Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, MALMAISON, by AMY LOWELL

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

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MALMAISON, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: How the slates of the roof sparkle in the sun
Last Line: Of the marley aqueduct.
Subject(s): Flowers; Roses


How the slates of the roof sparkle in the sun, over there, over there, beyond
the high wall! How quietly the Seine runs in loops and windings, over there,
over there, sliding through the green countryside! Like ships of the line,
stately with canvas, the tall clouds pass along the sky, over the glittering
roof, over the trees, over the looped and curving river. A breeze quivers
through the linden trees. Roses bloom at Malmaison. Roses! Roses! But the
road is dusty. Already the Citoyenne Beauharnais wearies of her walk. Her skin
is chalked and powdered with dust, she smells dust, and behind the wall are
roses! Roses with smooth open petals, poised above rippling leaves . . . Roses
. . . They have told her so. The Citoyenne Beauharnais shrugs her shoulders and
makes a little face. She must mend her pace if she would be back in time for
dinner. Roses indeed! The guillotine more likely.

The tired clouds float over Malmaison, and the slate roof sparkles in the sun.


Gallop! Gallop! The General brooks no delay. Make way, good people, and
scatter out of his path, you, and your hens, and your dogs, and your children.
The General is returned from Egypt, and is come in a caleche and four to visit
his new property. Throw open the gates, you, Porter of Malmaison. Pull off
your cap, my man, this is your master, the husband of Madame. Faster! Faster!
A jerk and a jingle and they are arrived, he and she. Madame has red eyes. Fi!
It is for joy at her husband's return. Learn your place, Porter. A gentleman
here for two months? Fi! Fi, then! Since when have you taken to gossiping?
Madame may have a brother, I suppose. That -- all green, and red, and glitter,
with flesh as dark as ebony -- that is a slave; a bloodthirsty, stabbing,
slashing heathen, come from the hot countries to cure your tongue of idle

A fine afternoon it is, with tall bright clouds sailing over the trees.

"Bonaparte, mon ami, the trees are golden like my star, the star I pinned to
your destiny when I married you. The gypsy, you remember her prophecy. My dear
friend, not here, the servants are watching; send them away, and that flashing
splendour, Roustan. Superb -- Imperial, but . . . My dear, your arm is
trembling; I faint to feel it touching me! No, no, Bonaparte, not that -- spare
me that -- did we not bury that last night! You hurt me, my friend, you are so
hot and strong. Not long, Dear, no, thank God, not long."
The looped river runs saffron, for the sun is setting. It is getting dark.
Dark. Darker. In the moonlight, the slate roof shines palely milkily white.
The roses have faded at Malmaison, nipped by the frost. What need for roses?
Smooth, open petals -- her arms. Fragrant, outcurved petals -- her breasts. He
rises like a sun above her, stooping to touch the petals, press them wider.
Eagles. Bees. What are they to open roses! A little shivering breeze runs
through the linden trees, and the tiered clouds blow across the sky like ships
of the line, stately with canvas.


The gates stand wide at Malmaison, stand wide all day. The gravel of the
avenue glints under the continual rolling of wheels. An officer gallops up with
his sabre clicking; a mameluke gallops down with his charger kicking. Valets-
de-pied run about in ones, and twos, and groups, like swirled blown leaves.
Tramp! Tramp! The guard is changing, and the grenadiers off duty lounge out of
sight, ranging along the roads toward Paris.
The slate roof sparkles in the sun, but it sparkles milkily, vaguely, the
great glass-houses put out its shining. Glass, stone and onyx now for the sun's
mirror. Much has come to pass at Malmaison. New rocks and fountains, blocks of
carven marble; fluted pillars uprearing antique temples, vases and urns in
unexpected places, bridges of stone, bridges of wood, arbours and statues, and a
flood of flowers everywhere, new flowers, rare flowers, parterre after parterre
of flowers. Indeed, the roses bloom at Malmaison. It is youth, youth
untrammeled and advancing, trundling a country ahead of it as though it were a
hoop. Laughter, and spur janglings in tesselated vestibules. Tripping of clocked
and embroidered stockings in little low-heeled shoes over smooth grassplots.
India muslins spangled with silver patterns slide through trees -- mingle --
separate -- white day-fireflies flashing moon-brilliance in the shade of
"The kangaroos! I vow, Captain, I must see the kangaroos."
"As you please, dear Lady, but I recommend the shady linden alley and feeding
the cockatoos."
"They say that Madame Bonaparte's breed of sheep is the best in all France."
"And, oh, have you seen the enchanting little cedar she planted when the First
Consul sent home the news of the victory of Marengo?"
Picking, choosing, the chattering company flits to and fro. Over the trees
the great clouds go, tiered, stately, like ships of the line bright with canvas.
Prisoner's-base, and its swooping, veering, racing, giggling, bumping. The
First Consul runs plump into M. de Beauharnais and falls. But he picks himself
up smartly, and starts after M. Isabey. Too late, M. Le Premier Consul,
Madamoiselle Hortense is out after you. Quickly, my dear Sir! Stir your short
legs, she is swift and eager, and as graceful as her mother. She is there, that
other, playing too, but lightly, warily, bearing herself with care, rather
floating out upon the air than running, never far from goal. She is there,
borne up above her guests as something indefinably fair, a rose above
periwinkles. A blow rose, smooth as satin, reflexed, one loosened petal hanging
back and down. A rose that undulates languorously as the breeze takes it,
resting upon its leaves in a faintness of perfume.

There are rumours about the First Consul. Malmaison is full of women, and
Paris is only two leagues distant. Madame Bonaparte stands on the wooden bridge
at sunset, and watches a black swan pushing the pink and silver water in front
of him as he swims, crinkling its smoothness into pleats of changing colour with
his breast. Madame Bonaparte presses against the parapet of the bridge, and the
crushed roses at her belt melt, petal by petal, into the pink water.


A vile day, Porter. But keep your wits about you. The Empress will soon be
here. Queer, without the Emperor! It is indeed, but best not consider that.
Scratch your head and prick up your ears. Divorce is not for you to debate
about. She is late? Ah, well, the roads are muddy. The rain spears are as
sharp as whetted knives. They dart down and down, edged and shining. Clop-
trop! Clop-trop! A carriage grows out of the mist. Hist, Porter. You can
keep on your hat. It is only Her Majesty's dogs and her parrot. Clop-trop!
The Ladies in Waiting, Porter. Clop-trop! It is Her Majesty. At least, I
suppose it is, but the blinds are drawn.
"In all the years I have served Her Majesty she never before passed the gate
without giving me a smile!"
"You're a droll fellow, to expect the Empress to put out her head in the
pouring rain and salute you. She has affairs of her own to think about."
Clang the gate, no need for further waiting, nobody else will be coming to
Malmaison tonight.
White under her veil, drained and shaking, the woman crosses the antechamber.
Empress! Empress! Foolish splendour, perished to dust. Ashes of roses, ashes
of youth. Empress forsooth!
Over the glass domes of the hot-houses drenches the rain. Behind her a clock
ticks -- ticks again. The sound knocks upon her thought with the echoing shudder
of hollow vases. She places her hands on her ears, but the minutes pass,
knocking. Tears in Malmaison. And years to come each knocking by, minute after
minute. Years, many years, and tears, and cold pouring rain.
"I feel as though I had died, and the only sensation I have is that I am no
Rain! Heavy, thudding rain!


The roses bloom at Malmaison. And not only roses. Tulips, myrtles,
geraniums, camellias, rhododendrons, dahlias, double hyacinths. All the year
through, under glass, under the sky, flowers bud, expand, die, and give way to
others, always others. From distant countries they have been brought, and taught
to live in the cool temperateness of France. There is the Bonapartea from
Peru; the Napoleone Imperiale; the Josephinia Imperatrix, a pearl-white
flower, purple-shadowed, the calix pricked out with crimson points. Malmaison
wears its flowers as a lady wears her gems, flauntingly, assertively. Malmaison
decks herself to hide the hollow within.
The glass-houses grow and grow and every year fling up hotter reflexions to
the sailing sun.
The cost runs into millions, but a woman must have something to console
herself for a broken heart. One can play backgammon and patience, and then
patience and backgammon, and stake gold Napoleons on each game won. Sport
truly! It is an unruly spirit which could ask better. With her jewels, her
laces, her shawls; her two hundred and twenty dresses, her fichus, her veils;
her pictures, her busts, her birds. It is absurd that she cannot be happy. The
Emperor smarts under the thought of her ingratitude. What could he do more? And
yet she spends, spends as never before. It is ridiculous. Can she not enjoy
life at a smaller figure? Was ever monarch plagued with so extravagant an ex-
wife? She owes her chocolate-merchant, her candle-merchant, her sweetmeat
purveyor; her grocer, her butcher, her poulterer; her architect, and the
shopkeeper who sells her rouge; her perfumer, her dressmaker, her merchant of
shoes. She owes for fans, plants, engravings, and chairs. She owes masons and
carpenters, vintners, lingeres. The lady's affairs are in sad confusion.
And why? Why?
Can a river flow when the spring is dry?

Night. The Empress sits alone, and the clock ticks, one after one. The clock
nicks off the edges of her life. She is chipped like an old bit of china; she
is frayed like a garment of last year's wearing. She is soft, crinkled, like a
fading rose. And each minute flows by brushing against her, shearing off
another and another petal. The Empress crushes her breasts with her hands, and
weeps. And the tall clouds sail over Malmaison like a procession of stately
ships bound for the moon.

Scarlet, clear-blue, purple epauletted with gold. It is a parade of soldiers
sweeping up the avenue. Eight horses, eight Imperial harnesses, four caparisoned
postillions, a carriage with the Emperor's arms on the panels. Ho, Porter, pop
out your eyes, and no wonder. Where else under the Heavens could you see such
They sit on a stone seat. The little man in the green coat of a colonel of
Chasseurs, and the lady, beautiful as a satin seedpod, and as pale. The house
has memories. The satin seedpod holds his germs of Empire. We will stay here,
under the blue sky and the turreted white clouds. She draws him; he feels her
faded loveliness urge him to replenish it. Her soft transparent texture woos
his nervous fingering. He speaks to her of debts, of resignation; of her
children, and his; he promises that she shall see the King of Rome; he says some
harsh things and some pleasant. But she is there, close to him, rose toned to
amber, white shot with violet, pungent to his nostrils as embalmed rose-leaves
in a twilit room.
Suddenly the Emperor calls his carriage and rolls away across the looping


Crystal-blue brightness over the glass-houses. Crystal-blue streaks and
ripples over the lake. A macaw on a gilded perch screams; they have forgotten
to take out his dinner. The windows shake. Boom! Boom! It is the rumbling of
Prussian cannon beyond Pecq. Roses bloom at Malmaison. Roses! Roses! Swimming
above their leaves, rotting beneath them. Fallen flowers strew the unraked
walks. Fallen flowers for a fallen Emperor! The General in charge of him draws
back and watches. Snatches of music -- snarling, sneering music of bagpipes.
They say a Scotch regiment is besieging St. Denis. The Emperor wipes his face,
or is it his eyes? His tired eyes which see nowhere the grace they long for.
Josephine! Somebody asks him a question, he does not answer, somebody else does
that. There are voices, but one voice he does not hear, and yet he hears it all
the time. Josephine! The Emperor puts up his hand to screen his face. The
white light of a bright cloud spears sharply through the linden trees. "Vive
l'Empereur!" There are troops passing beyond the wall, troops which sing and
call. Boom! A pink rose is jarred off its stem and falls at the Emperor's
"Very well. I go." Where! Does it matter? There is no sword to clatter.
Nothing but soft brushing gravel and a gate which shuts with a click.
"Quick, fellow, don't spare your horses."
A whip cracks, wheels turn, why burn one's eyes following a fleck of dust.


Over the slate roof tall clouds, like ships of the line, pass along the sky.
The glass-houses glitter splotchily, for many of their lights are broken. Roses
bloom, fiery cinders quenching under damp weeds. Wreckage and misery, and a
trailing of petty deeds smearing over old recollections.
The musty rooms are empty and their shutters are closed, only in the gallery
there is a stuffed black swan, covered with dust. When you touch it the
feathers come off and float softly to the ground. Through a chink in the
shutters one can see the stately clouds crossing the sky toward the Roman arches
of the Marley Aqueduct.

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