Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
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Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
 
Despondency and Aspiration (1835)
By Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793–1835)
 
        “Par correr miglior acqua alza le vele,
Omai la navicella del mio Intelletto.”
DANTE.    

MY soul was mantled with dark shadows, born
  Of lonely Fear, disquieted in vain;
Its phantoms hung around the star of morn,
  A cloud-like weeping train:
Through the long day they dimmed the autumn gold        5
On all the glistening leaves, and wildly rolled,
  When the last farewell flush of light was glowing,
      Across the sunset sky,
  O’er its rich isles of vaporous glory throwing
      One melancholy dye.        10
      And when the solemn night
      Came rushing with her might
  Of stormy oracles from caves unknown,
      Then with each fitful blast
      Prophetic murmurs passed,        15
  Wakening or answering some deep Sybil-tone
  Far buried in my breast, yet prompt to rise
With every gusty wail that o’er the wind-harp flies.
 
“Fold, fold thy wings,” they cried, “and strive no more—
Faint spirit! strive no more: for thee too strong        20
    Are outward ill and wrong,
And inward wasting fires! Thou canst not soar
    Free on a starry way,
    Beyond their blighting sway,
At heaven’s high gate serenely to adore.        25
How should’st thou hope earth’s fetters to unbind?
O passionate, yet weak! O trembler to the wind!
 
“Never shall aught but broken music flow
From joy of thine, deep love, or tearful woe—
Such homeless notes as through the forest sigh,        30
    From the reed’s hollow shaken,
    When sudden breezes waken
      Their vague, wild symphony.
No power is theirs, and no abiding-place
In human hearts; their sweetness leaves no trace—        35
      Born only so to die!
Never shall aught but perfume faint and vain,
On the fleet pinion of the changeful hour,
    From thy bruised life again
      A moment’s essence breathe;        40
  Thy life, whose trampled flower,
      Into the blessed wreath
Of household-charities no longer bound,
Lies pale and withering on the barren ground.
 
“So fade, fade on! Thy gift of love shall cling        45
  A coiling sadness round thy heart and brain—
A silent fruitless yet undying thing,
    All sensitive to pain!
And still the shadow of vain dreams shall fall
O’er thy mind’s world, a daily darkening pall.        50
Fold, then, thy wounded wing, and sink subdued
In cold and unrepining quietude!”
 
Then my soul yielded: spells of numbing breath
Crept o’er it heavy with a view of death—
Its powers like leaves before the night-rain closing;        55
  And, as by conflict of wild sea-waves tossed
  On the chill bosom of some desert coast,
Mutely and hopelessly I lay reposing.
    When silently it seemed
    As if a soft mist gleamed        60
Before my passive sight, and slowly curling,
    To many a shape and hue
    Of visioned beauty grew,
Like a wrought banner, fold by fold unfurling.
 
Oh! the rich scenes that o’er mine inward eye        65
    Unrolling then swept by
With dreamy motion! Silvery seas were there,
  Lit by large dazzling stars, and arched by skies
  Of southern midnight’s most transparent dyes;
And gemmed with many an island, wildly fair,        70
Which floated past me into orient day,
Still gathering lustre on the illumined way,
Till its high groves of wondrous flowering-trees
    Coloured the silvery seas.
And then a glorious mountain-chain uprose,        75
    Height above spiry height!
A soaring solitude of woods and snows,
    All steeped in golden light!
While as it passed, those regal peaks unveiling,
  I heard, methought, a waving of dread wings,        80
And mighty sounds, as if the vision hailing,
  From lyres that quivered through ten thousand strings
Or as if waters, forth to music leaping
  From many a cave, the Alpine echo’s hall,
On their bold way victoriously were sweeping,        85
  Linked in majestic anthems!—while through all
    That billowy swell and fall,
Voices, like ringing crystal, filled the air
  With inarticulate melody, that stirred
  My being’s core; then, moulding into word        90
Their piercing sweetness, bade me rise and bear
  In that great choral strain my trembling part,
Of tones by love and faith struck from a human heart.
 
Return no more, vain bodings of the night!
  A happier oracle within my soul        95
Hath swelled to power; a clear unwavering light
  Mounts through the battling clouds that round me roll;
    And to a new control
Nature’s full harp gives forth rejoicing tones,
    Wherein my glad sense owns        100
The accordant rush of elemental sound
To one consummate harmony profound—
      One grand Creation-Hymn,
      Whose notes the seraphim
Lift to the glorious height of music winged and crowned.        105
  Shall not those notes find echoes in my lyre,
Faithful though faint? Shall not my spirit’s fire,
If slowly, yet unswervingly, ascend
      Now to its fount and end?
  Shall not my earthly love, all purified,        110
      Shine forth a heavenward guide,
  An angel of bright power—and strongly bear
  My being upward into holier air,
  Where fiery passion-clouds have no abode,
And the sky’s temple-arch o’erflows with God?        115
 
      The radiant hope new-born
      Expands like rising morn
In my life’s life: and as a ripening rose
The crimson shadow of its glory throws
More vivid, hour by hour, on some pure stream;        120
      So from that hope are spreading
      Rich hues, o’er nature shedding
Each day a clearer, spiritual gleam.
 
Let not those rays fade from me! Once enjoyed,
      Father of Spirits! let them not depart—        125
Leaving the chilled earth without form and void,
      Darkened by mine own heart!
Lift, aid, sustain me! Thou, by whom alone
      All lovely gifts and pure
      In the soul’s grasp endure;        130
Thou, to the steps of whose eternal throne
All knowledge flows—a sea for evermore
Breaking its crested waves on that sole shore—
Oh, consecrate my life! that I may sing
Of Thee with joy that hath a living spring,        135
In a full heart of music! Let my lays
Through the resounding mountains waft Thy praise,
And with that theme the wood’s green cloisters fill,
And make their quivering leafy dimness thrill
To the rich breeze of song! Oh! let me wake        140
    The deep religion, which hath dwelt from yore
Silently brooding by lone cliff and lake,
    And wildest river-shore!
And let me summon all the voices dwelling
Where eagles build, and caverned rills are welling,        145
And where the cataract’s organ-peal is swelling,
    In that one spirit gathered to adore!
 
Forgive, O Father! if presumptuous thought
  Too daringly in aspiration rise!
Let not Thy child all vainly have been taught        150
  By weakness, and by wanderings, and by sighs
Of sad confession! lowly be my heart,
  And on its penitential altar spread
The offerings worthless, till Thy grace impart
  The fire from heaven, whose touch alone can shed        155
Life, radiance, virtue!—let that vital spark
Pierce my whole being, wildered else and dark!
Thine are all holy things—oh, make me Thine!
So shall I, too, be pure—a living shrine
Unto that Spirit which goes forth from Thee,        160
      Strong and divinely free,
Bearing Thy gifts of wisdom on its flight,
And brooding o’er them with a dove-like wing,
Till thought, word, song, to Thee in worship spring,
Immortally endowed for liberty and light.        165
 
 
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