Algernon Charles Swinburne
The Leper - Poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne
NOTHING is better, I well think,
Than love; the hidden well-water
Is not so delicate to drink:
This was well seen of me and her.
I served her in a royal house;
I served her wine and curious meat.
For will to kiss between her brows,
I had no heart to sleep or eat.
Mere scorn God knows she had of me,
A poor scribe, nowise great or fair,
Who plucked his clerk’s hood back to see
Her curled-up lips and amorous hair.
I vex my head with thinking this.
Yea, though God always hated me,
And hates me now that I can kiss
Her eyes, plait up her hair to see
How she then wore it on the brows,
Yet am I glad to have her dead
Here in this wretched wattled house
Where I can kiss her eyes and head.
Nothing is better, I well know,
Than love; no amber in cold sea
Or gathered berries under snow:
That is well seen of her and me.
Three thoughts I make my pleasure of:
First I take heart and think of this:
That knight’s gold hair she chose to love,
His mouth she had such will to kiss.
Then I remember that sundawn
I brought him by a privy way
Out at her lattice, and thereon
What gracious words she found to say.
(Cold rushes for such little feet—
Both feet could lie into my hand:
A marvel was it of my sweet
Her upright body could so stand).
‘Sweet friend, God give you thank and grace;
Now am I clean and whole of shame,
Nor shall men burn me in the face
For my sweet fault that scandals them.’
I tell you over word by word.
She, sitting edgewise on her bed,
Holding her feet, said thus. The third,
A sweeter thing than these, I said.
God, that makes time and ruins it
And alters not, abiding God,
Changed with disease her body sweet,
The body of love wherein she abode.
Love is more sweet and comelier
Than a dove’s throat strained out to sing.
All they spat out and cursed at her
And cast her forth for a base thing.
They cursed her, seeing how God had wrought
This curse to plague her, a curse of his.
Fools were they surely, seeing not
How sweeter than all sweet she is.
He that had held her by the hair,
With kissing lips blinding her eyes,
Felt her bright bosom, strained and bare,
Sigh under him, with short mad cries.
Out of her throat and sobbing mouth
And body broken up with love,
With sweet hot tears his lips were loth
Her own should taste the savour of,
Yea, he inside whose grasp all night
Her fervent body leapt or lay,
Stained with sharp kisses red and white,
Found her a plague to spurn away.
I hid her in this wattled house,
I served her water and poor bread.
For joy to kiss between her brows
Time upon time I was nigh dead.
Bread failed; we got but well-water
And gathered grass with dropping seed.
I had such joy of kissing her,
I had small care to sleep or feed.
Sometimes when service made me glad
The sharp tears leapt between my lids,
Falling on her, such joy I had
To do the service God forbids.
‘I pray you let me be at peace,
Get hence, make room for me to die.’
She said that: her poor lip would cease,
Put up to mine, and turn to cry.
I said, ‘Bethink yourself how love
Fared in us twain, what either did;
Shall I unclothe my soul thereof?
That I should do this, God forbid.’
Yea, though God hateth us, he know
That hardly in a little thing
Love faileth of the work it does
Till it grow ripe for gathering.
Six months, and now my sweet is dead.
A trouble takes me; I know not
If all were done well, all well said,
No word or tender deed forgot.
Too sweet, for the least part in her,
To have shed life out by fragments; yet,
Could the close mouth catch breath and stir,
I might see something I forget.
Six months, and I still sit and hold
In two cold palms her two cold feet.
Her hair, half grey half ruined gold,
Thrills me and burns me in kissing it.
Love bites and stings me through, to see
Her keen face made of sunken bones.
Her worn-off eyelids madden me,
That were shot through with purple once.
She said, ‘Be good with me, I grow
So tired for shame’s sake, I shall die
If you say nothing:’ even so.
And she is dead now, and shame put by.
Yea, and the scorn she had of me
In the old time, doubtless vexed her then.
I never should have kissed her. See
What fools God’s anger makes of men!
She might have loved me a little too,
Had I been humbler for her sake.
But that new shame could make love new
She saw not—yet her shame did make.
I took too much upon my love,
Having for such mean service done
Her beauty and all the ways thereof,
Her face and all the sweet thereon.
Yea, all this while I tended her,
I know the old love held fast his part:
I know the old scorn waxed heavier,
Mixed with sad wonder, in her heart.
It may be all my love went wrong—
A scribe’s work writ awry and blurred,
Scrawled after the blind evensong—
Spoilt music with no perfect word.
But surely I would fain have done
All things the best I could. Perchance
Because I failed, came short of one,
She kept at heart that other man’s.
I am grown blind with all these things:
It may be now she hath in sight
Some better knowledge; still there clings
The old question. Will not God do right?
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