Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE WIFES' TRAGEDY, by EDWARD ROBERT BULWER-LYTTON



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THE WIFES' TRAGEDY, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Take the diamonds from my hair
Last Line: She is mine once more.
Alternate Author Name(s): Meredith, Owen; Lytton, 1st Earl Of; Lytton, Robert


I

THE EVENING BEFORE THE FLIGHT.

TAKE the diamonds from my hair!
Take the flowers from the urn!
Fling the lattice wide! more air!
Air -- more air, or else I burn!

Put the bracelets by. And thrust
Out of sight these hated pearls.
I could trample them to dust,
Though they were his gift, the Earl's!

Flusht I am? The dance it was.
Only that. Now leave me, Sweet.
Take the flowers, Love, because
They will wither in this heat.

Good night, dearest! Leave the door
Half-way open as you go.
-- O, thank God? ...Alone once more.
Am I dreaming? ...Dreaming? ...no!

Still that music underneath
Works to madness in my brain.
Even the roses seem to breathe
Poisoned perfumes, full of pain.

Let me think...my head is aching.
I have little strength to think.
And I know my heart is breaking.
Yet, O love, I will not shrink!

In his look was such sweet sadness.
And he fixed that look on me.
I was helpless...call it madness,
Call it guilt...but it must be.

I can bear it, if, in losing
All things else, I lose him not.
All the grief is my own choosing.
Can I murmur at my lot?

Ah, the night is bright and still
Over all the fields I know.
And the chestnuts on the hill:
And the quiet lake below.

By that lake I yet remember
How, last year, we stood together
One wild eve in warm September
Bright with thunder: not a feather

Stirred the slumbrous swans that floated
Past the reed-beds, husht and white
Towers of sultry cloud hung moated
In the lake's unshaken light:

Far behind us all the extensive
Woodland blackened against heaven:
And we spoke not: -- pausing pensive
Till the thunder-cloud was riven,

And the black wood whitened under,
And the storm began to roll,
And the love laid up like thunder
Burst at once upon my soul.

There! ...the moon is just in crescent
In the silent happy sky.
And to-night the meanest peasant
In her light's more blest than I.

Other moons I soon shall see
Over Asian headlands green:
Ocean-spaces sparkling free
Isles of breathless balm between.

And the rosy-rising star
At the setting of the day
From the distant sandy bar
Shining over Africa:

Steering through the glowing weather
Past the tracks of crimson light,
Down the sunset lost together
Far athwart the summer night.

"Canst thou make such life thy choice,
My heart's own, my chosen one?"
So he whispered and his voice
Had such magic in its tone!

But one hour ago we parted.
And we meet again to-morrow.
Parted -- silent, and sad-hearted:
And we meet -- in guilt and sorrow.

But we shall meet...meet, O God,
To part never...the last time!
Yes! the Ordeal shall be trod.
Burning ploughshares -- love and crime.

O with him, with him to wander
Through the wide world -- only his!
Heart and hope and heaven to squander
On the wild wealth of his kiss!

Then? ...like these poor flowers that wither
In my bosom, to be thrown
Lightly from him any whither
When the sweetness all is flown?

O, I know it all, my fate!
But the gulf is crost forever.
And regret is born too late.
The shut Past reopens never.

Fear? ...I cannot fear! for fear
Dies with hope in every breast.
O, I see the frozen sneer,
Careless smile, and callous jest!

But my shame shall yet be worn
Like the purple of a Queen.
I can answer scorn with scorn.
Fool! I know not what I mean.

Yet beneath his smile (his smile!)
Smiles less kind I shall not see.
Let the whole wide world revile.
He is all the world to me.

So to-night all hopes, all fears,
All the bright and brief array
Of my lost youth's happier years,
With these gems I put away.

Gone! ...so...one by one...all gone!
Not one jewel I retain
Of my life's wealth. All alone
I tread boldly o'er my pain

On to him...Ah, me! my child --
My own fair-haired, darling boy!
In his sleep just now he smiled.
All his dreams are dreams of joy.

How those soft long lashes shade
That young cheek so husht and warm,
Like a half-blown rosebud laid
On the little dimpled arm!

He will wake without a mother.
He will hate me when he hears
From the cold lips of another
All my faults in after years.

None will tell the deep devotion
Wherewith I have brooded o'er
His young life, since its first motion
Made me hope and pray once more.

On my breast he smiled and slept,
Smiled between my wrongs and me,
Till the weak warm tears I wept
Set my dry, coiled nature free.

Nay, ...my feverish kiss would wake him.
How can I dare bless his sleep?
They will change him soon, and make him
Like themselves that never weep;

Fitted to the world's bad part:
Yet, will all their wealth afford him
Aught more rich than this lost heart
Whose last anguish yearns toward him?

Ah, there's none will love him then
As I love that leave him now!
He will mix with selfish men.
Yes, he has his father's brow!

Lie thou there, thou poor rose-blossom,
In that little hand more light
Than upon this restless bosom,
Whose last gift is given to-night.

God forgive me! -- My God, cherish
His lone motherless infancy!
Would to-night that I might perish!
But heaven will not let me die.

O love! love! but this is bitter!
O that we had never met!
O but hate than love were fitter!
And he too may hate me yet.

Yet to him have I not given
All life's sweetness? ...fame? and name?
Hope? and happiness? and heaven?
Can he hate me for my shame?

"Child," he said, "thy life was glad
In the dawning of its years;
And love's morn should be less sad,
For his eve may close in tears.

"Sweet in novel lands," he said,
"Day by day to share delight;
On by soft surprises led,
And together rest at night.

"We will see the shores of Greece,
And the temples of the Nile:
Sail where summer suns increase
Toward the south from isle to isle.

"Track the first star that swims on
Glowing depths toward night and us,
While the heats of sunset crimson
All the purple Bosphorus.

"Leaning o'er some dark ship-side,
Watch the wane of mighty moons;
Or through starlit Venice glide,
Singing down the blue lagoons.

"So from coast to coast we 'll range,
Growing nearer as we move
On our charmed way; each soft change
Only deepening changeless love."

'T was the dream which I, too, dreamed
Once, long since, in days of yore.
Life's long-faded fancies seemed
At his words to bloom once more.

The old hope, the wreckt belief,
The lost light of vanisht years,
Ere my heart was worn with grief,
Or my eyes were dimmed with tears!

When, a careless girl, I clung
With proud trust to my own powers;
Ah, long since I, too, was young,
I, too, dreamed of happier hours!

Whether this may yet be so
(Truth or dream) I cannot tell.
But where'er his footsteps go
Turns my heart, I feel too well.

Ha! the long night wears away.
You cold drowsy star grows dim.
The long-feared, long-wisht-for day
Comes, when I shall fly with him.

In the laurel wakes the thrush.
Through these dreaming chambers wide
Not a sound is stirring. Hush;
-- O, it was my child that cried!

II.

THE PORTRAIT.

YES, 't is she! Those eyes! that hair
With the self-same wondrous hue!
And that smile -- which was so fair,
Is it strange I deemed it true?

Years, years, years I have not drawn
Back this curtain! there she stands
By the terrace on the lawn,
With the white rose in her hands:

And about her the armorial
Scutcheons of a haughty race,
Graven each with its memorial
Of the old Lords of the Place.

You, who do profess to see
In the face the written mind,
Look in that face, and tell me
In what part of it you find

All the falsehood, and the wrong,
And the sin, which must have been
Hid in baleful beauty long,
Like the worm that lurks unseen

In the shut heart of the flower.
'T is the Sex, no doubt! And still
Some may lack the means, the power,
There's not one that lacks the will.

Their own way they seek the Devil,
Ever prone to the deceiver!
If too deep I feel this evil
And this shame, may God forgive her!

For I loved her, -- loved, ay, loved her
As a man just once may love.
I so trusted, so approved her,
Set her, blindly, so above

This poor world which was about her!
And (so loving her) because,
With a faith too high to doubt her,
I, forsooth, but seldom was

At her feet with clamorous praises
And protested tenderness
(These things some men can do), phrases
On her face, perhaps her dress,

Or the flower she chose to braid
In her hair, -- because, you see,
Thinking love's best proved unsaid,
And by words the dignity

Of true feeling's often lost,
I was vowed to life's broad duty;
Man's great business uppermost
In my mind, not woman's beauty;

Toiling still to win for her
Honor, fortune, state in life.
("Too much with the Minister,
And too little with the wife!")

Just for this, she flung aside
All my toil, my heart, my name;
Trampled on my ancient pride,
Turned my honor into shame.

O, if this old coronet
Weighed too hard on her young brow,
Need she thus dishonor it,
Fling it in the dust so low?

But 't is just these women's way, --
All the same the wide world over!
Fooled by what's most worthless, they
Cheat in turn the honest lover.

And I was not, I thank heaven,
Made, as some, to read them through;
Were life three times longer even,
There are better things to do.

No! to let a woman lie
Like a canker, at the roots
Of a man's life, -- burn it dry,
Nip the blossom, stunt the fruits,

This I count both shame and thrall!
Who is free to let one creature
Come between himself, and all
The true process of his nature,

While across the world the nations
Call to us that we should share
In their griefs, their exultations? --
All they will be, all they are!

And so much yet to be done, --
Wrong to root out, good to strengthen!
Such hard battles to be won!
Such long glories yet to lengthen!

'Mid all these, how small one grief, --
One wrecked heart, whose hopes are o'er!
For myself I scorn relief.
For the people I claim more.

Strange! these crowds whose instincts guide them
Fail to get the thing they would,
Till we nobles stand beside them,
Give our names, or shed our blood.

From of old this hath been so.
For we too were with the first
In the fight fought long ago
When the chain of Charles was burst.

Who but we set Freedom's border
Wrenched at Runnymede from John?
Who but we stand, towers of order,
'Twixt the red cap and the Throne?

And they wrong us, England's Peers,
Us, the vanguard of the land,
Who should say the march of years
Makes us shrink at Truth's right hand.

'Mid the armies of Reform,
To the People's cause allied,
We -- the forces of the storm!
We -- the planets of the tide!

Do I seem too much to fret
At my own peculiar woe?
Would to heaven I could forget
How I loved her long ago!

As a father loves a child,
So I loved her: -- rather thus
Than as youth loves, when our wild
New-found passions master us.

And -- for I was proud of old
('T is my nature) -- doubtless she
In the man so calm, so cold,
All the heart's warmth could not see.

Nay, I blame myself -- nor lightly,
Whose chief duty was to guide
Her young careless life more rightly
Through the perils at her side.

Ah, but love is blind! and I
Loved her blindly, blindly! ...Well,
Who that ere loved trustfully
Such strange danger could foretell?

As some consecrated cup
On its saintly shrine secure,
All my life seemed lifted up
On that heart I deemed so pure.

Well, for me there yet remains
Labor -- that's much: then, the state:
And, what pays a thousand pains,
Sense of right and scorn of fate.

And, O, more! ...my own brave boy,
With his frank and eager brow,
And his hearty innocent joy.
For as yet he does not know

All the wrong his mother did.
Would that this might pass unknown!
For his young years God forbid
I should darken by my own.

Yet this must come...But I mean
He shall be, as time moves on,
All his mother might have been,
Comfort, counsel -- both in one.

Doubtless, first, in that which moved me
Man's strong natural wrath had part.
Wronged by one I deemed had loved me,
For I loved her from my heart!

But that 's past! If I was sore
To the heart, and blind with shame,
I see calmly now. Nay, more, --
For I pity where I blame.

For, if he betray or grieve her,
What is hers to turn to still?
And at last, when he shall leave her,
As at last he surely will,

Where shall she find refuge? what
That worst widowhood can soothe?
For the Past consoles her not,
Nor the memories of her youth,

Neither that which in the dust
She hath flung, -- the name she bore;
But with her own shame she must
Dwell forsaken evermore.

Nothing left but years of anguish,
And remorse but not return:
Of her own self-hate to languish:
For her long-lost peace to yearn:

Or, yet worse beyond all measure,
Starting from wild reveries,
Drain the poison misnamed Pleasure,
And laugh drunken on the lees.

O false heart! O woman, woman,
Woman! would thy treachery
Had been less! For surely no man
Better loved than I loved thee.

We must never meet again.
Even shouldst thou repent the past.
Both must suffer: both feel pain:
Ere God pardon both at last.

Farewell, thou false face! Life speeds me
On its duties. I must fight:
I must toil. The People needs me:
And I speak for them to-night.

III.

THE LAST INTERVIEW.

THANKS, Dear! Put the lamp down...so,
For my eyes are weak and dim.
How the shadows come and go!
Speak truth, -- have they sent for him?

Yes, thank Heaven! And he will come,
Come and watch my dying hour, --
Though I left and shamed his home.
-- I am withered like this flower

Which he gave me long ago.
'T was upon my bridal eve,
When I swore to love him so
As a wife should -- smile or grieve

With him, for him, -- and not shrink.
And now? ... O the long, long pain!
See this sunken cheek! You think
He would know my face again?

All its wretched beauty gone!
Only the deep care survives.
Ah, could years of grief atone
For those fatal hours! ... It drives

Past the pane, the bitter blast!
In this garret one might freeze.
Hark there! wheels below! At last
He is come then? No... the trees

And the night-wind -- nothing more!
Set the chair for him to sit,
When he comes. And close the door,
For the gust blows cold through it.

When I think, I can remember
I was born in castle halls, --
How yon dull and dying ember
Glares against the whitewasht walls!

If he come not (but you said
That the messenger was sent
Long since?) Tell him when I'm dead
How my life's last hours were spent

In repenting that life's sin,
And... the room grows strangely dark!
See, the rain is oozing in.
Set the lamp down nearer. Hark,

Footsteps, footsteps on the stairs!
His...no, no! 't was not the wind.
God, I know, has heard my prayers.
We shall meet. I am resigned.

Prop me up upon the pillows.
Will he come to my bedside?
Once 't was his...Among the willows
How the water seems to glide!

Past the woods, the farms, the towers,
It seems gliding, gliding through.
"Dearest, see, these young June-flowers,
I have pluckt them all for you,

"Here, where passed my boyhood musing
On the bride which I might wed."
Ah, it goes now! I am losing
All things. What was that he said?

Say, where am I? ... this strange room?

THE EARL.

Gertrude!

GERTRUDE.

Ah, his voice! I knew it.
But this place? ... Is this the tomb,
With the cold dews creeping through it?

THE EARL.

Gertrude! Gertrude!

GERTRUDE.

Will you stand
Near me? Sit down. Do not stir.
Tell me, may I take your hand?
Tell me, will you look on her

Who so wronged you? I have wept
O such tears for that sin's sake!
And that thought has never slept, --
But it lies here, like a snake,

In my bosom, -- gnawing, gnawing
All my life up! I had meant,
Could I live yet... Death is drawing
Near me --

THE EARL.

God, thy punishment!

Dare I judge her? --

GERTRUDE.

O, believe me,
'T was a dream, a hideous dream.
And I wake now. Do not leave me.
I am dying. All things seem

Failing from me -- even my breath!
But my sentence is from old.
Sin came first upon me. Death
Follows sin, soon, soon! Behold,

Dying thus! Ah, why didst leave
Lonely Love's lost bridal bowers
Where I found the snake, like Eve,
Unsuspected 'mid the flowers?

Had I been some poor man's bride,
I had shared with love his lot:
Labored truly by his side,
And made glad his lowly cot.

I had been content to mate
Love with labor's sunburnt brows.
But to be a thing of state, --
Homeless in a husband's house!

In the gorgeous game -- the strife
For the dazzling prize -- that moved you --
Love seemed crowded out of life --

THE EARL.

Ah fool! and I loved you, loved you!

GERTRUDE.

Yes. I see it all at last --
All in ruins. I can dare
To gaze down o'er my lost past
From these heights of my despair.

O, when all seemed grown most drear --
I was weak -- I cannot tell --
But the serpent in my ear
Whispered, whispered -- and I fell.

Look around, now. Does it cheer you,
This strange place? the wasted frame
Of the dying woman near you,
Weighed into her grave by shame?

Can you trace in this wan form
Aught resembling that young girl's
Whom you loved once? See, this arm --
Shrunken, shrunken! And my curls,

They have cut them all away.
And my brows are worn with woe.
Would you, looking at me, say,
She was lovely long ago?

Husband, answer! in all these
Are you not avenged? If I
Could rise now, upon my knees,
At your feet, before I die,

I would fall down in my sorrow
And my shame, and say "forgive,"
That which will be dust to-morrow,
This weak clay!

THE EARL.

Poor sufferer, live.

God forgives. Shall I not so?

GERTRUDE.

Nay, a better life, in truth,
I do hope for. Not below.
Partner of my perisht youth,

Husband, wronged one! Let your blessing
Be with me, before, to-night,
From the life that's past redressing
This strayed soul must take its flight!

Tears, warm tears! I feel them creep
Down my cheek. Tears -- not my own.
It is long since I could weep.
Past all tears my grief hath grown.

Over this dry withered cheek,
Drop by drop, I feel them fall.
But my voice is growing weak:
And I have not spoken all.

I had much to say. My son,
My lost child that never knew me!
Is he like me? One by one,
All his little ways come to me.

Is he grown? I fancy him!
How that childish face comes back
O'er my memory sweet and dim!
And his long hair? Is it black?

Or as mine was once? His mother
Did he ever ask to see?
Has he grown to love another --
Some strange woman not like me?

Would he shudder to behold
This pale face and faded form
If he knew, in days of old,
How he slumbered on my arm?

How I nurst him? loved him? missed him
All this long heartbroken time?
It is years since last I kissed him.
Does he hate me for my crime?

I had meant to send some token --
If, indeed, I dared to send it.
This old chain -- the links are broken --
Like my life -- I could not mend it.

Husband, husband! I am dying,
Dying! Let me feel your kiss
On my brow where I am lying.
You are great enough for this!

And you 'll lay me, when I'm gone,
-- Not in those old sculptured walls!
Let no name be carved -- no stone --
No ancestral funerals!

In some little grave of grass
Anywhere, you 'll let me lie:
Where the night-winds only pass,
Or the clouds go floating by;

Where my shame may be forgot;
And the story of my life
And my sin remembered not.
So forget the faithless wife;

Or if, haply, when I'm dead,
On some worthier happier breast
Than mine was, you lean your head,
Should one thought of me molest

Those calm hours, recall me only
As you see me, -- worn with tears:
Dying desolate here; left lonely
By the overthrow of years.

May I lay my arm, then, there?
Does it not seem strange to you,
This old hand among your hair?
And these wasted fingers too?

How the lamp wanes! All grows dark --
Dark and strange. Yet now there shined
Something past me...Husband, hark!
There are voices on the wind.

Are they come? and do they ask me
For the songs we used to sing?
Strange that memory thus should task me!
Listen --
Birds are on the wing:

And thy Birthday Morn is rising.
May it ever rise as bright!
Wake not yet! The day 's devising
Fair new things for thy delight.

Wake not yet! Last night this flower
Near thy porch began to pout
From its warm sheath: in an hour
All the young leaves will be out.

Wake not yet! So dear thou art, love,
That I grudge these buds the bliss
Each will bring to thy young heart, love,
I would claim all for my kiss.

Wake not yet!
-- There now, it fails me!
Is my lord there? I am ill.
And I cannot tell what ails me.
Husband! Is he near me still!

O, this anguish seems to crush
All my life up, -- body and mind!

THE EARL.

Gertrude! Gertrude! Gertrude!

GERTRUDE.

Hush!
There are voices in the wind.

THE EARL.

Still she wanders! Ah, the plucking
At the sheet!

GERTRUDE.

Hist! do not take it
From my bosom. See, 't is sucking!
If it sleep we must not wake it.

Such a little rosy mouth!
-- Not to-night, O not to-night!
Did he tell me in the South
That those stars were twice as bright?

Off! away! unhand me -- go!
I forgive thee my lost heaven,
And the wrong which thou didst do.
Would my sin, too, were forgiven!

Gone at last! ... Ah, fancy feigns
These wild visions! I grow weak.
Fast, fast dying! Life's warmth wanes
From me. Is the fire out?

THE EARL.

Speak,

Gertrude, speak! My wife, my wife!
Nay she is not dead, -- not dead!
See, the lips move. There is life.
She is choking. Lift her head.

GERTRUDE.

* * * * *

Death! ... My eyes grow dim, and dimmer.
I can scarcely see thy face.
But the twilight seems to glimmer,
Lighted from some distant place.

Husband!

THE EARL.

Gertrude!

GERTRUDE.

Art thou near me?
On thy breast -- once more -- thy breast!
I have sinned -- and -- nay, yet hear me,
And repented -- and --

THE EARL.

The rest

God hath heard, where now thou art,
Thou poor soul, -- in Heaven.
The door --
Close it softly, and depart.
Leave us!
She is mine once more.





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