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Dante Gabriel Rossetti

POEMS
FOLLOWERS
6

Of Adam’s first wife, Lilith, it is told
    ('The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
    That, ere the snake’s, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
    And, subtly of herself contemplative,
    Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.

The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where
    Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft—shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
    Lo! as that youth’s eyes burned at thine, so went
    Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.

Under the arch of Life, where love and death,
    Terror and mystery, guard her shrine, I saw
    Beauty enthroned; and though her gaze struck awe,
I drew it in as simply as my breath.
Hers are the eyes which, over and beneath,
    The sky and sea bend on thee,—which can draw,
    By sea or sky or woman, to one law,
The allotted bondman of her palm and wreath.

This is that Lady Beauty, in whose praise
    Thy voice and hand shake still, —long known to thee
        By flying hair and fluttering hem, —the beat
        Following her daily of thy heart and feet,
    How passionately and irretrievably,
In what fond flight, how many ways and days!

1

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
         Laid on it for a covering,
         And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the swift beat of the brain
Falters because it is in vain,
         In Autumn at the fall of the leaf
         Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems—not to suffer pain?

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
         Bound up at length for harvesting,
         And how death seems a comely thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,—
The finger—points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
‘Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup—fields with silver edge
Where the cow—parsley skirts the hawthorn—hedge.
’Tis visible silence, still as the hour—glass.

Deep in the sun—search’d growths the dragon—fiy
Hangs like a blue thread loosen’d from the sky:—
So this wing’d hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close—companion’d inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.

Around the vase of Life at your slow pace
He has not crept, but turned it with his hands,
And all its sides already understands.
There, girt, one breathes alert for some great race;
Whose road runs far by sands and fruitful space;
Who laughs, yet through the jolly throng has pass’d;
Who weeps, nor stays for weeping; who at last,
A youth, stands somewhere crowned, with silent face.
And he has filled this vase with wine for blood,
With blood for tears, with spice for burning vow,
With watered flowers for buried love most fit;
And would have cast it shattered to the flood,
Yet in Fate’s name has kept it whole; which now
Stands empty till his ashes fall in it.

Lady, I thank thee for thy loveliness,
Because my lady is more lovely still.
Glorying I gaze, and yield with glad goodwill
To thee thy tribute; by whose sweet—spun dress
Of delicate life Love labours to assess
My lady’s absolute queendom; saying, “Lo!
How high this beauty is, which yet doth show
But as that beauty’s sovereign votaress.”
Lady, I saw thee with her, side by side;
And as, when night’s fair fires their queen surround,
An emulous star too near the moon will ride,—
Even so thy rays within her luminous bound
Were traced no more; and by the light so drown’d,
Lady, not thou but she was glorified.

Not in thy body is thy life at all
But in this lady’s lips and hands and eyes;
Through these she yields thee life that vivifies
What else were sorrow’s servant and death’s thrall.
Look on thyself without her, and recall
The waste remembrance and forlorn surmise
That liv’d but in a dead—drawn breath of sighs
O’er vanish’d hours and hours eventual.

Even so much life hath the poor tress of hair
Which, stor’d apart, is all love hath to show
For heart—beats and for fire—heats long ago;
Even so much life endures unknown, even where,
'Mid change the changeless night environeth,
Lies all that golden hair undimm’d in death.

PER carità,
Mostrami amore:
Mi punge il cuore,
Ma non si sa
Dove è amore.
Che mi fa
La bella età,
Sè non si sa
Come amerà?
Ahi me solingo!
Il cuor mi stringo!
Non più ramingo,
Per carità!
Per carità,
Mostra mi il cielo:
Tutto è un velo,
E non si sa
Dove è il cielo.
Se si sta
Così colà,
Non si sa
Se non si va.
Ahi me lontano!
Tutto è in vano!
Prendimi in mano,
Per carità!

She fell asleep on Christmas Eve:
         At length the long—ungranted shade
         Of weary eyelids overweigh’d
The pain nought else might yet relieve.

Our mother, who had lean’d all day
         Over the bed from chime to chime,
         Then rais’d herself for the first time,
And as she sat her down, did pray.

Her little work—table was spread
         With work to finish. For the glare
         Made by her candle, she had care
To work some distance from the bed.

Without, there was a cold moon up,
         Of winter radiance sheer and thin;
         The hollow halo it was in
Was like an icy crystal cup.

Through the small room, with subtle sound
         Of flame, by vents the fireshine drove
         And redden’d. In its dim alcove
The mirror shed a clearness round.

I had been sitting up some nights,
         And my tired mind felt weak and blank;
         Like a sharp strengthening wine it drank
The stillness and the broken lights.

Twelve struck. That sound, by dwindling years
         Heard in each hour, crept off; and then
         The ruffled silence spread again,
Like water that a pebble stirs.

Our mother rose from where she sat:
         Her needles, as she laid them down,
         Met lightly, and her silken gown
Settled: no other noise than that.

“Glory unto the Newly Born!”
         So, as said angels, she did say;
         Because we were in Christmas Day,
Though it would still be long till morn.

Just then in the room over us
         There was a pushing back of chairs,
         As some who had sat unawares
So late, now heard the hour, and rose.

With anxious softly—stepping haste
         Our mother went where Margaret lay,
         Fearing the sounds o’erhead—should they
Have broken her long watch’d—for rest!

She stoop’d an instant, calm, and turn’d;
         But suddenly turn’d back again;
         And all her features seem’d in pain
With woe, and her eyes gaz’d and yearn’d.

For my part, I but hid my face,
         And held my breath, and spoke no word:
         There was none spoken; but I heard
The silence for a little space.

Our mother bow’d herself and wept:
         And both my arms fell, and I said,
         “God knows I knew that she was dead.”
And there, all white, my sister slept.

Then kneeling, upon Christmas morn
         A little after twelve o’clock
         We said, ere the first quarter struck,
   “Christ’s blessing on the newly born!”

Mother of the Fair Delight,
Thou handmaid perfect in God’s sight,
Now sitting fourth beside the Three,
Thyself a woman—Trinity,—
Being a daughter born to God,
Mother of Christ from stall to rood,
And wife unto the Holy Ghost:—
Oh when our need is uttermost,
Think that to such as death may strike
Thou once wert sister sisterlike!
Thou headstone of humanity,
Groundstone of the great Mystery,
Fashioned like us, yet more than we!
Mind’st thou not (when June’s heavy breath
Warmed the long days in Nazareth,)
That eve thou didst go forth to give
Thy flowers some drink that they might live
One faint night more amid the sands?
Far off the trees were as pale wands
Against the fervid sky: the sea
Sighed further off eternally
As human sorrow sighs in sleep.
Then suddenly the awe grew deep,
As of a day to which all days
Were footsteps in God’s secret ways:
Until a folding sense, like prayer,
Which is, as God is, everywhere,
Gathered about thee; and a voice
Spake to thee without any noise,
Being of the silence:—“Hail,” it said,
“Thou that art highly favourèd;
The Lord is with thee here and now;
Blessed among all women thou.”
Ah! knew’st thou of the end, when first
That Babe was on thy bosom nurs’d?—
Or when He tottered round thy knee
Did thy great sorrow dawn on thee?—
And through His boyhood, year by year
Eating with Him the Passover,
Didst thou discern confusedly
That holier sacrament, when He,
The bitter cup about to quaff,
Should break the bread and eat thereof?—
Or came not yet the knowledge, even
Till on some day forecast in Heaven
His feet passed through thy door to press
Upon His Father’s business?—
Or still was God’s high secret kept?
Nay, but I think the whisper crept
Like growth through childhood. Work and play,
Things common to the course of day,
Awed thee with meanings unfulfill’d;
And all through girlhood, something still’d
Thy senses like the birth of light,
When thou hast trimmed thy lamp at night
Or washed thy garments in the stream;
To whose white bed had come the dream
That He was thine and thou wast His
Who feeds among the field—lilies.
O solemn shadow of the end
In that wise spirit long contain’d!
O awful end! and those unsaid
Long years when It was Finishèd!
Mind’st thou not (when the twilight gone
Left darkness in the house of John,)
Between the naked window—bars
That spacious vigil of the stars?—
For thou, a watcher even as they,
Wouldst rise from where throughout the day
Thou wroughtest raiment for His poor;
And, finding the fixed terms endure
Of day and night which never brought
Sounds of His coming chariot,
Wouldst lift through cloud—waste unexplor’d
Those eyes which said, “How long, O Lord?”
Then that disciple whom He loved,
Well heeding, haply would be moved
To ask thy blessing in His name;
And that one thought in both, the same
Though silent, then would clasp ye round
To weep together,—tears long bound,
Sick tears of patience, dumb and slow.
Yet, “Surely I come quickly,”—so
He said, from life and death gone home.
Amen: even so, Lord Jesus, come!
But oh! what human tongue can speak
That day when Michael came to break
From the tir’d spirit, like a veil,
Its covenant with Gabriel
Endured at length unto the end?
What human thought can apprehend
That mystery of motherhood
When thy Beloved at length renew’d
The sweet communion severèd,—
His left hand underneath thine head
And His right hand embracing thee?—
Lo! He was thine, and this is He!
Soul, is it Faith, or Love, or Hope,
That lets me see her standing up
Where the light of the Throne is bright?
Unto the left, unto the right,
The cherubim, succinct, conjoint,
Float inward to a golden point,
And from between the seraphim
The glory issues for a hymn.
O Mary Mother, be not loth
To listen,—thou whom the stars clothe,
Who seëst and mayst not be seen!
Hear us at last, O Mary Queen!
Into our shadow bend thy face,
Bowing thee from the secret place,
O Mary Virgin, full of grace!

In our Museum galleries
To—day I lingered o’er the prize
Dead Greece vouchsafes to living eyes,—
Her Art for ever in fresh wise
From hour to hour rejoicing me.
Sighing I turned at last to win
Once more the London dirt and din;
And as I made the swing—door spin
And issued, they were hoisting in
A wingèd beast from Nineveh.
A human face the creature wore,
And hoofs behind and hoofs before,
And flanks with dark runes fretted o’er.
‘Twas bull, ’twas mitred Minotaur,
A dead disbowelled mystery:
The mummy of a buried faith
Stark from the charnel without scathe,
Its wings stood for the light to bathe,—
Such fossil cerements as might swathe
The very corpse of Nineveh.
The print of its first rush—wrapping,
Wound ere it dried, still ribbed the thing.
What song did the brown maidens sing,
From purple mouths alternating,
When that was woven languidly?
What vows, what rites, what prayers preferr’d,
What songs has the strange image heard?
In what blind vigil stood interr’d
For ages, till an English word
Broke silence first at Nineveh?
Oh when upon each sculptured court,
Where even the wind might not resort,—
O’er which Time passed, of like import
With the wild Arab boys at sport,—
A living face looked in to see:—
Oh seemed it not—the spell once broke—
As though the carven warriors woke,
As though the shaft the string forsook,
The cymbals clashed, the chariots shook,
And there was life in Nineveh?
On London stones our sun anew
The beast’s recovered shadow threw.
(No shade that plague of darkness knew,
No light, no shade, while older grew
By ages the old earth and sea.)
Lo thou! could all thy priests have shown
Such proof to make thy godhead known?
From their dead Past thou liv’st alone;
And still thy shadow is thine own,
Even as of yore in Nineveh.
That day whereof we keep record,
When near thy city—gates the Lord
Sheltered His Jonah with a gourd,
This sun, (I said) here present, pour’d
Even thus this shadow that I see.
This shadow has been shed the same
From sun and moon,—from lamps which came
For prayer,—from fifteen days of flame,
The last, while smouldered to a name
Sardanapalus’ Nineveh.
Within thy shadow, haply, once
Sennacherib has knelt, whose sons
Smote him between the altar—stones:
Or pale Semiramis her zones
Of gold, her incense brought to thee,
In love for grace, in war for aid: . . .
Ay, and who else? . . . till 'neath thy shade
Within his trenches newly made
Last year the Christian knelt and pray’d—
Not to thy strength—in Nineveh.
Now, thou poor god, within this hall
Where the blank windows blind the wall
From pedestal to pedestal,
The kind of light shall on thee fall
Which London takes the day to be:
While school—foundations in the act
Of holiday, three files compact,
Shall learn to view thee as a fact
Connected with that zealous tract:
“ROME,—Babylon and Nineveh.”
Deemed they of this, those worshippers,
When, in some mythic chain of verse
Which man shall not again rehearse,
The faces of thy ministers
Yearned pale with bitter ecstasy?
Greece, Egypt, Rome,—did any god
Before whose feet men knelt unshod
Deem that in this unblest abode
Another scarce more unknown god
Should house with him, from Nineveh?
Ah! in what quarries lay the stone
From which this pillared pile has grown,
Unto man’s need how long unknown,
Since those thy temples, court and cone,
Rose far in desert history?
Ah! what is here that does not lie
All strange to thine awakened eye?
Ah! what is here can testify
(Save that dumb presence of the sky)
Unto thy day and Nineveh?
Why, of those mummies in the room
Above, there might indeed have come
One out of Egypt to thy home,
An alien. Nay, but were not some
Of these thine own “antiquity”?
And now,—they and their gods and thou
All relics here together,—now
Whose profit? whether bull or cow,
Isis or Ibis, who or how,
Whether of Thebes or Nineveh?
The consecrated metals found,
And ivory tablets, underground,
Winged teraphim and creatures crown’d.
When air and daylight filled the mound,
Fell into dust immediately.
And even as these, the images
Of awe and worship,—even as these,—
So, smitten with the sun’s increase,
Her glory mouldered and did cease
From immemorial Nineveh.
The day her builders made their halt,
Those cities of the lake of salt
Stood firmly 'stablished without fault,
Made proud with pillars of basalt,
With sardonyx and porphyry.
The day that Jonah bore abroad
To Nineveh the voice of God,
A brackish lake lay in his road,
Where erst Pride fixed her sure abode,
As then in royal Nineveh.
The day when he, Pride’s lord and Man’s,
Showed all the kingdoms at a glance
To Him before whose countenance
The years recede, the years advance,
And said, Fall down and worship me:—
'Mid all the pomp beneath that look,
Then stirred there, haply, some rebuke,
Where to the wind the Salt Pools shook,
And in those tracts, of life forsook,
That knew thee not, O Nineveh!
Delicate harlot! On thy throne
Thou with a world beneath thee prone
In state for ages sat’st alone;
And needs were years and lustres flown
Ere strength of man could vanquish thee:
Whom even thy victor foes must bring,
Still royal, among maids that sing
As with doves’ voices, taboring
Upon their breasts, unto the King,—
A kingly conquest, Nineveh!
. . . Here woke my thought. The wind’s slow sway
Had waxed; and like the human play
Of scorn that smiling spreads away,
The sunshine shivered off the day:
The callous wind, it seemed to me,
Swept up the shadow from the ground:
And pale as whom the Fates astound,
The god forlorn stood winged and crown’d:
Within I knew the cry lay bound
Of the dumb soul of Nineveh.
And as I turned, my sense half shut
Still saw the crowds of kerb and rut
Go past as marshalled to the strut
Of ranks in gypsum quaintly cut.
It seemed in one same pageantry
They followed forms which had been erst;
To pass, till on my sight should burst
That future of the best or worst
When some may question which was first,
Of London or of Nineveh.
For as that Bull—god once did stand
And watched the burial—clouds of sand,
Till these at last without a hand
Rose o’er his eyes, another land,
And blinded him with destiny:—
So may he stand again; till now,
In ships of unknown sail and prow,
Some tribe of the Australian plough
Bear him afar,—a relic now
Of London, not of Nineveh!
Or it may chance indeed that when
Man’s age is hoary among men,—
His centuries threescore and ten,—
His furthest childhood shall seem then
More clear than later times may be:
Who, finding in this desert place
This form, shall hold us for some race
That walked not in Christ’s lowly ways,
But bowed its pride and vowed its praise
Unto the God of Nineveh.
The smile rose first,—anon drew nigh
The thought: . . . Those heavy wings spread high,
So sure of flight, which do not fly;
That set gaze never on the sky;
Those scriptured flanks it cannot see;
Its crown, a brow—contracting load;
Its planted feet which trust the sod: . . .
(So grew the image as I trod
O Nineveh, was this thy God,—
Thine also, mighty Nineveh?

Look in my face; my name is Might—have—been;
         I am also call’d No—more, Too—late, Farewell;
         Unto thine ear I hold the dead—sea shell
Cast up thy Life’s foam—fretted feet between;
Unto thine eyes the glass where that is seen
         Which had Life’s form and Love’s, but by my spell
         Is now a shaken shadow intolerable,
Of ultimate things unutter’d the frail screen.

Mark me, how still I am! But should there dart
         One moment through thy soul the soft surprise
         Of that wing’d Peace which lulls the breath of sighs,—
Then shalt thou see me smile, and turn apart
Thy visage to mine ambush at thy heart
         Sleepless with cold commemorative eyes.