Sonnets from the Portuguese

poems by Elizabeth Barret Browning



    I thought once how Theocritus had sung
    Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
    Who each one in a gracious hand appears
    To bear a gift for mortals, old or young;
    And, as I mused it in his antique tongue,
    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. Straightaway I was 'ware,
    So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
    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.





    But only three in all God's universe
    Have heard this word thou has said,--Himself, beside
    Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
    One of us...that was God,...and laid the curse
    So darkly on my eyelids, as to amerce
    My sight from seeing thee,--that if I had died,
    The deathweights, placed there, would have signified
    Less absolute exclusion. Nay is worse
    From God than from all others, O my friend!
    Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
    Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend;
    Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars:
    And, heaven being rolled between us at the end,
    We should but vow the faster for the stars.




    Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!
    Unlike our uses and our destinies.
    Our ministering two angels look surprise
    On one another, as they strike athwart
    Their wings in passing. Thou, bethink thee, art
    A guest for queens to social pageantries,
    With gages from a hundred brighter eyes
    Than tears even can make mine, to play thy part
    Of chief musician. What hast thou to do
    With looking from the lattice-lights at me,
    A poor, tired, wandering singer, singing through
    The dark, and leaning up a cypress tree?
    The chrism is on thine head,--on mine, the dew--
    And Death must dig the level where these agree.




    Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor,
    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
    To let thy music drip 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.
    Hush, call no echo up in further proof
    Of desolation! there's a voice within
    That thou must sing...alone, aloof.




    I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
    As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
    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 greyness. If thy foot in scorn
    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 grey dust up,...those laurels on thine head,
    O my Belovèd, will not shield thee so,
    That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
    The hair beneath. Stand farther off then! go.




    Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
    Henceforth in thy shadow. Nevermore
    Alone upon the threshold of my door
    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 forbore--
    Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
    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,
    And sees within my eyes the tears of two.




    The face of all the world is changed, I think,
    Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
    Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
    Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
    Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
    Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
    Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
    God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,
    And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
    The names of country, heaven, are changed away
    From where thou art or shalt be, there or here;
    And this...this lute and song...loved yesterday,
    (The singing angels know) are only dear
    Because thy name moves right in what they say.




    What can I give thee back, O liberal
    And princely giver, who hast brought the gold
    And purple of thine heart, unstained, untold,
    And laid them on the outside of the wall
    For such as I to take or leave withal,
    In unexpected largesse? am I cold,
    Ungrateful, that for these most manifold
    High gifts, I render nothing back at all?
    Not so; not cold,--but very poor instead.
    Ask God who knows. For frequent tears have run
    The colours from my life, and left so dead
    And pale a stuff, it were not fitly done
    To give the same as pillow to thy head.
    Go farther! let it serve to trample on.




    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
    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
    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.






    Yet, love, mere love, is beautiful indeed
    And worthy of acceptation. Fire is bright,
    Let temple burn, or flax; an equal light
    Leaps in the flame from cedar-plank or weed:
    And love is fire. And when I say at need
    I love thee...mark!...I love thee--in thy sight
    I stand transfigured, glorified aright,
    With conscience of the new rays that proceed
    Out of my face toward thine. There's nothing low
    In love, when love the lowest: meanest creatures
    Who love God, God accepts while loving so.
    And what I feel, across the inferior features
    Of what I am, doth flash itself, and show
    How that great work of Love enhances Nature's.






    And therefore if to love can be desert,
    I am not all unworthy. Cheeks as pale
    As these you see, and trembling knees that fail
    To bear the burden of a heavy heart,--
    This weary minstrel-life that once was girt
    To climb Aornus, and can scarce avail
    To pipe now 'gainst the valley nightingale
    A melancholy music,--why advert
    To these things? O Belovèd, it is plain
    I am not of thy worth nor for thy place!
    And yet, because I love thee, I obtain
    From that same love this vindicating grace,
    To live on still in love, and yet in vain,--
    To bless thee, yet renounce thee to thy face.





    Indeed this very love which is my boast,
    And which, when rising up from breast to brow,
    Doth crown me with ruby large enow
    To draw men's eyes and prove the inner cost,--
    This love even, all my worth, to the uttermost,
    I should not love withal, unless that thou
    Hadst set me an example, shown me how,
    When first thine earnest eyes with mine were crossed,
    And love called love. And thus, I cannot speak
    Of love even, as good thing of my own:
    Thy soul hath snatched up mine all faint and weak,
    And placed it by thee on a golden throne,--
    And that I love (O soul, we must be meek--)
    Is by thee only, whom I love alone.





    And wilt thou have me fashion into speech
    The love I bear thee, finding words enough,
    And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough,
    Between our faces, to cast light on each?--
    I drop at thy feet. I cannot teach
    My hand to hold my spirit so far off
    From myself--me--that I should bring thee proof
    In words, of love hid in me out of reach.
    Nay, let the silence of my womanhood
    Commend my woman-love to thy belief,--
    Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,
    And rend the garment of my life, in brief,
    By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,
    Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.





    If thou must love me, let it be for nought
    Except for love's sake only. Do not say
    I love her for her smile--her look--her way
    Of speaking gently,--for a trick of thought
    That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
    A sense of ease on such a day--
    For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
    Be changed, or change for thee,--and love, so wrought,
    May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
    Thine own dear pity's wiping my cheek dry,--
    A creature might forget to weep, who bore
    Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
    But love me for love's sake, that evermore
    Thou may'st love on, through love's eternity.





    Accuse me not, beseech thee, that I wear
    Too calm and sad a face in front of thine;
    For we two look two ways, and cannot shine
    With the same sunlight on our brow and hair.
    On me thou lookest with no doubting care,
    As on a bee in a crystalline;
    Since sorrow hath shut me safe in love's divine
    And to spread wing and fly in the outer air
    Were most impossible failure, if I strove
    To fail so. But I look on thee--on thee--
    Beholding, besides love, the end of love,
    Hearing oblivion beyond memory;
    As one who sits and gazes from above,
    Over the rivers to the bitter sea.





    And yet, because thou overcomest so,
    Because thou art more noble and like a king,
    Thou canst prevail against my fears and fling
    Thy purple round me, till my heart shall grow
    Too close against thine heart henceforth to know
    How it shook when alone. Why, conquering
    May prove as lordly and complete a thing
    In lifting upward, as in crushing low!
    And as a vanquished soldier yields his sword
    To one who lifts him from the bloody earth;
    Even so, Belovèd, I at last record,
    Here ends my strife. If thou invite me forth,
    I rise above abasement at the word.
    Make thy love larger to enlarge my worth.





    My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes
    God set between His After and Before,
    And strike up and strike off the general roar
    Of the rushing worlds a melody that floats
    In a serene air purely. Antidotes
    Of medicated music, answering for
    Mankind's forlornest uses, thou canst pour
    From thence into their ears. God's will devotes
    Thine to such ends, and mine to wait on thine.
    How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?
    A hope, to sing by gladly? or a fine
    Sad memory, with thy songs to interfuse?
    A shade, in which to sing--of palm or pine?
    A grave, on which to rest from singing? Choose.





    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;
    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
    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.





    The soul's Rialto hath its merchandise;
    I barter curl for curl upon that mart,
    And from my poet's forehead to my heart
    Receive this lock which outweighs argosies,--
    As purply black, as erst to Pindar's eyes
    The dim purpureal tresses gloomed athwart
    The nine white Muse-brows. For this counterpart,...
    The bay-crown's shade, Belovèd, I surmise,
    Still lingers on thy curl, it so black!
    Thus, with a fillet of smooth-kissing breath,
    I tie the shadows safe from gliding back,
    And lay the gift where nothing hindereth;
    Here on my heart, as on thy brow, to lack
    No natural heat till mine grows cold in death.





    Belovèd, my Belovèd, when I think
    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
    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
    Some prescience of thee with the blossoms white
    Thou sawest growing! Atheists are as dull
    Who cannot guess God's presence out of sight.






    Say over again, and yet once over again,
    That thou dost love me. Though the word repeated
    Should seem "a cuckoo-song," as thou dost treat it,
    Remember, never to the hill or plain,
    Valley and wood, without her cuckoo-strain
    Comes the fresh Spring in all her green completed,
    Belovèd, I, amid the darkness greeted
    By a doubtful spirit-voice, in that doubt's pain
    Cry, Speak once more--thou lovest! Who can fear
    Too many stars, though each in heaven shall roll,
    Too many flowers, though each shall crown the year?
    Say thou dost love me, love me, love me--toll
    The silver iterance!--only minding, Dear,
    To love me also in silence with thy soul.






    When our two souls stand up erect and strong,
    Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
    Until the lengthening wings break into fire
    At either curvèd 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
    To drop some golden orb of perfect song
    Into our deep, dear silence. Let us stay
    Rather on earth, Belovèd,--where the unfit
    Contrarious moods of men recoil away
    And isolate pure spirits, and permit
    A place to stand and love in for a day,
    With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.