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"The Lost Bower" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
THE LOST BOWER
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The woods above the garden at Hope End,
among the Malvern Hills, was the scene of
"The Lost Bower" -- the beautiful home of
Elizabeth Barrett's childhood. The incident
which it relates was an actual experience
of her juvenile years.
In the pleasant orchard-closes,
'God bless all our gains,' say we;
But 'May God bless all our losses,'
Better suits with our degree.
Listen, gentle -- ay, and simple! listen, children on the knee!
Green the land is where my daily
Steps in jocund childhood played,
Dimpled close with hill and valley,
Dappled very close with shade:
Summer-snow of apple-blossoms running up from glade to glade.
There is one hill I see nearer
In my vision of the rest;
And a little wood seems clearer
As it climbeth from the west,
Sideway from the tree-locked valley, to the airy upland crest.
Small the wood is, green with hazels,
And, completing the ascent,
Where the wind blows and sun dazzles
Thrills in leafy tremblement,
Like a heart that after climbing, beateth quickly through content.
Not a step the wood advances
O'er the open hill-top's bound;
There, in green arrest, the branches
See their image on the ground:
You may walk beneath them smiling, glad with sight and glad with sound.
For you hearken on your right hand,
How the birds do leap and call
In the greenwood, out of sight and
Out of reach and fear of all;
And the squirrels crack the filberts through their cheerful madrigal.
On your left, the sheep are cropping
The slant grass and daisies pale,
And five apple-trees stand dropping
Separate shadows toward the vale,
Over which, in choral silence, the hills look you their 'All hail!'
Far out, kindled by each other,
Shining hills on hills arise,
Close as brother leans to brother
When they press beneath the eyes
Of some father praying blessings from the gifts of paradise.
While beyond, above them mounted,
And above their woods also,
Malvern hills, for mountains counted
Not unduly, loom a-row --
Keepers of Piers Plowman's visions through the sunshine and the snow.
Yet, in childhood, little prized I
That fair walk and far survey;
'Twas a straight walk unadvised by
The least mischief worth a nay;
Up and down -- as dull as grammar on the eve of holiday.
But the wood, all close and clenching
Bough in bough and root in root, --
No more sky (for overbranching)
At your head than at your foot, --
Oh, the wood drew me within it, by a glamour past dispute!
Few and broken paths showed through it,
Where the sheep had tried to run, --
Forced with snowy wool to strew it
Round the thickets, when anon
They, with silly thorn-pricked noses, bleated back into the sun.
But my childish heart beat stronger
Than those thickets dared to grow: I could pierce them! I could longer
Travel on, methought, than so:
Sheep for sheep-paths! braver children climb and creep where they would go.
And the poets wander, said I,
Over places all as rude:
Bold Rinaldo's lovely lady
Sat to meet him in a wood:
Rosalinda, like a fountain, laughed out pure with solitude.
And if Chaucer had not travelled
Through a forest by a well,
He had never dreamt nor marvelled
At those ladies fair and fell
Who lived smiling without loving in their island-citadel.
Thus I thought of the old singers
And took courage from their song,
Till my little struggling fingers
Tore asunder gyve and thong
Of the brambles which entrapped me, and the barrier branches strong.
On a day, such pastime keeping,
With a fawn's heart debonair,
Thorns that prick and boughs that bear,
I stood suddenly astonied -- I was gladdened unaware.
From the place I stood in, floated
Back the covert dim and close,
And the open ground was coated
Carpet-smooth with grass and moss,
And the blue-bell's purple presence signed it worthily across.
Here a linden-tree stood, bright'ning
All adown its silver rind;
For as some trees draw the lightning,
So this tree, unto my mind,
Drew to earth the blessed sunshine from the sky where it was shrined.
Tall the linden-tree, and near it
An old hawthorn also grew;
And wood-ivy like a spirit
Hovered dimly round the two,
Shaping thence that bower of beauty which I sing of thus to you.
'Twas a bower for garden fitter
Than for any woodland wide:
Though a fresh and dewy glitter
Struck it through from side to side,
Shaped and shaven was the freshness, as by garden-cunning plied,
Oh, a lady might have come there,
Hooded fairly like her hawk,
With a book or lute in summer,
And a hope of sweeter talk, --
Listening less to her own music than for footsteps on the walk!
But that bower appeared a marvel
In the wildness of the place;
With such seeming art and travail,
Finely fixed and fitted was
Leaf to leaf, the dark-green ivy, to the summit from the base.
And the ivy veined and glossy
Was enwrought with eglantine;
And the wild hop fibred closely,
And the large-leaved columbine,
Arch of door and window-mullion, did right sylvanly entwine.
Rose-trees either side the door were
Growing lithe and growing tall,
Each one set a summer warder
For the keeping of the hall, --
With a red rose and a white rose, leaning, nodding at the wall.
As I entered, mosses hushing
Stole all noises from my foot;
And a green elastic cushion,
Clasped within the linden's root,
Took me in a chair of silence very rare and absolute.
All the floor was paved with glory,
Greenly, silently inlaid
(Through quick motions made before me),
With fair counterparts in shade
Of the fair serrated ivy-leaves which slanted overhead.
'Is such pavement in a palace?'
So I questioned in my thought:
The sun, shining through the chalice
Of the red rose hung without,
Threw within a red libation, like an answer to my doubt.
At the same time, on the linen
Of my childish lap there fell
Two white may-leaves, downward winning
Through the ceiling's miracle,
From a blossom, like an angel, out of sight yet blessing well.
Down to floor and up to ceiling,
Quick I turned my childish face;
With an innocent appealing
For the secret of the place
To the trees, which surely knew it partaking of the grace.
Where's no foot of human creature,
How could reach a human hand?
And if this be work of Nature,
Why has Nature turned so bland,
Breaking off from other wild-work? It was hard to understand.
Was she weary of rough-doing,
Of the bramble and the thorn?
Did she pause in tender rueing
Here of all her sylvan scorn?
Or in mock of Art's deceiving, was the sudden mildness worn?
Or could this same bower (I fancied)
Be the work of Dryad strong,
Who, surviving all that chanced
In the world's old pagan wrong,
Lay hid, feeding in the woodland on the last true poet's song?
Or was this the house of fairies,
Left, because of the rough ways,
Unassoiled by Ave Marys
Which the passing pilgrim prays,
And beyond St. Catherine's chiming on the blessed Sabbath days?
So, young muser, I sat listening
To my fancy's wildest word:
On a sudden, through the glistening
Leaves around, a little stirred,
Came a sound, a sense of music, which was rather felt than heard.
Softly, finely, it inwound me;
From the world it shut me in, --
Like a fountain, falling round me,
Which with silver waters thin
Clips a little water Naiad sitting smilingly within.
Whence the music came, who knoweth? I know nothing: but indeed
Pan or Faunus never bloweth
So much sweetness from a reed
Which has sucked the milk of waters at the oldest river-head.
Never lark the sun can waken
With such sweetness! when the lark,
The high planets overtaking
In the half-evanished Dark,
Casts his singing to their singing, like an arrow to the mark.
Never nightingale so singeth:
Oh, she leans on thorny tree,
And her poet-song she flingeth
Over pain to victory!
Yet she never sings such music, -- or she sings it not to me.
Never blackbirds, never thrushes,
Nor small finches sing as sweet,
When the sun strikes through the bushes
To their crimson clinging feet,
And their pretty eyes look sideways to the summer heavens complete.
If it were a bird, it seemed.
Most like Chaucer's, which, in sooth.
He of green and azure dreamed,
While it sat in spirit-ruth
On that bier of a crowned lady, singing nigh her silent mouth.
If it were a bird? -- ah, sceptic,
Give me 'yea' or give me 'nay' --
Though my soul were nympholeptic,
As I heard that virelay,
You may stoop your pride to pardon, for my sin is far away!
I rose up in exaltation
And an inward trembling heat,
And (it seemed) in geste of passion
Dropped the music to my feet
Like a garment rustling downwards! -- such a silence followed it!
Heart and head beat through the quiet
Full and heavily, though slower:
In the song, I think, and by it,
Mystic Presences of power
Had up-snatched me to the Timeless, then returned me to the Hour.
In a child-abstraction lifted,
Straightway from the bower I past,
Foot and soul being dimly drifted
Through the greenwood, till, at last,
In the hill-top's open sunshine I all consciously was cast.
Face to face with the true mountains
I stood silently and still,
Drawing strength from fancy's dauntings,
From the air about the hill,
And from Nature's open mercies and most debonair goodwill.
Oh, the golden-hearted daisies
Witnessed there, before my youth,
To the truth of things, with praises
Of the beauty of the truth;
And I woke to Nature's real, laughing joyfully for both.
And I said within me, laughing,
I have found a bower to-day,
A green lusus, fashioned half in
Chance and half in Nature's play,
And a little bird sings nigh it, I will nevermore missay.
Henceforth, I will be the fairy
Of this bower not built by one;
I will go there, sad or merry,
With each morning's benison,
And the bird shall be my harper in the dream-hall I have won.
So I said. But the next morning,
(-- Child, look up into my face --
'Ware, oh sceptic, of your scorning!
This is truth in its pure grace!)
The next morning, all had vanished, or my wandering missed the place.
Bring an oath most sylvan-holy,
And upon it swear me true --
By the wind-bells swinging slowly
Their mute curfews in the dew,
By the advent of the snowdrop, by the rosemary and rue, --
I affirm by all or any,
Let the cause be charm or chance,
That my wandering searches many
Missed the bower of my romance --
That I nevermore upon it, turned my mortal countenance.
I affirm that, since I lost it,
Never bower has seemed so fair;
Never garden-creeper crossed it
With so deft and brave an air,
Never bird sung in the summer, as I saw and heard them there.
Day by day, with new desire,
Toward my wood I ran in faith,
Under leaf and over brier,
Through the thickets, out of breath;
Like the prince who rescued Beauty from the sleep as long as death.
But his sword of mettle clashed,
And his arm smote strong, I ween,
And her dreaming spirit flashed
Through her body's fair white screen,
And the light thereof might guide him up the cedar alleys green:
But for me, I saw no splendor --
All my sword was my child-heart;
And the wood refused surrender
Of that bower it held apart,
Safe as Oedipus's grave-place, 'mid Colonos' olives swart.
As Aladdin sought the basements
His fair palace rose upon,
And the four-and-twenty casements
Which gave answers to the sun;
So, in 'wilderment of gazing, I looked up and I looked down.
Years have vanished since, as wholly
As the little bower did then;
And you call it tender folly
That such thoughts should come again?
Ah, I cannot change this sighing for your smiling, brother men!
For this loss it did prefigure
Other loss of better good,
When my soul, in spirit-vigor,
And in ripened womanhood,
Fell from visions of more beauty than an arbor in a wood.
I have lost -- oh, many a pleasure,
Many a hope and many a power --
Studious health, and merry leisure,
The first dew on the first flower!
But the first of all my losses was the losing of the bower.
I have lost the dream of Doing,
And the other dream of Done,
The first spring in the pursuing,
The first pride in the Begun, --
First recoil from incompletion, in the face of what is won --
Exaltations in the far light
Where some cottage only is;
Mild dejections in the starlight,
Which the sadder-hearted miss;
And the child-cheek blushing scarlet for the very shame of bliss.
I have lost the sound child-sleeping
Which the thunder could not break;
Something too of the strong leaping
Of the staglike heart awake,
Which the pale is low for keeping in the road it ought to take.
Some respect to social fictions
Has been also lost by me;
And some generous genuflexions,
Which my spirit offered free
To the pleasant old conventions of our false humanity.
All my losses did I tell you,
Ye perchance would look away; --
Ye would answer me, 'Farewell! you
Make sad company to-day,
And your tears are falling faster than the bitter words you say.'
For God placed me like a dial
In the open ground with power,
And my heart had for its trial
All the sun and all the shower:
And I suffered many losses, -- and my first was of the bower.
Laugh you? If that loss of mine be
Of no heavy-seeming weight --
When the cone falls from the pine-tree,
The young children laugh thereat;
Yet the wind that struck it, riseth, and the tempest shall be great.
One who knew me in my childhood
In the glamour and the game,
Looking on me long and mild, would
Never know me for the same.
Come, unchanging recollections, where those changes overcame!
By this couch I weakly lie on,
While I count my memories, --
Through the fingers which, still sighing,
I press closely on mine eyes, --
Clear as once beneath the sunshine, I behold the bower arise.
Springs the linden-tree as greenly,
Stroked with light adown its rind;
And the ivy-leaves serenely
Each in either intertwined;
And the rose-trees at the doorway, they have neither grown nor pined.
From those overblown faint roses
Not a leaf appeareth shed,
And that little bud discloses
Not a thorn's-breadth more of red,
For the winters and the summers which have passed me overhead.
And that music overfloweth,
Sudden sweet, the sylvan eaves:
Thrush or nightingale -- whoknoweth?
Fay or Faunus -- who believes?
But my heart still trembles in me to the trembling of the leaves.
Is the bower lost, then? who sayeth
That the bower indeed is lost?
Hark! my spirit in it prayeth
Through the sunshine and the frost, --
And the prayer preserves it greenly, to the last and uttermost.
Till another open for me
In God's Eden-land unknown,
With an angel at the doorway,
White with gazing at His Throne;
And a saint's voice in the palm-trees, singing -- 'All is lost . . . and won!'
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