Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, RHYME OF THE DUCHESS MAY, by ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING



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RHYME OF THE DUCHESS MAY, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: To the belfry, one by one, went the ringers from the sun
Last Line: Round our restlessness, his rest.
Subject(s): Courtship; Loyalty; Brides


I

To the belfry, one by one, went the ringers from the sun,
Toll slowly.
And the oldest ringer said, 'Ours is music for the dead
When the rebecks are all done.'

II

Six abeles i' the churchyard grow on the north side in a row,
Toll slowly.
And the shadows of their tops rock across the little slopes
Of the grassy graves below.

III

On the south side and the west a small river runs in haste,
Toll slowly.
And, between the river flowing and the fair green trees a-growing,
Do the dead lie at their rest.

IV

On the east I sate that day, up against a willow gray:
Toll slowly.
Through the rain of willow-branches I could see the low hill-ranges
And the river on its way.

V

There I sate beneath the tree, and the bell tolled solemnly,
Toll slowly.
While thebetween the solemn noises, --
Yet death seemed more loud to me.

VI

There I read this ancient rhyme while the bell did all the time
Toll slowly.
And the solemn knell fell in with the tale of life and sin,
Like a rhythmic fate sublime.

THE RHYME

I

Broad the forests stood (I read) on the hills of Linteged,
Toll slowly.
And three hundred years had stood mute adown each hoary wood,
Like a full heart having prayed.

II

And the little birds sang east, and the little birds sang west,
Toll slowly.
And but little thought was theirs of the silent antique years,
In the building of their nest.

III

Down the sun dropped large and red on the towers of Linteged, --
Toll slowly.
Lance and spear upon the height, bristling strange in fiery light,
While the castle stood in shade.

IV

There the castle stood up black with the red sun at its back --
Toll slowly --
Like a sullen smouldering pyre with a top that flickers fire
When the wind is on its track.

V

And five hundred archers tall did besiege the castle wall --
Toll slowly.
And the castle, seethed in blood, fourteen days and nights had stood
And to-night was near its fall.

VI

Yet thereunto, blind to doom, three months since, a bride did come --
Toll slowly.
One who proudly trod the floors and softly whispered in the doors,
'May good angels bless our home.'

VII

Oh, a bride of queenly eyes, with a front of constancies:
Toll slowly.
Oh, a bride of cordial mouth where the untired smile of youth
Did light outward its own sighs!

VIII

'T was a Duke's fair orphan-girl, and her uncle's ward -- the Earl --
Toll slowly --
Who betrothed her twelve years old, for the sake of dowry gold,
To his son Lord Leigh the churl.

IX

But what time she had made good all her years of womanhood --
Toll slowly.
Unto both these lords of Leigh spake she out right sovranly,
'My will runneth as my blood.

X

'And while this same blood makes red this same right hand's
veins,' she said --
Toll slowly --
''T is my will, as lady free, not to wed a lord of Leigh,
But Sir Guy of Linteged.'

XI

The old Earl he smiled smooth, then he sighed for wilful youth --
Toll slowly.
'Good my niece, that hand withal looketh somewhat soft and small
For so large a will, in sooth.'

XII

She too smiled by that same sign, but her smile was cold and fine --
Toll slowly.
'Little hand clasps muckle gold, or it were not worth the hold
Of thy son, good uncle mine!'

XIII

Then the young lord jerked his breath, and sware thickly in
his teeth --
Toll slowly --
'He would wed his own betrothed, an she loved him an she loathed,
Let the life come or the death.'

XIV

Up she rose with scornful eyes, as her father's child might rise --
Toll slowly.
'Thy hound's blood, my lord of Leigh, stains thy knightly
heel,' quoth she,
'And he moans not where he lies:

XV

'But a woman's will dies hard, in the hall or on the sward' --
Toll slowly.
'By that grave, my lords, which made me orphaned girl and
dowered lady,
I deny you wife and ward!'

XVI

Unto each she bowed her head and swept past with lofty tread.
Toll slowly.
Ere the midnight-bell had ceased, in the chapel had the priest,
Blessed her, bride of Linteged.

XVII

Fast and fain the bridal train along the night-storm rode amain --
Toll slowly.
Hard the steeds of lord and serf struck their hoofs out on the turf,
In the pauses of the rain.

XVIII

Fast and fain the kinsmen's train along the storm pursued amain --
Toll slowly.
Steed on steed-track, dashing off, -- thickening, doubling,
hoof on hoof,
In the pauses of the rain.

XIX

And the bridegroom led the flight on his red-roan steed of might --
Toll slowly.
And the bride lay on his arm, still, as if she feared no harm,
Smiling out into the night.

XX

'Dost thou fear?' he said at last. 'Nay,' she answered him
in haste, --
Toll slowly.
'Not such death as we could find -- only life with one behind.
Ride on fast as fear, ride fast!'

XXI

Up the mountain wheeled the steed -- girth to ground, and
fetlocks spread --
Toll slowly.
Headlong bounds, and rocking flanks, -- down he staggered,
down the banks,
To the towers of Linteged.

XXII

High and low the serfs looked out, red the flambeaus tossed about --
Toll slowly.
In the courtyard rose the cry, 'Live the Duchess and Sir Guy!'
But she never heard them shout.

XXIII

On the steed she dropped her cheek, kissed his mane and
kissed his neck --
Toll slowly.
'I had happier died by thee than lived on, a Lady Leigh,'
Were the first words she did speak.

XXIV

But a three months' joyaunce lay 'twixt that moment and to-day --
Toll slowly.
When five hundred archers tall stand beside the castle wall
To recapture Duchess May.

XXV

And the castle standeth black with the red sun at its back --
Toll slowly.
And a fortnight's siege is done, and, except the duchess, none
Can misdoubt the coming wrack.

XXVI

Then the captain, young Lord Leigh, with his eyes so gray of blee --
Toll slowly.
And thin lips that scarcely sheathe the cold white gnashing
of his teeth,
Gnashed in smiling, absently, --

XXVII

Cried aloud, 'So goes the day, bridegroom fair of Duchess May!'
Toll slowly.
'Look thy last upon that sun! if thou seest to-morrow's one
'T will be through a foot of clay.

XXVIII

'Ha, fair bride! dost hear no sound save that moaning of the hound?'
Toll slowly.
'Thou and I have parted troth, yet I keep my vengeance-oath,
And the other may come round.

XXIX

'Ha! thy will is brave to dare, and thy new love past compare' --
Toll slowly.
'Yet thine old love's falchion brave is as strong a thing to have,
As the will of lady fair.

XXX

'Peck on blindly, netted dove! If a wife's name thee behove' --
Toll slowly.
'Thou shalt wear the same to-morrow, ere the grave has hid the sorrow
Of thy last ill-mated love.

XXXI

'O'er his fixed and silent mouth, thou and I will call back troth:'
Toll slowly.
'He shall altar be and priest, -- and he will not cry at least
"I forbid you, I am loth!"

XXXII

'I will wring thy fingers pale in the gauntlet of my mail:'
Toll slowly.
'"Little hand and muckle gold" close shall lie within my hold,
As the sword did, to prevail.'

XXXIII

Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little birds sang west --
Toll slowly.
Oh, and laughed the Duchess May, and her soul did put away
All his boasting, for a jest.

XXXIV

In her chamber did she sit, laughing low to think of it, --
Toll slowly.
'Tower is strong and will is free: thou canst boast, my
lord of Leigh,
But thou boastest little wit.'

XXXV

In her tire-glass gazed she, and she blushed right womanly --
Toll slowly.
She blushed half from her disdain, half her beauty was so plain,
-- 'Oath for oath, my lord of Leigh!'

XXXVI

Straight she called her maidens in -- 'Since ye gave me
blame herein' --
Toll slowly --
'That a bridal such as mine should lack gauds to make it fine,
Come and shrive me from that sin.

XXXVII

'It is three months gone to-day since I gave mine hand away:'
Toll slowly.
'Bring the gold and bring the gem, we will keep bride-state in them,
While we keep the foe at bay.

XXXVIII

'On your arms I loose mine hair; comb it smooth and crown it fair' --
Toll slowly.
'I would look in purple pall from this lattice down the wall,
And throw scorn to one that's there!'

XXXIX

Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little birds sang west --
Toll slowly.
On the tower the castle's lord leant in silence on his sword,
With an anguish in his breast.

XL

With a spirit-laden weight did he lean down passionate:
Toll slowly.
They have almost sapped the wall, -- they will enter therewithal
With no knocking at the gate.

XLI

Then the sword he leant upon, shivered, snapped upon the stone --
Toll slowly.
'Sword,' he thought, with inward laugh, 'ill thou servest for a staff
When thy nobler use is done!

XLII

'Sword, thy nobler use is done! tower is lost, and shame begun!' --
Toll slowly.
'If we met them in the breach, hilt to hilt or speech to speech,
We should die there, each for one.

XLIII

'If we met them at the wall, we should singly, vainly fall' --
Toll slowly.
'But if I die here alone, -- then I die who am but one,
And die nobly for them all.

XLIV

'Five true friends lie for my sake in the moat and in the brake' --
Toll slowly.
'Thirteen warriors lie at rest with a black wound in the breast,
And not one of these will wake.

XLV

'So, no more of this shall be! heart-blood weighs too heavily' --
Toll slowly.
'And I could not sleep in grave, with the faithful and the brave
Heaped around and over me.

XLVI

'Since young Clare a mother hath, and young Ralph a plighted faith' --
Toll slowly.
'Since my pale young sister's cheeks blush like rose when
Ronald speaks,
Albeit never a word she saith --

XLVII

'These shall never die for me: life-blood falls too heavily:'
Toll slowly.
'And if I die here apart, o'er my dead and silent heart
They shall pass out safe and free.

XLVIII

'When the foe hath heard it said -- "Death holds Guy of Linteged"' --
Toll slowly.
'That new corse new peace shall bring, and a blessed, blessed thing
Shall the stone be at its head.

XLIX

'Then my friends shall pass out free, and shall bear my memory' --
Toll slowly.
'Then my foes shall sleek their pride, soothing fair my widowed bride
Whose sole sin was love of me:

L

'With their words all smooth and sweet, they will front her
and entreat' --
Toll slowly.
'And their purple pall will spread underneath her fainting head
While her tears drop over it.

LI

'She will weep her woman's tears, she will pray her woman's
prayers' --
Toll slowly.
'But her heart is young in pain, and her hopes will spring again
By the suntime of her years.

LII

'Ah, sweet May! ah, sweetest grief! -- once I vowed thee
my belief' --
Toll slowly --
'That thy name expressed thy sweetness, -- May of poets, in
completeness!
Now my May-day seemeth brief.'

LIII

All these silent thoughts did swim o'er his eyes grown
strange and dim --
Toll slowly.
Till his true men, in the place, wished they stood there face to face
With the foe instead of him.

LIV

'One last oath, my friends that wear faithful hearts to do and dare!'
Toll slowly.
'Tower must fall and bride be lost -- swear me service
worth the cost!'
Bold they stood around to swear.

LV

'Each man clasp my hand and swear by the deed we failed in there' --
Toll slowly.
'Not for vengeance, not for right, will ye strike one blow to-night!'
Pale they stood around to swear.

LVI

'One last boon, young Ralph and Clare! faithful hearts to
do and dare!'
Toll slowly.
'Bring that steed up from his stall, which she kissed before you all:
Guide him up the turret-stair.

LVII

'Ye shall harness him aright, and lead upward to this height:'
Toll slowly.
'Once in love and twice in war hath he borne me strong and far:
He shall bear me far to-night.'

LVIII

Then his men looked to and fro, when they heard him speaking so --
Toll slowly.
''Las! the noble heart,' they thought, 'he in sooth is
grief-distraught:
Would we stood here with the foe!'

LIX

But a fire flashed from his eye, 'twixt their thought and
their reply --
Toll slowly.
'Have ye so much time to waste? We who ride here, must ride fast
As we wish our foes to fly.'

LX

They have fetched the steed with care, in the harness he did wear --
Toll slowly.
Past the court and through the doors, across the rushes of the floors,
But they goad him up the stair.

LXI

Then from out her bower chambere did the Duchess May repair:
Toll slowly.
'Tell me now what is your need,' said the lady, 'of this steed,
That ye goad him up the stair?'

LXII

Calm she stood; unbodkined through, fell her dark hair to her shoe:
Toll slowly.
And the smile upon her face, ere she left the tiring-glass,
Had not time enough to go.

LXIII

'Get thee back, sweet Duchess May! hope is gone like yesterday' --
Toll slowly.
'One half-hour completes the breach; and thy lord grows
wild of speech --
Get thee in, sweet lady, and pray!

LXIV

'In the east tower, high'st of all, loud he cries for steed
from stall:'
Toll slowly.
'"He would ride as far," quoth he, "as for love and victory,
Though he rides the castle-wall."

LXV

'And we fetch the steed from stall, up where never a hoof did fall' --
Toll slowly.
'Wifely prayer meets deathly need: may the sweet Heavens
hear thee plead
If he rides the castle-wall!'

LXVI

Low she dropped her head, and lower, till her hair coiled
on the floor --
Toll slowly.
And tear after tear you heard fall distinct as any word
Which you might be listening for.

LXVII

'Get thee in, thou soft ladye! here is never a place for thee!'
Toll slowly.
'Braid thine hair and clasp thy gown, that thy beauty in its moan
May find grace with Leigh of Leigh.'

LXVIII

She stood up in bitter case, with a pale yet steady face:
Toll slowly.
Like a statue thunderstruck, which, though quivering, seems to look
Right against the thunder-place.

LXIX

And her foot trod in, with pride, her own tears i' the stone beside --
Toll slowly.
'Go to, faithful friends, go to! judge no more what ladies do,
No, nor how their lords may ride!'

LXX

Then the good steed's rein she took, and his neck did kiss and stroke:
Toll slowly.
Soft he neighed to answer her, and then followed up the stair
For the love of her sweet look:

LXXI

Oh, and steeply, steeply wound up the narrow stair around --
Toll slowly.
Oh, and closely, closely speeding, step by step beside her treading
Did he follow, meek as hound.

LXXII

On the east tower, high'st of all, -- there, where never a
hoof did fall --
Toll slowly.
Out they swept, a vision steady, noble steed and lovely lady,
Calm as if in bower or stall.

LXXIII

Down she knelt at her lord's knee, and she looked up silently --
Toll slowly.
And he kissed her twice and thrice, for that look within her eyes
Which he could not bear to see.

LXXIV

Quoth he, 'Get thee from this strife, and the sweet saints
bless thy life!'
Toll slowly.
'In this hour I stand in need of my noble red-roan steed,
But no more of my noble wife.'

LXXV

Quoth she, 'Meekly have I done all thy biddings under sun:'
Toll slowly.
'But by all my womanhood, which is proved so, true and good,
I will never do this one.

LXXVI

'Now by womanhood's degree and by wifehood's verity' --
Toll slowly.
'In this hour if thou hast need of thy noble red-roan steed,
Thou hast also need of me.

LXXVII

'By this golden ring ye see on this lifted hand pardie' --
Toll slowly.
'If, this hour, on castle-wall can be room for steed from stall,
Shall be also room for me.

LXXVIII

'So the sweet saints with me be,' (did she utter solemnly) --
Toll slowly.
'If a man, this eventide, on this castle-wall will ride,
He shall ride the same with me.'

LXXIX

Oh, he sprang up in the selle and he laughed out bitter-well --
Toll slowly.
'Wouldst thou ride among the leaves, as we used on other eves,
To hear chime a vesper-bell?'

LXXX

She clung closer to his knee -- 'Ay, beneath the cypress-tree!'
Toll slowly.
'Mock me not, for otherwise than along the greenwood fair
Have I ridden fast with thee.

LXXXI

'Fast I rode with new-made vows from my angry kinsman's house:'
Toll slowly.
'What, and would you men should reck that I dared more for love's sake
As a bride than as a spouse?

LXXXII

'What, and would you it should fall, as a proverb, before all' --
Toll slowly.
'That a bride may keep your side while through castle-gate you ride,
Yet eschew the castle-wall?'

LXXXIII

Ho! the breach yawns into ruin and roars up against her suing --
Toll slowly.
With the inarticulate din and the dreadful falling in --
Shrieks of doing and undoing!

LXXXIV

Twice he wrung her hands in twain, but the small hands closed again.
Toll slowly.
Back he reined the steed -- back, back! but she trailed
along his track
With a frantic clasp and strain.

LXXXV

Evermore the foemen pour through the crash of window and door --
Toll slowly.
And the shouts of Leigh and Leigh, and the shrieks of
'kill!' and 'flee!'
Strike up clear amid the roar.

LXXXVI

Thrice he wrung her hands in twain, but they closed and clung again --
Toll slowly.
While she clung, as one, withstood, clasps a Christ upon the rood,
In a spasm of deathly pain.

LXXXVII

She clung wild and she clung mute with her shuddering lips half-shut:
Toll slowly.
Her head fallen as half in swound, hair and knee swept on the ground,
She clung wild to stirrup and foot.

LXXXVIII

Back he reined his steed back-thrown on the slippery coping-stone:
Toll slowly.
Back the iron hoofs did grind on the battlement behind
Whence a hundred feet went down:

LXXXIX

And his heel did press and goad on the quivering flank bestrode --
Toll slowly.
'Friends and brothers, save my wife! Pardon, sweet, in
change for life, --
But I ride alone to God.'

XC

Straight as if the Holy name had upbreathed her like a flame --
Toll slowly.
She upsprang, she rose upright, in his selle she sate in sight,
By her love she overcame.

XCI

And her head was on his breast where she smiled as one at rest --
Toll slowly.
'Ring,' she cried, 'O vesper-bell in the beechwood's old chapelle --
But the passing-bell rings best!'

XCII

They have caught out at the rein which Sir Guy threw loose
-- in vain --
Toll slowly.
For the horse in stark despair, with his front hoofs poised in air,
On the last verge rears amain.

XCIII

Now he hangs, he rocks between, and his nostrils curdle in --
Toll slowly.
Now he shivers head and hoof and the flakes of foam fall off,
And his face grows fierce and thin:

XCIV

And a look of human woe from his staring eyes did go:
Toll slowly.
And a sharp cry uttered he, in a foretold agony
Of the headlong death below, --

XCV

And, 'Ring, ring, thou passing-bell,' still she cried, 'i'
the old chapelle!'
Toll slowly.
Then, back-toppling, crashing back -- a dead weight flung
out to wrack,
Horse and riders overfell.

I

Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little birds sang west --
Toll slowly.
And I read this ancient Rhyme, in the churchyard, while the chime
Slowly tolled for one at rest.

II

The abeles moved in the sun, and the river smooth did run --
Toll slowly.
And the ancient Rhyme rang strange, with its passion and its change,
Here, where all done lay undone.

III

And beneath a willow tree I a little grave did see --
Toll slowly --
Where was graved -- HERE, UNDEFILED, LIETH MAUD, A THREE-YEAR CHILD,
EIGHTEEN HUNDRED FORTY-THREE.

IV

Then, O spirits, did I say, ye who rode so fast that day --
Toll slowly.
Did star-wheels and angel wings with their holy winnowings
Keep beside you all the way?

V

Though in passion ye would dash, with a blind and heavy crash --
Toll slowly --
Up against the thick-bossed shield of God's judgment in the field, --
Though your heart and brain were rash, --

VI

Now, your will is all unwilled; now, your pulses are all stilled:
Toll slowly.
Now, ye lie as meek and mild (whereso laid) as Maud the child
Whose small grave was lately filled.

VII

Beating heart and burning brow, ye are very patient now --
Toll slowly.
And the children might be bold to pluck the kingcups from your mould
Ere a month had let them grow.

VIII

And you let the goldfinch sing in the alder near in spring --
Toll slowly.
Let her build her nest and sit all the three weeks out on it,
Murmuring not at anything.

IX

In your patience ye are strong, cold and heat ye take not wrong --
Toll slowly.
When the trumpet of the angel blows eternity's evangel,
Time will seem to you not long.

X

Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little birds sang west --
Toll slowly.
And I said in underbreath, -- All our life is mixed with death,
And who knoweth which is best?

XI

Oh, the little birds sang east, and the little birds sang west --
Toll slowly.
And I smiled to think God's greatness flowed around our
incompleteness, --
Round our restlessness, His rest.





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