Dramatis Personæ

Too Late

Robert Browning

HERE was I with my arm and heart
    And brain, all yours for a word, a want
Put into a look—just a look, your part,—
    While mine, to repay it . . . vainest vaunt,
Were the woman, that’s dead, alive to hear,
    Had her lover, that’s lost, love’s proof to show!
But I cannot show it; you cannot speak
    From the churchyard neither, miles removed,
Though I feel by a pulse within my cheek,
    Which stabs and stops, that the woman I loved
Needs help in her grave and finds none near,
    Wants warmth from the heart which sends it—so!

Did I speak once angrily, all the drear days
    You lived, you woman I loved so well,
Who married the other? Blame or praise,
    Where was the use then? Time would tell,
And the end declare what man for you,
    What woman for me, was the choice of God.
But, Edith dead! no doubting more!
    I used to sit and look at my life
As it rippled and ran till, right before,
    A great stone stopped it: oh, the strife
Of waves at the stone some devil threw
    In my life’s midcurrent, thwarting God!

But either I thought, “They may churn and chide
    “Awhile, my waves which came for their joy
“And found this horrible stone full-tide:
    “Yet I see just a thread escape, deploy
“Through the evening-country, silent and safe,
    “And it suffers no more till it finds the sea.”
Or else I would think, “Perhaps some night
    “When new things happen, a meteor-ball
“May slip through the sky in a line of light,
    “And earth breathe hard, and landmarks fall,
“And my waves no longer champ nor chafe,
    “Since a stone will have rolled from its place: let be!”

But, dead! All’s done with: wait who may,
    Watch and wear and wonder who will.
Oh, my whole life that ends to-day!
    Oh, my soul’s sentence, sounding still,
“The woman is dead that was none of his;
    “And the man that was none of hers may go!”
There’s only the past left: worry that!
    Wreak, like a bull, on the empty coat,
Rage, its late wearer is laughing at!
    Tear the collar to rags, having missed his throat;
Strike stupidly on—“This, this and this,
    “Where I would that a bosom received the blow!

I ought to have done more: once my speech,
    And once your answer, and there, the end,
And Edith was henceforth out of reach!
    Why, men do more to deserve a friend,
Be rid of a foe, get rich, grow wise,
    Nor, folding their arms, stare fate in the face.
Why, better even have burst like a thief
    And borne you away to a rock for us two,
In a moment’s horror, bright, bloody and brief:
    Then changed to myself again—“I slew
“Myself in that moment; a ruffian lies
    “Somewhere: your slave, see, born in his place!”

What did the other do? You be judge!
    Look at us, Edith! Here are we both!
Give him his six whole years: I grudge
    None of the life with you, nay, loathe
Myself that I grudged his start in advance
    Of me who could overtake and pass.
But, as if he loved you! No, not he,
    Nor anyone else in the world, ’t is plain:
Who ever heard that another, free
    As I, young, prosperous, sound and sane,
Poured life out, proffered it—“Half a glance
    “Of those eyes of yours and I drop the glass!”

Handsome, were you? ’T is more than they held,
    More than they said; I was ’ware and watched:
I was the ’scapegrace, this rat belled
    The cat, this fool got his whiskers scratched:
The others? No head that was turned, no heart
    Broken, my lady, assure yourself!
Each soon made his mind up; so and so
    Married a dancer, such and such
Stole his friend’s wife, stagnated slow,
    Or maundered, unable to do as much,
And muttered of peace where he had no part
    While, hid in the closet, laid on the shelf,—

On the whole, you were let alone, I think!
    So, you looked to the other, who acquiesced;
My rival, the proud man,—prize your pink
    Of poets! A poet he was! I’ve guessed:
He rhymed you his rubbish nobody read,
    Loved you and doved you—did not I laugh!
There was a prize! But we both were tried.
    Oh, heart of mine, marked broad with her mark,
Tekel, found wanting, set aside,
    Scorned! See, I bleed these tears in the dark
Till comfort come and the last he bled:
    He? He is tagging your epitaph.

If it would only come over again!
    —Time to be patient with me, and probe
This heart till you punctured the proper vein,
    Just to learn what blood is: twitch the robe
From that blank lay-figure your fancy draped,
    Prick the leathern heart till the—verses spirt!
And late it was easy; late, you walked
    Where a friend might meet you; Edith’s name
Arose to one’s lip if one laughed or talked;
    If I heard good news, you heard the same;
When I woke, I knew that your breath escaped;
    I could bide my time, keep alive, alert.

And alive I shall keep and long, you will see!
    I knew a man, was kicked like a dog
From gutter to cesspool; what cared he
    So long as he picked from the filth his prog?
He saw youth, beauty and genius die,
    And jollily lived to his hundredth year.
But I will live otherwise: none of such life!
    At once I begin as I mean to end.
Go on with the world, get gold in its strife,
    Give your spouse the slip and betray your friend!
There are two who decline, a woman and I,
    And enjoy our death in the darkness here.

I liked that way you had with your curls
    Wound to a ball in a net behind:
Your cheek was chaste as a quaker-girl’s,
    And your mouth—there was never, to my mind,
Such a funny mouth, for it would not shut;
    And the dented chin too—what a chin
There were certain ways when you spoke, some words
    That you know you never could pronounce:
You were thin, however; like a bird’s
    Your hand seemed—some would say, the pounce
Of a scaly-footed hawk—all but!
    The world was right when it called you thin.

But I turn my back on the world: I take
    Your hand, and kneel, and lay to my lips.
Bid me live, Edith! Let me slake
    Thirst at your presence! Fear no slips:
’T is your slave shall pay, while his soul endures,
    Full due, love’s whole debt, summum jus.
My queen shall have high observance, planned
    Courtship made perfect, no least line
Crossed without warrant. There you stand,
    Warm too, and white too: would this wine
Had washed all over that body of yours,
    Ere I drank it, and you down with it, thus!

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