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"The Lay of the Brown Rosary" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The following is the complete text of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Lay of the Brown Rosary." Our presentation of this classic poem comes from The Complete Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1900). To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.

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"Crowned and Buried"
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"An Island"
"A Lay of the Early Rose"
"The Lost Bower"

"Napoleon III in Italy"
"Night and the Merry Man"
"A Rhapsody of Life's Progress"
"Rhyme of the Duchess May"
"A Romance of the Ganges"
"The Romaunt of the Page"
"The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point"
"The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus"
"A Vision of Poets"

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"The Lay of the Brown Rosary" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning


by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

First printed in Finden's Tableaux for 1840, as "Legend of the Brown Rosary."



"Onora, Onora,"--her mother is calling,
She sits at the lattice and hears the dew falling
Drop after drop from the sycamores laden
With dew as with blossom, and calls home the maiden,
"Night cometh, Onora."


She looks down the garden-walk caverned with trees,
To the limes at the end where the green arbor is--
"Some sweet thought or other may keep where it found her,
While, forgot or unseen in the dreamlight around her,
Night cometh--Onora!"


She looks up the forest whose alleys shoot on
Like the mute minster-aisles when the anthem is done,
And the choristers sitting with faces aslant
Feel the silence to consecrate more than the chant--
"Onora, Onora!"


And forward she looketh across the brown heath--
"Onora, art coming?"--what is it she seeth?
Nought, nought but the grey border-stone that is wist
To dilate and assume a wild shape in the mist--
"My daughter!" Then over


The casement she leaneth, and as she doth so
She is 'ware of her little son playing below:
"Now where is Onora?" He hung down his head
And spake not, then answering blushed scarlet-red,--
"At the tryst with her lover."


But his mother was wroth: in a sternness quoth she,
"As thou play'st at the ball art thou playing with me?
When we know that her lover to battle is gone,
And the saints know above that she loveth but one
And will ne'er wed another?"


Then the boy wept aloud; 't was a fair sight yet sad
To see the tears run down the sweet blooms he had:
He stamped with his foot, said--"The saints know I lied
Because truth that is wicked is fittest to hide:
Must I utter it, mother?"


In his vehement childhood he hurried within
And knelt at her feet as in prayer against sin,
But a child at a prayer never sobbeth as he--
"Oh! she sits with the nun of the brown rosary,
At nights in the ruin--


"The old convent ruin the ivy rots off,
Where the owl hoots by day and the toad is sun-proof,
Where no singing-birds build and the trees gaunt and gray
As in stormy sea-coasts appear blasted one way--
But is this the wind's doing?


"A nun in the east wall was buried alive
Who mocked at the priest when he called her to shrive,
And shrieked such a curse, as the stone took her breath,
The old abbess fell backwards and swooned unto death
With an Ave half-spoken.


"I tried once to pass it, myself and my hound,
Till, as fearing the lash, down he shivered to ground--
A brave hound, my mother! a brave hound, ye wot!
And the wolf thought the same with his fangs at her throat
In the pass of the Brocken.


"At dawn and at eve, mother, who sitteth there
With the brown rosary never used for a prayer?
Stoop low, mother, low! If we went there to see,
What an ugly great hole in that east wall must be
At dawn and at even!


"Who meet there, my mother, at dawn and at even?
Who meet by that wall, never looking to heaven?
O sweetest my sister, what doeth with thee
The ghost of a nun with a brown rosary
And a face turned from heaven?


"Saint Agnes o'erwatcheth my dreams and erewhile
I have felt through mine eyelids the warmth of her smile;
But last night, as a sadness like pity came o'er her,
She whispered--'Say two prayers at dawn for Onora:
The Tempted is sinning.'"


"Onora, Onora!" they heard her not coming,
Not a step on the grass, not a voice through the gloaming;
But her mother looked up, and she stood on the floor
Fair and still as the moonlight that came there before,
And a smile just beginning:


It touches her lips but it dares not arise
To the height of the mystical sphere of her eyes,
And the large musing eyes, neither joyous nor sorry,
Sing on like the angels in separate glory
Between clouds of amber;


For the hair droops in clouds amber-colored till stirred
Into gold by the gesture that comes with a word;
While--O soft!--her speaking is so interwound
Of the dim and the sweet, 't is a twilight of sound
And floats through the chamber.


"Since thou shrivest my brother, fair mother," said she,
"I count on thy priesthood for marrying of me;
And I know by the hills that the battle is done,
That my lover rides on, will be here with the sun,
'Neath the eyes that behold thee."


Her mother sat silent--too tender, I wis,
Of the smile her dead father smiled dying to kiss:
But the boy started up pale with tears, passion-wrought--
"O wicked fair sister, the hills utter nought!
If he cometh, who told thee?"


"I know by the hills," she resumed calm and clear,
"By the beauty upon them, that HE is anear:
Did they ever look so since he bade me adieu?
Oh, love in the waking, sweet brother, is true,
As Saint Agnes in sleeping!"


Half-ashamed and half-softened the boy did not speak,
And the blush met the lashes which fell on his cheek:
She bowed down to kiss him: dear saints, did he see
Or feel on her bosom the BROWN ROSARY,
That he shrank away weeping?


A bed. ONORA, sleeping. Angels, but not near.

First Angel.
Must we stand so far, and she
So very fair?

Second Angel.
As bodies be.

First Angel.
And she so mild?

Second Angel.
As spirits when
They meeken, not to God, but men.

First Angel.
And she so young, that I who bring
Good dreams for saintly children, might
Mistake that small soft face to-night,
And fetch her such a blessed thing
That at her waking she would weep
For childhood lost anew in sleep.
How hath she sinned?

Second Angel.
In bartering love;
God's love for man's.

First Angel.
We may reprove
The world for this, not only her:
Let me approach to breathe away
This dust o' the heart with holy air.

Second Angel.
Stand off! She sleeps, and did not pray.

First Angel.
Did none pray for her?

Second Angel.
Ay, a child,--
Who never, praying, wept before:
While, in a mother undefiled,
Prayer goeth on in sleep, as true
And pauseless as the pulses do.

First Angel.
Then I approach.

Second Angel.
It is not WILLED.

First Angel.
One word: is she redeemed?

Second Angel.
No more! The place is filled. [Angels vanish.

Evil Spirit (in a Nun's garb by the bed).
Forbear that dream--forbear that dream! too near to heaven it leaned.

Onora (in sleep).
Nay, leave me this--but only this! 't is but a dream, sweet fiend!

Evil Spirit.
It is a thought.

Onora (in sleep).
A sleeping thought--most innocent of good:
It doth the Devil no harm, sweet fiend! it cannot if it would.
I say in it no holy hymn, I do no holy work,
I scarcely hear the sabbath-bell that chimeth from the kirk.

Evil Spirit.
Forbear that dream--forbear that dream!

Onora (in sleep).
Nay, let me dream at least.
That far-off bell, it may be took for viol at a feast:
I only walk among the fields, beneath the autumn-sun,
With my dead father, hand in hand, as I have often done.

Evil Spirit.
Forbear that dream--forbear that dream!

Onora (in sleep).
Nay, sweet fiend, let me go:
I never more can walk with him, oh, never more but so!
For they have tied my father's feet beneath the kirkyard stone,
Oh, deep and straight! oh, very straight! they move at nights alone:
And then he calleth through my dreams, he calleth tenderly,
"Come forth, my daughter, my beloved, and walk the fields with me!"

Evil Spirit.
Forbear that dream, or else disprove its pureness by a sign.

Onora (in sleep).
Speak on, thou shalt be satisfied, my word shall answer thine.
I heard a bird which used to sing when I a child was praying,
I see the poppies in the corn I used to sport away in:
What shall I do--tread down the dew and pull the blossoms blowing?
Or clap my wicked hands to fright the finches from the rowan?

Evil Spirit.
Thou shalt do something harder still. Stand up where thou dost stand
Among the fields of Dreamland with thy father hand in hand,
And clear and slow repeat the vow, declare its cause and kind,
Which not to break, in sleep or wake thou bearest on thy mind.

Onora (in sleep).
I bear a vow of sinful kind, a vow for mournful cause;
I vowed it deep, I vowed it strong, the spirits laughed applause:
The spirits trailed along the pines low laughter like a breeze,
While, high atween their swinging tops, the stars appeared to freeze.

Evil Spirit.
More calm and free, speak out to me why such a vow was made.

Onora (in sleep).
Because that God decreed my death and I shrank back afraid.
Have patience, O dead father mine! I did not fear to die--
I wish I were a young dead child and had thy company!
I wish I lay beside thy feet, a buried three-year child,
And wearing only a kiss of thine upon my lips that smiled!
The linden-tree that covers thee might so have shadowed twain,
For death itself I did not fear--'t is love that makes the pain:
Love feareth death. I was no child, I was betrothed that day;
I wore a troth-kiss on my lips I could not give away.
How could I bear to lie content and still beneath a stone,
And feel mine own betrothed go by--alas! no more mine own--
Go leading by in wedding pomp some lovely lady brave,
With cheeks that blushed as red as rose, while mine were white in grave?
How could I bear to sit in heaven, on e'er so high a throne,
And hear him say to her--to her! that else he loveth none?
Though e'er so high I sate above, though e'er so low he spake,
As clear as thunder I should hear the new oath he might take,
That hers, forsooth, were heavenly eyes--ah me, while very dim
Some heavenly eyes (indeed of heaven!) would darken down to him!

Evil Spirit.
Who told thee thou wast called to death?

Onora (in sleep).
I sate all night beside thee:
The grey owl on the ruined wall shut both his eyes to hide thee,
And ever he flapped his heavy wing all brokenly and weak,
And the long grass waved against the sky, around his gasping beak.
I sate beside thee all the night, while the moonlight lay forlorn
Strewn round us like a dead world's shroud in ghastly fragments torn:
And through the night, and through the hush, and over the flapping wing,
We heard beside the Heavenly Gate the angels murmuring:
We heard them say, "Put day to day, and count the days to seven,
And God will draw Onora up the golden stairs of heaven.
And yet the Evil ones have leave that purpose to defer,
For if she has no need of HIM, He has no need of her."

Evil Spirit.
Speak out to me, speak bold and free.

Onora (in sleep).
And then I heard thee say--
"I count upon my rosary brown the hours thou hast to stay!
Yet God permits us Evil ones to put by that decree,
Since if thou hast no need of HIM, He has no need of thee:
And if thou wilt forgo the sight of angels, verily
Thy true love gazing on thy face shall guess what angels be;
Nor bride shall pass, save thee" . . . Alas!--my father's hand's a-cold,
The meadows seem . . .

Evil Spirit.
Forbear the dream, or let the vow be told.

Onora (in sleep).
I vowed upon thy rosary brown, this string of antique beads,
By charnel lichens overgrown, and dank among the weeds,
This rosary brown which is thine own,--lost soul of buried nun!
Who, lost by vow, wouldst render now all souls alike undone,--
I vowed upon thy rosary brown,--and, till such vow should break,
A pledge always of living days 't was hung around my neck--
I vowed to thee on rosary (dead father, look not so!),
I would not thank God in my weal, nor seek God in my woe.

Evil Spirit.
And canst thou prove . . .

Onora (in sleep).
O love, my love! I felt him near again!
I saw his steed on mountain-head, I heard it on the plain!
Was this no weal for me to feel? Is greater weal than this?
Yet when he came, I wept his name--and the angels heard but his.

Evil Spirit.
Well done, well done!

Onora (in sleep).
Ah me, the sun! the dreamlight 'gins to pine,--
Ah me, how dread can look the Dead! Aroint thee, father mine!

She starteth from slumber, she sitteth upright,
And her breath comes in sobs, while she stares through the night;
There is nought; the great willow, her lattice before,
Large-drawn in the moon, lieth calm on the floor:
But her hands tremble fast as their pulses and, free
From the death-clasp, close over--the BROWN ROSARY.



'T is a morn for a bridal; the merry bride-bell
Rings clear through the greenwood that skirts the chapelle,
And the priest at the altar awaiteth the bride,
And the sacristans slyly are jesting aside
At the work shall be doing;


While down through the wood rides that fair company,
The youths with the courtship, the maids with the glee,
Till the chapel-cross opens to sight, and at once
All the maids sigh demurely and think for the nonce,
"And so endeth a wooing!"


And the bride and the bridegroom are leading the way,
With his hand on her rein, and a word yet to say;
Her dropt eyelids suggest the soft answers beneath,
And the little quick smiles come and go with her breath
When she sigheth or speaketh.


And the tender bride-mother breaks off unaware
From an Ave, to think that her daughter is fair,
Till in nearing the chapel and glancing before,
She seeth her little son stand at the door:
Is it play that he seeketh?


Is it play, when his eyes wander innocent-wild
And sublimed with a sadness unfitting a child?
He trembles not, weeps not; the passion is done,
And calmly he kneels in their midst, with the sun
On his head like a glory.


"O fair-featured maids, ye are many!" he cried,
"But in fairness and vileness who matcheth the bride?
O brave-hearted youths, ye are many! but whom
For the courage and woe can ye match with the groom
As ye see them before ye?"


Out spake the bride's mother, "The vileness is thine
If thou shame thine own sister, a bride at the shrine!"
Out spake the bride's lover, "The vileness be mine
If he shame mine own wife at the hearth or the shrine
And the charge be unproved.


"Bring the charge, prove the charge, brother! speak it aloud:
Let thy father and hers hear it deep in his shroud!"
--"O father, thou seest, for dead eyes can see,
How she wears on her bosom a BROWN ROSARY,
O my father beloved!"


Then outlaughed the bridegroom, and outlaughed withal
Both maidens and youths by the old chapel-wall:
"So she weareth no love-gift, kind brother," quoth he,
"She may wear an she listeth a brown rosary,
Like a pure-hearted lady."


Then swept through the chapel the long bridal train;
Though he spake to the bride she replied not again:
On, as one in a dream, pale and stately she went
Where the altar-lights burn o'er the great sacrament,
Faint with daylight, but steady.


But her brother had passed in between them and her,
And calmly knelt down on the high-altar stair--
Of an infantine aspect so stern to the view
That the priest could not smile on the child's eyes of blue
As he would for another.


He knelt like a child marble-sculptured and white
That seems kneeling to pray on the tomb of a knight,
With a look taken up to each iris of stone
From the greatness and death where he kneeleth, but none
From the face of a mother.


"In your chapel, O priest, ye have wedded and shriven
Fair wives for the hearth, and fair sinners for heaven;
But this fairest my sister, ye think now to wed,
Bid her kneel where she standeth, and shrive her instead:
O shrive her and wed not!"


In tears, the bride's mother,--"Sir priest, unto thee
Would he lie, as he lied to this fair company."
In wrath, the bride's lover,--"The lie shall be clear!
Speak it out, boy! the saints in their niches shall hear:
Be the charge proved or said not!"


Then serene in his childhood he lifted his face,
And his voice sounded holy and fit for the place,--
"Look down from your niches, ye still saints, and see
How she wears on her bosom a BROWN ROSARY!
Is it used for the praying?"


The youths looked aside--to laugh there were a sin--
And the maidens' lips trembled from smiles shut within.
Quoth the priest, "Thou art wild, pretty boy! Blessed she
Who prefers at her bridal a brown rosary
To a worldly arraying."


The bridegroom spake low and led onward the bride
And before the high altar they stood side by side:
The rite-book is opened, the rite is begun,
They have knelt down together to rise up as one.
Who laughed by the altar?


The maidens looked forward, the youths looked around,
The bridegroom's eye flashed from his prayer at the sound;
And each saw the bride, as if no bride she were,
Gazing cold at the priest without gesture of prayer,
As he read from the psalter.


The priest never knew that she did so, but still
He felt a power on him too strong for his will:
And whenever the Great Name was there to be read,
His voice sank to silence--THAT could not be said,
Or the air could not hold it.


"I have sinned," quoth he, "I have sinned, I wot"--
And the tears ran adown his old cheeks at the thought:
They dropped fast on the book, but he read on the same,
And aye was the silence where should be the NAME,--
As the choristers told it.


The rite-book is closed, and the rite being done
They, who knelt down together, arise up as one:
Fair riseth the bride--Oh, a fair bride is she,
But, for all (think the maidens) that brown rosary,
No saint at her praying!


What aileth the bridegroom? He glares blank and wide;
Then suddenly turning he kisseth the bride;
His lips stung her with cold; she glanced upwardly mute:
"Mine own wife," he said, and fell stark at her foot
In the word he was saying.


They have lifted him up, but his head sinks away,
And his face showeth bleak in the sunshine and grey.
Leave him now where he lieth--for oh, never more
Will he kneel at an altar or stand on a floor!
Let his bride gaze upon him.


Long and still was her gaze while they chafed him there
And breathed in the mouth whose last life had kissed her,
But when they stood up--only they! with a start
The shriek from her soul struck her pale lips apart:
She has lived, and forgone him!


And low on his body she droppeth adown--
"Didst call me thine own wife, beloved--thine own?
Then take thine own with thee! thy coldness is warm
To the world's cold without thee! Come, keep me from harm
In a calm of thy teaching!"


She looked in his face earnest-long, as in sooth
There were hope of an answer, and then kissed his mouth,
And with head on his bosom, wept, wept bitterly,--
"Now, O God, take pity--take pity on me!
God, hear my beseeching!"


She was 'ware of a shadow that crossed where she lay,
She was 'ware of a presence that withered the day:
Wild she sprang to her feet,--"I surrender to thee
The broken vow's pledge, the accursed rosary,--
I am ready for dying!"


She dashed it in scorn to the marble-paved ground
Where it fell mute as snow, and a weird music-sound
Crept up, like a chill, up the aisles long and dim,--
As the fiends tried to mock at the choristers' hymn
And moaned in the trying.


Onora looketh listlessly adown the garden walk:
"I am weary, O my mother, of thy tender talk.
I am weary of the trees a-waving to and fro,
Of the steadfast skies above, the running brooks below.
All things are the same, but I,--only I am dreary,
And, mother, of my dreariness behold me very weary.

"Mother, brother, pull the flowers I planted in the spring
And smiled to think I should smile more upon their gathering:
The bees will find out other flowers--oh, pull them, dearest mine,
And carry them and carry me before Saint Agnes' shrine."
--Whereat they pulled the summer flowers she planted in the spring,
And her and them all mournfully to Agnes' shrine did bring.

She looked up to the pictured saint and gently shook her head--
"The picture is too calm for me--too calm for me," she said:
"The little flowers we brought with us, before it we may lay,
For those are used to look at heaven,--but I must turn away,
Because no sinner under sun can dare or bear to gaze
On God's or angel's holiness, except in Jesu's face."

She spoke with passion after pause--"And were it wisely done
If we who cannot gaze above, should walk the earth alone?
If we whose virtue is so weak should have a will so strong,
And stand blind on the rocks to choose the right path from the wrong?
To choose perhaps a love-lit hearth, instead of love and heaven,--
A single rose, for a rose-tree which beareth seven times seven?
A rose that droppeth from the hand, that fadeth in the breast,--
Until, in grieving for the worst, we learn what is the best!"

Then breaking into tears,--"Dear God," she cried, "and must we see
All blissful things depart from us or ere we go to THEE?
We cannot guess Thee in the wood or hear Thee in the wind?
Our cedars must fall round us ere we see the light behind?
Ay sooth, we feel too strong, in weal, to need Thee on that road,
But woe being come, the soul is dumb that crieth not on 'God.'"

Her mother could not speak for tears; she ever mused thus,
"The bees will find out other flowers,--but what is left for us?"
But her young brother stayed his sobs and knelt beside her knee,
--"Thou sweetest sister in the world, hast never a word for me?"
She passed her hand across his face, she pressed it on his cheek,
So tenderly, so tenderly--she needed not to speak.

The wreath which lay on shrine that day, at vespers bloomed no more.
The woman fair who placed it there had died an hour before.
Both perished mute for lack of root, earth's nourishment to reach.
O reader, breathe (the ballad saith) some sweetness out of each!

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