Aurora Leigh: Book 1


    Of writing many books there is no end;
    And I who have written much in prose and verse
    For others' uses, will write now for mine,
    Will write my story for my better self,
    As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
    Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
    Long after he has ceased to love you, just
    To hold together what he was and is.
    I, writing thus, am still what men call young;
    I have not so far left the coasts of life
    To travel inland, that I cannot hear
    That murmur of the outer Infinite
    Which unweaned babies smile at in their sleep
    When wondered at for smiling; not so far,
    But still I catch my mother at her post
    Beside the nursery door, with finger up,
    "Hush, hush here's too much noise!" while her sweet eyes
    Leap forward, taking part against her word
    In the child's riot. Still I sit and feel
    My father's slow hand, when she had left us both,
    Stroke out my childish curls across his knee,
    And hear Assunta's daily jest (she knew
    He liked it better than a better jest)
    Inquire how many golden scudi went
    To make such ringlets. O my father's hand,
    Stroke heavily, heavily the poor hair down,
    Draw, press the child's head closer to thy knee!
    I'm still too young, too young, to sit alone.

    I write. My mother was a Florentine,
    Whose rare blue eyes were shut from seeing me
    When scarcely I was four years old, my life
    A poor spark snatched up from a failing lamp
    Which went out therefore. She was weak and frail;
    She could not bear the joy of giving life,
    The mother's rapture slew her. If her kiss
    Had left a longer weight upon my lips
    It might have steadied the uneasy breath,
    And reconciled and fraternised my soul
    With the new order. As it was, indeed,
    I felt a mother-want about the world,
    And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb
    Left out at night in shutting up the fold,
    As restless as a nest-deserted bird
    Grown chill through something being away, though what
    It knows not. I, Aurora Leigh, was born
    To make my father sadder, and myself
    Not overjoyous, truly. Women know
    The way to rear up children (to be just),
    They know a simple, merry, tender knack
    Of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes,
    And stringing pretty words that make no sense,
    And kissing full sense into empty words,
    Which things are corals to cut life upon,
    Although such trifles: children learn by such,
    Love's holy earnest in a pretty play
    And get not over-early solemnised,
    But seeing, as in a rose-bush, Love's Divine
    Which burns and hurts not, not a single bloom,
    Become aware and unafraid of Love.
    Such good do mothers. Fathers love as well
    Mine did, I know, but still with heavier brains,
    And wills more consciously responsible,
    And not as wisely, since less foolishly;
    So mothers have God's license to be missed.

    My father was an austere Englishman,
    Who, after a dry lifetime spent at home
    In college-learning, law, and parish talk,
    Was flooded with a passion unaware,
    His whole provisioned and complacent past
    Drowned out from him that moment. As he stood
    In Florence, where he had come to spend a month
    And note the secret of Da Vinci's drains,
    He musing somewhat absently perhaps
    Some English question . . . whether men should pay
    The unpopular but necessary tax
    With left or right hand in the alien sun
    In that great square of the Santissima
    There drifted past him (scarcely marked enough
    To move his comfortable island scorn)
    A train of priestly banners, cross and psalm,
    The white-veiled rose-crowned maidens holding up
    Tall tapers, weighty for such wrists, aslant
    To the blue luminous tremor of the air,
    And letting drop the white wax as they went
    To eat the bishop's wafer at the church;
    From which long trail of chanting priests and girls,
    A face flashed like a cymbal on his face
    And shook with silent clangour brain and heart,
    Transfiguring him to music. Thus, even thus,
    He too received his sacramental gift
    With eucharistic meanings; for he loved.

    And thus beloved, she died. I've heard it said
    That but to see him in the first surprise
    Of widower and father, nursing me,
    Unmothered little child of four years old,
    His large man's hands afraid to touch my curls,
    As if the gold would tarnish, his grave lips
    Contriving such a miserable smile
    As if he knew needs must, or I should die,
    And yet 'twas hard, would almost make the stones
    Cry out for pity. There's a verse he set
    In Santa Croce to her memory,
    "Weep for an infant too young to weep much
    When death removed this mother" stops the mirth
    To-day on women's faces when they walk
    With rosy children hanging on their gowns,
    Under the cloister to escape the sun
    That scorches in the piazza. After which
    He left our Florence and made haste to hide
    Himself, his prattling child, and silent grief,
    Among the mountains above Pelago;
    Because unmothered babes, he thought, had need
    Of mother nature more than others use,
    And Pan's white goats, with udders warm and full
    Of mystic contemplations, come to feed
    Poor milkless lips of orphans like his own
    Such scholar-scraps he talked, I've heard from friends,
    For even prosaic men who wear grief long
    Will get to wear it as a hat aside
    With a flower stuck in't. Father, then, and child,
    We lived among the mountains many years,
    God's silence on the outside of the house,
    And we who did not speak too loud within,
    And old Assunta to make up the fire,
    Crossing herself whene'er a sudden flame
    Which lightened from the firewood, made alive
    That picture of my mother on the wall.

    The painter drew it after she was dead,
    And when the face was finished, throat and hands,
    Her cameriera carried him, in hate
    Of the English-fashioned shroud, the last brocade
    She dressed in at the Pitti; "he should paint
    No sadder thing than that," she swore, "to wrong
    Her poor signora." Therefore very strange
    The effect was. I, a little child, would crouch
    For hours upon the floor with knees drawn up,
    And gaze across them, half in terror, half
    In adoration, at the picture there,
    That swan-like supernatural white life
    Just sailing upward from the red stiff silk
    Which seemed to have no part in it nor power
    To keep it from quite breaking out of bounds.
    For hours I sat and stared. Assunta's awe
    And my poor father's melancholy eyes
    Still pointed that way. That way went my thoughts
    When wandering beyond sight. And as I grew
    In years, I mixed, confused, unconsciously,
    Whatever I last read or heard or dreamed,
    Abhorrent, admirable, beautiful,
    Pathetical, or ghastly, or grotesque,
    With still that face . . . which did not therefore change,
    But kept the mystic level of all forms,
    Hates, fears, and admirations, was by turns
    Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite,
    A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate,
    A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love,
    A still Medusa with mild milky brows
    All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes
    Whose slime falls fast as sweat will; or anon
    Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords
    Where the Babe sucked; or Lamia in her first
    Moonlighted pallor, ere she shrunk and blinked
    And shuddering wriggled down to the unclean;
    Or my own mother, leaving her last smile
    In her last kiss upon the baby-mouth
    My father pushed down on the bed for that,
    Or my dead mother, without smile or kiss,
    Buried at Florence. All which images,
    Concentred on the picture, glassed themselves
    Before my meditative childhood, as
    The incoherencies of change and death
    Are represented fully, mixed and merged,
    In the smooth fair mystery of perpetual Life.
    And while I stared away my childish wits
    Upon my mother's picture (ah, poor child!),
    My father, who through love had suddenly
    Thrown off the old conventions, broken loose
    From chin-bands of the soul, like Lazarus,
    Yet had no time to learn to talk and walk
    Or grow anew familiar with the sun,
    Who had reached to freedom, not to action, lived,
    But lived as one entranced, with thoughts, not aims,
    Whom love had unmade from a common man
    But not completed to an uncommon man,
    My father taught me what he had learnt the best
    Before he died and left me, grief and love.
    And, seeing we had books among the hills,
    Strong words of counselling souls confederate
    With vocal pines and waters, out of books
    He taught me all the ignorance of men,
    And how God laughs in heaven when any man
    Says "Here I'm learned; this, I understand;
    In that, I am never caught at fault or doubt."
    He sent the schools to school, demonstrating
    A fool will pass for such through one mistake,
    While a philosopher will pass for such,
    Through said mistakes being ventured in the gross
    And heaped up to a system.

    I am like,
    They tell me, my dear father. Broader brows
    Howbeit, upon a slenderer undergrowth
    Of delicate features, paler, near as grave;
    But then my mother's smile breaks up the whole,
    And makes it better sometimes than itself.
    So, nine full years, our days were hid with God
    Among his mountains: I was just thirteen,
    Still growing like the plants from unseen roots
    In tongue-tied Springs, and suddenly awoke
    To full life and life's needs and agonies
    With an intense, strong, struggling heart beside
    A stone-dead father. Life, struck sharp on death,
    Makes awful lightning. His last word was "Love "
    "Love, my child, love, love!" (then he had done with grief)
    "Love, my child." Ere I answered he was gone,
    And none was left to love in all the world.

    There, ended childhood. What succeeded next
    I recollect as, after fevers, men
    Thread back the passage of delirium,
    Missing the turn still, baffled by the door;
    Smooth endless days, notched here and there with knives,
    A weary, wormy darkness, spurred i' the flank
    With flame, that it should eat and end itself
    Like some tormented scorpion. Then at last
    I do remember clearly how there came
    A stranger with authority, not right
    (I thought not), who commanded, caught me up
    From old Assunta's neck; how, with a shriek,
    She let me go, while I, with ears too full
    Of my father's silence to shriek back a word,
    In all a child's astonishment at grief
    Stared at the wharf-edge where she stood and moaned,
    My poor Assunta, where she stood and moaned!
    The white walls, the blue hills, my Italy,
    Drawn backward from the shuddering steamer-deck,
    Like one in anger drawing back her skirts
    Which suppliants catch at. Then the bitter sea
    Inexorably pushed between us both
    And, sweeping up the ship with my despair,
    Threw us out as a pasture to the stars.

    Ten nights and days we voyaged on the deep;
    Ten nights and days without the common face
    Of any day or night; the moon and sun
    Cut off from the green reconciling earth,
    To starve into a blind ferocity
    And glare unnatural; the very sky
    (Dropping its bell-net down upon the sea,
    As if no human heart should 'scape alive)
    Bedraggled with the desolating salt,
    Until it seemed no more that holy heaven
    To which my father went. All new and strange;
    The universe turned stranger, for a child.

    Then, land! then, England! oh, the frosty cliffs
    Looked cold upon me. Could I find a home
    Among those mean red houses through the fog?
    And when I heard my father's language first
    From alien lips which had no kiss for mine
    I wept aloud, then laughed, then wept, then wept,
    And some one near me said the child was mad
    Through much sea-sickness. The train swept us on:
    Was this my father's England? the great isle?
    The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship
    Of verdure, field from field, as man from man;
    The skies themselves looked low and positive,
    As almost you could touch them with a hand,
    And dared to do it they were so far off
    From God's celestial crystals; all things blurred
    And dull and vague. Did Shakespeare and his mates
    Absorb the light here? not a hill or stone
    With heart to strike a radiant colour up
    Or active outline on the indifferent air.

    I think I see my father's sister stand
    Upon the hall-step of her country-house
    To give me welcome. She stood straight and calm,
    Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight
    As if for taming accidental thoughts
    From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with gray
    By frigid use of life (she was not old,
    Although my father's elder by a year),
    A nose drawn sharply, yet in delicate lines;
    A close mild mouth, a little soured about
    The ends, through speaking unrequited loves
    Or peradventure niggardly half-truths;
    Eyes of no colour, once they might have smiled,
    But never, never have forgot themselves
    In smiling; cheeks, in which was yet a rose
    Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,
    Kept more for ruth than pleasure, if past bloom,
    Past fading also.

    She had lived, we'll say,
    A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,
    A quiet life, which was not life at all
    (But that, she had not lived enough to know),
    Between the vicar and the county squires,
    The lord-lieutenant looking down sometimes
    From the empyrean to assure their souls
    Against chance vulgarisms, and, in the abyss,
    The apothecary, looked on once a year
    To prove their soundness of humility.
    The poor-club exercised her Christian gifts
    Of knitting stockings, stitching petticoats,
    Because we are of one flesh, after all,
    And need one flannel (with a proper sense
    Of difference in the quality) and still
    The book-club, guarded from your modern trick
    Of shaking dangerous questions from the crease,
    Preserved her intellectual. She had lived
    A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage,
    Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
    Was act and joy enough for any bird.
    Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live
    In thickets, and eat berries!

    I, alas,
    A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage,
    And she was there to meet me. Very kind.
    Bring the clean water, give out the fresh seed.

    She stood upon the steps to welcome me,
    Calm, in black garb. I clung about her neck,
    Young babes, who catch at every shred of wool
    To draw the new light closer, catch and cling
    Less blindly. In my ears my father's word
    Hummed ignorantly, as the sea in shells,
    "Love, love, my child." She, black there with my grief,
    Might feel my love she was his sister once
    I clung to her. A moment she seemed moved,
    Kissed me with cold lips, suffered me to cling,
    And drew me feebly through the hall into
    The room she sat in.

    There, with some strange spasm
    Of pain and passion, she wrung loose my hands
    Imperiously, and held me at arm's length,
    And with two grey-steel naked-bladed eyes
    Searched through my face, ay, stabbed it through and through,
    Through brows and cheeks and chin, as if to find
    A wicked murderer in my innocent face,
    If not here, there perhaps. Then, drawing breath,
    She struggled for her ordinary calm
    And missed it rather, told me not to shrink,
    As if she had told me not to lie or swear,
    "She loved my father and would love me too
    As long as I deserved it." Very kind.

    I understood her meaning afterward;
    She thought to find my mother in my face,
    And questioned it for that. For she, my aunt,
    Had loved my father truly, as she could,
    And hated, with the gall of gentle souls,
    My Tuscan mother who had fooled away
    A wise man from wise courses, a good man
    From obvious duties, and, depriving her,
    His sister, of the household precedence,
    Had wronged his tenants, robbed his native land,
    And made him mad, alike by life and death,
    In love and sorrow. She had pored for years
    What sort of woman could be suitable
    To her sort of hate, to entertain it with,
    And so, her very curiosity
    Became hate too, and all the idealism
    She ever used in life was used for hate,
    Till hate, so nourished, did exceed at last
    The love from which it grew, in strength and heat,
    And wrinkled her smooth conscience with a sense
    Of disputable virtue (say not, sin)
    When Christian doctrine was enforced at church.

    And thus my father's sister was to me
    My mother's hater. From that day she did
    Her duty to me (I appreciate it
    In her own word as spoken to herself),
    Her duty, in large measure, well pressed out,
    But measured always. She was generous, bland,
    More courteous than was tender, gave me still
    The first place, as if fearful that God's saints
    Would look down suddenly and say "Herein
    You missed a point, I think, through lack of love."
    Alas, a mother never is afraid
    Of speaking angerly to any child,
    Since love, she knows, is justified of love.

    And I, I was a good child on the whole,
    A meek and manageable child. Why not?
    I did not live, to have the faults of life:
    There seemed more true life in my father's grave
    Than in all England. Since that threw me off
    Who fain would cleave (his latest will, they say,
    Consigned me to his land), I only thought
    Of lying quiet there where I was thrown
    Like sea-weed on the rocks, and suffering her
    To prick me to a pattern with her pin,
    Fibre from fibre, delicate leaf from leaf,
    And dry out from my drowned anatomy
    The last sea-salt left in me.

    So it was.
    I broke the copious curls upon my head
    In braids, because she liked smooth-ordered hair.
    I left off saying my sweet Tuscan words
    Which still at any stirring of the heart
    Came up to float across the English phrase
    As lilies (Bene or Che che), because
    She liked my father's child to speak his tongue.
    I learnt the collects and the catechism,
    The creeds, from Athanasius back to Nice,
    The Articles, the Tracts against the times
    (By no means Buonaventure's "Prick of Love"),
    And various popular synopses of
    Inhuman doctrines never taught by John,
    Because she liked instructed piety.
    I learnt my complement of classic French
    (Kept pure of Balzac and neologism)
    And German also, since she liked a range
    Of liberal education, tongues, not books.
    I learnt a little algebra, a little
    Of the mathematics, brushed with extreme flounce
    The circle of the sciences, because
    She misliked women who are frivolous.
    I learnt the royal genealogies
    Of Oviedo, the internal laws
    Of the Burmese empire, by how many feet
    Mount Chimborazo outsoars Teneriffe,
    What navigable river joins itself
    To Lara, and what census of the year five
    Was taken at Klagenfurt, because she liked
    A general insight into useful facts.
    I learnt much music, such as would have been
    As quite impossible in Johnson's day
    As still it might be wished fine sleights of hand
    And unimagined fingering, shuffling off
    The hearer's soul through hurricanes of notes
    To a noisy Tophet; and I drew . . . costumes
    From French engravings, nereids neatly draped
    (With smirks of simmering godship): I washed in
    Landscapes from nature (rather say, washed out).
    I danced the polka and Cellarius,
    Spun glass, stuffed birds, and modelled flowers in wax,
    Because she liked accomplishments in girls.
    I read a score of books on womanhood
    To prove, if women do not think at all,
    They may teach thinking (to a maiden aunt
    Or else the author), books that boldly assert
    Their right of comprehending husband's talk
    When not too deep, and even of answering
    With pretty "may it please you," or "so it is,"
    Their rapid insight and fine aptitude,
    Particular worth and general missionariness,
    As long as they keep quiet by the fire
    And never say "no" when the world says "ay,"
    For that is fatal, their angelic reach
    Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn,
    And fatten household sinners, their, in brief,
    Potential faculty in everything
    Of abdicating power in it: she owned
    She liked a woman to be womanly,
    And English women, she thanked God and sighed
    (Some people always sigh in thanking God),
    Were models to the universe. And last
    I learnt cross-stitch, because she did not like
    To see me wear the night with empty hands
    A-doing nothing. So, my shepherdess
    Was something after all (the pastoral saints
    Be praised for't), leaning lovelorn with pink eyes
    To match her shoes, when I mistook the silks;
    Her head uncrushed by that round weight of hat
    So strangely similar to the tortoise-shell
    Which slew the tragic poet.

    By the way,
    The works of women are symbolical.
    We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
    Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
    To put on when you're weary or a stool
    To stumble over and vex you . . . "curse that stool!"
    Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean
    And sleep, and dream of something we are not
    But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!
    This hurts most, this that, after all, we are paid
    The worth of our work, perhaps.

     In looking down
    Those years of education (to return)
    I wonder if Brinvilliers suffered more
    In the water-torture . . . flood succeeding flood
    To drench the incapable throat and split the veins . . .
    Than I did. Certain of your feebler souls
    Go out in such a process; many pine
    To a sick, inodorous light; my own endured:
    I had relations in the Unseen, and drew
    The elemental nutriment and heat
    From nature, as earth feels the sun at nights,
    Or as a babe sucks surely in the dark.
    I kept the life thrust on me, on the outside
    Of the inner life with all its ample room
    For heart and lungs, for will and intellect,
    Inviolable by conventions. God,
    I thank thee for that grace of thine!

                    At first
    I felt no life which was not patience, did
    The thing she bade me, without heed to a thing
    Beyond it, sat in just the chair she placed,
    With back against the window, to exclude
    The sight of the great lime-tree on the lawn,
    Which seemed to have come on purpose from the woods
    To bring the house a message, ay, and walked
    Demurely in her carpeted low rooms,
    As if I should not, hearkening my own steps,
    Misdoubt I was alive. I read her books,
    Was civil to her cousin, Romney Leigh,
    Gave ear to her vicar, tea to her visitors,
    And heard them whisper, when I changed a cup
    (I blushed for joy at that), "The Italian child,
    For all her blue eyes and her quiet ways,
    Thrives ill in England: she is paler yet
    Than when we came the last time; she will die."

    "Will die." My cousin, Romney Leigh, blushed too,
    With sudden anger, and approaching me
    Said low between his teeth, "You're wicked now?
    You wish to die and leave the world a-dusk
    For others, with your naughty light blown out?"
    I looked into his face defyingly;
    He might have known that, being what I was,
    'Twas natural to like to get away
    As far as dead folk can: and then indeed
    Some people make no trouble when they die.
    He turned and went abruptly, slammed the door,
    And shut his dog out.

    Romney, Romney Leigh.
    I have not named my cousin hitherto,
    And yet I used him as a sort of friend;
    My elder by few years, but cold and shy
    And absent . . . tender, when he thought of it,
    Which scarcely was imperative, grave betimes,
    As well as early master of Leigh Hall,
    Whereof the nightmare sat upon his youth,
    Repressing all its seasonable delights,
    And agonising with a ghastly sense
    Of universal hideous want and wrong
    To incriminate possession. When he came
    From college to the country, very oft
    He crossed the hill on visits to my aunt,
    With gifts of blue grapes from the hothouses,
    A book in one hand, mere statistics (if
    I chanced to lift the cover), count of all
    The goats whose beards grow sprouting down toward hell
    Against God's separative judgment-hour.
    And she, she almost loved him, even allowed
    That sometimes he should seem to sigh my way;
    It made him easier to be pitiful,
    And sighing was his gift. So, undisturbed,
    At whiles she let him shut my music up
    And push my needles down, and lead me out
    To see in that south angle of the house
    The figs grow black as if by a Tuscan rock,
    On some light pretext. She would turn her head
    At other moments, go to fetch a thing,
    And leave me breath enough to speak with him,
    For his sake; it was simple.

    Sometimes too
    He would have saved me utterly, it seemed,
    He stood and looked so.

    Once, he stood so near,
    He dropped a sudden hand upon my head
    Bent down on woman's work, as soft as rain
    But then I rose and shook it off as fire,
    The stranger's touch that took my father's place
    Yet dared seem soft.

    I used him for a friend
    Before I ever knew him for a friend.
    'Twas better, 'twas worse also, afterward:
    We came so close, we saw our differences
    Too intimately. Always Romney Leigh
    Was looking for the worms, I for the gods.
    A godlike nature his; the gods look down,
    Incurious of themselves; and certainly
    'Tis well I should remember, how, those days,
    I was a worm too, and he looked on me.

    A little by his act perhaps, yet more
    By something in me, surely not my will,
    I did not die. But slowly, as one in swoon,
    To whom life creeps back in the form of death,
    With a sense of separation, a blind pain
    Of blank obstruction, and a roar i' the ears
    Of visionary chariots which retreat
    As earth grows clearer . . . slowly, by degrees,
    I woke, rose up . . . where was I? in the world;
    For uses therefore I must count worth while.

    I had a little chamber in the house,
    As green as any privet-hedge a bird
    Might choose to build in, though the nest itself
    Could show but dead-brown sticks and straws; the walls
    Were green, the carpet was pure green, the straight
    Small bed was curtained greenly, and the folds
    Hung green about the window which let in
    The out-door world with all its greenery.
    You could not push your head out and escape
    A dash of dawn-dew from the honeysuckle,
    But so you were baptized into the grace
    And privilege of seeing. . . .

    First, the lime
    (I had enough there, of the lime, be sure,
    My morning-dream was often hummed away
    By the bees in it); past the lime, the lawn,
    Which, after sweeping broadly round the house,
    Went trickling through the shrubberies in a stream
    Of tender turf, and wore and lost itself
    Among the acacias, over which you saw
    The irregular line of elms by the deep lane
    Which stopped the grounds and dammed the overflow
    Of arbutus and laurel. Out of sight
    The lane was; sunk so deep, no foreign tramp
    Nor drover of wild ponies out of Wales
    Could guess if lady's hall or tenant's lodge
    Dispensed such odours, though his stick well-crooked
    Might reach the lowest trail of blossoming briar
    Which dipped upon the wall. Behind the elms,
    And through their tops, you saw the folded hills
    Striped up and down with hedges (burly oaks
    Projecting from the line to show themselves),
    Through which my cousin Romney's chimneys smoked
    As still as when a silent mouth in frost
    Breathes, showing where the woodlands hid Leigh Hall;
    While, far above, a jut of table-land,
    A promontory without water, stretched,
    You could not catch it if the days were thick,
    Or took it for a cloud; but, otherwise,
    The vigorous sun would catch it up at eve
    And use it for an anvil till he had filled
    The shelves of heaven with burning thunderbolts,
    Protesting against night and darkness: then,
    When all his setting trouble was resolved
    To a trance of passive glory, you might see
    In apparition on the golden sky
    (Alas, my Giotto's background!) the sheep run
    Along the fine clear outline, small as mice
    That run along a witch's scarlet thread.

    Not a grand nature. Not my chestnut-woods
    Of Vallombrosa, cleaving by the spurs
    To the precipices. Not my headlong leaps
    Of waters, that cry out for joy or fear
    In leaping through the palpitating pines,
    Like a white soul tossed out to eternity
    With thrills of time upon it. Not indeed
    My multitudinous mountains, sitting in
    The magic circle, with the mutual touch
    Electric, panting from their full deep hearts
    Beneath the influent heavens, and waiting for
    Communion and commission. Italy
    Is one thing, England one.

    On English ground
    You understand the letter, ere the fall
    How Adam lived in a garden. All the fields
    Are tied up fast with hedges, nosegay-like;
    The hills are crumpled plains, the plains parterres,
    The trees, round, woolly, ready to be clipped,
    And if you seek for any wilderness
    You find, at best, a park. A nature tamed
    And grown domestic like a barn-door fowl,
    Which does not awe you with its claws and beak,
    Nor tempt you to an eyrie too high up,
    But which, in cackling, sets you thinking of
    Your eggs to-morrow at breakfast, in the pause
    Of finer meditation.

    Rather say,
    A sweet familiar nature, stealing in
    As a dog might, or child, to touch your hand
    Or pluck your gown, and humbly mind you so
    Of presence and affection, excellent
    For inner uses, from the things without.

    I could not be unthankful, I who was
    Entreated thus and holpen. In the room
    I speak of, ere the house was well awake,
    And also after it was well asleep,
    I sat alone, and drew the blessing in
    Of all that nature. With a gradual step,
    A stir among the leaves, a breath, a ray,
    It came in softly, while the angels made
    A place for it beside me. The moon came,
    And swept my chamber clean of foolish thoughts.
    The sun came, saying, "Shall I lift this light
    Against the lime-tree, and you will not look?
    I make the birds sing listen! but, for you,
    God never hears your voice, excepting when
    You lie upon the bed at nights and weep."

    Then, something moved me. Then, I wakened up
    More slowly than I verily write now,
    But wholly, at last, I wakened, opened wide
    The window and my soul, and let the airs
    And out-door sights sweep gradual gospels in,
    Regenerating what I was. O Life,
    How oft we throw it off and think, "Enough,
    Enough of life in so much! here's a cause
    For rupture; herein we must break with Life,
    Or be ourselves unworthy; here we are wronged,
    Maimed, spoiled for aspiration: farewell, Life!"
    And so, as froward babes, we hide our eyes
    And think all ended. Then, Life calls to us
    In some transformed, apocalyptic voice,
    Above us, or below us, or around:
    Perhaps we name it Nature's voice, or Love's,
    Tricking ourselves, because we are more ashamed
    To own our compensations than our griefs:
    Still, Life's voice! still, we make our peace with Life.

    And I, so young then, was not sullen. Soon
    I used to get up early, just to sit
    And watch the morning quicken in the gray,
    And hear the silence open like a flower
    Leaf after leaf, and stroke with listless hand
    The woodbine through the window, till at last
    I came to do it with a sort of love,
    At foolish unaware: whereat I smiled,
    A melancholy smile, to catch myself
    Smiling for joy.

    Capacity for joy
    Admits temptation. It seemed, next, worth while
    To dodge the sharp sword set against my life;
    To slip down stairs through all the sleepy house,
    As mute as any dream there, and escape
    As a soul from the body, out of doors,
    Glide through the shrubberies, drop into the lane,
    And wander on the hills an hour or two,
    Then back again before the house should stir.

    Or else I sat on in my chamber green,
    And lived my life, and thought my thoughts, and prayed
    My prayers without the vicar; read my books,
    Without considering whether they were fit
    To do me good. Mark, there. We get no good
    By being ungenerous, even to a book,
    And calculating profits, so much help
    By so much reading. It is rather when
    We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge
    Soul-forward, headlong, into a book's profound,
    Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth
    'Tis then we get the right good from a book.

    I read much. What my father taught before
    From many a volume, Love re-emphasised
    Upon the self-same pages: Theophrast
    Grew tender with the memory of his eyes,
    And Ælian made mine wet. The trick of Greek
    And Latin he had taught me, as he would
    Have taught me wrestling or the game of fives
    If such he had known, most like a shipwrecked man
    Who heaps his single platter with goats' cheese
    And scarlet berries; or like any man
    Who loves but one, and so gives all at once,
    Because he has it, rather than because
    He counts it worthy. Thus, my father gave;
    And thus, as did the women formerly
    By young Achilles, when they pinned a veil
    Across the boy's audacious front, and swept
    With tuneful laughs the silver-fretted rocks,
    He wrapt his little daughter in his large
    Man's doublet, careless did it fit or no.

    But, after I had read for memory,
    I read for hope. The path my father's foot
    Had trod me out (which suddenly broke off
    What time he dropped the wallet of the flesh
    And passed), alone I carried on, and set
    My child-heart 'gainst the thorny underwood,
    To reach the grassy shelter of the trees.
    Ah babe i' the wood, without a brother-babe!
    My own self-pity, like the red-breast bird,
    Flies back to cover all that past with leaves.

    Sublimest danger, over which none weeps,
    When any young wayfaring soul goes forth
    Alone, unconscious of the perilous road,
    The day-sun dazzling in his limpid eyes,
    To thrust his own way, he an alien, through
    The world of books! Ah, you! you think it fine,
    You clap hands "A fair day!" you cheer him on,
    As if the worst, could happen, were to rest
    Too long beside a fountain. Yet, behold,
    Behold! the world of books is still the world,
    And worldings in it are less merciful
    And more puissant. For the wicked there
    Are winged like angels; every knife that strikes
    Is edged from elemental fire to assail
    A spiritual life; the beautiful seems right
    By force of beauty, and the feeble wrong
    Because of weakness; power is justified
    Though armed against Saint Michael; many a crown
    Covers bald foreheads. In the book-world, true,
    There's no lack, neither, of God's saints and kings,
    That shake the ashes of the grave aside
    From their calm locks and undiscomfited
    Look steadfast truths against Time's changing mask.
    True, many a prophet teaches in the roads;
    True, many a seer pulls down the flaming heavens
    Upon his own head in strong martyrdom
    In order to light men a moment's space.
    But stay! who judges? who distinguishes
    'Twixt Saul and Nahash justly, at first sight,
    And leaves king Saul precisely at the sin,
    To serve king David? who discerns at once
    The sound of the trumpets, when the trumpets blow
    For Alaric as well as Charlemagne?
    Who judges wizards, and can tell true seers
    From conjurers? the child, there? Would you leave
    That child to wander in a battle-field
    And push his innocent smile against the guns;
    Or even in a catacomb, his torch
    Grown ragged in the fluttering air, and all
    The dark a-mutter round him? not a child.

    I read books bad and good some bad and good
    At once (good aims not always make good books:
    Well-tempered spades turn up ill-smelling soils
    In digging vineyards even); books that prove
    God's being so definitely, that man's doubt
    Grows self-defined the other side the line,
    Made atheist by suggestion; moral books,
    Exasperating to license; genial books,
    Discounting from the human dignity;
    And merry books, which set you weeping when
    The sun shines, ay, and melancholy books,
    Which make you laugh that any one should weep
    In this disjointed life for one wrong more.

    The world of books is still the world, I write,
    And both worlds have God's providence, thank God,
    To keep and hearten: with some struggle, indeed,
    Among the breakers, some hard swimming through
    The deeps I lost breath in my soul sometimes
    And cried "God save me if there's any God,"
    But, even so, God saved me; and, being dashed
    From error on to error, every turn
    Still brought me nearer to the central truth.

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

    The cygnet finds the water, but the man
    Is born in ignorance of his element
    And feels out blind at first, disorganised
    By sin i' the blood, his spirit-insight dulled
    And crossed by his sensations. Presently
    He feels it quicken in the dark sometimes,
    When, mark, be reverent, be obedient,
    For such dumb motions of imperfect life
    Are oracles of vital Deity
    Attesting the Hereafter. Let who says
    "The soul's a clean white paper," rather say,
    A palimpsest, a prophet's holograph
    Defiled, erased and covered by a monk's,
    The apocalypse, by a Longus! poring on
    Which obscene text, we may discern perhaps
    Some fair, fine trace of what was written once,
    Some upstroke of an alpha and omega
    Expressing the old scripture.

    Books, books, books!
    I had found the secret of a garret-room
    Piled high with cases in my father's name,
    Piled high, packed large, where, creeping in and out
    Among the giant fossils of my past,
    Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
    Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
    At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
    In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
    The first book first. And how I felt it beat
    Under my pillow, in the morning's dark,
    An hour before the sun would let me read!
    My books! At last because the time was ripe,
    I chanced upon the poets.

    As the earth
    Plunges in fury, when the internal fires
    Have reached and pricked her heart, and, throwing flat
    The marts and temples, the triumphal gates
    And towers of observation, clears herself
    To elemental freedom thus, my soul,
    At poetry's divine first finger-touch,
    Let go conventions and sprang up surprised,
    Convicted of the great eternities
    Before two worlds.

    What's this, Aurora Leigh,
    You write so of the poets, and not laugh?
    Those virtuous liars, dreamers after dark,
    Exaggerators of the sun and moon,
    And soothsayers in a tea-cup?

    I write so
    Of the only truth-tellers now left to God,
    The only speakers of essential truth,
    Opposed to relative, comparative,
    And temporal truths; the only holders by
    His sun-skirts, through conventional gray glooms;
    The only teachers who instruct mankind
    From just a shadow on a charnel-wall
    To find man's veritable stature out
    Erect, sublime, the measure of a man,
    And that's the measure of an angel, says
    The apostle. Ay, and while your common men
    Lay telegraphs, gauge railroads, reign, reap, dine,
    And dust the flaunty carpets of the world
    For kings to walk on, or our president,
    The poet suddenly will catch them up
    With his voice like a thunder, "This is soul,
    This is life, this word is being said in heaven,
    Here's God down on us! what are you about?"
    How all those workers start amid their work,
    Look round, look up, and feel, a moment's space,
    That carpet-dusting, though a pretty trade,
    Is not the imperative labour after all.

    My own best poets, am I one with you,
    That thus I love you, or but one through love?
    Does all this smell of thyme about my feet
    Conclude my visit to your holy hill
    In personal presence, or but testify
    The rustling of your vesture through my dreams
    With influent odours? When my joy and pain,
    My thought and aspiration, like the stops
    Of pipe or flute, are absolutely dumb
    Unless melodious, do you play on me
    My pipers, and if, sooth, you did not blow,
    Would no sound come? or is the music mine,
    As a man's voice or breath is called his own,
    Inbreathed by the Life-breather? There's a doubt
    For cloudy seasons!

    But the sun was high
    When first I felt my pulses set themselves
    For concord; when the rhythmic turbulence
    Of blood and brain swept outward upon words,
    As wind upon the alders, blanching them
    By turning up their under-natures till
    They trembled in dilation. O delight
    And triumph of the poet, who would say
    A man's mere "yes," a woman's common "no,"
    A little human hope of that or this,
    And says the word so that it burns you through
    With a special revelation, shakes the heart
    Of all the men and women in the world,
    As if one came back from the dead and spoke,
    With eyes too happy, a familiar thing
    Become divine i' the utterance! while for him
    The poet, speaker, he expands with joy;
    The palpitating angel in his flesh
    Thrills inly with consenting fellowship
    To those innumerous spirits who sun themselves
    Outside of time.

    O life, O poetry,
    Which means life in life! cognisant of life
    Beyond this blood-beat, passionate for truth
    Beyond these senses! poetry, my life,
    My eagle, with both grappling feet still hot
    From Zeus's thunder, who hast ravished me
    Away from all the shepherds, sheep, and dogs,
    And set me in the Olympian roar and round
    Of luminous faces for a cup-bearer,
    To keep the mouths of all the godheads moist
    For everlasting laughters, I myself
    Half drunk across the beaker with their eyes!
    How those gods look!

    Enough so, Ganymede,
    We shall not bear above a round or two.
    We drop the golden cup at Heré's foot
    And swoon back to the earth, and find ourselves
    Face-down among the pine-cones, cold with dew,
    While the dogs bark, and many a shepherd scoffs,
    "What's come now to the youth?" Such ups and downs
    Have poets.

    Am I such indeed? The name
    Is royal, and to sign it like a queen
    Is what I dare not, though some royal blood
    Would seem to tingle in me now and then,
    With sense of power and ache, with imposthumes
    And manias usual to the race. Howbeit
    I dare not: 'tis too easy to go mad
    And ape a Bourbon in a crown of straws;
    The thing's too common.

    Many fervent souls
    Strike rhyme on rhyme, who would strike steel on steel
    If steel had offered, in a restless heat
    Of doing something. Many tender souls
    Have strung their losses on a rhyming thread,
    As children cowslips: the more pains they take,
    The work more withers. Young men, ay, and maids,
    Too often sow their wild oats in tame verse,
    Before they sit down under their own vine
    And live for use. Alas, near all the birds
    Will sing at dawn, and yet we do not take
    The chaffering swallow for the holy lark.
    In those days, though, I never analysed,
    Not even myself. 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 thus 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: thus, with other power;
    Being acted on and acting seem the same:
    In that first onrush of life's chariot-wheels,
    We know not if the forests move or we.

    And so, like most young poets, in a flush
    Of individual life I poured myself
    Along the veins of others, and achieved
    Mere lifeless imitations of live verse,
    And made the living answer for the dead,
    Profaning nature. "Touch not, do not taste,
    Nor handle," we're too legal, who write young:
    We beat the phorminx till we hurt our thumbs,
    As if still ignorant of counterpoint;
    We call the Muse, "O Muse, benignant Muse,"
    As if we had seen her purple-braided head,
    With the eyes in it, start between the boughs
    As often as a stag's. What make-believe,
    With so much earnest! what effete results
    From virile efforts! what cold wire-drawn odes
    From such white heats! bucolics, where the cows
    Would scare the writer if they splashed the mud
    In lashing off the flies, didactics, driven
    Against the heels of what the master said;
    And counterfeiting epics, shrill with trumps
    A babe might blow between two straining cheeks
    Of bubbled rose, to make his mother laugh;
    And elegiac griefs, and songs of love,
    Like cast-off nosegays picked up on the road,
    The worse for being warm: all these things, writ
    On happy mornings, with a morning heart,
    That leaps for love, is active for resolve,
    Weak for art only. Oft, the ancient forms
    Will thrill, indeed, in carrying the young blood.
    The wine-skins, now and then, a little warped,
    Will crack even, as the new wine gurgles in.
    Spare the old bottles! spill not the new wine.

    By Keats's soul, the man who never stepped
    In gradual progress like another man,
    But, turning grandly on his central self,
    Ensphered himself in twenty perfect years
    And died, not young (the life of a long life
    Distilled to a mere drop, falling like a tear
    Upon the world's cold cheek to make it burn
    For ever); by that strong excepted soul,
    I count it strange and hard to understand
    That nearly all young poets should write old,
    That Pope was sexagenary 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?
    Or should I sit down to the crochet work?
    Was such her pleasure?" Then I sat and teased
    The patient needle till it spilt the thread,
    Which oozed off from it in meandering lace
    From hour to hour. I was not, therefore, sad;
    My soul was singing at a work apart
    Behind the wall of sense, as safe from harm
    As sings the lark when sucked up out of sight
    In vortices of glory and blue air.

    And so, through forced work and spontaneous work,
    The inner life informed the outer life,
    Reduced the irregular blood to a settled rhythm,
    Made cool the forehead with fresh-sprinkling dreams,
    And, rounding to the spheric soul the thin,
    Pined body, struck a colour up the cheeks
    Though somewhat faint. I clenched my brows across
    My blue eyes greatening in the looking-glass,
    And said "We'll live, Aurora! we'll be strong.
    The dogs are on us but we will not die."

    Whoever lives true life will love true love.
    I learnt to love that England. Very oft,
    Before the day was born, or otherwise
    Through secret windings of the afternoons,
    I threw my hunters off and plunged myself
    Among the deep hills, as a hunted stag
    Will take the waters, shivering with the fear
    And passion of the course. And when at last
    Escaped, so many a green slope built on slope
    Betwixt me and the enemy's house behind,
    I dared to rest, or wander, in a rest
    Made sweeter for the step upon the grass,
    And view the ground's most gentle dimplement
    (As if God's finger touched but did not press
    In making England), such an up and down
    Of verdure, nothing too much up or down,
    A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky
    Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb;
    Such nooks of valleys lined with orchises,
    Fed full of noises by invisible streams;
    And open pastures where you scarcely tell
    White daisies from white dew, at intervals
    The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out
    Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade,
    I thought my father's land was worthy too
    Of being my Shakespeare's.

    Very oft alone,

    Unlicensed; not unfrequently with leave
    To walk the third with Romney and his friend
    The rising painter, Vincent Carrington,
    Whom men judge hardly as bee-bonneted,
    Because he holds that, paint a body well,
    You paint a soul by implication, like
    The grand first Master. Pleasant walks! for if
    He said "When I was last in Italy,"
    It sounded as an instrument that's played
    Too far off for the tune and yet it's fine
    To listen.

    Ofter we walked only two
    If cousin Romney pleased to walk with me.
    We read, or talked, or quarrelled, as it chanced.
    We were not lovers, nor even friends well-matched:
    Say rather, scholars upon different tracks,
    And thinkers disagreed: he, overfull
    Of what is, and I, haply, overbold
    For what might be.

    But then the thrushes sang,
    And shook my pulses and the elms' new leaves:
    At which I turned, and held my finger up,
    And bade him mark that, howsoe'er the world
    Went ill, as he related, certainly
    The thrushes still sang in it. At the word
    His brow would soften, and he bore with me
    In melancholy patience, not unkind,
    While breaking into voluble ecstasy
    I flattered all the beauteous country round,
    As poets use, the skies, the clouds, the fields,
    The happy violets hiding from the roads
    The primroses run down to, carrying gold;
    The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
    Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths
    'Twixt dripping ash-boughs, hedgerows all alive
    With birds and gnats and large white butterflies
    Which look as if the May-flower had caught life
    And palpitated forth upon the wind;
    Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
    Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills;
    And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
    And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
    And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,
    Confused with smell of orchards. "See," I said,
    "And see! is God not with us on the earth?
    And shall we put Him down by aught we do?
    Who says there's nothing for the poor and vile
    Save poverty and wickedness? behold!"
    And ankle-deep in English grass I leaped
    And clapped my hands, and called all very fair.

    In the beginning when God called all good,
    Even then was evil near us, it is writ;
    But we indeed who call things good and fair,
    The evil is upon us while we speak;
    Deliver us from evil, let us pray.


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Add Aurora Leigh: Book 1 to your library.

Return to the Elizabeth Barrett Browning library , or . . . Read the next poem; Aurora Leigh: Book 2

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