Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a celebrated English poet of the Victorian era. Her poetry centres on a myriad of social themes ranging from the evils of industrialization to slave trade. Her poetic form encompasses lyric, ballad and narrative. She is perhaps best known for her ‘Sonnets From the Portuguese’ and ‘Aurora Leigh’ as well as the love story
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Most Famous Poems
How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)
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 every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
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.
I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless—
That only men incredulous of despair,
Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air,
Beat upward to God’s throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness
In souls, as countries, lieth silent-bare
Under the blenching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death;
Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe,
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath!
Touch it! the marble eyelids are not wet—
If it could weep, it could arise and go.
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 !”
A Musical Instrument
WHAT was he doing, the great god Pan,
Down in the reeds by the river ?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river.
He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
From the deep cool bed of the river :
The limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
Ere he brought it out of the river.
High on the shore sate the great god Pan,
While turbidly flowed the river ;
And hacked and hewed as a great god can,
With his hard bleak steel at the patient reed,
Till there was not a sign of a leaf indeed
To prove it fresh from the river.
He cut it short, did the great god Pan,
(How tall it stood in the river !)
Then drew the pith, like the heart of a man,
Steadily from the outside ring,
And notched the poor dry empty thing
In holes, as he sate by the river.
This is the way,’ laughed the great god Pan,
Laughed while he sate by the river,)
The only way, since gods began
To make sweet music, they could succeed.’
Then, dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,
He blew in power by the river.
Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan !
Piercing sweet by the river !
Blinding sweet, O great god Pan !
The sun on the hill forgot to die,
And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
Came back to dream on the river.
Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,
To laugh as he sits by the river,
Making a poet out of a man :
The true gods sigh for the cost and pain, —
For the reed which grows nevermore again
As a reed with the reeds in the river.
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.
The Best Thing In The World
What’s the best thing in the world?
June-rose, by May-dew impearled;
Sweet south-wind, that means no rain;
Truth, not cruel to a friend;
Pleasure, not in haste to end;
Beauty, not self-decked and curled
Till its pride is over-plain;
Love, when, so, you’re loved again.
What’s the best thing in the world?
–Something out of it, I think.
from Aurora Leigh, First Book
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 life 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 til it split 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.’
from Aurora Leigh, Second Book
‘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’ . .
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.”
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.’
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?’
Perhaps I darkened, as the lighthouse will
That turns upon the sea. ‘It’s always so!
Anything does for a wife.’
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?’
‘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.’
from Aurora Leigh, Third Book
Why what a pettish, petty thing I grow,–
A mere, mere woman,–a mere flaccid nerve,-
A kerchief left out all night in the rain,
Turned soft so,–overtasked and overstrained
And overlived in this close London life!
And yet I should be stronger.
Your letters, poor Aurora! for they stare
With red seals from the table, saying each,
‘Here’s something that you know not.’
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 !
The Runaway Slave At Pilgrim’s Point
I stand on the mark beside the shore
Of the first white pilgrim’s bended knee,
Where exile turned to ancestor,
And God was thanked for liberty.
I have run through the night, my skin is as dark,
I bend my knee down on this mark . . .
I look on the sky and the sea.
O pilgrim-souls, I speak to you!
I see you come out proud and slow
From the land of the spirits pale as dew. . .
And round me and round me ye go!
O pilgrims, I have gasped and run
All night long from the whips of one
Who in your names works sin and woe.
And thus I thought that I would come
And kneel here where I knelt before,
And feel your souls around me hum
In undertone to the ocean’s roar;
And lift my black face, my black hand,
Here, in your names, to curse this land
Ye blessed in freedom’s evermore.
I am black, I am black;
And yet God made me, they say.
But if He did so, smiling back
He must have cast His work away
Under the feet of His white creatures,
With a look of scorn,–that the dusky features
Might be trodden again to clay.
And yet He has made dark things
To be glad and merry as light.
There’s a little dark bird sits and sings;
There’s a dark stream ripples out of sight;
And the dark frogs chant in the safe morass,
And the sweetest stars are made to pass
O’er the face of the darkest night.
But we who are dark, we are dark!
Ah, God, we have no stars!
About our souls in care and cark
Our blackness shuts like prison bars:
The poor souls crouch so far behind,
That never a comfort can they find
By reaching through the prison-bars.
Indeed, we live beneath the sky, . . .
That great smooth Hand of God, stretched out
On all His children fatherly,
To bless them from the fear and doubt,
Which would be, if, from this low place,
All opened straight up to His face
Into the grand eternity.
And still God’s sunshine and His frost,
They make us hot, they make us cold,
As if we were not black and lost:
And the beasts and birds, in wood and fold,
Do fear and take us for very men!
Could the weep-poor-will or the cat of the glen
Look into my eyes and be bold?
I am black, I am black!–
But, once, I laughed in girlish glee;
For one of my colour stood in the track
Where the drivers drove, and looked at me–
And tender and full was the look he gave:
Could a slave look so at another slave?–
I look at the sky and the sea.
And from that hour our spirits grew
As free as if unsold, unbought:
Oh, strong enough, since we were two
To conquer the world, we thought!
The drivers drove us day by day;
We did not mind, we went one way,
And no better a liberty sought.
In the sunny ground between the canes,
He said ‘I love you’ as he passed:
When the shingle-roof rang sharp with the rains,
I heard how he vowed it fast:
While others shook, he smiled in the hut
As he carved me a bowl of the cocoa-nut,
Through the roar of the hurricanes.
I sang his name instead of a song;
Over and over I sang his name–
Upward and downward I drew it along
My various notes; the same, the same!
I sang it low, that the slave-girls near
Might never guess from aught they could hear,
It was only a name.
I look on the sky and the sea–
We were two to love, and two to pray,–
Yes, two, O God, who cried to Thee,
Though nothing didst Thou say.
Coldly Thou sat’st behind the sun!
And now I cry who am but one,
How wilt Thou speak to-day?–
We were black, we were black!
We had no claim to love and bliss:
What marvel, if each turned to lack?
They wrung my cold hands out of his,–
They dragged him . . . where ? . . . I crawled to touch
His blood’s mark in the dust! . . . not much,
Ye pilgrim-souls, . . . though plain as this!
Wrong, followed by a deeper wrong!
Mere grief’s too good for such as I.
So the white men brought the shame ere long
To strangle the sob of my agony.
They would not leave me for my dull
Wet eyes!–it was too merciful
To let me weep pure tears and die.
I am black, I am black!–
I wore a child upon my breast
An amulet that hung too slack,
And, in my unrest, could not rest:
Thus we went moaning, child and mother,
One to another, one to another,
Until all ended for the best:
For hark ! I will tell you low . . . Iow . . .
I am black, you see,–
And the babe who lay on my bosom so,
Was far too white . . . too white for me;
As white as the ladies who scorned to pray
Beside me at church but yesterday;
Though my tears had washed a place for my knee.
My own, own child! I could not bear
To look in his face, it was so white.
I covered him up with a kerchief there;
I covered his face in close and tight:
And he moaned and struggled, as well might be,
For the white child wanted his liberty–
Ha, ha! he wanted his master right.
He moaned and beat with his head and feet,
His little feet that never grew–
He struck them out, as it was meet,
Against my heart to break it through.
I might have sung and made him mild–
But I dared not sing to the white-faced child
The only song I knew.
I pulled the kerchief very close:
He could not see the sun, I swear,
More, then, alive, than now he does
From between the roots of the mango . . . where
. . . I know where. Close! a child and mother
Do wrong to look at one another,
When one is black and one is fair.
Why, in that single glance I had
Of my child’s face, . . . I tell you all,
I saw a look that made me mad . . .
The master’s look, that used to fall
On my soul like his lash . . . or worse!
And so, to save it from my curse,
I twisted it round in my shawl.
And he moaned and trembled from foot to head,
He shivered from head to foot;
Till, after a time, he lay instead
Too suddenly still and mute.
I felt, beside, a stiffening cold, . . .
I dared to lift up just a fold . . .
As in lifting a leaf of the mango-fruit.
But my fruit . . . ha, ha!–there, had been
(I laugh to think on’t at this hour! . . .)
Your fine white angels, who have seen
Nearest the secret of God’s power, . . .
And plucked my fruit to make them wine,
And sucked the soul of that child of mine,
As the humming-bird sucks the soul of the flower.
Ha, ha, for the trick of the angels white!
They freed the white child’s spirit so.
I said not a word, but, day and night,
I carried the body to and fro;
And it lay on my heart like a stone . . . as chill.
–The sun may shine out as much as he will:
I am cold, though it happened a month ago.
From the white man’s house, and the black man’s hut,
I carried the little body on,
The forest’s arms did round us shut,
And silence through the trees did run:
They asked no question as I went,–
They stood too high for astonishment,–
They could see God sit on His throne.
My little body, kerchiefed fast,
I bore it on through the forest . . . on:
And when I felt it was tired at last,
I scooped a hole beneath the moon.
Through the forest-tops the angels far,
With a white sharp finger from every star,
Did point and mock at what was done.
Yet when it was all done aright, . . .
Earth, ‘twixt me and my baby, strewed,
All, changed to black earth, . . . nothing white, . . .
A dark child in the dark,–ensued
Some comfort, and my heart grew young:
I sate down smiling there and sung
The song I learnt in my maidenhood.
And thus we two were reconciled,
The white child and black mother, thus:
For, as I sang it, soft and wild
The same song, more melodious,
Rose from the grave whereon I sate!
It was the dead child singing that,
To join the souls of both of us.
I look on the sea and the sky!
Where the pilgrims’ ships first anchored lay,
The free sun rideth gloriously;
But the pilgrim-ghosts have slid away
Through the earliest streaks of the morn.
My face is black, but it glares with a scorn
Which they dare not meet by day.
Ah!–in their ‘stead, their hunter sons!
Ah, ah! they are on me–they hunt in a ring–
Keep off! I brave you all at once–
I throw off your eyes like snakes that sting!
You have killed the black eagle at nest, I think:
Did you never stand still in your triumph, and shrink
From the stroke of her wounded wing?
(Man, drop that stone you dared to lift!–)
I wish you, who stand there five a-breast,
Each, for his own wife’s joy and gift,
A little corpse as safely at rest
As mine in the mangos!–Yes, but she
May keep live babies on her knee,
And sing the song she liketh best.
I am not mad: I am black.
I see you staring in my face–
I know you, staring, shrinking back–
Ye are born of the Washington-race:
And this land is the free America:
And this mark on my wrist . . . (I prove what I say)
Ropes tied me up here to the flogging-place.
You think I shrieked then? Not a sound!
I hung, as a gourd hangs in the sun.
I only cursed them all around,
As softly as I might have done
My very own child!–From these sands
Up to the mountains, lift your hands,
O slaves, and end what I begun!
Whips, curses; these must answer those!
For in this UNION, you have set
Two kinds of men in adverse rows,
Each loathing each: and all forget
The seven wounds in Christ’s body fair;
While HE sees gaping everywhere
Our countless wounds that pay no debt.
Our wounds are different. Your white men
Are, after all, not gods indeed,
Nor able to make Christs again
Do good with bleeding. We who bleed . . .
(Stand off!) we help not in our loss!
We are too heavy for our cross,
And fall and crush you and your seed.
I fall, I swoon! I look at the sky:
The clouds are breaking on my brain;
I am floated along, as if I should die
Of liberty’s exquisite pain–
In the name of the white child, waiting for me
In the death-dark where we may kiss and agree,
White men, I leave you all curse-free
In my broken heart’s disdain!
Lord Walter’s Wife
‘But where do you go?’ said the lady, while both sat under the yew,
And her eyes were alive in their depth, as the kraken beneath the sea-blue.
‘Because I fear you,’ he answered;–‘because you are far too fair,
And able to strangle my soul in a mesh of your golfd-coloured hair.’
‘Oh that,’ she said, ‘is no reason! Such knots are quickly undone,
And too much beauty, I reckon, is nothing but too much sun.’
‘Yet farewell so,’ he answered; –‘the sunstroke’s fatal at times.
I value your husband, Lord Walter, whose gallop rings still from the limes.
‘Oh that,’ she said, ‘is no reason. You smell a rose through a fence:
If two should smell it what matter? who grumbles, and where’s the pretense?
‘But I,’ he replied, ‘have promised another, when love was free,
To love her alone, alone, who alone from afar loves me.’
‘Why, that,’ she said, ‘is no reason. Love’s always free I am told.
Will you vow to be safe from the headache on Tuesday, and think it will hold?
‘But you,’ he replied, ‘have a daughter, a young child, who was laid
In your lap to be pure; so I leave you: the angels would make me afraid.”
‘Oh that,’ she said, ‘is no reason. The angels keep out of the way;
And Dora, the child, observes nothing, although you should please me and stay.’
At which he rose up in his anger,–‘Why now, you no longer are fair!
Why, now, you no longer are fatal, but ugly and hateful, I swear.’
At which she laughed out in her scorn: ‘These men! Oh these men overnice,
Who are shocked if a colour not virtuous is frankly put on by a vice.’
Her eyes blazed upon him–‘And you! You bring us your vices so near
That we smell them! You think in our presence a thought ‘twould defame us to hear!
‘What reason had you, and what right,–I appel to your soul from my life,–
To find me so fair as a woman? Why, sir, I am pure, and a wife.
‘Is the day-star too fair up above you? It burns you not. Dare you imply
I brushed you more close than the star does, when Walter had set me as high?
‘If a man finds a woman too fair, he means simply adapted too much
To use unlawful and fatal. The praise! –shall I thank you for such?
‘Too fair?–not unless you misuse us! and surely if, once in a while,
You attain to it, straightaway you call us no longer too fair, but too vile.
‘A moment,–I pray your attention!–I have a poor word in my head
I must utter, though womanly custom would set it down better unsaid.
‘You grew, sir, pale to impertinence, once when I showed you a ring.
You kissed my fan when I dropped it. No matter! I’ve broken the thing.
‘You did me the honour, perhaps, to be moved at my side now and then
In the senses–a vice, I have heard, which is common to beasts and some men.
‘Love’s a virtue for heroes!–as white as the snow on high hills,
And immortal as every great soul is that struggles, endures, and fulfils.
‘I love my Walter profoundly,–you, Maude, though you faltered a week,
For the sake of . . . what is it–an eyebrow? or, less still, a mole on the cheek?
‘And since, when all’s said, you’re too noble to stoop to the frivolous cant
About crimes irresistable, virtues that swindle, betray and supplant.
‘I determined to prove to yourself that, whate’er you might dream or avow
By illusion, you wanted precisely no more of me than you have now.
‘There! Look me full in the face!–in the face. Understand, if you can,
That the eyes of such women as I am are clean as the palm of a man.
‘Drop his hand, you insult him. Avoid us for fear we should cost you a scar–
You take us for harlots, I tell you, and not for the women we are.
‘You wronged me: but then I considered . . . there’s Walter! And so at the end
I vowed that he should not be mulcted, by me, in the hand of a friend.
‘Have I hurt you indeed? We are quits then. Nay, friend of my Walter, be mine!
Come, Dora, my darling, my angel, and help me to ask him to dine.’
My Heart and I
ENOUGH ! we’re tired, my heart and I.
We sit beside the headstone thus,
And wish that name were carved for us.
The moss reprints more tenderly
The hard types of the mason’s knife,
As heaven’s sweet life renews earth’s life
With which we’re tired, my heart and I.
You see we’re tired, my heart and I.
We dealt with books, we trusted men,
And in our own blood drenched the pen,
As if such colours could not fly.
We walked too straight for fortune’s end,
We loved too true to keep a friend ;
At last we’re tired, my heart and I.
How tired we feel, my heart and I !
We seem of no use in the world ;
Our fancies hang grey and uncurled
About men’s eyes indifferently ;
Our voice which thrilled you so, will let
You sleep; our tears are only wet :
What do we here, my heart and I ?
So tired, so tired, my heart and I !
It was not thus in that old time
When Ralph sat with me ‘neath the lime
To watch the sunset from the sky.
Dear love, you’re looking tired,’ he said;
I, smiling at him, shook my head :
‘Tis now we’re tired, my heart and I.
So tired, so tired, my heart and I !
Though now none takes me on his arm
To fold me close and kiss me warm
Till each quick breath end in a sigh
Of happy languor. Now, alone,
We lean upon this graveyard stone,
Uncheered, unkissed, my heart and I.
Tired out we are, my heart and I.
Suppose the world brought diadems
To tempt us, crusted with loose gems
Of powers and pleasures ? Let it try.
We scarcely care to look at even
A pretty child, or God’s blue heaven,
We feel so tired, my heart and I.
Yet who complains ? My heart and I ?
In this abundant earth no doubt
Is little room for things worn out :
Disdain them, break them, throw them by
And if before the days grew rough
We once were loved, used, — well enough,
I think, we’ve fared, my heart and I.
Past and Future
MY future will not copy fair my past
On any leaf but Heaven’s. Be fully done,
Supernal Will ! I would not fain be one
Who, satisfying thirst and breaking fast
Upon the fulness of the heart, at last
Saith no grace after meat. My wine hath run
Indeed out of my cup, and there is none
To gather up the bread of my repast
Scattered and trampled ! Yet I find some good
In earth’s green herbs, and streams that bubble up
Clear from the darkling ground, — content until
I sit with angels before better food.
Dear Christ ! when thy new vintage fills my cup,
This hand shall shake no more, nor that wine spill.
Sonnets from the Portuguese 1:
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.’
Sonnets from the Portuguese 14
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, Belovèd, 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,—
A creature might 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.
Sonnets from the Portuguese 20
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.
Sonnets from the Portuguese 26
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,
Belovèd, 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.
Sonnets from the Portuguese 28
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,
If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!
Sonnets from the Portuguese 44
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
From 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.