by Robert Browning
Scene.-Up the Hill-side, inside the Shrub-house. Luca's wife, Ottima, and her paramour, the German Sebald.
Let the watching lids wink!
Day's a-blaze with eyes, think!
Deep into the night, drink!
Night? Such may be your Rhine-land nights perhaps;
But this blood-red beam through the shutter's chink
-We call such light, the morning: let us see!
Mind how you grope your way, though! How these tall
Naked geraniums straggle! Push the lattice
Behind that frame!-Nay, do I bid you?-Sebald,
It shakes the dust down on me! Why, of course
The slide-bolt catches. Well, are you content,
Or must I find you something else to spoil?
Kiss and be friends, my Sebald! Is 't full morning?
Oh, don't speak then!
Ay, thus it used to be.
Ever your house was, I remember, shut
Till mid-day; I observed that, as I strolled
On mornings through the vale here; country girls
Were noisy, washing garments in the brook,
Hinds drove the slow white oxen up the hills:
But no, your house was mute, would ope no eye.
And wisely: you were plotting one thing there,
Nature, another outside. I looked up-
Rough white wood shutters, rusty iron bars,
Silent as death, blind in a flood of light.
Oh, I remember!-and the peasants laughed
And said, "The old man sleeps with the young wife."
This house was his, this chair, this window-his.
Ah, the clear morning! I can see St. Mark's;
That black streak is the belfry. Stop: Vicenza
Should lie . . . there's Padua, plain enough, that blue!
Look o'er my shoulder, follow my finger!
It seems to me a night with a sun added.
Where's dew, where's freshness? That bruised plant, I bruised
In getting through the lattice yestereve,
Droops as it did. See, here's my elbow's mark
I' the dust o' the sill.
Oh, shut the lattice, pray!
Let me lean out. I cannot scent blood here,
Foul as the morn may be.
There, shut the world out!
How do you feel now, Ottima? There, curse
The world and all outside! Let us throw off
This mask: how do you bear yourself? Let's out
With all of it.
Best never speak of it.
Best speak again and yet again of it,
Till words cease to be more than words. "His blood,"
For instance-let those two words mean "His blood"
And nothing more. Notice, I'll say them now,
Assuredly if I repented
Repent? Who should repent, or why?
What puts that in your head? Did I once say
That I repented?
No, I said the deed . . .
"The deed" and "the event"-just now it was
"Our passion's fruit"-the devil take such cant!
Say, once and always, Luca was a wittol,
I am his cut-throat, you are . . .
Here's the wine;
I brought it when we left the house above,
And glasses too-wine of both sorts. Black? White then?
But am not I his cut-throat? What are you?
There trudges on his business from the Duomo
Benet the Capuchin, with his brown hood
And bare feet; always in one place at church,
Close under the stone wall by the south entry.
I used to take him for a brown cold piece
Of the wall's self, as out of it he rose
To let me pass-at first, I say, I used:
Now, so has that dumb figure fastened on me,
I rather should account the plastered wall
A piece of him, so chilly does it strike.
No, the white wine-the white wine!
Well, Ottima, I promised no new year
Should rise on us the ancient shameful way;
Nor does it rise. Pour on! To your black eyes!
Do you remember last damned New Year's day?
You brought those foreign prints. We looked at them
Over the wine and fruit. I had to scheme
To get him from the fire. Nothing but saying
His own set wants the proof-mark, roused him up
To hunt them out.
'Faith, he is not alive
To fondle you before my face.
Fondle me then! Who means to take your life
For that, my Sebald?
Hark you, Ottima!
One thing to guard against. We'll not make much
One of the other-that is, not make more
Parade of warmth, childish officious coil,
Than yesterday: as if, sweet, I supposed
Proof upon proof were needed now, now first,
To show I love you-yes, still love you-love you
In spite of Luca and what's come to him
-Sure sign we had him ever in our thoughts,
White sneering old reproachful face and all!
We'll even quarrel, love, at times, as if
We still could lose each other, were not tied
By this: conceive you?
Not tied so sure.
Because though I was wrought upon, have struck
His insolence back into him-am I
So surely yours?-therefore forever yours?
Love, to be wise, (one counsel pays another)
Should we have-months ago, when first we loved,
For instance that May morning we two stole
Under the green ascent of sycamores-
If we had come upon a thing like that
Suddenly . . .
"A thing"-there again-"a thing!"
Then, Venus' body, had we come upon
My husband Luca Gaddi's murdered corpse
Within there, at his couch-foot, covered close-
Would you have pored upon it? Why persist
In poring now upon it? For't is here
As much as there in the deserted house:
You cannot rid your eyes of it. For me,
Now he is dead I hate him worse: I hate . . .
Dare you stay here? I would go back and hold
His two dead hands, and say, "I hate you worse,
"Luca, than . . ."
Off, off-take your hands off mine,
'T is the hot evening-off! oh, morning is it?
There's one thing must be done; you know what thing.
Come in and help to carry. We may sleep
Anywhere in the whole wide house to-night.
What would come, think you, if we let him lie
Just as he is? Let him lie there until
The angels take him! He is turned by this
Off from his face beside, as you will see.
This dusty pane might serve for looking glass.
Three, four-four grey hairs! Is it so you said
A plait of hair should wave across my neck?
Ottima, I would give your neck,
Each splendid shoulder, both those breasts of yours,
That this were undone! Killing! Kill the world,
So Luca lives again!-ay, lives to sputter
His fulsome dotage on you-yes, and feign
Surprise that I return at eve to sup,
When all the morning I was loitering here-
Bid me despatch my business and begone.
I would . . .
No, I'll finish. Do you think
I fear to speak the bare truth once for all?
All we have talked of, is, at bottom, fine
To suffer; there's a recompense in guilt;
One must be venturous and fortunate:
What is one young for, else? In age we'll sigh
O'er the wild reckless wicked days flown over;
Still, we have lived: the vice was in its place.
But to have eaten Luca's bread, have worn
His clothes, have felt his money swell my purse-
Do lovers in romances sin that way?
Why, I was starving when I used to call
And teach you music, starving while you plucked me
These flowers to smell!
My poor lost friend!
He gave me
Life, nothing less: what if he did reproach
My perfidy, and threaten, and do more-
Had he no right? What was to wonder at?
He sat by us at table quietly:
Why must you lean across till our cheeks touched?
Could he do less than make pretence to strike?
'T is not the crime's sake-I'd commit ten crimes
Greater, to have this crime wiped out, undone!
And you-O how feel you? Feel you for me?
Well then, I love you better now than ever,
And best (look at me while I speak to you)-
Best for the crime; nor do I grieve, in truth,
This mask, this simulated ignorance,
This affectation of simplicity,
Falls off our crime; this naked crime of ours
May not now be looked over: look it down!
Great? let it be great; but the joys it brought,
Pay they or no its price? Come: they or it!
Speak not! The past, would you give up the past
Such as it is, pleasure and crime together?
Give up that noon I owned my love for you?
The garden's silence: even the single bee
Persisting in his toil, suddenly stopped,
And where he hid you only could surmise
By some campanula chalice set a-swing.
Who stammered-"Yes, I love you?"
And I drew
Back; put far back your face with both my hands
Lest you should grow too full of me-your face
So seemed athirst for my whole soul and body!
And when I ventured to receive you here,
Made you steal hither in the mornings-
I used to look up 'neath the shrub-house here,
Till the red fire on its glazed windows spread
To a yellow haze?
Ah-my sign was, the sun
Inflamed the sere side of yon chestnut-tree
Nipped by the first frost.
You would always laugh
At my wet boots: I had to stride thro' grass
Over my ankles.
Then our crowning night!
The July night?
The day of it too, Sebald!
When heaven's pillars seemed o'erbowed with heat,
Its black-blue canopy suffered descend
Close on us both, to weigh down each to each,
And smother up all life except our life.
So lay we till the storm came.
How it came!
Buried in woods we lay, you recollect;
Swift ran the searching tempest overhead;
And ever and anon some bright white shaft
Burned thro' the pine-tree roof, here burned and there,
As if God's messenger thro' the close wood screen
Plunged and replunged his weapon at a venture,
Feeling for guilty thee and me: then broke
The thunder like a whole sea overhead-
-While I stretched myself upon you, hands
To hands, my mouth to your hot mouth, and shook
All my locks loose, and covered you with them-
You, Sebald, the same you!
And as we lay-
Less vehemently! Love me!
Forgive me! Take not words, mere words, to heart!
Your breath is worse than wine! Breathe slow, speak slow!
Do not lean on me!
Sebald, as we lay,
Rising and falling only with our pants,
Who said, "Let death come now! 'T is right to die!
"Right to be punished! Nought completes such bliss
"But woe!" Who said that?
How did we ever rise?
Was't that we slept? Why did it end?
I felt you
Taper into a point the ruffled ends
Of my loose locks 'twixt both your humid lips.
My hair is fallen now: knot it again!
I kiss you now, dear Ottima, now and now!
This way? Will you forgive me-be once more
My great queen?
Bind it thrice about my brow;
Crown me your queen, your spirit's arbitress,
Magnificent in sin. Say that!
I crown you
My great white queen, my spirit's arbitress,
Magnificent . . .
[From without is heard the voice of Pippa, singing-
The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn:
God's in his heaven-
All's right with the world!
God's in his heaven! Do you hear that? Who spoke?
You, you spoke!
Oh-that little ragged girl!
She must have rested on the step: we give them
But this one holiday the whole year round.
Did you ever see our silk-mills-their inside?
There are ten silk-mills now belong to you.
She stoops to pick my double heartsease . . . Sh!
She does not hear: call you out louder!
Go, get your clothes on-dress those shoulders!
Wipe off that paint! I hate you.
My God, and she is emptied of it now!
Outright now!-how miraculously gone
All of the grace-had she not strange grace once?
Why, the blank cheek hangs listless as it likes,
No purpose holds the features up together,
Only the cloven brow and puckered chin
Stay in their places: and the very hair,
That seemed to have a sort of life in it,
Drops, a dead web!
Speak to me-not of me!
-That round great full-orbed face, where not an angle
Broke the delicious indolence-all broken!
To me-not of me! Ungrateful, perjured cheat!
A coward too: but ingrate's worse than all.
Beggar-my slave-a fawning, cringing lie!
Leave me! Betray me! I can see your drift!
A lie that walks and eats and drinks!
Those morbid olive faultless shoulder-blades-
I should have known there was no blood beneath!
You hate me then? You hate me then?
She would succeed in her absurd attempt,
And fascinate by sinning, show herself
Superior-guilt from its excess superior
To innocence! That little peasant's voice
Has righted all again. Though I be lost,
I know which is the better, never fear,
Of vice or virtue, purity or lust,
Nature or trick! I see what I have done,
Entirely now! Oh I am proud to feel
Such torments-let the world take credit thence-
I, having done my deed, pay too its price!
I hate, hate-curse you! God's in his heaven!
Me! no, no, Sebald, not yourself-kill me
Mine is the whole crime. Do but kill me-then
Yourself-then-presently-first hear me speak!
I always meant to kill myself-wait, you!
Lean on my breast-not as a breast; don't love me
The more because you lean on me, my own
Heart's Sebald! There, there, both deaths presently!
My brain is drowned now-quite drowned: all I feel
Is . . . is, at swift-recurring intervals,
A hurry-down within me, as of waters
Loosened to smother up some ghastly pit:
There they go-whirls from a black fiery sea!
Not me-to him, O God, be merciful!
Talk by the way, while Pippa is passing from the hill-side to Orcana. Foreign Students of painting and sculpture, from Venice, assembled opposite the house of Jules, a young French statuary, at Possagno.
Attention! My own post is beneath this window, but the pomegranate clump yonder will hide three or four of you with a little squeezing, and Schramm and his pipe must lie flat in the balcony. Four, five- who's a defaulter? We want everybody, for Jules must not be suffered to hurt his bride when the jest's found out.
All here! Only our poet's away-never having much meant to be present, moonstrike him! The airs of that fellow, that Giovacchino! He was in violent love with himself, and had a fair prospect of thriving in his suit, so unmolested was it,-when suddenly a woman falls in love with him, too; and out of pure jealousy he takes himself off to Trieste, immortal poem and all: whereto is this prophetical epitaph appended already, as Bluphocks assures me,-"Here a mammoth-poem lies, Fouled to death by butterflies." His own fault, the simpleton! Instead of cramp couplets, each like a knife in your entrails, he should write, says Bluphocks, both classically and intelligibly. -Æsculapius, an Epic. Catalogue of the drugs: Hebe's plaister-One strip Cools your lip. Phoebus' emulsion- One bottle Clears your throttle. Mercury's bolus-One box Cures . . .
Subside, my fine fellow! If the marriage was over by ten o'clock, Jules will certainly be here in a minute with his bride.
Good!-only, so should the poet's muse have been universally acceptable, says Bluphocks, et canibus nostris . . . and Delia not better known to our literary dogs than the boy Giovacchino!
To the point, now. Where's Gottlieb, the new-comer? Oh,-listen, Gottlieb, to what has called down this piece of friendly vengeance on Jules, of which we now assemble to witness the winding-up. We are all agreed, all in a tale, observe, when Jules shall burst out on us in a fury by and by: I am spokesman-the verses that are to undeceive Jules bear my name of Lutwyche -but each professes himself alike insulted by this strutting stone-squarer, who came alone from Paris to Munich, and thence with a crowd of us to Venice and Possagno here, but proceeds in a day or two alone again-oh, alone indubitably!-to Rome and Florence. He, forsooth, take up his portion with these dissolute, brutalized, heartless bunglers!-so he was heard to call us all: now, is Schramm brutalized, I should like to know? Am I heartless?
Why, somewhat heartless; for, suppose Jules a coxcomb as much as you choose, still, for this mere coxcombry, you will have brushed off-what do folks style it?-the bloom of his life. Is it too late to alter? These love-letters now, you call his-I can't laugh at them.
Because you never read the sham letters of our inditing which drew forth these.
His discovery of the truth will be frightful.
That's the joke. But you should have joined us at the beginning: there's no doubt he loves the girl-loves a model he might hire by the hour!
See here! "He has been accustomed," he writes, "to have Canova's women about him, in stone, "and the world's women beside him, in flesh; these "being as much below, as those above, his soul's aspi- "ration: but now he is to have the reality." There you laugh again! I say, you wipe off the very dew of his youth.
Schramm! (Take the pipe out of his mouth, somebody!) Will Jules lose the bloom of his youth?
Nothing worth keeping is ever lost in this world: look at a blossom-it drops presently, having done its service and lasted its time; but fruits succeed, and where would be the blossom's place could it continue? As well affirm that your eye is no longer in your body, because its earliest favourite, whatever it may have first loved to look on, is dead and done with- as that any affection is lost to the soul when its first object, whatever happened first to satisfy it, is superseded in due course. Keep but ever looking, whether with the body's eye or the mind's, and you will soon find something to look on! Has a man done wondering at women?-there follow men, dead and alive, to wonder at. Has he done wondering at men?-there's God to wonder at: and the faculty of wonder may be, at the same time, old and tired enough with respect to its first object, and yet young and fresh sufficiently, so far as concerns its novel one. Thus . . .
Put Schramm's pipe into his mouth again! There, you see! Well, this Jules . . . a wretched fribble -oh, I watched his disportings at Possagno, the other day! Canova's gallery-you know: there he marches first resolvedly past great works by the dozen without vouchsafing an eye: all at once he stops full at thePsiche-fanciulla -cannot pass that old acquaintance without a nod of encouragement-"In your new place, beauty? Then behave yourself as well here as at Munich -I see you!" Next he posts himself deliberately before the unfinished Pietà for half an hour without moving, till up he starts of a sudden, and thrusts his very nose into-I say, into-the group; by which gesture you are informed that precisely the sole point he had not fully mastered in Canova's practice was a certain method of using the drill in the articulation of the knee-joint-and that, likewise, has he mastered at length! Good-bye, therefore, to poor Canova-whose gallery no longer needs detain his successor Jules, the predestinated novel thinker in marble!
Tell him about the women: go on to the women!
Why, on that matter he could never be supercilious enough. How should we be other (he said) than the poor devils you see, with those debasing habits we cherish? He was not to wallow in that mire, at least: he would wait, and love only at the proper time, and meanwhile put up with the Psiche-fanciulla. Now, I happened to hear of a young Greek-real Greek girl at Malamocco; a true Islander, do you see, with Alciphron's "hair like sea-moss"-Schramm knows!-white and quiet as an apparition, and fourteen years old at farthest, -a daughter of Natalia, so she swears-that hag Natalia, who helps us to models at three lire an hour. We selected this girl for the heroine of our jest. So first, Jules received a scented letter-somebody had seen his Tydeus at the Academy, and my picture was nothing to it: a profound admirer bade him persevere-would make herself known to him ere long. (Paolina, my little friend of the Fenice, transcribes divinely.) And in due time, the mysterious correspondent gave certain hints of her peculiar charms-the pale cheeks, the black hair-whatever, in short, had struck us in our Malamocco model: we retained her name, too-Phene, which is, by interpretation, sea-eagle. Now, think of Jules finding himself distinguished from the herd of us by such a creature! In his very first answer he proposed marrying his monitress: and fancy us over these letters, two, three times a day, to receive and despatch! I concocted the main of it: relations were in the way-secrecy must be observed-in fine, would he wed her on trust, and only speak to her when they were indissolubly united? St- st-Here they come!
Both of them! Heaven's love, speak softly, speak within yourselves!
Look at the bridegroom! Half his hair in storm and half in calm,-patted down over the left temple,-like a frothy cup one blows on to cool it: and the same old blouse that he murders the marble in.
Not a rich vest like yours, Hannibal Scratchy!-rich, that your face may the better set it off.
And the bride! Yes, sure enough, our Phene! Should you have known her in her clothes? How magnificently pale!
She does not also take it for earnest, I hope?
Oh, Natalia's concern, that is! We settle with Natalia.
She does not speak-has evidently let out no word. The only thing is, will she equally remember the rest of her lesson, and repeat correctly all those verses which are to break the secret to Jules?
How he gazes on her! Pity-pity!
They go in: now, silence! You three,- not nearer the window, mind, than that pomegranate: just where the little girl, who a few minutes ago passed us singing, is seated!
Last updated January 14, 2019