Verse > Anthologies > Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. > A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895
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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908).  A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895.  1895.
 
Sonnets from the Portuguese
 
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61)
 
 
I
I THOUGHT once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wish’d-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young:
And, as I mus’d it in his antique tongue,        5
I saw, in gradual vision through my tears,
The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was ’ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move        10
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,—
“Guess now who holds thee!”—“Death,” I said. But, there,
The silver answer rang—“Not Death, but Love.”
 
IV
THOU hast thy calling to some palace-floor,
        15
Most gracious singer of high poems! where
The dancers will break footing, from the care
Of watching up thy pregnant lips for more.
And dost thou lift this house’s latch too poor
For hand of thine? and canst thou think and bear        20
To let thy music drop here unaware
In folds of golden fulness at my door?
Look up and see the casement broken in,
The bats and owlets builders in the roof!
My cricket chirps against thy mandolin.        25
Hush, call no echo up in further proof
Of desolation! there ’s a voice within
That weeps … as thou must sing … alone, aloof.
 
V
I LIFT my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,        30
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see
What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen grayness. If thy foot in scorn        35
Could tread them out to darkness utterly,
It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The gray dust up, … those laurels on thine head,
O my Beloved, will not shield thee so,        40
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand further off then! go!
 
VI
GO from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door        45
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I fore-bore—
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land        50
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,        55
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.
 
IX
CAN it be right to give what I can give?
To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears
As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years
Re-sighing on my lips renunciative        60
Through those infrequent smiles which fail to live
For all thy adjurations? O my fears,
That this can scarce be right! We are not peers
So to be lovers; and I own, and grieve,
That givers of such gifts as mine are, must        65
Be counted with the ungenerous. Out, alas!
I will not soil thy purple with my dust,
Nor breathe my poison on thy Venice-glass,
Nor give thee any love—which were unjust.
Beloved, I only love thee! let it pass.        70
 
XVIII

I NEVER gave a lock of hair away
To a man, Dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfully
I ring out to the full brown length and say
“Take it.” My day of youth went yesterday;        75
My hair no longer bounds to my foot’s glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle-tree,
As girls, do, any more: it only may
Now shade on two pale cheeks the mark of tears,
Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside        80
Through sorrow’s trick. I thought the funeral-shears
Would take this first, but Love is justified,—
Take it thou,—finding pure, from all those years,
The kiss my mother left here when she died.
 
XX

BELOVED, my Beloved, when I think
        85
That thou wast in the world a year ago,
What time I sat alone here in the snow
And saw no footprint, heard the silence sink
No moment at thy voice, but, link by link,
Went counting all my chains as if that so        90
They never could fall off at any blow
Struck by thy possible hand,—why, thus I drink
Of life’s great cup of wonder! Wonderful,
Never to feel thee thrill the day or night
With personal act or speech,—nor ever cull        95
Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull,
Who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.
 
XXII

WHEN our two souls stand up erect and strong,
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,        100
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
At either curved point,—what bitter wrong
Can the earth do to us, that we should not long
Be here contented? Think! In mounting higher,
The angels would press on us and aspire        105
To drop some golden orb of perfect song
Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
Rather on earth, Beloved,—where the unfit
Contrarious moods of men recoil away
And isolate pure spirits, and permit        110
A place to stand and love in for a day,
With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.
 
XXIII

IS it indeed so? If I lay here dead,
Wouldst thou miss any life in losing mine?
And would the sun for thee more coldly shine        115
Because of grave-damps falling round my head?
I marvelled, my Beloved, when I read
Thy thought so in the letter. I am thine—
But … so much to thee? Can I pour thy wine
While my hands tremble? Then my soul, instead        120
Of dreams of death, resumes life’s lower range.
Then, love me, Love! look on me—breathe on me!
As brighter ladies do not count it strange,
For love, to give up acres and degree,
I yield the grave for thy sake, and exchange        125
My near sweet view of heaven, for earth with thee!
 
XXVI

I LIV’D with visions for my company
Instead of men and women, years ago,
And found them gentle mates, nor thought to know
A sweeter music than they play’d to me.        130
But soon their trailing purple was not free
Of this world’s dust, their lutes did silent grow,
And I myself grew faint and blind below
Their vanishing eyes. Then THOU didst come—to be,
Beloved, what they seem’d. Their shining fronts,        135
Their songs, their splendors, (better, yet the same,
As river-water hallow’d into fonts)
Met in thee, and from out thee overcame
My soul with satisfaction of all wants:
Because God’s gift puts man’s best dreams to shame.        140
 
XXXV

IF I leave all for thee, wilt thou exchange
And be all to me? Shall I never miss
Home-talk and blessing and the common kiss
That comes to each in turn, nor count it strange,
When I look up, to drop on a new range        145
Of walls and floors, another home than this?
Nay, wilt thou fill that place by me which is
Fill’d by dead eyes too tender to know change
That ’s hardest? If to conquer love, has tried,
To conquer grief, tries more, as all things prove,        150
For grief indeed is love and grief beside.
Alas, I have griev’d so I am hard to love.
Yet love me—wilt thou? Open thine heart wide,
And fold within the wet wings of thy dove.
 
XXXVIII

FIRST time he kiss’d me, he but only kiss’d
        155
The fingers of this hand wherewith I write;
And ever since, it grew more clean and white,
Slow to world-greetings, quick with its “Oh, list,”
When the angels speak. A ring of amethyst
I could not wear here, plainer to my sight,        160
Than that first kiss. The second pass’d in height
The first, and sought the forehead, and half miss’d,
Half falling on the hair. O beyond meed!
That was the chrism of love, which love’s own crown,
With sanctifying sweetness, did precede.        165
The third upon my lips was folded down
In perfect, purple state; since when, indeed,
I have been proud and said, “My love, my own.”
 
XXXIX

BECAUSE thou hast the power and own’st the grace
To look through and behind this mask of me,        170
(Against which, years have beat thus blanchingly
With their rains,) behold my soul’s true face,
The dim and weary witness of life’s race,—
Because thou hast the faith and love to see,
Through that same soul’s distracting lethargy,        175
The patient angel waiting for a place
In the new Heavens,—because nor sin nor woe,
Nor God’s infliction, nor death’s neighborhood,
Nor all which others viewing, turn to go,
Nor all which makes me tired of all, self-view’d,—        180
Nothing repels thee,… Dearest, teach me so
To pour out gratitude, as thou dost, good!
 
XLI

I THANK all who have lov’d me in their hearts,
With thanks and love from mine. Deep thanks to all
Who paus’d a little near the prison-wall        185
To hear my music in its louder parts
Ere they went onward, each one to the mart’s
Or temple’s occupation, beyond call.
But thou, who, in my voice’s sink and fall
When the sob took it, thy divinest Art’s        190
Own instrument didst drop down at thy foot
To hearken what I said between my tears,…
Instruct me how to thank thee! Oh, to shoot
My soul’s full meaning into future years,
That they should lend it utterance, and salute        195
Love that endures, from Life that disappears!
 
XLIII

HOW do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.        200
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use        205
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seem’d to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of ally my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.        210
 

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