Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
Dramatic Studies (1866)
The Snow Waste
By Augusta Webster (1840–1894)
I SAW one sitting mid a waste of snow
Where never sun looked down nor silvering moon,
But far around the silent skies were grey,
With chill far stars bespeckled here and there,
And a great stillness brooded over all.        5
And nought was there that broke the level plain,
And nothing living was there but himself.
Yet was not he alone, there stood by him
One right, one left, two forms that seemed of flesh,
But blue with the first clutchings of their deaths,        10
Fixed rigid in the death-pang, glassy-eyed,
Turning towards him each a vacant gaze.
And he looked on them blankly, turn by turn,
With gaze as void as theirs. He uttered speech
That was as though his voice spoke of itself        15
And swayed by no part of the life in him,
In an uncadenced chant on one slow chord
Dull undulating surely to and fro.
And thus it ran.
  “Ye dead who comrade me amid this snow        20
  Where through long æons I drag me to and fro,
  I speak again to ye the things I know
  But, knowing, cannot feel, that haply so
  I may relight in me life’s former glow
  And thaw the ice-bound tears in me to flow,        25
  If I might into sentient memory grow
  And waken in me energy of woe.
  “For there is left in me full memory
  Of things that were to me in days gone by,
  And I cannot read them with my inward eye;        30
  But like a book whose fair-writ phrases lie
  All shapely moulded to word-harmony
  But void of meaning in their melody,
  Vague echoes that awaken no reply
  In my laxed mind that knows not what they cry.        35
  “And I can reason duly with my thought,
  And am not lessened of its range in aught,
  Can reckon all the deeds that I have wrought
  And say, ‘Here lurked the canker taint that brought
  The plague whereby thy whole man was distraught,        40
  Here with a grace of good the act was fraught,
  A dew of love here slaked the desert drought,
  Thy sin in truth hath here the vengeance brought.’
  “So can I reckoning keep of woe and weal,
  And mine own self unto myself reveal        45
  In perfect knowledge: but I cannot feel.
  And all the past across my mind will steal
  And leave as little trace as the swift keel
  Upon the lake’s cleft waves that seamless heal:
  Cold memory can with the old things but deal        50
  As with the creatures of some show unreal.
  “I know that I was bent beneath the weight
  Of wearing sorrow, or grew wroth with fate,
  Or was with triumphing and joy elate,
  Or bore towards another love or hate,        55
  And ask, ‘What were these that had power so great,
  These senses in me in my former state?’
  And mouth their names out in my hollow prate
  To rouse with them my heart inanimate.
  “Because I know if I one pang could make        60
  Of sorrow in me, if my heart could ache
  One moment for the memories I spake,
  The spell that is upon me now might break,
  And I might with a sudden anguish shake
  The numbness from it and perceive it wake,        65
  And these be no more bound here for my sake
  But slumber calmly in their silent lake.
  “Then I like other men might pass away,
  And cold could no more gnaw me when I lay
  Amid these snows a painless heap of clay,        70
  And, though the sharp-tongued frosts my skin should flay,
  I should not feel, no chills on me could prey
  And gnaw their teeth into my bones for aye
  As now in my long doom that will not slay:
  I should know no dull torture in decay.        75
  “Ye dead who follow me, I think that ye,
  If ye have any being save in me,
  Must have much longing that such end should be
  To my long wandering, that ye may flee
  To the deep grave I gave ye and be free        80
  From bondage here, and in death quiet be,
  If ye can know and loathe the bitter lee
  Ye drink from my dregged cup by That decree.
  “Yet hear, if ye can hear, if ye have might,
  Ye dead, to wake my heart from its strange night,        85
  Hear now and waken it while I recite
  That which hath brought on it this icy blight,
  So I may come to mean my words aright
  And not, as now, like some dull purblind wight
  Prating by rote of shadow and of light,        90
  Or like an idiot echoing wisdoms trite.
  “What love is now I know not; but I know
  I once loved much, and then there was no snow.
  A woman was with me whose voice was low
  With trembling sweetness in my ears, as though        95
  Some part of her on me she did bestow
  In only speaking, that made new life flow
  Quick through me: yet remembering cannot throw
  That spell upon me now from long ago.
  “I only know it was forgetting how,        100
  Nor can remind me why my soul should bow
  Before her beauty, nor can gather now
  What charm her nobleness of eye and brow
  Hath with such queenship o’er me to endow;
  My memory can keep count of look and vow        105
  But nothing of their spirit re-allow.
  I know, dead woman, that my love art thou.
  “I look on thee and him with equal mind.
  I know him too: some years my heart was twined
  In love round his. He was of noble kind,        110
  He had no rival, leaving all behind;
  Me too he passed, and then my love declined.
  But when I knew him first the boy would wind
  His younger arms round me, and I would find
  Pride in his triumphs next to mine assigned.        115
  “He grew in strength and in all daring fast
  Until, as if a sudden chill north blast
  Had found me sleeping in the sun, aghast
  I woke and knew my glory overcast.
  No feat or skill in which I all had passed        120
  But he passed me. My triumphs had been glassed
  In eyes of all the fairest and I classed
  First and alone; now I to him was last.
  “In all ways last: he was more deft, more gay,
  More comely, apter in the minstrel lay;        125
  The brightness of my life had passed away:
  I heard his praises echoed day by day:
  And she, from whom no thought of mine could stray,
  Set all her pride on him: I heard her say
  Amid the maidens, ‘None, seek where ye may,        130
  Will match my brother till his hair is grey.’
  “When she was wed to me I sought in vain
  By hid degrees her love from him to gain;
  It only seemed to move in her such pain
  That need was on my hatred to refrain        135
  From open showing of its bitter strain,
  Albeit if thought could slay he had been slain,
  He nothing doubting. So did all remain
  Until the corn was yellow on the plain.
  “And even mother earth had loved him more        140
  Than me; his wide sun-flooded meadows bore
  A golden host that numbered mine thrice o’er;
  His vines a richer bloom of promise wore;
  The very river turned it from my shore
  That, plenty bringing, it had marged of yore,        145
  To make his pastures richer. Wroth and sore
  My heart grew in me, burning at its core.
  “Before our door, beneath the palm-tree wide,
  One eve I sat alone with my young bride,
  For he, who mostly then was by our side,        150
  Some days had gone beyond the lake’s far tide
  Where the great city basked her in her pride,
  And, thinking of him, she was absent-eyed,
  And ever in our dearest talk she sighed
  ‘Great God and Light my brother’s journey guide.’        155
  “Because a pilgrim had passed by that day
  And told us that the golden city lay
  Beneath a ghastly plague’s devouring sway,
  The living could not hide their dead away,
  They writhed in human heaps of foul decay,        160
  The glutted vultures lingered o’er their prey
  Along the marts, poor fools with minds astray
  Howled blasphemies or leaped in ghastly play.
  “And loathsome taint, he said, lurked in the air
  For miles around, and whoso harboured there        165
  Must look no more to life, unless he were
  Even to miracle the Heaven’s care.
  So, while we watched the red lake’s sunset glare,
  I only joyed that he might in that snare
  Be caught and die; but she could only spare        170
  Half thoughts for me, and sighed for him some prayer.
  “I knew that there was gladness in my eyes,
  But hers were clouded with sad reveries:
  I spoke to her of our fair destinies,
  She told her fears for him in low replies:        175
  ‘Yes love him still, still me for him despise,’
  I cried, ‘What wife have I unless he dies?
  Would that he might.’ In startled sad surprise
  She answered, weeping out a voice of sighs.”
But a clear solemn voice rose over his,        180
“Thou speak it.” And I saw a lucent form,
As if a spirit making to itself
A pure white brightness, drooping over him
Towards that shape of a dead woman, cry:
“Thou, speak it, if so any ghost of love        185
Might yearn in him towards thee.” Her dead lips
Moved not, nor moaned with any breath of words,
Nor passed there any stir across her face,
But a sweet plaining voice came out from her,
A voice as of one weeping at the heart.        190
“Do I not love thee first and most, my own?
And art thou bitter that my heart has room
For him, my brother? Dost thou chide the sun,
Our light of life and soul, that he will shine
His brightest on him even as on thee?        195
Wilt thou chide love that is our second light
Because it shines upon him from my heart
Only a little less than upon thee?”
Sadly the voice died off. He, vacantly,
As though he knew her not, met her dead eyes,        200
Then with his old unpassioned utterance spoke.
  “These were her words and thus did her voice sigh;
  Mine hurried from me in a fierce reply
  That burst from out my lips with sudden cry,
  As though itself had willed to speak, not I,        205
  My secret thought: I wished all love might die
  If else he in her love must press me nigh:
  Since he must bless my foe, the sun on high
  Might dwindle into darkness utterly.”
There cried a voice, “Speak thou his very words        210
That he may hear them spoken as he spoke,
Hear his words, laden with his hateful doom,
In thy voice that he hated: so some ghost
Of passion might awaken in his soul.
Speak thou the words.” And I saw stand by him        215
A form of darkness, like a tempest-cloud,
Waving towards that shape of a dead man
That he should speak. And a voice came from that dead
As from the woman, moving not the lips
Not waking any life in the glazed eyes,        220
“Thus didst thou say, ‘Rather might all love die
Out from the earth for ever than warm him!
Rather might all love perish from my life
Than have him wound into thy love with me!
And I do hate the sun though he be God.        225
What love or thanking need I to this God,
Since he but makes me one amid the all?
I curse him. Would that all his vaunted light
Were utter darkness, rather than that he
Alike with me should shine on him I hate!’”        230
  So the voice ceased in tempest. But he looked
One moment on that corpse’s livid face
With a dull dreamy loathing in his eyes,
And in the moment they were cold again
With the old quiet nothingness of gaze,        235
And he spoke on again in shadeless rhythm.
  “These were the words wherein I did invoke
  Thy doom upon me, naming every stroke
  Of this long vengeance. It was his voice spoke
  Thy words again. If for the moment woke        240
  An impulse in my breast to burst its yoke
  And leap out through the clogging frosts that choke
  Its well-springs, it but seemed as if they broke;
  Still do those frosts my stagnant life-blood cloke.”
Then the dark shadow cried, “Lo I have failed,        245
I cannot wake him even by his hate;
He is not given me but bears such doom
As was awarded him by his own words.”
And the fair brightness cried, “And I have failed
And he, alas! is left to his dread doom.”        250
And both passed out from him; who still spoke on.
  “And while my words yet on the echoes played,
  The clouds that singly through the blueness strayed,
  Hurled into one a sudden darkness made;
  A shrilling whirlwind all the palm-tops swayed,        255
  Then stillness. Horror on our spirits weighed,
  And I stood awe-struck, while she knelt and prayed.
  Then through the dark we heard, and were afraid,
  A slow voice speak the doom upon me laid.”
Called then a voice that was as though it dropped        260
From the far stars and rose from the deep snows,
And was in all and over all at once:
“Here once again: this was the doom pronounced:
‘Because thou hast cursed love which is a life
And is God’s greatest gift to souls on earth,        265
All love shall die from thee; thou shalt not know it
Even in thought. And, since thou hast blasphemed
That which is God to thee, and cursed the day,
Thou shalt have lost all part in day. And know
That herein lies a curse more than thy mind        270
Can fathom yet. Yet this of hope is given,
Thou hast until to-morrow’s sun be sunk
For penitence: so may this less doom be,
To live thy life alone in heart and blind
But yet to die at last as all men die.’”        275
He listened calmly, and again spoke on.
  “One came at noon and told that he to flee
  The plague had turned him homewards and would be
  Once more with us before the great lake sea
  Was flushed to the red evening skies. Then she,        280
  I saw it, in her joy lost thought of me
  And could forget a moment That decree.
  I went, unwatched to set my passion free;
  Perhaps, I thought, unwatched my weird to dree.
  “I turned me home at noon. The house seemed lone,        285
  No greeting voice made answer to my own,
  But through the hush I heard a frequent moan.
  I traced it where I found her anguish-prone,
  Her writhing length athwart the cushions thrown,
  So left to die, for all in dread had flown:        290
  The black plague-roses on her cheek had blown,
  I knew my weird’s first working on her shown.
  “I did not fear the plague, who inly knew
  The doom that had been meted out my due
  Must fence me from it though all else it slew:        295
  I held her till the death-films came to glue
  Her swollen lids apart: my cold hand drew
  Them o’er her faded eye’s dull gazing blue:
  I still watched by her while the first plague hue
  Upon the corpse’s face a blackness grew.        300
  “It was at the first evening hour she died;
  And I, so waiting by my dead one’s side,
  Thought angrily of him who homewards hied,
  And joyed that now at least the linkings tied
  Between us since his sister was my bride,        305
  Now she was dead were snapt asunder wide.
  At length I heard his voice without that cried,
  And I went forth and smilingly replied.
  “I said, ‘Go in, thy sister was distressed,
  Long waiting for thee, and I bade her rest:        310
  I think e’en now her eyes are slumber-pressed:
  But thou, go clasp the sleeper to thy breast,
  Let her be wakened by her looked-for guest
  She said not seeing thee she slept unblest,
  And named thee last half-dreaming; do her hest,        315
  Obey the call; ’twill be a goodly jest.
  “I led him to her softly: his fresh eye
  Could only glimmering outline yet descry,
  He saw her silent in the dimness lie,
  And breathed, ‘Yes she is sleeping,’ then drew nigh.        320
  And then I fled, and, that he should not fly,
  I fenced the door. And then I watched the sky
  That I might count how well the time went by,
  And thought, ‘He surely will go mad or die.’
  “Two hours, then near an hour, passed onward slow,        325
  The high east clouds were losing their last glow,
  So late it grew, when I returned to know
  If any evil came upon my foe.
  I only heard a gasping thick and low,
  I raised my torch his darkening face to show;        330
  He lay, plague smitten, in the passing throe.
  I mocked him, watching ‘Is the jest but so?’
  “He lay beside her, and I could not bear,
  Through my great hatred, that he should rest there:
  Ere yet the life had passed I sought to tear        335
  His arms from her. But suddenly from where
  The sun was sleeping, rose an awful glare
  That reddened on us. When it ceased to flare
  Its fiery anger I had lost all care
  Of love or hatred, and I left the pair.        340
  “But, when I was made strong with food and wine,
  I called to mind that need was to consign
  The darkening mass to fitter couch than mine,
  And could not choose but his close grasp untwine,
  That I might drag each where the mountain’s spine        345
  Broke sudden lakewards in one high rigged line.
  I hurled them downwards. From the steep incline
  I watched the startled ripples whirl and dwine.
  “And I was calmer than the lake; no throe
  Had stirred in me, no eddying of woe;        350
  And when once more it lay unmoved below
  I went in peace my tired limbs to bestow
  On any freed couch, alone but pangless so,
  And slept such quiet sleep as children know.
  But I awakened in this waste of snow        355
  Where evermore gnawed by quick cold I go.”
He ceased, and looked long with alternate gaze
On the dead faces that were fixed on him,
And seeking in some change in them to read
His change, if any change might grow to him.        360
But they and he looked still one rigid void.
And nothing stirred along the boundless snows,
And nothing broke the wide unbreathing calm.
He rose, and moved with slow and even pace:
And those strange dead were borne along with him,        365
As though they were himself. So they passed on.
And far away along the dreadful waste
I heard the droning murmur of his words
But knew not what they bore. And when they died
In distance all things slept in one great hush,        370
The plain of snow and the unchanging sky.

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