Poems and Ballads


Algernon Charles Swinburne

IN the beginning God made thee
        A woman well to look upon,
Thy tender body as a tree
        Whereon cool wind hath always blown
        Till the clean branches be well grown.

There was none like thee in the land;
        The girls that were thy bondwomen
Did bind thee with a purple band
        Upon thy forehead, that all men
        Should know thee for God’s handmaiden.

Strange raiment clad thee like a bride,
        With silk to wear on hands and feet
And plates of gold on either side:
        Wine made thee glad, and thou didst eat
        Honey, and choice of pleasant meat.

And fishers in the middle sea
        Did get thee sea-fish and sea-weeds
In colour like the robes on thee;
        And curious work of plaited reeds,
        And wools wherein live purple bleeds.

And round the edges of thy cup
        Men wrought thee marvels out of gold,
Strong snakes with lean throats lifted up,
        Large eyes whereon the brows had hold,
        And scaly things their slime kept cold.

For thee they blew soft wind in flutes
        And ground sweet roots for cunning scent;
Made slow because of many lutes,
        The wind among thy chambers went
        Wherein no light was violent.

God called thy name Aholibah,
        His tabernacle being in thee,
A witness through waste Asia;
        Thou wert a tent sewn cunningly
        With gold and colours of the sea.

God gave thee gracious ministers
        And all their work who plait and weave:
The cunning of embroiderers
        That sew the pillow to the sleeve,
        And likeness of all things that live.

Thy garments upon thee were fair
        With scarlet and with yellow thread;
Also the weaving of thine hair
        Was as fine gold upon thy head,
        And thy silk shoes were sewn with red.

All sweet things he bade sift, and ground
        As a man grindeth wheat in mills
With strong wheels alway going round;
        He gave thee corn, and grass that fills
        The cattle on a thousand hills.

The wine of many seasons fed
        Thy mouth, and made it fair and clean;
Sweet oil was poured out on thy head
        And ran down like cool rain between
        The strait close locks it melted in.

The strong men and the captains knew
        Thy chambers wrought and fashioned
With gold and covering of blue,
        And the blue raiment of thine head
        Who satest on a stately bed.

All these had on their garments wrought
        The shape of beasts and creeping things,
The body that availeth not,
        Flat backs of worms and veinèd wings,
        And the lewd bulk that sleeps and stings.

Also the chosen of the years,
        The multitude being at ease,
With sackbuts and with dulcimers
        And noise of shawms and psalteries
        Made mirth within the ears of these.

But as a common woman doth,
        Thou didst think evil and devise;
The sweet smell of thy breast and mouth
        Thou madest as the harlot’s wise,
        And there was painting on thine eyes.

Yea, in the woven guest-chamber
        And by the painted passages
Where the strange gracious paintings were,
        State upon state of companies,
        There came on thee the lust of these.

Because of shapes on either wall
        Sea-coloured from some rare blue shell
At many a Tyrian interval,
        Horsemen on horses, girdled well,
        Delicate and desirable,

Thou saidest: I am sick of love:
        Stay me with flagons, comfort me
With apples for my pain thereof
        Till my hands gather in his tree
        That fruit wherein my lips would be.

Yea, saidest thou, I will go up
        When there is no more shade than one
May cover with a hollow cup,
        And make my bed against the sun
        Till my blood’s violence be done.

Thy mouth was leant upon the wall
        Against the painted mouth, thy chin
Touched the hair’s painted curve and fall;
        Thy deep throat, fallen lax and thin,
        Worked as the blood’s beat worked therein.

Therefore, O thou Aholibah,
        God is not glad because of thee;
And thy fine gold shall pass away
        Like those fair coins of ore that be
        Washed over by the middle sea.

Then will one make thy body bare
        To strip it of all gracious things,
And pluck the cover from thine hair,
        And break the gift of many kings,
        Thy wrist-rings and thine ankle-rings.

Likewise the man whose body joins
        To thy smooth body, as was said,
Who hath a girdle on his loins
        And dyed attire upon his head—
        The same who, seeing, worshipped,

Because thy face was like the face
        Of a clean maiden that smells sweet,
Because thy gait was as the pace
        Of one that opens not her feet
        And is not heard within the street—

Even he, O thou Aholibah,
        Made separate from thy desire,
Shall cut thy nose and ears away
        And bruise thee for thy body’s hire
        And burn the residue with fire.

Then shall the heathen people say,
        The multitude being at ease;
Lo, this is that Aholibah
        Whose name was blown among strange seas,
        Grown old with soft adulteries.

Also her bed was made of green,
        Her windows beautiful for glass
That she had made her bed between:
        Yea, for pure lust her body was
        Made like white summer-coloured grass.

Her raiment was a strong man’s spoil;
        Upon a table by a bed
She set mine incense and mine oil
        To be the beauty of her head
        In chambers walled about with red.

Also between the walls she had
        Fair faces of strong men portrayed;
All girded round the loins, and clad
        With several cloths of woven braid
        And garments marvellously made.

Therefore the wrath of God shall be
        Set as a watch upon her way;
And whoso findeth by the sea
        Blown dust of bones will hardly say
        If this were that Aholibah.

Back    |    Words Home    |    Algernon Charles Swinburne Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback