Dramatis Personæ

James Lee’s Wife

Robert Browning

I.—James Lee’s Wife Speaks at the Window

AH, Love, but a day
    And the world has changed!
The sun’s away,
    And the bird estranged;
The wind has dropped,
    And the sky’s deranged
Summer has stopped.

Look in my eyes!
    Wilt thou change too?
Should I fear surprise?
    Shall I find aught new
In the old and dear,
    In the good and true,
With the changing year?

Thou art a man,
    But I am thy love.
For the lake, its swan;
    For the dell, its dove;
And for thee—(oh, haste!)
    Me, to bend above,
Me, to hold embraced.


II.—By the Fireside

Is all our fire of shipwreck wood,
        Oak and pine?
Oh, for the ills half-understood,
        The dim dead woe
        Long ago
Befallen this bitter coast of France!
Well, poor sailors took their chance;
        I take mine.

A ruddy shaft our fire must shoot
        O’er the sea
Do sailors eye the casement-mute,
        Drenched and stark,
        From their bark—
And envy, gnash their teeth for hate
O’ the warm safe house and happy freight
        —Thee and me?

God help you, sailors, at your need!
        Spare the curse!
For some ships, safe in port indeed,
        Rot and rust,
        Run to dust,
All through worms i’ the wood, which crept,
Gnawed our hearts out while we slept:
        That is worse.

Who lived here before us two?
        Old-world pairs.
Did a woman ever—would I knew!—
        Watch the man
        With whom began
Love’s voyage full-sail,—(now, gnash your teeth!)
When planks start, open hell beneath


III.—In the Doorway

THE SWALLOW has set her six young on the rail,
            And looks sea-ward:
The water’s in stripes like a snake, olive-pale
            To the leeward,—
On the weather-side, black, spotted white with the wind.
“Good fortune departs, and disaster’s behind,”—
Hark, the wind with its wants and its infinite wail!

Our fig-tree, that leaned for the saltness, has furled
            Her five fingers,
Each leaf like a hand opened wide to the world
            Where there lingers
No glint of the gold, Summer sent for her sake
How the vines writhe in rows, each impaled on its stake!
My heart shrivels up and my spirit shrinks curled.

Yet here are we two; we have love, house enough,
            With the field there,
This house of four rooms, that field red and rough,
            Though it yield there,
For the rabbit that robs, scarce a blade or a bent;
If a magpie alight now, it seems an event;
And they both will be gone at November’s rebuff.

But why must cold spread? but wherefore bring change
            To the spirit,
God meant should mate his with an infinite range,
            And inherit
His power to put life in the darkness and cold?
Oh, live and love worthily, bear and be bold!
Whom Summer made friends of, let Winter estrange


IV.—Along the Beach

I WILL be quiet and talk with you,
    And reason why you are wrong.
You wanted my love—is that much true?
And so I did love, so I do:
    What has come of it all along?

I took you—how could I otherwise?
    For a world to me, and more;
For all, love greatens and glorifies
Till God’s a-glow, to the loving eyes,
    In what was mere earth before.

Yes, earth—yes, mere ignoble earth!
    Now do I mis-state, mistake?
Do I wrong your weakness and call it worth?
Expect all harvest, dread no dearth,
    Seal my sense up for your sake?

Oh, Love, Love, no, Love I not so, indeed!
    You were just weak earth, I knew
With much in you waste, with many a weed,
And plenty of passions run to seed,
    But a little good grain too.

And such as you were, I took you for mine
    Did not you find me yours,
To watch the olive and wait the vine,
And wonder when rivers of oil and wine
    Would flow, as the Book assures?

Well, and if none of these good things came,
    What did the failure prove?
The man was my whole world, all the same,
With his flowers to praise or his weeds to blame,
    And, either or both, to love.

Yet this turns now to a fault—there! there!
    That I do love, watch too long,
And wait too well, and weary and wear;
And ’t is all an old story, and my despair
    Fit subject for some new song:

“How the light, light love, he has wings to fly
    “At suspicion of a bond
“My wisdom has bidden your pleasure good-bye,
“Which will turn up next in a laughing eye,
    “And why should you look beyond?”


V.—On the Cliff

I LEANED on the turf,
I looked at a rock
Left dry by the surf ;
For the turf, to call it grass were to mock
Dead to the roots, so deep was done
The work of the summer sun.

And the rock lay flat
As an anvil’s face
No iron like that!
Baked dry; of a weed, of a shell, no trace;
Sunshine outside, but ice at the core,
Death’s altar by the lone shore.

On the turf, sprang gay
With his films of blue,
No cricket, I’ll say,
But a warhorse, barded and chanfroned too,
The gift of a quixote-mage to his knight,
Real fairy, with wings all right.

On the rock, they scorch
Like a drop of fire
From a brandished torch,
Fall two red fans of a butterfly
No turf, no rock: in their ugly stead,
See, wonderful blue and red!

Is it not so
With the minds of men?
The level and low,
The burnt and bare, in themselves; but then
With such a blue and red grace, not theirs,—
Love settling unawares!


VI.—Reading a Book, Under the Cliff

“STILL ailing, Wind? Wilt be appeased or no?
    “Which needs the other’s office, thou or I?
“Dost want to be disburthened of a woe,
    “And can, in truth, my voice untie
“Its links, and let it go?

“Art thou a dumb wronged thing that would be righted,
    “Entrusting thus thy cause to me? Forbear!
“No tongue can mend such pleadings; faith, requited
    “With falsehood,—love, at last aware
“Of scorn,—hopes, early blighted,—

“We have them; but I know not any tone
    “So fit as thine to falter forth a sorrow:
“Dost think men would go mad without a moan,
    “If they knew any way to borrow
“A pathos like thy own?

“Which sigh wouldst mock, of all the sighs? The one
    “So long escaping from lips starved and blue,
“That lasts while on her pallet-bed the nun
    “Stretches her length; her foot comes through
“The straw she shivers on;

“You had not thought she was so tall: and spent,
    “Her shrunk lids open, her lean fingers shut
“Close, close, their sharp and livid nails indent
    “The clammy palm; then all is mute:
“That way, the spirit went.

“Or wouldst thou rather that I understand
    “Thy will to help me?—like the dog I found
“Once, pacing sad this solitary strand,
    “Who would not take my food, poor hound,
“But whined and licked my hand.”

All this, and more, comes from some young man’s pride
    Of power to see,—in failure and mistake,
Relinquishment, disgrace, on every side,—
    Merely examples for his sake,
Helps to his path untried

Instances he must—simply recognize?
    Oh, more than so!—must, with a learner’s zeal,
Make doubly prominent, twice emphasize,
    By added touches that reveal
The god in babe’s disguise.

Oh, he knows what defeat means, and the rest!
    Himself the undefeated that shall be:
Failure, disgrace, he flings them you to test,—
    His triumph, in eternity
Too plainly manifest!

Whence, judge if he learn forthwith what the wind
    Means in its moaning—by the happy prompt
Instinctive way of youth, I mean; for kind
    Calm years, exacting their accompt
Of pain, mature the mind

And some midsummer morning, at the lull
    Just about daybreak, as he looks across
A sparkling foreign country, wonderful
    To the sea’s edge for gloom and gloss,
Next minute must annul.—

Then, when the wind begins among the vines,
    So low, so low, what shall it say but this?
“Here is the change beginning, here the lines
    “Circumscribe beauty, set to bliss
“The limit time assigns.”

Nothing can be as it has been before;
    Better, so call it, only not the same.
To draw one beauty into our hearts’ core,
    And keep it changeless! such our claim;
So answered,—Never more!

Simple? Why this is the old woe o’ the world;
    Tune, to whose rise and fall we live and die.
Rise with it, then! Rejoice that man is hurled
    From change to change unceasingly,
His soul’s wings never furled!

That’s a new question; still replies the fact,
    Nothing endures: the wind moans, saying so;
We moan in acquiescence : there’s life’s pact.
    Perhaps probation—do I know?
God does: endure his act!

Only, for man, how bitter not to grave
    On his soul’s hands’ palms one fair good wise thing
Just as he grasped it! For himself, death’s wave;
    While time first washes—ah, the sting!—
O’er all he’d sink to save.


VII.—Among the Rocks

OH, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth,
    This autumn morning! How he sets his bones
To bask i’ the sun, and thrusts out knees and feet
For the ripple to run over in its mirth;
    Listening the while, where on the heap of stones
The white breast of the sea-lark twitters sweet.

That is the doctrine, simple, ancient, true;
    Such is life’s trial, as old earth smiles and knows.
If you loved only what were worth your love,
Love were clear gain, and wholly well for you
    Make the low nature better by your throes!
Give earth yourself, go up for gain above.


VIII.—Beside the Drawing Board

“AS like as a Hand to another Hand!”
    Whoever said that foolish thing,
Could not have studied to understand
    The counsels of God in fashioning,
Out of the infinite love of his heart,
This Hand, whose beauty I praise, apart
From the world of wonder left to praise,
If I tried to learn the other ways
Of love in its skill, or love in its power.
    “As like as a Hand to another Hand”:
    Who said that, never took his stand,
Found and followed, like me, an hour,
The beauty in this,—how free, how fine
To fear, almost,—of the limit-line!
As I looked at this, and learned and drew,
    Drew and learned, and looked again,
While fast the happy minutes flew,
    Its beauty mounted into my brain,
    And a fancy seized me; I was fain
To efface my work, begin anew,
Kiss what before I only drew;
Ay, laying the red chalk ’twixt my lips,
    With soul to help if the mere lips failed,
    I kissed all right where the drawing ailed,
Kissed fast the grace that somehow slips
Still from one’s soulless finger-tips.

’T is a clay cast, the perfect thing,
    From Hand live once, dead long ago
Princess-like it wears the ring
    To fancy’s eye, by which we know
That here at length a master found
    His match, a proud lone soul its mate,
As soaring genius sank to ground,
    And pencil could not emulate
The beauty in this,—how free, how fine
To fear almost!—of the limit-line.
Long ago the god, like me
The worm, learned, each in our degree
Looked and loved, learned and drew,
    Drew and learned and loved again,
While fast the happy minutes flew,
    Till beauty mounted into his brain
And on the finger which outvied
    His art he placed the ring that’s there,
Still by fancy’s eye descried,
    In token of a marriage rare
    For him on earth, his art’s despair,
For him in heaven, his soul’s fit bride.

Little girl with the poor coarse hand
    I turned from to a cold clay cast—
I have my lesson, understand
    The worth of flesh and blood at last.
Nothing but beauty in a Hand?
    Because he could not change the hue,
    Mend the lines and make them true
To this which met his soul’s demand,
    Would Da Vinci turn from you?
I hear him laugh my woes to scorn—
“The fool forsooth is all forlorn
“Because the beauty, she thinks best,
“Lived long ago or was never born,—
“Because no beauty bears the test
“In this rough peasant Hand! Confessed!
“‘Art is null and study void!’
    “So sayest thou? So said not I,
    “Who threw the faulty pencil by,
“And years instead of hours employed,
“Learning the veritable use
    “Of flesh and bone and nerve beneath
    “Lines and hue of the outer sheath,
“If haply I might reproduce
“One motive of the powers profuse,
    “Flesh and bone and nerve that make
    “The poorest coarsest human hand
    “An object worthy to be scanned
“A whole life long for their sole sake.
“Shall earth and the cramped moment-space
“Yield the heavenly crowning grace?
“ Now the parts and then the whole!
“Who art thou, with stinted soul
    “And stunted body, thus to cry
“‘I love,—shall that be life’s strait dole?
    “‘I must live beloved or die!’
“This peasant hand that spins the wool
    “And bakes the bread, why lives it on,
    “Poor and coarse with beauty gone,—
“What use survives the beauty?” Fool!

Go, little girl with the poor coarse hand!
I have my lesson, shall understand.


IX.—On Deck

THERE is nothing to remember in me,
    Nothing I ever said with a grace,
Nothing I did that you care to see,
    Nothing I was that deserves a place
In your mind, now I leave you, set you free.

Conceded! In turn, concede to me,
    Such things have been as a mutual flame.
Your soul’s locked fast; but, love for a key,
    You might let it loose, till I grew the same
In your eyes, as in mine you stand: strange plea!

For then, then, what would it matter to me
    That I was the harsh ill-favoured one?
We both should be like as pea and pea;
    It was ever so since the world begun
So, let me proceed with my reverie.

How strange it were if you had all me,
    As I have all you in my heart and brain,
You, whose least word brought gloom or glee,
    Who never lifted the hand in vain—
Will hold mine yet, from over the sea!

Strange, if a face, when you thought of me,
    Rose like your own face present now,
With eyes as dear in their due degree,
    Much such a mouth, and as bright a brow,
Till you saw yourself, while you cried “’T is She!”

Well, you may, you must, set down to me
    Love that was life, life that was love;
A tenure of breath at your lips’ decree,
    A passion to stand as your thoughts approve,
A rapture to fall where your foot might be.

But did one touch of such love for me
    Come in a word or a look of yours,
Whose words and looks will, circling, flee
    Round me and round while life endures,—
Could I fancy “As I feel, thus feels he”;

Why, fade you might to a thing like me,
    And your hair grow these coarse hanks of hair,
Your skin, this bark of a gnarled tree—,
    You might turn myself!—should I know or care
When I should be dead of joy, James Lee?

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