Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE POET'S VOW, by ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING



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THE POET'S VOW, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Eve is a twofold mystery
Last Line: Still, like them we must weep.'
Subject(s): Adam & Eve; Marriage; Eve; Weddings; Husbands; Wives


PART THE FIRST

SHOWING WHEREFORE THE VOW WAS MADE

I

EVE is a twofold mystery;
The stillness Earth doth keep,
The motion wherewith human hearts
Do each to either leap
As if all souls between the poles
Felt 'Parting comes in sleep.'

II

The rowers lift their oars to view
Each other in the sea;
The landsmen watch the rocking boats
In a pleasant company;
While up the hill go gladlier still
Dear friends by two and three.

III

The peasant's wife hath looked without
Her cottage door and smiled,
For there the peasant drops his spade
To clasp his youngest child
Which hath no speech, but its hand can reach
And stroke his forehead mild.

IV

A poet sate that eventide
Within his hall alone,
As silent as its ancient lords
In the coffined place of stone,
When the bat hath shrunk from the praying monk,
And the praying monk is gone.

V

Nor wore the dead a stiller face
Beneath the cerement's roll:
His lips refusing out in words
Their mystic thoughts to dole,
His steadfast eye burnt inwardly,
As burning out his soul.

VI

You would not think that brow could e'er
Ungentle moods express,
Yet seemed it, in this troubled world,
Too calm for gentleness,
When the very star that shines from far
Shines trembling ne'ertheless.

VII

It lacked, all need, the softening light
Which other brows supply:
We should conjoin the scathed trunks
Of our humanity,
That each leafless spray entwining may
Look softer 'gainst the sky.

VIII

None gazed within the poet's face,
The poet gazed in none;
He threw a lonely shadow straight
Before the moon and sun,
Affronting nature's heaven-dwelling creatures
With wrong to nature done:

IX

Because this poet daringly,
-- The nature at his heart,
And that quick tune along his veins
He could not change by art, --
Had vowed his blood of brotherhood
To a stagnant place apart.

X

He did not vow in fear, or wrath,
Or grief's fantastic whim,
But, weights and shows of sensual things
Too closely crossing him,
On his soul's eyelid the pressure slid
And made its vision dim.

XI

And darkening in the dark he strove
'Twixt earth and sea and sky
To lose in shadow, wave and cloud,
His brother's haunting cry:
The winds were welcome as they swept,
God's five-day work he would accept,
But let the rest go by.

XII

He cried, 'O touching, patient Earth
That weepest in thy glee,
Whom God created very good,
And very mournful, we!
Thy voice of moan doth reach his throne,
As Abel's rose from thee.

XIII

'Poor crystal sky with stars astray!
Mad winds that howling go
From east to west! perplexed seas
That stagger from their blow!
O motion wild! O wave defiled!
Our curse hath made you so.

XIV

'We! and our curse! do I partake
The desiccating sin?
Have I the apple at my lips?
The money-lust within?
Do I human stand with the wounding hand,
To the blasting heart akin?

XV

'Thou solemn pathos of all things
For solemn joy designed!
Behold, submissive to your cause,
A holy wrath I find,
And, for your sake, the bondage break
That knits me to my kind.

XVI

'Hear me forswear man's sympathies,
His pleasant yea and no,
His riot on the piteous earth
Whereon his thistles grow,
His changing love -- with stars above,
His pride -- with graves below.

XVII

'Hear me forswear his roof by night,
His bread and salt by day,
His talkings at the wood-fire hearth,
His greetings by the way,
His answering looks, his systemed books,
All man, for aye and aye.

XVIII

'That so my purged, once human heart,
From all the human rent,
May gather strength to pledge and drink
Your wine of wonderment,
While you pardon me all blessingly
The woe mine Adam sent.

XIX

'And I shall feel your unseen looks
Innumerous, constant, deep
And soft as haunted Adam once,
Though sadder, round me creep, --
As slumbering men have mystic ken
Of watchers on their sleep.

XX

'And ever, when I lift my brow
At evening to the sun,
No voice of woman or of child
Recording "Day is done" --
Your silences shall a love express,
More deep than such an one.'

PART THE SECOND

SHOWING TO WHOM THE VOW WAS DECLARED

I

The poet's vow was inly sworn,
The poet's vow was told.
He shared among his crowding friends
The silver and the gold,
They clasping bland his gift, -- his hand
In a somewhat slacker hold.

II

They wended forth, the crowding friends,
With farewells smooth and kind.
They wended forth, the solaced friends,
And left but twain behind:
One loved him true as brothers do,
And one was Rosalind.

III

He said, 'My friends have wended forth
With farewells smooth and kind;
Mine oldest friend, my plighted bride,
Ye need not stay behind:
Friend, wed my fair bride for my sake,
And let my lands ancestral make
A dower for Rosalind.

IV

'And when beside your wassail board
Ye bless your social lot,
I charge you that the giver be
In all his gifts forgot,
Or alone of all his words recall
The last, -- Lament me not.'

V

She looked upon him silently
With her large, doubting eyes,
Like a child that never knew but love
Whom words of wrath surprise,
Till the rose did break from either cheek
And the sudden tears did rise.

VI

She looked upon him mournfully,
While her large eyes were grown
Yet larger with the steady tears,
Till, all his purpose known,
She turned slow, as she would go --
The tears were shaken down.

VII

She turned slow, as she would go,
Then quickly turned again,
And gazing in his face to seek
Some little touch of pain,
'I thought,' she said, -- but shook her head, --
She tried that speech in vain.

VIII

'I thought -- but I am half a child
And very sage art thou --
The teachings of the heaven and earth
Should keep us soft and low:
They have drawn my tears in early years,
Or ere I wept -- as now.

IX

'But now that in thy face I read
Their cruel homily,
Before their beauty I would fain
Untouched, unsoftened be, --
If I indeed could look on even
The senseless, loveless earth and heaven
As thou canst look on me!

X

'And couldest thou as coldly view
Thy childhood's far abode,
Where little feet kept time with thine
Along the dewy sod,
And thy mother's look from holy book
Rose like a thought of God?

XI

'O brother, -- called so, ere her last
Betrothing words were said!
O fellow-watcher in her room,
With hushed voice and tread!
Rememberest thou how, hand in hand
O friend, O lover, we did stand,
And knew that she was dead?

XII

'I will not live Sir Roland's bride,
That dower I will not hold;
I tread below my feet that go,
These parchments bought and sold:
The tears I weep are mine to keep,
And worthier than thy gold.'

XIII

The poet and Sir Roland stood
Alone, each turned to each,
Till Roland brake the silence left
By that soft-throbbing speech --
'Poor heart!' he cried, 'it vainly tried
The distant heart to reach.

XIV

'And thou, O distant, sinful heart
That climbest up so high
To wrap and blind thee with the snows
That cause to dream and die,
What blessing can, from lips of man,
Approach thee with his sigh?

XV

'Ay, what from earth -- create for man
And moaning in his moan?
Ay, what from stars -- revealed to man
And man-named one by one?
Ay, more! what blessing can be given
Where the Spirits seven do show in heaven
A MAN upon the throne?

XVI

'A man on earth HE wandered once,
All meek and undefiled,
And those who loved Him said 'He wept' --
None ever said He smiled;
Yet there might have been a smile unseen,
When He bowed his holy face, I ween,
To bless that happy child.

XVII

'And now HE pleadeth up in heaven
For our humanities,
Till the ruddy light on seraphs' wings
In pale emotion dies.
They can better bear their Godhead's glare
Than the pathos of his eyes.

XVIII

'I will go pray our God to-day
To teach thee how to scan
His work divine, for human use
Since earth on axle ran, --
To teach thee to discern as plain
His grief divine, the blood-drop's stain
He left there, MAN for man.

XIX

'So, for the blood's sake shed by Him
Whom angels God declare,
Tears like it, moist and warm with love,
Thy reverent eyes shall wear
To see i' the face of Adam's race
The nature God doth share.'

XX

'I heard,' the poet said, 'thy voice
As dimly as thy breath:
The sound was like the noise of life
To one anear his death, --
Or of waves that fail to stir the pale
Sere leaf they roll beneath.

XXI

'And still between the sound and me
White creatures like a mist
Did interfloat confusedly,
Mysterious shapes unwist:
Across my heart and across my brow
I felt them droop like wreaths of snow,
To still the pulse they kist.

XXII

'The castle and its lands are thine --
The poor's -- it shall be done.
Go, man, to love! I go to live
In Courland hall, alone:
The bats along the ceilings cling,
The lizards in the floors do run,
And storms and years have worn and reft
The stain by human builders left
In working at the stone.'

PART THE THIRD

SHOWING HOW THE VOW WAS KEPT

I

He dwelt alone, and sun and moon
Were witness that he made
Rejection of his humanness
Until they seemed to fade;
His face did so, for he did grow
Of his own soul afraid.

II

The self-poised God may dwell alone
With inward glorying,
But God's chief angel waiteth for
A brother's voice, to sing;
And a lonely creature of sinful nature
It is an awful thing.

III

An awful thing that feared itself;
While many years did roll,
A lonely man, a feeble man,
A part beneath the whole,
He bore by day, he bore by night
That pressure of God's infinite
Upon his finite soul.

IV

The poet at his lattice sate,
And downward looked he.
Three Christians wended by to prayers,
With mute ones in their ee;
Each turned above a face of love
And called him to the far chapelle
With voice more tuneful than its bell:
But still they wended three.

V

There journeyed by a bridal pomp,
A bridegroom and his dame;
He speaketh low for happiness,
She blusheth red for shame:
But never a tone of benison
From out the lattice came.

VI

A little child with inward song,
No louder noise to dare,
Stood near the wall to see at play
The lizards green and rare --
Unblessed the while for his childish smill
Which cometh unaware.

PART THE FOURTH

SHOWING HOW ROSALIND FARED BY THE KEEPING OF THE VOW

I

In death-sheets lieth Rosalind
As white and still as they;
And the old nurse that watched her bed
Rose up with 'Well-a-day!'
And oped the casement to let in
The sun, and that sweet doubtful din
Which droppeth from the grass and bough
Sans wind and bird, none knoweth how --
To cheer her as she lay.

II

The old nurse started when she saw
Her sudden look of woe:
But the quick wan tremblings round her mouth
In a meek smile did go,
And calm she said, 'When I am dead,
Dear nurse, it shall be so.

III

'Till then, shut out those sights and sounds,
And pray God pardon me
That I without this pain no more
His blessed works can see!
And lean beside me, loving nurse,
That thou mayst hear, ere I am worse,
What thy last love should be.'

IV

The loving nurse leant over her,
As white she lay beneath;
The old eyes searching, dim with life,
The young ones dim with death,
To read their look if sound forsook
The trying, trembling breath.

V

'When all this feeble breath is done,
And I on bier am laid,
My tresses smoothed for never a feast,
My body in shroud arrayed,
Uplift each palm in a saintly calm,
As if that still I prayed.

VI

'And heap beneath mine head the flowers
You stoop so low to pull,
The little white flowers from the wood
Which grow there in the cool,
Which he and I, in childhood's games,
Went plucking, knowing not their names,
And filled thine apron full.

VII

'Weep not! I weep not. Death is strong,
The eyes of Death are dry!
But lay this scroll upon my breast
When hushed its heavings lie,
And wait awhile for the corpse's smile
Which shineth presently.

VIII

'And when it shineth, straightway call
Thy youngest children dear,
And bid them gently carry me
All barefaced on the bier;
But bid them pass my kirkyard grass
That waveth long anear.

IX

'And up the bank where I used to sit
And dream what life would be,
Along the brook with its sunny look
Akin to living glee, --
O'er the windy hill, through the forest still,
Let them gently carry me.

X

'And through the piny forest still,
And down the open moorland
Round where the sea beats mistily
And blindly on the foreland;
And let them chant that hymn I know,
Bearing me soft, bearing me slow,
To the ancient hall of Courland.

XI

'And when withal they near the hall,
In silence let them lay
My bier before the bolted door,
And leave it for a day:
For I have vowed, though I am proud,
To go there as a guest in shroud,
And not be turned away.'

XII

The old nurse looked within her eyes
Whose mutual look was gone;
The old nurse stooped upon her mouth,
Whose answering voice was done;
And nought she heard, till a little bird
Upon the casement's woodbine swinging
Broke out into a loud sweet singing
For joy o' the summer sun:
'Alack! alack!' -- she watched no more,
With head on knee she wailed sore,
And the little bird sang o'er and o'er
For joy o' the summer sun.

PART THE FIFTH

SHOWING HOW THE VOW WAS BROKEN

I

The poet oped his bolted door
The midnight sky to view;
A spirit-feel was in the air
Which seemed to touch his spirit bare
Whenever his breath he drew;
And the stars a liquid softness had,
As alone their holiness forbade
Their falling with the dew.

II

They shine upon the steadfast hills,
Upon the swinging tide,
Upon the narrow track of beach
And the murmuring pebbles pied:
They shine on every lovely place,
They shine upon the corpse's face,
As it were fair beside.

III

It lay before him, humanlike,
Yet so unlike a thing!
More awful in its shrouded pomp
Than any crowned king:
All calm and cold, as it did hold
Some secret, glorying.

IV

A heavier weight than of its clay
Clung to his heart and knee:
As if those folded palms could strike
He staggered groaningly,
And then o'erhung, without a groan,
The meek close mouth that smiled alone,
Whose speech the scroll must be.

THE WORDS OF ROSALIND'S SCROLL

'I left thee last, a child at heart,
A woman scarce in years.
I come to thee, a solemn corpse
Which neither feels nor fears.
I have no breath to use in sighs;
They laid the dead-weights on mine eyes
To seal them safe from tears.

'Look on me with thine own calm look:
I meet it calm as thou.
No look of thine can change this smile,
Or break thy sinful vow:
I tell thee that my poor scorned heart
Is of thine earth -- thine earth, a part:
It cannot vex thee now.

'But out, alas! these words are writ
By a living, loving one,
Adown whose cheeks, the proofs of life,
The warm quick tears do run:
Ah, let the unloving corpse control
Thy scorn back from the loving soul
Whose place of rest is won.

'I have prayed for thee with bursting sob
When passion's course was free;
I have prayed for thee with silent lips,
In the anguish none could see:
They whispered oft, "She sleepeth soft" --
But I only prayed for thee.

'Go to! I pray for thee no more:
The corpse's tongue is still,
Its folded fingers point to heaven,
But point there stiff and chill:
No farther wrong, no farther woe
Hath license from the sin below
Its tranquil heart to thrill.

'I charge thee, by the living's prayer,
And the dead's silentness,
To wring from out thy soul a cry
Which God shall hear and bless!
Lest Heaven's own palm droop in my hand,
And pale among the saints I stand,
A saint companionless.'

V

Bow lower down before the throne,
Triumphant Rosalind!
He boweth on thy corpse his face,
And weepeth as the blind:
'T was a dread sight to see them so,
For the senseless corpse rocked to and fro
With the wail of his living mind.

VI

But dreader sight, could such be seen,
His inward mind did lie,
Whose long-subjected humanness
Gave out its lion-cry,
And fiercely rent its tenement
In a mortal agony.

VII

I tell you, friends, had you heard his wail,
'T would haunt you in court and mart,
And in merry feast until you set
Your cup down to depart --
That weeping wild of a reckless child
From a proud man's broken heart.

VIII

O broken heart, O broken vow,
That wore so proud a feature!
God, grasping as a thunderbolt
The man's rejected nature,
Smote him therewith i' the presence high
Of his so worshipped earth and sky
That looked on all indifferently --
A wailing human creature.

IX

A human creature found too weak
To bear his human pain --
(May Heaven's dear grace have spoken peace
To his dying heart and brain!)
For when they came at dawn of day
To lift the lady's corpse away,
Her bier was holding twain.

X

They dug beneath the kirkyard grass,
For both one dwelling deep;
To which, when years had mossed the stone,
Sir Roland brought his little son
To watch the funeral heap:
And when the happy boy would rather
Turn upward his blithe eyes to see
The wood-doves nodding from the tree,
'Nay, boy, look downward,' said his father,
'Upon this human dust asleep.
And hold it in thy constant ken
That God's own unity compresses
(One into one) the human many,
And that his everlastingness is
The bond which is not loosed by any:
That thou and I this law must keep,
If not in love, in sorrow then, --
Though smiling not like other men,
Still, like them we must weep.'





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