Introduction to Robert Browning
Hiram Corson

Part 4 out of 8

He is watching this brother, from a window of the cloister,
at work in the garden. He looks with contempt upon his honest toil;
repeats mockingly to himself, his simple talk when at meals,
about the weather and the crops; sneers at his neatness,
and orderliness, and cleanliness; imputes to him his own libidinousness.
He takes credit to himself in laying crosswise, in Jesu's praise,
his knife and fork, after refection, and in illustrating the Trinity,
and frustrating the Arian, by drinking his watered orange-pulp
in three sips, while Laurence drains his at one gulp. Now he notices
Laurence's tender care of the melons, of which it appears the good man
has promised all the brethren a feast; "so nice!" He calls to him,
from the window, "How go on your flowers? None double?
Not one fruit-sort can you spy?" Laurence, it must be understood,
kindly answers him in the negative, and then he chuckles to himself,
"Strange! -- and I, too, at such trouble, keep 'em close-nipped
on the sly!" He thinks of devising means of causing him to trip on
a great text in Galatians, entailing "twenty-nine distinct damnations,
one sure, if another fails"; or of slyly putting his
"scrofulous French novel" in his way, which will make him
"grovel hand and foot in Belial's gripe". In his malignity,
he is ready to pledge his soul to Satan (leaving a flaw
in the indenture), to see blasted that rose-acacia Laurence is
so proud of. Here the vesper-bell interrupts his filthy
and blasphemous eructations, and he turns up his eyes and folds his
hands on his breast, mumbling "Plena gratia ave Virgo!"
and right upon the prayer, his disgust breaks out, "Gr-r-r -- you swine!"

This monologue affords a signal illustration of the poet's skill
in making a speaker, while directly revealing his own character,
reflect very distinctly the character of another. This has been seen
in `My Last Duchess', given as an example of the constitution
of this art-form, in the section of the Introduction on
`Browning's Obscurity'.

"The `Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister', is a picture
(ghastly in its evident truth) of superstition which has survived religion;
of a heart which has abandoned the love of kindred and friends,
only to lose itself in a wilderness of petty spite, terminating in an abyss
of diabolical hatred. The ordinary providential helps to goodness
have been rejected; the ill-provided adventurer has sought to scale
the high snow-peaks of saintliness, -- he has missed his footing, --
and the black chasm which yawns beneath, has ingulfed him."
-- E. J. H[asell], in St. Paul's Magazine, December, 1870.

An able writer in `The Contemporary Review', Vol. IV., p. 140,
justly remarks: --

"No living writer -- and we do not know any one in the past who
can be named, in this respect, in the same breath with him [Browning]
-- approaches his power of analyzing and reproducing the morbid forms,
the corrupt semblances, the hypocrisies, formalisms, and fanaticisms of
man's religious life. The wildness of an Antinomian predestinarianism
has never been so grandly painted as in `Johannes Agricola
in Meditation'; the white heat of the persecutor glares on us,
like a nightmare spectre, in `The Heretic's Tragedy'.
More subtle forms are drawn with greater elaboration.
If `Bishop Blougram's Apology', in many of its circumstances
and touches, suggests the thought of actual portraiture,
recalling a form and face once familiar to us, . . .it is also
a picture of a class of minds which we meet with everywhere.
Conservative scepticism that persuades itself that it believes,
cynical acuteness in discerning the weak points either
of mere secularism or dreaming mysticism, or passionate eagerness
to reform, avoiding dangerous extremes, and taking things as they are
because they are comfortable, and lead to wealth, enjoyment,
reputation, -- this, whether a true account or not of the theologian
to whom we have referred. . .is yet to be found under many
eloquent defences of the faith, many fervent and scornful denunciations
of criticism and free thought. . . . In `Calaban upon Setebos',
if it is more than the product of Mr. Browning's fondness for
all abnormal forms of spiritual life, speculating among other things
on the religious thoughts of a half brute-like savage, we must see
a protest against the thought that man can rise by himself
to true thoughts of God, and develop a pure theology out of
his moral consciousness. So far it is a witness for the necessity
of a revelation, either through the immediate action of the Light
that lighteth every man, or that which has been given to mankind
in spoken or written words, by The WORD that was in the beginning.
In the `Death in the Desert', in like manner, we have another
school of thought analyzed with a corresponding subtlety. . . .
The `Death in the Dessert' is worth studying in its bearing upon
the mythical school of interpretation, and as a protest,
we would fain hope, from Mr. Browning's own mind against the thought
that because the love of God has been revealed in Christ,
and has taught us the greatness of all true human love, therefore,

"`We ourselves make the love, and Christ was not.'

"In one remarkable passage at the close of `The Legend of Pornic',
Mr. Browning, speaking apparently in his own person,
proclaims his belief in one great Christian doctrine,
which all pantheistic and atheistic systems formally repudiate,
and which many semi-Christian thinkers implicitly reject: --

"`The candid incline to surmise of late
That the Christian faith may be false, I find,
For our `Essays and Reviews'*1* debate
Begins to tell on the public mind,
And Colenso's*2* words have weight.

"`I still, to suppose it true, for my part,
See reasons and reasons: this, to begin --
'Tis the faith that launched point-blank her dart
At the head of a lie, -- taught Original Sin,
The Corruption of Man's Heart.'"

*1* A volume which appeared in 1860, made up of essays and reviews,
the several authors having "written in entire independence of each other,
and without concert or comparison". These essays and reviews offset
the extreme high church doctrine of the Tracts for the Times.
*2* John W. Colenso, Bishop of Natal, in South Africa;
he published works questioning the inspiration and historical accuracy
of certain parts of the Bible, among which was `The Pentateuch,
and the Book of Joshua critically examined'.

Holy-Cross Day.

On which the Jews were forced to attend an annual Christian sermon
in Rome.

The argument is sufficiently shown by what is prefixed to this poem.
The `Diary by the Bishop's Secretary, 1600', is presumably imaginary.


This is, in every respect, one of Browning's grandest poems; and in all
that is included in the idea of EXPRESSION, is quite perfect.

The portion of Scripture which is the germ of the poem,
and it is only the germ, is contained in the First Book of Samuel 16:14-23.

To the present consolation which David administers to Saul,
with harp and song, and the Scripture story does not go beyond this,
is added the assurance of the transmission of his personality,
and of the influence of his deeds; first, through those who have been
quickened by them, and who will, in turn, transmit that quickening --
"Each deed thou hast done, dies, revives, goes to work in the world:
. . .each ray of thy will, every flash of thy passion and prowess,
long over, shall thrill thy whole people, the countless, with ardor,
till they too give forth a like cheer to their sons: who, in turn,
fill the South and the North with the radiance thy deed was the germ of";
and, then, through records that will give unborn generations their due
and their part in his being.

The consolation is, moreover, carried beyond that afforded by
earthly fame and influence. David's yearnings to give Saul
"new life altogether, as good, ages hence, as this moment, --
had love but the warrant, love's heart to dispense", pass into
a prophecy, based on his own loving desires, of the God-Man
who shall throw open to Saul the gates of that new life.

With this prophecy, David leaves Saul. On his way home, in the night,
he represents himself as attended by witnesses, cohorts to left
and to right. At the dawn, all nature, the forests, the wind,
beasts and birds, even the serpent that slid away silent,
appear to him aware of the new law; the little brooks, witnessing,
murmured with all but hushed voices, "E'en so, it is so!"

A Death in the Desert.

`A Death in the Desert' appears to have been inspired by
the controversies in regard to the historical foundations
of Christianity, and, more especially, in regard to the character
and the authorship of the Fourth Gospel -- controversies which
received their first great impulse from the `Leben Jesu'
of David Friedrich Strauss, first published in 1835.
An English translation of the fourth edition, 1840, by Marian Evans
(George Eliot), was published in London, in 1846.

The immediate occasion of the composition of `A Death in the Desert'
was, perhaps, the publication, in 1863, of Joseph Ernest Renan's
`Vie de Jesus'. `A Death in the Desert' was included in the poet's
`Dramatis Personae', published in the following year.

"In style, the poem a little recalls `Cleon'; with less of
harmonious grace and clear classic outline, it possesses
a certain stilled sweetness, a meditative tenderness,
all its own, and beautifully appropriate to the utterance
of the `beloved disciple'." -- Arthur Symons.

During a persecution of the Christians, the aged John of Patmos
has been secretly conveyed, by some faithful disciples,
to a cave in the desert, where he is dying. Revived temporarily
by the tender ministrations of his disciples, he is enabled
to tell over his past labors in the service of his beloved Master,
to refute the Antichrist already in the world, and to answer
the questions which, with his far-reaching spiritual vision,
he foresees will be raised in regard to Christ's nature, life,
doctrine, and miracles, as recorded in the Gospel he has written.
These services he feels to be due from him, in his dying hour,
as the sole survivor of Christ's apostles and intimate companions.

This is the only composition in which Browning deals directly
with historical Christianity; and its main purpose may, in brief,
be said to be, to set forth the absoluteness of Christianity,
which cannot be affected by any assaults made upon its external,
historical character.

The doctrine of the trinal unity of man (the what Does, what Knows,
what Is) ascribed to John (vv. 82-104), and upon which his discourse
may be said to proceed, leads up the presentation of the final stage
of the Christian life on earth -- that stage when man has won his way
to the kingdom of the "what Is" within himself, and when he
no longer needs the outward supports to his faith which he needed
before he passed from the "what Knows". Christianity is a religion
which is only secondarily a doctrine addressed to the "what Knows".
It is, first of all, a religion whose fountain-head is a Personality
in whom all that is spiritually potential in man, was realized,
and in responding to whom the soul of man is quickened and regenerated.
And the Church, through the centuries, has been kept alive,
not by the letter of the New Testament, for the letter killeth,
but by a succession of quickened and regenerated spirits,
"the noble Living and the noble Dead", through whom the Christ
has been awakened and developed in other souls.


Wanting is -- What?

Wanting is -- what?
Summer redundant,
Blueness abundant,
-- Where is the spot?
Beamy the world, yet a blank all the same, [5]
-- Framework which waits for a picture to frame:
What of the leafage, what of the flower?
Roses embowering with nought they embower!
Come then, complete incompletion, O Comer,
Pant through the blueness, perfect the summer! [10]
Breathe but one breath
Rose-beauty above,
And all that was death
Grows life, grows love,
Grows love! [15]

4. spot: defect, imperfection.

9. O Comer: o` e'rxo/menos, Matt. 3:11; 11:3; 21:9; 23:39; Luke 19:38;
John 1:15; 3:31; 12:13. Without love, the Christ-spirit,
the spirit of the Comer, man sees, at best, only dynamic action,
blind force, in nature; but

"love greatens and glorifies
Till God's a-glow, to the loving eyes,
In what was mere earth before."
James Lee's Wife (Along the Beach).

My Star.

All that I know
Of a certain star
Is, it can throw
(Like the angled spar)
Now a dart of red, [5]
Now a dart of blue;
Till my friends have said
They would fain see, too,
My star that dartles the red and the blue!
Then it stops like a bird; like a flower, hangs furled: [10]
They must solace themselves with the Saturn above it.
What matter to me if their star is a world?
Mine has opened its soul to me; therefore I love it.

10. Then it stops like a bird: it beats no longer with emotion
responsive to loving eyes, but stops, as a bird stops its song
when disturbed.

The Flight of the Duchess.


You're my friend:
I was the man the Duke spoke to;
I helped the Duchess to cast off his yoke, too:
So, here's the tale from beginning to end,
My friend! [5]

2. I was the man: see vv. 440 and 847. He's proud of the honor
done him.


Ours is a great wild country:
If you climb to our castle's top,
I don't see where your eye can stop;
For when you've passed the corn-field country,
Where vineyards leave off, flocks are packed, [10]
And sheep-range leads to cattle-tract,
And cattle-tract to open-chase,
And open-chase to the very base
O' the mountain where, at a funeral pace,
Round about, solemn and slow,
One by one, row after row,
Up and up the pine-trees go,
So, like black priests up, and so
Down the other side again
To another greater, wilder country, [20]
That's one vast red drear burnt-up plain,
Branched through and through with many a vein
Whence iron's dug, and copper's dealt;
Look right, look left, look straight before, --
Beneath they mine, above they smelt,
Copper-ore and iron-ore,
And forge and furnace mould and melt,
And so on, more and ever more,
Till at the last, for a bounding belt,
Comes the salt sand hoar of the great seashore, [30]
-- And the whole is our Duke's country.


I was born the day this present Duke was --
(And O, says the song, ere I was old!)
In the castle where the other Duke was --
(When I was happy and young, not old!)
I in the kennel, he in the bower:
We are of like age to an hour.
My father was huntsman in that day:
Who has not heard my father say,
That, when a boar was brought to bay, [40]
Three times, four times out of five,
With his huntspear he'd contrive
To get the killing-place transfixed,
And pin him true, both eyes betwixt?
And that's why the old Duke would rather
He lost a salt-pit than my father,
And loved to have him ever in call;
That's why my father stood in the hall
When the old Duke brought his infant out
To show the people, and while they passed [50]
The wondrous bantling round about,
Was first to start at the outside blast
As the Kaiser's courier blew his horn,
Just a month after the babe was born.
"And," quoth the Kaiser's courier, "since
The Duke has got an heir, our Prince
Needs the Duke's self at his side":
The Duke looked down and seemed to wince,
But he thought of wars o'er the world wide,
Castles a-fire, men on their march, [60]
The toppling tower, the crashing arch;
And up he looked, and a while he eyed
The row of crests and shields and banners
Of all achievements after all manners,
And "Ay", said the Duke with a surly pride.
The more was his comfort when he died
At next year's end, in a velvet suit,
With a gilt glove on his hand, his foot
In a silken shoe for a leather boot,
Petticoated like a herald, [70]
In a chamber next to an ante-room,
Where he breathed the breath of page and groom,
What he called stink, and they, perfume:
-- They should have set him on red Berold
Mad with pride, like fire to manage!
They should have got his cheek fresh tannage
Such a day as to-day in the merry sunshine!
Had they stuck on his fist a rough-foot merlin!
(Hark, the wind's on the heath at its game!
Oh for a noble falcon-lanner [80]
To flap each broad wing like a banner,
And turn in the wind, and dance like flame!)
Had they broached a cask of white beer from Berlin!
-- Or if you incline to prescribe mere wine,
Put to his lips when they saw him pine,
A cup of our own Moldavia fine,
Cotnar for instance, green as May sorrel
And ropy with sweet, -- we shall not quarrel.

74. Berold: the old Duke's favorite hunting-horse.

78. merlin: a species of hawk.

80. falcon-lanner: a long-tailed species of hawk, `falco laniarius'.


So, at home, the sick tall yellow Duchess
Was left with the infant in her clutches, [90]
She being the daughter of God knows who:
And now was the time to revisit her tribe.
Abroad and afar they went, the two,
And let our people rail and gibe
At the empty hall and extinguished fire,
As loud as we liked, but ever in vain,
Till after long years we had our desire,
And back came the Duke and his mother again.


And he came back the pertest little ape
That ever affronted human shape; [100]
Full of his travel, struck at himself.
You'd say, he despised our bluff old ways?
-- Not he! For in Paris they told the elf
That our rough North land was the Land of Lays,
The one good thing left in evil days;
Since the Mid-Age was the Heroic Time,
And only in wild nooks like ours
Could you taste of it yet as in its prime,
And see true castles with proper towers,
Young-hearted women, old-minded men, [110]
And manners now as manners were then.
So, all that the old Dukes had been, without knowing it,
This Duke would fain know he was, without being it;
'Twas not for the joy's self, but the joy of his showing it,
Nor for the pride's self, but the pride of our seeing it,
He revived all usages thoroughly worn-out,
The souls of them fumed-forth, the hearts of them torn-out:
And chief in the chase his neck he perilled,
On a lathy horse, all legs and length,
With blood for bone, all speed, no strength; [120]
-- They should have set him on red Berold
With the red eye slow consuming in fire,
And the thin stiff ear like an abbey spire!

101. struck at himself: astonished at his own importance.

119. lathy: long and slim.


Well, such as he was, he must marry, we heard;
And out of a convent, at the word,
Came the lady, in time of spring.
-- Oh, old thoughts they cling, they cling!
That day, I know, with a dozen oaths
I clad myself in thick hunting-clothes
Fit for the chase of urox or buffle [130]
In winter-time when you need to muffle.
But the Duke had a mind we should cut a figure,
And so we saw the lady arrive:
My friend, I have seen a white crane bigger!
She was the smallest lady alive,
Made in a piece of nature's madness,
Too small, almost, for the life and gladness
That over-filled her, as some hive
Out of the bears' reach on the high trees
Is crowded with its safe merry bees: [140]
In truth, she was not hard to please!
Up she looked, down she looked, round at the mead,
Straight at the castle, that's best indeed
To look at from outside the walls:
As for us, styled the "serfs and thralls",
She as much thanked me as if she had said it,
(With her eyes, do you understand?)
Because I patted her horse while I led it;
And Max, who rode on her other hand,
Said, no bird flew past but she inquired [150]
What its true name was, nor ever seemed tired --
If that was an eagle she saw hover,
And the green and gray bird on the field was the plover,
When suddenly appeared the Duke:
And as down she sprung, the small foot pointed
On to my hand, -- as with a rebuke,
And as if his backbone were not jointed,
The Duke stepped rather aside than forward,
And welcomed her with his grandest smile;
And, mind you, his mother all the while [160]
Chilled in the rear, like a wind to nor'ward;
And up, like a weary yawn, with its pulleys
Went, in a shriek, the rusty portcullis;
And, like a glad sky the north-wind sullies,
The lady's face stopped its play,
As if her first hair had grown gray;
For such things must begin some one day.

130. urox: wild bull; Ger. `auer-ochs'. buffle: buffalo.


In a day or two she was well again;
As who should say, "You labor in vain!
This is all a jest against God, who meant [170]
I should ever be, as I am, content
And glad in his sight; therefore, glad I will be."
So, smiling as at first went she.


She was active, stirring, all fire --
Could not rest, could not tire --
To a stone she might have given life!
(I myself loved once, in my day)
-- For a shepherd's, miner's, huntsman's wife,
(I had a wife, I know what I say)
Never in all the world such an one! [180]
And here was plenty to be done,
And she that could do it, great or small,
She was to do nothing at all.
There was already this man in his post,
This in his station, and that in his office,
And the Duke's plan admitted a wife, at most,
To meet his eye, with the other trophies,
Now outside the hall, now in it,
To sit thus, stand thus, see and be seen,
At the proper place in the proper minute, [190]
And die away the life between.
And it was amusing enough, each infraction
Of rule -- (but for after-sadness that came)
To hear the consummate self-satisfaction
With which the young Duke and the old dame
Would let her advise, and criticise,
And, being a fool, instruct the wise,
And, childlike, parcel out praise or blame:
They bore it all in complacent guise,
As though an artificer, after contriving [200]
A wheel-work image as if it were living,
Should find with delight it could motion to strike him!
So found the Duke, and his mother like him:
The lady hardly got a rebuff --
That had not been contemptuous enough,
With his cursed smirk, as he nodded applause,
And kept off the old mother-cat's claws.

180. such an one: i.e., for a shepherd's, miner's, huntsman's wife.


So, the little lady grew silent and thin,
Paling and ever paling,
As the way is with a hid chagrin; [210]
And the Duke perceived that she was ailing,
And said in his heart, "'Tis done to spite me,
But I shall find in my power to right me!"
Don't swear, friend! The old one, many a year,
Is in hell; and the Duke's self. . .you shall hear.


Well, early in autumn, at first winter-warning,
When the stag had to break with his foot, of a morning,
A drinking-hole out of the fresh tender ice,
That covered the pond till the sun, in a trice,
Loosening it, let out a ripple of gold, [220]
And another and another, and faster and faster,
Till, dimpling to blindness, the wide water rolled,
Then it so chanced that the Duke our master
Asked himself what were the pleasures in season,
And found, since the calendar bade him be hearty,
He should do the Middle Age no treason
In resolving on a hunting-party,
Always provided, old books showed the way of it!
What meant old poets by their strictures?
And when old poets had said their say of it, [230]
How taught old painters in their pictures?
We must revert to the proper channels,
Workings in tapestry, paintings on panels,
And gather up woodcraft's authentic traditions:
Here was food for our various ambitions,
As on each case, exactly stated --
To encourage your dog, now, the properest chirrup,
Or best prayer to St. Hubert on mounting your stirrup --
We of the household took thought and debated.
Blessed was he whose back ached with the jerkin [240]
His sire was wont to do forest-work in;
Blesseder he who nobly sunk "ohs"
And "ahs" while he tugged on his grandsire's trunk-hose;
What signified hats if they had no rims on,
Each slouching before and behind like the scallop,
And able to serve at sea for a shallop,
Loaded with lacquer and looped with crimson?
So that the deer now, to make a short rhyme on't,
What with our Venerers, Prickers, and Verderers,
Might hope for real hunters at length and not murderers, [250]
And oh the Duke's tailor, he had a hot time on't!

238. St. Hubert: patron saint of huntsmen.

247. lacquer: yellowish varnish.

249. Venerers, Prickers, and Verderers: huntsmen, light-horsemen,
and guardians of the vert and venison in the Duke's forest.


Now you must know that when the first dizziness
Of flap-hats and buff-coats and jack-boots subsided,
The Duke put this question, "The Duke's part provided,
Had not the Duchess some share in the business?"
For out of the mouth of two or three witnesses
Did he establish all fit-or-unfitnesses;
And, after much laying of heads together,
Somebody's cap got a notable feather
By the announcement with proper unction [260]
That he had discovered the lady's function;
Since ancient authors gave this tenet,
"When horns wind a mort and the deer is at siege,
Let the dame of the castle prick forth on her jennet,
And with water to wash the hands of her liege
In a clean ewer with a fair towelling,
Let her preside at the disembowelling."
Now, my friend, if you had so little religion
As to catch a hawk, some falcon-lanner,
And thrust her broad wings like a banner [270]
Into a coop for a vulgar pigeon;
And if day by day and week by week
You cut her claws, and sealed her eyes,
And clipped her wings, and tied her beak,
Would it cause you any great surprise
If, when you decided to give her an airing,
You found she needed a little preparing? --
I say, should you be such a curmudgeon,
If she clung to the perch, as to take it in dudgeon?
Yet when the Duke to his lady signified, [280]
Just a day before, as he judged most dignified,
In what a pleasure she was to participate, --
And, instead of leaping wide in flashes,
Her eyes just lifted their long lashes,
As if pressed by fatigue even he could not dissipate,
And duly acknowledged the Duke's forethought,
But spoke of her health, if her health were worth aught,
Of the weight by day and the watch by night,
And much wrong now that used to be right,
So, thanking him, declined the hunting, -- [290]
Was conduct ever more affronting?
With all the ceremony settled --
With the towel ready, and the sewer
Polishing up his oldest ewer,
And the jennet pitched upon, a piebald,
Black-barred, cream-coated, and pink eye-balled, --
No wonder if the Duke was nettled!
And when she persisted nevertheless, --
Well, I suppose here's the time to confess
That there ran half round our lady's chamber [300]
A balcony none of the hardest to clamber;
And that Jacynth the tire-woman, ready in waiting,
Staid in call outside, what need of relating?
And since Jacynth was like a June rose, why, a fervent
Adorer of Jacynth of course was your servant;
And if she had the habit to peep through the casement,
How could I keep at any vast distance?
And so, as I say, on the lady's persistence,
The Duke, dumb stricken with amazement,
Stood for a while in a sultry smother, [310]
And then, with a smile that partook of the awful,
Turned her over to his yellow mother
To learn what was decorous and lawful;
And the mother smelt blood with a cat-like instinct,
As her cheek quick whitened through all its quince-tinct.
Oh, but the lady heard the whole truth at once!
What meant she? -- Who was she? -- Her duty and station,
The wisdom of age and the folly of youth, at once,
Its decent regard and its fitting relation --
In brief, my friends, set all the devils in hell free [320]
And turn them out to carouse in a belfry
And treat the priests to a fifty-part canon,
And then you may guess how that tongue of hers ran on!
Well, somehow or other it ended at last,
And, licking her whiskers, out she passed;
And after her, -- making (he hoped) a face
Like Emperor Nero or Sultan Saladin,
Stalked the Duke's self with the austere grace
Of ancient hero or modern paladin,
From door to staircase -- oh, such a solemn [330]
Unbending of the vertebral column!

263. wind a mort: announce that the deer is taken.

273. sealed: more properly spelt `seeled', a term in falconry;
Lat. `cilium', an eyelid; `seel', to close up the eyelids of a hawk,
or other bird (Fr. `ciller les yeux'). "Come, seeling Night,
Skarfe vp the tender Eye of pittiful Day." `Macbeth', III. II. 46.

322. fifty-part canon: "A canon, in music, is a piece wherein
the subject is repeated, in various keys: and being strictly obeyed
in the repetition, becomes the `canon' -- the imperative LAW --
to what follows. Fifty of such parts would be indeed a notable peal:
to manage three is enough of an achievement for a good musician."
-- From Poet's Letter to the Editor.


However, at sunrise our company mustered;
And here was the huntsman bidding unkennel,
And there 'neath his bonnet the pricker blustered,
With feather dank as a bough of wet fennel;
For the court-yard walls were filled with fog
You might cut as an axe chops a log --
Like so much wool for color and bulkiness;
And out rode the Duke in a perfect sulkiness,
Since, before breakfast, a man feels but queasily, [340]
And a sinking at the lower abdomen
Begins the day with indifferent omen.
And lo! as he looked around uneasily,
The sun ploughed the fog up and drove it asunder,
This way and that, from the valley under;
And, looking through the court-yard arch,
Down in the valley, what should meet him
But a troop of gypsies on their march?
No doubt with the annual gifts to greet him.


Now, in your land, gypsies reach you, only [350]
After reaching all lands beside;
North they go, South they go, trooping or lonely,
And still, as they travel far and wide,
Catch they and keep now a trace here, a trace there,
That puts you in mind of a place here, a place there.
But with us, I believe they rise out of the ground,
And nowhere else, I take it, are found
With the earth-tint yet so freshly embrowned;
Born, no doubt, like insects which breed on
The very fruit they are meant to feed on. [360]
For the earth -- not a use to which they don't turn it,
The ore that grows in the mountain's womb,
Or the sand in the pits like a honeycomb,
They sift and soften it, bake it and burn it --
Whether they weld you, for instance, a snaffle
With side-bars never a brute can baffle;
Or a lock that's a puzzle of wards within wards;
Or, if your colt's fore foot inclines to curve inwards,
Horseshoes they hammer which turn on a swivel
And won't allow the hoof to shrivel. [370]
Then they cast bells like the shell of the winkle
That keep a stout heart in the ram with their tinkle;
But the sand -- they pinch and pound it like otters;
Commend me to gypsy glass-makers and potters!
Glasses they'll blow you, crystal-clear,
Where just a faint cloud of rose shall appear,
As if in pure water you dropped and let die
A bruised black-blooded mulberry;
And that other sort, their crowning pride,
With long white threads distinct inside, [380]
Like the lake-flower's fibrous roots which dangle
Loose such a length and never tangle,
Where the bold sword-lily cuts the clear waters,
And the cup-lily couches with all the white daughters:
Such are the works they put their hand to,
The uses they turn and twist iron and sand to.
And these made the troop, which our Duke saw sally
Toward his castle from out of the valley,
Men and women, like new-hatched spiders,
Come out with the morning to greet our riders. [390]
And up they wound till they reached the ditch,
Whereat all stopped save one, a witch
That I knew, as she hobbled from the group,
By her gait directly and her stoop,
I, whom Jacynth was used to importune
To let that same witch tell us our fortune.
The oldest gypsy then above ground;
And, sure as the autumn season came round,
She paid us a visit for profit or pastime,
And every time, as she swore, for the last time. [400]
And presently she was seen to sidle
Up to the Duke till she touched his bridle,
So that the horse of a sudden reared up
As under its nose the old witch peered up
With her worn-out eyes, or rather eye-holes,
Of no use now but to gather brine,
And began a kind of level whine
Such as they used to sing to their viols
When their ditties they go grinding
Up and down with nobody minding; [410]
And then, as of old, at the end of the humming
Her usual presents were forthcoming
-- A dog-whistle blowing the fiercest of trebles
(Just a seashore stone holding a dozen fine pebbles),
Or a porcelain mouth-piece to screw on a pipe-end, --
And so she awaited her annual stipend.
But this time, the Duke would scarcely vouchsafe
A word in reply; and in vain she felt
With twitching fingers at her belt
For the purse of sleek pine-martin pelt, [420]
Ready to put what he gave in her pouch safe, --
Till, either to quicken his apprehension,
Or possibly with an after-intention,
She was come, she said, to pay her duty
To the new Duchess, the youthful beauty.
No sooner had she named his lady,
Than a shine lit up the face so shady,
And its smirk returned with a novel meaning --
For it struck him, the babe just wanted weaning;
If one gave her a taste of what life was and sorrow, [430]
She, foolish to-day, would be wiser to-morrow;
And who so fit a teacher of trouble
As this sordid crone bent well-nigh double?
So, glancing at her wolf-skin vesture
(If such it was, for they grow so hirsute
That their own fleece serves for natural fur-suit)
He was contrasting, 'twas plain from his gesture,
The life of the lady so flower-like and delicate
With the loathsome squalor of this helicat.
I, in brief, was the man the Duke beckoned [440]
From out of the throng; and while I drew near
He told the crone -- as I since have reckoned
By the way he bent and spoke into her ear
With circumspection and mystery --
The main of the lady's history,
Her frowardness and ingratitude;
And for all the crone's submissive attitude
I could see round her mouth the loose plaits tightening,
And her brow with assenting intelligence brightening,
As though she engaged with hearty good will [450]
Whatever he now might enjoin to fulfil,
And promised the lady a thorough frightening.
And so, just giving her a glimpse
Of a purse, with the air of a man who imps
The wing of the hawk that shall fetch the hernshaw,
He bade me take the gypsy mother
And set her telling some story or other
Of hill and dale, oak-wood or fernshaw,
To while away a weary hour
For the lady left alone in her bower, [460]
Whose mind and body craved exertion
And yet shrank from all better diversion.

354. Catch they and keep: i.e., in their expression, or bearing,
or manner.

407. level: monotonous.

439. helicat: for hell-cat? hag or witch.

454. imps: repairs a wing by inserting feathers; `impen' or `ympen',
in O. E., means to ingraft. "It often falls out that a hawk
breaks her wing and train-feathers, so that others must be set
in their steads, which is termed `ymping' them."
-- The Gentleman's Recreation, Part 2, Hawking, 1686.


Then clapping heel to his horse, the mere curveter,
Out rode the Duke, and after his hollo
Horses and hounds swept, huntsman and servitor,
And back I turned and bade the crone follow.
And what makes me confident what's to be told you
Had all along been of this crone's devising,
Is, that, on looking round sharply, behold you,
There was a novelty quick as surprising: [470]
For first, she had shot up a full head in stature,
And her step kept pace with mine nor faltered,
As if age had foregone its usurpature,
And the ignoble mien was wholly altered,
And the face looked quite of another nature,
And the change reached too, whatever the change meant,
Her shaggy wolf-skin cloak's arrangment:
For where its tatters hung loose like sedges,
Gold coins were glittering on the edges,
Like the band-roll strung with tomans [480]
Which proves the veil a Persian woman's:
And under her brow, like a snail's horns newly
Come out as after the rain he paces,
Two unmistakable eye-points duly
Live and aware looked out of their places.
So, we went and found Jacynth at the entry
Of the lady's chamber standing sentry;
I told the command and produced my companion,
And Jacynth rejoiced to admit any one,
For since last night, by the same token, [490]
Not a single word had the lady spoken:
They went in both to the presence together,
While I in the balcony watched the weather.

463. curveter: a leaping horse.

480. tomans: Persian coins.

490. by the same token: by a presentiment or forewarning of the same.


And now, what took place at the very first of all,
I cannot tell, as I never could learn it:
Jacynth constantly wished a curse to fall
On that little head of hers and burn it
If she knew how she came to drop so soundly
Asleep of a sudden, and there continue
The whole time, sleeping as profoundly [500]
As one of the boars my father would pin you
'Twixt the eyes where life holds garrison,
-- Jacynth, forgive me the comparison!
But where I begin my own narration
Is a little after I took my station
To breathe the fresh air from the balcony,
And, having in those days a falcon eye,
To follow the hunt through the open country,
From where the bushes thinlier crested
The hillocks, to a plain where's not one tree. [510]
When, in a moment, my ear was arrested
By -- was it singing, or was it saying,
Or a strange musical instrument playing
In the chamber? -- and to be certain
I pushed the lattice, pulled the curtain,
And there lay Jacynth asleep,
Yet as if a watch she tried to keep,
In a rosy sleep along the floor
With her head against the door;
While in the midst, on the seat of state, [520]
Was a queen -- the gypsy woman late,
With head and face downbent
On the lady's head and face intent:
For, coiled at her feet like a child at ease,
The lady sat between her knees,
And o'er them the lady's clasped hands met,
And on those hands her chin was set,
And her upturned face met the face of the crone
Wherein the eyes had grown and grown
As if she could double and quadruple [530]
At pleasure the play of either pupil
-- Very like, by her hands' slow fanning,
As up and down like a gor-crow's flappers
They moved to measure, or bell-clappers.
I said, "Is it blessing, is it banning,
Do they applaud you or burlesque you --
Those hands and fingers with no flesh on?"
But, just as I thought to spring in to the rescue,
At once I was stopped by the lady's expression:
For it was life her eyes were drinking [540]
From the crone's wide pair above unwinking,
-- Life's pure fire, received without shrinking,
Into the heart and breast whose heaving
Told you no single drop they were leaving,
-- Life that, filling her, passed redundant
Into her very hair, back swerving
Over each shoulder, loose and abundant,
As her head thrown back showed the white throat curving;
And the very tresses shared in the pleasure,
Moving to the mystic measure, [550]
Bounding as the bosom bounded.
I stopped short, more and more confounded,
As still her cheeks burned and eyes glistened,
As she listened and she listened:
When all at once a hand detained me,
The selfsame contagion gained me,
And I kept time to the wondrous chime,
Making out words and prose and rhyme,
Till it seemed that the music furled
Its wings like a task fulfilled, and dropped [560]
From under the words it first had propped,
And left them midway in the world,
Word took word as hand takes hand,
I could hear at last, and understand,
And when I held the unbroken thread,
The gypsy said: --

"And so at last we find my tribe.
And so I set thee in the midst,
And to one and all of them describe
What thou saidst and what thou didst, [570]
Our long and terrible journey through,
And all thou art ready to say and do
In the trials that remain:
I trace them the vein and the other vein
That meet on thy brow and part again,
Making our rapid mystic mark;
And I bid my people prove and probe
Each eye's profound and glorious globe,
Till they detect the kindred spark
In those depths so dear and dark, [580]
Like the spots that snap and burst and flee,
Circling over the midnight sea.
And on that round young cheek of thine
I make them recognize the tinge,
As when of the costly scarlet wine
They drip so much as will impinge
And spread in a thinnest scale afloat
One thick gold drop from the olive's coat
Over a silver plate whose sheen
Still through the mixture shall be seen. [590]
For so I prove thee, to one and all,
Fit, when my people ope their breast,
To see the sign, and hear the call,
And take the vow, and stand the test
Which adds one more child to the rest --
When the breast is bare and the arms are wide,
And the world is left outside.
For there is probation to decree,
And many and long must the trials be
Thou shalt victoriously endure, [600]
If that brow is true and those eyes are sure;
Like a jewel-finder's fierce assay
Of the prize he dug from its mountain tomb, --
Let once the vindicating ray
Leap out amid the anxious gloom,
And steel and fire have done their part,
And the prize falls on its finder's heart;
So, trial after trial past,
Wilt thou fall at the very last
Breathless, half in trance [610]
With the thrill of the great deliverance,
Into our arms forevermore;
And thou shalt know, those arms once curled
About thee, what we knew before,
How love is the only good in the world.
Henceforth be loved as heart can love,
Or brain devise, or hand approve!
Stand up, look below,
It is our life at thy feet we throw
To step with into light and joy; [620]
Not a power of life but we employ
To satisfy thy nature's want;
Art thou the tree that props the plant,
Or the climbing plant that seeks the tree --
Canst thou help us, must we help thee?
If any two creatures grew into one,
They would do more than the world has done;
Though each apart were never so weak,
Ye vainly through the world should seek
For the knowledge and the might [630]
Which in such union grew their right:
So, to approach at least that end,
And blend, -- as much as may be, blend
Thee with us or us with thee, --
As climbing plant or propping tree,
Shall some one deck thee over and down,
Up and about, with blossoms and leaves?
Fix his heart's fruit for thy garland crown,
Cling with his soul as the gourd-vine cleaves,
Die on thy boughs and disappear [640]
While not a leaf of thine is sere?
Or is the other fate in store,
And art thou fitted to adore,
To give thy wondrous self away,
And take a stronger nature's sway?
I foresee and could foretell
Thy future portion, sure and well:
But those passionate eyes speak true, speak true,
Let them say what thou shalt do!
Only be sure thy daily life, [650]
In its peace or in its strife,
Never shall be unobserved;
We pursue thy whole career,
And hope for it, or doubt, or fear, --
Lo, hast thou kept thy path or swerved,
We are beside thee in all thy ways,
With our blame, with our praise,
Our shame to feel, our pride to show,
Glad, angry -- but indifferent, no!
Whether it be thy lot to go, [660]
For the good of us all, where the haters meet
In the crowded city's horrible street;
Or thou step alone through the morass
Where never sound yet was
Save the dry quick clap of the stork's bill,
For the air is still, and the water still,
When the blue breast of the dipping coot
Dives under, and all is mute.
So at the last shall come old age,
Decrepit as befits that stage; [670]
How else wouldst thou retire apart
With the hoarded memories of thy heart,
And gather all the very least
Of the fragments of life's earlier feast,
Let fall through eagerness to find
The crowning dainties yet behind?
Ponder on the entire past
Laid together thus at last,
When the twilight helps to fuse
The first fresh with the faded hues, [680]
And the outline of the whole,
As round eve's shades their framework roll,
Grandly fronts for once thy soul.
And then as, 'mid the dark, a gleam
Of yet another morning breaks,
And like the hand which ends a dream,
Death, with the might of his sunbeam,
Touches the flesh and the soul awakes,
Then" --
Ay, then indeed something would happen!
But what? For here her voice changed like a bird's; [690]
There grew more of the music and less of the words;
Had Jacynth only been by me to clap pen
To paper and put you down every syllable
With those clever clerkly fingers,
All I've forgotten as well as what lingers
In this old brain of mine that's but ill able
To give you even this poor version
Of the speech I spoil, as it were, with stammering!
-- More fault of those who had the hammering
Or prosody into me and syntax, [700]
And did it, not with hobnails but tintacks!
But to return from this excursion, --
Just, do you mark, when the song was sweetest,
The peace most deep and the charm completest,
There came, shall I say, a snap --
And the charm vanished!
And my sense returned, so strangely banished,
And, starting as from a nap,
I knew the crone was bewitching my lady,
With Jacynth asleep; and but one spring made I [710]
Down from the casement, round to the portal,
Another minute and I had entered, --
When the door opened, and more than mortal
Stood, with a face where to my mind centred
All beauties I ever saw or shall see,
The Duchess: I stopped as if struck by palsy.
She was so different, happy and beautiful,
I felt at once that all was best,
And that I had nothing to do, for the rest,
But wait her commands, obey and be dutiful. [720]
Not that, in fact, there was any commanding;
I saw the glory of her eye,
And the brow's height and the breast's expanding,
And I was hers to live or to die.
As for finding what she wanted,
You know God Almighty granted
Such little signs should serve wild creatures
To tell one another all their desires,
So that each knows what his friend requires,
And does its bidding without teachers. [730]
I preceded her; the crone
Followed silent and alone;
I spoke to her, but she merely jabbered
In the old style; both her eyes had slunk
Back to their pits; her stature shrunk;
In short, the soul in its body sunk
Like a blade sent home to its scabbard.
We descended, I preceding;
Crossed the court with nobody heeding;
All the world was at the chase, [740]
The court-yard like a desert-place,
The stable emptied of its small fry;
I saddled myself the very palfrey
I remember patting while it carried her,
The day she arrived and the Duke married her.
And, do you know, though it's easy deceiving
One's self in such matters, I can't help believing
The lady had not forgotten it either,
And knew the poor devil so much beneath her
Would have been only too glad, for her service, [750]
To dance on hot ploughshares like a Turk dervise,
But, unable to pay proper duty where owing it,
Was reduced to that pitiful method of showing it.
For though, the moment I began setting
His saddle on my own nag of Berold's begetting
(Not that I meant to be obtrusive),
She stopped me, while his rug was shifting,
By a single rapid finger's lifting,
And, with a gesture kind but conclusive,
And a little shake of the head, refused me, -- [760]
I say, although she never used me,
Yet when she was mounted, the gypsy behind her,
And I ventured to remind her,
I suppose with a voice of less steadiness
Than usual, for my feeling exceeded me,
-- Something to the effect that I was in readiness
Whenever God should please she needed me, --
Then, do you know, her face looked down on me
With a look that placed a crown on me,
And she felt in her bosom, -- mark, her bosom -- [770]
And, as a flower-tree drops its blossom,
Dropped me. . .ah! had it been a purse
Of silver, my friend, or gold that's worse,
Why, you see, as soon as I found myself
So understood, -- that a true heart so may gain
Such a reward, -- I should have gone home again,
Kissed Jacynth, and soberly drowned myself!
It was a little plait of hair
Such as friends in a convent make
To wear, each for the other's sake, -- [780]
This, see, which at my breast I wear,
Ever did (rather to Jacynth's grudgment),
And ever shall, till the Day of Judgment.
And then, -- and then, -- to cut short, -- this is idle,
These are feelings it is not good to foster, --
I pushed the gate wide, she shook the bridle,
And the palfrey bounded, -- and so we lost her.

501. you: ethical dative; there are several examples in the poem,
and of "me"; see especially v. 876.

586. impinge: to strike or fall upon or against;
in the following passage used ethically: --

"For I find this black mark impinge the man,
That he believes in just the vile of life."
-- The Ring and the Book: The Pope, v. 511.

567-689. "When higher laws draw the spirit out of itself
into the life of others; when grief has waked in it,
not a self-centred despair, but a divine sympathy; when it looks
from the narrow limits of its own suffering to the largeness
of the world and the sorrows it can lighten, we can dimly apprehend
that it has taken flight and has found its freedom in a region whither
earth-bound spirits cannot follow it. Surely the Gypsy's message
was this -- if the Duchess would leave her own troubles
and throw herself into the life of others, she would be free.
None can give true sympathy but those who have suffered and learnt
to love, therefore she must be proved, -- `Fit when my people
ope their breast', etc. (vv. 592-601). Passing from the bondage
she has endured she will still have trials, but the old pain
will have no power to touch her. She has learnt all it can teach,
and the world will be richer for it. The Gypsy Queen will not foretell
what her future life may be; the true powers of self-less love
are not yet gauged, and the power of the union of those that truly love
has never been tried. `If any two creatures grew into one', etc.
(vv. 626-631). Love at its highest is not yet known to us,
but the passionate eyes of the Duchess tell us it will not be
a life of quiescence. Giving herself out freely for the good of all
she can never be alone again, -- `We are beside thee in all thy ways'.
The great company of those who need her, the gypsy band of all
human claims. Death to such a life is but `the hand that ends a dream'.
What was to come after not even the Gypsy Queen could tell."
-- Mrs. Owen (`Browning Soc. Papers', Part IV. p. 52*).

712. had: past subj., should have.

753. that pitiful method: i.e., patting her palfrey.

784. And then, -- and then: his feelings overcome him.


When the liquor's out why clink the cannikin?
I did think to describe you the panic in
The redoubtable breast of our master the manikin, [790]
And what was the pitch of his mother's yellowness,
How she turned as a shark to snap the spare-rib
Clean off, sailors say, from a pearl-diving Carib,
When she heard, what she called the flight of the feloness
-- But it seems such child's play,
What they said and did with the lady away!
And to dance on, when we've lost the music,
Always made me -- and no doubt makes you -- sick.
Nay, to my mind, the world's face looked so stern
As that sweet form disappeared through the postern, [800]
She that kept it in constant good humor,
It ought to have stopped; there seemed nothing to do more.
But the world thought otherwise and went on,
And my head's one that its spite was spent on:
Thirty years are fled since that morning,
And with them all my head's adorning.
Nor did the old Duchess die outright,
As you expect, of suppressed spite,
The natural end of every adder
Not suffered to empty its poison-bladder: [810]
But she and her son agreed, I take it,
That no one should touch on the story to wake it,
For the wound in the Duke's pride rankled fiery;
So, they made no search and small inquiry:
And when fresh gypsies have paid us a visit, I've
Noticed the couple were never inquisitive,
But told them they're folks the Duke don't want here,
And bade them make haste and cross the frontier.
Brief, the Duchess was gone and the Duke was glad of it,
And the old one was in the young one's stead, [820]
And took, in her place, the household's head,
And a blessed time the household had of it!
And were I not, as a man may say, cautious
How I trench, more than needs, on the nauseous,
I could favor you with sundry touches
Of the paint-smutches with which the Duchess
Heightened the mellowness of her cheek's yellowness
(To get on faster) until at last her
Cheek grew to be one master-plaster
Of mucus and fucus from mere use of ceruse: [830]
In short, she grew from scalp to udder
Just the object to make you shudder.

793. Carib: a Caribbee, a native of the Caribbean islands.


You're my friend --
What a thing friendship is, world without end!
How it gives the heart and soul a stir-up
As if somebody broached you a glorious runlet,
And poured out, all lovelily, sparklingly, sunlit,
Our green Moldavia, the streaky syrup,
Cotnar as old as the time of the Druids --
Friendship may match with that monarch of fluids; [840]
Each supples a dry brain, fills you its ins-and-outs,
Gives your life's hour-glass a shake when the thin sand doubts
Whether to run on or stop short, and guarantees
Age is not all made of stark sloth and arrant ease.
I have seen my little lady once more,
Jacynth, the gypsy, Berold, and the rest of it,
For to me spoke the Duke, as I told you before;
I always wanted to make a clean breast of it:
And now it is made -- why, my heart's blood, that went trickle,
Trickle, but anon, in such muddy driblets, [850]
Is pumped up brisk now, through the main ventricle,
And genially floats me about the giblets.
I'll tell you what I intend to do:
I must see this fellow his sad life through --
He is our Duke, after all,
And I, as he says, but a serf and thrall.
My father was born here, and I inherit
His fame, a chain he bound his son with;
Could I pay in a lump I should prefer it,
But there's no mine to blow up and get done with: [860]
So, I must stay till the end of the chapter.
For, as to our middle-age-manners-adapter,
Be it a thing to be glad on or sorry on,
Some day or other, his head in a morion
And breast in a hauberk, his heels he'll kick up,
Slain by an onslaught fierce of hiccup.
And then, when red doth the sword of our Duke rust,
And its leathern sheath lie o'ergrown with a blue crust,
Then I shall scrape together my earnings;
For, you see, in the churchyard Jacynth reposes, [870]
And our children all went the way of the roses:
It's a long lane that knows no turnings.
One needs but little tackle to travel in;
So, just one stout cloak shall I indue:
And for a staff, what beats the javelin
With which his boars my father pinned you?
And then, for a purpose you shall hear presently,
Taking some Cotnar, a tight plump skinful,
I shall go journeying, who but I, pleasantly!
Sorrow is vain and despondency sinful. [880]
What's a man's age? He must hurry more, that's all;
Cram in a day, what his youth took a year to hold:
When we mind labor, then only, we're too old --
What age had Methusalem when he begat Saul?
And at last, as its haven some buffeted ship sees
(Come all the way from the north-parts with sperm oil),
I hope to get safely out of the turmoil
And arrive one day at the land of the gypsies,
And find my lady, or hear the last news of her
From some old thief and son of Lucifer, [890]
His forehead chapleted green with wreathy hop,
Sunburned all over like an Aethiop.
And when my Cotnar begins to operate
And the tongue of the rogue to run at a proper rate,
And our wine-skin, tight once, shows each flaccid dent,
I shall drop in with -- as if by accident --
"You never knew, then, how it all ended,
What fortune good or bad attended
The little lady your Queen befriended?"
-- And when that's told me, what's remaining? [900]
This world's too hard for my explaining.
The same wise judge of matters equine
Who still preferred some slim four-year-old
To the big-boned stock of mighty Berold,
And, for strong Cotnar, drank French weak wine,
He also must be such a lady's scorner!
Smooth Jacob still robs homely Esau:
Now up, now down, the world's one seesaw.
-- So, I shall find out some snug corner
Under a hedge, like Orson the wood-knight, [910]
Turn myself round and bid the world goodnight;
And sleep a sound sleep till the trumpet's blowing
Wakes me (unless priests cheat us laymen)
To a world where will be no further throwing
Pearls before swine that can't value them. Amen!

845. I have seen: i.e., in imagination, while telling the story.

864. morion: a sort of helmet.

884. What age had Methusalem: the old man forgets his Bible.

906. He also must be such a lady's scorner: he who is such
a poor judge of horses and wines.

910. Orson the wood-knight (Fr. `ourson', a small bear):
twin-brother of Valentine, and son of Bellisant. The brothers
were born in a wood near Orleans, and Orson was carried off by a bear,
which suckled him with her cubs. When he grew up, he became
the terror of France, and was called "The Wild Man of the Forest".
Ultimately he was reclaimed by his brother Valentine,
overthrew the Green Knight, his rival in love, and married Fezon,
daughter of the duke of Savary, in Aquitaine. -- `Romance of
Valentine and Orson' (15th cent.). Brewer's `Reader's Handbook'
and `Dictionary of Phrase and Fable'.

The Last Ride Together.


I said -- Then, dearest, since 'tis so,
Since now at length my fate I know,
Since nothing all my love avails,
Since all, my life seemed meant for, fails,
Since this was written and needs must be --
My whole heart rises up to bless
Your name in pride and thankfulness!
Take back the hope you gave, -- I claim
Only a memory of the same,
-- And this beside, if you will not blame,
Your leave for one more last ride with me.

St. 1. Browning has no moping melancholy lovers. His lovers generally
reflect his own manliness; and when their passion is unrequited,
they acknowledge the absolute value of love to their own souls.
As Mr. James Thomson, in his `Notes on the Genius of Robert Browning',
remarks (`B. Soc. Papers', Part II., p. 246), "Browning's passion
is as intense, noble, and manly as his intellect is profound and subtle,
and therefore original. I would especially insist on its manliness,
because our present literature abounds in so-called passion
which is but half-sincere or wholly insincere sentimentalism,
if it be not thinly disguised prurient lust, and in so-called pathos
which is maudlin to nauseousness. The great unappreciated poet
last cited [George Meredith] has defined passion as `noble strength
on fire'; and this is the true passion of great natures and great poets;
while sentimentalism is ignoble weakness dallying with fire; . . .
Browning's passion is of utter self-sacrifice, self-annihilation,
self-vindicated by its irresistible intensity. So we read it
in `Time's Revenges', so in the scornful condemnation of
the weak lovers in `The Statue and the Bust', so in `In a Balcony',
and `Two in the Campagna', with its

"`Infinite passion and the pain
Of finite hearts that yearn.'

Is the love rejected, unreturned? No weak and mean upbraidings of
the beloved, no futile complaints; a solemn resignation to
immitigable Fate; intense gratitude for inspiring love
to the unloving beloved. So in `A Serenade at the Villa';
so in `One Way of Love', with its

"`My whole life long I learned to love.
This hour my utmost art I prove
And speak my passion. -- Heaven or Hell?
She will not give me Heaven? 'Tis well!
Lose who may -- I still can say,
Those who win Heaven, blest are they!'

So in `The Last Ride Together', with its

"`I said -- Then, dearest, since 'tis so,'" etc.


My mistress bent that brow of hers;
Those deep dark eyes where pride demurs
When pity would be softening through,
Fixed me a breathing-while or two
With life or death in the balance: right!
The blood replenished me again;
My last thought was at least not vain:
I and my mistress, side by side,
Shall be together, breathe and ride,
So, one day more am I deified.
Who knows but the world may end to-night?


Hush! if you saw some western cloud
All billowy-bosomed, over-bowed
By many benedictions -- sun's
And moon's and evening-star's at once --
And so, you, looking and loving best,
Conscious grew, your passion drew
Cloud, sunset, moonrise, star-shine too,
Down on you, near and yet more near,
Till flesh must fade for heaven was here! --
Thus leant she and lingered -- joy and fear
Thus lay she a moment on my breast.


Then we began to ride. My soul
Smoothed itself out, a long-cramped scroll
Freshening and fluttering in the wind.
Past hopes already lay behind.
What need to strive with a life awry?
Had I said that, had I done this,
So might I gain, so might I miss.
Might she have loved me? just as well
She might have hated, who can tell!
Where had I been now if the worst befell?
And here we are riding, she and I.


Fail I alone, in words and deeds?
Why, all men strive and who succeeds?
We rode; it seemed my spirit flew,
Saw other regions, cities new,
As the world rushed by on either side.
I thought, -- All labor, yet no less
Bear up beneath their unsuccess.
Look at the end of work, contrast
The petty done, the undone vast,
This present of theirs with the hopeful past!
I hoped she would love me: here we ride.


What hand and brain went ever paired?
What heart alike conceived and dared?
What act proved all its thought had been?
What will but felt the fleshy screen?
We ride and I see her bosom heave.
There's many a crown for who can reach.
Ten lines, a statesman's life in each!
The flag stuck on a heap of bones,
A soldier's doing! what atones?
They scratch his name on the Abbey-stones.
My riding is better, by their leave.


What does it all mean, poet? Well,
Your brains beat into rhythm, you tell
What we felt only; you expressed
You hold things beautiful the best,
And pace them in rhyme so, side by side.
'Tis something, nay 'tis much: but then,
Have you yourself what's best for men?
Are you -- poor, sick, old ere your time --
Nearer one whit your own sublime
Than we who have never turned a rhyme?
Sing, riding's a joy! For me, I ride.


And you, great sculptor -- so, you gave
A score of years to Art, her slave,
And that's your Venus, whence we turn
To yonder girl that fords the burn!
You acquiesce, and shall I repine?
What, man of music, you grown gray
With notes and nothing else to say,
Is this your sole praise from a friend,
"Greatly his opera's strains intend,
But in music we know how fashions end!"
I gave my youth; but we ride, in fine.


Who knows what's fit for us? Had fate
Proposed bliss here should sublimate
My being -- had I signed the bond --
Still one must lead some life beyond,
Have a bliss to die with, dim-descried.
This foot once planted on the goal,
This glory-garland round my soul,
Could I descry such? Try and test!
I sink back shuddering from the quest.
Earth being so good, would heaven seem best?
Now, heaven and she are beyond this ride.


And yet -- she has not spoke so long!
What if heaven be that, fair and strong
At life's best, with our eyes upturned
Whither life's flower is first discerned,
We, fixed so, ever should so abide?
What if we still ride on, we two,
With life forever old yet new,
Changed not in kind but in degree,
The instant made eternity, --
And heaven just prove that I and she
Ride, ride together, forever ride?

By the Fireside.


How well I know what I mean to do
When the long dark autumn evenings come;
And where, my soul, is thy pleasant hue?
With the music of all thy voices, dumb
In life's November too!

St. 1, v. 3. is: present used for the future, shall then be.


I shall be found by the fire, suppose,
O'er a great wise book, as beseemeth age;
While the shutters flap as the cross-wind blows,
And I turn the page, and I turn the page,
Not verse now, only prose!

St. 2. Not verse now, only prose: he shall have reached
the "years which bring the philosophic mind".


Till the young ones whisper, finger on lip,
"There he is at it, deep in Greek:
Now then, or never, out we slip
To cut from the hazels by the creek
A mainmast for our ship!"


I shall be at it indeed, my friends!
Greek puts already on either side
Such a branch-work forth as soon extends
To a vista opening far and wide,
And I pass out where it ends.

St. 4. Greek puts already such a branch-work forth as will soon extend
to a vista opening far and wide, and he will pass out where it ends
and retrace the paths he has trod through life's pleasant wood.


The outside frame, like your hazel-trees --
But the inside-archway widens fast,
And a rarer sort succeeds to these,
And we slope to Italy at last
And youth, by green degrees.


I follow wherever I am led,
Knowing so well the leader's hand:
Oh woman-country, wooed not wed,
Loved all the more by earth's male-lands,
Laid to their hearts instead!

St. 5, 6. He will pass first through his childhood, in England,
represented by the hazels, and on, by green degrees, to youth and Italy,
where, knowing so well the leader's hand, and assured as to whither
she will conduct him, he will follow wherever he is led.


Look at the ruined chapel again
Half-way up in the Alpine gorge!
Is that a tower, I point you plain,
Or is it a mill, or an iron forge
Breaks solitude in vain?

St. 7. Look: to be construed with "follow".


A turn, and we stand in the heart of things;
The woods are round us, heaped and dim;
From slab to slab how it slips and springs,
The thread of water single and slim,
Through the ravage some torrent brings!


Does it feed the little lake below?
That speck of white just on its marge
Is Pella; see, in the evening-glow,
How sharp the silver spear-heads charge
When Alp meets heaven in snow!


On our other side is the straight-up rock;
And a path is kept 'twixt the gorge and it
By bowlder-stones, where lichens mock
The marks on a moth, and small ferns fit
Their teeth to the polished block.


Oh the sense of the yellow mountain-flowers,
And thorny balls, each three in one,
The chestnuts throw on our path in showers!
For the drop of the woodland fruit's begun,
These early November hours,


That crimson the creeper's leaf across
Like a splash of blood, intense, abrupt,
O'er a shield else gold from rim to boss,
And lay it for show on the fairy-cupped
Elf-needled mat of moss,


By the rose-flesh mushrooms, undivulged
Last evening -- nay, in to-day's first dew
Yon sudden coral nipple bulged,
Where a freaked fawn-colored flaky crew
Of toad-stools peep indulged.


And yonder, at foot of the fronting ridge
That takes the turn to a range beyond,
Is the chapel reached by the one-arched bridge,
Where the water is stopped in a stagnant pond
Danced over by the midge.


The chapel and bridge are of stone alike,
Blackish-gray and mostly wet;
Cut hemp-stalks steep in the narrow dike.
See here again, how the lichens fret
And the roots of the ivy strike!


Poor little place, where its one priest comes
On a festa-day, if he comes at all,
To the dozen folk from their scattered homes,
Gathered within that precinct small
By the dozen ways one roams --


To drop from the charcoal-burners' huts,
Or climb from the hemp-dressers' low shed,
Leave the grange where the woodman stores his nuts,
Or the wattled cote where the fowlers spread
Their gear on the rock's bare juts.


It has some pretension too, this front,
With its bit of fresco half-moon-wise
Set over the porch, Art's early wont:
'Tis John in the Desert, I surmise,
But has borne the weather's brunt --


Not from the fault of the builder, though,
For a pent-house properly projects
Where three carved beams make a certain show,
Dating -- good thought of our architect's --
'Five, six, nine, he lets you know.


And all day long a bird sings there,
And a stray sheep drinks at the pond at times;
The place is silent and aware;
It has had its scenes, its joys and crimes,
But that is its own affair.

St. 20. aware: self-conscious.

". . .in green ruins, in the desolate walls
Of antique palaces, where Man hath been,
* * * * *
There the true Silence is, self-conscious and alone."
-- Hood's `Sonnet on Silence'.


My perfect wife, my Leonor,
O heart, my own, Oh eyes, mine too,
Whom else could I dare look backward for,
With whom beside should I dare pursue
The path gray heads abhor?

St. 21. He digresses here, and does not return to the subject till
the 31st stanza, "What did I say? -- that a small bird sings".
The path gray heads abhor: this verse and the following stanza are,
with most readers, the CRUX of the poem; "gray heads" must be
understood with some restriction: many gray heads, not all, abhor
-- gray heads who went along through their flowery youth
as if it had no limit, and without insuring, in Love's true season,
the happiness of their lives beyond youth's limit, "life's safe hem",
which to cross without such insurance, is often fatal. And these,
when they reach old age, shun retracing the path which led to
the gulf wherein their youth dropped.


For it leads to a crag's sheer edge with them;
Youth, flowery all the way, there stops --
Not they; age threatens and they contemn,
Till they reach the gulf wherein youth drops,
One inch from our life's safe hem!


With me, youth led. . .I will speak now,
No longer watch you as you sit
Reading by firelight, that great brow
And the spirit-small hand propping it,
Mutely, my heart knows how --

St. 23. With me: the speaker continues,
youth led: -- we are told whither, in St. 25, v. 4, "to an age
so blest that, by its side, youth seems the waste instead".
I will speak now: up to this point his reflections have been silent,
his wife, the while, reading, mutely, by fire-light,
his heart knows how, that is, with her heart secretly responsive
to his own. The mutual responsiveness of their hearts is expressed
in St. 24.


When, if I think but deep enough,
You are wont to answer, prompt as rhyme;
And you, too, find without rebuff
Response your soul seeks many a time,
Piercing its fine flesh-stuff.


My own, confirm me! If I tread
This path back, is it not in pride
To think how little I dreamed it led
To an age so blest that, by its side,
Youth seems the waste instead?


My own, see where the years conduct!
At first, 'twas something our two souls
Should mix as mists do; each is sucked
In each now: on, the new stream rolls,
Whatever rocks obstruct.


Think, when our one soul understands
The great Word which makes all things new,
When earth breaks up and heaven expands,
How will the change strike me and you
In the house not made with hands?


Oh I must feel your brain prompt mine,
Your heart anticipate my heart,
You must be just before, in fine,
See and make me see, for your part,
New depths of the divine!

St. 28. "The conviction of the eternity of marriage meets us
again and again in Browning's poems; e.g., `Prospice',
`Any Wife to any Husband', `The Epilogue to Fifine'."
The union between two complementary souls cannot be dissolved.
"Love is all, and Death is nought!"


But who could have expected this
When we two drew together first
Just for the obvious human bliss,
To satisfy life's daily thirst
With a thing men seldom miss?


Come back with me to the first of all,
Let us lean and love it over again,
Let us now forget and now recall,
Break the rosary in a pearly rain,
And gather what we let fall!


What did I say? -- that a small bird sings
All day long, save when a brown pair
Of hawks from the wood float with wide wings
Strained to a bell: 'gainst noonday glare
You count the streaks and rings.

St. 31. Here he returns to the subject broken off at St. 21.


But at afternoon or almost eve
'Tis better; then the silence grows
To that degree, you half believe
It must get rid of what it knows,
Its bosom does so heave.


Hither we walked then, side by side,
Arm in arm and cheek to cheek,
And still I questioned or replied,
While my heart, convulsed to really speak,
Lay choking in its pride.


Silent the crumbling bridge we cross,
And pity and praise the chapel sweet,
And care about the fresco's loss,


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