Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, ERINNA, by LETITIA ELIZABETH LANDON

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ERINNA, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Was she of spirit race, or was she one
Last Line: Thy truth, thy tenderness, be all thy fame!
Alternate Author Name(s): L. E. L.; Maclean, Letitia
Subject(s): Erinna (4th Century B.c.)


Was she of spirit race, or was she one
Of earth's least earthly daughters, one to whom
A gift of loveliness and soul is given,
Only to make them wretched?

There is an antique gem, on which her brow
Retains its graven beauty even now.
Her hair is braided, but one curl behind
Floats as enamour'd of the summer wind;
The rest is simple. Is she not too fair
Even to think of maiden's sweetest care?
The mouth and brow are contrasts. One so fraught
With pride, the melancholy pride of thought
Conscious of power, and yet forced to know
How little way such power as that can go;
Regretting, while too proud of the fine mind,
Which raises but to part it from its kind:
But the sweet mouth had nothing of all this;
It was a mouth the rose had lean'd to kiss
For her young sister, telling, now though mute,
How soft an echo it was to the lute.
The one spoke genius, in its high revealing;
The other smiled a woman's gentle feeling.
It was a lovely face: the Greek outline
Flowing, yet delicate and feminine;
The glorious lightning of the kindled eye,
Raised, as it communed with its native sky.
A lovely face the spirit's fitting shrine;
The one almost, the other quite divine.

MY hand is on the lyre which never more
With its sweet commerce, like a bosom friend,
Will share the deeper thoughts which I could trust
Only to music and to solitude.
It is the very grove, the olive grove,
Where first I laid my laurel crown aside,
And bathed my fever'd brow in the cold stream;
As if that I could wash away the fire
Which from that moment kindled in my heart.
I well remember how I flung myself,
Like a young goddess, on a purple cloud
Of light and odour -- the rich violets
Were so ethereal in bloom and breath:
And I -- I felt immortal, for my brain
Was drunk and mad with its first draught of fame.
'Tis strange there was one only cypress tree,
And then, as now, I lay beneath its shade.
The night had seen me pace my lonely room,
Clasping the lyre I had no heart to wake,
Impatient for the day: yet its first dawn
Came cold as death; for every pulse sank down,
Until the very presence of my hope
Became to me a fear. The sun rose up;
I stood alone 'mid thousands: but I felt
Mine inspiration; and, as the last sweep
Of my song died away amid the hills,
My heart reverb'rated the shout which bore
To the blue mountains and the distant heaven
ERINNA'S name, and on my bended knee,
Olympus, I received thy laurel crown.

And twice new birth of violets have sprung,
Since they were first my pillow, since I sought
In the deep silence of the olive grove
The dreamy happiness which solitude
Brings to the soul o'erfilled with its delight:
For I was like some young and sudden heir
Of a rich palace heap'd with gems and gold,
Whose pleasure doubles as he sums his wealth
And forms a thousand plans of festival;
Such were my myriad visions of delight.
The lute, which hitherto in Delphian shades
Had been my twilight's solitary joy,
Would henceforth be a sweet and breathing bond
Between me and my kind. Orphan unloved,
I had been lonely from my childhood's hour,
Childhood whose very happiness is love:
But that was over now; my lyre would be
My own heart's true interpreter, and those
To whom my song was dear, would they not bless
The hand that waken'd it? I should be loved
For the so gentle sake of those soft chords
Which mingled others' feelings with mine own.

Vow'd I that song to meek and gentle thoughts,
To tales that told of sorrow and of love,
To all our nature's finest touches, all
That wakens sympathy: and I should be
Alone no longer; every wind that bore,
And every lip that breathed one strain of mine,
Henceforth partake in all my joy and grief.
Oh! glorious is the gifted poet's lot,
And touching more than glorious: 'tis to be
Companion of the heart's least earthly hour;
The voice of love and sadness, calling forth
Tears from their silent fountain: 'tis to have
Share in all nature's loveliness; giving flowers
A life as sweet, more lasting than their own;
And catching from green wood and lofty pine
Language mysterious as musical;
Making the thoughts, which else had only been
Like colours on the morning's earliest hour,
Immortal, and worth immortality;
Yielding the hero that eternal name
For which he fought; making the patriot's deed
A stirring record for long after-time;
Cherishing tender thoughts, which else had pass'd
Away like tears; and saving the loved dead
From death's worst part -- its deep forgetfulness.

From the first moment when a falling leaf,
Or opening bud, or streak of rose-touch'd sky,
Waken'd in me the flush and flow of song,
I gave my soul entire unto the gift
I deem'd mine own, direct from heaven; it was
The hope, the bliss, the energy of life;
I had no hope that dwelt not with my lyre,
No bliss whose being grew not from my lyre,
No energy undevoted to my lyre.
It was my other self that had a power;
Mine, but o'er which I had not a control.
At times it was not with me, and I felt
A wonder how it ever had been mine:
And then a word, a look of loveliness,
A tone of music, call'd it into life;
A song came gushing, like the natural tears,
To check whose current does not rest with us.

Had I lived ever in the savage woods,
Or in some distant island, which the sea
With wind and wave guards in deep loneliness;
Had my eye never on the beauty dwelt
Of human face, and my ear never drank
The music of a human voice; I feel
My spirit would have pour'd itself in song,
Have learn'd a language from the rustling leaves,
The singing of the birds, and of the tide.
Perchance, then, happy had I never known
Another thought could be attach'd to song
Than of its own delight. Oh! let me pause
Over this earlier period, when my heart
Mingled its being with its pleasures, fill'd
With rich enthusiasm, which once flung
Its purple colouring o'er all things of earth,
And without which our utmost power of thought
But sharpens arrows that will drink our blood.
Like woman's soothing influence o'er man
Enthusiasm is upon the mind;
Softening and beautifying that which is
Too harsh and sullen in itself. How much
I loved the painter's glorious art, which forms
A world like, but more beautiful than, this;
Just catching nature in her happiest mood!
How drank I in fine poetry, which makes
The hearing passionate, fill'd with memories
Which steal from out the past like rays from clouds!
And then the sweet songs of my native vale,
Whose sweetness and whose softness call'd to mind
The perfume of the flowers, the purity
Of the blue sky; oh, how they stirr'd my soul! --
Amid the many golden gifts which heaven
Has left, like portions of its light, on earth
None hath such influence as music hath.
The painter's hues stand visible before us
In power and beauty; we can trace the thoughts
Which are the workings of the poet's mind:
But music is a mystery, and viewless
Even when present, and is less man's act,
And less within his order; for the hand
That can call forth the tones, yet cannot tell
Whither they go, or if they live or die,
When floated once beyond his feeble ear;
And then, as if it were an unreal thing,
The wind will sweep from the neglected strings
As rich a swell as ever minstrel drew.

A poet's word, a painter's touch, will reach
The innermost recesses of the heart,
Making the pulses throb in unison
With joy or grief, which we can analyse;
There is the cause for pleasure and for pain:
But music moves us, and we know not why;
We feel the tears, but cannot trace their source.
Is it the language of some other state,
Born of its memory? For what can wake
The soul's strong instinct of another world,
Like music? Well with sadness doth it suit
To hear the melancholy sounds decay,
And think (for thoughts are life's great human links,
And mingle with our feelings) even so
Will the heart's wildest pulses sink to rest.

How have I loved, when the red evening fill'd
Our temple with its glory, first, to gaze
On the strange contrast of the crimson air,
Lighted as if with passion, and flung back,
From silver vase and tripod rich with gems,
To the pale statues round, where human life
Was not, but beauty was, which seem'd to have
Apart existence from humanity:
Then, to go forth where the tall waving pines
Seem'd as behind them roll'd a golden sea
Immortal and eternal; and the boughs,
That darkly swept between me and its light,
Were fitting emblems of the worldly cares
That are the boundary between us and heaven;
Meanwhile, the wind, a wilful messenger
Lingering amid the flowers on his way,
At intervals swept past in melody,
The lutes and voices of the choral hymn
Contending with the rose-breath on his wing!
Perhaps it is these pleasures' chiefest charm,
They are so indefinable, so vague.
From earliest childhood all too well aware
Of the uncertain nature of our joys,
It is delicious to enjoy, yet know
No after-consequence will be to weep.
Pride misers with enjoyment, when we have
Delight in things that are but of the mind:
But half humility when we partake
Pleasures that are half wants, the spirit pines
And struggles in its fetters, and disdains
The low base clay to which it is allied.
But here our rapture raises us: we feel
What glorious power is given to man, and find
Our nature's nobleness and attributes,
Whose heaven is intellect; and we are proud
To think how we can love those things of earth
Which are least earthly; and the soul grows pure
In this high communing, and more divine.

This time of dreaming happiness pass'd by,
Another spirit was within my heart;
I drank the maddening cup of praise, which grew
Henceforth the fountain of my life; I lived
Only in others' breath; a word, a look,
Were of all influence on my destiny:
If praise they spoke, 'twas sunlight to my soul;
Or censure, it was like the scorpion's sting.

And yet a darker lesson was to learn --
The hollowness of each: that praise, which is
But base exchange of flattery; that blame,
Given by cautious coldness, which still deems
'Tis safest to depress; that mockery,
Flinging shafts but to show its own keen aim;
That carelessness, whose very censure's chance;
And, worst of all, the earthly judgment pass'd
By minds whose native clay is unredeem'd
By aught of heaven, whose every thought falls foul
Plague-spot on beauty which they cannot feel,
Tainting all that it touches with itself.
O dream of fame, what hast thou been to me
But the destroyer of life's calm content!
I feel so more than ever, that thy sway
Is weaken'd over me. Once I could find
A deep and dangerous delight in thee;
But that is gone. I am too much awake.
Light has burst o'er me, but not morning's light;
'Tis such light as will burst upon the tomb,
When all but judgment's over. Can it be,
That these fine impulses, these lofty thoughts,
Burning with their own beauty, are but given
To make me the low slave of vanity,
Heartless and humbled? O my own sweet power,
Surely thy songs are made for more than this!
What a worst waste of feeling and of life
Have been the imprints of my roll of time,
Too much, too long! To what use have I turn'd
The golden gifts in which I pride myself?
They are profaned; with their pure ore I made
A temple resting only on the breath
Of heedless worshippers. Alas! that ever
Praise should have been what it has been to me --
The opiate of my heart. Yet I have dream'd
Of things which cannot be; the bright, the pure,
That all of which the heart may only dream;
And I have mused upon my gift of song,
And deeply felt its beauty, and disdain'd
The pettiness of praise to which at times
My soul has bow'd; and I have scorn'd myself
For that my cheek could burn, my pulses beat
At idle words. And yet it is in vain
For the full heart to press back every throb
Wholly upon itself. Ay, fair as are
The visions of a poet's solitude,
There must be something more for happiness;
They seek communion. It had seem'd to me
A miser's selfishness, had I not sought
To share with others those impassion'd thoughts,
Like light, or hope, or love, in their effects.
When I have watch'd the stars write on the sky
In characters of light, have seen the moon
Come like veiled priestess from the east,
While, like a hymn, the wind swell'd on mine ear,
Telling soft tidings of eve's thousand flowers,
Has it not been the transport of my lute
To find its best delight in sympathy?
Alas! the idols which our hopes set up,
They are Chaldean ones, half gold, half clay;
We trust we are deceived, we hope, we fear,
Alike without foundation; day by day
Some new illusion is destroyed, and life
Gets cold and colder on towards its close.
Just like the years which make it, some are check'd
By sudden blights in spring; some are dried up
By fiery summers; others waste away
In calm monotony of quiet skies,
And peradventure these may be the best:
They know no hurricanes, no floods that sweep
As a God's vengeance were upon each wave;
But then they have no ruby fruits, no flowers
Shining in purple, and no lighted mines
Of gold and diamond. Which is the best, --
Beauty and glory, in a southern clime,
Mingled with thunder, tempest; or the calm
Of skies that scarcely change, which, at the least,
If much of shine they have not, have no storms?
I know not: but I know fair earth or sky
Are self-consuming in their loveliness,
And the too radiant sun and fertile soil
In their luxuriance run themselves to waste,
And the green valley and the silver stream
Become a sandy desert. O! the mind,
Too vivid in its lighted energies,
May read its fate in sunny Araby.
How lives its beauty in each Eastern tale,
Its growth of spices, and its groves of balm!
They are exhausted; and what is it now?
A wild and burning wilderness. Alas!
For such similitude. Too much this is
The fate of this world's loveliest and best.

Is there not a far people, who possess
Mysterious oracles of olden time,
Who say that this earth labours with a curse,
That it is fallen from its first estate,
And is now but the shade of what it was?
I do believe the tale. I feel its truth
In my vain aspirations, in the dreams
That are revealings of another world,
More pure, more perfect than our weary one,
Where day is darkness to the starry soul.

O heart of mine! my once sweet paradise
Of love and hope! how changed thou art to me!
I cannot count thy changes: thou hast lost
Interest in the once idols of thy being;
They have departed, even as if wings
Had borne away their morning; they have left
Weariness, turning pleasure into pain,
And too sure knowledge of their hollowness.

And that too is gone from me; that which was
My solitude's delight! I can no more
Make real existence of a shadowy world.
Time was, the poet's song, the ancient tale,
Were to me fountains of deep happiness,
For they grew visible in my lonely hours,
As things in which I had a deed and part;
Their actual presence had not been more true:
But these are bubbling sparkles, that are found
But at the spring's first source. Ah! years may bring
The mind to its perfection, but no more
Will those young visions live in their own light;
Life's troubles stir life's waters all too much,
Passions chase fancies, and though still we dream,
The colouring is from reality.

Farewell, my lyre! thou hast not been to me
All I once hoped. What is the gift of mind,
But as a barrier to so much that makes
Our life endurable, -- companionship,
Mingling affection, calm and gentle peace,
Till the vex'd spirit seals with discontent
A league of sorrow and of vanity,
Built on a future which will never be!

And yet I would resign the praise that now
Makes my cheek crimson, and my pulses beat,
Could I but deem that when my hand is cold,
And my lip passionless, my songs would be
Number'd 'mid the young poet's first delights;
Read by the dark-eyed maiden in an hour
Of moonlight, till her cheek shone with its tears;
And murmur'd by the lover when his suit
Calls upon poetry to breathe of love.
I do not hope a sunshine burst of fame,
My lyre asks but a wreath of fragile flowers.
I have told passionate tales of breaking hearts,
Of young cheeks fading even before the rose;
My songs have been the mournful history
Of woman's tenderness and woman's tears;
I have touch'd but the spirit's gentlest chords, --
Surely the fittest for my maiden hand; --
And in their truth my immortality.

Thou lovely and lone star, whose silver light,
Like music o'er the waters, steals along
The soften'd atmosphere; pale star, to thee
I dedicate the lyre, whose influence
I would have sink upon the heart like thine.

In such an hour as this, the bosom turns
Back to its early feelings; man forgets
His stern ambition and his worldly cares,
And woman loathes the petty vanities
That mar her nature's beauty; like the dew,
Shedding its sweetness o'er the sleeping flowers
Till all their morning freshness is revived,
Kindly affections, sad but yet sweet thoughts,
Melt the cold eyes, long, long unused to weep.
O lute of mine, that I shall wake no more!
Such tearful music, linger on thy strings,
Consecrate unto sorrow and to love;
Thy truth, thy tenderness, be all thy fame!

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