Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, ETHELSTAN: SCENE, by GEORGE DARLEY

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

ETHELSTAN: SCENE, by             Poem Explanation         Poet's Biography
First Line: My sister, my born friend!
Last Line: Great natures are much given to melancholy.
Subject(s): Aethelstan, King Of England (d. 939); Athelstan, King Of England (d. 939)

The king in sackcloth at an oaken table in a small Cabinet. Enter his sister,
Edgitha, abbess of Beverley, whom he embraces.

Ethelstan. My sister! my born friend!
Why at this hour,
When none save night's rough minions venture forth,
Was thy pale health so bold?
Edgitha. Is there no flush
Bespreads my cheek? that's health! new life, my brother!
Which joy to see thee brings. But out, alas!
What change in thee, what mournful change?
Eth. Years! years!
Edg. Nay, thou'rt, if not in bloomiest youth's spring-tide,
Yet in its autumn.
Eth. Autumn is ever sere!
Youth saddens near its ending, like old age;
Or worse, for this hath better life at hand.
Edg. No! no! that is not it, that is not it!
Eth. And then bethink thee, Sihtric's widowqueen,
Kings wear not, like the peacocks, feather'd crowns;
Our goldenest have some iron in them too!
Edg. Ah! wouldst thou take meek sample from so many
Of our wise Saxon kings; who gave up power
Without a sigh to those who still sigh'd for it;
And changed their glittering robes with russet weeds,
And turn'd their sceptres into crucifixes,
And bared their heads of all but tonsured crowns,
And lived out hermit lives in mossy cells,
Or died at Rome on saintly pilgrimage:
Were they not wise?
Eth. Wise for themselves they were!
Edg. Then wherefore not thou for thyself as well?
Wherefore, in thy loved town of Beverley,
Under thy patron saint, canonized John,
As servant dedicate through him to heaven.
Seek not thy temporal rest and peace eterne?
Wherefore withdraw not from the thorny ways
And unreclaimable wilderness of this world,
To the smooth-marbled aisle and cloister trim
Beside us; to these gardens paced by forms
Bland-whispering as their trees, and moving round
Each shrub they tend, softly as its own shadow?
Wherefore retire thee not, wouldst thou enjoy
Calm raptures of ecstatic contemplation,
To yon elm-pillar'd avenue, sky roof'd,
That leads from Minster Church to Monastery,
Both by thyself embeautified, as if
But for thyself? Nothing disturbeth there
Save the grand hum of the organ heard within,
Or murmuring chorus that with faint low chime
Tremble to lift their voices up o'erhigh
Even in God's praises! -- Here find happiness,
Here make thy quietary! as thy sister,
Once queen, hath done. Wherefore not, thou and she,
Abbot and abbess, side by side, return
To old companionship of innocence,
Our hearts re-purified at the altar's flame:
And thus let second childhood lead us, lovingly
As did the first, adown life's gentle slope,
To our unrocking cradle -- one same grave?
Eth. I could, even now, sleep to the lullaby
Sung by Death's gossip, that assiduous crone,
Who hushes all our race! -- if one hope fail,
One single, life-endearing hope --
Edg. Dear brother,
Take hope from my content! -- though pale this brow,
'Tis calm as if she smiled on it, yon Prioress
Of heaven's pure nunnery, whose placid cheer
O'erlooks the world beneath her; this wren's voice,
Though weak, preserveth lightsome tone and tenor,
Ne'er sick with joy like the still-hiccupping swallow's,
Ne'er like the nightingale's with grief. Believe me
Seclusion is the blessedest estate
Life owns; wouldst be amongst the bless'd on earth,
Hie thither!
Eth. Ay -- and what are my poor Saxons
To do without their king? --
Edg. Have they not thanes
And chiefs? --
Eth. Without their father? their defender?
Now specially, when rumours of the Dane
Borne hither by each chill Norwegian wind,
Like evening thunder creep along the ocean
With many a mutter'd threat of morrow dire?
No! no! I must not desert my Saxons,
Who ne'er deserted me!
Edg. Is there none else
To king it?
Eth. None save the Etheling should; he cannot:
Childe Edmund is o'er-green in wit; though premature
In that too for his years, and grown by exercise
Of arms, and practice of all manlike feats, --
Which his bent towards them makes continual,
As young hawks love to use their beaks and wings
In coursing sparrows ere let loose at herons, --
Grown his full pitch of stature. Ah! dear sister,
Thy choice and lot with thy life's duties chime,
All cast for privacy. So best! our world
Hath need of such as thee and thy fair nuns,
And these good fathers of the monastery,
To teach youth, tend the poor, the sick, the sad,
Relume the extinguish'd lights of ancient lore,
Making each little cell a glorious lantern
To beam forth truth o'er our benighted age,
With other functions high, howe'er so humble,
Which I disparage not! But, dearest sister,
Even the care of our own soul becomes
A sin -- base selfishness -- when we neglect
All care for others; and self-love too oft
Is the dark shape in which the devil haunts
Nunneries, monkeries, and most privacies,
Where your devout recluse, devoted less
To God than self, works for his single weal;
When like that God he should, true catholic,
Advance the universal where he may.....
You see this penitential garb,
Yet call me best of men?
Edg. It has been worn
Long, long enow! 'Tis time it were put off.
Eth. How soon will he put off his wretched shroud?
O Edgitha!
Edg. Pour all into my breast!
Thine is o'erflowing!
Eth. No! Unbosom'd pain
Is half dismiss'd. I'll keep my punisher with me
Press me not! there is a way to crush the heart
And still its aching as you bind the head
When it throbs feverish.
Edg. Have care of that!
There is a way to secret suicide,
By crushing the swoln heart until you kill.
Beware! self-death is no less sinful, given
By sorrow's point conceal'd than by the sword.
Eth. Nay, I am jocund; let's to supper! There
A king shall be his own house-knight, and serve
See what a feast! we Saxons love good cheer!

[He takes from a cupboard pulse, bread, and water.]

Edg. Ah! when he will but smile, how he can smile!
'Tis feigning all! this death sits on his bosom
Heavily as Night-Mara's horned steed:
His cares for the whole realm oppress him too:
And our book-learned Prior oft draws up
From some deep fountain a clear drop of truth,
Great natures are much given to melancholy.

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