Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel
The Polish Mother: A Dramatic Monologue - Poem by Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel
She looked a matron from the ancient world
Of Roman grandeur, tall, pale, proud, black-robed.
Strong passion chained, with poignant suffering,
Held down by stern hand, crouched, yet writhed alive
In her fine countenance; whose graven lines,
White hair, death-pallor, and deep caverned eyes,
That lustrous burned with fierce intensity,
All prophesied the death-doom imminent.
She was a Pole of ancient lineage,
Whose son, Count Roman, made a prisoner
In those great hopeless battles, which the race
Fought, for the right to be, with the strong Tzar,
Had been condemned to labour in the mines
Of far Siberia perpetually.
Now she conferred with one, whom suffocation
Of all free thought and speech in Russia made
Wild to wrest freedom by main force, a lady,
Young, fair, fanatical; to whom she told
The story of the wrongs, that wrung consent from her
To violent counsels of conspiracy.
'I could not kneel; my knees were turned to marble;
I could not save my son, my only child!
And yet you know well how I loved him! how
I had waited for him, tended from the birth,
Fed from my own life's fountain; when he ailed,
Bent over, watching wakeful by the bed,
Hearing him breathe, and soothed when he awoke.
Myself I ministered to want and whim;
My being hung on his; my thoughts returned
Thither, however far afield they flew,
Hovered around him, birds about the nest.
Ah! boy beloved, my heart's home was in thee!
Hours of our early love, the balmy moons
By drowsy, lisping seas in warm south,
Were they more dear than later summer evenings,
When, after favourite tale, accompanied
By rippling laughter from my baby boy,
Mother undressed him (nurse had holiday,
Sweet birds were warbling, the young rose was blown)?
We sang our simple songs, dear, you and I,
Until you only crooned them, half in dream,
Then softly glided into slumberland,
Away from mother; but her heart still held you!
Where is he now? In some profounder sleep.
Where is he now? . . . they say I might have saved him.
I was too proud. My God! I might have knelt!
There was one moment only - I could not!
My son, the Count, fought like a patriot Pole
Against our old hereditary foe.
Made captive, Nicholas himself had added,
When signing the imperial decree
Of lifelong death in far Siberian mine,
Whence none emergeth more to social day,
'Thither shall he go manacled, on foot.'
Ha! do you know what that means? 'chained, on foot'?
It means to tramp long winter through to summer,
Athwart interminable steppes, and snow,
To that bleak outcast region beyond hope,
With one coarse convict yoked a bondfellow,
Defiled in body, and defiled in mind,
With him to tramp, to feed, to lie by night,
Subject to every brutal outrage from
Soldiers who love to wreak indignity
Upon one outlawed, of high grade, refined:
And if his strength (but he was weak, and ailing)
Sustained through that dread journey to the goal,
Live burial in the nether deeps of earth,
Toil so repulsive, so interminable,
That men have killed their guard, to win the grace
Or else malignant years, that beat men down,
Each with his own peculiar stroke, combine
Here their slow malice into one supreme
Assault, and turn the young man deaf, blind, grey,
Quench in a year the fading faculties,
Render imbecile ere the very end.
Or men escape in winter weather; then
They may lie down, and faint out in the snow. . . .
And this was he who lay upon my breast,
And drew warm life I stored up there for him -
For whom I would have parted with all mine. . . .
Why, then, I did not save him? why? God knows!
If God there be - but when the tyrant came,
An evil sneer upon his curving lips,
My knees were turned to stone; I could not move -
Kneel to the insolent murderer of my people,
Who now would torture my poor child, in wrath,
Because he paid his country what he owed her -
You know not the conditions the man made,
Indignities designed to break my pride -
To break the pride of Poland - of one born
Illustrious as any emperour.
On such conditions, if I craved for pardon,
(Pardon forsooth! and mercy! and from him!)
He would toss me the freedom of my child,
Contemptuously as you toss bone to dog -
Exemption from his own injustice, his
Inhuman sentence - nay, there is a God!
This man must needs be punished for his life!
These degradations I refused; for honour
Is more than life; more even than one's child.
At last, the Empress, pitying me, arranged
That I should ask an audience of her;
Then he the autocrat would cross the room,
And I upon my knees might crave for grace. . . .
He entered, while we talked; I never moved.
So she, supposing that I knew him not,
Rose, and I rose too; but he slowly passed,
Staring, incarnate Insult, in mine eyes,
The stare of arrogant autocracy,
With sneer that relished our humiliation.
He slowly passed, looked, lingered, and went out.
The Empress seized my two hands, and she cried:
'You have lost your only opportunity!'
Face to face with the murderer of my country,
I was the daughter of Poland, and no mother!
In that brief moment I beheld
Poland, my Mother,
Dishonoured, and dismembered; felt them part
Her frame, yet warm, assigned among three tyrants. . . .
What did I see? I saw in vivid vision
Our green fields bloodied, corpses in the woods
Of fair, brave brothers - felt them beaten to death
By Tartar soldiers, maddening in dungeons
Deprived of day, dank, loathsome, for the love
They bore our common Mother; saw corn, food
Trampled by hooves barbarian, crushed down
Under the mangled bodies of her sons;
The flaming smoke rolled up from ruined homes,
And women sobbing on the unroofed, wrecked hearths -
And not one heart, but multitudes of hearts,
True hearts - lay broken in the mines of hell! . . .
What did I hear? I heard the syllables
We loved to lisp in childhood on loved knees,
Silenced for ever among living men,
Forbidden to be spoken by the children. . . .
Ah! ah! the children! wailing they were dragged,
Dragged from mad mothers' arms, and heaped in waggons,
Jolted along the frozen snows, for nurse
The brutal Cossack, cursing when they cried,
Their mothers following the dwindling carts,
And floundering into snowdrifts; happy they,
If to remain there! while the children's cry
Dwindled to silence; all became so still! . . .
Supreme stroke this of cynic cruelty -
Infants torn from their native land, to learn
Upon an alien soil from mortal foe
Forgetfulness of our parental love,
Indifference to their people's agony,
That so young Polish hearts might ossify
To Russian! trained to arms for their oppressor,
Young Poles made Russian soldiers, and degraded,
Cajoled by demons to abjure themselves. . . .
Seeing and hearing which, how could I kneel
To him, in whom our injury was summed,
And centred; radiated, from a deadly sun?
I could not kneel, not even to save my child. . .
But I am going to Român; all is well;
If not to meet him, then to rest in sleep.
He sleeps, he rests now. Very soon I with him.
Ah! so is best! much better than if Time
Slackened the close clasp of Love's fingers, ere,
Wearying of His mumbling fools, He broke them. . . .
And vengeance only slumbers: work your will
Upon the tyrant! I will help; take gold:
Earth will be cleaner for one stain wiped out.'
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