Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

The Romance of the Swan’s Nest

LITTLE Ellie sits alone
  ’Mid the beeches of a meadow
    By a stream-side on the grass,
And the trees are showering down
  Doubles of their leaves in shadow
    On her shining hair and face.
She has thrown her bonnet by,
  And her feet she has been dipping
    In the shallow water’s flow:
Now she holds them nakedly
  In her hands, all sleek and dripping,
    While she rocketh to and fro.
Little Ellie sits alone,
  And the smile she softly uses
    Fills the silence like a speech
While she thinks what shall be done,
  And the sweetest pleasure chooses
    For her future within reach.
Little Ellie in her smile
  Chooses—“I will have a lover,
    Riding on a steed of steeds:
He shall love me without guile,
  And to him I will discover
    The swan’s nest among the reeds.
“And the steed shall be red-roan,
  And the lover shall be noble,
    With an eye that takes the breath:
And the lute he plays upon
  Shall strike ladies into trouble,
    As his sword strikes men to death.
“And the steed it shall be shod
  All in silver, housed in azure,
    And the mane shall swim the wind;
And the hoofs along the sod
  Shall flash onward and keep measure,
    Till the shepherds look behind.
“But my lover will not prize
  All the glory that he rides in,
    When he gazes in my face:
He will say, ‘O Love, thine eyes
  Build the shrine my soul abides in,
    And I kneel here for thy grace!’
“Then, ay, then he shall kneel low,
  With the red-roan steed anear him
    Which shall seem to understand,
Till I answer, ‘Rise and go!
  For the world must love and fear him
    Whom I gift with heart and hand.’

“Then he will arise so pale,
  I shall feel my own lips tremble
    With a yes I must not say,
Nathless maiden-brave, ‘Farewell,’
  I will utter, and dissemble—
    ‘Light to-morrow with to-day!’
“Then he’ll ride among the hills
  To the wide world past the river,
    There to put away all wrong;
To make straight distorted wills,
  And to empty the broad quiver
    Which the wicked bear along.
“Three times shall a young foot-page
  Swim the stream and climb the mountain
    And kneel down beside my feet—
‘Lo, my master sends this gage,
  Lady, for thy pity’s counting!
    What wilt thou exchange for it?’
“And the first time I will send
  A white rosebud for a guerdon,
    And the second time, a glove;
But the third time—I may bend
  From my pride, and answer—’Pardon,
    If he comes to take my love.’
“Then the young foot-page will run,
  Then my lover will ride faster,
    Till he kneeleth at my knee:
‘I am a duke’s eldest son,
  Thousand serfs do call me master,
    But, O Love, I love but thee!’
“He will kiss me on the mouth
  Then, and lead me as a lover
    Through the crowds that praise his deeds:
And, when soul-tied by one troth,
  Unto him I will discover
    That swan’s nest among the reeds.”
Little Ellie, with her smile
  Not yet ended, rose up gaily,
    Tied the bonnet, donned the shoe,
And went homeward, round a mile,
  Just to see, as she did daily,
    What more eggs were with the two.

Pushing through the elm-tree copse,
  Winding up the stream, light-hearted,
    Where the osier pathway leads,
Past the boughs she stoops—and stops.
  Lo, the wild swan had deserted,
    And a rat had knawed the reeds!
Ellie went home sad and slow.
  If she found the lover ever,
    With his red-roan steed of steeds,
Sooth I know not; but I know
  She could never show him—never,
    That swan’s nest among the reeds!

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