A Ballad Of Fair Ladies In Revolt Poem by George Meredith

A Ballad Of Fair Ladies In Revolt

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See the sweet women, friend, that lean beneath
The ever-falling fountain of green leaves
Round the white bending stem, and like a wreath
Of our most blushful flower shine trembling through,
To teach philosophers the thirst of thieves:
Is one for me? is one for you?


- Fair sirs, we give you welcome, yield you place,
And you shall choose among us which you will,
Without the idle pastime of the chase,
If to this treaty you can well agree:
To wed our cause, and its high task fulfil.
He who's for us, for him are we!


- Most gracious ladies, nigh when light has birth,
A troop of maids, brown as burnt heather-bells,
And rich with life as moss-roots breathe of earth
In the first plucking of them, past us flew
To labour, singing rustic ritornells:
Had they a cause? are they of you?


- Sirs, they are as unthinking armies are
To thoughtful leaders, and our cause is theirs.
When they know men they know the state of war:
But now they dream like sunlight on a sea,
And deem you hold the half of happy pairs.
He who's for us, for him are we!


- Ladies, I listened to a ring of dames;
Judicial in the robe and wig; secure
As venerated portraits in their frames;
And they denounced some insurrection new
Against sound laws which keep you good and pure.
Are you of them? are they of you?


- Sirs, they are of us, as their dress denotes,
And by as much: let them together chime:
It is an ancient bell within their throats,
Pulled by an aged ringer; with what glee
Befits the yellow yesterdays of time.
He who's for us, for him are we!


- Sweet ladies, you with beauty, you with wit;
Dowered of all favours and all blessed things
Whereat the ruddy torch of Love is lit;
Wherefore this vain and outworn strife renew,
Which stays the tide no more than eddy-rings?
Who is for love must be for you.


- The manners of the market, honest sirs,
'Tis hard to quit when you behold the wares.
You flatter us, or perchance our milliners
You flatter; so this vain and outworn She
May still be the charmed snake to your soft airs!
A higher lord than Love claim we.


- One day, dear lady, missing the broad track,
I came on a wood's border, by a mead,
Where golden May ran up to moted black:
And there I saw Queen Beauty hold review,
With Love before her throne in act to plead.
Take him for me, take her for you.


- Ingenious gentleman, the tale is known.
Love pleaded sweetly: Beauty would not melt:
She would not melt: he turned in wrath: her throne
The shadow of his back froze witheringly,
And sobbing at his feet Queen Beauty knelt.
O not such slaves of Love are we!


- Love, lady, like the star above that lance
Of radiance flung by sunset on ridged cloud,
Sad as the last line of a brave romance! -
Young Love hung dim, yet quivering round him threw
Beams of fresh fire, while Beauty waned and bowed.
Scorn Love, and dread the doom for you.


- Called she not for her mirror, sir? Forth ran
Her women: I am lost, she cried, when lo,
Love in the form of an admiring man
Once more in adoration bent the knee,
And brought the faded Pagan to full blow:
For which her throne she gave: not we!


- My version, madam, runs not to that end.
A certain madness of an hour half past,
Caught her like fever; her just lord no friend
She fancied; aimed beyond beauty, and thence grew
The prim acerbity, sweet Love's outcast.
Great heaven ward off that stroke from you!


- Your prayer to heaven, good sir, is generous:
How generous likewise that you do not name
Offended nature! She from all of us
Couched idle underneath our showering tree,
May quite withhold her most destructive flame;
And then what woeful women we!


- Quite, could not be, fair lady; yet your youth
May run to drought in visionary schemes:
And a late waking to perceive the truth,
When day falls shrouding her supreme adieu,
Shows darker wastes than unaccomplished dreams:
And that may be in store for you.


- O sir, the truth, the truth! is't in the skies,
Or in the grass, or in this heart of ours?
But O the truth, the truth! the many eyes
That look on it! the diverse things they see,
According to their thirst for fruit or flowers!
Pass on: it is the truth seek we.


- Lady, there is a truth of settled laws
That down the past burns like a great watch-fire.
Let youth hail changeful mornings; but your cause,
Whetting its edge to cut the race in two,
Is felony: you forfeit the bright lyre,
Much honour and much glory you!


- Sir, was it glory, was it honour, pride,
And not as cat and serpent and poor slave,
Wherewith we walked in union by your side?
Spare to false womanliness her delicacy,
Or bid true manliness give ear, we crave:
In our defence thus chained are we.


- Yours, madam, were the privileges of life
Proper to man's ideal; you were the mark
Of action, and the banner in the strife:
Yea, of your very weakness once you drew
The strength that sounds the wells, outflies the lark:
Wrapped in a robe of flame were you!


- Your friend looks thoughtful. Sir, when we were chill,
You clothed us warmly; all in honour! when
We starved you fed us; all in honour still:
Oh, all in honour, ultra-honourably!
Deep is the gratitude we owe to men,
For privileged indeed were we!


- You cite exceptions, madam, that are sad,
But come in the red struggle of our growth.
Alas, that I should have to say it! bad
Is two-sexed upon earth: this which you do,
Shows animal impatience, mental sloth:
Man monstrous! pining seraphs you!


- I fain would ask your friend . . . but I will ask
You, sir, how if in place of numbers vague,
Your sad exceptions were to break that mask
They wear for your cool mind historically,
And blaze like black lists of a PRESENT plague?
But in that light behold them we.


- Your spirit breathes a mist upon our world,
Lady, and like a rain to pierce the roof
And drench the bed where toil-tossed man lies curled
In his hard-earned oblivion! You are few,
Scattered, ill-counselled, blinded: for a proof,
I have lived, and have known none like you.


- We may be blind to men, sir: we embrace
A future now beyond the fowler's nets.
Though few, we hold a promise for the race
That was not at our rising: you are free
To win brave mates; you lose but marionnettes.
He who's for us, for him are we.


- Ah! madam, were they puppets who withstood
Youth's cravings for adventure to preserve
The dedicated ways of womanhood?
The light which leads us from the paths of rue,
That light above us, never seen to swerve,
Should be the home-lamp trimmed by you.


- Ah! sir, our worshipped posture we perchance
Shall not abandon, though we see not how,
Being to that lamp-post fixed, we may advance
Beside our lords in any real degree,
Unless we move: and to advance is now
A sovereign need, think more than we.


- So push you out of harbour in small craft,
With little seamanship; and comes a gale,
The world will laugh, the world has often laughed,
Lady, to see how bold when skies are blue,
When black winds churn the deeps how panic-pale,
How swift to the old nest fly you!


- What thinks your friend, kind sir? We have escaped
But partly that old half-tamed wild beast's paw
Whereunder woman, the weak thing, was shaped:
Men, too, have known the cramping enemy
In grim brute force, whom force of brain shall awe:
Him our deliverer, await we!


- Delusions are with eloquence endowed,
And yours might pluck an angel from the spheres
To play in this revolt whereto you are vowed,
Deliverer, lady! but like summer dew
O'er fields that crack for rain your friends drop tears,
Who see the awakening for you.


- Is he our friend, there silent? he weeps not.
O sir, delusion mounting like a sun
On a mind blank as the white wife of Lot,
Giving it warmth and movement! if this be
Delusion, think of what thereby was won
For men, and dream of what win we.


- Lady, the destiny of minor powers,
Who would recast us, is but to convulse:
You enter on a strife that frets and sours;
You can but win sick disappointment's hue;
And simply an accelerated pulse,
Some tonic you have drunk moves you.


- Thinks your friend so? Good sir, your wit is bright;
But wit that strives to speak the popular voice,
Puts on its nightcap and puts out its light.
Curfew, would seem your conqueror's decree
To women likewise: and we have no choice
Save darkness or rebellion, we!


- A plain safe intermediate way is cleft
By reason foiling passion: you that rave
Of mad alternatives to right and left
Echo the tempter, madam: and 'tis due
Unto your sex to shun it as the grave,
This later apple offered you.


- This apple is not ripe, it is not sweet;
Nor rosy, sir, nor golden: eye and mouth
Are little wooed by it; yet we would eat.
We are somewhat tired of Eden, is our plea.
We have thirsted long; this apple suits our drouth:
'Tis good for men to halve, think we.


- But say, what seek you, madam? 'Tis enough
That you should have dominion o'er the springs
Domestic and man's heart: those ways, how rough,
How vile, outside the stately avenue
Where you walk sheltered by your angel's wings,
Are happily unknown to you.


- We hear women's shrieks on them. We like your phrase,
Dominion domestic! And that roar,
'What seek you?' is of tyrants in all days.
Sir, get you something of our purity
And we will of your strength: we ask no more.
That is the sum of what seek we.


- O for an image, madam, in one word,
To show you as the lightning night reveals,
Your error and your perils: you have erred
In mind only, and the perils that ensue
Swift heels may soften; wherefore to swift heels
Address your hopes of safety you!


- To err in mind, sir . . . your friend smiles: he may!
To err in mind, if err in mind we can,
Is grievous error you do well to stay.
But O how different from reality
Men's fiction is! how like you in the plan,
Is woman, knew you her as we!


- Look, lady, where yon river winds its line
Toward sunset, and receives on breast and face
The splendour of fair life: to be divine,
'Tis nature bids you be to nature true,
Flowing with beauty, lending earth your grace,
Reflecting heaven in clearness you.


- Sir, you speak well: your friend no word vouchsafes.
To flow with beauty, breeding fools and worse,
Cowards and worse: at such fair life she chafes,
Who is not wholly of the nursery,
Nor of your schools: we share the primal curse;
Together shake it off, say we!


- Hear, then, my friend, madam! Tongue-restrained he stands
Till words are thoughts, and thoughts, like swords enriched
With traceries of the artificer's hands,
Are fire-proved steel to cut, fair flowers to view. -
Do I hear him? Oh, he is bewitched, bewitched!
Heed him not! Traitress beauties you!


- We have won a champion, sisters, and a sage!
- Ladies, you win a guest to a good feast!
- Sir spokesman, sneers are weakness veiling rage.
- Of weakness, and wise men, you have the key.
- Then are there fresher mornings mounting East
Than ever yet have dawned, sing we!


- False ends as false began, madam, be sure!
- What lure there is the pure cause purifies!
- Who purifies the victim of the lure?
- That soul which bids us our high light pursue.
- Some heights are measured down: the wary wise
Shun Reason in the masque with you!


- Sir, for the friend you bring us, take our thanks.
Yes, Beauty was of old this barren goal;
A thing with claws; and brute-like in her pranks!
But could she give more loyal guarantee
Than wooing Wisdom, that in her a soul
Has risen? Adieu: content are we!


Those ladies led their captive to the flood's
Green edge. He floating with them seemed the most
Fool-flushed old noddy ever crowned with buds.
Happier than I! Then, why not wiser too?
For he that lives with Beauty, he may boast
His comrade over me and you.


Have women nursed some dream since Helen sailed
Over the sea of blood the blushing star,
That beauty, whom frail man as Goddess hailed,
When not possessing her (for such is he!),
Might in a wondering season seen afar,
Be tamed to say not 'I,' but 'we'?


And shall they make of Beauty their estate,
The fortress and the weapon of their sex?
Shall she in her frost-brilliancy dictate,
More queenly than of old, how we must woo,
Ere she will melt? The halter's on our necks,
Kick as it likes us, I and you.


Certain it is, if Beauty has disdained
Her ancient conquests, with an aim thus high:
If this, if that, if more, the fight is gained.
But can she keep her followers without fee?
Yet ah! to hear anew those ladies cry,
He who's for us, for him are we!

V. Irene Cockroft 06 January 2018

Read this poem in the light of 2018, the centenary of all men and (some) women in Britain being granted the right to vote.

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V. Irene Cockroft 06 January 2018

Men and Women, At the dawn of 2018, the centenary of Votes for All Men and for (some) Women in Britain, read this poem through thoughtfully. Women, over a century ago, made a stand against domestic enslavement. Wise men chose brave mates in place of marionettes. Together, we walk toward 'fresher mornings mounting East than ever yet have dawned'.

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George Meredith

George Meredith

Portsmouth, England
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