Bad Dreams


Robert Browning

YOU in the flesh and here—
    Your very self! Now, wait!
One word! May I hope or fear?
    Must I speak in love or hate?
Stay while I ruminate!

The fact and each circumstance
    Dare you disown? Not you!
That vast dome, that huge dance,
    And the gloom which overgrew
A—possibly festive crew!

For why should men dance at all—
    Why women—a crowd of both—
Unless they are gay? Strange ball—
    Hands and feet plighting troth,
Yet partners enforced and loth!

Of who danced there, no shape
    Did I recognize: thwart, perverse,
Each grasped each, past escape
    In a whirl or weary or worse:
Man’s sneer met woman’s curse,

While he and she toiled as if
    Their guardian set galley-slaves
To supple chained limbs grown stiff:
    Unmanacled trulls and knaves—
The lash for who misbehaves!

And a gloom was, all the while,
    Deeper and deeper yet
O’ergrowing the rank and file
    Of that army of haters—set
To mimic love’s fever-fret.

By the wall-side close I crept.
    Avoiding the livid maze.
And, safely so far, outstepped
    On a chamber—a chapel, says
My memory or betrays—

Closet-like, kept aloof
    From unseemly witnessing
What sport made floor and roof
    Of the Devil’s palace ring
While his Damned amused their king.

Ay, for a low lamp burned,
    And a silence lay about
What I, in the midst, discerned
    Though dimly till, past doubt,
’Twas a sort of throne stood out—

High seat with steps, at least:
    And the topmost step was filled
By—whom? What vestured priest?
    A stranger to me,—his guild,
His cult, unreconciled

To my knowledge how guild and cult
    Are clothed in this world of ours:
I pondered, but no result
    Came to—unless that Giaours
So worship the Lower Powers.

When suddenly who entered?
    Who knelt—did you guess I saw?
Who—raising that face were centred
    Allegiance to love and law
So lately—off-casting awe,

Down-treading reserve, away
    Thrusting respect . . . but mine
Stands firm—firm still shall stay!
    Ask Satan! for I decline
To tell—what I saw, in fine!

Yet here in the flesh you come—
    Your same self, form and face,—
In the eyes, mirth still at home!
    On the lips, that commonplace
Perfection of honest grace!

Yet your errand is—needs must be—
    To palliate—well, explain,
Expurgate in some degree
    Your soul of its ugly stain.
Oh, you—the good in grain—

How was it your white took tinge?
    “A mere dream”—never object!
Sleep leaves a door on hinge
    Whence soul, ere our flesh suspect,
Is off and away: detect

Her vagaries when loose, who can!
    Be she pranksome, be she prude,
Disguise with the day began:
    With the night—ah, what ensued
From draughts of a drink hell-brewed?

Then She: “What a queer wild dream!
    And perhaps the best fun is—
Myself had its fellow—I seem
    Scarce awake from yet. ’Twas this—
Shall I tell you? First, a kiss!

“For the fault was just your own,—
    ’Tis myself expect apology:
You warned me to let alone
    (Since our studies were mere philology)
That ticklish (you said) Anthology.

“So I dreamed that I passed exam
    Till a question posed me sore:
‘Who translated this epigram
    By—an author we best ignore?’
And I answered, ‘Hannah More’!”

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