Demeter, and Other Poems


The Leper’s Bride

Alfred Tennyson

WHY wail you, pretty plover? and what is it that you fear?
    Is he sick your mate like mine? have you lost him, is he fled?
And there—the heron rises from his watch beside the mere,
    And flies above the leper’s hut, where lives the living-dead.

Come back, nor let me know it! would he live and die alone?
    And has he not forgiven me yet, his over-jealous bride,
Who am, and was, and will be his, his own and only own,
    To share his living death with him, die with him side by side?

Is that the leper’s hut on the solitary moor,
    Where noble Ulric dwells forlorn, and wears the leper’s weed?
The door is open. He! is he standing at the door,
    My soldier of the Cross? it is he and he indeed!

My roses—will he take them now—mine, his—from off the tree
    We planted both together, happy in our marriage morn?
O God, I could blaspheme, for he fought Thy fight for Thee,
    And Thou hast made him leper to compass him with scorn—

Hast spared the flesh of thousands, the coward and the base,
    And set a crueller mark than Cain’s on him, the good and brave!
He sees me, waves me from him. I will front him face to face.
    You need not wave me from you. I would leap into your grave.

.     .     .     .     .

My warrior of the Holy Cross and of the conquering sword,
    The roses that you cast aside—once more I bring you these.
No nearer? do you scorn me when you tell me, O my lord,
    You would not mar the beauty of your bride with your disease.

You say your body is so foul—then here I stand apart,
    Who yearn to lay my loving head upon your leprous breast.
The leper plague may scale my skin but never taint my heart;
    Your body is not foul to me, and body is foul at best.

I loved you first when young and fair, but now I love you most;
    The fairest flesh at last is filth on which the worm will feast;
This poor rib-grated dungeon of the holy human ghost,
    This house with all its hateful needs no cleaner than the beast,

This coarse diseaseful creature which in Eden was divine,
    This Satan-haunted ruin, this little city of sewers,
This wall of solid flesh that comes between your soul and mine,
    Will vanish and give place to the beauty that endures,

The beauty that endures on the Spiritual height,
    When we shall stand transfigured, like Christ on Hermon hill,
And moving each to music, soul in soul and light in light,
    Shall flash thro’ one another in a moment as we will.

Foul! foul! the word was yours not mine, I worship that right hand
    Which fell’d the foes before you as the woodman fells the wood,
And sway’d the sword that lighten’d back the sun of Holy land,
    And clove the Moslem crescent moon, and changed it into blood.

And once I worshipt all too well this creature of decay,
    For Age will chink the face, and Death will freeze the supplest limbs—
Yet you in your mid manhood—O the grief when yesterday
    They bore the Cross before you to the chant of funeral hymns.

‘Libera me, Domine!’ you sang the Psalm, and when
    The Priest pronounced you dead, and flung the mould upon your feet,
A beauty came upon your face, not that of living men,
    But seen upon the silent brow when life has ceased to beat.

‘Libera nos, Domino’—you knew not one was there
    Who saw you kneel beside your bier, and weeping scarce could see;
May I come a little nearer, I that heard, and changed the prayer
    And sang the married ‘nos’ for the solitary ‘me.’

My beauty marred by you? by you! so be it. All is well
    If I lose it and myself in the higher beauty, yours.
My beauty lured that falcon from his eyry on the fell,
    Who never caught one gleam of the beauty which endures—

The Count who sought to snap the bond that link’d us life to life,
    Who whisper’d me ‘your Ulric loves’—a little nearer still—
He hiss’d, ‘Let us revenge ourselves, your Ulric woos my wife’—
    A lie by which he thought he could subdue me to his will.

I knew that you were near me when I let him kiss my brow;
    Did he touch me on the lips? I was jealous, anger’d, vain,
And I meant to make you jealous. Are you jealous of me now?
    Your pardon, O my love, if I ever gave you pain.

You never once accused me, but I wept alone, and sigh’d
    In the winter of the Present for the summer of the Past;
That icy winter silence—how it froze you from your bride,
    Tho’ I made one barren effort to break it at the last.

I brought you, you remember, these roses, when I knew
    You were parting for the war, and you took them tho’ you frown’d;
You frown’d and yet you kiss’d them. All at once the trumpet blew,
    And you spurr’d your fiery horse, and you hurl’d them to the ground.

You parted for the Holy War without a word to me,
    And clear myself unask’d—not I. My nature was too proud.
And him I saw but once again, and far away was he,
    When I was praying in a storm—the crash was long and loud—

That God would ever slant His bolt from falling on your head—
    Then I lifted up my eyes, he was coming down the fell—
I clapt my hands. The sudden fire from Heaven had dash’d him dead,
    And sent him charr’d and blasted to the deathless fire of Hell.

See, I sinn’d but for a moment. I repented and repent,
    And trust myself forgiven by the God to whom I kneel.
A little nearer? Yes. I shall hardly be content
    Till I be leper like yourself, my love, from head to heel.

O foolish dreams, that you, that I, would slight our marriage oath
    I held you at that moment even dearer than before;
Now God has made you leper in His loving care for both,
    That we might cling together, never doubt each other more.

The Priest, who join’d you to the dead, has join’d our hands of old;
    If man and wife be but one flesh, let mine be leprous too,
As dead from all the human race as if beneath the mould;
    If you be dead, then I am dead, who only live for you.

Would Earth tho’ hid in cloud not be follow’d by the Moon?
    The leech forsake the dying bed for terror of his life?
The shadow leave the Substance in the brooding light of noon?
    Or if I had been the leper would you have left the wife?

Not take them? Still you wave me off—poor roses—must I go—
    I have worn them year by year—from the bush we both had set—
What? fling them to you?—well—that were hardly gracious. No!
    Your plague but passes by the touch. A little nearer yet!

There, there! he buried you, the Priest; the Priest is not to blame,
    He joins us once again, to his either office true:
I thank him. I am happy, happy. Kiss me. In the name
    Of the everlasting God, I will live and die with You.

(DEAN MILMAN has remarked that the protection and care afforded by the Church to this blighted race of lepers was among the most beautiful of its offices during the Middle Ages. The leprosy of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was supposed to be a legacy of the crusades, but was in all probability the offspring of meagre and unwholesome diet, miserable lodging and clothing, physical and moral degradation. The services of the Church in the seclusion of these unhappy sufferers were most affecting. The stem duty of looking to the public welfare is tempered with exquisite compassion for the victims of this loathsome disease. The ritual for the sequestration of the leprous differed little from the burial service. After the leper had been sprinkled with holy water, the priest conducted him into the church, the leper singing the psalm ‘Libera me domino,’ and the crucifix and bearer going before. In the church a black cloth was stretched over two trestles in front of the altar, and the leper leaning at its side devoutly heard mass. The priest, taking up a little earth in his cloak, threw it on one of the lepers feet, and put him out of the church, if it did not rain too heavily; took him to his hut in the midst of the fields, and then uttered the prohibitions: ‘I forbid you entering the church . . . . or entering the company of others. I forbid you quitting your home without your leper’s dress.’ He concluded: ‘Take this dress, and wear it in token of humility; take these gloves, take this clapper, as a sign that you are forbidden to speak to any one. You are not to be indignant at being thus separated from others, and as to your little wants, good people will provide for you, and God will not desert you.’ Then in this old ritual follow these sad words: ‘When it shall come to pass that the leper shall pass out of this world, he shall be buried in his hut, and not in the churchyard.’ At first there was a doubt whether wives should follow their husbands who had been leprous, or remain in the world and marry again. The Church decided that the marriage-tie was indissoluble, and so bestowed on these unhappy beings this immense source of consolation. With a love stronger than this living death, lepers were followed into banishment from the haunts of men by their faithful wives. Readers of Sir J. Stephen’s Essays on Ecclesiastical Biography will recollect the description of the founder of the Franciscan order, how, controlling his involuntary disgust, St. Francis of Assisi washed the feet and dressed the sores of the lepers, once at least reverently applying his lips to their wounds.—BOUCHER-JAMES].

This ceremony of quasi-burial varied considerably at different times and in different places. In some cases a grave was dug, and the leper’s face was often covered during the service.

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