The Letter L. Poem by Jean Ingelow

The Letter L.

Rating: 2.7


We sat on on grassy slopes that meet
With sudden dip the level strand;
The trees hung overhead—our feet
Were on the sand.

Two silent girls, a thoughtful man,
We sunned ourselves in open light,
And felt such April airs as fan
The Isle of Wight;

And smelt the wall-flower in the crag
Whereon that dainty waft had fed,
Which made the bell-hung cowslip wag
Her delicate head;

And let alighting jackdaws fleet
Adown it open-winged, and pass
Till they could touch with outstretched feet
The warmèd grass.

The happy wave ran up and rang
Like service bells a long way off,
And down a little freshet sprang
From mossy trough,

And splashed into a rain of spray,
And fretted on with daylight's loss,
Because so many blue-bells lay
Leaning across.

Blue martins gossiped in the sun,
And pairs of chattering daws flew by,
And sailing brigs rocked softly on
In company.

Wild cherry boughs above us spread
The whitest shade was ever seen,
And flicker, flicker, came and fled
Sun spots between.

Bees murmured in the milk-white bloom
As babes will sigh for deep content
When their sweet hearts for peace make room,
As given, not lent.

And we saw on: we said no word,
And one was lost in musings rare,
One buoyant as the waft that stirred
Her shining hair.

His eyes were bent upon the sand
Unfathomed deeps within them lay.
A slender rod was in his hand—
A hazel spray.

Her eyes were resting on his face,
As shyly glad, by stealth to glean
Impressions of his manly grace
And guarded mien;

The mouth with steady sweetness set,
And eyes conveying unaware
The distant hint of some regret
That harboured there.

She gazed, and in the tender flush
That made her face like roses blown?
And in the radiance and the hush,
Her thought was shown.

It was a happy thing to sit
So near, nor mar his reverie;
She looked not for a part in it,
So meek was she.

But it was solace for her eyes,
And for her heart, that yearned to him,
To watch apart in loving wise
Those musings dim.

Lost—lost, and gone! The Pelham woods
Were full of doves that cooed at ease;
The orchis filled her purple hoods
For dainty bees.

He heard not; all the delicate air
Was fresh with falling water-spray:
It mattered not—he was not there,
But far away.

Till with the hazel in his hand,
Still drowned in thought, it thus befell;
He drew a letter on the sand—
The letter L.

And looking on it, straight there wrought
A ruddy flush about his brow;
His letter woke him: absent thought
Rushed homeward now.

And half-abashed, his hasty touch
Effaced it with a tell-tale care,
As if his action had been much,
And not his air.

And she? she watched his open palm
Smooth out the letter from the sand,
And rose, with aspect almost calm,
And filled her hand

With cherry bloom, and moved away
To gather wild forget-me-not,
And let her errant footsteps stray
To one sweet spot,

As if she coveted the fair
White lining of the silver-weed,
And cuckoo-pint that shaded there
Empurpled seed.

She had not feared, as I divine,
Because she had not hoped. Alas!
The sorrow of it! for that sign
Came but to pass;

And yet it robbed her of the right
To give, who looked not to receive,
And made her blush in love's despite
That she should grieve.

A shape in white, she turned to gaze;
Her eyes were shaded with her hand,
And half-way up the winding ways
We saw her stand.

Green hollows of the fringèd cliff,
Red rocks that under waters show;
Blue reaches, and a sailing skiff,
Were spread below.

She stood to gaze, perhaps to sigh,
Perhaps to think; but who can tell,
How heavy on her heart must lie
The letter L!


She came anon with quiet grace;
And 'What,' she murmured, 'silent yet!
He answered, ' 'T is a haunted place,
And spell-beset.

'O speak to us, and break the spell!
'The spell is broken,' she replied.
'I crossed the running brook, it fell,
It could not bide.

'And I have brought a budding world,
Of orchis spires and daisies rank,
And ferny plumes but half uncurled,
From yonder bank;

'And I shall weave of them a crown,
And at the well-head launch it free,
That so the brook may float it down,
And out to sea.

'There may it to some English hands
From fairy meadow seem to come;
The fairyest of fairy lands—
The land of home.'

'Weave on,' he said, and as she wove
We told how currents in the deep,
With branches from a lemon grove,
Blue bergs will sweep.

And messages from shipwrecked folk
Will navigate the moon-led main,
And painted boards of splintered oak
Their port regain.

Then floated out by vagrant thought,
My soul beheld on torrid sand
The wasteful water set at nought
Man's skilful hand,

And suck out gold-dust from the box,
And wash it down in weedy whirls,
And split the wine-keg on the rocks,
And lose the pearls.

'Ah! why to that which needs it not,'
Methought, 'should costly things be given?
How much is wasted, wrecked, forgot,
On this side heaven!'

So musing, did mine ears awake
To maiden tones of sweet reserve,
And manly speech that seemed to make
The steady curve

Of lips that uttered it defer
Their guard, and soften for the thought:
She listened, and his talk with her
Was fancy fraught.

'There is not much in liberty'—
With, doubtful pauses he began;
And said to her and said to me,
'There was a man—

'There was a man who dreamed one night
That his dead father came to him;
And said, when fire was low, and light
Was burning dim—

' 'Why vagrant thus, my sometime pride,
Unloved, unloving, wilt thou roam?
Sure home is best!' The son replied,
'I have no home.'

' 'Shall not I speak?' his father said,
'Who early chose a youthful wife,
And worked for her, and with her led
My happy life.

' 'Ay, I will speak, for I was young
As thou art now, when I did hold
The prattling sweetness of thy tongue
Dearer than gold;

' 'And rosy from thy noonday sleep
Would bear thee to admiring kin,
And all thy pretty looks would keep
My heart within.

' 'Then after, 'mid thy young allies—
For thee ambition flushed my brow—
I coveted the schoolboy prize
Far more than thou.

' 'I thought for thee, I thought for all
My gamesome imps that round me grew
The dews of blessing heaviest fall
Where care falls too.

' 'And I that sent my boys away,
In youthful strength to earn their bread,
And died before the hair was grey
Upon my head—

' 'I say to thee, though free from care,
A lonely lot, an aimless life,
The crowning comfort is not there—
Son, take a wife.'

' 'Father beloved,' the son replied,
And failed to gather to his breast,
With arms in darkness searching wide,
The formless guest.

' 'I am but free, as sorrow is,
To dry her tears, to laugh, to talk;
And free, as sick men are, I wis*
To rise and walk.

' 'And free, as poor men are, to buy
If they have nought wherewith to pay;
Nor hope, the debt before they die,
To wipe away.

' 'What 'vails it there are wives to win,
And faithful hearts for those to yearn,
Who find not aught thereto akin
To make return?

' 'Shall he take much who little gives,
And dwells in spirit far away,
When she that in his presence lives,
Doth never stray,

' 'But waking, guideth as beseems
The happy house in order trim,
And tends her babes; and sleeping, dreams
Of them, and him?

O base, O cold,' '—while thus he spake
The dream broke off, the vision fled;
He carried on his speech awake
And sighing said—

' 'I had—ah happy man!—I had
A precious jewel in my breast,
And while I kept it I was glad
At work, at rest!

' 'Call it a heart, and call it strong
As upward stroke of eagle's wing;
Then call it weak, you shall not wrong
The beating thing.

' 'In tangles of the jungle reed,
Whose beats are lit with tiger eyes,
In shipwreck drifting with the weed,
'Neath rainy skies,

' 'Still youthful manhood, fresh and keen,
At danger gazed with awed delight,
As if sea would not drown, I ween,
Nor serpent bite.

'I had—ah happy! but 'tis gone,
The priceless jewel; one came by,
And saw and stood awhile to con
With curious eye,

' 'And wished for it, and faintly smiled
From under lashes black as doom,
With subtle sweetness, tender, mild,
That did illume

' 'The perfect face, and shed on it
A charm, half feeling, half surprise,
And brim with dreams the exquisite
Brown blessèd eyes.

' 'Was it for this, no more but this,
I took and laid it in her hand,
By dimples ruled, to hint submiss,
By frown unmanned?

' 'It was for this—and O farewell
The fearless foot, the present mind,
And steady will to breast the swell
And face the wind!

' 'I gave the jewel from my breast,
She played with it a little while
As I sailed down into the west,
Fed by her smile;

'Then weary of it—far from land,
With sigh as deep as destiny,
She let it drop from her fair hand
Into the sea

' 'And watched it sink; and I—and I,—
What shall I do, for all is vain?
No wave will bring, no gold will buy,
No toil attain;

' 'Nor any diver reach to raise
My jewel from the blue abyss;
Or could they, still I should but praise
Their work amiss.

' 'Thrown, thrown away! But I love yet
The fair, fair hand which did the deed:
That wayward sweetness to forget
Were bitter meed.

' 'No, let it lie, and let the wave
Roll over it for evermore;
Whelmed where the sailor hath his grave—
The sea her store.

' 'My heart, my sometime happy heart!
And O for once let me complain,
I must forego life's better part—
Man's dearer gain.

' 'I worked afar that I might rear
A peaceful home on English soil;
I laboured for the gold and gear—
I loved my toil.

'For ever in my spirit spake
The natural whisper, 'Well 'twill be
When loving wife and children break
Their bread with thee!'

' 'The gathered gold is turned to dross,
The wife hath faded into air,
My heart is thrown away, my loss
I cannot spare.

' 'Not spare unsated thought her food—
No, not one rustle of the fold,
Nor scent of eastern sandalwood,
Nor gleam of gold;

' 'Nor quaint devices of the shawl,
Far less the drooping lashes meek;
The gracious figure, lithe and tall,
The dimpled cheek;

' 'And all the wonders of her eyes,
And sweet caprices of her air,
Albeit, indignant reason cries,
'Fool! have a care.

' 'Fool! join not madness to mistake:
Thou knowest she loved thee not a whit;
Only that she thy heart might break—
She wanted it,

' 'Only the conquered thing to chain
So fast that none might set it free,
Nor other woman there might reign
And comfort thee.

' 'Robbed, robbed of life's illusions sweet;
Love dead outside her closèd door,
And passion fainting at her feet
To wake no more;

' 'What canst then give that unknown bride
Whom thou didst work for in the waste,
Ere fated love was born, and cried—
Was dead, ungraced?

' 'No more but this, the partial care,
The natural kindness for its own,
The trust that waxeth unaware,
As worth is known:

' 'Observance, and complacent thought
Indulgent, and the honour due
That many another man has brought
Who brought love too.

' 'Nay, then, forbid it Heaven!' he said,
'The saintly vision fades from me;
O bands and chains! I cannot wed—
I am not free.' '

With that he raised his face to view;
'What think you,' asking, 'of my tale?
And was he right to let the dew
Of morn exhale,

'And burdened in the noontide sun,
The grateful shade of home forego—
Could he be right—I ask as one
Who fain would know?'

He spoke to her and spoke to me,
The rebel rose-hue dyed her cheek;
The woven crown lay on her knee;
She would not speak.

And I with doubtful pause—averse
To let occasion drift away—
I answered—'If his case were worse
Than word can say,

'Time is a healer of sick hearts,
And women have been known to choose,
With purpose to allay their smarts,
And tend their bruise,

'These for themselves. Content to give,
In their own lavish love complete,
Taking for sole prerogative
Their tendance sweet.

'Such meeting in their diadem
Of crowning love's æthereal fire,
Himself he robs who robbeth them
Of their desire.

'Therefore the man who, dreaming, cried
Against his lot that evensong,
I judge him honest, and decide
That he was wrong.'

'When I am judged, ah may my fate,'
He whispered, 'in thy code be read!
Be thou both judge and advocate.'
Then turned, he said—

'Fair weaver!' touching, while he spoke,
The woven crown, the weaving hand,
'And do you this decree revoke,
Or may it stand?

'This friend, you ever think her right—
She is not wrong, then?' Soft and low
The little trembling word took flight:
She answered, 'No.'

Jean Ingelow

Jean Ingelow

Boston, Lincolnshire
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