Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
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Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
 
Portraits (1870)
I. Tired (A Selection)
By Augusta Webster (1840–1894)
 
NO, not to-night, dear child; I cannot go;
I’m busy, tired; they knew I should not come;
you do not need me there. Dear, be content,
and take your pleasure; you shall tell me of it.
There, go to don your miracles of gauze,        5
and come and show yourself a great pink cloud.
 
  So, she has gone with half a discontent;
but it will die before her curls are shaped,
and she’ll go forth intent on being pleased,
and take her ponderous pastime like the rest—        10
patient delightedly, prepared to talk
in the right voice for the right length of time
on any thing that anybody names,
prepared to listen with the proper calm
to any song that anybody sings;        15
wedged in their chairs, all soberness and smiles,
one steady sunshine like an August day:
a band of very placid revellers,
glad to be there but gladder still to go.
She like the rest: it seems so strange to me,        20
my simple peasant girl, my nature’s grace,
one with the others; my wood violet
stuck in a formal rose box at a show.
 
  Well, since it makes her happier. True I thought
the artless girl, come from her cottage home        25
knowing no world beyond her village streets,
come stranger into our elaborate life
with such a blithe and wondering ignorance
as a young child’s who sees new things all day,
would learn it my way and would turn to me        30
out of the solemn follies “What are these?
why must we live by drill and laugh by drill;
may we not be ourselves then, you and I?”
I thought she would have nestled here by me
“I cannot feign, and let me stay with you.”        35
I thought she would have shed about my life
the unalloyed sweet freshness of the fields
pure from your cloying fashionable musks:
but she “will do what other ladies do”—
my sunburnt Madge I saw, with skirts pinned up,        40
carrying her father’s dinner where he sat
to take his noon-day rest beneath the hedge,
and followed slowly for her clear loud song.
 
  And she did then, she says, as others did
who were her like. ’Tis logical enough:        45
as every woman lives, (tush! as we all,
following such granted patterns for our souls
as for our hats and coats), she lived by rules
how to be as her neighbours, though I, trained
to my own different code, discerned it not        50
(mistaking other laws for lawlessness,
like raw and hasty travellers): and now
why should she, in a new world, all unapt
to judge its judgments, take so much on her
she did not in her old world, pick and choose        55
her pleasures and her tastes, her aims, her faiths,
breaking her smooth path with the thorny points
of upstart questions? She is just a bird
born in a wicker cage and brought away
into a gilded one: she does not pine        60
to make her nest in uncontrolled far woods,
but, unconceiving freedom, chirrups on,
content to see her prison bars so bright.
 
  Yes, best for her; and, if not best for me,
I’ve my fault in it too: she’s logical,        65
but what am I, who, having chosen her
for being all unlike the tutored type,
next try and mould her to it—chose indeed
my violet for being not a rose,
then bade it hold itself as roses do,        70
that passers by may note no difference?
The peasant ways must go, the homely burr,
the quaint strong English—ancient classic turns
mixed up with rustic blunders and misuse,
old grammar shot with daring grammarlessness;        75
the village belle’s quick pertness, toss of head,
and shriek of saucy laughter—graces there,
and which a certain reckless gracefulness,
half hoydenish, half fawnlike, made in her
graces in even my eyes … there; the ease        80
of quick companionship; the unsoftened “no’s;”
the ready quarrels, ready makings up;
all these must go, I would not have her mocked
among the other women who have learned
sweet level speech and quiet courtesies—        85
and then they jarred upon me like the noise
of music out of rule, which, heard at first,
took the fresh ear with novel melody,
but makes you restless, listened to too long,
with missing looked for rhythms. So I teach,        90
or let her learn, the way to speak, to look,
to walk, to sit, to dance, to sing, to laugh,
and then … the prized dissimilarity
was outer husk and not essential core:
my wife is just the wife my any friend        95
selects among my any friend’s good girls,
(a duplicate except that here and there
the rendering’s faulty or touched in too strong);
my little rugged bit of gold I mined,
cleared from its quartz and dross and pieced for use        100
with recognized alloy, is minted down
one of a million stamped and current coins.
 
  My poor dear Madge, it half seems treasonous
to let regret touch any thought of you,
loyal and loving to me as you are;        105
and you are very very dear to me,
I could not spare you, would not change your love
to have the rich ideal of my hope
in any other woman; as you are
I love you, being you. And for the rest,        110
if I, my theory’s too eager fool,
mistook the freedom of blunt ignorance
for one with freedom of the instructed will,
and took yours for a nature made to keep
its hardiness in culture, gaining strength        115
to be itself more fully; if I looked
for some rare perfectness of natural gifts,
developing not changed, pruned and not dwarfed
if I believed you would be that to me
so many men have sung by women’s names        120
and known no woman for, where is your fault,
who did but give yourself as you were then,
and with so true a giving? Violet,
whose is the blame if, rooted from your place,
where you grew truly to your natural law,        125
set by my hand in artificial soil,
bound to unwonted props, whose blame if you
are not quite violet and not quite rose?
 
  She’s happy though, I think: she does not bear
the pain of my mistake, and shall not bear;        130
and she’ll not ever guess of a mistake.
 
  Mistake—’tis a hard word. Well let it pass:
it shall not wrong her: for was it in her
or in myself I was mistaken most?
What, I, who have been bold to hurl revolt        135
at great Queen Bugaboo Society,
did I not teach her suit and service first,
wincing when she infringed some useless law?
do I not wince to-day beside the fire
at every word or gesture she shall use        140
not scheduled in the warrant what to do?
do I not bid her have the table thus,
assort such viands, use such furniture,
wear such a stuff at morning, such at night,
all to the warrant of Queen Bugaboo,        145
and feel a something missing when she fails,
a discord setting all my teeth on edge?
Why, what a score of small observances,
mere fashionable tricks, are to my life
the butter on the bread, without which salve        150
the bit’s too coarse to swallow; what a score
of other small observances and tricks,
worn out of fashion or not yet come in,
reek worse than garlic to my pampered taste,
making the wholesomest food too difficult!        155
And that which in an ancient yesterday
was but some great man’s humour is to me
duty by rote to-day. I had not felt
my own life that punctilious copy-book,
writ to stock patterns set to all a school,        160
I have called usual lives, but my poor Madge
has unawares informed me of myself.
*        *        *        *        *
                    Oh, I am tired!
tired, tired, of this bland smiling slavery,
monotonous waste of life. And, while we fools
are making curtsies and brave compliments        165
to our rare century, and, courtierly,
swaddling our strength in trammels of soft silk,
the rotten depths grow rottener. Every day
more crime, more pain, more horror. We are good
no doubt, we “better classes”—oh, we boast        170
our modern virtues in the dead men’s teeth
that were our fathers—we are earnest now,
and charitable, and we wash ourselves,
and have a very fair morality;
most well brought up, in fine, of any men        175
that any age has nurtured, and besides
so equal in our manners and our coats:
and then the classes which, though bettering,
are not quite better yet, are the most shrewd,
most apt, most honest, most intelligent,        180
that ever the world saw yet. True all of it
for aught I know, some of it as I think,
but underneath—great God, how many souls
are born an hour as provender for hell!
*        *        *        *        *
  Tired, tired—grown sick of battle and defeat,        185
lying in harbour, like a man worn out
by storms, and yet not patient of my rest:
how if I went to some kind southern clime
where, as they say, lost in long summer dreams,
the mind grows careless with sun-drunkenness        190
and sleeps and wakens softly like a child?
Would Madge be over sorry to come out
into free loneliness with me a while?
clear tints and sunshine, glowing seas and skies,
beauty of mountains and of girdled plains,        195
the strangeness of new peoples, change and rest,
would these atone to her for so much lost
which she counts precious? For she loves that round
of treadmill ceremonies, mimic tasks,
we make our women’s lives—Good heavens what work        200
to set the creatures to, whom we declare
God purposed for companions to us men …
companions to each other only now,
their business but to waste each other’s time.
So much to do among us, and we spend        205
so many human souls on only this!
in petty actress parts in the long game
(grave foolery like children playing school,
setting themselves hard tasks and punishments,)
that lasts till death and is Society:        210
the sunlight working hours all chopped and chipped
in stray ten minutes by some score of friends
who, grieved their friend’s not out, come rustling in
by ones and twos to say the weather’s fine;
or paid away, poor soul, on pilgrimage        215
reciprocally due to tell them so:
each woman owing tax of half her life
as plaything for the others’ careless hours,
each woman setting down her foot to hold
her sister tightly to the tethered round,        220
will she or nill she: all with rights on each
greater than hers … and I might say than God’s,
since He made work the natural food of minds,
cheated of which they dwindle and go dead
like palsied limbs, and gives to each that sense        225
of beasts, who know their food, to know its work,
choosing the great or little.

                        But myself,
have I befooled the instinct by warped use?
for is not the fruit rotten I have found
in all my labours; nothing to the world        230
and to me bitterness? And I forget
the strong joy of endeavour, and the fire
of hope is burned out in me; all grows dull
rest is not rest and I am sick of toil:
I count the cost, and—

                    Ready, love, at last?
        235
Why, what a rosy June! A flush of bloom
sparkling with crystal dews—Ah silly one,
you love these muslin roses better far
than those that wear the natural dew of heaven.
I thought you prettier when, the other day,        240
the children crowned you with the meadow-sweets:
I like to hear you teach them wild flowers’ names
and make them love them; but yourself—

                            What’s that?
“The wild flowers in a room’s hot stifling glare
would die in half a minute.” True enough:        245
your muslin roses are the wiser wear.
Well, I must see you start. Draw your hood close:
and are you shawled against this east wind’s chills?
 
 
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