Dramatic Romances, by Robert Browning

The Flight of the Duchess

I

You’re my friend:

I was the man the Duke spoke to;

I helped the Duchess to cast off his yoke, too;

So here’s the tale from beginning to end,

My friend!

II

Ours is a great wild country:

If you climb to our castle’s top,

I don’t see where your eye can stop;

For when you’ve passed the cornfield country,

10

Where vineyards leave off, flocks are packed,

And sheep-range leads to cattle-tract,

And cattle-tract to open-chase,

And open-chase to the very base

Of the mountain where, at a funeral pace,

Round about, solemn and slow,

One by one, row after row,

Up and up the pine-trees go,

So, like black priests up, and so

Down the other side again

20

To another greater, wilder country,

That’s one vast red drear burnt-up plain,

Branched through and through with many a vein

Whence iron’s dug, and copper’s dealt;

Look right, look left, look straight before —

Beneath they mine, above they smelt,

Copper-ore and iron-ore,

And forge and furnace mould and melt,

And so on, more and ever more,

Till at the last, for a bounding belt,

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Comes the salt sand hoar of the great sea shore

— And the whole is our Duke’s country.

III

I was born the day this present Duke was —

(And O, says the song, ere I was old!)

In the castle where the other Duke was —

(When I was happy and young, not old!)

I in the kennel, he in the bower:

We are of like age to an hour.

My father was huntsman in that day;

Who has not heard my father say

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That, when a boar was brought to bay,

Three times, four times out of five,

With his huntspear he’d contrive

To get the killing-place transfixed,

And pin him true, both eyes betwixt?

And that’s why the old Duke would rather

He lost a salt-pit than my father,

And loved to have him ever in call;

That’s why my father stood in the hall

When the old Duke brought his infant out

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To show the people, and while they passed

The wondrous bantling round about,

Was first to start at the outside blast

As the Kaiser’s courier blew his horn

Just a month after the babe was born.

“And,” quoth the Kaiser’s courier,” since

The Duke has got an heir, our Prince

Needs the Duke’s self at his side:”

The Duke looked down and seemed to wince,

But he thought of wars o’er the world wide,

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Castles a-fire, men on their march,

The toppling tower, the crashing arch;

And up he looked, and awhile he eyed

The row of crests and shields and banners

Of all achievements after all manners,

And “ay,” said the Duke with a surly pride.

The more was his comfort when he died

At next year’s end, in a velvet suit,

With a gilt glove on his hand, his foot

In a silken shoe for a leather boot,

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Petticoated like a herald,

In a chamber next to an ante-room,

Where he breathed the breath of page and groom,

What he called stink, and they, perfume:

— They should have set him on red Berold

Mad with pride, like fire to manage!

They should have got his cheek fresh tannage

Such a day as today in the merry sunshine!

Had they stuck on his fist a rough-foot merlin!

(Hark, the wind’s on the heath at its game!

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Oh for a noble falcon-lanner

To flap each broad wing like a banner,

And turn in the wind, and dance like flame!)

Had they broached a white-beer cask from Berlin

— Or if you incline to prescribe mere wine

Put to his lips, when they saw him pine,

A cup of our own Moldavia fine,

Cotnar for instance, green as May sorrel

And ropy with sweet — we shall not quarrel.

IV

So, at home, the sick tall yellow Duchess

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Was left with the infant in her clutches,

She being the daughter of God knows who:

And now was the time to revisit her tribe.

Abroad and afar they went, the two,

And let our people rail and gibe

At the empty hall and extinguished fire,

As loud as we liked, but ever in vain,

Till after long years we had our desire,

And back came the Duke and his mother again.

V

And he came back the pertest little ape

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That ever affronted human shape;

Full of his travel, struck at himself.

You’d say, he despised our bluff old ways?

— Not he! For in Paris they told the elf

Our rough North land was the Land of Lays,

The one good thing left in evil days;

Since the Mid–Age was the Heroic Time,

And only in wild nooks like ours

Could you taste of it yet as in its prime,

And see true castles, with proper towers,

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Young-hearted women, old-minded men,

And manners now as manners were then.

So, all that the old Dukes had been, without knowing it,

This Duke would fain know he was, without being it;

’Twas not for the joy’s self, but the joy of his showing it,

Nor for the pride’s self, but the pride of our seeing it,

He revived all usages thoroughly worn-out,

The souls of them fumed-forth, the hearts of them torn-out:

And chief in the chase his neck he perilled

On a lathy horse, all legs and length,

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With blood for bone, all speed, no strength;

— They should have set him on red Berold

With the red eye slow consuming in fire,

And the thin stiff ear like an abbey-spire!

VI

Well, such as he was, he must marry, we heard:

And out of a convent, at the word,

Came the lady, in time of spring.

— Oh, old thoughts they cling, they cling!

That day, I know, with a dozen oaths

I clad myself in thick hunting-clothes

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Fit for the chase of urochs or buffle

In winter-time when you need to muffle.

But the Duke had a mind we should cut a figure,

And so we saw the lady arrive:

My friend, I have seen a white crane bigger!

She was the smallest lady alive,

Made in a piece of nature’s madness,

Too small, almost, for the life and gladness

That over-filled her, as some hive

Out of the bears’ reach on the high trees

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Is crowded with its safe merry bees:

In truth, she was not hard to please!

Up she looked, down she looked, round at the mead,

Straight at the castle, that’s best indeed

To look at from outside the walls:

As for us, styled the “ serfs and thralls,”

She as much thanked me as if she had said it,

(With her eyes, do you understand?)

Because I patted her horse while I led it;

And Max, who rode on her other hand,

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Said, no bird flew past but she inquired

What its true name was, nor ever seemed tired —

If that was an eagle she saw hover,

And the green and grey bird on the field was the plover.

When suddenly appeared. the Duke:

And as down she sprung, the small foot pointed

On to my hand — as with a rebuke,

And as if his backbone were not jointed,

The Duke stepped rather aside than forward

And welcomed her with his grandest smile;

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And, mind you, his mother all the while

Chilled in the rear, like a wind to Nor’ward;

And up, like a weary yawn, with its pullies

Went, in a shriek, the rusty portcullis;

And, like a glad sky the north-wind sullies,

The lady’s face stopped its play,

As if her first hair had grown grey;

For such things must begin some one day.

VII

In a day or two she was well again;

As who should say, “You labour in vain!

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This is all a jest against God, who meant

I should ever be, as I am, content

And glad in his sight; therefore, glad I will be.”

So, smiling as at first went she.

VIII

She was active, stirring, all fire —

Could not rest, could not tire —

To a stone she might have given life!

(I myself loved once, in my day)

— For a shepherd’s, miner’s, huntsman’s wife,

(I had a wife, I know what I say)

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Never in all the world such an one!

And here was plenty to be done,

And she that could do it, great or small,

She was to do nothing at all.

There was already this man in his post,

This in his station, and that in his office,

And the Duke’s plan admitted a wife, at most,

To meet his eye, with the other trophies,

Now outside the hall, now in it,

To sit thus, stand thus, see and be seen,

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At the proper place in the proper minute,

And die away the life between.

And it was amusing enough, each infraction

Of rule —(but for after-sadness that came)

To hear the consummate self-satisfaction

With which the young Duke and the old dame

Would let her advise, and criticise,

And, being a fool, instruct the wise,

And, child-like, parcel out praise or blame:

They bore it all in complacent guise,

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As though an artificer, after contriving

A wheel-work image as if it were living,

Should find with delight it could motion to strike him!

So found the Duke, and his mother like him:

The lady hardly got a rebuff —

That had not been contemptuous enough,

With his cursed smirk, as he nodded applause,

And kept off the old mother-cat’s claws.

IX

So, the little lady grew silent and thin,

Paling and ever paling,

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As the way is with a hid chagrin;

And the Duke perceived that she was ailing,

And said in his heart, “’Tis done to spite me,

But I shall find in my power to right me!”

Don’t swear, friend! The old one, many a year,

Is in hell, and the Duke’s self . . . you shall hear.

X

Well, early in autumn, at first winter-warning,

When the stag had to break with his foot, of a morning,

A drinking-hole out of the fresh tender ice

That covered the pond till the sun, in a trice,

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Loosening it, let out a ripple of gold,

And another and another, and faster and faster

Till, dimpling to blindness, the wide water rolled:

Then it so chanced that the Duke our master

Asked himself what were the pleasures in season,

And found, since the calendar bade him be hearty,

He should do the Middle Age no treason

In resolving on a hunting-party.

Always provided, old books showed the way of it!

What meant old poets by their strictures?

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And when old poets had said their say of it,

How taught old painters in their pictures?

We must revert to the proper channels,

Workings in tapestry, paintings on panels,

And gather up woodcraft’s authentic traditions:

Here was food for our various ambitions,

As on each case, exactly stated —

To encourage your dog, now, the properest chirrup

Or best prayer to Saint Hubert on mounting your stirrup —

We of the household took thought and debated.

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Blessed was he whose back ached with the jerkin

His sire was wont to do forest-work in;

Blesseder he who nobly sunk “ohs”

And “ahs” while he tugged on his grandsire’s trunk-hose;

What signified hats if they had no rims on,

Each slouching before and behind like the scallop,

And able to serve at sea for a shallop,

Loaded with lacquer and looped with crimson?

So that the deer now, to make a short rhyme on’t,

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What with our Venerers, Prickers and Verderers,

Might hope for real hunters at length and not murderers,

And oh the Duke’s tailor, he had a hot time on’t!

XI

Now you must know that when the first dizziness

Of flap-hats and buff-coats and jack-boots subsided,

The Duke put this question, “The Duke’s part provided,

Had not the Duchess some share in the business?”

For out of the mouth of two or three witnesses

Did he establish all fit-or-unfitnesses:

And, after much laying of heads together,

Somebody’s cap got a notable feather

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By the announcement with proper unction

That he had discovered the lady’s function;

Since ancient authors gave this tenet,

“When horns wind a mort and the deer is at siege,

Let the dame of the castle prick forth on her jennet,

And with water to wash the hands of her liege

In a clean ewer with a fair toweling,

Let her preside at the disemboweling.”

Now, my friend, if you had so little religion

As to catch a hawk, some falcon-lanner,

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And thrust her broad wings like a banner

Into a coop for a vulgar pigeon;

And if day by day and week by week

You cut her claws, and sealed her eyes,

And clipped her wings, and tied her beak,

Would it cause you any great surprise

If, when you decided to give her an airing,

You found she needed a little preparing?

— I say, should you be such a curmudgeon,

If she clung to the perch, as to take it in dudgeon?

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Yet when the Duke to his lady signified,

Just a day before, as he judged most dignified,

In what a pleasure she was to participate —

And, instead of leaping wide in flashes,

Her eyes just lifted their long lashes,

As if pressed by fatigue even he could not dissipate,

And duly acknowledged the Duke’s fore-thought,

But spoke of her health, if her health were worth aught,

Of the weight by day and the watch by night,

And much wrong now that used to be right,

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So, thanking him, declined the hunting —

Was conduct ever more affronting?

With all the ceremony settled —

With the towel ready, and the sewer

Polishing up his oldest ewer,

And the jennet pitched upon, a piebald,

Black-barred, cream-coated and pink eye-balled —

No wonder if the Duke was nettled!

And when she persisted nevertheless —

Well, I suppose here’s the time to confess

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That there ran half round our lady’s chamber

A balcony none of the hardest to clamber;

And that Jacynth the tire-woman, ready in waiting,

Stayed in call outside, what need of relating?

And since Jacynth was like a June rose, why, a fervent

Adorer of Jacynth of course was your servant;

And if she had the habit to peep through the casement,

How could I keep at any vast distance?

And so, as I say, on the lady’s persistence,

The Duke, dumb-stricken with amazement,

310

Stood for a while in a sultry smother,

And then, with a smile that partook of the awful,

Turned her over to his yellow mother

To learn what was held decorous and lawful;

And the mother smelt blood with a cat-like instinct,

As her cheek quick whitened thro’ all its quince-tinct.

Oh, but the lady heard the whole truth at once!

What meant she? — Who was she? — Her duty and station,

The wisdom of age and the folly of youth, at once,

Its decent regard and its fitting relation —

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In brief, my friend, set all the devils in hell free

And turn them out to carouse in a belfry

And treat the priests to a fifty-part canon,

And then you may guess how that tongue of hers ran on!

Well, somehow or other it ended at last

And, licking her whiskers, out she passed;

And after her — making (he hoped) a face

Like Emperor Nero or Sultan Saladin,

Stalked the Duke’s self with the austere grace

Of ancient hero or modern paladin,

330

From door to staircase — oh such a solemn

Unbending of the vertebral column!

XII

However, at sunrise our company mustered;

And here was the huntsman bidding unkennel,

And there ‘neath his bonnet the pricker blustered,

With feather dank as a bough of wet fennel;

For the court-yard walls were filled with fog

You might have cut as an axe chops a log —

Like so much wool for colour and bulkiness;

And out rode the Duke in a perfect sulkiness,

340

Since, before breakfast, a man feels but queasily

And a sinking at the lower abdomen

Begins the day with indifferent omen.

And lo, as he looked around uneasily,

The sun ploughed the fog up and drove it asunder

This way and that from the valley under;

And, looking through the court-yard arch,

Down in the valley, what should meet him

But a troop of Gipsies on their march?

No doubt with the annual gifts to greet him.

XIII
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Now, in your land, Gipsies reach you, only

After reaching all lands beside;

North they go, South they go, trooping or lonely

And still, as they travel far and wide,

Catch they and keep now a trace here, a trace there,

That puts you in mind of a place here, a place there.

But with us, I believe they rise out of the ground,

And nowhere else, I take it, are found

With the earth-tint yet so freshly embrowned:

Born, no doubt, like insects which breed on

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The very fruit they are meant to feed on.

For the earth-not a use to which they don’t turn it,

The ore that grows in the mountain’s womb,

Or the sand in the pits like a honeycomb,

They sift and soften it, bake it and burn it —

Whether they weld you, for instance, a snaffle

With side-bars never a brute can baffle;

Or a lock that’s a puzzle of wards within wards;

Or, if your colt’s fore-foot inclines to curve inwards,

Horseshoes they hammer which turn on a swivel

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And won’t allow the hoof to shrivel.

Then they cast bells like the shell of the winkle

That keep a stout heart in the ram with their tinkle;

But the sand-they pinch and pound it like otters;

Commend me to Gipsy glass-makers and potters!

Glasses they’ll blow you, crystal-clear,

Where just a faint cloud of rose shall appear,

As if in pure water you dropped and let die

A bruised black-blooded mulberry;

And that other sort, their crowning pride,

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With long white threads distinct inside,

Like the lake-flower’s fibrous roots which dangle

Loose such a length and never tangle,

Where the bold sword-lily cuts the clear waters,

And the cup-lily couches with all the white daughters:

Such are the works they put their hand to,

The uses they turn and twist iron and sand to.

And these made the troop, which our Duke saw sally

Toward his castle from out of the valley,

Men and women, like new-hatched spiders,

390

Come out with the morning to greet our riders.

And up they wound till they reached the ditch,

Whereat all stopped save one, a witch

That I knew, as she hobbled from the group,

By her gait directly and her stoop,

I, whom Jacynth was used to importune

To let that same witch tell us our fortune.

The oldest Gipsy then above ground;

And, sure as the autumn season came round,

She paid us a visit for profit or pastime,

400

And every time, as she swore, for the last time.

And presently she was seen to sidle

Up to the Duke till she touched his bridle,

So that the horse of a sudden reared up

As under its nose the old witch peered up

With her worn-out eyes, or rather eye-holes

Of no use now but to gather brine,

And began a kind of level whine

Such as they used to sing to their viols

When their ditties they go grinding

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Up and down with nobody minding

And then, as of old, at the end of the humming

Her usual presents were forthcoming

— A dog-whistle blowing the fiercest of trebles,

(Just a sea-shore stone holding a dozen fine pebbles)

Or a porcelain mouth-piece to screw on a pipe-end —

And so she awaited her annual stipend.

But this time, the Duke would scarcely vouchsafe

A word in reply; and in vain she felt

With twitching fingers at her belt

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For the purse of sleek pine-martin pelt,

Ready to put what he gave in her pouch safe —

Till, either to quicken his apprehension,

Or possibly with an after-intention,

She was come, she said, to pay her duty

To the new Duchess, the youthful beauty.

No sooner had she named his lady,

Than a shine lit up the face so shady,

And its smirk returned with a novel meaning —

For it struck him, the babe just wanted weaning;

430

If one gave her a taste of what life was and sorrow,

She, foolish today, would be wiser tomorrow;

And who so fit a teacher of trouble

As this sordid crone bent well-nigh double?

So, glancing at her wolf-skin vesture,

(If such it was, for they grow so hirsute

That their own fleece serves for natural fur-suit)

He was contrasting, ’twas plain from his gesture,

The life of the lady so flower-like and delicate

With the loathsome squalor of this helicat.

440

I, in brief, was the man the Duke beckoned

From out of the throng, and while I drew near

He told the crone-as I since have reckoned

By the way he bent and spoke into her ear

With circumspection and mystery —

The main of the lady’s history,

Her frowardness and ingratitude:

And for all the crone’s submissive attitude

I could see round her mouth the loose plaits tightening,

And her brow with assenting intelligence brightening

450

As though she engaged with hearty goodwill

Whatever he now might enjoin to fulfil,

And promised the lady a thorough frightening.

And so, just giving her a glimpse

Of a purse, with the air of a man who imps

The wing of the hawk that shall fetch the hernshaw,

He bade me take the Gipsy mother

And set her telling some story or other

Of hill or dale, oak-wood or fernshaw,

To wile away a weary hour

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For the lady left alone in her bower,

Whose mind and body craved exertion

And yet shrank from all better diversion.

XIV

Then clapping heel to his horse, the mere curveter,

Out rode the Duke, and after his hollo

Horses and hounds swept, huntsman and servitor,

And back I turned and bade the crone follow.

And what makes me confident what’s to be told you

Had all along been of this crone’s devising,

Is, that, on looking round sharply, behold you,

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There was a novelty quick as surprising:

For first, she had shot up a full head in stature,

And her step kept pace with mine nor faltered,

As if age had foregone its usurpature,

And the ignoble mien was wholly altered,

And the face looked quite of another nature,

And the change reached too, whatever the change meant,

Her shaggy wolf-skin cloak’s arrangement:

For where its tatters hung loose like sedges,

Gold coins were glittering on the edges,

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Like the band-roll strung with tomans

Which proves the veil a Persian woman’s:

And under her brow, like a snail’s horns newly

Come out as after the rain he paces,

Two unmistakeable eye-points duly

Live and aware looked out of their places.

So, we went and found Jacynth at the entry

Of the lady’s chamber standing sentry;

I told the command and produced my companion,

And Jacynth rejoiced to admit any one,

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For since last night, by the same token,

Not a single word had the lady spoken:

They went in both to the presence together,

While I in the balcony watched the weather.

XV

And now, what took place at the very first of all,

I cannot tell, as I never could learn it:

Jacynth constantly wished a curse to fall

On that little head of hers and burn it

If she knew how she came to drop so soundly

Asleep of a sudden and there continue

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The whole time sleeping as profoundly

As one of the boars my father would pin you

‘Twixt the eyes where life holds garrison,

— Jacynth forgive me the comparison!

But where I begin my own narration

Is a little after I took my station

To breathe the fresh air from the balcony,

And, having in those days a falcon eye,

To follow the hunt thro’ the open country,

From where the bushes thinlier crested

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The hillocks, to a plain where’s not one tree.

When, in a moment, my ear was arrested

By — was it singing, or was it saying,

Or a strange musical instrument playing

In the chamber? — and to be certain

I pushed the lattice, pulled the curtain,

And there lay Jacynth asleep,

Yet as if a watch she tried to keep,

In a rosy sleep along the floor

With her head against the door;

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While in the midst, on the seat of state,

Was a queen-the Gipsy woman late,

With head and face downbent

On the lady’s head and face intent:

For, coiled at her feet like a child at ease,

The lady sat between her knees

And o’er them the lady’s clasped hands met,

And on those hands her chin was set,

And her upturned face met the face of the crone

Wherein the eyes had grown and grown

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As if she could double and quadruple

At pleasure the play of either pupil

— Very like, by her hands’ slow fanning,

As up and down like a gor-crow’s flappers

They moved to measure, or bell-clappers.

I said, “Is it blessing, is it banning,

Do they applaud you or burlesque you —

Those hands and fingers with no flesh on?”

But, just as I thought to spring in to the rescue,

At once I was stopped by the lady’s expression:

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For it was life her eyes were drinking

From the crone’s wide pair above unwinking,

— Life’s pure fire received without shrinking,

Into the heart and breast whose heaving

Told you no single drop they were leaving,

— Life, that filling her, passed redundant

Into her very hair, back swerving

Over each shoulder, loose and abundant,

As her head thrown back showed the white throat curving;

And the very tresses shared in the pleasure,

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Moving to the mystic measure,

Bounding as the bosom bounded.

I stopped short, more and more confounded,

As still her cheeks burned and eyes glistened,

As she listened and she listened:

When all at once a hand detained me,

The selfsame contagion gained me,

And I kept time to the wondrous chime,

Making out words and prose and rhyme,

Till it seemed that the music furled

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Its wings like a task fulfilled, and dropped

From under the words it first had propped,

And left them midway in the world:

Word took word as hand takes hand

I could hear at last, and understand,

And when I held the unbroken thread,

The Gipsy said:

“And so at last we find my tribe.

And so I set thee in the midst,

And to one and all of them describe

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What thou saidst and what thou didst,

Our long and terrible journey through,

And all thou art ready to say and do

In the trials that remain:

I trace them the vein and the other vein

That meet on thy brow and part again,

Making our rapid mystic mark;

And I bid my people prove and probe

Each eye’s profound and glorious globe

Till they detect the kindred spark

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In those depths so dear and dark,

Like the spots that snap and burst and flee,

Circling over the midnight sea.

And on that round young cheek of thine

I make them recognize the tinge,

As when of the costly scarlet wine

They drip so much as will impinge

And spread in a thinnest scale afloat

One thick gold drop from the olive’s coat

Over a silver plate whose sheen

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Still thro’ the mixture shall be seen.

For so I prove thee, to one and all,

Fit, when my people ope their breast,

To see the sign, and hear the call,

And take the vow, and stand the test

Which adds one more child to the rest —

When the breast is bare and the arms are wide,

And the world is left outside.

For there is probation to decree,

And many and long must the trials be

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Thou shalt victoriously endure,

If that brow is true and those eyes are sure;

Like a jewel-finder’s fierce assay

Of the prize he dug from its mountain tomb —

Let once the vindicating ray

Leap out amid the anxious gloom,

And steel and fire have done their part

And the prize falls on its finder’s heart;

So, trial after trial past,

Wilt thou fall at the very last

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Breathless, half in trance

With the thrill of the great deliverance,

Into our arms for evermore;

And thou shalt know, those arms once curled

About thee, what we knew before,

How love is the only good in the world.

Henceforth be loved as heart can love,

Or brain devise, or hand approve!

Stand up, look below,

It is our life at thy feet we throw

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To step with into light and joy;

Not a power of life but we employ

To satisfy thy nature’s want;

Art thou the tree that props the plant,

Or the climbing plant that seeks the tree —

Canst thou help us, must we help thee?

If any two creatures grew into one,

They would do more than the world has done:

Though each apart were never so weak,

Ye vainly through the world should seek

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For the knowledge and the might

Which in such union grew their right:

So, to approach at least that end,

And blend — as much as may be, blend

Thee with us or us with thee —

As climbing plant or propping tree,

Shall some one deck thee, over and down,

Up and about, with blossoms and leaves?

Fix his heart’s fruit for thy garland-crown,

Cling with his soul as the gourd-vine cleaves,

640

Die on thy boughs and disappear

While not a leaf of thine is sere?

Or is the other fate in store,

And art thou fitted to adore,

To give thy wondrous self away,

And take a stronger nature’s sway?

I foresee and could foretell

Thy future portion, sure and well:

But those passionate eyes speak true, speak true,

Let them say what thou shalt do!

650

Only be sure thy daily life,

In its peace or in its strife,

Never shall be unobserved;

We pursue thy whole career,

And hope for it, or doubt, or fear —

Lo, hast thou kept thy path or swerved,

We are beside thee in all thy ways,

With our blame, with our praise,

Our shame to feel, our pride to show,

Glad, angry — but indifferent, no!

660

Whether it be thy lot to go,

For the good of us all, where the haters meet

In the crowded city’s horrible street;

Or thou step alone through the morass

Where never sound yet was

Save the dry quick clap of the stork’s bill,

For the air is still, and the water still,

When the blue breast of the dipping coot

Dives under, and all is mute.

So, at the last shall come old age,

670

Decrepit as befits that stage;

How else wouldst thou retire apart

With the hoarded memories of thy heart,

And gather all to the very least

Of the fragments of life’s earlier feast,

Let fall through eagerness to find

The crowning dainties yet behind?

Ponder on the entire past

Laid together thus at last,

When the twilight helps to fuse

680

The first fresh with the faded hues,

And the outline of the whole,

As round eve’s shades their framework roll,

Grandly fronts for once thy soul.

And then as, ‘mid the dark, a gleam

Of yet another morning breaks,

And like the hand which ends a dream,

Death, with the might of his sunbeam,

Touches the flesh and the soul awakes,

Then —”

Ay, then indeed something would happen!

690

But what? For here her voice changed like a bird’s;

There grew more of the music and less of the words;

Had Jacynth only been by me to clap pen

To paper and put you down every syllable

With those clever clerkly fingers,

All I’ve forgotten as well as what lingers

In this old brain of mine that’s but ill able

To give you even this poor version

Of the speech I spoil, as it were, with stammering

— More fault of those who had the hammering

700

Of prosody into me and syntax

And did it, not with hobnails but tintacks!

But to return from this excursion —

Just, do you mark, when the song was sweetest,

The peace most deep and the charm completest,

There came, shall I say, a snap —

And the charm vanished!

And my sense returned, so strangely banished,

And, starting as from a nap,

I knew the crone was bewitching my lady,

710

With Jacynth asleep; and but one spring made I

Down from the casement, round to the portal,

Another minute and I had entered —

When the door opened, and more than mortal

Stood, with a face where to my mind centred

All beauties I ever saw or shall see,

The Duchess: I stopped as if struck by palsy.

She was so different, happy and beautiful,

I felt at once that all was best,

And that I had nothing to do, for the rest

720

But wait her commands, obey and be dutiful.

Not that, in fact, there was any commanding;

I saw the glory of her eye,

And the brow’s height and the breast’s expanding,

And I was hers to live or to die.

As for finding what she wanted,

You know God Almighty granted

Such little signs should serve wild creatures

To tell one another all their desires,

So that each knows what his friend requires,

730

And does its bidding without teachers.

I preceded her; the crone

Followed silent and alone;

I spoke to her, but she merely jabbered

In the old style; both her eyes had slunk

Back to their pits; her stature shrunk;

In short, the soul in its body sunk

Like a blade sent home to its scabbard.

We descended, I preceding;

Crossed the court with nobody heeding;

740

All the world was at the chase,

The courtyard like a desert-place,

The stable emptied of its small fry;

I saddled myself the very palfrey

I remember patting while it carried her,

The day she arrived and the Duke married her.

And, do you know, though it’s easy deceiving

Oneself in such matters, I can’t help believing

The lady had not forgotten it either,

And knew the poor devil so much beneath her

750

Would have been only too glad for her service

To dance on hot ploughshares like a Turk dervise,

But, unable to pay proper duty where owing

Was reduced to that pitiful method of showing it:

For though the moment I began setting

His saddle on my own nag of Berold’s begetting,

(Not that I meant to be obtrusive)

She stopped me, while his rug was shifting,

By a single rapid finger’s lifting,

And, with a gesture kind but conclusive,

760

And a little shake of the head, refused me —

I say, although she never used me,

Yet when she was mounted, the Gipsy behind her,

And I ventured to remind her

I suppose with a voice of less steadiness

Than usual, for my feeling exceeded me,

— Something to the effect that I was in readiness

Whenever God should please she needed me —

Then, do you know, her face looked down on me

With a look that placed a crown on me,

770

And she felt in her bosom — mark, her bosom —

And, as a flower-tree drops its blossom,

Dropped me . . . ah, had it been a purse

Of silver, my friend, or gold that’s worse,

Why, you see, as soon as I found myself

So understood — that a true heart so may gain

Such a reward — I should have gone home again,

Kissed Jacynth, and soberly drowned myself!

It was a little plait of hair

Such as friends in a convent make

780

To wear, each for the other’s sake —

This, see, which at my breast I wear,

Ever did (rather to Jacynth’s grudgment),

And ever shall, till the Day of Judgment.

And then-and then — to cut short — this is idle,

These are feelings it is not good to foster —

I pushed the gate wide, she shook the bridle,

And the palfrey bounded — and so we lost her.

XVI

When the liquor’s out why clink the cannikin?

I did think to describe you the panic in

790

The redoubtable breast of our master the mannikin,

And what was the pitch of his mother’s yellowness,

How she turned as a shark to snap the spare-rib

Clean off, sailors say, from a pearl-diving Carib,

When she heard, what she called the flight of the feloness

— But it seems such child’s play,

What they said and did with the lady away!

And to dance on, when we’ve lost the music,

Always made me — and no doubt makes you — sick.

Nay, to my mind, the world’s face looked so stern

800

As that sweet form disappeared through the postern,

She that kept it in constant good humour,

It ought to have stopped; there seemed nothing to do more.

But the world thought otherwise and went on,

And my head’s one that its spite was spent on:

Thirty years are fled since that morning,

And with them all my head’s adorning.

Nor did the old Duchess die outright,

As you expect, of suppressed spite,

The natural end of every adder

810

Not suffered to empty its poison-bladder:

But she and her son agreed, I take it,

That no one should touch on the story to wake it,

For the wound in the Duke’s pride rankled fiery,

So, they made no search and small inquiry —

And when fresh Gipsies have paid us a visit, I’ve

Notice the couple were never inquisitive,

But told them they’re folks the Duke don’t want here,

And bade them make haste and cross the frontier.

Brief, the Duchess was gone and the Duke was glad of it,

820

And the old one was in the young one’s stead,

And took, in her place, the household’s head,

And a blessed time the household had of it!

And were I not, as a man may say, cautious

How I trench, more than needs, on the nauseous,

I could favour you with sundry touches

Of the paint-smutches with which the Duchess

Heightened the mellowness of her cheek’s yellowness

(To get on faster) until at last her

Cheek grew to be one master-plaster

830

Of mucus and fucus from mere use of ceruse:

In short, she grew from scalp to udder

Just the object to make you shudder.

XVII

You’re my friend —

What a thing friendship is, world without end!

How it gives the heart and soul a stir-up

As if somebody broached you a glorious runlet,

And poured out, all lovelily, sparklingly, sunlit,

Our green Moldavia, the streaky syrup,

Cotnar as old as the time of the Druids —

840

Friendship may match with that monarch of fluids;

Each supples a dry brain, fills you its ins-and-outs,

Gives your life’s hour-glass a shake when the thin sand doubts

Whether to run on or stop short, and guarantees

Age is not all made of stark sloth and arrant ease.

I have seen my little lady once more,

Jacynth, the Gipsy, Berold, and the rest of it,

For to me spoke the Duke, as I told you before;

I always wanted to make a clean breast of it:

And now it is made-why, my heart’s blood, that went trickle,

850

Trickle, but anon, in such muddy driblets,

Is pumped up brisk now, through the main ventricle,

And genially floats me about the giblets.

I’ll tell you what I intend to do:

I must see this fellow his sad life through —

He is our Duke, after all,

And I, as he says, but a serf and thrall.

My father was born here, and I inherit

His fame, a chain he bound his son with;

Could I pay in a lump I should prefer it,

860

But there’s no mine to blow up and get done with:

So, I must stay till the end of the chapter.

For, as to our middle-age-manners-adapter,

Be it a thing to be glad on or sorry on,

Some day or other, his head in a morion

And breast in a hauberk, his heels he’ll kick up,

Slain by an onslaught fierce of hiccup.

And then, when red doth the sword of our Duke rust,

And its leathern sheath lie o’ergrown with a blue crust,

Then I shall scrape together my earnings;

870

For, you see, in the churchyard Jacynth reposes,

And our children all went the way of the roses:

It’s a long lane that knows no turnings.

One needs but little tackle to travel in;

So, just one stout cloak shall I indue:

And for a staff, what beats the javelin

With which his boars my father pinned you?

And then, for a purpose you shall hear presently,

Taking some Cotnar, a tight plump skinful,

I shall go journeying, who but I, pleasantly!

880

Sorrow is vain and despondency sinful.

What’s a man’s age? He must hurry more, that’s all;

Cram in a day, what his youth took a year to hold:

When we mind labour, then only, we’re too old —

What age had Methusalem when he begat Saul?

And at last, as its haven some buffeted ship sees,

(Come all the way from the north-parts with sperm oil)

I hope to get safely out of the turmoil

And arrive one day at the land of the Gipsies,

And find my lady, or hear the last news of her

890

From some old thief and son of Lucifer,

His forehead chapleted green with wreathy hop,

Sunburned all over like an AEthiop.

And when my Cotnar begins to operate

And the tongue of the rogue to run at a proper rate,

And our wine-skin, tight once, shows each flaccid dent,

I shall drop in with — as if by accident —

“You never knew, then, how it all ended,

What fortune good or bad attended

The little lady your Queen befriended?”

900

— And when that’s told me, what’s remaining?

This world’s too hard for my explaining.

The same wise judge of matters equine

Who still preferred some slim four-year-old

To the big-boned stock of mighty Berold

And, for strong Cotnar, drank French weak wine,

He also must be such a lady’s scorner!

Smooth Jacob still robs homely Esau:

Now up, now down, the world’s one see-saw.

— So, I shall find out some snug corner

910

Under a hedge, like Orson the wood-knight,

Turn myself round and bid the world good night;

And sleep a sound sleep till the trumpet blowing

Wakes me (unless priests cheat us laymen)

To a world where will be no further throwing

Pearls before swine that can’t value them. Amen!

“The Flight of the Duchess.” A story of the triumph of a free and loving life over a cold and conventional one. The duke’s huntsman frees his mind to his friend as to his part in the escape of the gladsome, ardent young duchess from the blighting yoke of a husband whose life consisted in imitating defunct mediaeval customs. An old gipsy is the agency that awakens her to the joy and freedom of love. Her mystic chant and charm claim the duchess as the true heir of gipsy blood, thrill her with life, half-hypnotize the huntsman, too, and seem to transform the gipsy crone herself into an Eastern queen. He helps them off, and looks for no better future, when the duke’s death releases him, than to travel to the land of the gipsies and hear the last news of his lady. The poem grew from the fancies aroused in the poet’s heart by the snatch of a woman’s song he overheard when a boy —“Following the Queen of the Gipsies, O!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/browning/robert/dramatic/poem18.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32