Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, DOMESDAY BOOK: ELENOR MURRAY, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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DOMESDAY BOOK: ELENOR MURRAY, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Coroner merival took the hundred letters
Last Line: And at his house they talked the case and supped.
Subject(s): Dreams; Friendship; Letters; Love; Soul; Nightmares


Coroner Merival took the hundred letters
Which Elenor Murray wrote to Barrett Bays,
Found some of them unopened, as he said,
And read them to the jury. Day by day
She made a record of her life, and wrote
Her life out hour by hour, that he might know.
The hundredth letter was the last she wrote.
And this the Coroner found unopened, cut
The envelope and read it in these words:

"You see I am at Nice. If you have read
The other letters that I wrote you since
Our parting there in Paris, you will know
About my illness; but I write you now
Some other details."

"I went back to work
So troubled and depressed about you, dear,
About myself as well. I thought of you,
Your suffering and doubt, perhaps your hate.
And since you do not write me, not a line
Have written since we parted, it may be
Hatred has entered you to make distrust
Less hard to bear. But in no waking hour,
And in no hour of sleep when I have dreamed,
Have you been from my mind. I love you, dear,
Shall always love you, all eternity
Cannot exhaust my love, no change shall come
To change my love. And yet to love you so,
And have no recompense but silence, thoughts
Of your contempt for me, make exquisite
The suffering of my spirit. Could I sing
My sorrow would enchant the world, or write,
I might regain your love with beauty born
Out of this agony."

"When I returned
I had three typhoid cases given me.
And with that passion which you see in me
I gave myself to save them, took this love
Which fills my heart for you and nursed them with it;
Said to myself to keep me on my feet
When I was staggering from fatigue, 'Give now
Out of this love, it may be God's own gift
With which you may restore these boys to health.
What matter if he love you not.' And so
For twelve hours day by day I waged with death
A slowly winning battle."

"As they rallied,
But when my strength was almost spent -- what comes?
This Miriam Fay writes odiously to me.
She has heard something of our love, or sensed
Some dereliction, since she learned that I
Had not been to confessional. Anyway
She writes me, writes our head-nurse. All at once
A cloud of vile suspicion, like a dust
Blown from an alley takes my breath away,
And blinds my eyes. With all these things piled up,
My labors and my sorrow, your neglect,
My fears of a dishonorable discharge
From service, which I love, I faint, collapse,
Have streptococcus of the throat, and lie
Two weeks in fever, sleepless, and with thoughts
Of you, and what may happen, my disgrace.
But suffering brought me friends, the officers
Perhaps had heard the scandal, but they knew
My heart was in the work. The major who
Was the attending doctor of these boys
I broke myself with nursing, cared for me,
And cheered me with his praise. And so it was
Your little soldier, still I call myself,
Your little soldier, though you own me not,
Turned failure into victory, won by pain
Befriending hands. The major kept me here
And intercepted my discharge, procured
My furlough here in Nice."

"I rose from bed,
Went back to work, in nine days failed again,
This time with influenza; for three weeks
Was ill enough to die, for all the while
My fever raged, my heart was hurting too,
Because of you. When I got up again
I looked a ghost, was weaker than a child,
At last came here to Nice."

This is the hundredth
Letter that I've written since we parted.
My heart is tired, dear, I shall write no more.
You shall have silence for your silence, yet
When I am silent, trust me none the less,
Believe I love you. If you say that I
Have hidden secrets, have not told you all,
The diary flung away to keep my life
Beyond your eye's inspection, still I say
Where is your right to know what lips I've kissed,
What hopes or dreams I cherished in the past
Before I knew you. If you still accuse
My spirit of deceit, hypocrisy
In lifting up my flower of love to you
Fresh, as it seemed, with morning dew, not tears,
I have my own defense for that, you'll see.
Or lastly, if your love is turned to gall
Because, as you discovered, body of love
Was given to Gregory Wenner, after you
Had come to me in love and chosen me
As servant of you in the war, I write
To clear myself to you respecting that,
And re-insist 'twas body of love alone,
Not love I gave, and what I gave was given
Because you won me, left me, did not claim
As wholly yours what you had won. But now,
As I have hope of life beyond the grave,
As I love God, though serving Him but ill,
I say to you, I have been wholly yours
In spirit and in body since the day
I gave to you the locket, sat with you
And heard the waltz of Chopin, six days after
I went with Gregory Wenner. I explain
Why I did this, shall mention it no more;
You must be satisfied or go your way
In bitterness and hatred."

"But first, my love,
As spirits equal and with equal rights,
Or privilege of equal wrongs, have I
Demanded former purity of you?
I have repelled revealments of your past;
Have never questioned of your marriage, asked,
Which might be juster, rights withdrawn from her;
May rightly think, since you and she have life
In one abode together, that you live
As marriage warrants. And above it all
Have I not written you to go your way,
Find pleasures where you could, have only begged
That you keep out of love, continue to give
Your love to me? And why? Be cynical,
And think I gave you freedom as a gallant
That I might with a quiet conscience take
Such freedom for myself. It is not true:
I've learned the human body, know the male,
And know his life is motile, does not rest,
And wait, as woman's does, cannot do so.
So understanding have put down distaste,
That you should fare in freedom, in my heart
Have wished that love or ideals might sustain
Your spirit; but if not, my heart is filled
With happiness, if you love me. Take these thoughts
And with them solve your sorrow for my past,
Your loathing of it, if you feel that way
However bad it be, whatever sins
Imagination in you stirred depicts
As being in my past."

"Men have been known
Whom women made fifth husbands, more than that.
Not my case, I'll say that, and if you face
Reality, and put all passion love
Where nature puts it by the side of love
Which custom favors, you have only left
The matter of the truth to grasp, believe,
See clearly and accept: Do I swear true
I love you, and since loving you am faithful,
Cannot be otherwise, nor wish to be?"

"Dear, listen and be fair. You did not love me
When first I came to you. You did not ask,
Because of love, a faithfulness; in truth
You did not ask a faithfulness at all.
But then and theretofore you treated me
As woman to be won, a happiness
To be achieved and put aside. Be fair,
This was your mood. But if you loved me then,
Or soon thereafter loved me, as I know,
What should I do? I loved you, am a woman.
At last behold your love, am lifted, thrilled.
See what I thought was love before was nothing;
Know I was never loved before you loved me;
And know as well I never loved before;
Know all the former raptures of my heart
As buds in March closed hard and scentless, never
The June before for my heart! O, my love,
What should I do when this most priceless gift
Was held up like a crown within your hands
To place upon my brows -- what should I do?
Take you aside and say, here is the truth,
Here's Gregory Wenner -- what's the good of that?
How had it benefited you or me,
Increased your love, or founded it upon
A surer rock than beauty? Hideous truth!
Useless too often, childish in such case.
You would have suffered, turned from me, and lost
The rapture which I gave you, and if rapture
Be not a prize, where in this world so much
Of ugliness and agony prevails,
I do not know our life."

"But just suppose
I gave you rapture, beauty -- you concede
I gave you these, that's why you suffer so:
You choose to think them spurious since you found
I knew this Gregory Wenner, are they so?
They are as real in spite of Gregory Wenner
As if my lips had been a cradled child's.
But just suppose, as I began to say,
You never had discovered Gregory Wenner,
And had the rapture, beauty which you had,
How stands the case? Was I not justified
In hiding Gregory Wenner to preserve
The beauty and the rapture which you craved?
Dear, it was love of beauty which impelled
What you have called deceit, it was my woman's
Passionate hope to give the man she loved
The beauty which he saw in her that inspired
My acting, as you phrase it, an elaborate
Hypocrisy, an ugly word from you! . . .
But listen, dear, how spirit works in love:
When you beheld me pure, I would be pure;
As virginal, I would be virginal;
As innocent, I would be innocent;
As truthful, constant, so I would be these
Though to be truthful, constant when I loved you
Came to me like my breath, as natural.
So I would be all things to you for love,
Fill full your dreams, your vision of my soul
For now and future days, but make myself
In days before I knew you what you thought,
Believed and cherished. Hence if you combine
The thought that what I was did not concern you,
With fear that if you knew, your heart would change;
And with these join that passionate zeal of love
To be your lover, wholly beautiful,
You have the exposition of my soul
In its elaborate deceit, -- your words."

"Some fifty years ago a man and woman
Are talking in a room, say certain things,
We were not there! We two are with each other
Somewhere, and fifty years from now, we two
Will look to after souls who were not there
Like figures in a crystal globe; I mean
To lift to light the wounds of brooding love,
And show you that the world contains events
Of which we live in ignorance, if we know
They hurt us with their mystery, coming near
In our soul's cycle, somehow. But the dead,
And what they lived, what are they? -- what the things
Of our dead selves to selves who are alive,
And live the hour that's given us?"

"What's your past
To me, beloved, if your soul and body
Are mine to-day, not only mine, but made
By living more my own, more rich for me,
More truly harmonized with me? Believe me
You are my highest hope made real at last,
The climax of my love life, I accept
Whatever passed in rooms in years gone by;
Whatever contacts, raptures, pains or hopes
As schooling of your soul to make it precious,
And for my worship, my advancement, kneel
And thank the God of mysteries and wisdom
Who made you for me, let me find you, love you!"

"Now of myself a word. In years to come
These words I write will seem all truth to you,
Their prism colors, violet and red,
Will fade away and leave them in the light
Arranged and reasonable and wholly true.
Then you will read the words: I found you, dear,
After a life of pain; and you will see
My spirit like a blossom that you watch
From budding to unfolding, knowing thus
How it matured from day to day. I say
My life has been all pain, I see at first
A father and a mother linked in strife.
Am thrown upon my girlhood's strength to teach,
Earn money for my schooling, would know French;
I studied Greek a little, gave it up,
Distractions, duties, came too fast for me.
I longed to sing, took lessons, lack of money
Ended the lessons. But above it all
My heart was like an altar lit with flame,
Aspired to heaven, asked for sacrifice,
For incense to be bright, more beautiful
For beauty's sake. And in my soul's despair,
And just to use this vital flame, I turned
To God, the church. You must be stone to hear
Such words as these and not relent, an image
Of basalt which I pray to not to see
And not to hear! But listen! look at me,
Did I become a drifter, wholly fail?
Did I become a common woman, turn
To common life and ways? Can you dispute
My eyes were fixed upon a lovelier life,
Have never gaze withdrawn from loveliness?
Did I give up, or break, turn to the flesh,
Pleasures, the solace of the senses -- No!
Where some take drink to ease their hurts and dull
Their disappointments, I renewed my will
To sacrifice and service, work, who saw
These things in essence may be drink as well,
And bring the end, oblivion while you live,
But bring supremacy instead of failure,
Collapse, disgust and fears. Think what you will
Of me for Gregory Wenner, and imagine
The worst you may, I stand here as I am,
With my life proven! And to end the pain
I went to nurse the soldiers in the war
With thoughts that if I died in service, good!
Not that I gladly give up life, I love it.
But life must be surrendered; let it be
In service, as some end it up in drink,
Or opium or lust. Beloved heart,
I know my will is stronger than my vision,
That passion masters judgment; that my love
For love and life and beauty are too much
For gifts like mine; I know that I am dumb,
Songless, without articulate words -- but still
My very dumbness is a kind of speech
Which some day will flood down your deafened rocks,
And sweep my meaning over you."

"Well, now
Why did I turn to Gregory from you?
I did not love you or I had not done it.
You did not love me or I had not done it.
I loved him once, he had been good to me.
He was an old familiar friend and touch. . . .
Farewell, if it must be, but save me grief,
The greatest agony: Be brave and strong,
Be all that God requires your soul to be,
O, give me not this cup of poison -- this:
That I have been your cause of bitterness;
Have stopped your growth and introverted you,
Given you eyes that see but lies and lust
In human nature, evil in the world --
Eyes that God meant to see the good and strive
For goodness. If I drove you from the war,
Made you distrust its purpose and its faith,
Triumphant over selfishness and wrong,
Oh, leave me with the hope that peace will come,
And vision once again to bless your life.
Behold me as America, taught but half,
Wayward and thoughtless, fighting for a chance;
Denied its ordered youth, thrown into life
But half prepared, so seeking to emerge
Out of a tangled blood, and out of the earth
A creature of the earth that strives to win
A soul, a voice. Behold me thus -- forgive!
Take from my life the beauty that you found,
Nothing can kill that beauty if you press
Its blossom to your heart, and with it rise
To nobleness, to duty, give your life
To our America."

"The Lord bless you,
And make his face to shine upon you, and
Be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance
Upon you, give you peace, both now and ever
More. Amen!"

So Elenor's letters ended
The evidence. The afternoon was spent.
The inquest was adjourned till ten o'clock
Next morning. They arose and left the room. . . .
And Merival half-ill went home. Next day
He lounged with books and had the doctor in,
And read his mail, more letters, articles
About the inquest, Elenor. And from France
A little package came. And here at last
Is Elenor Murray's diary! Merival turns
And finds the entries true to Barrett Bays;
Some word, a letter too from France which says:
The sender learned the name by tracing out
A number in the diary, heard the news
Of Elenor Murray from the paper at home
In Illinois. And of the diary this:
He got it from a poilu who was struck
By this same diary on the cheek. A slap
That stung him, since the diary had been thrown
By Elenor Murray from the second story.
This poilu, being tipsy, raved and thought
Some challenger had struck him. Roaring so
He's taken in. Some weeks elapse, he meets
Our soldiers from the States, and shows the diary,
And tells the story, has the diary read
By this American, gives up the diary
For certain drinks. And this American
Has sent it to the coroner.

A letter
To Merival from an old maiden aunt,
Who's given her life to teaching, pensioned now
And visiting at Madison, Wisconsin.
Aunt Cynthia writes to Merival and says:
"I know you are fatigued, a little tired
With troubles of the lower plane of life.
Quit thinking of the war and Elenor Murray.
Each soul should use its own divinity
By mastering nature outward and within.
Do this by work or worship, Soul's control,
Philosophy, by one or more or all.
Above them all be free. This is religion,
And all of it. Books, temples, dogmas, rituals
Or forms are details only. By these means
Find God within you, prove that you and God
Are one, not several, justify the ways
Of God to man, to speak the western way.
I wish you could be here while I am here
With Arielle, she is a soul, a woman.
You need a woman in your life, my dear --
I met her in Calcutta five years since,
She and her husband toured the world -- and now
She is a widow these two years. I started
Arielle in the wisdom of the East.
That avid mind of hers devours all things.
She is an adept, but she thinks her sense
Of fun and human nature as the source
Of laughter and of tears keep her from being
A mystic, though she uses Hindu thought
And practice for her soul."

"I'd like to send
Some pictures of her, if she'd let me do it:
Arielle with her dogs upon the lawn,
Her arms about their necks. Or Arielle
About her flowers. I've another one,
Arielle on her favorite horse: another,
Arielle by her window, hand extended,
The very soul of rhythm; and another,
Arielle laughing like a rising sun,
No one can laugh as she does. For you see
Her outward soul is love, her inward soul
Is wisdom and that makes her what she is:
A Robin Goodfellow, a Puck, a girl,
A prankish wit, a spirit of bright tears,
A queenly woman, clothed in majesty,
A rapture and a solace, comrade, friend,
A lover of old women such as I;
A mother to young children, for she keeps
A brood of orphans in her little town.
She is a will as disciplined as steel,
Has suffered and grown wise. Her tenderness
Is hidden under words so brief and pure
You cannot sense the tenderness in all
Until you read them over many times.
She is a lady bountiful, who gives
As prodigally as nature, and she asks
No gifts from you, but gets them anyway,
Because all spirits pour themselves to her.
If I were taking for America
A symbol, it would be my Arielle
And not your Elenor Murray."

"Here's her life!
Her father died when she was just a child,
Leaving a modest fortune to a widow,
Arielle's mother, also other children.
After a time the mother went to England
And settled down in Sussex. There the mother
Was married to a scoundrel, mad-man, genius,
Who tyrannized the household, whipped the children.
So Arielle at fourteen ran away.
She pined for her Wisconsin and America.
She went to Madison, or near the place,
And taught school in the country, much the same
As Elenor Murray did.

"Now here is something:
Behold our world, humanity, the groups
Of people into states, communities,
Full up of powers and virtues, aid and light --
Friends, helpers, understanders of the soul.
It may be just the status of enlightment,
But I think there are brothers of the light,
And powers around us; for if Elenor Murray
Half-fails, is broken, here is Arielle
Who with the surer instinct finds the springs
Of health and life. And so, I say, if I
Had daughters, and were dying, leaving them,
I should not fear; for I should know the world
Would care for them and give them everything
They had the strength to take."

"Here's Arielle.
She teaches school and studies -- O that wag --
She posts herself in Shakespeare, forms a class
Of women thrice her age and teaches them,
Adds that way to her earnings. Just in time --
Such things are always opportune, a man
Comes by and sees her spirit, says to her
You may read Plato, and she reads and passes
To Kant and Schopenhauer. So it goes
Until by twenty all her brain is seething
With knowledge and with dreams. She is beloved
By all the people of the country-side,
Besought and honored -- yet she keeps to self,
Has hardly means enough, since now she sends
Some help to mother who has been despoiled,
Abandoned by the mad-man."

"Then one spring
A paper in Milwaukee gives a prize,
A trip to Europe, to the one who gets
The most subscriptions in a given time --
And Arielle who has so many friends --
Achievement brings achievement, friends bring friends --
Finds rallying support and wins the prize.
Is off to Europe where she meets the man
She married when returned."

"He is a youth
Of beauty and of promise, yet a soul
Who riots in the sunlight, honey of life.
And gets his wings gummed in the poisonous sweet.
And Arielle one morning wakes to find
A horror on her hands: her husband's found
Dead in a house of ill-fame. She is calm
Out of that rhythm, sense of beauty which
Makes her a power, all her deeds a song.
She lays the body under the dancing muses
There in the wondrous library and flings
A purple robe across it, kneels and lays
Her sunny head against it, says a prayer.
She had been constant, loyal even to dreams,
To this wild youth, whose errant ways she knew.
Now don't you see the contrast? I refrain
From judging Elenor Murray, but I say
One thing is beautiful and one is not.
And Arielle is beautiful as a spirit,
And Elenor is somewhat beautiful,
But streaked and mottled, too. Say what you will
Of freedom, nature, body's rights, no less
Honor and constancy are beautiful,
And truth most beautiful. And Arielle
Could kneel beside the body of her dead,
Who had neglected her so constantly,
And say a prayer of thankfulness that she
Had honored him throughout those seven years
Of married life -- she prayed so -- why, she says
That prayer was worth a thousand stolen raptures
Offered her in the years of life between."

"Now here she was at thirty
Left to a mansion there in Madison.
Her husband lived there; it was life, you know,
For her to meet one of her neighborhood
In Europe, though a stranger until then.
And here is Arielle in her mansion, priestess
Amid her treasures, beauties, for this man
Has left her many thousands, and she lives
Among her books and flowers, rides and walks,
And frolics with her dogs, and entertains." . . .

And as the Coroner folded the letter out
A letter from this Arielle fell, which read:
"We have an aunt in common, Cynthia.
I know her better than you do, I think,
And love her better too. You men go off
With wandering and business, leave these aunts,
And precious kindred to be found by souls
Who are more kindred, maybe. I have heard
Most everything about you, of your youth
Your schooling, shall I say your sorrow too?
Admire your life, have studied Elenor,
As I have had the chance or got the word.
And what your aunt writes in advice I like,
Approve of and commend to you. You see
I leap right over social rules to write,
And speak my mind. So many friends I've made
By searching out and asking. Why delay?
Time slips away like moving clouds, but Life
Says to the wise make haste. Is there a soul
You'd like to know? Then signal it. I light
From every peak a beacon fire, my peaks
Are new found heights of vision, reaching them
I either see a beacon light, or flash
A beacon light. And thus it was I found
Your Cynthia and mine, and now I write.
I have a book to send you, show that way
How much I value your good citizenship,
Your work as coroner. I had the thought
Of coroners as something like horse doctors --
Your aunt says you're as polished as a surgeon.
When I was ripe for Shakespeare some one brought
His books to me; when I was ripe for Kant,
I found him through a friend. I know about you,
I sense you too, and I believe you need
The spiritual uplifting of the Gita.
You haven't read it, have you? No! you haven't.
I wish that Elenor Murray might have read it.
I grieve about that girl, you can't imagine
How much I grieve. Now write me, coroner,
What is your final judgment of the girl."
"I have so many friends who love me, always
New friends come by to give me wisdom -- you
Can teach me, I believe, a man like you
So versed in life. You must have learned new things
Exploring in the life of Elenor Murray.
I was about to write you several times.
I loved that girl from all I heard of her.
She must have had some faculty or fault
That thwarted her, and left her, so to speak,
Just looking into promised lands, but never
Possessing or enjoying them -- poor girl!
And here she flung her spirit in the war
And wrecked herself -- it makes me sorrowful.
I went to Europe through a prize I won,
And saw the notable places -- but this girl
Who hungered just as much as I, saw nothing
Or little, gave her time to labor, nursing --
It is most pitiful, if you'll believe me
I've wept about your Eleanor. Write me now
What is your final judgment of the girl?" . . .

So Merival read these letters, fell asleep.
Next day was weaker, had a fever too,
And took to bed at last. He had to fight
Six weeks or more for life. When he was up
And strong enough he called the jury in
And at his house they talked the case and supped.





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