Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE LAY OF ELENA, by HENRY TAYLOR (1800-1886)

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

THE LAY OF ELENA, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: He ask'd me had I yet forgot
Last Line: The stranger ne'er forgets, then how should she?

HE ask'd me had I yet forgot
The mountains of my native land?
I sought an answer, but had not
The words at my command.
They would not come, and it was better so,
For had I utter'd aught, my tears I know
Had started at the word as free to flow.

But I can answer when there's none that hears;
And now if I should weep, none sees my tears;
And in my soul the voice is rising strong,
That speaks in solitude, -- the voice of song.

Yes, I remember well
The land of many hues,
Whose charms what praise can tell,
Whose praise what heart refuse?
Sublime, but neither bleak nor bare,
Nor misty, are the mountains there, --
Softly sublime, profusely fair!
Up to their summits clothed in green,
And fruitful as the vales between,
They lightly rise,
And scale the skies,
And groves and gardens still abound
For where no shoot
Could else take root,
The peaks are shelved and terraced round;
Earthward appear, in mingled growth,
The mulberry and maize, -- above
The trellis'd vine extends to both
The leafy shade they love.
Looks out the white-wall'd cottage here,
The lowly chapel rises near;
Far down the foot must roam to reach
The lovely lake and bending beach;
Whilst chestnut green and olive gray
Checker the steep and winding way.

A bark is launch'd on Como's lake,
A maiden sits abaft;
A little sail is loosed to take
The night wind's breath, and waft
The maiden and her bark away,
Across the lake and up the bay.
And what doth there that lady fair,
Upon the wavelet toss'd?
Before her shines the evening star,
Behind her in the woods afar
The castle lights are lost.
What doth she there? The evening air
Lifts her locks, and her neck is bare;
And the dews, that now are falling fast,
May work her harm, or a rougher blast
May come from yonder cloud,
And that her bark might scarce sustain,
So slightly built, -- and why remain,
And would she be allow'd
To brave the wind and sit in the dew
At night on the lake, if her mother knew?

Her mother sixteen years before
The burden of the baby bore;
And though brought forth in joy, the day
So joyful, she was wont to say,
In taking count of after years,
Gave birth to fewer hopes than fears.
For seldom smiled
The serious child,
And as she pass'd from childhood, grew
More far-between those smiles, and few
More sad and wild.
And though she loved her father well,
And though she loved her mother more,
Upon her heart a sorrow fell,
And sapp'd it to the core.
And in her father's castle, nought
She ever found of what she sought,
And all her pleasure was to roam
Among the mountains far from home,
And through thick woods, and wheresoe'er
She saddest felt, to sojourn there;
And oh! she loved to linger afloat
On the lonely lake in the little boat.
It was not for the forms, -- though fair,
Though grand they were beyond compare, --
It was not only for the forms
Of hills in sunshine or in storms,
Or only unrestrain'd to look
On wood and lake, that she forsook
By day or night
Her home, and far
Wander'd by light
Of sun or star.
It was to feel her fancy free,
Free in a world without an end,
With ears to hear, and eyes to see,
And heart to apprehend.
It was to leave the earth behind,
And rove with liberated mind,
As fancy led, or choice, or chance,
Through wilder'd regions of romance.
And many a castle would she build;
And all around the woods were fill'd
With knights and squires that rode amain,
With ladies saved and giants slain;
And as some contest wavered, came,
With eye of fire and breath of flame,
A dragon that in cave profound
Had had his dwelling underground;
And he had closed the dubious fight,
But that, behold! there came in sight
A hippogriff, that wheel'd his flight
Far in the sky, then swooping low,
Brings to the field a fresher foe:
Dismay'd by this diversion, fly
The dragon and his dear ally;
And now the victor knight unties
The prisoner, his unhoped-for prize,
And lo! a beauteous maid is she,
Whom they, in their unrighteous guise,
Had fasten'd naked to a tree!

Much dreaming these, yet was she much awake
To portions of things earthly, for the sake
Whereof, as with a charm, away would flit
The phantoms, and the fever intermit.
Whatso' of earthly things presents a face
Of outward beauty, or a form of grace,
Might not escape her, hidden though it were
From courtly cognisance; 't was not with her
As with the tribe who see not nature's boons
Save by the festal lights of gay saloons;
Beauty in plain attire her heart could fill --
Yea, though in beggary, 't was beauty still.
Devoted thus to what was fair to sight,
She loved too little else, nor this aright,
And many disappointments could not cure
This born obliquity, or break the lure
Which this strong passion spread: she grew not wise,
Nor grows: experience with a world of sighs
Purchased, and tears and heart-break have been hers,
And taught her nothing: where she err'd she errs.

Be it avow'd, when all is said,
She trod the path the many tread; --
She loved too soon in life; her dawn
Was bright with sunbeams, whence is drawn
A sure prognostic that the day
Will not unclouded pass away.
Too young she loved, and he on whom
Her first love lighted, in the bloom
Of boyhood was, and so was graced
With all that earliest runs to waste.
Intelligent, loquacious, mild,
Yet gay and sportive as a child,
With feelings light and quick, that came
And went, like flickerings of flame
A soft demeanour, and a mind
Bright and abundant in its kind,
That, playing on the surface, made
A rapid change of light and shade,
Or if a darker hour perforce
At times o'ertook him in his course,
Still sparkling thick like glow-worms show'd
Life was to him a summer's road, --
Such was the youth to whom a love
For grace and beauty far above
Their due deserts, betray'd a heart
Which might have else perform'd a prouder part.

First love the world is wont to call
The passion which was now her all.
So be it call'd; but be it known
The feeling which possess'd her now
Was novel in degree alone;
Love early mark'd her for his own;
Soon as the winds of heaven had blown
Upon her, had the seed been sown
In soil which needed not the plough;
And passion with her growth had grown,
And strengthen'd with her strength, and how
Could love be new, unless in name,
Degree, and singleness of aim?
A tenderness had fill'd her mind
Pervasive, viewless, undefined; --
As keeps the subtle fluid oft
Its secret, gathering in the soft
And sultry air, till felt at length
In all its desolating strength,
So silent, so devoid of dread,
Her objectless affections spread;
Not wholly unemploy'd, but squander'd
At large where'er her fancy wander'd;
Till one attraction, one desire
Concentred all the scatter'd fire;
It broke, it burst, it blazed amain,
It flash'd its light o'er hill and plain,
O'er earth below and heaven above, --
And then it took the name of love.

How fared that love? the tale so old,
So common, needs it to be told?
Bellagio's woods, ye saw it through
From first accost to last adieu;
Its changes, seasons, you can tell, --
At least you typify them well.
First came the genial, hopeful spring,
With bursting buds and birds that sing,
And fast though fitful progress made
To brighter suns and broader shade.
Those brighter suns, that broader shade,
They came, and richly then array'd
Was bough and sward, and all below
Gladden'd by summer's equal glow.
What next? a change is slowly seen,
And deepeneth day by day
The darker, soberer, sadder green
Prevenient to decay.
Yet still at times through that green gloom,
As sudden gusts might make them room,
And lift the spray so light,
The berries of the mountain-ash,
Arching the torrent's foam and flash,
Waved gladly into sight.
But rare those short-lived gleamings grew,
And wore the woods a sicklier hue;
Destruction now his phalanx forms
Mid wailing winds and gathering storms;
And last comes winter's withering breath,
Keen as desertion, cold -- cold as the hand of death!

Is the tale told? too well, alas!
Is pictured here what came to pass.
So long as light affections play'd
Around their path, he loved the maid;
Loved in half-gay, half-tender mood,
By passion touch'd, but not subdued;
Laugh'd at the flame he felt or lit;
Replied to tenderness with wit;
Sometimes when passion brightlier burn'd,
Its tokens eagerly return'd,
Then calm, supine, but pleased no less,
Softly sustain'd each soft caress.
She, watching with delight the while
His half-closed eyes and gradual smile,
(Slow pleasure's smile, how far more worth,
More beautiful than smiles of mirth!
Seem'd to herself when back she cast
A hurried look upon the past,
As changed from what she then had been,
As was the moon, who having run
Her orbit through since this begun,
Now shone "apparent queen."
How dim a world, how blank a waste,
A shadowy orb how faintly traced,
Her crescent fancy first embraced!
How fair an orb, a world how bright,
How fill'd with glory and with light
Had now revealed itself to sight!
A glory of her essence grown,
A light incorporate with her own!
Forth from such paradise of bliss
Open the way and easy is,
Like that renown'd of old;
And easier than the most was this,
For they were sorted more amiss
Than outward things foretold.
The goddess, that with cruel mirth
The daughters and the sons of earth
Mismatches, hath a cunning eye
In twisting of a treacherous tie;
Nor is she backward to perceive
That loftier minds to lower cleave
With ampler love (as that which flows
From a rich source) than these to those;
For still the source, not object, gives
The daily food whereon love lives.
The well-spring of his love was poor
Compared to her's; his gifts were fewer;
The total light that was in him
Before a spark of her's grew dim;
Too high, too grave, too large, too deep,
Her love could neither laugh nor sleep;
And thus it tired him; his desire
Was for a less consuming fire:
He wish'd that she should love him well,
Not wildly; wish'd her passion's spell
To charm her heart, but leave her fancy free;
To quicken converse, not to quell;
He granted her to sigh, for so could he;
But when she wept, why should it be?
'Twas irksome, for it stole away
The joy of his love-holiday.
Bred of such uncongenial mood
At length would some dim doubt intrude
If what he felt, so far below
Her passion's pitch, were love or no.
With that the common daylight's beam
Broke in upon his morning dream,
And as that common day advanced
His heart was wholly unentranced.

What follow'd was not good to do,
Nor is it good t tell;
The anguish of that worst adieu
Which parts with love and honour too,
Abides not, -- so far well.
The human heart can not sustain
Prolong'd inalterable pain,
And not till reason cease to reign
Will nature want some moments brief
Of other moods to mix with grief;
Such and so hard to be destroy'd
That vigour which abhors a void,
And in the midst of all distress,
Such nature's need for happiness!
And when she rallied thus, more high
Her spirits ran, she knew not why,
Than was their wont in times than these
Less troubled, with a heart at ease.
So meet extremes; so joy's rebound
Is highest from the hollowest ground;
So vessels with the storm that strive
Pitch higher as they deeplier dive.

Well had it been if she had curb'd
These transports of a mind disturb'd;
For grief is then the worst of foes
When, all intolerant of repose,
It sends the heart abroad to seek
From weak recoils exemptions weak;
After false gods to go astray,
Deck altars vile with garlands gay,
And place a painted form of stone
On passion's abdicated throne.

Till then her heart was as a mound,
Or simple plot of garden ground
Far in a forest wild,
Where many a seedling had been sown,
And many a bright-eyed floweret grown
To please a favourite child.
Delighted was the child to call
The plot of garden-ground her own;
Delighted was she at the fall
Of evening mild when shadows tall
Cross-barr'd the mound and cottage wall,
To linger there alone.
Nor seem'd the garden flowers less fair,
Nor loved she less to linger there,
When glisten'd in the morning dew
Each lip of red and eye of blue;
And when the sun too brightly burn'd
Towards the forest's verge she turn'd,
Where stretch'd away from glade to glade
A green interminable shade;
And in the skirts thereof a bower
Was built with many a creeping flower,
For shelter at the noontide hour;
And from the forest walks was heard
The voice of many a singing bird,
With murmurs of the cushat-dove,
That tell the secret of her love:
And pleasant therefore all day long,
From earliest dawn to even-song, --
Supremely pleasant was this wild
Sweet garden to the woodsman's child. --
The whirlwind came with fire and flood
And smote the garden in the wood;
All that was form'd to give delight
Destruction levell'd in a night;
The morning broke, the child awoke,
And when she saw what sudden stroke
The garden which she loved had swept
To ruin, she sat down and wept.
Her grief was great, but it had vent;
Its force, not spared, was sooner spent;
And she bethought her to repair
The garden which had been so fair.
Then roam'd she through the ferest walks,
Cropping the wild flowers by their stalks,
And divers full-blown blossoms gay
She gather'd and in fair array
Disposed, and stuck them in the mound
Which had been once her garden ground.
They seem'd to flourish for awhile,
A moment's space she seem'd to smile;
But brief the bloom, and vain the toil,
They were not native to the soil.

That other child, beneath whose zone
Were passions fearfully full-grown,
She too essay'd to deck the waste
Where love had grown, which love had graced
With false adornments -- flowers, not fruit --
Fast-fading flowers, that strike not root, --
With pleasures alien to her breast,
That bloom but briefly at the best;
The world's sad substitutes for joys
To minds that lose their equipoise.

On Como's lake the evening star
Is trembling as before;
An azure flood, a golden bar,
There as they were before they are,
But she that loved them -- she is far,
Far from her native shore.
No more is seen her slender boat
Upon the star-lit lake afloat,
With oar or sail at large to rove,
Or tether'd in its wooded cove
Mid gentle waves that sport around,
And rock it with a gurgling sound.
Keel up, it rots upon the strand,
Its gunwale sunken in the sand,
Where suns and tempests warp'd and shrank
Each shatter'd rib and riven plank.
Never again that land-wreck'd craft
Shall feel the billow boom abaft;
Never, when springs the freshening gale,
Take life again from oar or sail:
Nor shall the freight that once it bore
Again be seen on lake or shore.

A foreign land is now her choice,
A foreign sky above her,
And unfamiliar is each voice
Of those that say they love her.
A prince's palace is her home,
And marble floor and gilded dome,
Where festive myriads nightly meet,
Quick echoes of her steps repeat.
And she is gay at time, and light
From her makes many faces bright;
And circling flatterers hem her in
Assiduous each a word to win,
And smooth as mirrors each the while
Reflects and multiplies her smile.
But fitful were her smiles, nor long
She cast them to that courtly throng;
And should the sound of music fall
Upon her ear in that high hall,
The smile was gone, the eye that shone
So brightly, would be dimm'd anon,
And objectless would then appear
As stretch'd to check the starting tear.
The chords within responsive rung,
For music spoke her native tongue.

And then the gay and glittering crowd
Is heard not, laugh they e'er so loud;
Nor then is seen the simpering row
Of flatterers, bend they e'er so low;
For there before her when she stands,
The mountains rise, the lake expands;
Around the terraced summit twines
The leafy coronal of vines;
Within the watery mirror deep
Nature's calm converse lies asleep;
Above she sees the sky's blue glow,
The forest's varied green below,
And far its vaulted vistas through
A distant grove of darker hue,
Where, mounting high from clumps of oak,
Curls lightly up the thin gray smoke;
And o'er the boughs that over-bower
The crag, a castle's turrets tower --
An eastern casement mantled o'er
With ivy flashes back the gleam
Of sunrise -- it was there of yore
She sate to see that sunrise pour
Its splendour round -- she sees no more,
For tears disperse the dream.

Thus seized and speechless had she stood,
Surveying mountain, lake, and wood,
When to her ear came that demand,
Had she forgot her native land?
'T was but a voice within replied
She had forgotten all beside.
For words are weak and most to seek
When wanted fifty-fold,
And then if silence will not speak,
Or trembling lip and changing cheek,
There's nothing told.
But could she have reveal'd to him
Who question'd thus, the vision bright,
That ere his words were said grew dim
And vanish'd from her sight,
Easy the answer were to know
And plain to understand, --
That mind and memory both must fail,
And life itself must slacken sail,
And thought its functions must forego,
And fancy lose its latest glow,
Or ere that land
Could pictured be less bright and fair
To her whose home and heart are there
That land the loveliest that eye can see
The stranger ne'er forgets, then how should she?

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