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(18 January 1840 – 2 September 1921 / Plymouth)

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A Dead Letter

I DREW it from its china tomb;—
It came out feebly scented
With some thin ghost of past perfume
That dust and days had lent it.

An old, letter,—folded still!
To read with due composure,
I sought the sun-lit window-sill,
Above the gray enclosure,

That glimmering in the sultry haze,
Faint flowered, dimly shaded,
Slumbered like Goldsmith’s Madam Blaize,
Bedizened and brocaded.

A queer old place! You ’d surely say
Some tea-board garden-maker
Had planned it in Dutch William’s day
To please some florist Quaker,

So trim it was. The yew-trees still,
With pious care perverted,
Grew in the same grim shapes; and still
The lipless dolphin spurted;

Still in his wonted state abode
The broken-nosed Apollo;
And still the cypress-arbor showed
The same umbrageous hollow.

Only,—as fresh young Beauty gleams
From coffee-colored laces,—
So peeped from its old-fashioned dreams
The fresher modern traces;

For idle mallet, hoop, and ball
Upon the lawn were lying;
A magazine, a tumbled shawl,
Round which the swifts were flying;

And, tossed beside the Guelder rose,
A heap of rainbow knitting,
Where, blinking in her pleased repose,
A Persian cat was sitting.

“A place to love in,—live,—for aye,
If we too, like Tithonus,
Could find some God to stretch the gray
Scant life the Fates have thrown us;

“But now by steam we run our race,
With buttoned heart and pocket;
Our Love’s a gilded, surplus grace,—
Just like an empty locket!

“‘The time is out of joint.’ Who will,
May strive to make it better;
For me, this warm old window-sill,
And this old dusty letter.”

II
“Dear John (the letter ran), it can’t, can’t be,
For Father’s gone to Chorley Fair with Sam,
And Mother’s storing Apples,—Prue and Me
Up to our Elbows making Damson Jam:
But we shall meet before a Week is gone,—
‘’T is a long Lane that has no turning,’ John!

“Only till Sunday next, and then you ’ll wait
Behind the White-Thorn, by the broken Stile—
We can go round and catch them at the Gate,
All to Ourselves, for nearly one long Mile;
Dear Prue won’t look, and Father he’ll go on,
And Sam’s two Eyes are all for Cissy, John!

“John, she ’s so smart,—with every ribbon new,
Flame-colored Sack, and Crimson Padesoy;
As proud as proud; and has the Vapours too,
Just like My Lady;—calls poor Sam a Boy,
And vows no Sweet-heart’s worth the Thinking-on
Till he ’s past Thirty … I know better, John!

“My Dear, I don’t think that I thought of much
Before we knew each other, I and you;
And now, why, John, your least, least Finger-touch,
Gives me enough to think a Summer through.
See, for I send you Something! There, ’t is gone!
Look in this corner,—mind you find it, John!”

III
This was the matter of the note,—
A long-forgot deposit,
Dropped in an Indian dragon’s throat,
Deep in a fragrant closet,

Piled with a dapper Dresden world,—
Beaux, beauties, prayers, and poses,—
Bonzes with squat legs undercurled,
And great jars filled with roses.

Ah, heart that wrote! Ah, lips that kissed!
You had no thought or presage
Into what keeping you dismissed
Your simple old-world message!

A reverent one. Though we to-day
Distrust beliefs and powers,
The artless, ageless things you say
Are fresh as May’s own flowers,

Starring some pure primeval spring,
Ere Gold had grown despotic,—
Ere Life was yet a selfish thing,
Or Love a mere exotic!

I need not search too much to find
Whose lot it was to send it,
That feel upon me yet the kind,
Soft hand of her who penned it;

And see, through twoscore years of smoke,
In by-gone, quaint apparel,
Shine from yon time-black Norway oak
The face of Patience Caryl,—

The pale, smooth forehead, silver-tressed;
The gray gown, primly flowered;
The spotless, stately coif whose crest
Like Hector’s horse-plume towered;

And still the sweet half-solemn look
Where some past thought was clinging,
As when one shuts a serious book
To hear the thrushes singing.

I kneel to you! Of those you were,
Whose kind old hearts grow mellow,—
Whose fair old faces grow more fair
As Point and Flanders yellow;

Whom some old store of garnered grief,
Their placid temples shading,
Crowns like a wreath of autumn leaf
With tender tints of fading.

Peace to your soul! You died unwed—
Despite this loving letter.
And what of John? The less that ’s said
Of John, I think, the better.

Submitted: Wednesday, April 14, 2010


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