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Poem by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning
Aurora Leigh. Seventh Book
'THE woman's motive? shall we daub ourselves With finding roots for nettles? 'tis soft clay And easily explored. She had the means, The moneys, by the lady's liberal grace, In trust for that Australian scheme and me, Which so, that she might clutch with both her hands, And chink to her naughty uses undisturbed, She served me (after all it was not strange,; 'Twas only what my mother would have done) A motherly, unmerciful, good turn. 'Well, after. There are nettles everywhere, But smooth green grasses are more common still; The blue of heaven is larger than the cloud; A miller's wife at Clichy took me in And spent her pity on me,–made me calm And merely very reasonably sad. She found me a servant's place in Paris where I tried to take the cast-off life again, And stood as quiet as a beaten ass Who, having fallen through overloads, stands up To let them charge him with another pack. 'A few months, so. My mistress, young and light, Was easy with me, less for kindness than Because she led, herself, an easy time Betwixt her lover and her looking-glass, Scarce knowing which way she was praised the most. She felt so pretty and so pleased all day She could not take the trouble to be cross, But sometimes, as I stooped to tie her shoe, Would tap me softly with her slender foot Still restless with the last night's dancing in't, And say 'Fie, pale-face! are you English girls 'All grave and silent? mass-book still, and Lent? 'And first-communion colours on your cheeks, 'Worn past the time for't? little fool, be gay!' At which she vanished, like a fairy, through A gap of silver laughter. 'Came an hour When all went otherwise. She did not speak, But clenched her brows, and clipped me with her eyes As if a viper with a pair of tongs, Too far for any touch, yet near enough To view the writhing creature,–then at last, 'Stand still there, in the holy Virgin's name, 'Thou Marian; thou'rt no reputable girl, 'Although sufficient dull for twenty saints! 'I think thou mock'st me and my house,' she said; 'Confess thou'lt be a mother in a month, 'Thou mask of saintship.' 'Could I answer her? The light broke in so. It meant that then, that? I had not thought of that, in all my thoughts, Through all the cold, dumb aching of my brow, Through all the heaving of impatient life Which threw me on death at intervals, through all The upbreak of the fountains of my heart The rains had swelled too large: it could mean that? Did God make mothers out of victims, then, And set such pure amens to hideous deeds? Why not? He overblows an ugly grave With violets which blossom in the spring. And I could be a mother in a month! I hope it was not wicked to be glad. I lifted up my voice and wept, and laughed, To heaven, not her, until I tore my throat. 'Confess, confess!' what was there to confess, Except man's cruelty, except my wrong? Except this anguish, or this ecstasy? This shame, or glory? The light woman there Was small to take it in: an acorn-cup Would take the sea in sooner. ''Good,' she cried; 'Unmarried and a mother, and she laughs! 'These unchaste girls are always impudent. 'Get out, intriguer! leave my house, and trot: 'I wonder you should look me in the face, 'With such a filthy secret.' 'Then I rolled My scanty bundle up, and went my way, Washed white with weeping, shuddering head and foot With blind hysteric passion, staggering forth Beyond those doors, 'Twas natural, of course, She should not ask me where I meant to sleep; I might sleep well beneath the heavy Seine, Like others of my sort; the bed was laid For us. By any woman, womanly, Had thought of him who should be in a month, The sinless babe that should be in a month, And if by chance he might be warmer housed Than underneath such dreary, dripping eaves.' I broke on Marian there. 'Yet she herself, A wife, I think, had scandals of her own, A lover, not her husband.' 'Ay,' she said 'But gold and meal are measured otherwise; I learnt so much at school,' said Marian Erle. 'O crooked world,' I cried, 'ridiculous If not so lamentable! It's the way With these light women of a thrifty vice, My Marian,–always hard upon the rent In any sister's virtue! while they keep Their chastity so darned with perfidy, That, though a rag itself, it looks as well Across a street, in balcony or coach, As any stronger stuff might. For my part, I'd rather take the wind-side of the stews Than touch such women with my finger-end They top the poor street-walker by their lie, And look the better for being so much worse The devil's most devilish when respectable. But you, dear, and your story.' 'All the rest Is here,' she said, and sighed upon the child. 'I found a mistress-sempstress who was kind And let me sew in peace among her girls; And what was better than to draw the threads All day and half the night, for him, and him? And so I lived for him, and so he lives, And so I know, by this time, God lives too.' She smiled beyond the sun, and ended so, And all my soul rose up to take her part Against the world's successes, virtues, fames. 'Come with me, sweetest sister,' I returned, 'And sit within my house, and do me good From henceforth, thou and thine! ye are my own From henceforth. I am lonely in the world, And thou art lonely, and the child is half An orphan. Come, and, henceforth, thou and I Being still together, will not miss a friend, Nor he a father, since two mothers shall Make that up to him. I am journeying south, And, in my Tuscan home I'll find a niche, And set thee there, my saint, the child and thee, And burn the lights of love before thy face, And ever at thy sweet look cross myself From mixing with the world's prosperities; That so, in gravity and holy calm, We too may live on toward the truer life.' She looked me in the face and answered not, Nor signed she was unworthy, nor gave thanks, But took the sleeping child and held it out To meet my kiss, as if requiting me And trusting me at once. And thus, at once, I carried him and her to where I lived; She's there now, in the little room, asleep, I hear the soft child-breathing through the door; And all three of us, at to-morrow's break, Pass onward, homeward, to our Italy. Oh, Romney Leigh, I have your debts to pay, And I'll be just and pay them. But yourself! To pay your debts is scarcely difficult; To buy your life is nearly impossible, Being sold away to Lamia. My head aches; I cannot see my road along this dark; Nor can I creep and grope, as fits the dark, For these foot-catching robes of womanhood: A man might walk a little . . but I!–He loves The Lamia-woman,–and I, write to him What stops his marriage, and destroys his peace,– Or what, perhaps, shall simply trouble him, Until she only need to touch his sleeve With just a finger's tremulous white flame, Saying, 'Ah,–Aurora Leigh! a pretty tale, 'A very pretty poet! I can guess 'The motive'–then, to catch his eyes in hers, And vow she does not wonder,–and they two To break in laughter, as the sea along A melancholy coast, and float up higher, In such a laugh, their fatal weeds of love! Ay, fatal, ay. And who shall answer me, Fate has not hurried tides; and if to-night My letter would not be a night too late,– An arrow shot into a man that's dead, To prove a vain intention? Would I show The new wife vile, to make the husband mad? No, Lamia! shut the shutters, bar the doors From every glimmer on they serpent-skin! I will not let thy hideous secret out To agonise the man I love–I mean The friend I love . . as friends love. It is strange, To-day while Marian told her story, like To absorb most listeners, how I listened chief To a voice not hers, nor yet that enemy's, Nor God's in wrath, . . but one that mixed with mine Long years ago, among the garden-trees, And said to me, to me too, 'Be my wife, Aurora!' It is strange, with what a swell Of yearning passion, as a snow of ghosts Might beat against the impervious doors of heaven, I thought, 'Now, if I had been a woman, such As God made women, to save men by love,– By just my love I might have saved this man, And made a nobler poem for the world Than all I have failed in.' But I failed besides In this; and now he's lost! through me alone! And, by my only fault, his empty house Sucks in, at this same hour, a wind from hell To keep his hearth cold, make his casements creak For ever to the tune of plague and sin– O Romney, O my Romney, O my friend! My cousin and friend! my helper, when I would, My love that might be! mine! Why, how one weeps When one's too weary! Were a witness by, He'd say some folly . . that I loved the man, Who knows? . . and make me laugh again for scorn. At strongest, women are as weak in flesh, As men, at weakest, vilest, are in soul: So, hard for women to keep pace with men! As well give up at once, sit down at once. And weep as I do. Tears, tears! why, we weep? 'Tis worth enquiry?–That we've shamed a life, Or lost a love, or missed a world, perhaps? By no means. Simply, that we've walked too far, Or talked too much, or felt the wind i' the east,– And so we weep, as if both body and soul Broke up in water–this way. Poor mixed rags Forsooth we're made of, like those other dolls That lean with pretty faces into fairs. It seems as if I had a man in me, Despising such a woman. Yet indeed. To see a wrong or suffering moves us all To undo it, though we should undo ourselves; Ay, all the more, that we undo ourselves; That's womanly, past doubt, and not ill-moved. A natural movement, therefore, on my part, To fill the chair up of my cousin's wife, And save him from a devil's company! We're all so,–made so–'tis our woman's trade To suffer torment for another's ease. The world's male chivalry has perished out, But women are knights-errant to the last; And, if Cervantes had been greater still, He had made his Don a Donna. So it clears, And so we rain our skies blue. Put away This weakness. If, as I have just now said, A man's within me–let him act himself, Ignoring the poor conscious trouble of blood That's called the woman merely. I will write Plain words to England,–if too late, too late,– If ill-accounted, then accounted ill; We'll trust the heavens with something. 'Dear Lord Howe, You'll find a story on another leaf That's Marian Erle's,–what noble friend of yours She trusted once, through what flagitious means To what disastrous ends;–the story's true. I found her wandering on the Paris quays, A babe upon her breast,–unnatural Unseasonable outcast on such snows Unthawed to this time. I will tax in this Your friendship, friend,–if that convicted She Be not his wife yet, to denounce the facts To himself,–but, otherwise, to let them pass On tip-toe like escaping murderers, And tell my cousin, merely–Marian lives, Is found, and finds her home with such a friend, Myself, Aurora. Which good news, 'She's found,' Will help to make him merry in his love: I sent it, tell him, for my marriage gift, As good as orange-water for the nerves, Or perfumed gloves for headaches,–though aware That he, except of love, is scarcely sick; I mean the new love this time, . . since last year. Such quick forgetting on the part of men! Is any shrewder trick upon the cards To enrich them? pray instruct me how it's done. First, clubs,–and while you look at clubs, it's spades; That's prodigy. The lightning strikes a man, And when we think to find him dead and charred . . Why, there he is on a sudden, playing pipes Beneath the splintered elm-tree! Crime and shame And all their hoggery trample your smooth world, Nor leave more foot-marks than Apollo's kine, Whose hoofs were muffled by the thieving god In tamarisk-leaves and myrtle. I'm so sad, So weary and sad to-night, I'm somewhat sour,– Forgive me. To be blue and shrew at once, Exceeds all toleration except yours; But yours, I know, is infinite. Farewell. To-morrow we take train for Italy. Speak gently of me to your gracious wife, As one, however far, shall yet be near In loving wishes to your house.' I sign. And now I'll loose my heart upon a page, This– 'Lady Waldemar, I'm very glad I never liked you; which you knew so well, You spared me, in your turn, to like me much. Your liking surely had done worse for me Than has your loathing, though the last appears Sufficiently unscrupulous to hurt, And not afraid of judgment. Now, there's space Between our faces,–I stand off, as if I judged a stranger's portrait and pronounced Indifferently the type was good or bad: What matter to me that the lines are false, I ask you? Did I ever ink my lips By drawing your name through them as a friend's. Or touch your hands as lovers do? thank God I never did: and, since you're proved so vile, Ay, vile, I say,–we'll show it presently,– I'm not obliged to nurse my friend in you, Or wash out my own blots, in counting yours, Or even excuse myself to honest souls Who seek to touch my lip or clasp my palm,– 'Alas, but Lady Waldemar came first!' 'Tis true, by this time, you may near me so That you're my cousin's wife. You've gambled As Lucifer, and won the morning-star In that case,–and the noble house of Leigh Must henceforth with its good roof shelter you: I cannot speak and burn you up between Those rafters, I who am born a Leigh,–nor speak And pierce your breast through Romney's, I who live His friend and cousin!–so, you are safe. You two Must grow together like the tares and wheat Till God's great fire.–But make the best of time. 'And hide this letter! let it speak no more Than I shall, how you tricked poor Marian Erle, And set her own love digging her own grave Within her green hope's pretty garden-ground; Ay, sent her forth with some of your sort To a wicked house in France,–from which she fled With curses in her eyes and ears and throat, Her whole soul choked with curses,–mad, in short, And madly scouring up and down for weeks The foreign hedgeless country, lone and lost,– So innocent, male-fiends might slink within Remote hell-corners, seeing her so defiled! 'But you,–you are a woman and more bold. To do you justice, you'd not shrink to face . . We'll say, the unfledged life in the other room, Which, treading down God's corn, you trod in sight Of all the dogs, in reach of all the guns,– Ay, Marian's babe, her poor unfathered child, Her yearling babe!–you'd face him when he wakes And opens up his wonderful blue eyes: You'd meet them and not wink perhaps, nor fear God's triumph in them and supreme revenge, So, righting His creation's balance-scale (You pulled as low as Tophet) to the top Of most celestial innocence! For me Who am not as bold, I own those infant eyes Have set me praying. 'While they look at heaven, No need of protestation in my words Against the place you've made them! let them look! They'll do your business with the heavens, be sure: I spare you common curses. 'Ponder this. If haply you're the wife of Romney Leigh, (For which inheritance beyond your birth You sold that poisonous porridge called your soul) I charge you, be his faithful and true wife! Keep warm his hearth and clean his board, and, when He speaks, be quick with your obedience; Still grind your paltry wants and low desires To dust beneath his heel; though, even thus, The ground must hurt him,–it was writ of old, 'Ye shall not yoke together ox and ass,' The nobler and ignobler. Ay, but you Shall do your part as well as such ill things Can do aught good. You shall not vex him,–mark, You shall not vex him, . .jar him when he's sad, Or cross him when he's eager. Understand To trick him with apparent sympathies, Nor let him see thee in the face too near And unlearn thy sweet seeming. Pay the price Of lies, by being constrained to lie on still; 'Tis easy for they sort: a million more Will scarcely damn thee deeper. 'Doing which, You are very safe from Marian and myself; We'll breathe as softly as the infant here, And stir no dangerous embers. Fail a point, And show our Romney wounded, ill-content, Tormented in his home, . . we open a mouth, And such a noise will follow, the last trump's Will scarcely seem more dreadful, even to you; You'll have no pipers after: Romney will (I know him) push you forth as none of his, All other men declaring it well done; While women, even the worst, your like, will draw Their skirts back, not to brush you in the street; And so I warn you. I'm . . . Aurora Leigh.' The letter written, I felt satisfied. The ashes, smouldering in me, were thrown out By handfuls from me: I had writ my heart And wept my tears, and now was cool and calm; And, going straightway to the neighbouring room, I lifted up the curtains of the bed Where Marian Erle, the babe upon her arm, Both faces leaned together like a pair Of folded innocences, self-complete, Each smiling from the other, smiled and slept. There seemed no sin, no shame, no wrath, no grief. I felt, she too had spoken words that night, But softer certainly, and said to God,– Who laughs in heaven perhaps, that such as I Should make ado for such as she.–'Defiled' I wrote? 'defiled' I thought her? Stoop, Stoop lower, Aurora! get the angels' leave To creep in somewhere, humbly, on your knees, Within this round of sequestration white In which they have wrapt earth's foundlings, heaven's elect! The next day, we took train to Italy And fled on southward in the roar of steam. The marriage-bells of Romney must be loud, To sound so clear through all! I was not well; And truly, though the truth is like a jest, I could not choose but fancy, half the way, I stood alone i' the belfry, fifty bells Of naked iron, mad with merriment, (As one who laughs and cannot stop himself) All clanking at me, in me, over me, Until I shrieked a shriek I could not hear, And swooned with noise,–but still, along my swoon, Was 'ware the baffled changes backward rang, Prepared, at each emerging sense, to beat And crash it out with clangour. I was weak; I struggled for the posture of my soul In upright consciousness of place and time, But evermore, 'twixt waking and asleep, Slipped somehow, staggered, caught at Marian's eyes A moment, (it is very good for strength To know that some one needs you to be strong) And so recovered what I called myself, For that time. I just knew it when we swept Above the old roofs of Dijon. Lyons dropped A spark into the night, half trodden out Unseen. But presently the winding Rhone Washed out the moonlight large along his banks, Which strained their yielding curves out clear and clean To hold it,–shadow of town and castle just blurred Upon the hurrying river. Such an air Blew thence upon the forehead,–half an air And half a water,–that I leaned and looked; Then, turning back on Marian, smiled to mark That she looked only on her child, who slept, His face towards the moon too. So we passed The liberal open country and the close, And shot through tunnels, like a lightning-wedge By great Thor-hammers driven through the rock, Which, quivering through the intestine blackness, splits, And lets it in at once: the train swept in Athrob with effort, trembling with resolve, The fierce denouncing whistle wailing on And dying off smothered in the shuddering dark, While we, self-awed, drew troubled breath, oppressed As other Titans, underneath the pile And nightmare of the mountains. Out, at last, To catch the dawn afloat upon the land! –Hills, slung forth broadly and gauntly everywhere, Not crampt in their foundations, pushing wide Rich outspreads of the vineyards and the corn (As if they entertained i' the name of France) While, down their straining sides, streamed manifest A soil as red as Charlemagne's knightly blood, To consecrate the verdure. Some one said, 'Marseilles!' And lo, the city of Marseilles, With all her ships behind her, and beyond, The scimitar of ever-shining sea, For right-hand use, bared blue against the sky! That night we spent between the purple heaven And purple water: I think Marian slept; But I, as a dog a-watch for his master's foot, Who cannot sleep or eat before he hears, I sate upon the deck and watched all night, And listened through the stars for Italy. Those marriage-bells I spoke of, sounded far, As some child's go-cart in the street beneath To a dying man who will not pass the day, And knows it, holding by a hand he loves. I, too, sate quiet, satisfied with death, Sate silent: I could hear my own soul speak, And had my friend,–for Nature comes sometimes And says, 'I am ambassador for God.' I felt the wind soft from the land of souls; The old miraculous mountains heaved in sight, One straining past another along the shore, The way of grand dull Odyssean ghosts Athirst to drink the cool blue wine of seas And stare on voyagers. Peak pushing peak They stood: I watched beyond that Tyrian belt Of intense sea betwixt them and the ship, Down all their sides the misty olive-woods Dissolving in the weak congenial moon, And still disclosing some brown convent-tower That seems as if it grew from some brown rock,– Or many a little lighted village, dropt Like a fallen star, upon so high a point, You wonder what can keep it in its place From sliding headlong with the waterfalls Which drop and powder all the myrtle-groves With spray of silver. Thus my Italy Was stealing on us. Genoa broke with day; The Doria's long pale palace striking out, From green hills in advance of the white town, A marble finger dominant to ships, Seen glimmering through the uncertain grey of dawn. But then I did not think, 'my Italy,' I thought, 'my father!' O my father's house, Without his presence!–Places are too much Or else too little, for immortal man; Too little, when love's May o'ergrows the ground,– Too much, when that luxuriant wealth of green Is rustling to our ankles in dead leaves. 'Tis only good to be, or here or there, Because we had a dream on such a stone, Or this or that,–but, once being wholly waked, And come back to the stone without the dream, We trip upon't,–alas! and hurt ourselves; Or else it falls on us and grinds us flat, The heaviest grave-stone on this buying earth. –But while I stood and mused, a quiet touch Fell light upon my arm, and, turning round, A pair of moistened eyes convicted mine. 'What, Marian! is the babe astir so soon?' 'He sleeps,' she answered; 'I have crept up thrice, And seen you sitting, standing, still at watch. I thought it did you good till now, but now' . . . 'But now,' I said, 'you leave the child alone.' 'And your're alone,' she answered,–and she looked As if I, too, were something. Sweet the help Of one we have helped! Thanks, Marian, for that help. I found a house, at Florence, on the hill Of Bellosguardo. 'Tis a tower that keeps A post of double-observation o'er The valley of Arno (holding as a hand The outspread city) straight toward Fiesole And Mount Morello and the setting sun,– The Vallombrosan mountains to the right, Which sunrise fills as full as crystal cups Wine-filled, and red to the brim because it's red. No sun could die, nor yet be born, unseen By dwellers at my villa: morn and eve Were magnified before us in the pure Illimitable space and pause of sky, Intense as angels' garments blanched with God, Less blue than radiant. From the outer wall Of the garden, dropped the mystic floating grey Of olive-trees, (with interruptions green From maize and vine) until 'twas caught and torn On that abrupt black line of cypresses Which signed the way to Florence. Beautiful The city lay along the ample vale, Cathedral, tower and palace, piazza and street; The river trailing like a silver cord Through all, and curling loosely, both before And after, over the whole stretch of land Sown whitely up and down its opposite slopes, With farms and villas. Many weeks had passed, No word was granted.–Last, a letter came From Vincent Carrington:–'My Dear Miss Leigh, You've been as silent as a poet should, When any other man is sure to speak. If sick, if vexed, if dumb, a silver-piece Will split a man's tongue,–straight he speaks and says, 'Received that cheque.' But you! . . I send you funds To Paris, and you make no sign at all. Remember I'm responsible and wait A sign of you, Miss Leigh. 'Meantime your book Is eloquent as if you were not dumb; And common critics, ordinarily deaf To such fine meanings, and, like deaf men, loth To seem deaf, answering chance-wise, yes or no, 'It must be,' or 'it must not,' (most pronounced When least convinced) pronounce for once aright: You'd think they really heard,–and so they do . . The burr of three or four who really hear And praise your book aright: Fame's smallest trump Is a great ear-trumpet for the deaf as posts, No other being effective. Fear not, friend; We think, here, you have written a good book, And you, a woman! It was in you–yes, I felt 'twas in you: yet I doubted half If that od-force of German Reichenbach Which still from female finger-tips burns blue, Could strike out, as our masculine white heats, To quicken a man. Forgive me. All my heart Is quick with yours, since, just a fortnight since, I read your book and loved it. 'Will you love My wife, too? Here's my secret, I might keep A month more from you! but I yield it up Because I know you'll write the sooner for't,– Most women (of your height even) counting love Life's only serious business. Who's my wife That shall be in a month? you ask? nor guess? Remember what a pair of topaz eyes You once detected, turned against the wall, That morning, in my London painting-room; The face half-sketched, and slurred; the eyes alone! But you . . you caught them up with yours, and said 'Kate Ward's eyes, surely.'–Now, I own the truth, I had thrown them there to keep them safe from Jove; They would so naughtily find out their way To both the heads of both my Danaës, Where just it made me mad to look at them. Such eyes! I could not paint or think of eyes But those,–and so I flung them into paint And turned them to the wall's care. Ay, but now I've let them out, my Kate's! I've painted her, (I'll change my style, and leave mythologies) The whole sweet face; it looks upon my soul Like a face on water, to beget itself, A half-length portrait, in a hanging cloak Like one you wore once; 'tis a little frayed; I pressed, too, for the nude harmonious arm– But she . . she'd have her way, and have her cloak; She said she could be like you only so, And would not miss the fortune. Ah, my friend, You'll write and say she shall not miss your love Through meeting mine? in faith, she would not change: She has your books by heart, more than my words, And quotes you up against me till I'm pushed Where, three months since, her eyes were! nay, in fact, Nought satisfied her but to make me paint Your last book folded in her dimpled hands, Instead of my brown palette, as I wished, (And, grant me, the presentment had been newer) She'd grant me nothing: I've compounded for The naming of the wedding-day next month, And gladly too. 'Tis pretty, to remark How women can love women of your sort, And tie their hearts with love-knots to your feet, Grow insolent about you against men, And put us down by putting up the lip, As if a man,–there are such, let us own. Who write not ill,–remains a man, poor wretch, While you–! Write far worse than Aurora Leigh, And there'll be women who believe of you (Besides my Kate) that if you walked on sand You would not leave a foot-print. 'Are you put To wonder by my marriage, like poor Leigh? 'Kate Ward!' he said. 'Kate Ward!' he said anew. 'I thought . . .' he said, and stopped,–'I did not think . . .' And then he dropped to silence. 'Ah, he's changed I had not seen him, you're aware, for long, But went of course. I have not touched on this Through all this letter,–conscious of your heart, And writing lightlier for the heavy fact, As clocks are voluble with lead. 'How weak To say I'm sorry. Dear Leigh, dearest Leigh! In those old days of Shropshire,–pardon me,– When he and you fought many a field of gold On what you should do, or you should not do, Make bread of verses, (it just came to that) I thought you'd one day draw a silken peace Through a gold ring. I thought so. Foolishly, The event proved,–for you went more opposite To each other, month by month, and year by year, Until this happened. God knows best, we say, But hoarsely. When the fever took him first, Just after I had writ to you in France, They tell me Lady Waldemar mixed drinks And counted grains, like any salaried nurse, Excepting that she wept too. Then Lord Howe, You're right about Lord Howe! Lord Howe's a trump; And yet, with such in his hand, a man like Leigh May lose, as he does. There's an end to all,– Yes, even this letter, through the second sheet May find you doubtful. Write a word for Kate: Even now she reads my letters like a wife, And if she sees her name, I'll see her smile, And share the luck. So, bless you, friend of two! I will not ask you what your feeling is At Florence with my pictures. I can hear Your heart a-flutter over the snow-hills; And, just to pace the Pitti with you once, I'd give a half-hour of to-morrow's walk With Kate . . I think so. Vincent Carrington.' The noon was hot; the air scorched like the sun, And was shut out. The closed persiani threw Their long-scored shadows on my villa-floor, And interlined the golden atmosphere Straight, still,–across the pictures on the wall The statuette on the console, (of young Love And Psyche made one marble by a kiss) The low couch where I leaned, the table near, The vase of lilies, Marian pulled last night, (Each green leaf and each white leaf ruled in black As if for writing some new text of fate) And the open letter, rested on my knee,– But there, the lines swerved, trembled, though I sate Untroubled . . plainly, . . reading it again And three times. Well, he's married; that is clear. No wonder that he's married, nor much more That Vincent's therefore, 'sorry.' Why, of course, The lady nursed him when he was not well, Mixed drinks,–unless nepenthe was the drink, 'Twas scarce worth telling. But a man in love Will see the whole sex in his mistress' hood, The prettier for its lining of fair rose; Although he catches back, and says at last, 'I'm sorry.' Sorry. Lady Waldemar At prettiest, under the said hood, preserved From such a light as I could hold to her face To flare its ugly wrinkles out to shame,– Is scarce a wife for Romney, as friends judge, Aurora Leigh, or Vincent Carrington,– That's plain. And if he's 'conscious of my heart' . . Perhaps it's natural, though the phrase is strong; (One's apt to use strong phrases, being in love) And even that stuff of 'fields of gold,' 'gold rings,' And what he 'thought,' poor Vincent! what he 'thought,' May never mean enough to ruffle me. –Why, this room stifles. Better burn than choke; Best have air, air, although it comes with fire, Throw open blinds and windows to the noon And take a blister on my brow instead Of this dead weight! best, perfectly be stunned By those insufferable cicale, sick And hoarse with rapture of the summer-heat, That sing like poets, till their hearts break, . . sing Till men say, 'It's too tedious.' Books succeed, And lives fail. Do I feel it so, at last? Kate loves a worn-out cloak for being like mine, While I live self-despised for being myself, And yearn toward some one else, who yearns away From what he is, in his turn. Strain a step For ever, yet gain no step? Are we such, We cannot, with our admirations even, Our tip-toe aspirations, touch a thing That's higher than we? is all a dismal flat, And God alone above each,–as the sun O'er level lagunes, to make them shine and stink,– Laying stress upon us with immediate flame, While we respond with our miasmal fog, And call it mounting higher, because we grow More highly fatal? Tush, Aurora Leigh! You wear your sackcloth looped in Cæsar's way. And brag your failings as mankind's. Be still. There is what's higher in this very world, Than you can live, or catch at. Stand aside, And look at others–instance little Kate! She'll make a perfect wife for Carrington. She always has been looking round the earth For something good and green to alight upon And nestle into, with those soft-winged eyes Subsiding now beneath his manly hand 'Twixt trembling lids of inexpressive joy: I will not scorn her, after all, too much, That so much she should love me. A wise man Can pluck a leaf, and find a lecture in't; And I, too, . . God has made me,–I've a heart That's capable of worship, love, and loss; We say the same of Shakspeare's. I'll be meek, And learn to reverence, even this poor myself. The book, too–pass it. 'A good book,' says he, 'And you a woman,' I had laughed at that, But long since. I'm a woman,–it is true; Alas, and woe to us, when we feel it most! Then, least care have we for the crowns and goals, And compliments on writing our good books. The book has some truth in it, I believe: And truth outlives pain, as the soul does life. I know we talk our Phædons to the end Through all the dismal faces that we make, O'er-wrinkled with dishonouring agony From any mortal drug. I have written truth, And I a woman; feebly, partially, Inaptly in presentation, Romney'll add, Because a woman. For the truth itself, That's neither man's nor woman's, but just God's; None else has reason to be proud of truth: Himself will see it sifted, disenthralled, And kept upon the height and in the light, As far as, and no farther, than 'tis truth; For,–now He has left off calling firmaments And strata, flowers and creatures, very good,– He says it still of truth, which is His own. Truth, so far, in my book;–the truth which draws Through all things upwards; that a twofold world Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things And spiritual,–who separates those two In art, in morals, or the social drift, Tears up the bond of nature and brings death, Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse, Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men, Is wrong, in short, at all points. We divide This apple of life, and cut it through the pips,– The perfect round which fitted Venus' hand Has perished utterly as if we ate Both halves. Without the spiritual, observe, The natural's impossible;–no form, No motion! Without sensuous, spiritual Is inappreciable;–no beauty or power! And in this twofold sphere the twofold man (And still the artist is intensely a man) Holds firmly by the natural, to reach The spiritual beyond it,–fixes still The type with mortal vision, to pierce through, With eyes immortal, to the antetype Some call the ideal,–better called the real, And certain to be called so presently, When things shall have their names. Look long enough On any peasant's face here, coarse and lined. You'll catch Antinous somewhere in that clay, As perfect-featured as he yearns at Rome From marble pale with beauty; then persist, And, if your apprehension's competent, You'll find some fairer angel at his back, As much exceeding him, as he the boor, And pushing him with empyreal disdain For ever out of sight. Ay, Carrington Is glad of such a creed! an artist must, Who paints a tree, a leaf, a common stone With just his hand, and finds it suddenly A-piece with and conterminous to his soul. Why else do these things move him, leaf or stone? The bird's not moved, that pecks at a spring-shoot; Nor yet the horse, before a quarry, a-graze: But man, the two-fold creature, apprehends The two-fold manner, in and outwardly, And nothing in the world comes single to him. A mere itself,–cup, column, or candlestick, All patterns of what shall be in the Mount; The whole temporal show related royally, And build up to eterne significance Through the open arms of God. 'There's nothing great Nor small,' has said a poet of our day, (Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve And not be thrown out by the matin's bell) And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing's small! No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee, But finds some coupling with the spinning stars; No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere; No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim: And,–glancing on my own thin, veined wrist,– In such a little tremour of the blood The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul Doth utter itself distinct. Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries, And daub their natural faces unaware More and more, from the first similitude. Truth so far, in my book! a truth which draws From all things upwards. I, Aurora, still Have felt it hound me through the wastes of life As Jove did Io: and, until that Hand Shall overtake me wholly, and, on my head, Lay down its large, unfluctuating peace, The feverish gad-fly pricks me up and down It must be. Art's the witness of what Is Behind this show. If this world's show were all, Then imitation would be all in Art; There, Jove's hand gripes us!–For we stand here, we. If genuine artists, witnessing for God's Complete, consummate, undivided work: –That not a natural flower can grow on earth, Without a flower upon the spiritual side, Substantial, archetypal, all a-glow With blossoming causes,–not so far away, That we, whose spirit-sense is somewhat cleared, May not catch something of the bloom and breath,– Too vaguely apprehended, though indeed Still apprehended, consciously or not, And still transferred to picture, music, verse, For thrilling audient and beholding souls By signs and touches which are known to souls,– How known, they know not,–why, they cannot find, So straight call out on genius, say, 'A man Produced this,'–when much rather they should say, ''Tis insight, and he saw this.' Thus is Art Self-magnified in magnifying a truth Which, fully recognized, would change the world And shift its morals. If a man could feel, Not one day, in the artist's ecstasy, But every day, feast, fast, or working-day, The spiritual significance burn through The hieroglyphic of material shows, Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings, And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree, And even his very body as a man,– Which now he counts so vile, that all the towns Make offal of their daughters for its use On summer-nights, when God is sad in heaven To think what goes on in his recreant world He made quite other; while that moon he made To shine there, at the first love's covenant, Shines still, convictive as a marriage-ring Before adulterous eyes. How sure it is, That, if we say a true word, instantly We feel 'tis God's, not ours, and pass it on As bread at sacrament, we taste and pass Nor handle for a moment, as indeed We dared to set up any claim to such! And I–my poem;–let my readers talk; I'm closer to it–I can speak as well: I'll say, with Romney, that the book is weak, The range uneven, the points of sight obscure, The music interrupted. Let us go. The end of woman (or of man, I think) Is not a book. Alas, the best of books Is but a word in Art, which soon grows cramped, Stiff, dubious-statured with the weight of years, And drops an accent or digamma down Some cranny of unfathomable time, Beyond the critic's reaching. Art itself, We've called the higher life, still must feel the soul Live past it. For more's felt than is perceived, And more's perceived than can be interpreted, And Love strikes higher with his lambent flame Than Art can pile the faggots. Is it so? When Jove's hand meets us with composing touch, And when, at last, we are hushed and satisfied,– Then, Io does not call it truth, but love? Well, well! my father was an Englishman: My mother's blood in me is not so strong That I should bear this stress of Tuscan noon And keep my wits. The town, there, seems to seethe In this Medæan boil-pot of the sun, And all the patient hills are bubbling round As if a prick would leave them flat. Does heaven Keep far off, not to set us in a blaze? Not so,–let drag your fiery fringes, heaven, And burn us up to quiet! Ah, we know Too much here, not to know what's best for peace; We have too much light here, not to want more fire To purify and end us. We talk, talk, Conclude upon divine philosophies, And get the thanks of men for hopeful books; Whereat we take our own life up, and . . pshaw! Unless we piece it with another's life, (A yard of silk to carry out our lawn) As well suppose my little handkerchief Would cover Samminiato, church and all, If out I threw it past the cypresses, As, in this ragged, narrow life of mine, Contain my own conclusions. But at least We'll shut up the persiani, and sit down, And when my head's done aching, in the cool, Write just a word to Kate and Carrington. May joy be with them! she has chosen well, And he not ill. I should be glad, I think, Except for Romney. Had he married Kate, I surely, surely, should be very glad. This Florence sits upon me easily, With native air and tongue. My graves are calm, And do not too much hurt me. Marian's good, Gentle and loving,–lets me hold the child, Or drags him up the hills to find me flowers And fill those vases, ere I'm quite awake,– The grandiose red tulips, which grow wild, Or else my purple lilies, Dante blew To a larger bubble with his prophet-breath; Or one of those tall flowering reeds which stand In Arno like a sheaf of sceptres, left By some remote dynasty of dead gods, To suck the stream for ages and get green, And blossom wheresoe'er a hand divine Had warmed the place with ichor. Such I've found At early morning, laid across my bed, And woke up pelted with a childish laugh Which even Marian's low precipitous 'hush' Had vainly interposed to put away,– While I, with shut eyes, smile and motion for The dewy kiss that's very sure to come From mouth and cheeks, the whole child's face at once Dissolved on mine,–as if a nosegay burst Its string with the weight of roses overblown, And dropt upon me. Surely I should be glad. The little creature almost loves me now, And calls my name . . 'Alola,' stripping off The r s like thorns, to make it smooth enough To take between his dainty, milk-fed lips, God love him! I should certainly be glad, Except, God help me, that I'm sorrowful, Because of Romney. Romney, Romney! Well, This grows absurd!–too like a tune that runs I' the head, and forces all things in the world, Wind, rain, the creaking gnat or stuttering fly, To sing itself and vex you;–yet perhaps A paltry tune you never fairly liked, Some 'I'd be a butterfly,' or 'C'est l'amour:' We're made so,–not such tyrants to ourselves, We are not slaves to nature. Some of us Are turned, too, overmuch like some poor verse With a trick of ritournelle: the same thing goes And comes back ever. Vincent Carrington Is 'sorry,' and I'm sorry; but he's strong To mount from sorrow to his heaven of love, And when he says at moments, 'Poor, poor Leigh, Who'll never call his own, so true a heart, So fair a face even,'–he must quickly lose The pain of pity in the blush he has made By his very pitying eyes. The snow, for him, Has fallen in May, and finds the whole earth warm, And melts at the first touch of the green grass. But Romney,–he has chosen, after all. I think he had as excellent a sun To see by, as most others, and perhaps Has scarce seen really worse than some of us, When all's said. Let him pass. I'm not too much A woman, not to be a man for once, And bury all my Dead like Alaric, Depositing the treasures of my soul In this drained water-course, and, letting flow The river of life again, with commerce-ships And pleasure-barges, full of silks and songs. Blow winds, and help us. Ah, we mock ourselves With talking of the winds! perhaps as much With other resolutions. How it weighs, This hot, sick air! and how I covet here The Dead's provision on the river's couch, With silver curtains drawn on tinkling rings! Or else their rest in quiet crypts,–laid by From heat and noise!–from those cicale, say, And this more vexing heart-beat. So it is: We covet for the soul, the body's part, To die and rot. Even so, Aurora, ends Our aspiration, who bespoke our place So far in the east. The occidental flats Had fed us fatter, therefore? we have climbed Where herbage ends? we want the beast's part now And tire of the angel's?–Men define a man, The creature who stands front-ward to the stars, The creature who looks inward to himself, The tool-wright, laughing creature. 'Tis enough: We'll say instead, the inconsequent creature, man,– For that's his specialty. What creature else Conceives the circle, and then walks the square? Loves things proved bad, and leaves a thing proved good? You think the bee makes honey half a year, To loathe the comb in winter, and desire The little ant's food rather? But a man– Note men!–they are but women after all, As women are but Auroras!–there are men Born tender, apt to pale at a trodden worm, Who paint for pastime, in their favourite dream, Spruce auto-vestments flowered with crocus-flames: There are, too, who believe in hell, and lie: There are, who waste their souls in working out Life's problem on these sands betwixt two tides, And end,– 'Now give us the beast's part, in death.' Alas, long-suffering and most patient God, Thou need'st be surelier God to bear with us Than even to have made us! thou, aspire, aspire From henceforth for me! thou who hast, thyself, Endured this fleshhood, knowing how, as a soaked And sucking vesture, it would drag us down And choke us in the melancholy Deep, Sustain me, that, with thee, I walk these waves, Resisting!–breathe me upward, thou for me Aspiring, who art the way, the truth, the life,– That no truth henceforth seem indifferent, No way to truth laborious, and no life, Not even this life I live, intolerable! The days went by. I took up the old days With all their Tuscan pleasures, worn and spoiled,– Like some lost book we dropt in the long grass On such a happy summer-afternoon When last we read it with a loving friend, And find in autumn, when the friend is gone, The grass cut short, the weather changed, too late, And stare at, as at something wonderful For sorrow,–thinking how two hands, before, Had held up what is left to only one, And how we smiled when such a vehement nail Impressed the tiny dint here, which presents This verse in fire for ever! Tenderly And mournfully I lived. I knew the birds And insects,–which look fathered by the flowers And emulous of their hues: I recognised The moths, with that great overpoise of wings Which makes a mystery of them how at all They can stop flying: butterflies, that bear Upon their blue wings such red embers round, They seem to scorch the blue air into holes Each flight they take: and fire-flies, that suspire In short soft lapses of transported flame Across the tingling Dark, while overhead The constant and inviolable stars Outburn those lights-of-love: melodious owls, (If music had but one note and was sad, 'Twould sound just so) and all the silent swirl Of bats, that seem to follow in the air Some grand circumference of a shadowy dome To which we are blind: and then, the nightingale Which pluck our heart across a garden-wall, (When walking in the town) and carry it So high into the bowery almond-trees, We tremble and are afraid, and feel as if The golden flood of moonlight unaware Dissolved the pillars of the steady earth And made it less substantial. An I knew The harmless opal snakes, and large-mouthed frogs, (Those noisy vaunters of their shallow streams) And lizards, the green lightnings of the wall, Which, if you sit down still, nor sigh too loud, Will flatter you and take you for a stone, And flash familiarly about your feet With such prodigious eyes in such small heads!– I knew them though they had somewhat dwindled from My childish imagery,–and kept in mind How last I sat among them equally, In fellowship and mateship, as a child Will bear him still toward insect, beast, and bird, Before the Adam in him has foregone All privilege of Eden,–making friends And talk, with such a bird or such a goat, And buying many a two-inch-wide rush-cage To let out the caged cricket on a tree, Saying, 'Oh, my dear grillino, were you cramped And are you happy with the ilex-leaves? And do you love me who have let you go? Say yes in singing, and I'll understand.' But now the creatures all seemed farther off, No longer mine, nor like me; only there, A gulph between us. I could yearn indeed, Like other rich men, for a drop of dew To cool this heat,–a drop of the early dew, The irrecoverable child-innocence (Before the heart took fire and withered life) When childhood might pair equally with birds; But now . . the birds were grown too proud for us! Alas, the very sun forbids the dew. And I, I had come back to an empty nest, Which every bird's too wise for. How I heard My father's step on that deserted ground, His voice along that silence, as he told The names of bird and insect, tree and flower, And all the presentations of the stars Across Valdarno, interposing still 'My child,' 'my child.' When fathers say 'my child,' 'Tis easier to conceive the universe, And life's transitions down the steps of law. I rode once to the little mountain-house As fast as if to find my father there, But, when in sight of't, within fifty yards, I dropped my horse's bridle on his neck And paused upon his flank. The house's front Was cased with lingots of ripe Indian corn In tesselated order, and device Of golden patterns: not a stone of wall Uncovered,–not an inch of room to grow A vine-leaf. The old porch had disappeared; And, in the open doorway, sate a girl At plaiting straws,-her black hair strained away To a scarlet kerchief caught beneath her chin In Tuscan fashion,–her full ebon eyes, Which looked too heavy to be lifted so, Still dropt and lifted toward the mulberry-tree On which the lads were busy with their staves In shout and laughter, stripping all the boughs As bare as winter, of those summer leaves My father had not changed for all the silk In which the ugly silkworms hide themselves. Enough. My horse recoiled before my heart– I turned the rein abruptly. Back we went As fast, to Florence. That was trial enough Of graves. I would not visit, if I could, My father's or my mother's any more, To see if stone-cutter or lichen beat So early in the race, or throw my flowers, Which could not out-smell heaven or sweeten earth. They live too far above, that I should look So far below to find them: let me think That rather they are visiting my grave, This life here, (undeveloped yet to life) And that they drop upon me, now and then, For token or for solace, some small weed Least odorous of the growths of paradise, To spare such pungent scents as kill with joy. My old Assunta, too was dead, was dead– O land of all men's past! for me alone, It would not mix its tenses. I was past, It seemed, like others,–only not in heaven. And, many a Tuscan eve, I wandered down The cypress alley, like a restless ghost That tries its feeble ineffectual breath Upon its own charred funeral-brands put out Too soon,–where, black and stiff, stood up the trees Against the broad vermilion of the skies. Such skies!–all clouds abolished in a sweep Of God's skirt, with a dazzle to ghosts and men, As down I went, saluting on the bridge The hem of such, before 'twas caught away Beyond the peaks of Lucca. Underneath, The river, just escaping from the weight Of that intolerable glory, ran In acquiescent shadow murmurously: And up, beside it, streamed the festa-folk With fellow-murmurs from their feet and fans, (With issimo and ino and sweet poise Of vowels in their pleasant scandalous talk) Returning from the grand-duke's dairy-farm Before the trees grew dangerous at eight, (For, 'trust no tree by moonlight,' Tuscans say) To eat their ice at Doni's tenderly,– Each lovely lady close to a cavalier Who holds her dear fan while she feeds her smile On meditative spoonfuls of vanille, He breathing hot protesting vows of love, Enough to thaw her cream, and scorch his beard. 'Twas little matter. I could pass them by Indifferently, not fearing to be known. No danger of being wrecked upon a friend, And forced to take an iceberg for an isle! The very English, here, must wait to learn To hang the cobweb of their gossip out And catch a fly. I'm happy. It's sublime, This perfect solitude of foreign lands! To be, as if you had not been till then, And were then, simply that you chose to be: To spring up, not be brought forth from the ground, Like grasshoppers at Athens, and skip thrice Before a woman makes a pounce on you And plants you in her hair!–possess yourself, A new world all alive with creatures new, New sun, new moon, new flowers, new people–ah, And be possessed by none of them! No right In one, to call your name, enquire your where, Or what you think of Mister Some-one's book, Or Mister Other's marriage, or decease, Or how's the headache which you had last week, Or why you look so pale still, since it's gone? –Such most surprising riddance of one's life Comes next one's death; it's disembodiment Without the pang. I marvel, people choose To stand stock-still like fakirs, till the moss Grows on them, and they cry out, self-admired, 'How verdant and how virtuous!' Well, I'm glad; Or should be, if grown foreign to myself As surely as to others. Musing so, I walked the narrow unrecognising streets, Where many a palace-front peers gloomily Through stony vizors iron-barred, (prepared Alike, should foe or lover pass that way, For guest or victim) and came wandering out Upon the churches with mild open doors And plaintive wail of vespers, where a few, Those chiefly women, sprinkled round in blots Upon the dusk pavement, knelt and prayed Toward the altar's silver glory. Oft a ray (I liked to sit and watch) would tremble out, Just touch some face more lifted, more in need, Of course a woman's–while I dreamed a tale To fit its fortunes. There was one who looked As if the earth had suddenly grown too large For such a little humpbacked thing as she; The pitiful black kerchief round her neck Sole proof she had had a mother. One, again, Looked sick for love,–seemed praying some soft saint To put more virtue in the new fine scarf She spent a fortnight's meals on, yesterday, That cruel Gigi might return his eyes From Giuliana. There was one, so old, So old, to kneel grew easier than to stand.– So solitary, she accepts at last Our Lady for her gossip, and frets on Against the sinful world which goes its rounds In marrying and being married, just the same As when 'twas almost good and had the right, (Her Gian alive, and she herself eighteen). And yet, now even, if Madonna willed, She'd win a tern in Thursday's lottery, And better all things. Did she dream for nought, That, boiling cabbage for the fast day's soup, It smelt like blessed entrails? such a dream For nought? would sweetest Mary cheat her so, And lose that certain candle, straight and white As any fair grand-duchess in her teens, Which otherwise should flare here in a week? Benigna sis, thou beauteous Queen of heaven! I sate there musing and imagining Such utterance from such faces: poor blind souls That writhed toward heaven along the devil's trail,– Who knows, I thought, but He may stretch his hand And pick them up? 'tis written in the Book, He heareth the young ravens when they cry; And yet they cry for carrion.–O my God,– And we, who make excuses for the rest, We do it in our measure. Then I knelt, And dropped my head upon the pavement too, And prayed, since I was foolish in desire Like other creatures, craving offal-food, That He would stop his ears to what I said, And only listen to the run and beat Of this poor, passionate, helpless blood– And then I lay and spoke not. But He heard in heaven. So many Tuscan evenings passed the same! I could not lose a sunset on the bridge, And would not miss a vigil in the church, And liked to mingle with the out-door crowd So strange and gay and ignorant of my face, For men you know not, are as good as trees. And only once, at the Santissima, I almost chanced upon a man I knew, Sir Blaise Delorme. He saw me certainly, And somewhat hurried, as he crossed himself, The smoothness of the action,–then half bowed, But only half, and merely to my shade, I slipped so quick behind the porphyry plinth, And left him dubious if 'twas really I, Or peradventure Satan's usual trick To keep a mounting saint uncanonised. But I was safe for that time, and he too; The argent angels in the altar-flare Absorbed his soul next moment. The good man! In England we were scare acquaintances, That here in Florence he should keep my thought Beyond the image on his eye, which came And went: and yet his thought disturbed my life. For, after that, I often sate at home On evenings, watching how they fined themselves With gradual conscience to a perfect night, Until a moon, diminished to a curve, Lay out there, like a sickle for His hand Who cometh down at last to reap the earth. At such times, ended seemed my trade of verse; I feared to jingle bells upon my robe Before the four-faced silent cherubim; With God so near me, could I sing of God? I did not write, nor read, nor even think, But sate absorbed amid the quickening glooms, Most like some passive broken lump of salt Dropt in by chance to a bowl of oenomel, To spoil the drink a little, and lose itself, Dissolving slowly, slowly, until lost.
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