Modern Love


George Meredith

First published in 1862.

This edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Sunday, January 10, 2016 at 22:32.

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Table of Contents

  1. The Promise in Disturbance
  2. Modern Love

The Promise in Disturbance

How low when angels fall their black descent,

Our primal thunder tells: known is the pain

Of music, that nigh throning wisdom went,

And one false note cast wailful to the insane.

Now seems the language heard of Love as rain

To make a mire where fruitfulness was meant.

The golden harp gives out a jangled strain,

Too like revolt from heaven’s Omnipotent.

But listen in the thought; so may there come

Conception of a newly-added chord,

Commanding space beyond where ear has home.

In labour of the trouble at its fount,

Leads Life to an intelligible Lord

The rebel discords up the sacred mount.

Modern Love

1

By this he knew she wept with waking eyes:

That, at his hand’s light quiver by her head,

The strange low sobs that shook their common bed

Were called into her with a sharp surprise,

And strangled mute, like little gaping snakes,

Dreadfully venomous to him. She lay

Stone-still, and the long darkness flowed away

With muffled pulses. Then, as midnight makes

Her giant heart of Memory and Tears

Drink the pale drug of silence, and so beat

Sleep’s heavy measure, they from head to feet

Were moveless, looking through their dead black years,

By vain regret scrawled over the blank wall.

Like sculptured effigies they might be seen

Upon their marriage-tomb, the sword between;

Each wishing for the sword that severs all.

2

It ended, and the morrow brought the task.

Her eyes were guilty gates, that let him in

By shutting all too zealous for their sin:

Each sucked a secret, and each wore a mask.

But, oh, the bitter taste her beauty had!

He sickened as at breath of poison-flowers:

A languid humour stole among the hours,

And if their smiles encountered, he went mad,

And raged deep inward, till the light was brown

Before his vision, and the world, forgot,

Looked wicked as some old dull murder-spot.

A star with lurid beams, she seemed to crown

The pit of infamy: and then again

He fainted on his vengefulness, and strove

To ape the magnanimity of love,

And smote himself, a shuddering heap of pain.

3

This was the woman; what now of the man?

But pass him. If he comes beneath a heel,

He shall be crushed until he cannot feel,

Or, being callous, haply till he can.

But he is nothing:—nothing?  Only mark

The rich light striking out from her on him!

Ha! what a sense it is when her eyes swim

Across the man she singles, leaving dark

All else!  Lord God, who mad’st the thing so fair,

See that I am drawn to her even now!

It cannot be such harm on her cool brow

To put a kiss?  Yet if I meet him there!

But she is mine!  Ah, no!  I know too well

I claim a star whose light is overcast:

I claim a phantom-woman in the Past.

The hour has struck, though I heard not the bell!

4

All other joys of life he strove to warm,

And magnify, and catch them to his lip:

But they had suffered shipwreck with the ship,

And gazed upon him sallow from the storm.

Or if Delusion came, ’twas but to show

The coming minute mock the one that went.

Cold as a mountain in its star-pitched tent,

Stood high Philosophy, less friend than foe:

Whom self-caged Passion, from its prison-bars,

Is always watching with a wondering hate.

Not till the fire is dying in the grate,

Look we for any kinship with the stars.

Oh, wisdom never comes when it is gold,

And the great price we pay for it full worth:

We have it only when we are half earth.

Little avails that coinage to the old!

5

A message from her set his brain aflame.

A world of household matters filled her mind,

Wherein he saw hypocrisy designed:

She treated him as something that is tame,

And but at other provocation bites.

Familiar was her shoulder in the glass,

Through that dark rain: yet it may come to pass

That a changed eye finds such familiar sights

More keenly tempting than new loveliness.

The ‘What has been’ a moment seemed his own:

The splendours, mysteries, dearer because known,

Nor less divine: Love’s inmost sacredness

Called to him, ‘Come!’—In his restraining start,

Eyes nurtured to be looked at scarce could see

A wave of the great waves of Destiny

Convulsed at a checked impulse of the heart.

6

It chanced his lips did meet her forehead cool.

She had no blush, but slanted down her eye.

Shamed nature, then, confesses love can die:

And most she punishes the tender fool

Who will believe what honours her the most!

Dead! is it dead?  She has a pulse, and flow

Of tears, the price of blood-drops, as I know,

For whom the midnight sobs around Love’s ghost,

Since then I heard her, and so will sob on.

The love is here; it has but changed its aim.

O bitter barren woman! what’s the name?

The name, the name, the new name thou hast won?

Behold me striking the world’s coward stroke!

That will I not do, though the sting is dire.

—Beneath the surface this, while by the fire

They sat, she laughing at a quiet joke.

7

She issues radiant from her dressing-room,

Like one prepared to scale an upper sphere:

—By stirring up a lower, much I fear!

How deftly that oiled barber lays his bloom!

That long-shanked dapper Cupid with frisked curls

Can make known women torturingly fair;

The gold-eyed serpent dwelling in rich hair

Awakes beneath his magic whisks and twirls.

His art can take the eyes from out my head,

Until I see with eyes of other men;

While deeper knowledge crouches in its den,

And sends a spark up:—is it true we are wed?

Yea! filthiness of body is most vile,

But faithlessness of heart I do hold worse.

The former, it were not so great a curse

To read on the steel-mirror of her smile.

8

Yet it was plain she struggled, and that salt

Of righteous feeling made her pitiful.

Poor twisting worm, so queenly beautiful!

Where came the cleft between us? whose the fault?

My tears are on thee, that have rarely dropped

As balm for any bitter wound of mine:

My breast will open for thee at a sign!

But, no: we are two reed-pipes, coarsely stopped:

The God once filled them with his mellow breath;

And they were music till he flung them down,

Used! used!  Hear now the discord-loving clown

Puff his gross spirit in them, worse than death!

I do not know myself without thee more:

In this unholy battle I grow base:

If the same soul be under the same face,

Speak, and a taste of that old time restore!

9

He felt the wild beast in him betweenwhiles

So masterfully rude, that he would grieve

To see the helpless delicate thing receive

His guardianship through certain dark defiles.

Had he not teeth to rend, and hunger too?

But still he spared her. Once: ‘Have you no fear?’

He said: ’twas dusk; she in his grasp; none near.

She laughed: ‘No, surely; am I not with you?’

And uttering that soft starry ‘you,’ she leaned

Her gentle body near him, looking up;

And from her eyes, as from a poison-cup,

He drank until the flittering eyelids screened.

Devilish malignant witch! and oh, young beam

Of heaven’s circle-glory!  Here thy shape

To squeeze like an intoxicating grape—

I might, and yet thou goest safe, supreme.

10

But where began the change; and what’s my crime?

The wretch condemned, who has not been arraigned,

Chafes at his sentence. Shall I, unsustained,

Drag on Love’s nerveless body thro’ all time?

I must have slept, since now I wake. Prepare,

You lovers, to know Love a thing of moods:

Not, like hard life, of laws. In Love’s deep woods,

I dreamt of loyal Life:—the offence is there!

Love’s jealous woods about the sun are curled;

At least, the sun far brighter there did beam.—

My crime is, that the puppet of a dream,

I plotted to be worthy of the world.

Oh, had I with my darling helped to mince

The facts of life, you still had seen me go

With hindward feather and with forward toe,

Her much-adored delightful Fairy Prince!

11

Out in the yellow meadows, where the bee

Hums by us with the honey of the Spring,

And showers of sweet notes from the larks on wing

Are dropping like a noon-dew, wander we.

Or is it now? or was it then? for now,

As then, the larks from running rings pour showers:

The golden foot of May is on the flowers,

And friendly shadows dance upon her brow.

What’s this, when Nature swears there is no change

To challenge eyesight?  Now, as then, the grace

Of heaven seems holding earth in its embrace.

Nor eyes, nor heart, has she to feel it strange?

Look, woman, in the West. There wilt thou see

An amber cradle near the sun’s decline:

Within it, featured even in death divine,

Is lying a dead infant, slain by thee.

12

Not solely that the Future she destroys,

And the fair life which in the distance lies

For all men, beckoning out from dim rich skies:

Nor that the passing hour’s supporting joys

Have lost the keen-edged flavour, which begat

Distinction in old times, and still should breed

Sweet Memory, and Hope,—earth’s modest seed,

And heaven’s high-prompting: not that the world is flat

Since that soft-luring creature I embraced

Among the children of Illusion went:

Methinks with all this loss I were content,

If the mad Past, on which my foot is based,

Were firm, or might be blotted: but the whole

Of life is mixed: the mocking Past will stay:

And if I drink oblivion of a day,

So shorten I the stature of my soul.

13

‘I play for Seasons; not Eternities!’

Says Nature, laughing on her way. ‘So must

All those whose stake is nothing more than dust!’

And lo, she wins, and of her harmonies

She is full sure!  Upon her dying rose

She drops a look of fondness, and goes by,

Scarce any retrospection in her eye;

For she the laws of growth most deeply knows,

Whose hands bear, here, a seed-bag—there, an urn.

Pledged she herself to aught, ’twould mark her end!

This lesson of our only visible friend

Can we not teach our foolish hearts to learn?

Yes! yes!—but, oh, our human rose is fair

Surpassingly!  Lose calmly Love’s great bliss,

When the renewed for ever of a kiss

Whirls life within the shower of loosened hair!

14

What soul would bargain for a cure that brings

Contempt the nobler agony to kill?

Rather let me bear on the bitter ill,

And strike this rusty bosom with new stings!

It seems there is another veering fit,

Since on a gold-haired lady’s eyeballs pure

I looked with little prospect of a cure,

The while her mouth’s red bow loosed shafts of wit.

Just heaven! can it be true that jealousy

Has decked the woman thus? and does her head

Swim somewhat for possessions forfeited?

Madam, you teach me many things that be.

I open an old book, and there I find

That ‘Women still may love whom they deceive.’

Such love I prize not, madam: by your leave,

The game you play at is not to my mind.

15

I think she sleeps: it must be sleep, when low

Hangs that abandoned arm toward the floor;

The face turned with it. Now make fast the door.

Sleep on: it is your husband, not your foe.

The Poet’s black stage-lion of wronged love

Frights not our modern dames:—well if he did!

Now will I pour new light upon that lid,

Full-sloping like the breasts beneath. ‘Sweet dove,

Your sleep is pure. Nay, pardon: I disturb.

I do not? good!’  Her waking infant-stare

Grows woman to the burden my hands bear:

Her own handwriting to me when no curb

Was left on Passion’s tongue. She trembles through;

A woman’s tremble—the whole instrument:—

I show another letter lately sent.

The words are very like: the name is new.

16

In our old shipwrecked days there was an hour,

When in the firelight steadily aglow,

Joined slackly, we beheld the red chasm grow

Among the clicking coals. Our library-bower

That eve was left to us: and hushed we sat

As lovers to whom Time is whispering.

From sudden-opened doors we heard them sing:

The nodding elders mixed good wine with chat.

Well knew we that Life’s greatest treasure lay

With us, and of it was our talk. ‘Ah, yes!

Love dies!’ I said: I never thought it less.

She yearned to me that sentence to unsay.

Then when the fire domed blackening, I found

Her cheek was salt against my kiss, and swift

Up the sharp scale of sobs her breast did lift:—

Now am I haunted by that taste! that sound!

17

At dinner, she is hostess, I am host.

Went the feast ever cheerfuller?  She keeps

The Topic over intellectual deeps

In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.

With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball:

It is in truth a most contagious game:

Hiding the Skeleton, shall be its name.

Such play as this the devils might appal!

But here’s the greater wonder; in that we,

Enamoured of an acting nought can tire,

Each other, like true hypocrites, admire;

Warm-lighted looks, Love’s ephemerioe,

Shoot gaily o’er the dishes and the wine.

We waken envy of our happy lot.

Fast, sweet, and golden, shows the marriage-knot.

Dear guests, you now have seen Love’s corpse-light shine.

18

Here Jack and Tom are paired with Moll and Meg.

Curved open to the river-reach is seen

A country merry-making on the green.

Fair space for signal shakings of the leg.

That little screwy fiddler from his booth,

Whence flows one nut-brown stream, commands the joints

Of all who caper here at various points.

I have known rustic revels in my youth:

The May-fly pleasures of a mind at ease.

An early goddess was a country lass:

A charmed Amphion-oak she tripped the grass.

What life was that I lived?  The life of these?

Heaven keep them happy!  Nature they seem near.

They must, I think, be wiser than I am;

They have the secret of the bull and lamb.

’Tis true that when we trace its source, ’tis beer.

19

No state is enviable. To the luck alone

Of some few favoured men I would put claim.

I bleed, but her who wounds I will not blame.

Have I not felt her heart as ’twere my own

Beat thro’ me? could I hurt her? heaven and hell!

But I could hurt her cruelly!  Can I let

My Love’s old time-piece to another set,

Swear it can’t stop, and must for ever swell?

Sure, that’s one way Love drifts into the mart

Where goat-legged buyers throng. I see not plain:—

My meaning is, it must not be again.

Great God! the maddest gambler throws his heart.

If any state be enviable on earth,

’Tis yon born idiot’s, who, as days go by,

Still rubs his hands before him, like a fly,

In a queer sort of meditative mirth.

20

I am not of those miserable males

Who sniff at vice and, daring not to snap,

Do therefore hope for heaven. I take the hap

Of all my deeds. The wind that fills my sails

Propels; but I am helmsman. Am I wrecked,

I know the devil has sufficient weight

To bear: I lay it not on him, or fate.

Besides, he’s damned. That man I do suspect

A coward, who would burden the poor deuce

With what ensues from his own slipperiness.

I have just found a wanton-scented tress

In an old desk, dusty for lack of use.

Of days and nights it is demonstrative,

That, like some aged star, gleam luridly.

If for those times I must ask charity,

Have I not any charity to give?

21

We three are on the cedar-shadowed lawn;

My friend being third. He who at love once laughed

Is in the weak rib by a fatal shaft

Struck through, and tells his passion’s bashful dawn

And radiant culmination, glorious crown,

When ‘this’ she said: went ‘thus’: most wondrous she.

Our eyes grow white, encountering: that we are three,

Forgetful; then together we look down.

But he demands our blessing; is convinced

That words of wedded lovers must bring good.

We question; if we dare! or if we should!

And pat him, with light laugh. We have not winced.

Next, she has fallen. Fainting points the sign

To happy things in wedlock. When she wakes,

She looks the star that thro’ the cedar shakes:

Her lost moist hand clings mortally to mine.

22

What may the woman labour to confess?

There is about her mouth a nervous twitch.

’Tis something to be told, or hidden:—which?

I get a glimpse of hell in this mild guess.

She has desires of touch, as if to feel

That all the household things are things she knew.

She stops before the glass. What sight in view?

A face that seems the latest to reveal!

For she turns from it hastily, and tossed

Irresolute steals shadow-like to where

I stand; and wavering pale before me there,

Her tears fall still as oak-leaves after frost.

She will not speak. I will not ask. We are

League-sundered by the silent gulf between.

You burly lovers on the village green,

Yours is a lower, and a happier star!

23

’Tis Christmas weather, and a country house

Receives us: rooms are full: we can but get

An attic-crib. Such lovers will not fret

At that, it is half-said. The great carouse

Knocks hard upon the midnight’s hollow door,

But when I knock at hers, I see the pit.

Why did I come here in that dullard fit?

I enter, and lie couched upon the floor.

Passing, I caught the coverlet’s quick beat:—

Come, Shame, burn to my soul! and Pride, and Pain—

Foul demons that have tortured me, enchain!

Out in the freezing darkness the lambs bleat.

The small bird stiffens in the low starlight.

I know not how, but shuddering as I slept,

I dreamed a banished angel to me crept:

My feet were nourished on her breasts all night.

24

The misery is greater, as I live!

To know her flesh so pure, so keen her sense,

That she does penance now for no offence,

Save against Love. The less can I forgive!

The less can I forgive, though I adore

That cruel lovely pallor which surrounds

Her footsteps; and the low vibrating sounds

That come on me, as from a magic shore.

Low are they, but most subtle to find out

The shrinking soul. Madam, ’tis understood

When women play upon their womanhood,

It means, a Season gone. And yet I doubt

But I am duped. That nun-like look waylays

My fancy. Oh!  I do but wait a sign!

Pluck out the eyes of pride! thy mouth to mine!

Never! though I die thirsting. Go thy ways!

25

You like not that French novel?  Tell me why.

You think it quite unnatural. Let us see.

The actors are, it seems, the usual three:

Husband, and wife, and lover. She—but fie!

In England we’ll not hear of it. Edmond,

The lover, her devout chagrin doth share;

Blanc-mange and absinthe are his penitent fare,

Till his pale aspect makes her over-fond:

So, to preclude fresh sin, he tries rosbif.

Meantime the husband is no more abused:

Auguste forgives her ere the tear is used.

Then hangeth all on one tremendous If:—

If she will choose between them. She does choose;

And takes her husband, like a proper wife.

Unnatural?  My dear, these things are life:

And life, some think, is worthy of the Muse.

26

Love ere he bleeds, an eagle in high skies,

Has earth beneath his wings: from reddened eve

He views the rosy dawn. In vain they weave

The fatal web below while far he flies.

But when the arrow strikes him, there’s a change.

He moves but in the track of his spent pain,

Whose red drops are the links of a harsh chain,

Binding him to the ground, with narrow range.

A subtle serpent then has Love become.

I had the eagle in my bosom erst:

Henceforward with the serpent I am cursed.

I can interpret where the mouth is dumb.

Speak, and I see the side-lie of a truth.

Perchance my heart may pardon you this deed:

But be no coward:—you that made Love bleed,

You must bear all the venom of his tooth!

27

Distraction is the panacea, Sir!

I hear my oracle of Medicine say.

Doctor! that same specific yesterday

I tried, and the result will not deter

A second trial. Is the devil’s line

Of golden hair, or raven black, composed?

And does a cheek, like any sea-shell rosed,

Or clear as widowed sky, seem most divine?

No matter, so I taste forgetfulness.

And if the devil snare me, body and mind,

Here gratefully I score:—he seemëd kind,

When not a soul would comfort my distress!

O sweet new world, in which I rise new made!

O Lady, once I gave love: now I take!

Lady, I must be flattered. Shouldst thou wake

The passion of a demon, be not afraid.

28

I must be flattered. The imperious

Desire speaks out. Lady, I am content

To play with you the game of Sentiment,

And with you enter on paths perilous;

But if across your beauty I throw light,

To make it threefold, it must be all mine.

First secret; then avowed. For I must shine

Envied,—I, lessened in my proper sight!

Be watchful of your beauty, Lady dear!

How much hangs on that lamp you cannot tell.

Most earnestly I pray you, tend it well:

And men shall see me as a burning sphere;

And men shall mark you eyeing me, and groan

To be the God of such a grand sunflower!

I feel the promptings of Satanic power,

While you do homage unto me alone.

29

Am I failing?  For no longer can I cast

A glory round about this head of gold.

Glory she wears, but springing from the mould;

Not like the consecration of the Past!

Is my soul beggared?  Something more than earth

I cry for still: I cannot be at peace

In having Love upon a mortal lease.

I cannot take the woman at her worth!

Where is the ancient wealth wherewith I clothed

Our human nakedness, and could endow

With spiritual splendour a white brow

That else had grinned at me the fact I loathed?

A kiss is but a kiss now! and no wave

Of a great flood that whirls me to the sea.

But, as you will! we’ll sit contentedly,

And eat our pot of honey on the grave.

30

What are we first?  First, animals; and next

Intelligences at a leap; on whom

Pale lies the distant shadow of the tomb,

And all that draweth on the tomb for text.

Into which state comes Love, the crowning sun:

Beneath whose light the shadow loses form.

We are the lords of life, and life is warm.

Intelligence and instinct now are one.

But nature says: ‘My children most they seem

When they least know me: therefore I decree

That they shall suffer.’  Swift doth young Love flee,

And we stand wakened, shivering from our dream.

Then if we study Nature we are wise.

Thus do the few who live but with the day:

The scientific animals are they.—

Lady, this is my sonnet to your eyes.

31

This golden head has wit in it. I live

Again, and a far higher life, near her.

Some women like a young philosopher;

Perchance because he is diminutive.

For woman’s manly god must not exceed

Proportions of the natural nursing size.

Great poets and great sages draw no prize

With women: but the little lap-dog breed,

Who can be hugged, or on a mantel-piece

Perched up for adoration, these obtain

Her homage. And of this we men are vain?

Of this!  ’Tis ordered for the world’s increase!

Small flattery!  Yet she has that rare gift

To beauty, Common Sense. I am approved.

It is not half so nice as being loved,

And yet I do prefer it. What’s my drift?

32

Full faith I have she holds that rarest gift

To beauty, Common Sense. To see her lie

With her fair visage an inverted sky

Bloom-covered, while the underlids uplift,

Would almost wreck the faith; but when her mouth

(Can it kiss sweetly? sweetly!) would address

The inner me that thirsts for her no less,

And has so long been languishing in drouth,

I feel that I am matched; that I am man!

One restless corner of my heart or head,

That holds a dying something never dead,

Still frets, though Nature giveth all she can.

It means, that woman is not, I opine,

Her sex’s antidote. Who seeks the asp

For serpent’s bites?  ’Twould calm me could I clasp

Shrieking Bacchantes with their souls of wine!

33

‘In Paris, at the Louvre, there have I seen

The sumptuously-feathered angel pierce

Prone Lucifer, descending. Looked he fierce,

Showing the fight a fair one?  Too serene!

The young Pharsalians did not disarray

Less willingly their locks of floating silk:

That suckling mouth of his upon the milk

Of heaven might still be feasting through the fray.

Oh, Raphael! when men the Fiend do fight,

They conquer not upon such easy terms.

Half serpent in the struggle grow these worms.

And does he grow half human, all is right.’

This to my Lady in a distant spot,

Upon the theme: While mind is mastering clay,

Gross clay invades it. If the spy you play,

My wife, read this!  Strange love talk, is it not?

34

Madam would speak with me. So, now it comes:

The Deluge or else Fire!  She’s well; she thanks

My husbandship. Our chain on silence clanks.

Time leers between, above his twiddling thumbs.

Am I quite well?  Most excellent in health!

The journals, too, I diligently peruse.

Vesuvius is expected to give news:

Niagara is no noisier. By stealth

Our eyes dart scrutinizing snakes. She’s glad

I’m happy, says her quivering under-lip.

‘And are not you?’  ‘How can I be?’  ‘Take ship!

For happiness is somewhere to be had.’

‘Nowhere for me!’  Her voice is barely heard.

I am not melted, and make no pretence.

With commonplace I freeze her, tongue and sense.

Niagara or Vesuvius is deferred.

35

It is no vulgar nature I have wived.

Secretive, sensitive, she takes a wound

Deep to her soul, as if the sense had swooned,

And not a thought of vengeance had survived.

No confidences has she: but relief

Must come to one whose suffering is acute.

O have a care of natures that are mute!

They punish you in acts: their steps are brief.

What is she doing?  What does she demand

From Providence or me?  She is not one

Long to endure this torpidly, and shun

The drugs that crowd about a woman’s hand.

At Forfeits during snow we played, and I

Must kiss her. ‘Well performed!’ I said: then she:

‘’Tis hardly worth the money, you agree?’

Save her?  What for?  To act this wedded lie!

36

My Lady unto Madam makes her bow.

The charm of women is, that even while

You’re probed by them for tears, you yet may smile,

Nay, laugh outright, as I have done just now.

The interview was gracious: they anoint

(To me aside) each other with fine praise:

Discriminating compliments they raise,

That hit with wondrous aim on the weak point:

My Lady’s nose of Nature might complain.

It is not fashioned aptly to express

Her character of large-browed steadfastness.

But Madam says: Thereof she may be vain!

Now, Madam’s faulty feature is a glazed

And inaccessible eye, that has soft fires,

Wide gates, at love-time, only. This admires

My Lady. At the two I stand amazed.

37

Along the garden terrace, under which

A purple valley (lighted at its edge

By smoky torch-flame on the long cloud-ledge

Whereunder dropped the chariot) glimmers rich,

A quiet company we pace, and wait

The dinner-bell in prae-digestive calm.

So sweet up violet banks the Southern balm

Breathes round, we care not if the bell be late:

Though here and there grey seniors question Time

In irritable coughings. With slow foot

The low rosed moon, the face of Music mute,

Begins among her silent bars to climb.

As in and out, in silvery dusk, we thread,

I hear the laugh of Madam, and discern

My Lady’s heel before me at each turn.

Our tragedy, is it alive or dead?

38

Give to imagination some pure light

In human form to fix it, or you shame

The devils with that hideous human game:—

Imagination urging appetite!

Thus fallen have earth’s greatest Gogmagogs,

Who dazzle us, whom we can not revere:

Imagination is the charioteer

That, in default of better, drives the hogs.

So, therefore, my dear Lady, let me love!

My soul is arrowy to the light in you.

You know me that I never can renew

The bond that woman broke: what would you have?

’Tis Love, or Vileness! not a choice between,

Save petrifaction!  What does Pity here?

She killed a thing, and now it’s dead, ’tis dear.

Oh, when you counsel me, think what you mean!

39

She yields: my Lady in her noblest mood

Has yielded: she, my golden-crownëd rose!

The bride of every sense! more sweet than those

Who breathe the violet breath of maidenhood.

O visage of still music in the sky!

Soft moon!  I feel thy song, my fairest friend!

True harmony within can apprehend

Dumb harmony without. And hark! ’tis nigh!

Belief has struck the note of sound: a gleam

Of living silver shows me where she shook

Her long white fingers down the shadowy brook,

That sings her song, half waking, half in dream.

What two come here to mar this heavenly tune?

A man is one: the woman bears my name,

And honour. Their hands touch!  Am I still tame?

God, what a dancing spectre seems the moon!

40

I bade my Lady think what she might mean.

Know I my meaning, I?  Can I love one,

And yet be jealous of another?  None

Commits such folly. Terrible Love, I ween,

Has might, even dead, half sighing to upheave

The lightless seas of selfishness amain:

Seas that in a man’s heart have no rain

To fall and still them. Peace can I achieve,

By turning to this fountain-source of woe,

This woman, who’s to Love as fire to wood?

She breathed the violet breath of maidenhood

Against my kisses once! but I say, No!

The thing is mocked at!  Helplessly afloat,

I know not what I do, whereto I strive.

The dread that my old love may be alive

Has seized my nursling new love by the throat.

41

How many a thing which we cast to the ground,

When others pick it up becomes a gem!

We grasp at all the wealth it is to them;

And by reflected light its worth is found.

Yet for us still ’tis nothing! and that zeal

Of false appreciation quickly fades.

This truth is little known to human shades,

How rare from their own instinct ’tis to feel!

They waste the soul with spurious desire,

That is not the ripe flame upon the bough.

We two have taken up a lifeless vow

To rob a living passion: dust for fire!

Madam is grave, and eyes the clock that tells

Approaching midnight. We have struck despair

Into two hearts. O, look we like a pair

Who for fresh nuptials joyfully yield all else?

42

I am to follow her. There is much grace

In woman when thus bent on martyrdom.

They think that dignity of soul may come,

Perchance, with dignity of body. Base!

But I was taken by that air of cold

And statuesque sedateness, when she said

‘I’m going’; lit a taper, bowed her head,

And went, as with the stride of Pallas bold.

Fleshly indifference horrible!  The hands

Of Time now signal: O, she’s safe from me!

Within those secret walls what do I see?

Where first she set the taper down she stands:

Not Pallas: Hebe shamed!  Thoughts black as death

Like a stirred pool in sunshine break. Her wrists

I catch: she faltering, as she half resists,

‘You love . . .? love . . .? love . . .?’ all on an indrawn breath.

43

Mark where the pressing wind shoots javelin-like

Its skeleton shadow on the broad-backed wave!

Here is a fitting spot to dig Love’s grave;

Here where the ponderous breakers plunge and strike,

And dart their hissing tongues high up the sand:

In hearing of the ocean, and in sight

Of those ribbed wind-streaks running into white.

If I the death of Love had deeply planned,

I never could have made it half so sure,

As by the unblest kisses which upbraid

The full-waked sense; or failing that, degrade!

’Tis morning: but no morning can restore

What we have forfeited. I see no sin:

The wrong is mixed. In tragic life, God wot,

No villain need be!  Passions spin the plot:

We are betrayed by what is false within.

44

They say, that Pity in Love’s service dwells,

A porter at the rosy temple’s gate.

I missed him going: but it is my fate

To come upon him now beside his wells;

Whereby I know that I Love’s temple leave,

And that the purple doors have closed behind.

Poor soul! if, in those early days unkind,

Thy power to sting had been but power to grieve,

We now might with an equal spirit meet,

And not be matched like innocence and vice.

She for the Temple’s worship has paid price,

And takes the coin of Pity as a cheat.

She sees through simulation to the bone:

What’s best in her impels her to the worst:

Never, she cries, shall Pity soothe Love’s thirst,

Or foul hypocrisy for truth atone!

45

It is the season of the sweet wild rose,

My Lady’s emblem in the heart of me!

So golden-crownëd shines she gloriously,

And with that softest dream of blood she glows;

Mild as an evening heaven round Hesper bright!

I pluck the flower, and smell it, and revive

The time when in her eyes I stood alive.

I seem to look upon it out of Night.

Here’s Madam, stepping hastily. Her whims

Bid her demand the flower, which I let drop.

As I proceed, I feel her sharply stop,

And crush it under heel with trembling limbs.

She joins me in a cat-like way, and talks

Of company, and even condescends

To utter laughing scandal of old friends.

These are the summer days, and these our walks.

46

At last we parley: we so strangely dumb

In such a close communion!  It befell

About the sounding of the Matin-bell,

And lo! her place was vacant, and the hum

Of loneliness was round me. Then I rose,

And my disordered brain did guide my foot

To that old wood where our first love-salute

Was interchanged: the source of many throes!

There did I see her, not alone. I moved

Toward her, and made proffer of my arm.

She took it simply, with no rude alarm;

And that disturbing shadow passed reproved.

I felt the pained speech coming, and declared

My firm belief in her, ere she could speak.

A ghastly morning came into her cheek,

While with a widening soul on me she stared.

47

We saw the swallows gathering in the sky,

And in the osier-isle we heard them noise.

We had not to look back on summer joys,

Or forward to a summer of bright dye:

But in the largeness of the evening earth

Our spirits grew as we went side by side.

The hour became her husband and my bride.

Love, that had robbed us so, thus blessed our dearth!

The pilgrims of the year waxed very loud

In multitudinous chatterings, as the flood

Full brown came from the West, and like pale blood

Expanded to the upper crimson cloud.

Love, that had robbed us of immortal things,

This little moment mercifully gave,

Where I have seen across the twilight wave

The swan sail with her young beneath her wings.

48

Their sense is with their senses all mixed in,

Destroyed by subtleties these women are!

More brain, O Lord, more brain! or we shall mar

Utterly this fair garden we might win.

Behold!  I looked for peace, and thought it near.

Our inmost hearts had opened, each to each.

We drank the pure daylight of honest speech.

Alas! that was the fatal draught, I fear.

For when of my lost Lady came the word,

This woman, O this agony of flesh!

Jealous devotion bade her break the mesh,

That I might seek that other like a bird.

I do adore the nobleness! despise

The act!  She has gone forth, I know not where.

Will the hard world my sentience of her share

I feel the truth; so let the world surmise.

49

He found her by the ocean’s moaning verge,

Nor any wicked change in her discerned;

And she believed his old love had returned,

Which was her exultation, and her scourge.

She took his hand, and walked with him, and seemed

The wife he sought, though shadow-like and dry.

She had one terror, lest her heart should sigh,

And tell her loudly she no longer dreamed.

She dared not say, ‘This is my breast: look in.’

But there’s a strength to help the desperate weak.

That night he learned how silence best can speak

The awful things when Pity pleads for Sin.

About the middle of the night her call

Was heard, and he came wondering to the bed.

‘Now kiss me, dear! it may be, now!’ she said.

Lethe had passed those lips, and he knew all.

50

Thus piteously Love closed what he begat:

The union of this ever-diverse pair!

These two were rapid falcons in a snare,

Condemned to do the flitting of the bat.

Lovers beneath the singing sky of May,

They wandered once; clear as the dew on flowers:

But they fed not on the advancing hours:

Their hearts held cravings for the buried day.

Then each applied to each that fatal knife,

Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole.

Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul

When hot for certainties in this our life!—

In tragic hints here see what evermore

Moves dark as yonder midnight ocean’s force,

Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse,

To throw that faint thin fine upon the shore!

This web edition published by:

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005