Aurora Leigh: Book 8
One eve it happened, when I sat alone,
Alone, upon the terrace of my tower,
A book upon my knees to counterfeit
The reading that I never read at all,
While Marian, in the garden down below,
Knelt by the fountain I could just hear thrill
The drowsy silence of the exhausted day,
And peeled a new fig from that purple heap
In the grass beside her, turning out the red
To feed her eager child (who sucked at it
With vehement lips across a gap of air
As he stood opposite, face and curls a-flame
With that last sun-ray, crying "Give me, give,"
And stamping with imperious baby-feet,
We're all born princes) something startled me,
The laugh of sad and innocent souls, that breaks
Abruptly, as if frightened at itself.
'Twas Marian laughed. I saw her glance above
In sudden shame that I should hear her laugh,
And straightway dropped my eyes upon my book,
And knew, the first time, 'twas Boccaccio's tale,
The Falcon's, of the lover who for love
Destroyed the best that loved him. Some of us
Do it still, and then we sit and laugh no more.
Laugh you, sweet Marian, you've the right to laugh,
Since God Himself is for you, and a child!
For me there's somewhat less, and so I sigh.
The heavens were making room to hold the night,
The sevenfold heavens unfolding all their gates
To let the stars out slowly (prophesied
In close-approaching advent, not discerned),
While still the cue-owls from the cypresses
Of the Poggio called and counted every pulse
Of the skyey palpitation. Gradually
The purple and transparent shadows slow
Had filled up the whole valley to the brim,
And flooded all the city, which you saw
As some drowned city in some enchanted sea,
Cut off from nature, drawing you who gaze,
With passionate desire, to leap and plunge
And find a sea-king with a voice of waves,
And treacherous soft eyes, and slippery locks
You cannot kiss but you shall bring away
Their salt upon your lips. The duomo-bell
Strikes ten, as if it struck ten fathoms down,
So deep; and twenty churches answer it
The same, with twenty various instances.
Some gaslights tremble along squares and streets;
The Pitti's palace-front is drawn in fire;
And, past the quays, Maria Novella Place,
In which the mystic obelisks stand up
Triangular, pyramidal, each based
Upon its four-square brazen tortoises,
To guard that fair church, Buonarroti's Bride,
That stares out from her large blind dial-eyes,
(Her quadrant and armillary dials, black
With rhythms of many suns and moons) in vain
Inquiry for so rich a soul as his.
Methinks I have plunged, I see it all so clear . . .
And, O my heart, . . . the sea-king!
In my ears
The sound of waters. There he stood, my king!
I felt him, rather than beheld him. Up
I rose, as if he were my king indeed,
And then sat down, in trouble at myself,
And struggling for my woman's empery.
'Tis pitiful; but women are so made:
We'll die for you perhaps, 'tis probable;
But we'll not spare you an inch of our full height:
We'll have our whole just stature, five feet four,
Though laid out in our coffins: pitiful.
"You, Romney! Lady Waldemar is here?"
He answered in a voice which was not his.
"I have her letter; you shall read it soon.
But first, I must be heard a little, I,
Who have waited long and travelled far for that,
Although you thought to have shut a tedious book
And farewell. Ah, you dog-eared such a page,
And here you find me."
Did he touch my hand,
Or but my sleeve? I trembled, hand and foot,
He must have touched me. "Will you sit?" I asked,
And motioned to a chair; but down he sat,
A little slowly, as a man in doubt,
Upon the couch beside me, couch and chair
Being wheeled upon the terrace.
"You are come,
My cousin Romney? this is wonderful.
But all is wonder on such summer-nights;
And nothing should surprise us any more,
Who see that miracle of stars. Behold."
I signed above, where all the stars were out,
As if an urgent heat had started there
A secret writing from a sombre page,
A blank, last moment, crowded suddenly
With hurrying splendours.
"Then you do not know"
"Yes, I know," I said, "I know.
I had the news from Vincent Carrington.
And yet I did not think you'd leave the work
In England, for so much even, though of course
You'll make a work-day of your holiday,
And turn it to our Tuscan people's use,
Who much need helping since the Austrian boar
(So bold to cross the Alp to Lombardy
And dash his brute front unabashed against
The steep snow-bosses of that shield of God
Who soon shall rise in wrath and shake it clear)
Came hither also, raking up our grape
And olive gardens with his tyrannous tusk,
And rolling on our maize with all his swine."
"You had the news from Vincent Carrington,"
He echoed, picking up the phrase beyond,
As if he knew the rest was merely talk
To fill a gap and keep out a strong wind;
"You had, then, Vincent's personal news?"
I answered. "All that ruined world of yours
Seems crumbling into marriage. Carrington
Has chosen wisely."
"Do you take it so?"
He cried, "and is it possible at last" . . .
He paused there, and then, inward to himself,
"Too much at last, too late! yet certainly" . . .
(And there his voice swayed as an Alpine plank
That feels a passionate torrent underneath)
"The knowledge, had I known it first or last,
Could scarce have changed the actual case for me.
And best for her at this time."
Nay, I thought,
He loves Kate Ward, it seems, now, like a man,
Because he has married Lady Waldemar!
Ah, Vincent's letter said how Leigh was moved
To hear that Vincent was betrothed to Kate.
With what cracked pitchers go we to deep wells
In this world! Then I spoke, "I did not think,
My cousin, you had ever known Kate Ward."
"In fact, I never knew her. 'Tis enough
That Vincent did, and therefore chose his wife
For other reasons than those topaz eyes
We've heard of. Not to undervalue them,
For all that. One takes up the world with eyes."
Including Romney Leigh, I thought again,
Albeit he knows them only by repute.
How vile must all men be, since he's a man.
His deep pathetic voice, as if he guessed
I did not surely love him, took the word;
"You never got a letter from Lord Howe
A month back, dear Aurora?"
"None," I said.
"I felt it was so," he replied: "yet, strange!
Sir Blaise Delorme has passed through Florence?"
By chance I saw him in Our Lady's church
(I saw him, mark you, but he saw not me),
Clean-washed in holy water from the count
Of things terrestrial, letters, and the rest;
He had crossed us out together with his sins.
Ay, strange; but only strange that good Lord Howe
Preferred him to the post because of pauls.
For me I'm sworn to never trust a man
At least with letters."
"There were facts to tell,
To smooth with eye and accent. Howe supposed . . .
Well, well, no matter! there was dubious need;
You heard the news from Vincent Carrington.
And yet perhaps you had been startled less
To see me, dear Aurora, if you had read
Now he sets me down as vexed.
I think I've draped myself in woman's pride
To a perfect purpose. Oh, I'm vexed, it seems!
My friend Lord Howe deputes his friend Sir Blaise
To break as softly as a sparrow's egg
That lets a bird out tenderly, the news
Of Romney's marriage to a certain saint;
To smooth with eye and accent, indicate
His possible presence. Excellently well
You've played your part, my Lady Waldemar,
As I've played mine.
"Dear Romney," I began,
"You did not use, of old, to be so like
A Greek king coming from a taken Troy,
'Twas needful that precursors spread your path
With three-piled carpets, to receive your foot
And dull the sound of't. For myself, be sure,
Although it frankly grinds the gravel here,
I still can bear it. Yet I'm sorry too
To lose this famous letter, which Sir Blaise
Has twisted to a lighter absently
To fire some holy taper: dear Lord Howe
Writes letters good for all things but to lose;
And many a flower of London gossipry
Has dropped wherever such a stem broke off.
Of course I feel that, lonely among my vines,
Where nothing's talked of, save the blight again,
And no more Chianti! Still the letter's use
As preparation . . . . . Did I start indeed?
Last night I started at a cockchafer,
And shook a half-hour after. Have you learnt
No more of women, 'spite of privilege,
Than still to take account too seriously
Of such weak flutterings? Why, we like it, sir,
We get our powers and our effects that way:
The trees stand stiff and still at time of frost,
If no wind tears them; but, let summer come,
When trees are happy, and a breath avails
To set them trembling through a million leaves
In luxury of emotion. Something less
It takes to move a woman: let her start
And shake at pleasure, nor conclude at yours,
The winter's bitter, but the summer's green."
He answered: "Be the summer ever green
With you, Aurora! though you sweep your sex
With somewhat bitter gusts from where you live
Above them, whirling downward from your heights
Your very own pine-cones, in a grand disdain
Of the lowland burrs with which you scatter them.
So high and cold to others and yourself,
A little less to Romney were unjust,
And thus, I would not have you. Let it pass:
I feel content so. You can bear indeed
My sudden step beside you: but for me,
'Twould move me sore to hear your softened voice,
Aurora's voice, if softened unaware
In pity of what I am."
Ah friend, I thought,
As husband of the Lady Waldemar
You're granted very sorely pitiable!
And yet Aurora Leigh must guard her voice
From softening in the pity of your case,
As if from lie or license. Certainly
We'll soak up all the slush and soil of life
With softened voices, ere we come to you.
At which I interrupted my own thought
And spoke out calmly. "Let us ponder, friend,
Whate'er our state we must have made it first;
And though the thing displease us, ay, perhaps
Displease us warrantably, never doubt
That other states, thought possible once, and then
Rejected by the instinct of our lives,
If then adopted had displeased us more
Than this in which the choice, the will, the love,
Has stamped the honour of a patent act
From henceforth. What we choose may not be good,
But, that we choose it, proves it good for us
Potentially, fantastically, now
Or last year, rather than a thing we saw,
And saw no need for choosing. Moths will burn
Their wings, which proves that light is good for moths,
Who else had flown not where they agonise."
"Ay, light is good," he echoed, and there paused;
And then abruptly, . . . "Marian. Marian's well?"
I bowed my head but found no word. 'Twas hard
To speak of her to Lady Waldemar's
New husband. How much did he know, at last?
How much? how little? He would take no sign,
But straight repeated, "Marian. Is she well?"
"She's well," I answered.
She was there in sight
An hour back, but the night had drawn her home,
Where still I heard her in an upper room,
Her low voice singing to the child in bed,
Who, restless with the summer-heat and play
And slumber snatched at noon, was long sometimes
In falling off, and took a score of songs
And mother-hushes ere she saw him sound.
"She's well," I answered.
"Here?" he asked.
He stopped and sighed. "That shall be presently,
But now this must be. I have words to say,
And would be alone to say them, I with you,
And no third troubling."
"Speak then," I returned,
"She will not vex you."
At which, suddenly
He turned his face upon me with its smile
As if to crush me. "I have read your book,
"You have read it," I replied,
"And I have writ it, we have done with it.
And now the rest?"
"The rest is like the first,"
He answered, "for the book is in my heart,
Lives in me, wakes in me, and dreams in me:
My daily bread tastes of it, and my wine
Which has no smack of it, I pour it out,
It seems unnatural drinking."
I took the word up; "Never waste your wine.
The book lived in me ere it lived in you;
I know it closer than another does,
And how it's foolish, feeble, and afraid,
And all unworthy so much compliment.
Beseech you, keep your wine, and, when you drink,
Still wish some happier fortune to a friend,
Than even to have written a far better book."
He answered gently, "That is consequent:
The poet looks beyond the book he has made,
Or else he had not made it. If a man
Could make a man, he'd henceforth be a god
In feeling what a little thing is man:
It is not my case. And this special book,
I did not make it, to make light of it:
It stands above my knowledge, draws me up;
'Tis high to me. It may be that the book
Is not so high, but I so low, instead;
Still high to me. I mean no compliment:
I will not say there are not, young or old,
Male writers, ay, or female, let it pass,
Who'll write us richer and completer books.
A man may love a woman perfectly,
And yet by no means ignorantly maintain
A thousand women have not larger eyes:
Enough that she alone has looked at him
With eyes that, large or small, have won his soul.
And so, this book, Aurora, so, your book."
"Alas," I answered, "is it so, indeed?"
And then was silent.
"Is it so, indeed,"
He echoed, "that alas is all your word?"
I said, "I'm thinking of a far-off June,
When you and I, upon my birthday once,
Discoursed of life and art, with both untried.
I'm thinking, Romney, how 'twas morning then,
And now 'tis night."
"And now," he said, "'tis night."
"I'm thinking," I resumed, "'tis somewhat sad,
That if I had known, that morning in the dew,
My cousin Romney would have said such words
On such a night at close of many years,
In speaking of a future book of mine,
It would have pleased me better as a hope,
Than as an actual grace it can at all:
That's sad, I'm thinking."
"Ay," he said, "'tis night."
"And there," I added lightly, "are the stars!
And here, we'll talk of stars and not of books."
"You have the stars," he murmured, "it is well:
Be like them! shine, Aurora, on my dark,
Though high and cold and only like a star,
And for this short night only, you, who keep
The same Aurora of the bright June-day
That withered up the flowers before my face,
And turned me from the garden evermore
Because I was not worthy. Oh, deserved,
Deserved! that I, who verily had not learnt
God's lesson half, attaining as a dunce
To obliterate good words with fractious thumbs
And cheat myself of the context, I should push
Aside, with male ferocious impudence,
The world's Aurora who had conned her part
On the other side the leaf! ignore her so,
Because she was a woman and a queen,
And had no beard to bristle through her song,
My teacher, who has taught me with a book,
My Miriam, whose sweet mouth, when nearly drowned
I still heard singing on the shore! Deserved,
That here I should look up unto the stars
And miss the glory" . . .
"Can I understand?"
I broke in. "You speak wildly, Romney Leigh,
Or I hear wildly. In that morning-time
We recollect, the roses were too red,
The trees too green, reproach too natural
If one should see not what the other saw:
And now, it's night, remember; we have shades
In place of colours; we are now grown cold,
And old, my cousin Romney. Pardon me,
I'm very happy that you like my book,
And very sorry that I quoted back
A ten years' birthday. 'Twas so mad a thing
In any woman, I scarce marvel much
You took it for a venturous piece of spite,
Provoking such excuses as indeed
I cannot call you slack in."
He answered sadly, "something, if but so.
This night is softer than an English day,
And men may well come hither when they're sick,
To draw in easier breath from larger air.
'Tis thus with me; I come to you, to you
My Italy of women, just to breathe
My soul out once before you, ere I go,
As humble as God makes me at the last
(I thank Him), quite out of the way of men
And yours, Aurora, like a punished child,
His cheeks all blurred with tears and naughtiness,
To silence in a corner. I am come
To speak, beloved" . . .
"Wisely, cousin Leigh,
And worthily of us both!"
For this time I must speak out and confess
That I, so truculent in assumption once,
So absolute in dogma, proud in aim,
And fierce in expectation, I, who felt
The whole world tugging at my skirts for help,
As if no other man than I could pull,
Nor woman but I led her by the hand,
Nor cloth hold but I had it in my coat,
Do know myself to-night for what I was
On that June-day, Aurora. Poor bright day,
Which meant the best . . . a woman and a rose,
And which I smote upon the cheek with words
Until it turned and rent me! Young you were,
That birthday, poet, but you talked the right:
While I, . . . I built up follies like a wall
To intercept the sunshine and your face.
Your face! that's worse."
"Speak wisely, cousin Leigh."
"Yes, wisely, dear Aurora, though too late:
But then, not wisely. I was heavy then,
And stupid, and distracted with the cries
Of tortured prisoners in the polished brass
Of that Phalarian bull, society,
Which seems to bellow bravely like ten bulls,
But, if you listen, moans and cries instead
Despairingly, like victims tossed and gored
And trampled by their hoofs. I heard the cries
Too close: I could not hear the angels lift
A fold of rustling air, nor what they said
To help my pity. I beheld the world
As one great famishing carnivorous mouth,
A huge, deserted, callow, blind bird Thing,
With piteous open beak that hurt my heart,
Till down upon the filthy ground I dropped,
And tore the violets up to get the worms.
Worms, worms, was all my cry: an open mouth,
A gross want, bread to fill it to the lips,
No more. That poor men narrowed their demands
To such an end, was virtue, I supposed,
Adjudicating that to see it so
Was reason. Oh, I did not push the case
Up higher, and ponder how it answers when
The rich take up the same cry for themselves,
Professing equally, 'An open mouth,
A gross need, food to fill us, and no more.'
Why that's so far from virtue, only vice
Can find excuse for't! that makes libertines,
And slurs our cruel streets from end to end
With eighty thousand women in one smile,
Who only smile at night beneath the gas.
The body's satisfaction and no more,
Is used for argument against the soul's,
Here too; the want, here too, implies the right.
How dark I stood that morning in the sun,
My best Aurora (though I saw your eyes),
When first you told me . . . oh, I recollect
The sound, and how you lifted your small hand,
And how your white dress and your burnished curls
Went greatening round you in the still blue air,
As if an inspiration from within
Had blown them all out when you spoke the words,
Even these, 'You will not compass your poor ends
'Of barley-feeding and material ease,
'Without the 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 an inch inside
'The dust of the actual: and your Fouriers failed,
'Because not poets enough to understand
'That life develops from within.' I say
Your words, I could say other words of yours,
For none of all your words will let me go;
Like sweet verbena which, being brushed against,
Will hold us three hours after by the smell
In spite of long walks upon windy hills.
But these words dealt in sharper perfume, these
Were ever on me, stinging through my dreams,
And saying themselves for ever o'er my acts
Like some unhappy verdict. That I failed,
Is certain. Stye or no stye, to contrive
The swine's propulsion toward the precipice,
Proved easy and plain. I subtly organised
And ordered, built the cards up high and higher,
Till, some one breathing, all fell flat again;
In setting right society's wide wrong,
Mere life's so fatal. So I failed indeed
Once, twice, and oftener, hearing through the rents
Of obstinate purpose, still those words of yours,
'You will not compass your poor ends, not you!'
But harder than you said them; every time
Still farther from your voice, until they came
To overcrow me with triumphant scorn
Which vexed me to resistance. Set down this
For condemnation, I was guilty here;
I stood upon my deed and fought my doubt,
As men will, for I doubted, till at last
My deed gave way beneath me suddenly
And left me what I am: the curtain dropped,
My part quite ended, all the footlights quenched,
My own soul hissing at me through the dark,
I ready for confession, I was wrong,
I've sorely failed, I've slipped the ends of life,
I yield, you have conquered."
"Stay," I answered him;
"I've something for your hearing, also. I
Have failed too."
"You!" he said, "you're very great;
The sadness of your greatness fits you well:
As if the plume upon a hero's casque
Should nod a shadow upon his victor face."
I took him up austerely, "You have read
My book, but not my heart; for recollect,
'Tis a writ in Sanscrit, which you bungle at.
I've surely failed, I know, if failure means
To look back sadly on work gladly done,
To wander on my Mountains of Delight,
So called (I can remember a friend's words
As well as you, sir), weary and in want
Of even a sheep-path, thinking bitterly . . .
Well, well! no matter. I but say so much,
To keep you, Romney Leigh, from saying more,
And let you feel I am not so high indeed,
That I can bear to have you at my foot,
Or safe, that I can help you. That June-day,
Too deeply sunk in craterous sunsets now
For you or me to dig it up alive,
To pluck it out all bleeding with spent flame
At the roots, before those moralising stars
We have got instead, that poor lost day, you said
Some words as truthful as the thing of mine
You cared to keep in memory; and I hold
If I, that day, and being the girl I was,
Had shown a gentler spirit, less arrogance,
It had not hurt me. You will scarce mistake
The point here: I but only think, you see,
More justly, that's more humbly, of myself,
Than when I tried a crown on and supposed . . .
Nay, laugh, sir, I'll laugh with you! pray you, laugh,
I've had so many birthdays since that day
I've learnt to prize mirth's opportunities,
Which come too seldom. Was it you who said
I was not changed? the same Aurora? Ah,
We could laugh there, too! Why, Ulysses' dog
Knew him, and wagged his tail and died: but if
I had owned a dog, I too, before my Troy,
And if you brought him here, . . . I warrant you
He'd look into my face, bark lustily,
And live on stoutly, as the creatures will
Whose spirits are not troubled by long loves.
A dog would never know me, I'm so changed,
Much less a friend . . . except that you're misled
By the colour of the hair, the trick of the voice,
Like that Aurora Leigh's."
"Sweet trick of voice!
I would be a dog for this, to know it at last,
And die upon the falls of it. O love,
O best Aurora! are you then so sad
You scarcely had been sadder as my wife?"
"Your wife, sir! I must certainly be changed,
If I, Aurora, can have said a thing
So light, it catches at the knightly spurs
Of a noble gentleman like Romney Leigh,
And trips him from his honourable sense
Of what befits" . . .
"You wholly misconceive,"
I returned, "I'm glad of it.
But keep from misconception, too, yourself:
I am not humbled to so low a point,
Not so far saddened. If I am sad at all,
Ten layers of birthdays on a woman's head
Are apt to fossilise her girlish mirth,
Though ne'er so merry: I'm perforce more wise,
And that, in truth, means sadder. For the rest,
Look here, sir: I was right upon the whole
That birthday morning. 'Tis impossible
To get at men excepting through their souls,
However open their carnivorous jaws;
And poets get directlier at the soul
Than any of your oeconomists for which
You must not overlook the poet's work
When scheming for the world's necessities.
The soul's the way. Not even Christ Himself
Can save man else than as He holds man's soul;
And therefore did He come into our flesh,
As some wise hunter creeping on his knees,
With a torch, into the blackness of a cave,
To face and quell the beast there take the soul,
And so possess the whole man, body and soul.
I said, so far, right, yes: not farther, though:
We both were wrong that June-day both as wrong
As an east wind had been. I who talked of art,
And you who grieved for all men's griefs . . . what then?
We surely made too small a part for God
In these things. What we are, imports us more
Than what we eat; and life, you've granted me,
Develops from within. But innermost
Of the inmost, most interior of the interne,
God claims His own, Divine humanity
Renewing nature, or the piercingest verse
Pressed in by subtlest poet, still must keep
As much upon the outside of a man
As the very bowl in which he dips his beard.
And then, . . . the rest; I cannot surely speak:
Perhaps I doubt more than you doubted then,
If I the poet's veritable charge
Have borne upon my forehead. If I have,
It might feel somewhat liker to a crown,
The foolish green one even. Ah, I think,
And chiefly when the sun shines, that I've failed.
But what then, Romney? Though we fail indeed,
You . . . I . . . a score of such weak workers, . . . He
Fails never. If He cannot work by us,
He will work over us. Does He want a man,
Much less a woman, think you? Every time
The star winks there, so many souls are born,
Who all shall work too. Let our own be calm:
We should be ashamed to sit beneath those stars,
Impatient that we're nothing."
"Could we sit
Just so for ever, sweetest friend," he said,
"My failure would seem better than success.
And yet indeed your book has dealt with me
More gently, cousin, than you ever will!
Your book brought down entire the bright June-day,
And set me wandering in the garden-walks,
And let me watch the garland in a place
You blushed so . . . nay, forgive me, do not stir,
I only thank the book for what it taught,
And what permitted. Poet, doubt yourself,
But never doubt that you're a poet to me
From henceforth. You have written poems, sweet,
Which moved me in secret, as the sap is moved
In still March-branches, signless as a stone:
But this last book o'ercame me like soft rain
Which falls at midnight, when the tightened bark
Breaks out into unhesitating buds
And sudden protestations of the spring.
In all your other books, I saw but you:
A man may see the moon so, in a pond,
And not be nearer therefore to the moon,
Nor use the sight . . . except to drown himself:
And so I forced my heart back from the sight,
For what had I, I thought, to do with her,
Aurora . . . Romney? But, in this last book,
You showed me something separate from yourself,
Beyond you, and I bore to take it in
And let it draw me. You have shown me truths,
O June-day friend, that help me now at night,
When June is over! truths not yours, indeed,
But set within my reach by means of you,
Presented by your voice and verse the way
To take them clearest. Verily I was wrong;
And verily many thinkers of this age,
Ay, many Christian teachers, half in heaven,
Are wrong in just my sense who understood
Our natural world too insularly, as if
No spiritual counterpart completed it,
Consummating its meaning, rounding all
To justice and perfection, line by line,
Form by form, nothing single nor alone,
The great below clenched by the great above,
Shade here authenticating substance there,
The body proving spirit, as the effect
The cause: we meantime being too grossly apt
To hold the natural, as dogs a bone
(Though reason and nature beat us in the face),
So obstinately, that we'll break our teeth
Or ever we let go. For everywhere
We're too materialistic, eating clay
(Like men of the west) instead of Adam's corn
And Noah's wine clay by handfuls, clay by lumps,
Until we're filled up to the throat with clay,
And grow the grimy colour of the ground
On which we are feeding. Ay, materialist
The age's name is. God Himself, with some,
Is apprehended as the bare result
Of what His hand materially has made,
Expressed in such an algebraic sign
Called God that is, to put it otherwise,
They add up nature to a nought of God
And cross the quotient. There are many even,
Whose names are written in the Christian Church
To no dishonour, diet still on mud
And splash the altars with it. You might think
The clay Christ laid upon their eyelids when,
Still blind, He called them to the use of sight,
Remained there to retard its exercise
With clogging incrustations. Close to heaven,
They see for mysteries, through the open doors,
Vague puffs of smoke from pots of earthenware,
And fain would enter, when their time shall come,
With quite another body than Saint Paul
Has promised husk and chaff, the whole barley-corn
Or where's the resurrection?"
"Thus it is,"
I sighed. And he resumed with mournful face,
"Beginning so, and filling up with clay
The wards of this great key, the natural world,
And fumbling vainly therefore at the lock
Of the spiritual, we feel ourselves shut in
With all the wild-beast roar of struggling life,
The terrors and compunctions of our souls,
As saints with lions, we who are not saints,
And have no heavenly lordship in our stare
To awe them backward. Ay, we are forced, so pent,
To judge the whole too partially, . . . confound
Conclusions. Is there any common phrase
Significant, with the adverb heard alone,
The verb being absent, and the pronoun out?
But we, distracted in the roar of life,
Still insolently at God's adverb snatch,
And bruit against Him that His thought is void,
His meaning hopeless, cry, that everywhere
The government is slipping from His hand,
Unless some other Christ (say Romney Leigh)
Come up and toil and moil and change the world,
Because the First has proved inadequate,
However we talk bigly of His work
And piously of His person. We blaspheme
At last, to finish our doxology,
Despairing on the earth for which He died."
"So now," I asked, "you have more hope of men?"
"I hope," he answered. "I am come to think
That God will have His work done, as you said,
And that we need not be disturbed too much
For Romney Leigh or others having failed
With this or that quack nostrum recipes
For keeping summits by annulling depths,
For wrestling with luxurious lounging sleeves,
And acting heroism without a scratch.
We fail, what then? Aurora, if I smiled
To see you, in your lovely morning-pride,
Try on the poet's wreath which suits the noon
(Sweet cousin, walls must get the weather stain
Before they grow the ivy!), certainly
I stood myself there worthier of contempt,
Self-rated, in disastrous arrogance,
As competent to sorrow for mankind,
And even their odds. A man may well despair
Who counts himself so needful to success.
I failed: I throw the remedy back on God,
And sit down here beside you, in good hope."
"And yet take heed," I answered, "lest we lean
Too dangerously on the other side,
And so fail twice. Be sure, no earnest work
Of any honest creature, howbeit weak,
Imperfect, ill-adapted, fails so much,
It is not gathered as a grain of sand
To enlarge the sum of human action used
For carrying out God's end. No creature works
So ill, observe, that therefore he's cashiered.
The honest, earnest man must stand and work,
The woman also otherwise she drops
At once below the dignity of man,
Accepting serfdom. Free men freely work.
Whoever fears God, fears to sit at ease."
He cried: "True. After Adam, work was curse:
The natural creature labours, sweats, and frets.
But, after Christ, work turns to privilege,
And henceforth, one with our humanity,
The Six-day Worker working still in us
Has called us freely to work on with Him
In high companionship. So, happiest!
I count that heaven itself is only work
To a surer issue. Let us work, indeed,
But no more work as Adam, nor as Leigh
Erewhile, as if the only man on earth,
Responsible for all the thistles blown
And tigers couchant, struggling in amaze
Against disease and winter, snarling on
For ever that the world's not paradise.
O cousin, let us be content, in work,
To do the thing we can, and not presume
To fret because it's little. 'Twill employ
Seven men, they say, to make a perfect pin:
Who makes the head, content to miss the point;
Who makes the point, agreed to leave the join:
And if a man should cry 'I want a pin,
'And I must make it straightway, head and point,'
His wisdom is not worth the pin he wants
Seven men to a pin, and not a man too much!
Seven generations, haply, to this world,
To right it visibly a finger's breadth,
And mend its rents a little. Oh, to storm
And say 'This world here is intolerable;
'I will not eat this corn, nor drink this wine,
'Nor love this woman, flinging her my soul
'Without a bond for't as a lover should,
'Nor use the generous leave of happiness
'As not too good for using generously'
(Since virtue kindles at the touch of joy
Like a man's cheek laid on a woman's hand,
And God, Who knows it, looks for quick returns
From joys) to stand and claim to have a life
Beyond the bounds of the individual man,
And raze all personal cloisters of the soul
To build up public stores and magazines,
As if God's creatures otherwise were lost,
The builder surely saved by any means!
To think, I have a pattern on my nail,
And I will carve the world new after it
And solve so these hard social questions nay,
Impossible social questions, since their roots
Strike deep in Evil's own existence here,
Which God permits because the question's hard
To abolish evil nor attaint free-will.
Ay, hard to God, but not to Romney Leigh!
For Romney has a pattern on his nail
(Whatever may be lacking on the Mount),
And, not being over-nice to separate
What's element from what's convention, hastes
By line on line to draw you out a world,
Without your help indeed, unless you take
His yoke upon you, and will learn of him,
So much he has to teach! so good a world!
The same the whole creation's groaning for!
No rich nor poor, no gain nor loss nor stint;
No pottage in it able to exclude
A brother's birthright, and no right of birth
The pottage both secured to every man,
And perfect virtue dealt out like the rest
Gratuitously, with the soup at six,
To whoso does not seek it."
I interrupted, "I had a cousin once
I held in reverence. If he strained too wide,
It was not to take honour, but give help;
The gesture was heroic. If his hand
Accomplished nothing . . . (well, it is not proved)
That empty hand thrown impotently out
Were sooner caught, I think, by One in heaven,
Than many a hand that reaped a harvest in,
And keeps the scythe's glow on it. Pray you, then,
For my sake merely, use less bitterness
In speaking of my cousin."
"Ah," he said,
"Aurora! when the prophet beats the ass,
The angel intercedes." He shook his head
"And yet to mean so well and fail so foul,
Expresses ne'er another beast than man;
The antithesis is human. Hearken, dear;
There's too much abstract willing, purposing,
In this poor world. We talk by aggregates,
And think by systems, and, being used to face
Our evils in statistics, are inclined
To cap them with unreal remedies
Drawn out in haste on the other side the slate."
"That's true," I answered, fain to throw up thought
And make a game of't. "Yes, we generalise
Enough to please you. If we pray at all,
We pray no longer for our daily bread,
But next centenary's harvests. If we give,
Our cup of water is not tendered till
We lay down pipes and found a Company
With Branches. Ass or angel, 'tis the same:
A woman cannot do the thing she ought,
Which means whatever perfect thing she can,
In life, in art, in science, but she fears
To let the perfect action take her part,
And rest there: she must prove what she can do
Before she does it, prate of woman's rights,
Of woman's mission, woman's function, till
The men (who are prating too on their side) cry,
'A woman's function plainly is . . . to talk.'
Poor souls, they are very reasonably vexed;
They cannot hear each other talk."
An artist, judge so?"
"I, an artist yes:
Because, precisely, I'm an artist, sir,
And woman, if another sat in sight,
I'd whisper, Soft, my sister! not a word!
By speaking we prove only we can speak,
Which he, the man here, never doubted. What
He doubts is, whether we can do the thing
With decent grace we've not yet done at all.
Now, do it; bring your statue, you have room!
He'll see it even by the starlight here;
And if 'tis e'er so little like the god
Who looks out from the marble silently
Along the track of his own shining dart
Through the dusk of ages, there's no need to speak;
The universe shall henceforth speak for you,
And witness, 'She who did this thing was born
To do it claims her license in her work.'
And so with more works. Whoso cures the plague,
Though twice a woman, shall be called a leech:
Who rights a land's finances is excused
For touching coppers, though her hands be white.
But we, we talk!"
"It is the age's mood,"
He said; "we boast, and do not. We put up
Hostelry signs where'er we lodge a day,
Some red colossal cow with mighty paps
A Cyclops' fingers could not strain to milk,
Then bring out presently our saucerful
Of curds. We want more quiet in our works,
More knowledge of the bounds in which we work;
More knowledge that each individual man
Remains an Adam to the general race,
Constrained to see, like Adam, that he keep
His personal state's condition honestly,
Or vain all thoughts of his to help the world,
Which still must be developed from its one
If bettered in its many. We indeed,
Who think to lay it out new like a park,
We take a work on us which is not man's,
For God alone sits far enough above
To speculate so largely. None of us
(Not Romney Leigh) is mad enough to say,
We'll have a grove of oaks upon that slope
And sink the need of acorns. Government,
If veritable and lawful, is not given
By imposition of the foreign hand,
Nor chosen from a pretty pattern-book
Of some domestic idealogue who sits
And coldly chooses empire, where as well
He might republic. Genuine government
Is but the expression of a nation, good
Or less good even as all society,
Howe'er unequal, monstrous, crazed and cursed,
Is but the expression of men's single lives,
The loud sum of the silent units. What,
We'd change the aggregate and yet retain
Each separate figure? whom do we cheat by that?
Now, not even Romney."
"Cousin, you are sad.
Did all your social labour at Leigh Hall,
And elsewhere, come to nought, then?"
"It was nought,"
He answered mildly. "There is room, indeed,
For statues still in this large world of God's,
But not for vacuums; so I am not sad
Not sadder than is good for what I am.
My vain phalanstery dissolved itself;
My men and women of disordered lives
I brought in orderly to dine and sleep,
Broke up those waxen masks I made them wear,
With fierce contortions of the natural face,
And cursed me for my tyrannous constraint
In forcing crooked creatures to live straight;
And set the country hounds upon my back
To bite and tear me for my wicked deed
Of trying to do good without the church
Or even the squires, Aurora. Do you mind
Your ancient neighbours? The great book-club teems
With 'sketches,' 'summaries,' and 'last tracts' but twelve,
On socialistic troublers of close bonds
Betwixt the generous rich and grateful poor.
The vicar preached from 'Revelations' (till
The doctor woke), and found me with 'the frogs'
On three successive Sundays; ay, and stopped
To weep a little (for he's getting old)
That such perdition should o'ertake a man
Of such fair acres in the parish, too!
He printed his discourses 'by request,'
And if your book shall sell as his did, then
Your verses are less good than I suppose.
The women of the neighbourhood subscribed,
And sent me a copy, bound in scarlet silk,
Tooled edges, blazoned with the arms of Leigh:
I own that touched me."
"What, the pretty ones?
"Otherwise the effect was small:
I had my windows broken once or twice
By liberal peasants naturally incensed
At such a vexer of Arcadian peace,
Who would not let men call their wives their own
To kick like Britons, and made obstacles
When things went smoothly as a baby drugged,
Toward freedom and starvation bringing down
The wicked London tavern-thieves and drabs
To affront the blessed hillside drabs and thieves
With mended morals, quotha fine new lives!
My windows paid for't. I was shot at, once,
By an active poacher who had hit a hare
From the other barrel (tired of springeing game
So long upon my acres, undisturbed,
And restless for the country's virtue yet
He missed me); ay, and pelted very oft
In riding through the village. 'There he goes
'Who'd drive away our Christian gentlefolk,
'To catch us undefended in the trap
'He baits with poisonous cheese, and lock us up
'In that pernicious prison of Leigh Hall
'With all his murderers! Give another name
'And say Leigh Hell, and burn it up with fire.'
And so they did, at last, Aurora."
"You never heard it, cousin? Vincent's news
Came stinted, then."
"They did? they burnt Leigh Hall?"
"You're sorry, dear Aurora? Yes, indeed,
They did it perfectly: a thorough work,
And not a failure, this time. Let us grant
'Tis somewhat easier, though, to burn a house
Than build a system; yet that's easy too
In a dream. Books, pictures ay, the pictures! What,
You think your dear Vandykes would give them pause?
Our proud ancestral Leighs, with those peaked beards,
Or bosoms white as foam thrown up on rocks
From the old-spent wave. Such calm defiant looks
They flared up with! now nevermore to twit
The bones in the family vault with ugly death.
Not one was rescued, save the Lady Maud,
Who threw you down, that morning you were born,
The undeniable lineal mouth and chin
To wear for ever for her gracious sake,
For which good deed I saved her; the rest went:
And you, you're sorry, cousin. Well, for me,
With all my phalansterians safely out
(Poor hearts, they helped the burners, it was said,
And certainly a few clapped hands and yelled),
The ruin did not hurt me as it might
As when for instance I was hurt one day
A certain letter being destroyed. In fact,
To see the great house flare so . . . oaken floors
Our fathers made so fine with rushes once
Before our mothers furbished them with trains,
Carved wainscots, panelled walls, the favourite slide
For draining off a martyr (or a rogue),
The echoing galleries, half a half-mile long,
And all the various stairs that took you up
And took you down, and took you round about
Upon their slippery darkness, recollect,
All helping to keep up one blazing jest!
The flames through all the casements pushing forth,
Like red-hot devils crinkled into snakes,
All signifying 'Look you, Romney Leigh,
'We save the people from your saving, here,
'Yet so as by fire! we make a pretty show
'Besides and that's the best you've ever done.'
To see this, almost moved myself to clap!
The 'vale et plaude' came too with effect
When in the roof fell, and the fire that paused,
Stunned momently beneath the stroke of slates
And tumbling rafters, rose at once and roared,
And wrapping the whole house (which disappeared
In a mounting whirlwind of dilated flame),
Blew upward, straight, its drift of fiery chaff
In the face of Heaven, which blenched, and ran up higher."
"Sometimes when I dream," he said,
"I hear the silence after, 'twas so still.
For all those wild beasts, yelling, cursing round,
Were suddenly silent, while you counted five,
So silent, that you heard a young bird fall
From the top nest in the neighbouring rookery,
Through edging over-rashly toward the light.
The old rooks had already fled too far
To hear the screech they fled with, though you saw
Some flying still, like scatterings of dead leaves
In autumn-gusts, seen dark against the sky,
All flying, ousted, like the House of Leigh."
"Evidently 'twould have been
A fine sight for a poet, sweet, like you,
To make the verse blaze after. I myself,
Even I, felt something in the grand old trees,
Which stood that moment like brute Druid gods
Amazed upon the rim of ruin, where,
As into a blackened socket, the great fire
Had dropped, still throwing up splinters now and then
To show them grey with all their centuries,
Left there to witness that on such a day
The House went out."
"While you counted five,
I seemed to feel a little like a Leigh,
But then it passed, Aurora. A child cried,
And I had enough to think of what to do
With all those houseless wretches in the dark,
And ponder where they'd dance the next time, they
Who had burnt the viol."
"Did you think of that?
Who burns his viol will not dance, I know,
To cymbals, Romney."
"O my sweet, sad voice!"
He cried, "O voice that speaks and overcomes!
The sun is silent, but Aurora speaks."
"Alas," I said, "I speak I know not what:
I'm back in childhood, thinking as a child,
A foolish fancy will it make you smile?
I shall not from the window of my room
Catch sight of those old chimneys any more."
"No more," he answered. "If you pushed one day
Through all the green hills to our fathers' house,
You'd come upon a great charred circle, where
The patient earth was singed an acre round;
With one stone stair, symbolic of my life,
Ascending, winding, leading up to nought!
'Tis worth a poet's seeing. Will you go?"
I made no answer. Had I any right
To weep with this man, that I dared to speak?
A woman stood between his soul and mine,
And waved us off from touching evermore,
With those unclean white hands of hers. Enough.
We had burnt our viols, and were silent.
The silence lengthened till it pressed. I spoke,
To breathe: "I think you were ill afterward."
"More ill," he answered, "had been scarcely ill.
I hoped this feeble fumbling at life's knot
Might end concisely, but I failed to die,
As formerly I failed to live, and thus
Grew willing, having tried all other ways,
To try just God's. Humility's so good,
When pride's impossible. Mark us, how we make
Our virtues, cousin, from our worn-out sins,
Which smack of them from henceforth. Is it right,
For instance, to wed here while you love there?
And yet because a man sins once, the sin
Cleaves to him, in necessity to sin,
That if he sin not so to damn himself,
He sins so, to damn others with himself:
And thus, to wed here, loving there, becomes
A duty. Virtue buds a dubious leaf
Round mortal brows; your ivy's better, dear.
Yet she, 'tis certain, is my very wife,
The very lamb left mangled by the wolves
Through my own bad shepherding: and could I choose
But take her on my shoulder past this stretch
Of rough, uneasy wilderness, poor lamb,
Poor child, poor child? Aurora, my beloved,
I will not vex you any more to-night,
But, having spoken what I came to say,
The rest shall please you. What she can, in me
Protection, tender liking, freedom, ease
She shall have surely, liberally, for her
And hers, Aurora. Small amends they'll make
For hideous evils which she had not known
Except by me, and for this imminent loss,
This forfeit presence of a gracious friend,
Which also she must forfeit for my sake,
Since, . . . drop your hand in mine a moment, sweet,
We're parting! Ah, my snowdrop, what a touch,
As if the wind had swept it off! You grudge
Your gelid sweetness on my palm but so,
A moment? Angry, that I could not bear
You . . . speaking, breathing, living, side by side
With some one called my wife . . . and live, myself?
Nay, be not cruel you must understand!
Your lightest footfall on a floor of mine
Would shake the house, my lintel being uncrossed
'Gainst angels: henceforth it is night with me,
And so, henceforth, I put the shutters up:
Auroras must not come to spoil my dark."
He smiled so feebly, with an empty hand
Stretched sideway from me as indeed he looked
To any one but me to give him help;
And, while the moon came suddenly out full,
The double-rose of our Italian moons,
Sufficient plainly for the heaven and earth
(The stars struck dumb and washed away in dews
Of golden glory, and the mountains steeped
In divine languor), he, the man, appeared
So pale and patient, like the marble man
A sculptor puts his personal sadness in
To join his grandeur of ideal thought,
As if his mallet struck me from my height
Of passionate indignation, I who had risen
Pale, doubting paused . . . Was Romney mad indeed?
Had all this wrong of heart made sick the brain?
Then quiet, with a sort of tremulous pride,
"Go, cousin," I said coldly; "a farewell
Was sooner spoken 'twixt a pair of friends
In those old days, than seems to suit you now.
Howbeit, since then, I've writ a book or two,
I'm somewhat dull still in the manly art
Of phrase and metaphrase. Why, any man
Can carve a score of white Loves out of snow,
As Buonarroti in my Florence there,
And set them on the wall in some safe shade,
As safe, sir, as your marriage! very good;
Though if a woman took one from the ledge
To put it on the table by her flowers
And let it mind her of a certain friend,
'Twould drop at once (so better), would not bear
Her nail-mark even, where she took it up
A little tenderly, so best, I say:
For me, I would not touch the fragile thing
And risk to spoil it half an hour before
The sun shall shine to melt it: leave it there.
I'm plain at speech, direct in purpose: when
I speak, you'll take the meaning as it is,
And not allow for puckerings in the silk
By clever stitches. I'm a woman, sir
I use the woman's figures naturally,
As you the male license. So, I wish you well.
I'm simply sorry for the griefs you've had,
And not for your sake only, but mankind's.
This race is never grateful: from the first,
One fills their cup at supper with pure wine,
Which back they give at cross-time on a sponge,
In vinegar and gall."
He murmured, "by so much less pitiable!
God's self would never have come down to die,
Could man have thanked Him for it."
'Tis patent that, whatever," I resumed,
"You suffered from this thanklessness of men,
You sink no more than Moses' bulrush-boat
When once relieved of Moses, for you're light,
You're light, my cousin! which is well for you,
And manly. For myself, now mark me, sir,
They burnt Leigh Hall; but if, consummated
To devils, heightened beyond Lucifers,
They had burnt, instead, a star or two of those
We saw above there just a moment back,
Before the moon abolished them, destroyed
And riddled them in ashes through a sieve
On the head of the foundering universe what then?
If you and I remained still you and I,
It could not shift our places as mere friends,
Nor render decent you should toss a phrase
Beyond the point of actual feeling! Nay,
You shall not interrupt me: as you said,
We're parting. Certainly, not once nor twice
To-night you've mocked me somewhat, or yourself,
And I, at least, have not deserved it so
That I should meet it unsurprised. But now,
Enough: we're parting . . . parting. Cousin Leigh,
I wish you well through all the acts of life
And life's relations, wedlock not the least,
And it shall 'please me,' in your words, to know
You yield your wife, protection, freedom, ease,
And very tender liking. May you live
So happy with her, Romney, that your friends
Shall praise her for it! Meantime some of us
Are wholly dull in keeping ignorant
Of what she has suffered by you, and what debt
Of sorrow your rich love sits down to pay:
But if 'tis sweet for love to pay its debt,
'Tis sweeter still for love to give its gift,
And you, be liberal in the sweeter way,
You can, I think. At least, as touches me,
You owe her, cousin Romney, no amends:
She is not used to hold my gown so fast,
You need entreat her now to let it go;
The lady never was a friend of mine,
Nor capable, I thought you knew as much,
Of losing for your sake so poor a prize
As such a worthless friendship. Be content,
Good cousin, therefore, both for her and you!
I'll never spoil your dark, nor dull your noon,
Nor vex you when you're merry, or at rest:
You shall not need to put a shutter up
To keep out this Aurora, though your north
Can make Auroras which vex nobody,
Scarce known from night, I fancied! let me add,
My larks fly higher than some windows. Well,
You've read your Leighs. Indeed, 'twould shake a house,
If such as I came in with outstretched hand,
Still warm and thrilling from the clasp of one . . .
Of one we know, . . . to acknowledge, palm to palm,
As mistress there, the Lady Waldemar."
"Now God be with us" . . . with a sudden clash
Of voice he interrupted. "What name's that?
You spoke a name, Aurora."
I would that, Romney, I could name your wife
Nor wound you, yet be worthy."
"Are we mad?"
He echoed. "Wife! mine! Lady Waldemar!
I think you said my wife." He sprang to his feet,
And threw his noble head back toward the moon
As one who swims against a stormy sea,
Then laughed with such a helpless, hopeless scorn,
I stood and trembled.
"May God judge me so,"
He said at last, "I came convicted here,
And humbled sorely if not enough. I came,
Because this woman from her crystal soul
Had shown me something which a man calls light:
Because too, formerly, I sinned by her
As then and ever since I have, by God,
Through arrogance of nature, though I loved . . .
Whom best, I need not say, since that is writ
Too plainly in the book of my misdeeds:
And thus I came here to abase myself,
And fasten, kneeling, on her regent brows
A garland which I startled thence one day
Of her beautiful June-youth. But here again
I'm baffled, fail in my abasement as
My aggrandisement: there's no room left for me
At any woman's foot who misconceives
My nature, purpose, possible actions. What!
Are you the Aurora who made large my dreams
To frame your greatness? you conceive so small?
You stand so less than woman through being more,
And lose your natural instinct (like a beast)
Through intellectual culture? since indeed
I do not think that any common she
Would dare adopt such monstrous forgeries
For the legible life signature of such
As I, with all my blots with all my blots!
At last, then, peerless cousin, we are peers
At last we're even. Ay, you've left your height,
And here upon my level we take hands,
And here I reach you to forgive you, sweet,
And that's a fall, Aurora. Long ago
You seldom understood me, but before,
I could not blame you. Then, you only seemed
So high above, you could not see below;
But now I breathe, but now I pardon! nay,
We're parting. Dearest, men have burnt my house,
Maligned my motives; but not one, I swear,
Has wronged my soul as this Aurora has
Who called the Lady Waldemar my wife."
"Not married to her! yet you said" . . .
Nay, read the lines" (he held a letter out)
"She sent you through me."
By the moonlight there
I tore the meaning out with passionate haste
Much rather than I read it. Thus it ran.
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