Poem Themes •
Random Poem •
The Rating of Poets • The Rating of Poems
Poem by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning
Aurora Leigh. Second Book
TIMES followed one another. Came a morn I stood upon the brink of twenty years, And looked before and after, as I stood Woman and artist,–either incomplete, Both credulous of completion. There I held The whole creation in my little cup, And smiled with thirsty lips before I drank, 'Good health to you and me, sweet neighbour mine And all these peoples.' I was glad, that day; The June was in me, with its multitudes Of nightingales all singing in the dark, And rosebuds reddening where the calyx split. I felt so young, so strong, so sure of God! So glad, I could not choose be very wise! And, old at twenty, was inclined to pull My childhood backward in a childish jest To see the face of't once more, and farewell! In which fantastic mood I bounded forth At early morning,–would not wait so long As even to snatch my bonnet by the strings, But, brushing a green trail across the lawn With my gown in the dew, took will and way Among the acacias of the shrubberies, To fly my fancies in the open air And keep my birthday, till my aunt awoke To stop good dreams. Meanwhile I murmured on, As honeyed bees keep humming to themselves; 'The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned Till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone, And so with me it must be, unless I prove Unworthy of the grand adversity,– And certainly I would not fail so much. What, therefore, if I crown myself to-day In sport, not pride, to learn the feel of it, Before my brows be numb as Dante's own To all the tender pricking of such leaves? Such leaves? what leaves?' I pulled the branches down, To choose from. 'Not the bay! I choose no bay; The fates deny us if we are overbold: Nor myrtle–which means chiefly love; and love Is something awful which one dare not touch So early o' mornings. This verbena strains The point of passionate fragrance; and hard by, This guelder rose, at far too slight a beck Of the wind, will toss about her flower-apples. Ah–there's my choice,–that ivy on the wall, That headlong ivy! not a leaf will grow But thinking of a wreath. Large leaves, smooth leaves, Serrated like my vines, and half as green. I like such ivy; bold to leap a height 'Twas strong to climb! as good to grow on graves As twist about a thyrsus; pretty too, (And that's not ill) when twisted round a comb.' Thus speaking to myself, half singing it, Because some thoughts are fashioned like a bell To ring with once being touched, I drew a wreath Drenched, blinding me with dew, across my brow, And fastening it behind so, . . turning faced . . My public!–Cousin Romney–with a mouth Twice graver than his eyes. I stood there fixed– My arms up, like the caryatid, sole Of some abolished temple, helplessly Persistent in a gesture which derides A former purpose. Yet my blush was flame, As if from flax, not stone. 'Aurora Leigh, The earliest of Aurora's!' Hand stretched out I clasped, as shipwrecked men will clasp a hand, Indifferent to the sort of palm. The tide Had caught me at my pastime, writing down My foolish name too near upon the sea Which drowned me with a blush as foolish. 'You, My cousin!' The smile died out in his eyes And dropped upon his lips, a cold dead weight, For just a moment . . 'Here's a book, I found! No name writ on it–poems, by the form; Some Greek upon the margin,–lady's Greek, Without the accents. Read it? Not a word. I saw at once the thing had witchcraft in't, Whereof the reading calls up dangerous spirits; I rather bring it to the witch.' 'My book! You found it.' . . 'In the hollow by the stream, That beach leans down into–of which you said, The Oread in it has a Naiad's heart And pines for waters.' 'Thank you.' 'Rather you, My cousin! that I have seen you not too much A witch, a poet, scholar, and the rest, To be a woman also.' With a glance The smile rose in his eyes again, and touched The ivy on my forehead, light as air. I answered gravely, 'Poets needs must be Or men or women–more's the pity.' 'Ah, But men, and still less women, happily, Scarce need be poets. Keep to the green wreath, Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles The clean white morning dresses.' 'So you judge! Because I love the beautiful, I must Love pleasure chiefly, and be overcharged For ease and whiteness! Well–you know the world. And only miss your cousin; 'tis not much!– But learn this: I would rather take my part With God's Dead, who afford to walk in white Yet spread His glory, than keep quiet here, And gather up my feet from even a step, For fear to soil my gown in so much dust. I choose to walk at all risks.–Here, if heads That hold a rhythmic thought, must ache perforce, For my part, I choose headaches,–and to-day's My birthday.' 'Dear Aurora, choose instead To cure such. You have balsams.' 'I perceive!– The headache is too noble for my sex. You think the heartache would sound decenter, Since that's the woman's special, proper ache, And altogether tolerable, except To a woman.' Saying which, I loosed my wreath. And, swinging it beside me as I walked, Half petulant, half playful, as we walked, I sent a sidelong look to find his thought,– As falcon set on falconer's finger may, With sidelong head, and startled, braving eye, Which means, 'You'll see–you'll see! I'll soon take flight– You shall not hinder.' He, as shaking out His hand and answering 'Fly then,' did not speak, Except by such a gesture. Silently We paced, until, just coming into sight Of the house-windows, he abruptly caught At one end of the swinging wreath, and said 'Aurora!' There I stopped short, breath and all. 'Aurora, let's be serious, and throw by This game of head and heart. Life means, be sure, Both heart and head,–both active, both complete, And both in earnest. Men and women make The world, as head and heart make human life. Work man, work woman, since there's work to do In this beleaguered earth, for head and heart, And thought can never do the work of love! But work for ends, I mean for uses; not For such sleek fringes (do you call them ends? Still less God's glory) as we sew ourselves Upon the velvet of those baldaquins Held 'twixt us and the sun. That book of yours, I have not read a page of; but I toss A rose up–it falls calyx down, you see! . . The chances are that, being a woman, young, And pure, with such a pair of large, calm eyes, . . You write as well . . and ill . . upon the whole, As other women. If as well, what then? If even a little better, . . still what then? We want the Best in art now, or no art. The time is done for facile settings up Of minnow gods, nymphs here, and tritons there; The polytheists have gone out in God, That unity of Bests. No best, no God!– And so with art, we say. Give art's divine, Direct, indubitable, real as grief,– Or leave us to the grief we grow ourselves Divine by overcoming with mere hope And most prosaic patience. You, you are young As Eve with nature's daybreak on her face; But this same world you are come to, dearest coz, Has done with keeping birthdays, saves her wreaths To hang upon her ruins,–and forgets To rhyme the cry with which she still beats back Those savage, hungry dogs that hunt her down To the empty grave of Christ. The world's hard pressed; The sweat of labour in the early curse Has (turning acrid in six thousand years) Become the sweat of torture. Who has time, An hour's time . . think! . . to sit upon a bank And hear the cymbal tinkle in white hands! When Egypt's slain, I say, let Miriam sing!– Before . . where's Moses?' 'Ah–exactly that Where's Moses?–is a Moses to be found?– You'll sink him vainly in the bulrushes, While I in vain touch cymbals. Yet, concede, Such sounding brass has done some actual good, (The application in a woman's hand, If that were credible, being scarcely spoilt,) In colonising beehives.' 'There it is!– You play beside a death-bed like a child, Yet measure to yourself a prophet's place To teach the living. None of all these things, Can women understand. You generalise, Oh, nothing!–not even grief! Your quick-breathed hearts, So sympathetic to the personal pang, Close on each separate knife-stroke, yielding up A whole life at each wound; incapable Of deepening, widening a large lap of life To hold the world-full woe. The human race To you means, such a child, or such a man, You saw one morning waiting in the cold, Beside that gate, perhaps. You gather up A few such cases, and, when strong, sometimes Will write of factories and of slaves, as if Your father were a negro, and your son A spinner in the mills. All's yours and you,– All, coloured with your blood, or otherwise Just nothing to you. Why, I call you hard To general suffering. Here's the world half blind With intellectual light, half brutalised With civilization, having caught the plague In silks from Tarsus, shrieking east and west Along a thousand railroads, mad with pain And sin too! . . does one woman of you all, (You who weep easily) grow pale to see This tiger shake his cage?–does one of you Stand still from dancing, stop from stringing pearls And pine and die, because of the great sum Of universal anguish?–Show me a tear Wet as Cordelia's, in eyes bright as yours, Because the world is mad? You cannot count, That you should weep for this account, not you! You weep for what you know. A red-haired child Sick in a fever, if you touch him once, Though but so little as with a finger-tip, Will set you weeping! but a million sick . . You could as soon weep for the rule of three, Or compound fractions. Therefore, this same world Uncomprehended by you must remain Uninfluenced by you. Women as you are, Mere women, personal and passionate, You give us doating mothers, and chaste wives. Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints! We get no Christ from you,–and verily We shall not get a poet, in my mind.' 'With which conclusion you conclude' . . 'But this– That you, Aurora, with the large live brow And steady eyelids, cannot condescend To play at art, as children play at swords, To show a pretty spirit, chiefly admired Because true action is impossible. You never can be satisfied with praise Which men give women when they judge a book Not as mere work, but as mere woman's work, Expressing the comparative respect Which means the absolute scorn. 'Oh, excellent! 'What grace! what facile turns! what fluent sweeps! 'What delicate discernment . . almost thought! 'The book does honour to the sex, we hold. 'Among our female authors we make room 'For this fair writer, and congratulate 'The country that produces in these times 'Such women, competent to . . spell.'' 'Stop there!' I answered–burning through his thread of talk With a quick flame of emotion,–'You have read My soul, if not my book, and argue well I would not condescend . . we will not say To such a kind of praise, (a worthless end Is praise of all kinds) but to such a use Of holy art and golden life. I am young, And peradventure weak–you tell me so– Through being a woman. And, for all the rest, Take thanks for justice. I would rather dance At fairs on tight-rope, till the babies dropped Their gingerbread for joy,–than shift the types For tolerable verse, intolerable To men who act and suffer. Better far, Pursue a frivolous trade by serious means, Than a sublime art frivolously.' 'You, Choose nobler work than either, O moist eyes, And hurrying lips, and heaving heart! We are young Aurora, you and I. The world . . look round . . The world, we're come to late, is swollen hard With perished generations and their sins: The civiliser's spade grinds horribly On dead men's bones, and cannot turn up soil That's otherwise than fetid. All success Proves partial failure; all advance implies What's left behind; all triumph, something crushed At the chariot-wheels; all government, some wrong: And rich men make the poor, who curse the rich, Who agonise together, rich and poor, Under and over, in the social spasm And crisis of the ages. Here's an age, That makes its own vocation! here, we have stepped Across the bounds of time! here's nought to see, But just the rich man and just Lazarus, And both in torments; with a mediate gulph, Though not a hint of Abraham's bosom. Who, Being man and human, can stand calmly by And view these things, and never tease his soul For some great cure? No physic for this grief, In all the earth and heavens too?' 'You believe In God, for your part?–ay? That He who makes, Can make good things from ill things, best from worst, As men plant tulips upon dunghills when They wish them finest?' 'True. A death-heat is The same as life-heat, to be accurate; And in all nature is no death at all, As men account of death, as long as God Stands witnessing for life perpetually,' By being just God. That's abstract truth, I know, Philosophy, or sympathy with God: But I, I sympathise with man, not God, I think I was a man for chiefly this; And when I stand beside a dying bed, It's death to me. Observe,–it had not much Consoled the race of mastodons to know Before they went to fossil, that anon Their place should quicken with the elephant They were not elephants but mastodons: And I, a man, as men are now, and not As men may be hereafter, feel with men In the agonising present.' 'Is it so,' I said, 'my cousin? is the world so bad, While I hear nothing of it through the trees? The world was always evil,–but so bad?' 'So bad, Aurora. Dear, my soul is grey With poring over the long sum of ill; So much for vice, so much for discontent, So much for the necessities of power, So much for the connivances of fear,– Coherent in statistical despairs With such a total of distracted life, . . To see it down in figures on a page, Plain, silent, clear . . as God sees through the earth The sense of all the graves! . . . that's terrible For one who is not God, and cannot right The wrong he looks on. May I choose indeed But vow away my years, my means, my aims, Among the helpers, if there's any help In such a social strait? The common blood That swings along my veins, is strong enough To draw me to this duty.' Then I spoke. 'I have not stood long on the strand of life, And these salt waters have had scarcely time To creep so high up as to wet my feet. I cannot judge these tides–I shall, perhaps. A woman's always younger than a man At equal years, because she is disallowed Maturing by the outdoor sun and air, And kept in long-clothes past the age to walk. Ah well, I know you men judge otherwise! You think a woman ripens as a peach,– In the cheeks, chiefly. Pass it to me now; I'm young in age, and younger still, I think, As a woman. But a child may say amen To a bishop's prayer and see the way it goes; And I, incapable to loose the knot Of social questions, can approve, applaud August compassion, christian thoughts that shoot Beyond the vulgar white of personal aims. Accept my reverence.' There he glowed on me With all his face and eyes. 'No other help?' Said he–'no more than so?' 'What help?' I asked. 'You'd scorn my help,–as Nature's self, you say, Has scorned to put her music in my mouth, Because a woman's. Do you now turn round And ask for what a woman cannot give?' 'For what she only can, I turn and ask,' He answered, catching up my hands in his, And dropping on me from his high-eaved brow The full weight of his soul,–'I ask for love, And that, she can; for life in fellowship Through bitter duties–that, I know she can; For wifehood . . will she?' 'Now,' I said, 'may God Be witness 'twixt us two!' and with the word, Meseemed I floated into a sudden light Above his stature,–'am I proved too weak To stand alone, yet strong enough to bear Such leaners on my shoulder? poor to think, Yet rich enough to sympathise with thought? Incompetent to sing, as blackbirds can, Yet competent to love, like HIM?' I paused: Perhaps I darkened, as the lighthouse will That turns upon the sea. 'It's always so! Anything does for a wife.' 'Aurora, dear, And dearly honoured' . . he pressed in at once With eager utterance,–'you translate me ill. I do not contradict my thought of you Which is most reverent, with another thought Found less so. If your sex is weak for art, (And I who said so, did but honour you By using truth in courtship) it is strong For life and duty. Place your fecund heart In mine, and let us blossom for the world That wants love's colour in the grey of time. With all my talk I can but set you where You look down coldly on the arena-heaps Of headless bodies, shapeless, indistinct! The Judgment-Angel scarce would find his way Through such a heap of generalised distress, To the individual man with lips and eyes– Much less Aurora. Ah, my sweet, come down, And, hand in hand, we'll go where yours shall touch These victims, one by one! till one by one, The formless, nameless trunk of every man Shall seem to wear a head, with hair you know, And every woman catch your mother's face To melt you into passion.' 'I am a girl,' I answered slowly; 'you do well to name My mother's face. Though far too early, alas, God's hand did interpose 'twixt it and me, I know so much of love, as used to shine In that face and another. Just so much; No more indeed at all. I have not seen So much love since, I pray you pardon me, As answers even to make a marriage with, In this cold land of England. What you love, Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause: You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir,– A wife to help your ends . . in her no end! Your cause is noble, your ends excellent, But I, being most unworthy of these and that, Do otherwise conceive of love. Farewell.' 'Farewell, Aurora, you reject me thus?' He said. 'Why, sir, you are married long ago. You have a wife already whom you love, Your social theory. Bless you both, I say. For my part, I am scarcely meek enough To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse. Do I look a Hagar, think you?' 'So, you jest!' 'Nay so, I speak in earnest,' I replied. 'You treat of marriage too much like, at least, A chief apostle; you would bear with you A wife . . a sister . . shall we speak it out? A sister of charity.' 'Then, must it be Indeed farewell? And was I so far wrong In hope and in illusion, when I took The woman to be nobler than the man, Yourself the noblest woman,–in the use And comprehension of what love is,–love, That generates the likeness of itself Through all heroic duties? so far wrong In saying bluntly, venturing truth on love, 'Come, human creature, love and work with me,'– Instead of, 'Lady, thou art wondrous fair, 'And, where the Graces walk before, the Muse 'Will follow at the lighting of the eyes, 'And where the Muse walks, lovers need to creep 'Turn round and love me, or I die of love.'' With quiet indignation I broke in. 'You misconceive the question like a man, Who sees a woman as the complement Of his sex merely. You forget too much That every creature, female as the male, Stands single in responsible act and thought As also in birth and death. Whoever says To a loyal woman, 'Love and work with me,' Will get fair answers, if the work and love Being good themselves, are good for her–the best She was born for. Women of a softer mood, Surprised by men when scarcely awake to life, Will sometimes only hear the first word, love, And catch up with it any kind of work, Indifferent, so that dear love go with it: I do not blame such women, though, for love, They pick much oakum; earth's fanatics make Too frequently heaven's saints. But me, your work Is not the best for,–nor your love the best, Nor able to commend the kind of work For love's sake merely. Ah, you force me, sir, To be over-bold in speaking of myself,– I, too, have my vocation,–work to do, The heavens and earth have set me, since I changed My father's face for theirs,–and though your world Were twice as wretched as you represent Most serious work, most necessary work, As any of the economists'. Reform, Make trade a Christian possibility, And individual right no general wrong; Wipe out earth's furrows of the Thine and Mine, And leave one green, for men to play at bowls; With innings for them all! . . what then, indeed, If mortals were not greater by the head Than any of their prosperities? what then, Unless the artist keep up open roads Betwixt the seen and unseen,–bursting through The best of your conventions with his best The unspeakable, imaginable best God bids him speak, to prove what lies beyond Both speech and imagination? A starved man Exceeds a fat beast: we'll not barter, sir, The beautiful for barley.–And, even so, I hold you will not compass your poor ends Of barley-feeding and material ease, Without a poet's individualism To work your universal. It takes a soul, To move a body: it takes a high-souled man, To move the masses . . even to a cleaner stye: It takes the ideal, to blow a hair's breadth off The dust of the actual.–ah, your Fouriers failed, Because not poets enough to understand That life develops from within.–For me, Perhaps I am not worthy, as you say, Of work like this! . . perhaps a woman's soul Aspires, and not creates! yet we aspire, And yet I'll try out your perhapses, sir; And if I fail . . why, burn me up my straw Like other false works–I'll not ask for grace, Your scorn is better, cousin Romney. I Who love my art, would never wish it lower To suit my stature. I may love my art, You'll grant that even a woman may love art, Seeing that to waste true love on anything, Is womanly, past question.' I retain The very last word which I said, that day, As you the creaking of the door, years past, Which let upon you such disabling news You ever after have been graver. He, His eyes, the motions in his silent mouth, Were fiery points on which my words were caught, Transfixed for ever in my memory For his sake, not their own. And yet I know I did not love him . . nor he me . . that's sure . . And what I said, is unrepented of, As truth is always. Yet . . a princely man!– If hard to me, heroic for himself! He bears down on me through the slanting years, The stronger for the distance. If he had loved, Ay, loved me, with that retributive face, . . I might have been a common woman now, And happier, less known and less left alone; Perhaps a better woman after all,– With chubby children hanging on my neck To keep me low and wise. Ah me, the vines That bear such fruit are proud to stoop with it. The palm stands upright in a realm of sand. And I, who spoke the truth then, stand upright, Still worthy of having spoken out the truth, By being content I spoke it, though it set Him there, me here.–O woman's vile remorse, To hanker after a mere name, a show, A supposition, a potential love! Does every man who names love in our lives, Become a power for that? is love's true thing So much best to us, that what personates love Is next best? A potential love, forsooth! We are not so vile. No, no–he cleaves, I think, This man, this image, . . chiefly for the wrong And shock he gave my life, in finding me Precisely where the devil of my youth Had set me, on those mountain-peaks of hope All glittering with the dawn-dew, all erect And famished for the morning,–saying, while I looked for empire and much tribute, 'Come, I have some worthy work for thee below. Come, sweep my barns, and keep my hospitals,– And I will pay thee with a current coin Which men give women.' As we spoke, the grass Was trod in haste beside us, and my aunt, With smile distorted by the sun,–face, voice, As much at issue with the summer-day As if you brought a candle out of doors,– Broke in with, 'Romney, here!–My child, entreat Your cousin to the house, and have your talk, If girls must talk upon their birthdays. Come.' He answered for me calmly, with pale lips That seemed to motion for a smile in vain. 'The talk is ended, madam, where we stand. Your brother's daughter has dismissed me here; And all my answer can be better said Beneath the trees, than wrong by such a word Your house's hospitalities. Farewell.' With that he vanished. I could hear his heel Ring bluntly in the lane, as down he leapt The short way, from us.–Then, a measured speech Withdrew me. 'What means this, Aurora Leigh? My brother's daughter has dismissed my guests?' The lion in me felt the keeper's voice, Through all its quivering dewlaps: I was quelled Before her,–meekened to the child she knew: I prayed her pardon, said, 'I had little thought To give dismissal to a guest of hers, In letting go a friend of mine, who came To take me into service as a wife,– No more than that, indeed.' 'No more, no more? Pray heaven,' she answered, 'that I was not mad. I could not mean to tell her to her face That Romney Leigh had asked me for a wife, And I refused him?' 'Did he ask?' I said; 'I think he rather stooped to take me up For certain uses which he found to do For something called a wife. He never asked.' 'What stuff!' she answered; 'are they queens, these girls? They must have mantles, stitched with twenty silks, Spread out upon the ground, before they'll step One footstep for the noblest lover born.' 'But I am born,' I said with firmness, 'I, To walk another way than his, dear aunt.' 'You walk, you walk! A babe at thirteen months Will walk as well as you,' she cried in haste, 'Without a steadying finger. Why, you child, God help you, you are groping in the dark, For all this sunlight. You suppose, perhaps, That you, sole offspring of an opulent man, Are rich and free to choose a way to walk? You think, and it's a reasonable thought, That I besides, being well to do in life, Will leave my handful in my niece's hand When death shall paralyse these fingers? Pray, Pray, child,–albeit I know you love me not,– As if you loved me, that I may not die! For when I die and leave you, out you go, (Unless I make room for you in my grave) Unhoused, unfed, my dear, poor brother's lamb, (Ah heaven,–that pains!)–without a right to crop A single blade of grass beneath these trees, Or cast a lamb's small shadow on the lawn, Unfed, unfolded! Ah, my brother, here's The fruit you planted in your foreign loves!– Ay, there's the fruit he planted! never look Astonished at me with your mother's eyes, For it was they, who set you where you are, An undowered orphan. Child, your father's choice Of that said mother, disinherited His daughter, his and hers. Men do not think Of sons and daughters, when they fall in love, So much more than of sisters; otherwise, He would have paused to ponder what he did, And shrunk before that clause in the entail Excluding offspring by a foreign wife (The clause set up a hundred years ago By a Leigh who wedded a French dancing-girl And had his heart danced over in return) But this man shrunk at nothing, never thought Of you, Aurora, any more than me– Your mother must have been a pretty thing, For all the coarse Italian blacks and browns, To make a good man, which my brother was, Unchary of the duties to his house; But so it fell indeed. Our cousin Vane, Vane Leigh, the father of this Romney, wrote Directly on your birth, to Italy, 'I ask your baby daughter for my son In whom the entail now merges by the law. Betroth her to us out of love, instead Of colder reasons, and she shall not lose By love or law from henceforth'–so he wrote; A generous cousin, was my cousin Vane. Remember how he drew you to his knee The year you came here, just before he died, And hollowed out his hands to hold your cheeks, And wished them redder,–you remember Vane? And now his son who represents our house And holds the fiefs and manors in his place, To whom reverts my pittance when I die, (Except a few books and a pair of shawls) The boy is generous like him, and prepared To carry out his kindest word and thought To you, Aurora. Yes, a fine young man Is Romney Leigh; although the sun of youth Has shone too straight upon his brain, I know, And fevered him with dreams of doing good To good-for-nothing people. But a wife Will put all right, and stroke his temples cool With healthy touches' . . I broke in at that. I could not lift my heavy heart to breathe Till then, but then I raised it, and it fell In broken words like these–'No need to wait. The dream of doing good to . . me, at least, Is ended, without waiting for a wife To cool the fever for him. We've escaped That danger . . thank Heaven for it.' You,' she cried, 'Have got a fever. What, I talk and talk An hour long to you,–I instruct you how You cannot eat or drink or stand or sit Or even die, like any decent wretch In all this unroofed and unfurnished world, Without your cousin,–and you still maintain There's room 'twixt him and you, for flirting fans And running knots in eyebrows! You must have A pattern lover sighing on his knee: You do not count enough a noble heart, Above book-patterns, which this very morn Unclosed itself, in two dear fathers' names, To embrace your orphaned life! fie, fie! But stay I write a word, and counteract this sin.' She would have turned to leave me, but I clung. 'O sweet my father's sister, hear my word Before you write yours. Cousin Vane did well, And Romney well,–and I well too, In casting back with all my strength and will The good they meant me. O my God, my God! God meant me good, too, when he hindered me From saying 'yes' this morning. If you write A word, it shall be 'no.' I say no, no! I tie up 'no' upon His altar-horns Quite out of reach of perjury! At least My soul is not a pauper; I can live At least my soul's life, without alms from men, And if it must be in heaven instead of earth, Let heaven look to it,–I am not afraid.' She seized my hands with both hers, strained them fast And drew her probing and unscrupulous eyes Right through me, body and heart. 'Yet, foolish Sweet, You love this man. I have watched you when he came And when he went, and when we've talked of him: I am not old for nothing; I can tell The weather-signs of love–you love this man.' Girls blush, sometimes, because they are alive, Half wishing they were dead to save the shame. The sudden blush devours them, neck and brow; They have drawn too near the fire of life, like gnats, And flare up bodily, wings and all. What then? Who's sorry for a gnat . . or girl? I blushed. I feel the brand upon my forehead now Strike hot, sear deep, as guiltless men may feel The felon's iron, say, and scorn the mark Of what they are not. Most illogical Irrational nature of our womanhood, That blushes one way, feels another way, And prays, perhaps, another! After all, We cannot be the equal of the male, Who rules his blood a little. For although I blushed indeed, as if I loved the man, And her incisive smile, accrediting That treason of false witness in my blush, Did bow me downward like a swathe of grass Below its level that struck me,–I attest The conscious skies and all their daily suns, I think I loved him not . . nor then, nor since . . Nor ever. Do we love the schoolmaster, Being busy in the woods? much less, being poor, The overseer of the parish? Do we keep Our love, to pay our debts with? White and cold I grew next moment. As my blood recoiled From that imputed ignominy, I made My heart great with it. Then, at last I spoke,– Spoke veritable words, but passionate, Too passionate perhaps . . ground up with sobs To shapeless endings. She let fall my hands, And took her smile off, in sedate disgust, As peradventure she had touched a snake,– A dead snake, mind!–and, turning round, replied 'We'll leave Italian manners, if you please. I think you had an English father, child, And ought to find it possible to speak A quiet 'yes' or 'no,' like English girls, Without convulsions. In another month We'll take another answer . . no, or yes.' With that she left me in the garden-walk. I had a father! yes, but long ago– How long it seemed that moment!–Oh, how far, How far and safe, God, dost thou keep thy saints When once gone from us! We may call against The lighted windows of thy fair June-heaven Where all the souls are happy,–and not one, Not even my father, look from work or play To ask, 'Who is it that cries after us, Below there, in the dusk?' Yet formerly He turned his face upon me quick enough, If I said 'father.' Now I might cry loud; The little lark reached higher with his song Than I with crying. Oh, alone, alone,– Not troubling any in heaven, nor any on earth, I stood there in the garden, and looked up The deaf blue sky that brings the roses out On such June mornings. You who keep account Of crisis and transition in this life, Set down the first time Nature says plain 'no' To some 'yes' in you, and walks over you In gorgeous sweeps of scorn. We all begin By singing with the birds, and running fast With June-days, hand in hand: but once, for all, The birds must sing against us, and the sun Strike down upon us like a friend's sword caught By an enemy to slay us, while we read The dear name on the blade which bites at us!– That's bitter and convincing: after that We seldom doubt that something in the large Smooth order of creation, though no more Than haply a man's footstep, has gone wrong. Some tears fell down my cheeks, and then I smiled, As those smile who have no face in the world To smile back to them. I had lost a friend In Romney Leigh; the thing was sure–a friend, Who had looked at me most gently now and then, And spoken of my favourite books . . 'our books' . . With such a voice! Well, voice and look were now More utterly shut out from me, I felt, Than even my father's. Romney now was turned To a benefactor, to a generous man, Who had tied himself to marry . . me, instead Of such a woman, with low timorous lids He lifted with a sudden word one day, And left, perhaps, for my sake.–Ah, self-tied By a contract,–male Iphigenia, bound At a fatal Aulis, for the winds to change, (But loose him–they'll not change;) he well might seem A little cold and dominant in love! He had a right to be dogmatical, This poor, good Romney. Love, to him, was made A simple law-clause. If I married him, I would not dare to call my soul my own, Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought And every heart-beat down there in the bill,– Not one found honestly deductible From any use that pleased him! He might cut My body into coins to give away Among his other paupers; change my sons, While I stood dumb as Griseld, for black babes Or piteous foundlings; might unquestioned set My right hand teaching in the Ragged Schools, My left hand washing in the Public Baths, What time my angel of the Ideal stretched Both his to me in vain! I could not claim The poor right of a mouse in a trap, to squeal. And take so much as pity, from myself. Farewell, good Romney! if I loved you even, I could but ill afford to let you be So generous to me. Farewell, friend, since friend Betwixt us two, forsooth, must be a word So heavily overladen. And, since help Must come to me from those who love me not, Farewell, all helpers–I must help myself, And am alone from henceforth.–Then I stooped, And lifted the soiled garland from the ground, And set it on my head as bitterly As when the Spanish king did crown the bones Of his dead love. So be it. I preserve That crown still,–in the drawer there! 'twas the first; The rest are like it;–those Olympian crowns, We run for, till we lose sight of the sun In the dust of the racing chariots! After that, Before the evening fell, I had a note Which ran,–'Aurora, sweet Chaldean, you read My meaning backward like your eastern books, While I am from the west, dear. Read me now A little plainer. Did you hate me quite But yesterday? I loved you for my part; I love you. If I spoke untenderly This morning, my beloved, pardon it; And comprehend me that I loved you so, I set you on the level of my soul, And overwashed you with the bitter brine Of some habitual thoughts. Henceforth, my flower, Be planted out of reach of any such, And lean the side you please, with all your leaves! Write woman's verses and dream woman's dreams; But let me feel your perfume in my home, To make my sabbath after working-days; Bloom out your youth beside me,–be my wife.' I wrote in answer–'We, Chaldeans, discern Still farther than we read. I know your heart And shut it like the holy book it is, Reserved for mild-eyed saints to pore upon Betwixt their prayers at vespers. Well, you're right, I did not surely hate you yesterday; And yet I do not love you enough to-day To wed you, cousin Romney. Take this word, And let it stop you as a generous man From speaking farther. You may tease, indeed, And blow about my feelings, or my leaves,– And here's my aunt will help you with east winds, And break a stalk, perhaps, tormenting me; But certain flowers grow near as deep as trees, And, cousin, you'll not move my root, not you, With all your confluent storms. Then let me grow Within my wayside hedge, and pass your way! This flower has never as much to say to you As the antique tomb which said to travellers, 'Pause, 'Siste, viator.'' Ending thus, I signed. The next week passed in silence, so the next, And several after: Romney did not come, Nor my aunt chide me. I lived on and on, As if my heart were kept beneath a glass, And everybody stood, all eyes and ears, To see and hear it tick. I could not sit, Nor walk, nor take a book, nor lay it down, Nor sew on steadily, nor drop a stitch And a sigh with it, but I felt her looks Still cleaving to me, like the sucking asp To Cleopatra's breast, persistently Through the intermittent pantings. Being observed, When observation is not sympathy, Is just being tortured. If she said a word, A 'thank you,' or an 'if it please you, dear.' She meant a commination, or, at best, An exorcism against the devildom Which plainly held me. So with all the house. Susannah could not stand and twist my hair, Without such glancing at the looking-glass To see my face there, that she missed the plait: And John,–I never sent my plate for soup, Or did not send it, but the foolish John Resolved the problem, 'twixt his napkined thumbs, Of what was signified by taking soup Or choosing mackerel. Neighbours, who dropped in On morning visits, feeling a joint wrong, Smiled admonition, sate uneasily, And talked with measured, emphasised reserve, Of parish news, like doctors to the sick, When not called in,–as if, with leave to speak, They might say something. Nay, the very dog Would watch me from his sun-patch on the floor, In alternation with the large black fly Not yet in reach of snapping. So I lived. A Roman died so: smeared with honey, teased By insects, stared to torture by the noon: And many patient souls 'neath English roofs Have died like Romans. I, in looking back, Wish only, now, I had borne the plague of all With meeker spirits than were rife in Rome. For, on the sixth week, the dead sea broke up, Dashed suddenly through beneath the heel of Him Who stands upon the sea and earth, and swears Time shall be nevermore. The clock struck nine That morning, too,–no lark was out of tune; The hidden farms among the hills, breathed straight Their smoke toward heaven; the lime-trees scarcely stirred Beneath the blue weight of the cloudless sky, Though still the July air came floating through The woodbine at my window, in and out, With touches of the out-door country-news For a bending forehead. There I sate, and wished That morning-truce of God would last till eve, Or longer. 'Sleep,' I thought, 'late sleepers,–sleep, And spare me yet the burden of your eyes.' Then, suddenly, a single ghastly shriek Tore upwards from the bottom of the house. Like one who wakens in a grave and shrieks, The still house seemed to shriek itself alive, And shudder through its passages and stairs With slam of doors and clash of bells.–I sprang, I stood up in the middle of the room, And there confronted at my chamber-door, A white face,–shivering, ineffectual lips. 'Come, come,' they tried to utter, and I went; As if a ghost had drawn me at the point Of a fiery finger through the uneven dark, I went with reeling footsteps down the stair. Nor asked a question. There she sate, my aunt,– Bolt upright in the chair beside her bed, Whose pillow had no dint! she had used no bed For that night's sleeping . . yet slept well. My God The dumb derision of that grey, peaked face Concluded something grave against the sun, Which filled the chamber with its July burst When Susan drew the curtains, ignorant Of who sate open-eyed behind her. There, She sate . . it sate . . we said 'she' yesterday . . And held a letter with unbroken seal, As Susan gave it to her hand last night: All night she had held it. If its news referred To duchies or to dunghills, not an inch She'd budge, 'twas obvious, for such worthless odds: Nor, though the stars were suns, and overburned Their spheric limitations, swallowing up Like wax the azure spaces, could they force Those open eyes to wink once. What last sight Had left them blank and flat so,–drawing out The faculty of vision from the roots, As nothing more, worth seeing, remained behind? Were those the eyes that watched me, worried me? That dogged me up and down the hours and days, A beaten, breathless, miserable soul? And did I pray, a half hour back, but so, To escape the burden of those eyes . . those eyes? 'Sleep late' I said.– Why now, indeed, they sleep. God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers, And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face, A gauntlet with a gift in't. Every wish Is like a prayer . . With God. I had my wish,– To read and meditate the thing I would, To fashion all my life upon my thought, And marry, or not marry. Henceforth, none Could disapprove me, vex me, hamper me. Full ground-room, in this desert newly made, For Babylon or Balbec,–when the breath, Just choked with sand, returns, for building towns! The heir came over on the funeral day, And we two cousins met before the dead, With two pale faces. Was it death or life That moved us? When the will was read and done, The official guest and witnesses withdrawn, We rose up in a silence almost hard, And looked at one another. Then I said, 'Farewell, my cousin.' But he touched, just touched My hatstrings tied for going, (at the door The carriage stood to take me) and said low, His voice a little unsteady through his smile, 'Siste, viator.' 'Is there time,' I asked, 'In these last days of railroads, to stop short Like Cæsar's chariot (weighing half a ton) On the Appian road for morals?' 'There is time,' He answered grave, 'for necessary words, Inclusive, trust me, of no epitaph On man or act, my cousin. We have read A will, which gives you all the personal goods And funded monies of your aunt.' 'I thank Her memory for it. With three hundred pounds We buy in England even, clear standing-room To stand and work in. Only two hours since, I fancied I was poor.' 'And cousin, still You're richer than you fancy. The will says, Three hundred pounds, and any other sum Of which the said testatrix dies possessed. I say she died possessed of other sums.' 'Dear Romney, need we chronicle the pence? I'm richer than I thought–that's evident. Enough so.' 'Listen rather. You've to do With business and a cousin,' he resumed, 'And both, I fear, need patience. Here's the fact. The other sum (there is another sum, Unspecified in any will which dates After possession, yet bequeathed as much And clearly as those said three hundred pounds) Is thirty thousand. You will have it paid When? . . where? My duty troubles you with words.' He struck the iron when the bar was hot; No wonder if my eyes sent out some sparks. 'Pause there! I thank you. You are delicate In glosing gifts;–but I, who share your blood, Am rather made for giving, like yourself, Than taking, like your pensioners. Farewell.' He stopped me with a gesture of calm pride. 'A Leigh,' he said, 'gives largesse and gives love, But gloses neither: if a Leigh could glose, He would not do it, moreover, to a Leigh, With blood trained up along nine centuries To hound and hate a lie, from eyes like yours. And now we'll make the rest as clear; your aunt Possessed these monies.' 'You'll make it clear, My cousin, as the honour of us both, Or one of us speaks vainly–that's not I. My aunt possessed this sum,–inherited From whom, and when? bring documents, prove dates.' 'Why now indeed you throw your bonnet off. As if you had time left for a logarithm! The faith's the want. Dear cousin, give me faith, And you shall walk this road with silken shoes, As clean as any lady of our house Supposed the proudest. Oh, I comprehend The whole position from your point of sight. I oust you from your father's halls and lands, And make you poor by getting rich–that's law; Considering which, in common circumstance, You would not scruple to accept from me Some compensation, some sufficiency Of income–that were justice; but, alas, I love you . . that's mere nature!–you reject My love . . that's nature also;–and at once, You cannot, from a suitor disallowed, A hand thrown back as mine is, into yours Receive a doit, a farthing, . . not for the world! That's etiquette with women, obviously Exceeding claim of nature, law, and right, Unanswerable to all. I grant, you see, The case as you conceive it,–leave you room To sweep your ample skirts of womanhood; While, standing humbly squeezed against the wall, I own myself excluded from being just, Restrained from paying indubitable debts, Because denied from giving you my soul– That's my fortune!–I submit to it As if, in some more reasonable age, 'Twould not be less inevitable. Enough. You'll trust me, cousin, as a gentleman, To keep your honour, as you count it, pure,– Your scruples (just as if I thought them wise) Safe and inviolate from gifts of mine.' I answered mild but earnest. 'I believe In no one's honour which another keeps, Nor man's nor woman's. As I keep, myself, My truth and my religion, I depute No father, though I had one this side death, Nor brother, though I had twenty, much less you, Though twice my cousin, and once Romney Leigh, To keep my honour pure. You face, today, A man who wants instruction, mark me, not A woman who wants protection. As to a man, Show manhood, speak out plainly, be precise With facts and dates. My aunt inherited This sum, you say–' 'I said she died possessed Of this, dear cousin.' 'Not by heritage. Thank you: we're getting to the facts at last. Perhaps she played at commerce with a ship Which came in heavy with Australian gold? Or touched a lottery with her finger-end, Which tumbled on a sudden into her lap Some old Rhine tower or principality? Perhaps she had to do with a marine Sub-transatlantic railroad, which pre-pays As well as pre-supposes? or perhaps Some stale ancestral debt was after-paid By a hundred years, and took her by surprise?– You shake your head my cousin; I guess ill.' 'You need not guess, Aurora, nor deride, The truth is not afraid of hurting you. You'll find no cause, in all your scruples, why Your aunt should cavil at a deed of gift 'Twixt her and me.' 'I thought so–ah! a gift.' 'You naturally thought so,' he resumed. 'A very natural gift.' 'A gift, a gift! Her individual life being stranded high Above all want, approaching opulence, Too haughty was she to accept a gift Without some ultimate aim: ah, ah, I see,– A gift intended plainly for her heirs, And so accepted . . if accepted . . ah, Indeed that might be; I am snared perhaps, Just so. But, cousin, shall I pardon you, If thus you have caught me with a cruel springe?' He answered gently, 'Need you tremble and pant Like a netted lioness? is't my fault, mine, That you're a grand wild creature of the woods, And hate the stall built for you? Any way, Though triply netted, need you glare at me? I do not hold the cords of such a net, You're free from me, Aurora!' 'Now may God Deliver me from this strait! This gift of yours Was tendered . . when? accepted . . when?' I asked. 'A month . . a fortnight since? Six weeks ago It was not tendered. By a word she dropped, I know it was not tendered nor received. When was it? bring your dates.' 'What matters when? A half-hour ere she died, or a half-year, Secured the gift, maintains the heritage Inviolable with law. As easy pluck The golden stars from heaven's embroidered stole, To pin them on the grey side of this earth, As make you poor again, thank God.' 'Not poor Nor clean again from henceforth, you thank God? Well, sir–I ask you . . I insist at need . . Vouchsafe the special date, the special date.' 'The day before her death-day,' he replied, 'The gift was in her hands. We'll find that deed, And certify that date to you.' As one Who has climbed a mountain-height and carried up His own heart climbing, panting in his throat With the toil of the ascent, takes breath at last, Looks back in triumph–so I stood and looked: 'Dear cousin Romney, we have reached the top Of this steep question, and may rest, I think. But first, I pray you pardon, that the shock And surge of natural feeling and event Had made me oblivious of acquainting you That this, this letter . . unread, mark,–still sealed, Was found enfolded in the poor dead hand: That spirit of hers had gone beyond the address, Which could not find her though you wrote it clear.– I know your writing, Romney,–recognise The open-hearted A, the liberal sweep Of the G. Now listen,–let us understand; You will not find that famous deed of gift, Unless you find it in the letter here, Which, not being mine, I give you back.–Refuse To take the letter? well then–you and I, As writer and as heiress, open it Together, by your leave.–Exactly so: The words in which the noble offering's made, Are nobler still, my cousin; and, I own, The proudest and most delicate heart alive, Distracted from the measure of the gift By such a grace in giving, might accept Your largesse without thinking any more Of the burthen of it, than King Solomon Considered, when he wore his holy ring Charactered over with the ineffable spell, How many carats of fine gold made up Its money-value. So, Leigh gives to Leigh– Or rather, might have given, observe!–for that's The point we come to. Here's a proof of gift, But here's no proof, sir, of acceptancy, But rather, disproof. Death's black dust, being blown, Infiltrated through every secret fold Of this sealed letter by a puff of fate, Dried up for ever the fresh-written ink, Annulled the gift, disutilised the grace, And left these fragments.' As I spoke, I tore The paper up and down, and down and up And crosswise, till it fluttered from my hands, As forest-leaves, stripped suddenly and rapt By a whirlwind on Valdarno, drop again, Drop slow, and strew the melancholy ground Before the amazed hills . . why, so, indeed, I'm writing like a poet, somewhat large In the type of the image,–and exaggerate A small thing with a great thing, topping it!– But then I'm thinking how his eyes looked . . his With what despondent and surprised reproach! I think the tears were in them as he looked– I think the manly mouth just trembled. Then He broke the silence. 'I may ask, perhaps, Although no stranger . . only Romney Leigh, Which means still less . . than Vincent Carrington . . Your plans in going hence, and where you go. This cannot be a secret.' 'All my life Is open to you, cousin. I go hence To London, to the gathering-place of souls, To live mine straight out, vocally, in books; Harmoniously for others, if indeed A woman's soul, like man's, be wide enough To carry the whole octave (that's to prove) Or, if I fail, still, purely for myself. Pray God be with me, Romney.' 'Ah, poor child, Who fight against the mother's 'tiring hand, And choose the headsman's! May God change his world For your sake, sweet, and make it mild as heaven, And juster than I have found you!' But I paused. 'And you, my cousin?'– 'I,' he said,–'you ask? You care to ask? Well, girls have curious minds, And fain would know the end of everything, Of cousins, therefore, with the rest. For me, Aurora, I've my work; you know my work; And having missed this year some personal hope, I must beware the rather that I miss No reasonable duty. While you sing Your happy pastorals of the meads and trees, Bethink you that I go to impress and prove On stifled brains and deafened ears, stunned deaf, Crushed dull with grief, that nature sings itself, And needs no mediate poet, lute or voice, To make it vocal. While you ask of men Your audience, I may get their leave perhaps For hungry orphans to say audibly 'We're hungry, see,'–for beaten and bullied wives To hold their unweaned babies up in sight, Whom orphanage would better; and for all To speak and claim their portion . . by no means Of the soil, . . but of the sweat in tilling it,– Since this is now-a-days turned privilege, To have only God's curse on us, and not man's Such work I have for doing, elbow-deep In social problems,–as you tie your rhymes, To draw my uses to cohere with needs, And bring the uneven world back to its round; Or, failing so much, fill up, bridge at least To smoother issues, some abysmal cracks And feuds of earth, intestine heats have made To keep men separate,–using sorry shifts Of hospitals, almshouses, infant schools, And other practical stuff of partial good, You lovers of the beautiful and whole, Despise by system.' 'I despise? The scorn Is yours, my cousin. Poets become such, Through scorning nothing. You decry them for The good of beauty, sung and taught by them, While they respect your practical partial good As being a part of beauty's self. Adieu! When God helps all the workers for his world, The singers shall have help of Him, not last.' He smiled as men smile when they will not speak Because of something bitter in the thought; And still I feel his melancholy eyes Look judgment on me. It is seven years since: I know not if 'twas pity or 'twas scorn Has made them so far-reaching: judge it ye Who have had to do with pity more than love, And scorn than hatred. I am used, since then, To other ways, from equal men. But so, Even so, we let go hands, my cousin and I, And, in between us, rushed the torrent-world To blanch our faces like divided rocks, And bar for ever mutual sight and touch Except through swirl of spray and all that roar.
Elizabeth Barrett-Browning's other poems:
English Poetry. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org