Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, BONNYBELL: THE GRAY SPHEX, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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BONNYBELL: THE GRAY SPHEX, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Bonnybell comes to the room of her lover
Last Line: She wounds in the war.
Subject(s): War; Women - Heroes


Bonnybell comes to the room of her lover,
Paul, for the farewell hour.
O Bonnybell so frail, so worn!
Bonnybell slips on a negligee of sky-blue silk,
Shakes out the ringlets of her seal-brown hair
And like a flower whose scent escapes
The leaves of a book,
She lies between the exquisite linen
That glides like satin under her rosy feet,
Drawn up and down
In the restlessness of fatigue.
And her hair is spread like a fan
Over the snow of the pillow --
Bonnybell will sleep.

For the heat of the city stifles one,
And saps one's strength.
And Bonnybell has drilled,
And Bonnybell has sung,
And Bonnybell has been shoed and costumed,
And Bonnybell has shopped,
And bought the silver tags
For her wrist and neck, that in case her body
Floats pied and swollen at sea
Her name may be known,
And her body rescued from the water,
As one who gave her life to the war . . .
And Bonnybell says in a weary voice,
Turning her face to the wall:
Dear, I must sleep.
But while I am sleeping, read your letters
Written at first,
Which show how our love began
In lightness, delicate fellowship.
You will find them there in my week-end bag.
For now I must sleep for an hour.
Then I will wake and put my arms
Around you dear,
My dearest love.

Bonnybell grows silent.
And her bosom rises and falls.
And a breeze from over the towers of the city
Stirs her hair out-spread on the pillow.
And Paul tip-toes to the dresser to find
The letters.
And sees in the bag beside the letters
Bonnybell's boudoir cap,
And Bonnybell's little slippers,
And her powder box of cloisonne
And sticks of rouge for the lips,
And a piece of alum,
And a diary.
Then Paul returns to the edge of the bed
And reads the letters,
Looking from time to time at Bonnybell,
Who has not stirred,
Whose bosom rises and falls.
And he studies her piquant little face
With its square prognathous jaw;
The little snub nose that twists to the right of the face
Like the root of a flower.
And the tips of her ears made bare for the time
By the out-spread hair on the pillow --
Almost Darwinian ears, he shudders to think,
No roll at the top, thinned out at the top
Like a fox's or a collie's.
But, oh, the brow of Bonnybell,
So full, so rich, so high,
Behind which are fancy
And insight, taste, the gifts of memory.
But, oh, the eyes of Bonnybell,
Closed now in sleep,

So sad, so child-like, tender,
Like a blue-bell caught under the fringe of a fern
Wind-blown and wet with rain.

And as Paul reads the letters he thinks
Of all that Bonnybell has said:
I go to the war, she had said,
To serve the country, to give my life
For the cause of Freedom, Beauty, Truth,
To nurse the men who avenge with arms
The desolation of Belgium,
The desecration of France,
The ruin of art, cathedrals, temples,
Amiens, Rheims!
My life has been one drawn-out pain --
Only pain from my childhood, dear --
It were better I were swept under
In the great cause that would put down
The barbaric hands that soil or ruin
Marbles, canvases, cathedrals,
And sacred shrines.
My father is a beast,
And my mother a humbled, whipped-out thing.
And I was driven out in the world
To earn my bread from the first.
And now, after years, I find you, dear.
I am on the heights at last for your love,
In the light of a deathless sun by day,
And under the planets of faith and love
By night, my own, my love, my consummation.
And I go to the war for you, --
You who are Truth and Beauty.
You are giving me to the war,
I am your gift to the war.
I go to the war to grow through service,
And to come back worthy of you.
I shall enrich my mind,
And purify my spirit,
And care for my body,
Then bring these gifts to you again,
Made richer, more beautiful.
But while I am in the war, sustain me,
For I can endure, or suffer even death
If you sustain me with your love.
But if you would break me, dear,
If you would strike me down in the service,
Only withdraw your love from me.
So for the cause and our love
Write me daily letters.
Pour out your spirit to me
That through your spirit I may serve
The cause of our country in the war.
And, dear, be true to me, lest you break
My heart, dear one.
And wait for my return, steadfast and true,
Though it be a year, two years.
I am afraid when I think
How Gyp in Galsworthy's "Beyond"
Saw the kiss of her betrayal bestowed
On fresher lips.
I have heard you are a man who changes,
Deserts, betrays.
And they tell me you will consume me,
Then blow me away like a cinder.
And I shudder to think when I am gone
You will turn to another.
How can it be, since through you, dear,
I have learned the ritual of love,
And knew it not save through you,
That you would teach another, or share
The ritual with her?

No, dear, it must not be.
For I shall think of you by day,
Day by day.
And dream of you by night,
Night by night.
And sleep beneath the blankets you gave me,
And keep your picture under my pillow,
So blest for your love.
And save the money you gave me,
And save the money you send me
For our child to be when I return,
Our child to be born, when I return.
So that you and I shall not go down
To the silence of those unborn.
And I shall be faithful and true to you
In word, in deed, not knowing change
With the hour, or mood,
As I have been faithful and true from the first.
And keep our secret from all ears,
Lest it be soiled by idle words.
Thus I go to the war for you.
And Paul, who has drawn from memory
The voice of Bonnybell in these words,
As he reads the letters, looks at her
And shakes his head with a sigh:
Be faithless to you, Bonnybell,
Betray you, Bonnybell?
I will die ere I do it, Bonnybell!
Fail to sustain you, Bonnybell
With love and letters and constant thought!
Though it drain my spirit dry,
While the breath is in me, Bonnybell,
My soul is yours.
And he bends above her and kisses her.
Then kneels by the bed and prays for her.
Then rises and goes to the dresser
And tosses the letters into the bag.
But as he tosses the letters in
His eye rests on the diary.
What has Bonnybell written, he wonders,
Of their great delights, their meetings,
From the very first time
When she came like a bride in virginal beauty
To this hour of love and peace?
So he takes the diary out,
Clinking the alum against the cloisonne box
Of powder or rouge,
Returns to the edge of the bed
And turns the diary's pages.

And the wonder enters his thought
What did Bonnybell write in her diary
Of the primal bliss between them.
So he turns to the date. . . .
What is the matter, Paul?
Is this death at last?
Is it death?
Your heart has stopped.
Your breath is gone.
You are turned to stone.
Your hair stands up.
Perhaps it is turning white.
Prickles run over you,
A weakness goes through you.
Is it paralysis, perhaps?
You cannot rise, or move,
The diary shakes in your hand.
Fix your eye on the entry in Bonnybell's hand:
"Paul, December 10th, the Imperial, 1520 +"
Don't look at the entries a week before,
And later a week,
Where you find the entries in Bonnybell's hand:
"H. the Metropole 51 -- I +"
You will die, poor Paul, if you sit and stare
And think that three days after the day
You gave your Bonnybell cloaks and blankets
For her comfort in the war
She betrayed you, even while she pleaded with you:
Be true to me, do not betray me,
You can break my heart.

Now what shall he do?
For the dastard Germans wrecked the beauty of Rheims,
And Bonnybell has wrecked the beauty of love,
And soiled with nameless foulness
And elaborate hypocrisy
Sacred images and rituals,
Virtues, faiths, and truths.
And she is going to nurse the men
Who will vanquish the Germans.
But what shall be done to her?
He looks at her slender neck --
How easy to strangle her.
He looks at her face --
How easy to beat and mar
Her little face.
How easy to kill her, yet what folly
To hang for killing a leman whose record
Lies in this book before him, --
This book of a year!
He smiled at himself and shook his shoulders
And the words went through his brain:
Think of me hourly, write me daily,
Give me your love, your faith,
That I may be sustained
In the great cause of the war
To which you are giving me.
Be true to me
Till I return.

Then Bonnybell wakes
And sees Paul with her diary.
She springs like a panther upon him
And seizes the diary.
And cries, "Now I must give you up."
But he pushes her down on the bed.
And she falls and hides her face in the sheets,
And confesses without a tear or a sigh
Her varied lusts.
Then he pulls her up,
Lifts up her hair from her little fox ears,
Looks through the pin-head pupils of her eyes
And the matted rays of their iris,
And sees her mouth so red and puffed,
Feverish, insatiable;
And sees before him all in all
An elemental imp, a soul
Malevolent, half-formed,
A succubus!

There's a wasp, said Paul to Bonnybell,
That stings the cricket in the breast,
One, two, three, --
Where the ganglia are in the breast,
Then lays three eggs where the ganglia are, --
One, two, three.
But the cricket does not die.
The cricket lives and keeps its flesh
Fresh for the larvae,
Fresh for the new hatched worms
Which eat the breast of the cricket out,
While the cricket, yet alive, keeps waving
Its helpless legs, antennae.
Little gray sphex, you would devour
With the worms of regret, defeated love
And remorse,
The exhausted soul of me.
But your sting has scarcely poison enough,
My little gray sphex!
I have given my all to the war through you;
That good you have done.
Now I rise and shake your eggs from me,
I rise and leave you and cleanse my soul,
And leave some brute of a man to kill you
Somewhere in France.

And Bonnybell goes forth to the war
Where crickets are plentiful,
And where she may drink the blood of men
She wounds in the war.





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