James Russell Lowell
A Legend Of Brittany
As one who, from the sunshine and the green,
Enters the solid darkness of a cave,
Nor knows what precipice or pit unseen
May yawn before him with its sudden grave,
And, with hushed breath, doth often forward lean,
Dreaming he hears the plashing of a wave
Dimly below, or feels a damper air
From out some dreary chasm, he knows not where;
So, from the sunshine and the green of love,
We enter on our story's darker part;
And, though the horror of it well may move
An impulse of repugnance in the heart,
Yet let us think, that, as there's naught above
The all-embracing atmosphere of Art,
So also there is naught that falls below
Her generous reach, though grimed with guilt and woe.
Her fittest triumph is to show that good
Lurks in the heart of evil evermore,
That love, though scorned, and outcast, and withstood,
Can without end forgive, and yet have store;
God's love and man's are of the selfsame blood,
And He can see that always at the door
Of foulest hearts the angel-nature yet
Knocks to return and cancel all its debt.
It ever is weak falsehood's destiny
That her thick mask turns crystal to let through
The unsuspicious eyes of honesty;
But Margaret's heart was too sincere and true
Aught but plain truth and faithfulness to see,
And Mordred's for a time a little grew
To be like hers, won by the mild reproof
Of those kind eyes that kept all doubt aloof.
Full oft they met, as dawn and twilight meet
In northern climes; she full of growing day
As he of darkness, which before her feet
Shrank gradual, and faded quite away,
Soon to return; for power had made love sweet
To him, and when his will had gained full sway,
The taste began to pall; for never power
Can sate the hungry soul beyond an hour.
He fell as doth the tempter ever fall,
Even in the gaining of his loathsome end;
God doth not work as man works, but makes all
The crooked paths of ill to goodness tend;
Let Him judge Margaret! If to be the thrall
Of love, and faith too generous to defend
Its very life from him she loved, be sin,
What hope of grace may the seducer win?
Grim-hearted world, that look'st with Levite eyes
On those poor fallen by too much faith in man,
She that upon thy freezing threshold lies,
Starved to more sinning by thy savage ban,
Seeking that refuge because foulest vice
More godlike than thy virtue is, whose span
Shuts out the wretched only, is more free
To enter heaven than thou shalt ever be!
Thou wilt not let her wash thy dainty feet
With such salt things as tears, or with rude hair
Dry them, soft Pharisee, that sit'st at meat
With him who made her such, and speak'st him fair.
Leaving God's wandering lamb the while to bleat
Unheeded, shivering in the pitiless air:
Thou hast made prisoned virtue show more wan
And haggard than a vice to look upon.
Now many months flew by, and weary grew
To Margaret the sight of happy things;
Blight fell on all her flowers, instead of dew;
Shut round her heart were now the joyous wings
Wherewith it wont to soar; yet not untrue,
Though tempted much, her woman's nature clings
To its first pure belief, and with sad eyes
Looks backward o'er the gate of Paradise.
And so, though altered Mordred came less oft,
And winter frowned where spring had laughed before
In his strange eyes, yet half her sadness doffed,
And in her silent patience loved him more:
Sorrow had made her soft heart yet more soft,
And a new life within her own she bore
Which made her tenderer, as she felt it move
Beneath her breast, a refuge for her love.
This babe, she thought, would surely bring him back,
And be a bond forever them between;
Before its eyes the sullen tempest-rack
Would fade, and leave the face of heaven serene;
And love's return doth more than fill the lack,
Which in his absence withered the heart's green:
And yet a dim foreboding still would flit
Between her and her hope to darken it.
She could not figure forth a happy fate,
Even for this life from heaven so newly come;
The earth must needs be doubly desolate
To him scarce parted from a fairer home:
Such boding heavier on her bosom sate
One night, as, standing in the twilight gloam,
She strained her eyes beyond that dizzy verge
At whose foot faintly breaks the future's surge.
Poor little spirit! naught but shame and woe
Nurse the sick heart whose life-blood nurses thine:
Yet not those only; love hath triumphed so,
As for thy sake makes sorrow more divine:
And yet, though thou be pure, the world is foe
To purity, if born in such a shrine;
And, having trampled it for struggling thence,
Smiles to itself, and calls it Providence.
As thus she mused, a shadow seemed to rise
From out her thought, and turn to dreariness
All blissful hopes and sunny memories,
And the quick blood would curdle up and press
About her heart, which seemed to shut its eyes
And hush itself, as who with shuddering guess
Harks through the gloom and dreads e'en now to feel
Through his hot breast the icy slide of steel.
But, at that heart-beat, while in dread she was,
In the low wind the honeysuckles gleam,
A dewy thrill flits through the heavy grass,
And, looking forth, she saw, as in a dream,
Within the wood the moonlight's shadowy mass:
Night's starry heart yearning to hers doth seem,
And the deep sky, full-hearted with the moon,
Folds round her all the happiness of June.
What fear could face a heaven and earth like this?
What silveriest cloud could hang 'neath such a sky?
A tide of wondrous and unwonted bliss
Rolls back through all her pulses suddenly,
As if some seraph, who had learned to kiss
From the fair daughters of the world gone by,
Had wedded so his fallen light with hers,
Such sweet, strange joy through soul and body stirs.
Now seek we Mordred; he who did not fear
The crime, yet fears the latent consequence:
If it should reach a brother Templar's ear,
It haply might be made a good pretence
To cheat him of the hope he held most dear;
For he had spared no thought's or deed's expense,
That by and by might help his wish to clip
Its darling bride,-the high grandmastership.
The apathy, ere a crime resolved is done,
Is scarce less dreadful than remorse for crime;
By no allurement can the soul be won
From brooding o'er the weary creep of time:
Mordred stole forth into the happy sun,
Striving to hum a scrap of Breton rhyme,
But the sky struck him speechless, and he tried
In vain to summon up his callous pride.
In the courtyard a fountain leaped alway,
A Triton blowing jewels through his shell
Into the sunshine; Mordred turned away,
Weary because the stone face did not tell
Of weariness, nor could he bear to-day,
Heartsick, to hear the patient sink and swell
Of winds among the leaves, or golden bees
Drowsily humming in the orange-trees.
All happy sights and sounds now came to him
Like a reproach: he wandered far and wide,
Following the lead of his unquiet whim,
But still there went a something at his side
That made the cool breeze hot, the sunshine dim;
It would not flee, it could not be defied,
He could not see it, but he felt it there,
By the damp chill that crept among his hair.
Day wore at last; the evening-star arose,
And throbbing in the sky grew red and set;
Then with a guilty, wavering step he goes
To the hid nook where they so oft had met
In happier season, for his heart well knows
That he is sure to find poor Margaret
Watching and waiting there with love-lorn breast
Around her young dream's rudely scattered nest.
Why follow here that grim old chronicle
Which counts the dagger-strokes and drops of blood?
Enough that Margaret by his mad steel fell,
Unmoved by murder from her trusting mood,
Smiling on him as Heaven smiles on Hell,
With a sad love, remembering when he stood
Not fallen yet, the unsealer of her heart,
Of all her holy dreams the holiest part.
His crime complete, scarce knowing what he did,
(So goes the tale,) beneath the altar there
In the high church the stiffening corpse he hid,
And then, to 'scape that suffocating air,
Like a scared ghoul out of the porch he slid;
But his strained eyes saw blood-spots everywhere,
And ghastly faces thrust themselves between
His soul and hopes of peace with blasting mien.
His heart went out within him like a spark
Dropt in the sea; wherever he made bold
To turn his eyes, he saw, all stiff and stark,
Pale Margaret lying dead; the lavish gold
Of her loose hair seemed in the cloudy dark
To spread a glory, and a thousand-fold
More strangely pale and beautiful she grew:
Her silence stabbed his conscience through and through.
Or visions of past days,-a mother's eyes
That smiled down on the fair boy at her knee,
Whose happy upturned face to hers replies.-
He saw sometimes: or Margaret mournfully
Gazed on him full of doubt, as one who tries
To crush belief that does love injury;
Then she would wring her hands, but soon again
Love's patience glimmered out through cloudy pain.
Meanwhile he dared, not go and steal away
The silent, dead-cold witness of his sin;
He had not feared the life, but that dull clay,
Those open eyes that showed the death within,
Would surely stare him mad; yet all the day
A dreadful impulse, whence his will could win
No refuge, made him linger in the aisle,
Freezing with his wan look each greeting smile.
Now, on the second day there was to be
A festival in church: from far and near
Came flocking in the sunburnt peasantry,
And knights and dames with stately antique cheer,
Blazing with pomp, as if all faerie
Had emptied her quaint halls, or, as it were,
The illuminated marge of some old book,
While we were gazing, life and motion took.
When all were entered, and the roving eyes
Of all were stayed, some upon faces bright,
Some on the priests, some on the traceries
That decked the slumber of a marble knight,
And all the rustlings over that arise
From recognizing tokens of delight,
When friendly glances meet,-then silent ease
Spread o'er the multitude by slow degrees.
Then swelled the organ: up through choir and nave
The music trembled with an inward thrill
Of bliss at its own grandeur; wave on wave
Its flood of mellow thunder rose, until
The hushed air shivered with the throb it gave,
Then, poising for a moment, it stood still,
And sank and rose again, to burst in spray
That wandered into silence far away.
Like to a mighty heart the music seemed,
That yearns with melodies it cannot speak,
Until, in grand despair of what it dreamed,
In the agony of effort it doth break,
Yet triumphs breaking; on it rushed and streamed
And wantoned in its might, as when a lake,
Long pent among the mountains, bursts its walls
And in one crowding gash leaps forth and falls.
Deeper and deeper shudders shook the air,
As the huge bass kept gathering heavily,
Like thunder when it rouses in its lair,
And with its hoarse growl shakes the low-hung sky,
It grew up like a darkness everywhere,
Filling the vast cathedral;-suddenly,
From the dense mass a boy's clear treble broke
Like lightning, and the full-toned choir awoke.
Through gorgeous windows shone the sun aslant,
Brimming the church with gold and purple mist,
Meet atmosphere to bosom that rich chant.
Where fifty voices in one strand did twist
Their varicolored tones, and left no want
To the delighted soul, which sank abyssed
In the warm music cloud, while, far below,
The organ heaved its surges to and fro.
As if a lark should suddenly dropp dead
While the blue air yet trembled with its song,
So snapped at once that music's golden thread,
Struck by a nameless fear that leapt along
From heart to heart, and like a shadow spread
With instantaneous shiver through the throng,
So that some glanced behind, as half aware
A hideous shape of dread were standing there.
As when a crowd of pale men gather round,
Watching an eddy in the leaden deep,
From which they deem the body of one drowned
Will be cast forth, from face to face doth creep
An eager dread that holds all tongues fast bound
Until the horror, with a ghastly leap,
Starts up, its dead blue arms stretched aimlessly,
Heaved with the swinging of the careless sea,-
So in the faces of all these there grew,
As by one impulse, a dark, freezing awe,
Which with a fearful fascination drew
All eyes toward the altar; damp and raw
The air grew suddenly, and no man knew
Whether perchance his silent neighbor saw
The dreadful thing which all were sure would rise
To scare the strained lids wider from their eyes.
The incense trembled as it upward sent
Its slow, uncertain thread of wandering blue,
As't were the only living element
In all the church, so deep the stillness grew;
It seemed one might have heard it, as it went,
Give out an audible rustle, curling through
The midnight silence of that awestruck air,
More hushed than death, though so much life was there.
Nothing they saw, but a low voice was heard
Threading the ominous silence of that fear,
Gentle and terrorless as if a bird,
Wakened by some volcano's glare, should cheer
The murk air with his song; yet every word
In the cathedral's farthest arch seemed near,
As if it spoke to every one apart,
Like the clear voice of conscience in each heart.
'O Rest, to weary hearts thou art most dear!
O Silence, after life's bewildering din,
Thou art most welcome, whether in the sear
Days of our age thou comest, or we win
Thy poppy-wreath in youth! then wherefore here
Linger I yet, once free to enter in
At that wished gate which gentle Death doth ope,
Into the boundless realm of strength and hope?
'Think not in death my love could ever cease;
If thou wast false, more need there is for me
Still to be true; that slumber were not peace,
If't were unvisited with dreams of thee:
And thou hadst never heard such words as these,
Save that in heaven I must forever be
Most comfortless and wretched, seeing this
Our unbaptized babe shut out from bliss.
'This little spirit with imploring eyes
Wanders alone the dreary wild of space;
The shadow of his pain forever lies
Upon my soul in this new dwelling-place;
His loneliness makes me in Paradise
More lonely, and, unless I see his face,
Even here for grief could I lie down and die,
Save for my curse of immortality.
'World after world he sees around him swim
Crowded with happy souls, that take no heed
Of the sad eyes that from the night's faint rim
Gaze sick with longing on them as they speed
With golden gates, that only shut on him;
And shapes sometimes from hell's abysses freed
Flap darkly by him, with enormous sweep
Of wings that roughen wide the pitchy deep.
'I am a mother,-spirits do not shake
This much of earth from them,-and I must pine
Till I can feel his little hands, and take
His weary head upon this heart of mine;
And, might it be, full gladly for his sake
Would I this solitude of bliss resign
And be shut out of heaven to dwell with him
Forever in that silence drear and dim.
'I strove to hush my soul, and would not speak
At first, for thy dear sake; a woman's love
Is mighty, but a mother's heart is weak,
And by its weakness overcomes; I strove
To smother bitter thoughts with patience meek,
But still in the abyss my soul would rove,
Seeking my child, and drove me here to claim
The rite that gives him peace in Christ's dear name.
'I sit and weep while blessed spirits sing;
I can but long and pine the while they praise,
And, leaning o'er the wall of heaven, I fling
My voice to where I deem my infant strays,
Like a robbed bird that cries in vain to bring
Her nestlings back beneath her wings' embrace;
But still he answers not, and I but know
That heaven and earth are both alike in woe.'
Then the pale priests, with ceremony due,
Baptized the child within its dreadful tomb
Beneath that mother's heart, whose instinct true
Star-like had battled down the triple gloom
Of sorrow, love, and death: young maidens, too.
Strewed the pale corpse with many a milkwhite bloom,
And parted the bright hair, and on the breast
Crossed the unconscious hands in sign of rest.
Some said, that, when the priest had sprinkled o'er
The consecrated drops, they seemed to hear
A sigh, as of some heart from travail sore
Released, and then two voices singing clear,
_Misereatur Deus_, more and more
Fading far upward, and their ghastly fear
Fell from them with that sound, as bodies fall
From souls upspringing to celestial hall.
James Russell Lowell's Other Poems
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