The Letter L.-Present - Poem by Jean Ingelow
A meadow where the grass was deep,
Rich, square, and golden to the view,
A belt of elms with level sweep
About it grew.
The sun beat down on it, the line
Of shade was clear beneath the trees;
There, by a clustering eglantine,
We sat at ease.
And O the buttercups! that field
O' the cloth of gold, where pennons swam—
Where France set up his lilied shield,
And Henry's lion-standard rolled:
What was it to their matchless sheen,
Their million million drops of gold
Among the green!
We sat at ease in peaceful trust,
For he had written, 'Let us meet;
My wife grew tired of smoke and dust,
And London heat,
'And I have found a quiet grange,
Set back in meadows sloping west,
And there our little ones can range
And she can rest.
'Come down, that we may show the view,
And she may hear your voice again,
And talk her woman's talk with you
Along the lane.'
Since he had drawn with listless hand
The letter, six long years had fled,
And winds had blown about the sand,
And they were wed.
Two rosy urchins near him played,
Or watched, entranced, the shapely ships
That with his knife for them he made
Of elder slips.
And where the flowers were thickest shed,
Each blossom like a burnished gem,
A creeping baby reared its head,
And cooed at them.
And calm was on the father's face,
And love was in the mother's eyes;
She looked and listened from her place,
In tender wise.
She did not need to raise her voice
That they might hear, she sat so nigh;
Yet we could speak when 't was our choice,
And soft reply.
Holding our quiet talk apart
Of household things; till, all unsealed,
The guarded outworks of the heart
Began to yield;
And much that prudence will not dip
The pen to fix and send away,
Passed safely over from the lip
That summer day.
'I should be happy,' with a look
Towards her husband where he lay,
Lost in the pages of his book,
Soft did she say.
'I am, and yet no lot below
For one whole day eludeth care;
To marriage all the stories flow,
And finish there:
'As if with marriage came the end,
The entrance into settled rest,
The calm to which love's tossings tend,
The quiet breast.
'For me love played the low preludes,
Yet life began but with the ring,
Such infinite solicitudes
Around it cling.
'I did not for my heart divine
Her destiny so meek to grow;
The higher nature matched with mine
Will have it so.
'Still I consider it, and still
Acknowledge it my master made,
Above me by the steadier will
Of nought afraid.
'Above me by the candid speech;
The temperate judgment of its own:
The keener thoughts that grasp and reach
At things unknown.
'But I look up and he looks down,
And thus our married eyes can meet;
Unclouded his, and clear of frown,
And gravely sweet.
'And yet, O good, O wise and true!
I would for all my fealty,
That I could be as much to you
As you to me;
And knew the deep secure content
Of wives who have been hardly won,
And, long petitioned, gave assent,
Jealous of none.
'But proudly sure in all the earth
No other in that homage shares,
Nor other woman's face or worth
Is prized as theirs.'
'I said; ' And yet no lot below
For one whole day eludeth care.
Your thought.' She answered, 'Even so,
I would beware
'Regretful questionings; be sure
That very seldom do they rise,
Nor for myself do I endure—
'For once'—she turned away her head,
Across the grass she swept her hand'—
There was a letter once,' she said,
'Upon the sand.'
'There was, in truth, a letter writ
On sand,' I said, 'and swept from view;
But that same hand which fashioned it
Is given to you.
'Efface the letter; wherefore keep
An image which the sands forego?'
'Albeit that fear had seemed to sleep,'
She answered low,
'I could not choose but wake it now;
For do but turn aside your face,
A house on yonder hilly brow
Your eyes may trace.
'The chestnut shelters it; ah me,
That I should have so faint a heart!
But yestereve, as by the sea
I sat apart,
'I heard a name, I saw a hand
Of passing stranger point that way—
And will he meet her on the strand,
When late we stray?
'For she is come, for she is there,
I heard it in the dusk, and heard
Admiring words, that named her fairs
But little stirred
'By beauty of the wood and wave,
And weary of an old man's sway;
For it was sweeter to enslave
Than to obey.'
—The voice of one that near us stood,
The rustle of a silken fold,
A scent of eastern sandalwood,
A gleam of gold!
A lady! In the narrow space
Between the husband and the wife,
But nearest him—she showed a face
With dangers rife;
A subtle smile that dimpling fled,
As night-black lashes rose and fell:
I looked, and to myself I said,
'The letter L.'
He, too, looked up, and with arrest
Of breath and motion held his gaze,
Nor cared to hide within his breast
His deep amaze;
Nor spoke till on her near advance
His dark cheek flushed a ruddier hue;
And with his change of countenance
Hers altered too.
'Lenore!' his voice was like the cry
Of one entreating; and he said
But that—then paused with such a sigh
As mourns the dead.
And seated near, with no demur
Of bashful doubt she silence broke,
Though I alone could answer her
When first she spoke.
She looked: her eyes were beauty's own;
She shed their sweetness into his;
Nor spared the married wife one moan
That bitterest is.
She spoke, and lo, her loveliness
Methought she damaged with her tongue;
And every sentence made it less,
So false they rung.
The rallying voice, the light demand,
Half flippant, half unsatisfied;
The vanity sincere and bland—
The answers wide.
And now her talk was of the East,
And next her talk was of the sea;
'And has the love for it increased
You shared with me?'
He answered not, but grave and still
With earnest eyes her face perused.
And locked his lips with steady will,
As one that mused—
That mused and wondered. Why his gaze
Should dwell on her, methought, was plain;
But reason that should wonder raise
I sought in vain.
And near and near the children drew,
Attracted by her rich array,
And gems that trembling into view
Like raindrops lay.
He spoke: the wife her baby took
And pressed the little face to hers;
What pain soe'er her bosom shook,
What jealous stirs
Might stab her heart, she hid them so,
The cooing babe a veil supplied;
And if she listened none might know,
Or if she sighed;
Or if forecasting grief and care
Unconscious solace thence she drew,
And lulled her babe, and unaware
Lulled sorrow too.
The lady, she interpreter
For looks or language wanted none,
If yet dominion stayed with her—
So lightly won;
If yet the heart she wounded sore
Could yearn to her, and let her see
The homage that was evermore
If sign would yield that it had bled,
Or rallied from the faithless blow,
Or sick or sullen stooped to wed,
She craved to know.
Now dreamy deep, now sweetly keen,
Her asking eyes would round him shine;
But guarded lips and settled mien
Refused the sign.
And unbeguiled and unbetrayed,
The wonder yet within his breast,
It seemed a watchful part he played
Against her quest.
Until with accent of regret
She touched upon the past once more,
As if she dared him to forget
His dream of yore.
And words of little weight let fall
The fancy of the lower mind;
How waxing life must needs leave all
Its best behind;
How he had said that 'he would fain
(One morning on the halcyon sea)
That life would at a stand remain
'And sails be mirrored in the deep,
As then they were, for evermore,
And happy spirits wake and sleep
Afar from shore:
'The well-contented heart be fed
Ever as then, and all the world
(It were not small) unshadowèd
When sails were furled.
'Your words'—a pause, and quietly
With touch of calm self ridicule:
'It may be so—for then,' said he,
'I was a fool.'
With that he took his book, and left
An awkward silence to my care,
That soon I filled with questions deft
And slid into an easy vein,
The favourite picture of the year;
The grouse upon her lord's domain—
The salmon weir;
Till she could feign a sudden thought
Upon neglected guests, and rise,
And make us her adieux, with nought
In her dark eyes
Acknowledging or shame or pain;
But just unveiling for our view
A little smile of still disdain
As she withdrew.
Then nearer did the sunshine creep,
And warmer came the wafting breeze;
The little babe was fast asleep
On mother's knees.
Fair was the face that o'er it leant,
The cheeks with beauteous blushes dyed;
The downcast lashes, shyly bent,
That failed to hide
Some tender shame. She did not see;
She felt his eyes that would not stir,
She looked upon her babe, and he
So looked at her.
So grave, so wondering, so content,
As one new waked to conscious life,
Whose sudden joy with fear is blent.
He said, 'My wife.'
'My wife, how beautiful you are!'
Then closer at her side reclined,
'The bold brown woman from afar
Comes, to me blind.
'And by comparison, I see
The majesty of matron grace,
And learn how pure, how fair can be
My own wife's face:
'Pure with all faithful passion, fair
With tender smiles that come and go;
And comforting as April air
After the snow.
'Fool that I was! my spirit frets
And marvels at the humbling truth,
That I have deigned to spend regrets
On my bruised youth.
'Its idol mocked thee, seated nigh,
And shamed me for the mad mistake,
I thank my God He could deny,
And she forsake.
'Ah, who am I, that God hath saved
Me from the doom I did desire,
And crossed the lot myself had craved,
To set me higher?
'What have I done that He should bow
From heaven to choose a wife for me?
And what deserved, He should endow
My home with THEE?
'My wife!' With that she turned her face
To kiss the hand about her neck;
And I went down and sought the place
Where leaped the beck—
The busy beck, that still would run
And fall, and falter its refrain;
And pause and shimmer in the sun,
And fall again.
It led me to the sandy shore,
We sang together, it and I—
'The daylight comes, the dark is o'er,
The shadows fly.'
I lost it on the sandy shore,
'O wife!' its latest murmurs fell,
'O wife, be glad, and fear no more
The letter L.'
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