrowful with noise, And wondered if their mothers beat them hard That ever they should laugh so. There was one She loved indeed,–Rose Bell, a seven years' child, So pretty and clever, who read syllables When Marian was at letters; she would laugh At nothing–hold your finger up, she laughed, Then shook her curls down on her eyes and mouth To hide her make-mirth from the schoolmaster. And Rose's pelting glee, as frank as rain On cherry-blossoms, brightened Marian too, To see another merry whom she loved. She whispered once (the children side by side, With mutual arms entwined about their necks) 'Your mother lets you laugh so?' 'Ay,' said Rose, 'She lets me. She was dug into the ground Six years since, I being but a yearling wean. Such mothers let us play and lose our time, And never scold nor beat us! Don't you wish You had one like that?' There, Marian, breaking off Looked suddenly in my face. 'Poor Rose,' said she, 'I heard her laugh last night in Oxford Street. I'd pour out half my blood to stop that laugh,– Poor Rose, poor Rose!' said Marian. She resumed. It tried her, when she had learnt at Sunday-school What God was, what he wanted from us all, And how, in choosing sin, we vexed the Christ, To go straight home and hear her father pull The name down on us from the thunder-shelf, Then drink away his soul into the dark From seeing judgment. Father, mother, home, Were God and heaven reversed to her: the more She knew of Right, the more she guessed their wrong: Her price paid down for knowledge, was to know The vileness of her kindred: through her heart, Her filial and tormented heart, henceforth They struck their blows at virtue. Oh, 'tis hard To learn you have a father up in heaven By a gathering certain sense of being, on earth, Still worse than orphaned: 'tis too heavy a grief, The having to thank God for such a joy! And so passed Marian's life from year to year. Her parents took her with them when they tramped, Dodged lanes and heaths, frequented towns and fairs, And once went farther and saw Manchester, And once the sea, that blue end of the world, That fair scroll-finis of a wicked book,– And twice a prison, back at intervals, Returning to the hills. Hills draw like heaven, And stronger sometimes, holding out their hands To pull you from the vile flats up to them; And though, perhaps, these strollers still strolled back, As sheep do, simply that they knew the way, They certainly felt bettered unawares Emerging from the social smut of towns To wipe their feet clean on the mountain turf. In which long wanderings, Marian lived and learned, Endured and learned. The people on the roads Would stop and ask her how her eyes outgrew Her cheeks, and if she meant to lodge the birds In all that hair; and then they lifted her, The miller in his cart, a mile or twain, The butcher's boy on horseback. Often, too, The pedlar stopped, and tapped her on the head With absolute forefinger, brown and ringed, And asked if peradventure she could read: And when she answered 'ay,' would toss her down Some stray odd volume from his heavy pack, A Thomson's Seasons, mulcted of the Spring, Or half a play of Shakespeare's, torn across: (She had to guess the bottom of a page By just the top sometimes,–as difficult, As, sitting on the moon, to guess the earth!), Or else a sheaf of leaves (for that small Ruth's Small gleanings) torn out from the heart of books, From Churchyard Elegies and Edens Lost, From Burns, and Bunyan, Selkirk, and Tom Jones. 'Twas somewhat hard to keep the things distinct, And oft the jangling influence jarred the child Like looking at a sunset full of grace Through a pothouse window while the drunken oaths Went on behind her; but she weeded out Her book-leaves, threw away the leaves that hurt, (First tore them small, that none should find a word), And made a nosegay of the sweet and good To fold within her breast, and pore upon At broken moments of the noontide glare, When leave was given her to untie her cloak And rest upon the dusty roadside bank From the highway's dust. Or oft, the journey done, Some city friend would lead her by the hand To hear a lecture at an institute. And thus she had grown, this Marian Erle of ours, To no book-learning,–she was ignorant Of authors,–not in earshot of the things Out-spoken o'er the heads of common men, By men who are uncommon,–but within The cadenced hum of such, and capable Of catching from the fringes of the wind Some fragmentary phrases, here and there, Of that fine music,–which, being carried in To her soul, had reproduced itself afresh In finer motions of the lips and lids. She said, in speaking of it, 'If a flower Were thrown you out of heaven at intervals, You'd soon attain to a trick of looking up,– And so with her.' She counted me her years, Till I felt old; and then she counted me Her sorrowful pleasures, till I felt ashamed. She told me she was almost glad and calm On such and such a season; sate and sewed, With no one to break up her crystal thoughts: While rhymes from lovely poems span around Their ringing circles of ecstatic tune, Beneath the moistened finger of the Hour. Her parents called her a strange, sickly child, Not good for much, and given to sulk and stare, And smile into the hedges and the clouds, And tremble if one shook her from her fit By any blow, or word even. Out-door jobs Went ill with her; and household quiet work She was not born to. Had they kept the north, They might have had their pennyworth out of her Like other parents, in the factories; (Your children work for you, not you for them, Or else they better had been choked with air The first breath drawn;) but, in this tramping life, Was nothing to be done with such a child, But tramp and tramp. And yet she knitted hose Not ill, and was not dull at needlework; And all the country people gave her pence For darning stockings past their natural age, And patching petticoats from old to new, And other light work done for thrifty wives. One day, said Marian–the sun shone that day– Her mother had been badly beat, and felt The bruises sore about her wretched soul (That must have been): she came in suddenly, And snatching, in a sort of breathless rage, Her daughter's headgear comb, let down the hair Upon her, like a sudden waterfall, Then drew her drenched and passive, by the arm, Outside the hut they lived in. When the child Could clear her blinded face from all that stream Of tresses . . there, a man stood, with beasts' eyes That seemed as they would swallow her alive, Complete in body and spirit, hair and all,– With burning stertorous breath that hurt her cheek, He breathed so near. The mother held her tight, Saying hard between her teeth–'Why wench, why wench, The squire speaks to you now–the squire's too good, He means to set you up and comfort us. Be mannerly at least.' The child turned round And looked up piteous in the mother's face (Be sure that mother's death-bed will not want Another devil to damn, than such a look), 'Oh, mother!' then, with desperate glance to heaven, 'Good, free me from my mother,' she shrieked out, 'These mothers are too dreadful.' And, with force As passionate as fear, she tore her hands, Like lilies from the rocks, from hers and his, And sprang down, bounded headlong down the steep, Away from both–away, if possible, As far as God,–away! They yelled at her, As famished hounds at a hare. She heard them yell; She felt her name hiss after her from the hills, Like shot from guns. On, on. And now she had cast The voices off with the uplands. On. Mad fear Was running in her feet and killing the ground; The white roads curled as if she burnt them up, The green fields melted, wayside trees fell back To make room for her. Then her head grew vexed; Trees, fields, turned on her and ran after her; She heard the quick pants of the hills behind, Their keen air pricked her neck. She had lost her feet, Could run no more, yet somehow went as fast,– The horizon, red, 'twixt steeples in the east So sucked her forward, forward, while her heart Kept swelling, swelling, till it swelled so big It seemed to fill her body; then it burst, And overflowed the world and swamped the light, 'And now I am dead and safe,' thought Marian Erle– She had dropped, she had fainted. When the sense returned, The night had passed–not life's night. She was 'ware Of heavy tumbling motions, creaking wheels, The driver shouting to the lazy team That swung their rankling bells against her brain, While, through the waggon's coverture and chinks, The cruel yellow morning pecked at her Alive or dead, upon the straw inside,– At which her soul ached back into the dark And prayed, 'no more of that.' A waggoner Had found her in a ditch beneath the moon, As white as moonshine, save for the oozing blood. At first he thought her dead; but when he had wiped The mouth and heard it sigh, he raised her up, And laid her in his waggon in the straw, And so conveyed her to the distant town To which his business called himself, and left That heap of misery at the hospital. She stirred;–the place seemed new and strange as death. The white strait bed, with others strait and white, Like graves dug side by side, at measured lengths, And quiet people walking in and out With wonderful low voices and soft steps, And apparitional equal care for each, Astonished her with order, silence, law: And when a gentle hand held out a cup, She took it, as you do at sacrament, Half awed, half melted,–not being used, indeed, To so much love as makes the form of love And courtesy of manners. Delicate drinks And rare white bread, to which some dying eyes Were turned in observation. O my God, How sick we must be, ere we make men just! I think it frets the saints in heaven to see How many Desolate creatures on the earth Have learnt the simple dues of fellowship And social comfort, in a hospital, As Marian did. She lay there, stunned, half tranced, And wished, at intervals of growing sense, She might be sicker yet, if sickness made The world so marvellous kind, the air so hushed, And all her wake-time quiet as a sleep; For now she understood, (as such things were) How sickness ended very oft in heaven, Among the unspoken raptures. Yet more sick, And surelier happy. Then she dropped her lids, And, folding up her hands as flowers at night, Would lose no moment of the blessed time. She lay and seethed in fever many weeks; But youth was strong and overcame the test; Revolted soul and flesh were reconciled And fetched back to the necessary day And daylight duties. She could creep about The long bare rooms, and stare out drearily From any narrow window on the street, Till some one, who had nursed her as a friend, Said coldly to her, as an enemy, 'She had leave to go next week, being well enough,' While only her heart ached. 'Go next week,' thought she, 'Next week! how would it be with her next week, Let out into that terrible street alone Among the pushing people, . . to go . . where?' One day, the last before the dreaded last, Among the convalescents, like herself Prepared to go next morning, she sate dumb, And heard half absently the women talk, How one was famished for her baby's cheeks– 'The little wretch would know her! a year old, And lively, like his father!' one was keen To get to work, and fill some clamorous mouths; And one was tender for her dear goodman Who had missed her sorely,–and one, querulous . . 'Would pay those scandalous neighbours who had dared To talk about her as already dead,'– And one was proud . . 'and if her sweetheart Luke Had left her for a ruddier face than hers, (The gossip would be seen through at a glance) Sweet riddance of such sweethearts–let him hang! 'Twere good to have been as sick for such an end.' And while they talked, and Marian felt the worse For having missed the worst of all their wrongs, A visitor was ushered through the wards And paused among the talkers. 'When he looked, It was as if he spoke, and when he spoke He sang perhaps,' said Marian; 'could she tell? She only knew' (so much she had chronicled, As seraphs might, the making of the sun) 'That he who came and spake was Romney Leigh, And then, and there, she saw and heard him first.' And when it was her turn to have the face Upon her,–all those buzzing pallid lips Being satisfied with comfort–when he changed To Marian, saying, 'And you? You're going, where?'– She, moveless as a worm beneath a stone Which some one's stumbling foot has spurned aside, Writhed suddenly, astonished with the light, And breaking into sobs cried, 'Where I go? None asked me till this moment. Can I say Where I go? When it has not seemed worth while To God himself, who thinks of every one, To think of me, and fix where I shall go?' 'So young,' he gently asked her, 'you have lost Your father and your mother?' 'Both' she said, 'Both lost! My father was burnt up with gin Or ever I sucked milk, and so is lost. My mother sold me to a man last month, And so my mother's lost, 'tis manifest. And I, who fled from her for miles and miles, As if I had caught sight of the fires of hell Through some wild gap, (she was my mother, sir) It seems I shall be lost too, presently, And so we end, all three of us.' 'Poor child!' He said,–with such a pity in his voice, It soothed her more than her own tears,–'poor child! 'Tis simple that betrayal by mother's love Should bring despair of God's too. Yet be taught He's better to us than many mothers are, And children cannot wander beyond reach Of the sweep of his white raiment. Touch and hold' And if you weep still, weep where John was laid While Jesus loved him.' 'She could say the words,' She told me, 'exactly as he uttered them A year back, . . since in any doubt or dark, They came out like the stars, and shone on her With just their comfort. Common words, perhaps; The ministers in church might say the same; But he, he made the church with what he spoke,– The difference was the miracle,' said she. Then catching up her smile to ravishment, She added quickly, 'I repeat his words, But not his tones: can any one repeat The music of an organ, out of church? And when he said 'poor child,' I shut my eyes To feel how tenderly his voice broke through, As the ointment-box broke on the Holy feet To let out the rich medicative nard.' She told me how he had raised and rescued her With reverent pity, as, in touching grief, He touched the wounds of Christ,–and made her feel More self-respecting. Hope, he called, belief In God,–work, worship . . therefore let us pray! And thus, to snatch her soul from atheism, And keep it stainless from her mother's face, He sent her to a famous sempstress-house Far off in London, there to work and hope. With that they parted. She kept sight of Heaven, But not of Romney. He had good to do To others: through the days and through the nights, She sewed and sewed and sewed. She drooped sometimes, And wondered, while, along the tawny light, She struck the new thread into her needle's eye, How people without mothers on the hills, Could choose the town to live in!–then she drew The stitch, and mused how Romney's face would look, And if 'twere likely he'd remember hers, When they two had their meeting after death.
Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's other poems:
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