Wilfrid Scawen Blunt

(1840 - 1922 / England)

Griselda: A Society Novel In Verse - Chapter Iv - Poem by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt

How shall I take up this vain parable
And ravel out its issue? Heaven and Hell,
The principles of good and evil thought,
Embodied in our lives, have blindly fought
Too long for empire in my soul to leave
Much for its utterance, much that it can grieve.
A soldier on the battlefield of life,
I have grown callous to the signs of strife,
And feel the wounds of others and my own
With scarce a tremor and without a groan.
I have seen many perish in their sins,
Known much of frailty and inconsequence,
And if I laughed once, now I dare not be
Other than sad at man's insanity.
Therefore, in all humility of years,
Colder and wiser for hopes drowned in tears,
And seeking no more quarries for my mirth,
Who most need pity of the sons of earth,
I dip in kindlier ink my chastened pen,
And fill of my lost tale what leaves remain.

Years passed. Griselda from my wandering sight
Had waned and vanished, like a meteor bright,
Leaving no pathway in my manhood's heaven
Save only memories vaguely unforgiven
Of something fair and sad, which for a day
Had lit its zenith and had gone its way.
Rome and the Prince, the tale that I had heard,
Griselda's beauty--all that once had stirred
My curious thought to wonder and regret,
In the vexed problem of her woman's fate,
Had yielded place to the world's work--day cares,
The wealth it covets and the toil it dares.
I was no more a boy, when idle chance
And that light favour which attends romance
Brought me once more within the transient spell
Of other days, and dreams of Lady L.

'Twas in September--(I have always found
That month in my life's record dangerous ground,
Whether it be due to some unreasoned stress
Of the mad stars which dog our happiness,
Or whether, since in truth most things are due
To natural causes, if our blindness knew,
To the strong law of Nature's first decay,
Warning betimes of time that cannot stay,
And summer perishing, and hours to come,
Lit by less hope in the year's martyrdom;
And so we needs must seize at any cost
Fleet pleasure's hem lest all our day be lost)--
'Twas in September, at a country house
In the Midland shires, where I had come, God knows,
Without a fancy but of such light sort
As manhood ventures in the realms of sport
With that dear god of slaughter England's sons
Adore with incense--smoke and roar of guns,
That this new chapter opens. Who had guessed
So rare a phoenix housed in such a nest?

For we, in truth, were no wise company,
Men strong and joyous, keen of hand and eye,
And shrewd for pleasure, but whose subtlest wit
Was still to jest at life while using it,
And jest at love, as at a fruit low hung
To all men's lips, no matter whence it sprung.
A fool's philosophy, yet dear to youth
Bred without knowledge of the nobler truth,
And seeming wisdom, till the bitter taste
Of grief has come to cure its overhaste.
Naught was there, in the scene nor in the parts
Played by the actors, worthy serious hearts,
Or worthy her whose passion trod a stage
High o'er the frailties of our prurient age,
Griselda and her unattained fair dream
Of noble deeds and griefs unknown to them.
How came she there? Our hostess was a woman
Less famed for wisdom than a heart all human
Rich in life's gifts, a wealthy generous soul,
But still too fair and still too bountiful.
The rest, mad hoydens of the world, whose worth
Lay mired with folly, earthiest of the earth.
How came she there? When I, unconscious all
Of such high presence at our festival,
Heard her name bandied in the general hum
Of hungry tongues, which told the guests had come,
And saw in converse with our host the form,
Familiar once in sunshine and in storm,
Of her who was to me the type and sign
Of all things noble, not to say Divine,
Breathing the atmosphere of that vain house,
My heart stopped beating. Half incredulous,
I looked and questioned in my neighbours' eyes,
Seeking the sense of this supreme surprise.
My thought took words, as at the table set
Men's lips were loosed, discoursing while they ate,
And each to each. Beside me, of the crew
Of gilded youths who swelled the retinue
Of our fair hostess in her daily lot
Of hunting laughter when field sports were not,
Sat one, a joyous boy, whom fashion's freak,
A mad--cap purse--string and a beardless cheek,
Had set pre--eminent in pleasure's school
To play the hero and to play the fool
For those few years which are the summer's day
Of fashion's foils ere they are cast away.
Young Jerry Manton! Happy fortune's son!
What heights of vanity your creed had won,
Creed of adventure, and untiring words
And songs and loves as brainless as a bird's.
Who would not envy you your lack of sense,
Your lawless jibes, your wealth of insolence,
The glory of your triumphs unconcealed
In pleasure's inmost and most sacred field?
Who would not share the sunshine of your mirth,
Your god--like smile, your consciousness of worth,
The keenness of your wit in the world's ways,
Your heart so callous to its blame or praise?
Him I addressed, in pursuance of my doubt
How such a prodigy had come about.

Young Manton eyed me. ``Every road,'' he said,
``Leads--well--to Rome.'' He laughed and shook his head,
As if in censure of a thought less sage.
``My lady's thirty is a dangerous age,
And of the three where most misfortunes come
Is the worst strewn with wrecks in Christendom.''
``You see,'' he added, ``we are not all wise
In all dilemmas and all companies,
And there are times and seasons when the best
Has need of an hour's frolic with the rest,
If only to set free the importunate load
Of trouble pressing on an uphill road.
Women's first snare is vanity. At twenty
Praises are pleasant, be they ne'er so plenty;
And some, the foolish ones, are thus soon caught
Seeking to justify the flattery taught.
These are the spendthrifts, dear ingenuous souls,
Whose names emblazoned stand on pleasure's rolls,
Manning the hosts of mirth. Apart from them,
More serious or less eager in their aim,
The wise ones wait like birds that hold aloof,
Conscious of danger and the cloven hoof.
Yet there are times.'' He paused awhile and sighed.
``The second snare,'' said he ``is set less wide;
It stands midway between the dawn of youth
And beauty's sunset, with its naked truth,
A danger hidden cunningly in flowers
And the wild drowsing of the noontide hours.
Here fall the elect, the chosen virtuous few,
Who have outlived the worst the storm could do,
But faint when it is over, through mere stress
Of their mortality's first weariness.
'Tis hard to see youth perish, even when
Ourselves to the mad warrant have set pen;
And for the wisest there are days of grief
And secret doubts and hours of unbelief
In all things but the one forbidden bliss
Churchmen forbid and poets call a kiss.
Why should we wonder? 'Tis a kindlier fate
At least than that, the last, which comes too late,
The old fool's folly nursed at forty--five.
Griselda is an angel, but alive,
Believe me, to her wings.'' A fatuous flush
Mantled his face, not quite perhaps a blush,
But something conscious, as of one who knows.
``Virtue and pleasure are not always foes,''
He sighed. ``And much depends upon the man.''

I turned impatient. There, behind her fan,
At the far table's end, Griselda's eyes
Were watching us, half hid by its disguise,
But conscious too, as if a secret string
Had vibrated 'twixt her and that vain thing.
The cynic boy, whose word was in my ear,
Dishonouring to me and him and her.
Our eyes met, and hers fell; a sudden pain
Touched me of memory, and in every vein
Ran jealous anger at young Manton's wit,
While, half aloud, I flung my curse on it.

Later, I found Griselda gravely gay,
And glad to see me in the accustomed way
Of half affection my long zeal had won,
Her face no older, though the years had spun
Some threads unnoticed in her fair brown hair
Of lighter hue than I remembered there,
Less silver streaked than gold. All else had grown
Fairer with time, and tenderer in its tone,
As when in August woods a second burst
Of leaves is seen more golden than the first.
A woman truly to be loved--but loving?
There was the riddle wit despaired of proving,
For who can read the stars? I sat with her
The evening through, and rose up happier.
In all that crowd there was no single face
Worthy her notice, not to say her grace,
And once again her charm was on my soul.
``If she love any''--this was still the goal
Of my night thoughts in argument with fear--
``Say what they will, the lover is not here.''
Not here! And yet, at parting, she had pressed
Manton's sole hand, and nodded to the rest.

Four days I lived in my fool's paradise,
Importuning Griselda's changing eyes
With idle flattery. I found her mood
Softer than once in her young womanhood,
Yet restless and uncertain. There were hours
Of a wild gaiety, when all the powers
Of her keen mind were in revolt with folly,
Others bedimmed with wordless melancholy.
Once too or twice she shocked me with a phrase
Of doubtful sense, revealing thoughts and ways
New to her past, an echo of the noise
Of that mad world we lived in and its joys:
Such things were sacrilege. I could not see
Unmoved my angel smirched with vanity,
Even though, it seemed at moments, for my sake.
Her laughter, when she laughed, made my heart ache,
And I had spared some pain to see her sad
Rather than thus unseasonably glad.

Who would have dreamed it? Each new idle day,
When, tired with sport, we rested from the fray,
Five jovial shooters, jaded by the sun,
Seeking refreshment at the stroke of noon,--
There, with the luncheon carts all trimly dight,
Stood Lady L., to the fool crowd's delight.
You would have thought her life had always been
Passed in the stubbles, as, with questions keen,
She eyed the bags and parleyed with the ``guns'';
Rome's matron she with us the Goths and Huns.
Young Manton proudly spread for her his coat
Under a hedge, and she resented not.
Resented! Why resent? Nay, smiles were there,
And a swift look of pleasure, still more rare,
Pleasure and gratitude, as though the act
Had been of chivalry in form and fact
Transcending Raleigh's. Ay, indeed! Resent!
That eye were blind which doubted what it meant.

And still I doubted. Vanity dies hard.
And love, however starving of reward,
And youth's creed of belief. It seemed a thing
Monstrous, impossible, bewildering,
As tales of dwarfs and giants gravely told
By men of science, and transmuted gold,
And magic potions turning men to beasts,
And lewd witch Sabbaths danced by unfrocked priests.
Griselda! Manton! In what mood or tense
Could folly conjugate such dreams to sense,
Or draw the contract not in terms absurd
Of such a friendship or of act or word?
Where was the common thought between the two--
Even of partridges--the other knew?
Manton--Griselda! Nay 'twere fabulous,
A mere profanity, to argue thus;
Only I watched them closer when they strayed
To gather blackberries, as boy and maid
In a first courting, and her eager eyes
Turned as he spoke, and laughter came unwise
Before she answered, and an hour was flown,
Before he joined the rest and she was gone.

O Love! what an absurdity thou art,
How heedless of proportion, whole or part!
Time, place, occasion, what are they to thee?
Thou playest the wanton with Solemnity,
The prince with Poverty, the rogue with Worth,
The fool with all the Wisdoms of the Earth.
Thou art a leveller, more renowned than Death,
For he, when in his rage he stops our breath,
Leaves us at least the harvest of our years,
The right to be heroic in our tears.
But thou dost only mock. Thou art a king
Dealing with slaves, who waits no questioning
But gives--to this a province and a crown,
To that a beggar's staff and spangled gown;
And when some weep their undeserved disgrace,
Plucks at their cheeks and smites them in the face.
Thou hast no reverence, no respect for right.
Virtue to thee is a lewd appetite,
Remorse a pastime, modesty a lure,
And love, the malady, love's only cure.

Griselda, in her love at thirty--three
Was the supreme fool of felicity.
Reason and she had taken separate roads,
A spectacle of mirth for men and gods.
And the world laughed--discreetly in its sleeves--
At her poor artless shifts and make--believes.
For it was true, true to the very text,
This whispered thing that had my soul perplexed,
Manton was her beloved--by what art,
What mute equation of the human heart,
What blind jibe of dame Fortune, who shall say?
The road of passion is no king's highway,
Mapped out with finger--posts for all to see,
But each soul journeys on it separately,
And only those who have walked its mazes through
Remember on what paths the wild flowers grew.

Ay, who shall say? Nor had the truth been sung,
Save for the incontinence of Manton's tongue,
Wagging in argument on certain themes,
With boast of craft in pleasure's stratagems.
``For Love'' ('twas thus he made his parable
In cynic phrase, as hero of his tale,
One evening when the others were abed,
And we two sat on smoking, head to head,
Discoursing in that tone of men scarce friends,
Who prate philosophy to candle ends),
``Love, though its laws have not as yet been written
By any Balzac for our modern Britain,
And though perhaps there is no strategy
Youth can quite count upon or argue by,
Is none the less an art, with some few rules
Wise men observe, who would outrun the fools.
Now, for myself'' (here Manton spread his hands
With professorial wave in white wrist--bands)
``I hold it as a maxim always wise
In making love to deal with contraries.
Colours, books tell us, to be strongly blent,
Need opposite colours for their complement,
And so too women whose ill--reasoning mind
Requires some contradiction to be kind.

It is not enough in this late year of grace
To answer fools with their own foolishness--
Rather with your best wisdom. You will need
Your folly to perplex some wiser head.
And so my maxim is, whatever least
Women expect, that thing will serve you best.
Thus, with young souls in their first unfledged years,
Ask their opinion as philosophers:
Consult their knowledge in the ways of life.
The repute of sin will please a too chaste wife.
Your deference keep for harlots: these you touch
Best by your modesty, which makes them blush.
With a proud beauty deal out insolence,
And bear her fence down with a stronger fence.
She will be angry, but a softer cheek
Turn to the smiter who has proved her weak.
And so with wisdom: meet it with surprise,
Laugh at it idly gazing in its eyes,
Leave it no solid ground for its fair feet,
And lead it lightly where love's waters meet.
Even virtue--virtue of the noblest type,
The fair sad woman, whose romance is ripe,
Needs but a little knowledge to be led,
Perhaps less than the rest if truth be said.
You must not parley with her. Words are vain,
And you might wake some half forgotten pain.
Avoid her soul. It is a place too strong
For your assaulting, and a siege were long.
Others have failed before it. Touch it not,
But march beyond, nor fire a single shot.
The fields of pleasure less defended lie:
These are your vantage--ground for victory.
Strike boldly for possession and command;
An hour may win it, if you hold her hand.
I knew one once:'' . . . I would have stopped him here
But for the shame which held me prisoner;
And his undaunted reassuring smile,
Commanding confidence. ``I knew once on a while,''
He said, ``a woman whom the world called proud,
A saintly soul, untouched by the vain crowd,
Who had survived all battle, siege, and sack,
Love ever led with armies at his back,
Yet fell at last to the mere accident
Of a chance meeting, for another meant,
Her lover had not dared it, had he known,
But faces in the dark are all as one.
You know the rhyme.'' But at this point I rose,
Fearing what worse his folly might disclose,
And having learned my lesson of romance,
A sadder man and wiser for the chance,
Bade him good night: (it was in truth good--bye,
For pretexting next morning some small lie
Of business calling me in haste to town,
I fled the house). He looked me up and down,
Yawned, rose to light his candle at the lamp,
Pressed with warm hand my own hand which was damp,
And as he sauntered cheerily to bed,
I heard him sing--they linger in my head--
The first staves of a ballad, then the fashion
With the young bloods who shape their love and passion
At the music--halls of the Metropolis;
What I remember of the song was this:

But, no, I cannot write it. There are things
Too bitter in their taste, and this one stings
My soul to a mad anger even yet.
I seem to hear the voices of the pit
Lewdly discoursing of incestuous scenes,
Bottom the weaver's and the enamoured queen's.
Alas, Titania! thou poor soul, alas!
How art thou fallen, and to what an ass!


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Poem Submitted: Tuesday, April 13, 2010



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