George MacDonald

(10 December 1824 – 18 September 1905 / Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland)

Love's Ordeal - Poem by George MacDonald

'Hear'st thou that sound upon the window pane?'
Said the youth softly, as outstretched he lay
Where for an hour outstretched he had lain-
Softly, yet with some token of dismay.
Answered the maiden: 'It is but the rain
That has been gathering in the west all day!
Why shouldst thou hearken so? Thine eyelids close,
And let me gather peace from thy repose.'

'Hear'st thou that moan creeping along the ground?'
Said the youth, and his veiling eyelids rose
From deeps of lightning-haunted dark profound
Ruffled with herald blasts of coming woes.
'I hear it,' said the maiden; ''tis the sound
Of a great wind that here not seldom blows;
It swings the huge arms of the dreary pine,
But thou art safe, my darling, clasped in mine.'

'Hear'st thou the baying of my hounds?' said he;
'Draw back the lattice bar and let them in.'
From a rent cloud the moonlight, ghostily,
Slid clearer to the floor, as, gauntly thin,
She opening, they leaped through with bound so free,
Then shook the rain-drops from their shaggy skin.
The maiden closed the shower-bespattered glass,
Whose spotted shadow through the room did pass.

The youth, half-raised, was leaning on his hand,
But, when again beside him sat the maid,
His eyes for one slow minute having scanned
Her moonlit face, he laid him down, and said,
Monotonous, like solemn-read command:
'For Love is of the earth, earthy, and is laid
Lifeless at length back in the mother-tomb.'
Strange moanings from the pine entered the room.

And then two shadows like the shadow of glass,
Over the moonbeams on the cottage floor,
As wind almost as thin and shapeless, pass;
A sound of rain-drops came about the door,
And a soft sighing as of plumy grass;
A look of sorrowing doubt the youth's face wore;
The two great hounds half rose; with aspect grim
They eyed his countenance by the taper dim.

Shadow nor moaning sound the maiden noted,
But on his face dwelt her reproachful look;
She doubted whether he the saying had quoted
Out of some evil, earth-begotten book,
Or up from his deep heart, like bubbles, had floated
Words which no maiden ever yet could brook;
But his eyes held the question, 'Yea or No?'
Therefore the maiden answered, 'Nay, not so;

'Love is of heaven, eternal.' Half a smile
Just twinned his lips: shy, like all human best,
A hopeful thought bloomed out, and lived a while;
He looked one moment like a dead man blest-
His soul a bark that in a sunny isle
At length had found the haven of its rest;
But he could not remain, must forward fare:
He spoke, and said with words abrupt and bare,

'Maiden, I have loved other maidens.' Pale
Her red lips grew. 'I loved them, yes, but they
Successively in trial's hour did fail,
For after sunset clouds again are gray.'
A sudden light shone through the fringy veil
That drooping hid her eyes; and then there lay
A stillness on her face, waiting; and then
The little clock rung out the hour of ten.

Moaning once more the great pine-branches bow
To a soft plaining wind they would not stem.
Brooding upon her face, the youth said, 'Thou
Art not more beautiful than some of them,
But a fair courage crowns thy peaceful brow,
Nor glow thine eyes, but shine serene like gem
That lamps from radiant store upon the dark
The light it gathered where its song the lark.

'The horse that broke this day from grasp of three,
Thou sawest then the hand thou holdest, hold:
Ere two fleet hours are gone, that hand will be
Dry, big-veined, wrinkled, withered up and old!-
No woman yet hath shared my doom with me.'
With calm fixed eyes she heard till he had told;
The stag-hounds rose, a moment gazed at him,
Then laid them down with aspect yet more grim.

Spake on the youth, nor altered look or tone:
''Tis thy turn, maiden, to say no or dare.'-
Was it the maiden's, that importunate moan?-
'At midnight, when the moon sets, wilt thou share
The terror with me? or must I go alone
To meet an agony that will not spare?'
She answered not, but rose to take her cloak;
He staid her with his hand, and further spoke.

'Not yet,' he said; 'yet there is respite; see,
Time's finger points not yet to the dead hour!
Enough is left even now for telling thee
The far beginnings whence the fearful power
Of the great dark came shadowing down on me:
Red roses crowding clothe my love's dear bower-
Nightshade and hemlock, darnel, toadstools white
Compass the place where I must lie to-night!'

Around his neck the maiden put her arm
And knelt beside him leaning on his breast,
As o'er his love, to keep it strong and warm,
Brooding like bird outspread upon her nest.
And well the faith of her dear eyes might charm
All doubt away from love's primeval rest!
He hid his face upon her heart, and there
Spake on with voice like wind from lonely lair.

A drearier moaning through the pine did go
As if a human voice complained and cried
For one long minute; then the sound grew low,
Sank to a sigh, and sighing sank and died.
Together at the silence two voices mow-
His, and the clock's, which, loud grown, did divide
The hours into live moments-sparks of time
Scorching the soul that trembles for the chime.

He spoke of sins ancestral, born in him
Impulses; of resistance fierce and wild;
Of failure weak, and strength reviving dim;
Self-hatred, dreariness no love beguiled;
Of storm, and blasting light, and darkness grim;
Of torrent paths, and tombs with mountains piled;
Of gulfs in the unsunned bosom of the earth;
Of dying ever into dawning birth.

'But when I find a heart whose blood is wine;
Whose faith lights up the cold brain's passionless hour;
Whose love, like unborn rose-bud, will not pine,
But waits the sun and the baptizing shower-
Till then lies hid, and gathers odours fine
To greet the human summer, when its flower
Shall blossom in the heart and soul and brain,
And love and passion be one holy twain-

'Then shall I rest, rest like the seven of yore;
Slumber divine will steep my outworn soul
And every stain dissolve to the very core.
She too will slumber, having found her goal.
Time's ocean o'er us will, in silence frore,
Aeonian tides of change-filled seasons roll,
And our long, dark, appointed period fill.
Then shall we wake together, loving still.'

Her face on his, her mouth to his mouth pressed,
Was all the answer of the trusting maid.
Close in his arms he held her to his breast
For one brief moment-would have yet assayed
Some deeper word her heart to strengthen, lest
It should though faithful be too much afraid;
But the clock gave the warning to the hour-
And on the thatch fell sounds not of a shower.

One long kiss, and the maiden rose. A fear
Lay, thin as a glassy shadow, on her heart;
She trembled as some unknown thing were near,
But smiled next moment-for they should not part!
The youth arose. With solemn-joyous cheer,
He helped the maid, whose trembling hands did thwart
Her haste to wrap her in her mantle's fold;
Then out they passed into the midnight cold.

The moon was sinking in the dim green west,
Curled upward, half-way to the horizon's brink,
A leaf of glory falling to its rest,
The maiden's hand, still trembling, sought to link
Her arm to his, with love's instinctive quest,
But his enfolded her; hers did not sink,
But, thus set free, it stole his body round,
And so they walked, in freedom's fetters bound.

Pressed to his side, she felt, like full-toned bell,
A mighty heart heave large in measured play;
But as the floating moon aye lower fell
Its bounding force did, by slow loss, decay.
It throbbed now like a bird; now like far knell
Pulsed low and faint! And now, with sick dismay,
She felt the arm relax that round her clung,
And from her circling arm he forward hung.

His footsteps feeble, short his paces grow;
Her strength and courage mount and swell amain.
He lifted up his head: the moon lay low,
Nigh the world's edge. His lips with some keen pain
Quivered, but with a smile his eyes turned slow
Seeking in hers the balsam for his bane
And finding it-love over death supreme:
Like two sad souls they walked met in one dream.[A]


In a lovely garden walking
Two lovers went hand in hand;
Two wan, worn figures, talking
They sat in the flowery land.

On the cheek they kissed one another,
On the mouth with sweet refrain;
Fast held they each the other,
And were young and well again.

Two little bells rang shrilly-
The dream went with the hour:
She lay in the cloister stilly,
He far in the dungeon-tower!


Hanging his head, behind each came a hound,
Padding with gentle paws upon the road.
Straight silent pines rose here and there around;
A dull stream on the left side hardly flowed;
A black snake through the sluggish waters wound.
Hark, the night raven! see the crawling toad!
She thinks how dark will be the moonless night,
How feeblest ray is yet supernal light.

The moon's last gleam fell on dim glazed eyes,
A body shrunken from its garments' fold:
An aged man whose bent knees could not rise,
He tottered in the maiden's tightening hold.
She shivered, but too slight was the disguise
To hide from love what never yet was old;
She held him fast, with open eyes did pray,
Walked through the fear, and kept the onward way.

Toward a gloomy thicket of tall firs,
Dragging his inch-long steps, he turned aside.
There Silence sleeps; not one green needle stirs.
They enter it. A breeze begins to chide
Among the cones. It swells until it whirs,
Vibrating so each sharp leaf that it sighed:
The grove became a harp of mighty chords,
Wing-smote by unseen creatures wild for words.

But when he turned again, toward the cleft
Of a great rock, as instantly it ceased,
And the tall pines stood sudden, as if reft
Of a strong passion, or from pain released;
Again they wove their straight, dark, motionless weft
Across the moonset-bars; and, west and east,
Cloud-giants rose and marched up cloudy stairs;
And like sad thoughts the bats came unawares.

'Twas a drear chamber for thy bridal night,
O poor, pale, saviour bride! An earthen lamp
With shaking hands he kindled, whose faint light
Mooned out a tiny halo on the damp
That filled the cavern to its unseen height,
Dim glimmering like death-candle in a swamp.
Watching the entrance, each side lies a hound,
With liquid light his red eyes gleaming round.

A heap rose grave-like from the rocky floor
Of moss and leaves, by many a sunny wind
Long tossed and dried-with rich furs covered o'er
Expectant. Up a jealous glory shined
In her possessing heart: he should find more
In her than in those faithless! With sweet mind
She, praying gently, did herself unclothe,
And lay down by him, trusting, and not loath.

Once more a wind came, flapping overhead;
The hounds pricked up their ears, their eyes flashed fire.
The trembling maiden heard a sudden tread-
Dull, yet plain dinted on the windy gyre,
As if long, wet feet o'er smooth pavement sped-
Come fiercely up, as driven by longing dire
To enter; followed sounds of hurried rout:
With bristling hair, the hounds stood looking out.

Then came, half querulous, a whisper old,
Feeble and hollow as if shut in a chest:
'Take my face on your bosom; I am cold.'
She bared her holy bosom's truth-white nest,
And forth her two hands instant went, love-bold,
And took the face, and close against her pressed:
Ah, the dead chill!-Was that the feet again?-
But her great heart kept beating for the twain.

She heard the wind fall, heard the following rain
Swelling the silent waters till their sound
Went wallowing through the night along the plain.
The lamp went out, by the slow darkness drowned.
Must the fair dawn a thousand years refrain?
Like centuries the feeble hours went round.
Eternal night entombed her with decay:
To her live soul she clasped the breathless clay.

The world stood still. Her life sank down so low
That but for wretchedness no life she knew.
A charnel wind moaned out a moaning-
No
;
From the devouring heart of earth it blew.
Fair memories lost all their sunny glow:
Out of the dark the forms of old friends grew
But so transparent blanched with dole and smart
She saw the pale worm lying in each heart.

And, worst of all-Oh death of keep-fled life!
A voice within her woke and cried: In sooth
Vain is all sorrow, hope, and care, and strife!
Love and its beauty, its tenderness and truth
Are shadows bred in hearts too fancy-rife,
Which melt and pass with sure-decaying youth:
Regard them, and they quiver, waver, blot;
Gaze at them fixedly, and they are not.

And all the answer the poor child could make
Was in the tightened clasp of arms and hands.
Hopeless she lay, like one Death would not take
But still kept driving from his empty lands,
Yet hopeless held she out for his dear sake;
The darksome horror grew like drifting sands
Till nought was precious-neither God nor light,
And yet she braved the false, denying night.

So dead was hope, that, when a glimmer weak
Stole through a fissure somewhere in the cave,
Thinning the clotted darkness on his cheek,
She thought her own tired eyes the glimmer gave:
He moved his head; she saw his eyes, love-meek,
And knew that Death was dead and filled the Grave.
Old age, convicted lie, had fled away!
Youth, Youth eternal, in her bosom lay!

With a low cry closer to him she crept
And on his bosom hid a face that glowed:
It was his turn to comfort-he had slept!
Oh earth and sky, oh ever patient God,
She had not yielded, but the truth had kept!
New love, new bliss in weeping overflowed.
I can no farther tell the tale begun;
They are asleep, and waiting for the sun.


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Poem Submitted: Friday, April 9, 2010



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