Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, ISOBEL'S CHILD, by ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING



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ISOBEL'S CHILD, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: To rest the weary nurse has gone
Last Line: In his broad, loving will.
Subject(s): Death - Children; Dreams; Women; Heaven; Mothers; Longing; Death - Babies; Nightmares; Paradise


I

To rest the weary nurse has gone:
An eight-day watch had watched she,
Still rocking beneath sun and moon
The baby on her knee,
Till Isobel its mother said
'The fever waneth -- wend to bed,
For now the watch comes round to me.'

II

Then wearily the nurse did throw
Her pallet in the darkest place
Of that sick room, and slept and dreamed:
For, as the gusty wind did blow
The night-lamp's flare across her face,
She saw or seemed to see, but dreamed,
That the poplars tall on the opposite hill
The seven tall poplars on the hill,
Did clasp the setting sun until
His rays dropped from him, pined and still
As blossoms in frost,
Till he waned and paled, so weirdly crossed,
To the color of moonlight which doth pass
Over the dank ridged churchyard grass.
The poplars held the sun, and he
The eyes of the nurse that they should not see
-- Not for a moment, the babe on her knee,
Though she shuddered to feel that it grew to be
Too chill, and lay too heavily.

III

She only dreamed; for all the while
'T was Lady Isobel that kept
The little baby: and it slept
Fast, warm, as if its mother's smile,
Laden with love's dewy weight,
And red as rose of Harpocrate
Dropt upon its eyelids, pressed
Lashes to cheek in a sealed rest.

IV

And more and more smiled Isobel
To see the baby sleep so well --
She knew not that she smiled.
Against the lattice, dull and wild
Drive the heavy droning drops,
Drop by drop, the sound being one;
As momently time's segments fall
On the ear of God, who hears through all
Eternity's unbroken monotone:
And more and more smiled Isobel
To see the baby sleep so well --
She knew not that she smiled.
The wind in intermission stops
Down in the beechen forest,
Then cries aloud
As one at the sorest,
Self-stung, self-driven,
And rises up to its very tops,
Stiffening erect the branches bowed,
Dilating with a tempest-soul
The trees that with their dark hands break
Through their own outline, and heavy roll
Shadows as massive as clouds in heaven
Across the castle lake.
And more and more smiled Isobel
To see the baby sleep so well;
She knew not that she smiled;
She knew not that the storm was wild;
Through the uproar drear she could not hear
The castle clock which struck anear --
She heard the low, light breathing of her child.

V

O sight for wondering look!
While the external nature broke
Into such abandonment,
While the very mist, heart-rent
By the lightning, seemed to eddy
Against nature, with a din, --
A sense of silence and of steady
Natural calm appeared to come
From things without, and enter in
The human creature's room.

VI

So motionless she sate,
The babe asleep upon her knees,
You might have dreamed their souls had gone
Away to things inanimate,
In such to live, in such to moan;
And that their bodies had ta'en back,
In mystic change, all silences
That cross the sky in cloudy rack,
Or dwell beneath the reedy ground
In waters safe from their own sound:
Only she wore
The deepening smile I named before,
And that a deepening love expressed;
And who at once can love and rest?

VII

In sooth the smile that then was keeping
Watch upon the baby sleeping,
Floated with its tender light
Downward, from the drooping eyes,
Upward, from the lips apart,
Over cheeks which had grown white
With an eight-day weeping:
All smiles come in such a wise
Where tears shall fall or have of old --
Like northern lights that fill the heart
Of heaven in sign of cold.

VIII

Motionless she sate.
Her hair had fallen by its weight
On each side of her smile, and lay
Very blackly on the arm
Where the baby nestled warm,
Pale as baby carved in stone
Seen by glimpses of the moon
Up a dark cathedral aisle:
But, through the storm, no moonbeam fell
Upon the child of Isobel --
Perhaps you saw it by the ray
Alone of her still smile.

IX

A solemn thing it is to me
To look upon a babe that sleeps
Wearing in its spirit-deeps
The undeveloped mystery
Of our Adam's taint and woe,
Which, when they developed be,
Will not let it slumber so;
Lying new in life beneath
The shadow of the coming death,
With that soft, low, quiet breath,
As if it felt the sun;
Knowing all things by their blooms,
Not their roots, yea, sun and sky
Only by the warmth that comes
Out of each, earth only by
The pleasant hues that o'er it run,
And human love by drops of sweet
White nourishment still hanging round
The little mouth so slumber-bound:
All which broken sentiency
And conclusion incomplete,
Will gather and unite and climb
To an immortality
Good or evil, each sublime,
Through life and death to life again.
O little lids, now folded fast,
Must ye learn to drop at last
Our large and burning tears?
O warm quick body, must thou lie,
When the time comes round to die,
Still from all the whirl of years,
Bare of all the joy and pain?
O small frail being, wilt thou stand
At God's right hand,
Lifting up those sleeping eyes
Dilated by great destinies,
To an endless waking? thrones and seraphim,
Through the long ranks of their solemnities,
Sunning thee with calm looks of Heaven's surprise,
But thine alone on Him?
Or else, self-willed, to tread the Godless place,
(God keep thy will!) feel thine own energies
Cold, strong, objectless, like a dead man's clasp,
The sleepless deathless life within thee grasp, --
While myriad faces, like one changeless face,
With woe not love's, shall glass thee everywhere
And overcome thee with thine own despair?

X

More soft, less solemn images
Drifted o'er the lady's heart
Silently as snow.
She had seen eight days depart
Hour by hour, on bended knees,
With pale-wrung hands and prayings low
And broken, through which came the sound
Of tears that fell against the ground,
Making sad stops: -- 'Dear Lord, dear Lord!'
She still had prayed, (the heavenly word
Broken by an earthly sigh)
-- 'Thou who didst not erst deny
The mother-joy to Mary mild,
Blessed in the blessed child
Which hearkened in meek babyhood
Her cradle-hymn, albeit used
To all that music interfused
In breasts of angels high and good!
Oh, take not, Lord, my babe away --
Oh, take not to thy songful heaven
The pretty baby thou hast given,
Or ere that I have seen him play
Around his father's knees and known
That he knew how my love has gone
From all the world to him.
Think, God among the cherubim,
How I shall shiver every day
In thy June sunshine, knowing where
The grave-grass keeps it from his fair
Still cheeks: and feel, at every tread,
His little body, which is dead
And hidden in thy turfy fold,
Doth make thy whole warm earth a-cold!
O God, I am so young, so young --
I am not used to tears at nights
Instead of slumber -- not to prayer
With sobbing lips and hands out-wrung!
Thou knowest all my prayings were
'I bless thee, God, for past delights --
Thank God!' I am not used to bear
Hard thoughts of death; the earth doth cover
No face from me of friend or lover:
And must the first who teaches me
The form of shrouds and funerals, be
Mine own first-born beloved? he
Who taught me first this mother-love?
Dear Lord who spreadest out above
Thy loving, transpierced hands to meet
All lifted hearts with blessing sweet, --
Pierce not my heart, my tender heart
Thou madest tender! Thou who art
So happy in thy heaven alway,
Take not mine only bliss away!'

XI

She so had prayed: and God, who hears
Through seraph-songs the sound of tears
From that beloved babe had ta'en
The fever and the beating pain.
And more and more smiled Isobel
To see the baby sleep so well,
(She knew not that she smiled, I wis)
Until the pleasant gradual thought
Which near her heart the smile enwrought,
Now soft and slow, itself did seem
To float along a happy dream,
Beyond it into speech like this.

XII

'I prayed for thee, my little child,
And God has heard my prayer!
And when thy babyhood is gone,
We two together undefiled
By men's repinings, will kneel down
Upon his earth which will be fair
(Not covering thee, sweet!) to us twain,
And give Him thankful praise.'

XIII

Dully and wildly drives the rain:
Against the lattices drives the rain.

XIV

'I thank Him now, that I can think
Of those same future days,
Nor from the harmless image shrink
Of what I there might see --
Strange babies on their mothers' knee,
Whose innocent soft faces might
From off mine eyelids strike the light,
With looks not meant for me!'

XV

Gustily blows the wind through the rain,
As against the lattices drives the rain.

XVI

'But now, O baby mine, together,
We turn this hope of ours again
To many an hour of summer weather,
When we shall sit and intertwine
Our spirits, and instruct each other
In the pure loves of child and mother!
Two human loves make one divine.'

XVII

The thunder tears through the wind and the rain,
As full on the lattices drives the rain.

XVIII

'My little child, what wilt thou choose?
Now let me look at thee and ponder.
What gladness, from the gladnesses
Futurity is spreading under
Thy gladsome sight? Beneath the trees
Wilt thou lean all day, and lose
Thy spirit with the river seen
Intermittently between
The winding beechen alleys, --
Half in labor, half repose,
Like a shepherd keeping sheep,
Thou, with only thoughts to keep
Which never a bound will overpass,
And which are innocent as those
That feed among Arcadian valleys
Upon the dewy grass?'

XIX

Thelarge white owl that with age is blind,
That hath sate for years in the old tree hollow,
Is carried away in a gust of wind;
His wings could bear him not as fast
As he goeth now the lattice past;
He is borne by the winds, the rains do follow
His white wings to the blast outflowing,
He hooteth in going,
And still, in the lightnings, coldly glitter
His round unblinking eyes.

XX

'Or, baby, wilt thou think it fitter
To be eloquent and wise,
One upon whose lips the air
Turns to solemn verities
For men to breathe anew, and win
A deeper-seated life within?
Wilt be a philosopher,
By whose voice the earth and skies
Shall speak to the unborn?
Or a poet, broadly spreading
The golden immortalities
Of thy soul on natures lorn
And poor of such, them all to guard
From their decay, -- beneath thy treading,
Earth's flowers recovering hues of Eden, --
And stars, drawn downward by thy looks,
To shine ascendant in thy books?'

XXI

The tame hawk in the castle-yard,
How it screams to the lightning, with its wet
Jagged plumes overhanging the parapet!
And at the lady's door the hound
Scratches with a crying sound.

XXII

'But, O my babe, thy lids are laid
Close, fast upon thy cheek,
And not a dream of power and sheen
Can make a passage up between;
Thy heart is of thy mother's made,
Thy looks are very meek,
And it will be their chosen place
To rest on some beloved face,
As these on thine, and let the noise
Of the whole world go on nor drown
The tender silence of thy joys:
Or when that silence shall have grown
Too tender for itself, the same
Yearning for sound, -- to look above
And utter its one meaning, LOVE,
That He may hear his name.'

XXIII

No wind, no rain, no thunder!
The waters had trickled not slowly,
The thunder was not spent
Nor the wind near finishing;
Who would have said that the storm was diminishing?
No wind, no rain, no thunder!
Their noises dropped asunder
From the earth and the firmament,
From the towers and the lattices,
Abrupt and echoless
As ripe fruits on the ground unshaken wholly --
As life in death!
And sudden and solemn the silence fell,
Startling the heart of Isobel
As the tempest could not:
Against the door went panting the breath
Of the lady's hound whose cry was still,
And she, constrained howe'er she would not,
Lifted her eyes and saw the moon
Looking out of heaven alone
Upon the poplared hill, --
A calm of God, made visible
That men might bless it at their will.

XXIV

The moonshine on the baby's face
Falleth clear and cold:
The mother's looks have fallen back
To the same place:
Because no moon with silver rack,
Nor broad sunrise in jasper skies
Has power to hold
Our loving eyes,
Which still revert, as ever must
Wonder and Hope, to gaze on the dust.

XXV

The moonshine on the baby's face
Cold and clear remaineth;
The mother's looks do shrink away, --
The mother's looks return to stay,
As charmed by what paineth:
Is any glamour in the case?
Is it dream, or is it sight?
Hath the change upon the wild
Elements that sign the night,
Passed upon the child?
It is not dream, but sight.

XXVI

The babe has awakened from sleep
And unto the gaze of its mother,
Bent over it, lifted another --
Not the baby-looks that go
Unaimingly to and fro,
But an earnest gazing deep
Such as soul gives soul at length
When by work and wail of years
It winneth a solemn strength
And mourneth as it wears.
A strong man could not brook,
With pulse unhurried by fears,
To meet that baby's look
O'erglazed by manhood's tears,
The tears of a man full grown,
With a power to wring our own,
In the eyes all undefiled
Of a little three-months child --
To see that babe-brow wrought
By the witnessing of thought
To judgment's prodigy,
And the small soft mouth unweaned,
By mother's kiss o'erleaned,
(Putting the sound of loving
Where no sound else was moving
Except the speechless cry)
Quickened to mind's expression,
Shaped to articulation,
Yea, uttering words, yea, naming woe,
In tones that with it strangely went
Because so baby-innocent,
As the child spake out to the mother, so: --

XXVII

'O mother, mother, loose thy prayer!
Christ's name hath made it strong.
It bindeth me, it holdeth me
With its most loving cruelty,
From floating my new soul along
The happy heavenly air.
It bindeth me, it holdeth me
In all this dark, upon this dull
Low earth, by only weepers trod.
It bindeth me, it holdeth me!
Mine angel looketh sorrowful
Upon the face of God.

XXVIII

'Mother, mother, can I dream
Beneath your earthly trees?
I had a vision and a gleam,
I heard a sound more sweet than these
When rippled by the wind:
Did you see the Dove with wings
Bathed in golden glisterings
From a sunless light behind,
Dropping on me from the sky,
Soft as mother's kiss, until
I seemed to leap and yet was still?
Saw you how his love-large eye
Looked upon me mystic calms,
Till the power of his divine
Vision was indrawn to mine?

XXIX

'Oh, the dream within the dream!
I saw celestial places even.
Oh, the vistas of high palms
Making finites of delight
Through the heavenly infinite,
Lifting up their green still tops
To the heaven of heaven!
Oh, the sweet life-tree that drops
Shade like light across the river
Glorified in its for-ever
Flowing from the Throne!
Oh, the shining holinesses
Of the thousand, thousand faces
God-sunned by the throned ONE,
And made intense with such a love
That, though I saw them turned above,
Each loving seemed for also me!
And, oh, the Unspeakable, the HE,
The manifest in secrecies
Yet of mine own heart partaker
With the overcoming look
Of One who hath been once forsook
And blesseth the forsaker!
Mother, mother, let me go
Toward the Face that looketh so!
Through the mystic winged Four
Whose are inward, outward eyes
Dark with light of mysteries
And the restless evermore
"Holy, holy, holy," -- through
The sevenfold Lamps that burn in view
Of cherubim and seraphim, --
Through the four-and-twenty crowned
Stately elders white around
Suffer me to go to Him!

XXX

'Is your wisdom very wise,
Mother, on the narrow earth,
Very happy, very worth
That I should stay to learn?
Are these air-corrupting sighs
Fashioned by unlearned breath?
Do the students' lamps that burn
All night, illumine death?
Mother, albeit this be so,
Loose thy prayer and let me go
Where that bright chief angel stands
Apart from all his brother bands,
Too glad for smiling, having bent
In angelic wilderment
O'er the depths of God, and brought
Reeling thence one only thought
To fill his own eternity.
He the teacher is for me --
He can teach what I would know --
Mother, mother, let me go!

XXXI

'Can your poet make an Eden
No winter will undo,
And light a starry fire while heeding
His hearth's is burning too?
Drown in music the earth's din,
And keep his own wild soul within
The law of his own harmony?
Mother, albeit this be so,
Let me to my heaven go!
A little harp me waits thereby,
A harp whose strings are golden all
And tuned to music spherical,
Hanging on the green life-tree
Where no willows ever be.
Shall I miss that harp of mine?
Mother, no! -- the Eye divine
Turned upon it, makes it shine;
And when I touch it, poems sweet
Like separate souls shall fly from it,
Each to the immortal fytte.
We shall all be poets there,
Gazing on the chiefest Fair.

XXXII

'Love! earth's love! and can we love
Fixedly where all things move?
Can the sinning love each other?
Mother, mother,
I tremble in thy close embrace,
I feel thy tears adown my face,
Thy prayers do keep me out of bliss --
O dreary earthly love!
Loose thy prayer and let me go
To the place which loving is
Yet not sad; and when is given
Escape to thee from this below,
Thou shalt behold me that I wait
For thee beside the happy Gate,
And silence shall be up in heaven
To hear our greeting kiss.'

XXXIII

The nurse awakes in the morning sun,
And starts to see beside her bed
The lady with a grandeur spread
Like pathos o'er her face, as oue
God-satisfied and earth-undone;
The babe upon her arm was dead:
And the nurse could utter forth no cry, --
She was awed by the calm in the mother's eye.

XXXIV

'Wake, nurse!' the lady said;
'We are waking -- he and I --
I, on earth, and he, in sky:
And thou must help me to o'erlay
With garment white this little clay
Which needs no more our lullaby.

XXXV

'I changed the cruel prayer I made,
And bowed my meekened face, and prayed
That God would do his will; and thus
He did it, nurse! He parted us:
And his sun shows victorious
The dead calm face, -- and I am calm,
And Heaven is hearkening a new psalm.

XXXVI

'This earthly noise is too anear,
Too loud, and will not let me hear
The little harp. My death will soon
Make silence.'

And a sense of tune,
A satisfied love meanwhile
Which nothing earthly could despoil,
Sang on within her soul.

XXXVII

Oh you,
Earth's tender and impassioned few,
Take courage to entrust your love
To Him so named who guards above
Its ends and shall fulfil!
Breaking the narrow prayers that may
Befit your narrow hearts, away
In His broad, loving will.





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