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2.4: Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

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  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning both epitomized the condition of women in the Victorian age and refuted it. Held under the “loving” hand of Edward Moulton Barrett, her Victorian patriarch of a father, Barrett Browning was confined to the private realm and the home to an extreme degree. At the age of fifteen, she suffered a spinal injury while saddling a pony. Seven years later a broken blood vessel in her chest left her weakened and suffering a chronic cough. An invalid, she was ultimately confined to her room. Despite these adversities, and with the encouragement and support of her father, Barrett Browning read widely, learned several languages, and published poetry and essays.

    Her literary reputation grew to such an extent that she was suggested as a successor to Wordsworth as the Poet Laureate—a position that went to Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892). She communicated with the literary giants of her day, including Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), and Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849). Her relationship with Robert Browning (1812-1889) began through his writing to her, expressing admiration for her poetry and love for her. His social visits turned quickly to a courtship that, when discovered by Edward Moulton Barrett, was adamantly opposed. Barrett Browning recorded the stress, uncertainty, and joy of this courtship in her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). She and Browning ultimately married in secret and sailed to Italy.

    clipboard_ec965b5d28718b6790c0b051070a68dee.pngIn Italy, Barrett Browning became involved in Italian Independence. Much of her work reflects her interest in individual—particularly women’s—rights, child labor, prostitution, abolition, and the plight of the poor and downtrodden. These interests combine in many of her greatest works, including Aurora Leigh (1856), a hybrid novel-poem that depicts the limitations placed upon women’s public and private ambitions. Its aesthetic devices rely upon woman-centric images and allusions. Her Sonnets from the Portuguese take on the most male-dominated of poetic forms asserting her place in this important tradition. In the most famous sonnet from this sequence, Sonnet 43, her highly personal expressions of love and passion—and ostensibly feminine emotionalism—are framed by the repetition of “I,” the poet herself.


    2.4.1: "The Cry of the Children"

    “Pheu pheu, ti prosderkesthe m ommasin, tekna;”

    [Alas, alas, why do you gaze at me with your eyes, my children.]—Medea.


    Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers,       

    Ere the sorrow comes with years?

    They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, —

    And that cannot stop their tears.

    The young lambs are bleating in the meadows;

        The young birds are chirping in the nest;

    The young fawns are playing with the shadows;    

        The young flowers are blowing toward the west —

    But the young, young children, O my brothers,

    They are weeping bitterly!

    They are weeping in the playtime of the others,

    In the country of the free.


    Do you question the young children in the sorrow,       

    Why their tears are falling so?

    The old man may weep for his to-morrow

    Which is lost in Long Ago —

    The old tree is leafless in the forest —

        The old year is ending in the frost —

    The old wound, if stricken, is the sorest —

        The old hope is hardest to be lost:

    But the young, young children, O my brothers,

    Do you ask them why they stand

    Weeping sore before the bosoms of their mothers,       

    In our happy Fatherland?


    They look up with their pale and sunken faces,

    And their looks are sad to see,

    For the man’s grief abhorrent, draws and presses

    Down the cheeks of infancy —

    “Your old earth,” they say, “is very dreary;”

        “Our young feet,” they say, “are very weak!”

    Few paces have we taken, yet are weary —

        Our grave-rest is very far to seek!

    Ask the old why they weep, and not the children,

    For the outside earth is cold —

    And we young ones stand without, in our bewildering,

    And the graves are for the old!”


    “True,” say the children, “it may happen

    That we die before our time!

    Little Alice died last year her grave is shapen

    Like a snowball, in the rime.

    We looked into the pit prepared to take her —

        Was no room for any work in the close clay:

    From the sleep wherein she lieth none will wake her,

        Crying, ‘Get up, little Alice! it is day.’

    If you listen by that grave, in sun and shower,

        With your ear down, little Alice never cries;

    Could we see her face, be sure we should not know her,

        For the smile has time for growing in her eyes, —

    And merry go her moments, lulled and stilled in

    The shroud, by the kirk-chime!

    It is good when it happens,” say the children,

    “That we die before our time!”


    Alas, the wretched children! they are seeking

    Death in life, as best to have!

    They are binding up their hearts away from breaking,

    With a cerement from the grave.

    Go out, children, from the mine and from the city —

        Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do —

    Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty    

        Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through!

    But they answer, “Are your cowslips of the meadows       

    Like our weeds anear the mine?

    Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,       

    From your pleasures fair and fine!


    “For oh,” say the children, “we are weary,

    And we cannot run or leap —

    If we cared for any meadows, it were merely

    To drop down in them and sleep.

    Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping —

        We fall upon our faces, trying to go;

    And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,    

        The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.

    For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,

    Through the coal-dark, underground —

    Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron

    In the factories, round and round.


    “For all day, the wheels are droning, turning, —

    Their wind comes in our faces, —

    Till our hearts turn,— our heads, with pulses burning,

    And the walls turn in their places

    Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling —

        Turns the long light that droppeth down the wall, —

    Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling —

        All are turning, all the day, and we with all! —

    And all day, the iron wheels are droning;

    And sometimes we could pray,

    ‘O ye wheels,’ (breaking out in a mad moaning)

    ‘Stop ! be silent for to-day!’”


    Ay! be silent! Let them hear each other breathing

    For a moment, mouth to mouth —

    Let them touch each other’s hands, in a fresh wreathing

    Of their tender human youth!

    Let them feel that this cold metallic motion

        Is not all the life God fashions or reveals —

    Let them prove their inward souls against the notion

        That they live in you, or under you, O wheels! —

    Still, all day, the iron wheels go onward,

    As if Fate in each were stark;

    And the children’s souls, which God is calling sunward,

    Spin on blindly in the dark.


    Now tell the poor young children, O my brothers,

    To look up to Him and pray —

    So the blessed One, who blesseth all the others,

    Will bless them another day.

    They answer, “Who is God that He should hear us,    

        While the rushing of the iron wheels is stirred?

    When we sob aloud, the human creatures near us

        Pass by, hearing not, or answer not a word!

    And we hear not (for the wheels in their resounding)

    Strangers speaking at the door:

    Is it likely God, with angels singing round Him,       

    Hears our weeping any more?


    “Two words, indeed, of praying we remember;

    And at midnight’s hour of harm, —

    ‘Our Father,’ looking upward in the chamber,

    We say softly for a charm.

    We know no other words, except ‘Our Father,’

    And we think that, in some pause of angels’ song,

    God may pluck them with the silence sweet to gather,

    And hold both within His right hand which is strong. ‘Our Father!’ If He heard us, He would surely       (For they call Him good and mild) Answer, smiling down the steep world very purely, ‘Come and rest with me, my child.’


    “But, no!” say the children, weeping faster,

    “He is speechless as a stone;

    And they tell us, of His image is the master

    Who commands us to work on.

    Go to! “ say the children,—” up in Heaven,  

        Dark, wheel-like, turning clouds are all we find!

    Do not mock us; grief has made us unbelieving —

        We look up for God, but tears have made us blind.”

    Do ye hear the children weeping and disproving,       

    O my brothers, what ye preach?

    For God’s possible is taught by His world’s loving —

    And the children doubt of each.


    And well may the children weep before you;

    They are weary ere they run;

    They have never seen the sunshine, nor the glory

    Which is brighter than the sun:

    They know the grief of man, without its wisdom;

        They sink in the despair, without its calm —

    Are slaves, without the liberty in Christdom, —

        Are martyrs, by the pang without the palm, —

    Are worn, as if with age, yet unretrievingly

    No dear remembrance keep, —

    Are orphans of the earthly love and heavenly:

    Let them weep! let them weep!


    They look up, with their pale and sunken faces,

    And their look is dread to see,

    For they think you see their angels in their places,

    With eyes meant for Deity; —

    “How long,” they say, “how long, O cruel nation,

        Will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart, —

    Stifle down with a mailed heel its palpitation,    

        And tread onward to your throne amid the mart?

    Our blood splashes upward, O our tyrants,

    And your purple shews your path;

    But the child’s sob curseth deeper in the silence

    Than the strong man in his wrath!”



    2.4.2: “To George Sand: A Desire”

    Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man,

    Self-called George Sand! whose soul, amid the lions

    Of thy tumultuous senses, moans defiance

    And answers roar for roar, as spirits can:

    I would some mild miraculous thunder ran

    Above the applauded circus, in appliance

    Of thine own nobler nature’s strength and science,

    Drawing two pinions, white as wings of swan,

    From thy strong shoulders, to amaze the place

    With holier light! that thou to woman’s claim

    And man’s, mightst join beside the angel’s grace

    Of a pure genius sanctified from blame

    Till child and maiden pressed to thine embrace

    To kiss upon thy lips a stainless fame.


    2.4.3: “A Recognition”

    True genius, but true woman! dost deny

    The woman’s nature with a manly scorn,

    And break away the gauds and armlets worn

    By weaker women in captivity?

    Ah, vain denial! that revolted cry

    Is sobbed in by a woman’s voice forlorn,-

    Thy woman’s hair, my sister, all unshorn

    Floats back dishevelled strength in agony,

    Disproving thy man’s name: and while before

    The world thou burnest in a poet-fire,

    We see thy woman-heart beat evermore

    Through the large flame. Beat purer, heart, and higher,

    Till God unsex thee on the heavenly shore

    Where unincarnate spirits purely aspire!


    2.4.4: From Aurora Leigh

    From First Book

    I am like,

    They tell me, my dear father. Broader brows

    Howbeit, upon a slenderer undergrowth

    Of delicate features,—paler, near as grave;

    But then my mother’s smile breaks up the whole,

    And makes it better sometimes than itself—


    So, nine full years, our days were hid with God

    Among his mountains. I was just thirteen,

    Still growing like the plants from unseen roots

    In tongue-tied Springs,—and suddenly awoke

    To full life and its needs and agonies,

    With an intense, strong, struggling heart beside

    A stone-dead father. Life, struck sharp on death,

    Makes awful lightning. His last word was, ‘Love—’

    ‘Love, my child, love, love!’—(then he had done with grief)

    ‘Love, my child.’ Ere I answered he was gone,

    And none was left to love in all the world.


    There, ended childhood: what succeeded next

    I recollect as, after fevers, men

    Thread back the passage of delirium,

    Missing the turn still, baffled by the door;

    Smooth endless days, notched here and there with knives;

    A weary, wormy darkness, spurred i’ the flank

    With flame, that it should eat and end itself

    Like some tormented scorpion. Then, at last,

    I do remember clearly, how there came

    A stranger with authority, not right,

    (I thought not) who commanded, caught me up

    From old Assunta’s neck; how, with a shriek,

    She let me go,—while I, with ears too full

    Of my father’s silence, to shriek back a word,

    In all a child’s astonishment at grief

    Stared at the wharfage where she stood and moaned,

    My poor Assunta, where she stood and moaned!

    The white walls, the blue hills, my Italy,

    Drawn backward from the shuddering steamer-deck,

    Like one in anger drawing back her skirts

    Which suppliants catch at. Then the bitter sea

    Inexorably pushed between us both,

    And sweeping up the ship with my despair

    Threw us out as a pasture to the stars.

    Ten nights and days we voyaged on the deep;

    Ten nights and days, without the common face

    Of any day or night; the moon and sun

    Cut off from the green reconciling earth,

    To starve into a blind ferocity

    And glare unnatural; the very sky

    (Dropping its bell-net down upon the sea

    As if no human heart should scape alive,)

    Bedraggled with the desolating salt,

    Until it seemed no more than holy heaven

    To which my father went. All new, and strange—

    The universe turned stranger, for a child.


    Then, land!—then, England! oh, the frosty cliffs

    Looked cold upon me. Could I find a home

    Among those mean red houses through the fog?

    And when I heard my father’s language first

    From alien lips which had no kiss for mine,

    I wept aloud, then laughed, then wept, then wept,—

    And some one near me said the child was mad

    Through much sea-sickness. The train swept us on.

    Was this my father’s England? the great isle?

    The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship

    Of verdure, field from field, as man from man;

    The skies themselves looked low and positive,

    As almost you could touch them with a hand,

    And dared to do it, they were so far off

    From God’s celestial crystals; all things, blurred

    And dull and vague. Did Shakspeare and his mates

    Absorb the light here?—not a hill or stone

    With heart to strike a radiant colour up

    Or active outline on the indifferent air!


    I think I see my father’s sister stand

    Upon the hall-step of her country-house

    To give me welcome. She stood straight and calm,

    Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight

    As if for taming accidental thoughts

    From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with grey

    By frigid use of life, (she was not old,

    Although my father’s elder by a year)

    A nose drawn sharply, yet in delicate lines;

    A close mild mouth, a little soured about

    The ends, through speaking unrequited loves,

    Or peradventure niggardly half-truths;

    Eyes of no colour,—once they might have smiled,

    But never, never have forgot themselves

    In smiling; cheeks in which was yet a rose

    Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,

    Kept more for ruth than pleasure,—if past bloom,

    Past fading also.

    She had lived we’ll say,

    A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,

    A quiet life, which was not life at all,

    (But that, she had not lived enough to know)

    Between the vicar and the county squires,

    The lord-lieutenant looking down sometimes

    From the empyreal, to assure their souls

    Against chance vulgarisms, and, in the abyss,

    The apothecary looked on once a year,

    To prove their soundness of humility.

    The poor-club exercised her Christian gifts

    Of knitting stockings, stitching petticoats,

    Because we are of one flesh after all

    And need one flannel, (with a proper sense

    Of difference in the quality)—and still

    The book-club guarded from your modern trick

    Of shaking dangerous questions from the crease,

    Preserved her intellectual. She had lived

    A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage,

    Accounting that to leap from perch to perch

    Was act and joy enough for any bird.

    Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live

    In thickets and eat berries!

    I, alas,

    A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage,

    And she was there to meet me. Very kind.

    Bring the clean water; give out the fresh seed.

    She stood upon the steps to welcome me,

    Calm, in black garb. I clung about her neck,—

    Young babes, who catch at every shred of wool

    To draw the new light closer, catch and cling

    Less blindly. In my ears, my father’s word

    Hummed ignorantly, as the sea in shells,

    ‘Love, love, my child,’ She, black there with my grief,

    Might feel my love—she was his sister once—

    I clung to her. A moment, she seemed moved,

    Kissed me with cold lips, suffered me to cling,

    And drew me feebly through the hall, into

    The room she sate in.

    There, with some strange spasm

    Of pain and passion, she wrung loose my hands

    Imperiously, and held me at arm’s length,

    And with two grey-steel naked-bladed eyes Searched through my face,—ay, stabbed it through and through,

    Through brows and cheeks and chin, as if to find

    A wicked murderer in my innocent face,

    If not here, there perhaps. Then, drawing breath,

    She struggled for her ordinary calm,

    And missed it rather,—told me not to shrink,

    As if she had told me not to lie or swear,—

    ‘She loved my father, and would love me too

    As long as I deserved it.’ Very kind.


    I understood her meaning afterward;

    She thought to find my mother in my face,

    And questioned it for that. For she, my aunt,

    Had loved my father truly, as she could,

    And hated, with the gall of gentle souls,

    My Tuscan mother, who had fooled away

    A wise man from wise courses, a good man

    From obvious duties, and, depriving her,

    His sister, of the household precedence,

    Had wronged his tenants, robbed his native land,

    And made him mad, alike by life and death,

    In love and sorrow. She had pored for years

    What sort of woman could be suitable

    To her sort of hate, to entertain it with;

    And so, her very curiosity

    Became hate too, and all the idealism

    She ever used in life, was used for hate,

    Till hate, so nourished, did exceed at last

    The love from which it grew, in strength and heat,

    And wrinkled her smooth conscience with a sense

    Of disputable virtue (say not, sin)

    When Christian doctrine was enforced at church.


    And thus my father’s sister was to me

    My mother’s hater. From that day, she did

    Her duty to me, (I appreciate it

    In her own word as spoken to herself)

    Her duty, in large measure, well-pressed out,

    But measured always. She was generous, bland,

    More courteous than was tender, gave me still

    The first place,—as if fearful that God’s saints

    Would look down suddenly and say, ‘Herein

    You missed a point, I think, through lack of love.’

    Alas, a mother never is afraid

    Of speaking angrily to any child,

    Since love, she knows, is justified of love.


    And I, I was a good child on the whole,

    A meek and manageable child. Why not?

    I did not live, to have the faults of life:

    There seemed more true life in my father’s grave

    Than in all England. Since that threw me off

    Who fain would cleave, (his latest will, they say,

    Consigned me to his land) I only thought

    Of lying quiet there where I was thrown

    Like sea-weed on the rocks, and suffer her

    To prick me to a pattern with her pin,

    Fibre from fibre, delicate leaf from leaf,

    And dry out from my drowned anatomy

    The last sea-salt left in me.

      So it was.

    I broke the copious curls upon my head

    In braids, because she liked smooth ordered hair.

    I left off saying my sweet Tuscan words

    Which still at any stirring of the heart

    Came up to float across the English phrase,

    As lilies, (Bene . . or che ch’è) because

    She liked my father’s child to speak his tongue.

    I learnt the collects and the catechism,

    The creeds, from Athanasius back to Nice,

    The Articles . . the Tracts against the times,

    (By no means Buonaventure’s ‘Prick of Love,’)

    And various popular synopses of

    Inhuman doctrines never taught by John,

    Because she liked instructed piety.

    I learnt my complement of classic French

    (Kept pure of Balzac and neologism,)

    And German also, since she liked a range

    Of liberal education,—tongues, not books.

    I learnt a little algebra, a little

    Of the mathematics,—brushed with extreme flounce

    The circle of the sciences, because

    She misliked women who are frivolous.

    I learnt the royal genealogies

    Of Oviedo, the internal laws

    Of the Burmese Empire, . . by how many feet

    Mount Chimborazo outsoars Himmeleh,

    What navigable river joins itself

    To Lara, and what census of the year five

    Was taken at Klagenfurt,—because she liked

    A general insight into useful facts.

    I learnt much music,—such as would have been

    As quite impossible in Johnson’s day

    As still it might be wished—fine sleights of hand

    And unimagined fingering, shuffling off

    The hearer’s soul through hurricanes of notes

    To a noisy Tophet; and I drew . . costumes

    From French engravings, nereids neatly draped,

    With smirks of simmering godship,—I washed in

    From nature, landscapes, (rather say, washed out.)

    I danced the polka and Cellarius,

    Spun glass, stuffed birds, and modelled flowers in wax,

    Because she liked accomplishments in girls.

    I read a score of books on womanhood

    To prove, if women do not think at all,

    They may teach thinking, (to a maiden aunt

    Or else the author)—books demonstrating

    Their right of comprehending husband’s talk

    When not too deep, and even of answering

    With pretty ‘may it please you,’ or ‘so it is,’—

    Their rapid insight and fine aptitude,

    Particular worth and general missionariness,

    As long as they keep quiet by the fire

    And never say ‘no’ when the world says ‘ay,’

    For that is fatal,—their angelic reach

    Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn,

    And fatten household sinners—their, in brief,

    Potential faculty in everything

    Of abdicating power in it: she owned

    She liked a woman to be womanly,

    And English women, she thanked God and sighed,

    (Some people always sigh in thanking God)

    Were models to the universe.

    And last I learnt cross-stitch, because she did not like

    To see me wear the night with empty hands,

    A-doing nothing. So, my shepherdess

    Was something after all, (the pastoral saints

    Be praised for’t) leaning lovelorn with pink eyes

    To match her shoes, when I mistook the silks;

    Her head uncrushed by that round weight of hat

    So strangely similar to the tortoise-shell

    Which slew the tragic poet.

    By the way,

    The works of women are symbolical.

    We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,

    Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,

    To put on when you’re weary—or a stool

    To tumble over and vex you . . ‘curse that stool!’

    Or else at best, a cushion where you lean

    And sleep, and dream of something we are not,

    But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!

    This hurts most, this . . that, after all, we are paid

    The worth of our work, perhaps.

          In looking down

    Those years of education, (to return)

    I wondered if Brinvilliers suffered more

    In the water torture, . . flood succeeding flood

    To drench the incapable throat and split the veins . .

    Than I did. Certain of your feebler souls

    Go out in such a process; many pine

    To a sick, inodorous light; my own endured:

    I had relations in the Unseen, and drew

    The elemental nutriment and heat

    From nature, as earth feels the sun at nights,

    Or as a babe sucks surely in the dark.

    I kept the life, thrust on me, on the outside

    Of the inner life, with all its ample room

    For heart and lungs, for will and intellect,

    Inviolable by conventions. God,

    I thank thee for that grace of thine! . . .

    Capacity for joy

    Admits temptation. It seemed, next, worth while

    To dodge the sharp sword set against my life;

    To slip down stairs through all the sleepy house,

    As mute as any dream there, and escape

    As a soul from the body, out of doors,—

    Glide through the shrubberies, drop into the lane,

    And wander on the hills an hour or two,

    Then back again before the house should stir.


    Or else I sat on in my chamber green,

    And lived my life, and thought my thoughts, and prayed

    My prayers without the vicar; read my books,

    Without considering whether they were fit

    To do me good. Mark, there. We get no good

    By being ungenerous, even to a book,

    And calculating profits . . so much help

    By so much reading. It is rather when

    We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge

    Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,

    Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth—

    ’Tis then we get the right good from a book.


    I read much. What my father taught before

    From many a volume, Love re-emphasised

    Upon the self-same pages: Theophrast

    Grew tender with the memory of his eyes,

    And Ælian made mine wet. The trick of Greek

    And Latin, he had taught me, as he would

    Have taught me wrestling or the game of fives

    If such he had known,—most like a shipwrecked man

    Who heaps his single platter with goats’ cheese

    And scarlet berries; or like any man

    Who loves but one, and so gives all at once,

    Because he has it, rather than because

    He counts it worthy. Thus, my father gave;

    And thus, as did the women formerly

    By young Achilles, when they pinned the veil

    Across the boy’s audacious front, and swept

    With tuneful laughs the silver-fretted rocks,

    He wrapt his little daughter in his large

    Man’s doublet, careless did it fit or no.


    But, after I had read for memory,

    I read for hope. The path my father’s foot

    Had trod me out, which suddenly broke off,

    (What time he dropped the wallet of the flesh

    And passed) alone I carried on, and set

    My child-heart ’gainst the thorny underwood,

    To reach the grassy shelter of the trees.

    Ah, babe i’ the wood, without a brother-babe!

    My own self-pity, like the red-breast bird,

    Flies back to cover all that past with leaves.


    Sublimest danger, over which none weeps,

    When any young wayfaring soul goes forth

    Alone, unconscious of the perilous road,

    The day-sun dazzling in his limpid eyes,

    To thrust his own way, he an alien, through

    The world of books! Ah, you!—you think it fine,

    You clap hands—‘A fair day!’—you cheer him on,

    As if the worst, could happen, were to rest

    Too long beside a fountain. Yet, behold,

    Behold!—the world of books is still the world;

    And worldlings in it are less merciful

    And more puissant. For the wicked there

    Are winged like angels. Every knife that strikes,

    Is edged from elemental fire to assail

    A spiritual life. The beautiful seems right

    By force of beauty, and the feeble wrong

    Because of weakness. Power is justified,

    Though armed against St. Michael. Many a crown

    Covers bald foreheads. In the book-world, true,

    There’s no lack, neither, of God’s saints and kings,

    That shake the ashes of the grave aside

    From their calm locks, and undiscomfited

    Look stedfast truths against Time’s changing mask.

    True, many a prophet teaches in the roads;

    True, many a seer pulls down the flaming heavens

    Upon his own head in strong martyrdom,

    In order to light men a moment’s space.

    But stay!—who judges?—who distinguishes

    ’Twixt Saul and Nahash justly, at first sight,

    And leaves king Saul precisely at the sin,

    To serve king David? who discerns at once

    The sound of the trumpets, when the trumpets blow

    For Alaric as well as Charlemagne?

    Who judges prophets, and can tell true seers

    From conjurors? The child, there? Would you leave

    That child to wander in a battle-field

    And push his innocent smile against the guns?

    Or even in the catacombs, . . his torch

    Grown ragged in the fluttering air, and all

    The dark a-mutter round him? not a child!


    I read books bad and good—some bad and good

    At once: good aims not always make good books;

    Well-tempered spades turn up ill-smelling soils

    In digging vineyards, even: books, that prove

    God’s being so definitely, that man’s doubt

    Grows self-defined the other side the line,

    Made Atheist by suggestion; moral books,

    Exasperating to license; genial books,

    Discounting from the human dignity;

    And merry books, which set you weeping when

    The sun shines,—ay, and melancholy books,

    Which make you laugh that any one should weep

    In this disjointed life, for one wrong more.


    The world of books is still the world, I write,

    And both worlds have God’s providence, thank God,

    To keep and hearten: with some struggle, indeed,

    Among the breakers, some hard swimming through

    The deeps—I lost breath in my soul sometimes,

    And cried ‘God save me if there’s any God.’

    But even so, God saved me; and, being dashed

    From error on to error, every turn

    Still brought me nearer to the central truth.

    I thought so. All this anguish in the thick Of men’s opinions . . press and counterpress Now up, now down, now underfoot, and now Emergent . . all the best of it, perhaps, But throws you back upon a noble trust And use of your own instinct,—merely proves Pure reason stronger than bare inference At strongest. Try it,—fix against heaven’s wall Your scaling ladders of high logic—mount Step by step!—Sight goes faster; that still ray Which strikes out from you, how, you cannot tell, And why, you know not—(did you eliminate, That such as you, indeed, should analyse?) Goes straight and fast as light, and high as God.


    The cygnet finds the water: but the man

    Is born in ignorance of his element,

    And feels out blind at first, disorganised

    By sin i’ the blood,—his spirit-insight dulled

    And crossed by his sensations. Presently

    We feel it quicken in the dark sometimes;

    Then, mark, be reverent, be obedient,—

    For those dumb motions of imperfect life

    Are oracles of vital Deity

    Attesting the Hereafter. Let who says

    ‘The soul’s a clean white paper,’ rather say,

    A palimpsest, a prophets holograph

    Defiled, erased and covered by a monk’s,—

    The apocalypse, by a Longus! poring on

    Which obscene text, we may discern perhaps

    Some fair, fine trace of what was written once,

    Some upstroke of an alpha and omega

    Expressing the old scripture.

    Books, books, books!

    I had found the secret of a garret-room

    Piled high with cases in my father’s name;

    Piled high, packed large,—where, creeping in and out

    Among the giant fossils of my past,

    Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs

    Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there

    At this or that box, pulling through the gap,

    In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,

    The first book first. And how I felt it beat

    Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,

    An hour before the sun would let me read!

    My books!

    At last, because the time was ripe,

    I chanced upon the poets.

    As the earth

    Plunges in fury, when the internal fires Have reached and pricked her heart, and, throwing flat

    The marts and temples, the triumphal gates

    And towers of observation, clears herself

    To elemental freedom—thus, my soul,

    At poetry’s divine first finger touch,

    Let go conventions and sprang up surprised,

    Convicted of the great eternities

    Before two worlds.

    What’s this, Aurora Leigh,

    You write so of the poets, and not laugh?

    Those virtuous liars, dreamers after dark,

    Exaggerators of the sun and moon,

    And soothsayers in a tea-cup?

    I write so

    Of the only truth-tellers, now left to God,—

    The only speakers of essential truth,

    Opposed to relative, comparative,

    And temporal truths; the only holders by

    His sun-skirts, through conventional grey glooms;

    The only teachers who instruct mankind,

    From just a shadow on a charnel-wall,

    To find man’s veritable stature out,

    Erect, sublime,—the measure of a man,

    And that’s the measure of an angel, says

    The apostle. Ay, and while your common men

    Build pyramids, gauge railroads, reign, reap, dine,

    And dust the flaunty carpets of the world

    For kings to walk on, or our senators,

    The poet suddenly will catch them up

    With his voice like a thunder . . ‘This is soul,

    This is life, this word is being said in heaven,

    Here’s God down on us! what are you about?’

    How all those workers start amid their work,

    Look round, look up, and feel, a moment’s space,

    That carpet-dusting, though a pretty trade,

    Is not the imperative labour after all.

    My own best poets, am I one with you,

    That thus I love you,—or but one through love?

    Does all this smell of thyme about my feet

    Conclude my visit to your holy hill

    In personal presence, or but testify

    The rustling of your vesture through my dreams

    With influent odours? When my joy and pain,

    My thought and aspiration, like the stops

    Of pipe or flute, are absolutely dumb

    If not melodious, do you play on me,

    My pipers,—and if, sooth, you did not blow,

    Would not sound come? or is the music mine,

    As a man’s voice or breath is called his own,

    Inbreathed by the Life-breather? There’s a doubt

    For cloudy seasons!

    But the sun was high

    When first I felt my pulses set themselves

    For concords; when the rhythmic turbulence

    Of blood and brain swept outward upon words,

    As wind upon the alders blanching them

    By turning up their under-natures till

    They trembled in dilation. O delight

    And triumph of the poet,—who would say

    A man’s mere ‘yes,’ a woman’s common ‘no,’

    A little human hope of that or this,

    And says the word so that it burns you through

    With a special revelation, shakes the heart

    Of all the men and women in the world,

    As if one came back from the dead and spoke,

    With eyes too happy, a familiar thing

    Become divine i’ the utterance! while for him

    The poet, the speaker, he expands with joy;

    The palpitating angel in his flesh

    Thrills inly with consenting fellowship

    To those innumerous spirits who sun themselves

    Outside of time.

    O life, O poetry, —

    Which means life in life! cognisant of life

    Beyond this blood-beat,—passionate for truth

    Beyond these senses,—poetry, my life,—

    My eagle, with both grappling feet still hot

    From Zeus’s thunder, who has ravished me

    Away from all the shepherds, sheep, and dogs,

    And set me in the Olympian roar and round

    Of luminous faces, for a cup-bearer,

    To keep the mouths of all the godheads moist

    For everlasting laughters,—I, myself,

    Half drunk across the beaker, with their eyes!

    How those gods look!

    Enough so, Ganymede.

    We shall not bear above a round or two—

    We drop the golden cup at Heré’s foot

    And swoon back to the earth,—and find ourselves

    Face-down among the pine-cones, cold with dew,

    While the dogs bark, and many a shepherd scoffs,

    ‘What’s come now to the youth?’ Such ups and downs

    Have poets.

    Am I such indeed? The name

    Is royal, and to sign it like a queen,

    Is what I dare not,—though some royal blood

    Would seem to tingle in me now and then,

    With sense of power and ache,—with imposthumes

    And manias usual to the race. Howbeit

    I dare not: ’tis too easy to go mad,

    And ape a Bourbon in a crown of straws;

    The thing’s too common.

    Many fervent souls

    Strike rhyme on rhyme, who would strike steel on steel

    If steel had offered, in a restless heat

    Of doing something. Many tender souls

    Have strung their losses on a rhyming thread,

    As children, cowslips:—the more pains they take,

    The work more withers. Young men, ay, and maids,

    Too often sow their wild oats in tame verse,

    Before they sit down under their own vine

    And live for use. Alas, near all the birds

    Will sing at dawn,—and yet we do not take

    The chaffering swallow for the holy lark.


    In those days, though, I never analysed

    Myself even. All analysis comes late.

    You catch a sight of Nature, earliest,

    In full front sun-face, and your eyelids wink

    And drop before the wonder of’t; you miss

    The form, through seeing the light. I lived, those days,

    And wrote because I lived—unlicensed else:

    My heart beat in my brain. Life’s violent flood

    Abolished bounds,—and, which my neighbour’s field,

    Which mine, what mattered? It is so in youth.

    We play at leap-frog over the god Term;

    The love within us and the love without

    Are mixed, confounded; if we are loved or love,

    We scarce distinguish. So, with other power.

    Being acted on and acting seem the same:

    In that first onrush of life’s chariot-wheels,

    We know not if the forests move or we.


    And so, like most young poets, in a flush

    Of individual life, I poured myself

    Along the veins of others, and achieved

    Mere lifeless imitations of live verse,

    And made the living answer for the dead,

    Profaning nature. ‘Touch not, do not taste,

    Nor handle,’—we’re too legal, who write young:

    We beat the phorminx till we hurt our thumbs,

    As if still ignorant of counterpoint;

    We call the Muse . . ‘O Muse, benignant Muse!’—

    As if we had seen her purple-braided head

    With the eyes in it start between the boughs

    As often as a stag’s. What make-believe,

    With so much earnest! what effete results,

    From virile efforts! what cold wire-drawn odes

    From such white heats!—bucolics, where the cows

    Would scare the writer if they splashed the mud

    In lashing off the flies,—didactics, driven

    Against the heels of what the master said;

    And counterfeiting epics, shrill with trumps

    A babe might blow between two straining cheeks

    Of bubbled rose, to make his mother laugh;

    And elegiac griefs, and songs of love,

    Like cast-off nosegays picked up on the road,

    The worse for being warm: all these things, writ

    On happy mornings, with a morning heart,

    That leaps for love, is active for resolve,

    Weak for art only. Oft, the ancient forms

    Will thrill, indeed, in carrying the young blood.

    The wine-skins, now and then, a little warped,

    Will crack even, as the new wine gurgles in.

    Spare the old bottles!—spill not the new wine.

    By Keats’s soul, the man who never stepped

    In gradual progress like another man,

    But, turning grandly on his central self,

    Ensphered himself in twenty perfect years

    And died, not young,—(the life of a long life,

    Distilled to a mere drop, falling like a tear

    Upon the world’s cold cheek to make it burn

    For ever;) by that strong excepted soul,

    I count it strange, and hard to understand,

    That nearly all young poets should write old;

    That Pope was sexagenarian at sixteen,

    And beardless Byron academical,

    And so with others. It may be, perhaps,

    Such have not settled long and deep enough

    In trance, to attain to clairvoyance,—and still

    The memory mixes with the vision, spoils,

    And works it turbid.

    Or perhaps, again,

    In order to discover the Muse-Sphinx,

    The melancholy desert must sweep round,

    Behind you, as before.—

    For me, I wrote

    False poems, like the rest, and thought them true,

    Because myself was true in writing them.

    I, peradventure, have writ true ones since

    With less complacence.

    But I could not hide

    My quickening inner life from those at watch.

    They saw a light at a window now and then,

    They had not set there. Who had set it there?

    My father’s sister started when she caught

    My soul agaze in my eyes. She could not say

    I had no business with a sort of soul,

    But plainly she objected,—and demurred,

    That souls were dangerous things to carry straight

    Through all the spilt saltpetre of the world.


    She said sometimes, ‘Aurora, have you done

    Your task this morning?—have you read that book?

    And are you ready for the crochet here?’—

    As if she said, ‘I know there’s something wrong,

    I know I have not ground you down enough

    To flatten and bake you to a wholesome crust

    For household uses and proprieties,

    Before the rain has got into my barn

    And set the grains a-sprouting. What, you’re green

    With out-door impudence? you almost grow?’

    To which I answered, ‘Would she hear my task,

    And verify my abstract of the book?

    And should I sit down to the crochet work?

    Was such her pleasure?’ . . Then I sate and teased

    The patient needle till it spilt the thread,

    Which oozed off from it in meandering lace

    From hour to hour. I was not, therefore, sad;

    My soul was singing at a work apart

    Behind the wall of sense, as safe from harm

    As sings the lark when sucked up out of sight,

    In vortices of glory and blue air.


    And so, through forced work and spontaneous work,

    The inner life informed the outer life,

    Reduced the irregular blood to settled rhythms,

    Made cool the forehead with fresh-sprinkling dreams,

    And, rounding to the spheric soul the thin

    Pined body, struck a colour up the cheeks,

    Though somewhat faint. I clenched my brows across

    My blue eyes greatening in the looking-glass,

    And said, ‘We’ll live, Aurora! we’ll be strong.

    The dogs are on us—but we will not die.’


    Whoever lives true life, will love true love.

    I learnt to love that England. Very oft,

    Before the day was born, or otherwise

    Through secret windings of the afternoons,

    I threw my hunters off and plunged myself

    Among the deep hills, as a hunted stag

    Will take the waters, shivering with the fear

    And passion of the course. And when, at last

    Escaped,—so many a green slope built on slope

    Betwixt me and the enemy’s house behind,

    I dared to rest, or wander,—like a rest

    Made sweeter for the step upon the grass,—

    And view the ground’s most gentle dimplement,

    (As if God’s finger touched but did not press

    In making England!) such an up and down

    Of verdure,—nothing too much up or down,

    A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky

    Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb;

    Such nooks of valleys, lined with orchises,

    Fed full of noises by invisible streams;

    And open pastures, where you scarcely tell

    White daisies from white dew,—at intervals

    The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out

    Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade,—

    I thought my father’s land was worthy too

    Of being my Shakspeare’s.

    Very oft alone,

    Unlicensed; not unfrequently with leave

    To walk the third with Romney and his friend

    The rising painter, Vincent Carrington,

    Whom men judge hardly, as bee-bonneted,

    Because he holds that, paint a body well,

    You paint a soul by implication, like

    The grand first Master. Pleasant walks! for if

    He said . . ‘When I was last in Italy’ . .

    It sounded as an instrument that’s played

    Too far off for the tune—and yet it’s fine

    To listen.

    Often we walked only two,

    If cousin Romney pleased to walk with me.

    We read, or talked, or quarrelled, as it chanced:

    We were not lovers, nor even friends well-matched—

    Say rather, scholars upon different tracks,

    And thinkers disagreed; he, overfull

    Of what is, and I, haply, overbold

    For what might be.

    But then the thrushes sang,

    And shook my pulses and the elms’ new leaves,—

    And then I turned, and held my finger up,

    And bade him mark that, howsoe’er the world

    Went ill, as he related, certainly

    The thrushes still sang in it.—At which word

    His brow would soften,—and he bore with me

    In melancholy patience, not unkind,

    While, breaking into voluble ecstasy,

    I flattered all the beauteous country round,

    As poets use . . the skies, the clouds, the fields,

    The happy violets hiding from the roads

    The primroses run down to, carrying gold,—

    The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out

    Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths

    ’Twixt dripping ash-boughs,—hedgerows all alive

    With birds and gnats and large white butterflies

    Which look as if the May-flower had sought life

    And palpitated forth upon the wind,—

    Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,

    Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills,

    And cattle grazing in the watered vales,

    And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,

    And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,

    Confused with smell of orchards. ‘See,’ I said,

    ‘And see! is God not with us on the earth?

    And shall we put Him down by aught we do?

    Who says there’s nothing for the poor and vile

    Save poverty and wickedness? behold!’

    And ankle-deep in English grass I leaped,

    And clapped my hands, and called all very fair.

    In the beginning when God called all good,

    Even then, was evil near us, it is writ.

    But we, indeed, who call things good and fair,

    The evil is upon us while we speak;

    Deliver us from evil, let us pray.


    2.4.5" Sonnets from the Portuguese


    I thought once how Theocritus had sung

    Of the sweet years, the dear and wished for years,

    Who each one in a gracious hand appears

    To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:

    And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,

    I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,

    The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years, . .

    Those of my own life, who by turns had flung

    A shadow across me. Straightway I was ‘ware,

    So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move

    Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;

    And a voice said in mastery while I strove, . .

    “Guess now who holds thee?”—“Death!” I said,

    But, there,

    The silver answer rang . . “Not Death, but Love.”



    But only three in all God’s universe

    Have heard this word thou hast said; Himself, beside

    Thee speaking and me listening! and replied

    One of us . . that was God! . . and laid the curse

    So darkly on my eyelids as to amerce

    My sight from seeing thee,—that if I had died,

    The deathweights, placed there, would have signified

    Less absolute exclusion. “Nay” is worse

    From God than from all others, O my friend!

    Men could not part us with their worldly jars,

    Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend:

    Our hands would touch, for all the mountain-bars;—

    And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,

    We should but vow the faster for the stars.



    Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!

    Unlike our uses, and our destinies.

    Our ministering two angels look surprise

    On one another, as they strike athwart

    Their wings in passing. Thou, bethink thee, art

    A guest for queens to social pageantries,

    With gages from a hundred brighter eyes

    Than tears, even, can make mine, to ply thy part

    Of chief musician. What hast thou to do

    With looking from the lattice-lights at me,

    A poor, tired, wandering singer? . . singing through

    The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?

    The chrism is on thine head,—on mine, the dew,—

    And Death must dig the level where these agree.



    Thou hast thy calling to some palace floor,

    Most gracious singer of high poems! where

    The dancers will break footing from the care

    Of watching up thy pregnant lips for more.

    And dost thou lift this house’s latch too poor

    For hand of thine? and canst thou think and bear

    To let thy music drop here unaware

    In folds of golden fulness at my door?

    Look up and see the casement broken in,

    Hie bats and owlets builders in the roof!

    My cricket chirps against thy mandolin.

    Hush! call no echo up in further proof

    Of desolation! there’s a voice within

    That weeps . . as thou must sing . . alone, aloof.



    I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,

    As once Electra her sepulchral urn,

    And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn

    The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see

    What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,

    And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn

    Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn

    Could tread them out to darkness utterly,

    It might be well perhaps. But if instead

    Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow

    The grey dust up, . . . those laurels on thine head,

    O My beloved, will not shield thee so,

    That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred

    The hair beneath. Stand farther off then! Go.



    Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand

    Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore

    Alone upon the threshold of my door

    Of individual life, I shall command

    The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand

    Serenely in the sunshine as before,

    Without the sense of that which I forbore, . .

    Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land

    Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine

    With pulses that beat double. What I do

    And what I dream include thee, as the wine

    Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue

    God for myself. He hears that name of thine,

    And sees within my eyes, the tears of two.



    The face of all the world is changed, I think,

    Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul

    Move still, oh, still, beside me; as they stole

    Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink

    Of obvious death, where I who thought to sink

    Was caught up into love and taught the whole

    Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole

    God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,

    And praise its sweetness, sweet, with thee anear.

    The names of country, heaven, are changed away

    For where thou art or shalt be, there or here;

    And this . . this lute and song . . loved yesterday,

    (The singing angels know) are only dear,

    Because thy name moves right in what they say.



    What can I give thee back, O liberal

    And princely giver, . . who hast brought the gold

    And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold,

    And laid them on the outside of the wall,

    For such as I to take, or leave withal,

    In unexpected largesse? Am I cold,

    Ungrateful, that for these most manifold

    High gifts, I render nothing back at all?

    Not so. Not cold!—but very poor instead!

    Ask God who knows! for frequent tears have run

    The colours from my life, and left so dead

    And pale a stuff, it were not fitly done

    To give the same as pillow to thy head.

    Go farther! Let it serve to trample on.



    Can it be right to give what I can give?

    To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears

    As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years

    Re-sighing on my lips renunciative

    Through those infrequent smiles, which fail to live

    For all thy adjurations? O my fears,

    That this can scarce be right! We are not peers,

    So to be lovers; and I own and grieve

    That givers of such gifts as mine are, must

    Be counted with the ungenerous. Out, alas!

    I will not soil thy purple with my dust,

    Nor breathe my poison on thy Venice-glass,

    Nor give thee any love . . . which were unjust.

    Beloved, I only love thee! let it pass.



    Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed

    And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright,

    Let temple bum, or flax! An equal light

    Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed.

    And love is fire: and when I say at need

    I love thee . . mark! . . I love thee! . . in thy sight

    I stand transfigured, glorified aright,

    With conscience of the new rays that proceed

    Out of my face toward thine. There’s nothing low

    In love, when love the lowest: meanest creatures

    Who love God, God accepts while loving so.

    And what I feel, across the inferior features

    Of what I am, doth flash itself, and show

    How that great work of Love enhances Nature’s.



    And therefore if to love can be desert,

    I am not all unworthy. Cheeks as pale

    As these you see, and trembling knees that fail

    To bear the burden of a heavy heart,

    This weary minstrel-life that once was girt

    To climb Aornus, and can scarce avail

    To pipe now ‘gainst the woodland nightingale

    A melancholy music! . . why advert

    To these things? O Beloved, it is plain

    I am not of thy worth nor for thy place:

    And yet because I love thee, I obtain

    From that same love this vindicating grace,

    To live on still in love and yet in vain, . .

    To bless thee yet renounce thee to thy face.



    Indeed this very love which is my boast,

    And which, when rising up from breast to brow,

    Doth crown me with a ruby large enow

    To draw men’s eyes, and prove the inner cost, . .

    This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,

    I should not love withal, unless that thou

    Hadst set me an example, shown me how,

    When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,

    And love called love. And thus, I cannot speak

    Of love even, as a good thing of my own.

    Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,

    And placed it by thee on a golden throne,—

    And that I love, (O soul, I must be meek!)

    Is by thee only, whom I love alone.



    And wilt thou have me fashion into speech

    The love I bear thee, finding words enough,

    And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough,

    Between our faces, to cast light on each?—

    I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach

    My hand to hold my spirit so far off

    From myself. . me . . that I should bring thee proof

    In words, of love hid in me out of reach.

    Nay, let the silence of my womanhood

    Commend my woman-love to thy belief,—

    Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,

    And rend the garment of my life, in brief,

    By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,

    Lest one touch of this heart, convey its grief.



    If thou must love me, let it be for nought

    Except for love’s sake only. Do not say

    “I love her for her smile . . her look . . her way

    Of speaking gently, . . for a trick of thought

    That falls in well with mine, and certes brought

    A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”—

    For these things in themselves, Beloved, may

    Be changed, or change for thee,—and love so wrought,

    May be unwrought so. Neither love me for

    Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,

    Since one might well forget to weep who bore

    Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby.

    But love me for love’s sake, that evermore

    Thou may’st love on through love’s eternity.



    Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear

    Too calm and sad a face in front of thine;

    For we two look two ways, and cannot shine

    With the same sunlight on our brow and hair.

    On me thou lookest, with no doubting care,

    As on a bee shut in a crystalline,—

    For sorrow hath shut me safe in love’s divine,

    And to spread wing and fly in the outer air

    Were most impossible failure, if I strove

    To fail so. But I look on thee . . on thee . .

    Beholding, besides love, the end of love,

    Hearing oblivion beyond memory . . .

    As one who sits and gazes, from above,

    Over the rivers to the bitter sea.



    And yet, because thou overcomest so,

    Because thou art more noble and like a king,

    Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling

    Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow

    Too close against thine heart, henceforth to know

    How it shook when alone. Why, conquering

    May prove as lordly and complete a thing

    In lifting upward as in crushing low:

    And, as a soldier struck down by a sword

    May cry, “My strife ends here,” and sink to earth

    Even so, Beloved, I at last record,

    Here ends my doubt! If thou invite me forth,

    I rise above abasement at the word.

    Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.



    My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes

    God set between His After and Before,

    And strike up and strike off the general roar

    Of the rushing worlds, a melody that floats

    In a serene air purely. Antidotes

    Of medicated music, answering for

    Mankind’s forlornest uses, thou canst pour

    From thence into their ears. God’s will devotes

    Thine to such ends, and mine to wait on thine!

    How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?

    A hope, to sing by gladly? . . or a fine

    Sad memory, with thy songs to interfuse? . .

    A shade, in which to sing . . . of palm or pine?

    A grave, on which to rest from singing? . . Choose.



    I never gave a lock of hair away

    To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,

    Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully

    I ring out to the full brown length and say

    “Take it.” My day of youth went yesterday;

    My hair no longer bounds to my foot’s glee,

    Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,

    As girls do, any more. It only may

    Now shade on two pale cheeks, the mark of tears,

    Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside

    Through sorrow’s trick. I thought the funeral-shears

    Would take this first; but Love is justified:

    Take it thou, . . finding pure, from all those years,

    The kiss my mother left here when she died.



    The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise;

    I barter curl for curl upon that mart;

    And from my poet’s forehead to my heart,

    Receive this lock which outweighs argosies,—

    As purply black, as erst to Pindar’s eyes

    The dim purpureal tresses gloomed athwart

    The nine white Muse-brows. For this counterpart, . .

    The bay-crown’s shade, Beloved, I surmise,

    Still lingers on thy curl, it is so black!

    Thus, with a fillet of smooth-kissing breath,

    I tie the shadow safe from gliding back,

    And lay the gift where nothing hindereth,

    Here on my heart as on thy brow, to lack

    No natural heat till mine grows cold in death.



    Beloved, my Beloved, when I think

    That thou wast in the world a year ago,

    What time I sate alone here in the snow

    And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink

    No moment at thy voice, . . but link by link

    Went counting all my chains as if that so

    They never could fall off at any blow

    Struck by thy possible hand . . . . why, thus I drink

    Of life’s great cup of wonder. Wonderful,

    Never to feel thee thrill the day or night

    With personal act or speech,—nor ever cull

    Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white

    Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull,

    Who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.



    Say over again and yet once over again

    That thou dost love me. Though the word repeated

    Should seem “a cuckoo-song,” as thou dost treat it,

    Remember never to the hill or plain,

    Valley and wood, without her cuckoo-strain,

    Comes the fresh Spring in all her green completed!

    Beloved, I, amid the darkness greeted

    By a doubtful spirit-voice, in that doubt’s pain

    Cry . . speak once more . . thou lovest! Who can fear

    Too many stars, though each in heaven shall roll—

    Too many flowers, though each shall crown the year?

    Say thou dost love me, love me, love me—toll

    The silver iterance!—only minding, Dear,

    To love me also in silence, with thy soul.



    When our two souls stand up erect and strong,

    Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,

    Until the lengthening wings break into fire

    At either curvèd point,—what bitter wrong

    Can the earth do to us, that we should not long

    Be here contented? Think. In mounting higher,

    The angels would press on us, and aspire

    To drop some golden orb of perfect song

    Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay

    Rather on earth, Beloved,—where the unfit

    Contrarious moods of men recoil away

    And isolate pure spirits, and permit

    A place to stand and love in for a day,

    With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.



    Is it indeed so? If I lay here dead,

    Would’st thou miss any life in losing mine,

    And would the sun for thee more coldly shine,

    Because of grave-damps falling round my head?

    I marvelled, my Beloved, when I read

    Thy thought so in the letter. I am thine—

    But . . so much to thee? Can I pour thy wine

    While my hands tremble? Then my soul, instead

    Of dreams of death, resumes life’s lower range!

    Then, love me, Love! look on me . . breathe on me!

    As brighter ladies do not count it strange,

    For love, to give up acres and degree,

    I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange

    My near sweet view of Heaven, for earth with thee!



    Let the world’s sharpness like a clasping knife

    Shut in upon itself and do no harm

    In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm;

    And let us hear no sound of human strife,

    After the click of the shutting. Life to life—

    I lean upon thee, Dear, without alarm,

    And feel as safe as guarded by a charm,

    Against the stab of worldlings who if rife

    Are weak to injure. Very whitely still

    The lilies of our lives may reassure

    Their blossoms from their roots! accessible

    Alone to heavenly dews that drop not fewer;

    Growing straight, out of man’s reach, on the hill.

    God only, who made us rich, can make us poor.



    A heavy heart, Beloved, have I borne

    From year to year until I saw thy face,

    And sorrow after sorrow took the place

    Of all those natural joys as lightly worn

    As the stringed pearls . . each lifted in its turn

    By a beating heart at dance-time. Hopes apace

    Were changed to long despairs, . . till God’s own grace

    Could scarcely lift above the world forlorn

    My heavy heart. Then thou didst bid me bring

    And let it drop adown thy calmly great

    Deep being! Fast it sinketh, as a thing

    Which its own nature doth precipitate,

    While thine doth close above it mediating

    Betwixt the stars and the unaccomplished fate.



    I lived with visions for my company

    Instead of men and women, years ago,

    And found them gentle mates, nor thought to know

    A sweeter music than they played to me.

    But soon their trailing purple was not free

    Of this world’s dust,—their lutes did silent grow,

    And I myself grew faint and blind below

    Their vanishing eyes. Then thou didst come . . to be,

    Beloved, what they seemed. Their shining fronts,

    Their songs, their splendours . . (better, yet the same, . .

    As river-water hallowed into fonts . . )

    Met in thee, and from out thee overcame

    My soul with satisfaction of all wants—

    Because God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.



    My own Beloved, who hast lifted me

    From this drear flat of earth where I was thrown,

    And in betwixt the languid ringlets, blown

    A life-breath, till the forehead hopefully

    Shines out again, as all the angels see,

    Before thy saving kiss! My own, my own,

    Who earnest to me when the world was gone,

    And I who looked for only God, found thee!

    I find thee: I am safe, and strong, and glad.

    As one who stands in dewless asphodel

    Looks backward on the tedious time he had

    In the upper life . . so I, with bosom-swell,

    Make witness here between the good and bad,

    That Love, as strong as Death, retrieves as well.



    My letters! all dead paper, . . mute and white!—

    And yet they seem alive and quivering

    Against my tremulous hands, which loose the string

    And let them drop down on my knee to-night.

    This said, . . he wished to have me in his sight

    Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring

    To come and touch my hand . . . a simple thing,

    Yet I wept for it!—this, . . the paper’s light . .

    Said, Dear, I love thee: and I sank and quailed

    As if God’s future thundered on my past:

    This said, I am thine—and so its ink has paled

    With lying at my heart that beat too fast:

    And this . . . O Love, thy words have ill availed,

    Is what this said, I dared repeat at last!



    I think of thee!—my thoughts do twine and bud

    About thee, as wild vines about a tree,—

    Put out broad leaves, and soon there’s nought to see

    Except the straggling green which hides the wood.

    Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood

    I will not have my thoughts instead of thee

    Who art dearer, better! Rather instantly

    Renew thy presence! As a strong tree should,

    Rustle thy boughs, and set thy trunk all bare,

    And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee,

    Drop heavily down, . . burst, shattered, everywhere!

    Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee

    And breathe within thy shadow a new air,

    I do not think of thee—I am too near thee.



    I see thine image through my tears to-night,

    And yet to-day I saw thee smiling. How

    Refer the cause?—Beloved, is it thou

    Or I? Who makes me sad? The acolyte

    Amid the chanted joy and thankful rite,

    May so fall flat, with pale insensate brow,

    On the altar-stair. I hear thy voice and vow

    Perplexed, uncertain, since thou’rt out of sight,

    As he, in his swooning ears, the choir’s amen!

    Beloved, dost thou love? or did I see all

    The glory as I dreamed, and fainted when

    Too vehement light dilated my ideal

    For my soul’s eyes? Will that light come again,

    As now these tears come . . . falling hot and real?



    Thou comest! all is said without a word.

    I sit beneath thy looks, as children do

    In the noon-sun, with souls that tremble through

    Their happy eyelids from an unaverred

    Yet prodigal inward joy. Behold, I erred

    In that last doubt! and yet I cannot rue

    The sin most, but the occasion . . . that we two

    Should for a moment stand unministered

    By a mutual presence. Ah, keep near and close,

    Thou dovelike help! and, when my fears would rise,

    With thy broad heart serenely interpose!

    Brood down with thy divine sufficiencies

    These thoughts which tremble when bereft of those,

    Like callow birds left desert to the skies.



    The first time that the sun rose on thine oath

    To love me, I looked forward to the moon

    To slacken all those bonds which seemed too soon

    And quickly tied to make a lasting troth.

    Quick-loving hearts, I thought, may quickly loathe;

    And, looking on myself, I seemed not one

    For such man’s love!—more like an out of tune

    Worn viol, a good singer would be wroth

    To spoil his song with, and which, snatched in haste,

    Is laid down at the first ill-sounding note.

    I did not wrong myself so, but I placed

    A wrong on thee. For perfect strains may float

    ‘Neath master-hands, from instruments defaced,—

    And great souls, at one stroke, may do and doat.



    Yes, call me by my pet-name! let me hear

    The name I used to run at, when a child,

    From innocent play, and leave the cowslips piled,

    To glance up in some face that proved me dear

    With the look of its eyes. I miss the clear

    Fond voices, which, being drawn and reconciled

    Into the music of Heaven’s undefiled,

    Call me no longer. Silence on the bier,

    While I call God . . call God!—So let thy mouth

    Be heir to those who are now exanimate:

    Gather the north flowers to complete the south,

    And catch the early love up in the late!

    Yes, call me by that name,—and I, in truth,

    With the same heart, will answer, and not wait.



    With the same heart, I said, I’ll answer thee

    As those, when thou shalt call me by my name—

    Lo, the vain promise! Is the same, the same,

    Perplexed and ruffled by life’s strategy?

    When called before, I told how hastily

    I dropped my flowers, or brake off from a game,

    To run and answer with the smile that came

    At play last moment, and went on with me

    Through my obedience. When I answer now,

    I drop a grave thought;—break from solitude:—

    Yet still my heart goes to thee . . . ponder how . .

    Not as to a single good but all my good!

    Lay thy hand on it, best one, and allow

    That no child’s foot could run fast as this blood.



    If I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange

    And be all to me? Shall I never miss

    Home-talk and blessings and the common kiss

    That comes to each in turn, nor count it strange,

    When I look up, to drop on a new range

    Of walls and floors . . another home than this?

    Nay, wilt thou fill that place by me which is

    Filled by dead eyes, too tender to know change?

    That’s hardest! If to conquer love, has tried,

    To conquer grief tries more . . . as all things prove

    For grief indeed is love, and grief beside,

    Alas, I have grieved so I am hard to love—

    Yet love me—wilt thou? Open thine heart wide,

    And fold within, the wet wings of thy dove.



    When we met first and loved, I did not build

    Upon the event with marble. Could it mean

    To last, a love set pendulous between

    Sorrow and sorrow? Nay, I rather thrilled,

    Distrusting every light that seemed to gild

    The onward path, and feared to overlean

    A finger even. And, though I have grown serene

    And strong since then, I think that God has willed

    A still renewable fear . . O love, O troth . .

    Lest these enclasped hands should never hold,

    This mutual kiss drop down between us both

    As an unowned thing, once the lips being cold.

    And Love be false! if he, to keep one oath,

    Must lose one joy by his life’s star foretold.



    Pardon, oh, pardon, that my soul should make

    Of all that strong divineness which I know

    For thine and thee, an image only so

    Formed of the sand, and fit to shift and break.

    It is that distant years which did not take

    Thy sovranty, recoiling with a blow,

    Have forced my swimming brain to undergo

    Their doubt and dread, and blindly to forsake

    Thy purity of likeness, and distort

    Thy worthiest love with worthless counterfeit.

    As if a shipwrecked Pagan, safe in port,

    His guardian sea-god to commemorate,

    Should set a sculptured porpoise, gills a-snort,

    And vibrant tail, within the temple-gate.



    First time he kissed me, he but only kissed

    The fingers of this hand wherewith I write,

    And ever since it grew more clean and white, . . .

    Slow to world-greetings . . quick with its “Oh, list,”

    When the angels speak. A ring of amethyst

    I could not wear here plainer to my sight,

    Than that first kiss. The second passed in height

    The first, and sought the forehead, and half missed,

    Half falling on the hair. O beyond meed!

    That was the chrism of love, which love’s own crown,

    With sanctifying sweetness, did precede.

    The third, upon my lips, was folded down

    In perfect, purple state! since when, indeed,

    I have been proud and said, “My Love, my own.”



    Because thou hast the power and own’st the grace

    To look through and behind this mask of me,

    (Against which, years have beat thus blenchingly

    With their rains!) and behold my soul’s true face,

    The dim and weary witness of life’s race:—

    Because thou hast the faith and love to see,

    Through that same soul’s distracting lethargy,

    The patient angel waiting for his place

    In the new Heavens: because nor sin nor woe,

    Nor God’s infliction, nor death’s neighbourhood,

    Nor all, which others viewing, turn to go, . .

    Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-viewed, . .

    Nothing repels thee, . . Dearest, teach me so

    To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!



    Oh, yes! they love through all this world of ours!

    I will not gainsay love, called love forsooth.

    I have heard love talked in my early youth,

    And since, not so long back but that the flowers

    Then gathered, smell still. Mussulmans and Giaours

    Throw kerchiefs at a smile, and have no ruth

    For any weeping. Polypheme’s white tooth

    Slips on the nut, if after frequent showers

    The shell is over-smooth; and not so much

    Will turn the thing called love, aside to hate,

    Or else to oblivion. But thou art not such

    A lover, my Beloved! thou canst wait

    Through sorrow and sickness, to bring souls to touch,

    And think it soon when others cry “Too late.”



    I thank all who have loved me in their hearts,

    With thanks and love from mine. Deep thanks to all

    Who paused a little near the prison-wall,

    To hear my music in its louder parts,

    Ere they went onward, each one to the mart’s

    Or temple’s occupation, beyond call.

    But thou, who in my voice’s sink and fall,

    When the sob took it, thy divinest Art’s

    Own instrument, didst drop down at thy foot,

    To hearken what I said between my tears, . .

    Instruct me how to thank thee!—Oh, to shoot

    My soul’s full meaning into future years,

    That they should lend it utterance, and salute

    Love that endures! with Life that disappears!



    How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

    I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

    My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

    For the ends of Being and Ideal Grace.

    I love thee to the level of everyday’s

    Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

    I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

    I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise;

    I love thee with the passion put to use

    In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith;

    I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

    With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,

    Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,

    I shall but love thee better after death.



    Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers

    Plucked in the garden, all the summer through

    And winter, and it seemed as if they grew

    In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers.

    So, in the like name of that love of ours,

    Take back these thoughts, which here unfolded too,

    And which on warm and cold days I withdrew

    Front my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers

    Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,

    And wait thy weeding: yet here’s eglantine,

    Here’s ivy!—take them, as I used to do

    Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine;

    Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true,

    And tell thy soul, their roots are left in mine.


    2.4.6: Mother and Poet


    Dead! One of them shot by the sea in the east,

    And one of them shot in the west by the sea.

    Dead! both my boys! When you sit at the feast

    And are wanting a great song for Italy free,

    Let none look at me!



    Yet I was a poetess only last year,

    And good at my art, for a woman, men said;

    But this woman, this, who is agonized here, —

    The east sea and west sea rhyme on in her head

    For ever instead.



    What art can a woman be good at? Oh, vain!

    What art is she good at, but hurting her breast

    With the milk-teeth of babes, and a smile at the pain?

    Ah boys, how you hurt! you were strong as you pressed,

    And I proud, by that test.



    What art’s for a woman? To hold on her knees

    Both darlings! to feel all their arms round her throat,

    Cling, strangle a little! to sew by degrees

    And ‘broider the long-clothes and neat little coat ;

    To dream and to doat.



    To teach them . . . It stings there! I made them indeed

    Speak plain the word country. I taught them, no doubt,

    That a country’s a thing men should die for at need.

    I prated of liberty, rights, and about

    The tyrant cast out.



    And when their eyes flashed . . . O my beautiful eyes! . . .

    I exulted; nay, let them go forth at the wheels

    Of the guns, and denied not. But then the surprise

    When one sits quite alone! Then one weeps, then one kneels!

    God, how the house feels!



    At first, happy news came, in gay letters moiled

    With my kisses,—of camp-life and glory, and how

    They both loved me; and, soon coming home to be spoiled

    In return would fan off every fly from my brow

    With their green laurel-bough.



    Then was triumph at Turin: Ancona was free!’

    And some one came out of the cheers in the street,

    With a face pale as stone, to say something to me.

    My Guido was dead! I fell down at his feet,

    While they cheered in the street.



    I bore it; friends soothed me; my grief looked sublime

    As the ransom of Italy. One boy remained

    To be leant on and walked with, recalling the time

    When the first grew immortal, while both of us strained

    To the height he had gained.



    And letters still came, shorter, sadder, more strong,

    Writ now but in one hand, I was not to faint, —

    One loved me for two—would be with me ere long :

    And Viva l’ Italia!—he died for, our saint,

    Who forbids our complaint.”



    My Nanni would add, he was safe, and aware

    Of a presence that turned off the balls,—was imprest

    It was Guido himself, who knew what I could bear,

    And how ‘twas impossible, quite dispossessed,

    To live on for the rest.”



    On which, without pause, up the telegraph line

    Swept smoothly the next news from Gaeta : — Shot.

    Tell his mother. Ah, ah, his, ‘their ‘ mother,—not mine,’

    No voice says “My mother” again to me. What!

    You think Guido forgot



    Are souls straight so happy that, dizzy with Heaven,

    They drop earth’s affections, conceive not of woe?

    I think not. Themselves were too lately forgiven

    Through THAT Love and Sorrow which reconciled so

    The Above and Below.



    O Christ of the five wounds, who look’dst through the dark

    To the face of Thy mother! consider, I pray,

    How we common mothers stand desolate, mark,

    Whose sons, not being Christs, die with eyes turned away,

    And no last word to say!



    Both boys dead? but that’s out of nature. We all

    Have been patriots, yet each house must always keep one.

    ‘Twere imbecile, hewing out roads to a wall;

    And, when Italy’s made, for what end is it done

    If we have not a son?



    Ah, ah, ah! when Gaeta’s taken, what then?

    When the fair wicked queen sits no more at her sport

    Of the fire-balls of death crashing souls out of men?

    When the guns of Cavalli with final retort

    Have cut the game short?



    When Venice and Rome keep their new jubilee,

    When your flag takes all heaven for its white, green, and red,

    When you have your country from mountain to sea,

    When King Victor has Italy’s crown on his head,

    (And I have my Dead) —



    What then? Do not mock me. Ah, ring your bells low,

    And burn your lights faintly! My country is there,

    Above the star pricked by the last peak of snow:

    My Italy ‘s THERE, with my brave civic Pair,

    To disfranchise despair!



    Forgive me. Some women bear children in strength,

    And bite back the cry of their pain in self-scorn;

    But the birth-pangs of nations will wring us at length

    Into wail such as this—and we sit on forlorn

    When the man-child is born.



    Dead! One of them shot by the sea in the east,

    And one of them shot in the west by the sea.

    Both! both my boys! If in keeping the feast

    You want a great song for your Italy free,

    Let none look at me!


    2.4.7: Reading and Review Questions

    1. How, and why, do Barrett Browning’s poems call attention to religious and moral hypocrisies? How, if at all, does she deploy that criticism against social ills?
    2. Why, and to what effect, does Barrett Browning’s poetry focus on love? How do you know? How, if at all, does she consider the gendered differences and effects of love?
    3. Why, and to what effect, are political issues included in Barrett Browning’s poetry? How does she present, or describe, political issues? What is her viewpoint on the issues she presents? How do you know?
    4. Which predecessors or literary mentors, if any, does Barrett Browning lay claim to in her poetry, and why?
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