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.
 
The Ascent of Man (1889) (Part III)
The Leading of Sorrow
By Mathilde Blind (1841–1896)
 
                        “Our spirits have climbed high
By reason of the passion of our grief,—
And from the top of sense, looked over sense
To the significance and heart of things
Rather than things themselves.”
E. B. BROWNING.    

THROUGH a twilight land, a moaning region,
  Thick with sighs that shook the trembling air
Land of shadows whose dim crew was legion,
  Lost I hurried, hunted by despair.
Quailed my heart like an expiring splendour,        5
  Fitful flicker of a faltering fire,
Smitten chords which tempest-stricken render
  Rhythms of anguish from a breaking lyre.
 
Love had left me in a land of shadows,
  Lonely on the ruins of delight,        10
And I grieved with tearless grief of widows,
  Moaned as orphans homeless in the night.
Love had left me knocking at Death’s portal—
  Shone his star and vanished from my sky—
And I cried: “Since Love, even Love, is mortal        15
  Take, unmake, and break me; let me die.”
 
Then, the twilight’s grisly veils dividing,
  Phantom-like there stole one o’er the plain,
Wavering mists for ever round it gliding
  Hid the face I strove to scan in vain.        20
Spake the veiled one: “Solitary weeper,
  ’Mid the myriad mourners thou’rt but one:
Come, and thou shalt see the awful reaper,
  Evil, reaping all beneath the sun.”
 
On my hand the clay-cold hand did fasten        25
  As it murmured—“Up and follow me;
O’er the thickly peopled earth we’ll hasten,
  Yet more thickly packed with misery.”
And I followed: ever in the shadow
  Of that looming form I fared along;        30
Now o’er mountains, now through wood and meadow,
  Or through cities with their surging throng.
 
With none other for a friend or fellow
  Those relentless footsteps were my guide
To the sea-caves echoing with the hollow        35
  Immemorial moaning of the tide.
Laughed the sunlight on the living ocean,
  Danced and rocked itself upon the spray,
And its shivered beams in twinkling motion
  Gleamed like star-motes in the Milky Way.        40
 
Lo, beneath those waters surging, flowing,
  I beheld the Deep’s fantastic bowers;
Shapes which seemed alive and yet were growing
  On their stalks like animated flowers.
Sentient flowers which seemed to glow and glimmer        45
  Soft as ocean blush of Indian shells,
White as foam-drift in the moony, shimmer
  Of those sea-lit, wave-pavilioned dells.
 
Yet even here, as in the fire-eyed panther,
  In disguise the eternal hunger lay,        50
For each feathery, velvet-tufted anther
  Lay in ambush waiting for its prey.
Tiniest jewelled fish that flashed like lightning,
  Blindly drawn, came darting through the wave,
When, a stifling sack above them tightening,        55
  Closed the ocean-blossom’s living grave.
 
Now we fared through forest glooms primeval
  Through whose leaves the light but rarely shone,
Where the buttressed tree-trunks looked coeval
  With the time-worn, ocean-fretted stone;        60
Where, from stem to stem their tendrils looping,
  Coiled the lithe lianas fold on fold,
Or, in cataracts of verdure drooping,
  From on high their billowy leafage rolled.
 
Where beneath the dusky woodland cover,        65
  While the noon-hush holds all living things,
Butterflies of tropic splendour hover
  In a maze of rainbow-coloured wings:
Some like stars light up their own green heaven,
  Some are spangled like a golden toy,        70
Or like flowers from their foliage driven
  In the fiery ecstasy of joy.
 
But, the forest slumber rudely breaking,
  Through the silence rings a piercing yell;
At the cry unnumbered beasts, awaking,        75
  With their howls the loud confusion swell.
’Tis the cry of some frail creature panting
  In the tiger’s lacerating grip;
In its flesh carnivorous teeth implanting,
  While the blood smokes round his wrinkled lip.        80
 
’Tis the scream some bird in terror utters,
  With its wings weighed down by leaned fears,
As from bough to downward bough it flutters
  Where the snake its glistening crest uprears:
Eyes of sluggish greed through rank weeds stealing,        85
  Breath whose venomous fumes mount through the air,
Till benumbed the helpless victim, reeling,
  Drops convulsed into the reptile snare.
 
Now we fared o’er sweltering wastes whose steaming
  Clouds of tawny sand the wanderer blind.        90
Herds of horses with their long manes streaming
  Snorted thirstily against the wind;
O’er the waste they scoured in shadowy numbers,
  Gasped for springs their raging thirst to cool,
And, like sick men mocked in fevered slumbers,        95
  Stoop to drink—and find a phantom pool.
 
What of antelopes crunched by the leopard?
  What if hounds run down the timid hare?
What though sheep, strayed from the faithful shepherd,
  Perish helpless in the lion’s lair?        100
The all-seeing sun shines on unheeding,
  In the night shines the unruffled moon,
Though on earth brute myriads, preying, bleeding,
  Put creation harshly out of tune.
 
Cried I, turning to the shrouded figure—        105
  “Oh, in mercy veil this cruel strife!
Sanguinary orgies which disfigure
  The green ways of labyrinthine life.
From the needs and greeds of primal passion,
  From the serpent’s track and lion’s den,        110
To the world our human hands did fashion,
  Lead me to the kindly haunts of men.”
 
And through fields of corn we passed together,
  Orange golden in the brooding heat,
Where brown reapers in the harvest weather        115
  Cut ripe swathes of downward rustling wheat.
In the orchards dangling red and yellow,
  Clustered fruit weighed down the bending sprays;
On a hundred hills the vines grew mellow
  In the warmth of fostering autumn days.        120
 
Through the air the shrilly twittering swallows
  Flashed their nimble shadows on the leas;
Red-flecked cows were glassed in golden shallows,
  Purple clover hummed with restless bees.
Herdsmen drove the cattle from the mountain,        125
  To the fold the shepherd drove his flocks,
Village girls drew water from the fountain,
  Village yokels piled the full-eared shocks.
 
From the white town dozing in the valley,
  Round its vast Cathedral’s solemn shade,        130
Citizens strolled down the walnut alley
  Where youth courted and glad childhood played.
“Peace on earth,” I murmured; “let us linger—
  Here the wage of life seems good at least:”
As I spake the veiled One raised a finger        135
  Where the moon broke flowering in the east.
 
Faintly muttering from deep mountain ranges,
  Muffled sounds rose hoarsely on the night,
As the crash of foundering avalanches
  Wakes hoarse echoes in each Alpine height.        140
Near and nearer sounds the roaring—thunder,
  Mortal thunder, crashes through the vale;
Lightning flash of muskets breaks from under
  Groves once haunted by the nightingale.
 
Men clutch madly at each weapon—women,        145
  Children crouch in cellars, under roofs,
For the town is circled by their foemen—
  Shakes the ground with clang of trampling hoofs.
Shot on shot the volleys hiss and rattle,
  Shrilly whistling fly the murderous balls,        150
Fiercely roars the tumult of the battle
  Round the hard-contested, dear-bought walls.
 
Horror, horror! The fair town is burning,
  Flames burst forth, wild sparks and ashes fly;
With her children’s blood the green earth’s turning        155
  Blood-red—blood-red, too, the cloud-winged sky.
Crackling flare the streets: from the lone steeple
  The great clock booms forth its ancient chime,
And its dolorous quarters warn the people
  Of the conquering troops that march with time.        160
 
Fallen lies the fair old town, its houses
  Charred and ruined gape in smoking heaps;
Here with shouts a ruffian band carouses,
  There an outraged woman vainly weeps.
In the fields where the ripe corn lies mangled,        165
  Where the wounded groan beneath the dead,
Friend and foe, now helplessly entangled,
  Stain red poppies with a guiltier red.
 
There the dog howls o’er his perished master,
  There the crow comes circling from afar;        170
All vile things that batten on disaster
  Follow feasting in the wake of war.
Famine follows—what they ploughed and planted
  The unhappy peasants shall not reap;
Sickening of strange meats and fever haunted,        175
  To their graves they prematurely creep.
 
“Hence”—I cried in unavailing pity—
  “Let us flee these scenes of monstrous strife,
Seek the pale of some imperial city
  Where the law rules starlike o’er man’s life.”        180
Straightway floating o’er blue sea and river,
  We were plunged into a roaring cloud,
Wherethrough lamps in ague fits did shiver
  O’er the surging multitudinous crowd.
 
Piles of stone, their cliff-like walls uprearing,        185
  Flashed in luminous lines along the night;
Jets of flame, spasmodically flaring,
  Splashed black pavements with a sickly light;
Fabulous gems shone here, and glowing coral,
  Shimmering stuffs from many an Eastern loom,        190
And vast piles of tropic fruits and floral
  Marvels seemed to mock November’s gloom.
 
But what prowls near princely mart and dwelling,
  Whence through many a thundering thoroughfare
Rich folk roll on cushions softly swelling        195
  To the week-day feast and Sunday prayer?
Yea, who prowl there, hunger-nipped and pallid,
  Breathing nightmares limned upon the gloom?
’Tis but human rubbish, gaunt and squalid,
  Whom their country spurns for lack of room.        200
 
In their devious track we mutely follow,
  Mutely climb dim flights of oozy stairs,
Where through gap-toothed, mizzling roof the yellow
  Pestilent fog blends with the fetid air.
Through the unhinged door’s discordant slamming        205
  Ring the gruesome sounds of savage strife—
Howls of babes, the drunken father’s damning,
  Counter-cursing of the shrill-tongued wife.
 
Children feebly crying on their mother
  In a wailful chorus—“Give us food!”        210
Man and woman glaring at each other
  Like two gaunt wolves with a famished brood.
Till he snatched a stick, and, madly staring,
  Struck her blow and blow upon the head;
And she, reeling back, gasped, hardly caring—        215
  “Ah, you’ve done it now, Jim”—and was dead.
 
Dead—dead—dead—the miserable creature—
  Never to feel hunger’s cruel fang
Wring the bowels of rebellious nature
  That her infants might be spared the pang.        220
“Dead! Good luck to her!” The man’s teeth chattered,
  Stone-still stared he with blank eyes and hard,
Then, his frame with one big sob nigh shattered,
  Fled—and cut his throat down in the yard.
 
Dark the night—the children wail forsaken,        225
  Crane their wrinkled necks and cry for food,
Drop off into fitful sleep, or waken
  Trembling like a sparrow’s ravished brood.
Dark the night—the rain falls on the ashes,
  Feebly hissing on the feeble heat,        230
Filters through the ceiling, drops in splashes
  On the little children’s naked feet.
 
Dark the night—the children wail forsaken—
  Is there none, ah, none, to heed their moan?
Yea, at dawn one little one is taken,        235
  Four poor souls are left, but one is gone.
Gone—escaped—flown from the shame and sorrow
  Waiting for them at life’s sombre gate,
But the hand of merciless to-morrow
  Drags the others shuddering to their fate.        240
 
But one came—a girlish thing—a creature
  Flung by wanton hands ’mid lust and crime—
A poor outcast, yet by right of nature
  Sweet as odour of the upland thyme.
Scapegoat of a people’s sins, and hunted,        245
  Howled at, hooted to the wilderness,
To that wilderness of deaf hearts, blunted
  To the depths of woman’s dumb distress.
 
Jetsam, flotsam of the monster city,
  Spurned, denied, reviled, that outcast came        250
To those babes that whined for love and pity,
  Gave them bread bought with the wage of shame.
Gave them bread, and gave them warm, maternal
  Kisses not on sale for any price:
Yea, a spark, a flash of some eternal        255
  Sympathy shone through those haunted eyes.
 
Ah, perchance through her dark life’s confusion,
  Through the haste and taste of fevered hours,
Gusts of memory on her youth’s pollution
  Blew forgotten scents of faded flowers.        260
And she saw the cottage near the wild wood,
  With its lichened roof and latticed panes,
Strayed once more through golden fields of childhood,
  Hyacinth dells and hawthorn-scented lanes.
 
Heard once more the song of nesting thrushes        265
  And the blackbird’s long mellifluous note,
Felt once more the glow of maiden blushes
  Burn through rosy cheek and milkwhite throat
In that orchard where the apple blossom
  Lightly shaken fluttered on her hair,        270
As the heart was fluttering in her bosom
  When her sweetheart came and kissed her there.
 
Often came he in the lilac-laden
  Moonlit twilight, often pledged his word;
But she was a simple country-maiden,        275
  He the offspring of a noble lord.
Fading lilacs May’s farewell betoken,
  Fledglings fly and soon forget the nest;
Lightly may a young man’s vows be broken,
  And the heart break in a woman’s breast.        280
 
Gathered like a sprig of summer roses
  In the dewy morn and flung away,
To the girl the father’s door now closes,
  Let her shelter henceforth how she may.
Who will house the miserable mother        285
  With her child, a helpless castaway!
“I, am I the keeper of my brother?”
  Asks smug virtue as it turns to pray!
 
Lovely are the earliest Lenten lilies,
  Primrose pleiads, hyacinthine sheets;        290
Stripped and rifled from their pastoral valleys,
  See them sold now in the public streets!
Other flowers are sold there besides posies—
  Eyes may have the hyacinth’s glowing blue,
Rounded cheeks the velvet bloom of roses,        295
  Taper necks the rain-washed lily’s hue.
 
But a rustic blossom! Love and duty
  Bound up in a child whom hunger slays!
Ah! but one thing still is left her—beauty
  Fresh, untarnished yet—and beauty pays.        300
Beauty keeps her child alive a little,
  Then it dies—her woman’s love with it—
Beauty’s brilliant sceptre, ah, how brittle,
  Drags her daily deeper down the pit.
 
Ruin closes o’er her—hideous, nameless;        305
  Each fresh morning marks a deeper fall;
Till at twenty—callous, cankered, shameless,
  She lies dying at the hospital.
Drink, more drink, she calls for—her harsh laughter
  Grates upon the meekly praying nurse,        310
Eloquent about her soul’s hereafter:
  “Souls be blowed!” she sings out with a curse.
 
And so dies, an unrepenting sinner—
  Pitched into her pauper’s grave what time
That most noble lord rides by to dinner        315
  Who had wooed her in her innocent prime.
And in after-dinner talk he preaches
  Resignation—o’er his burgundy—
Till a grateful public dubs his speeches
  Oracles of true philanthropy.        320
 
Peace ye call this? Call this justice, meted
  Equally to rich and poor alike?
Better than this peace the battle’s heated
  Cannon-balls that ask not whom they strike!
Better than this masquerade of culture        325
  Hiding strange hyæna appetites,
The frank ravening of the raw-necked vulture
  As its beak the senseless carrion smites.
 
What of men in bondage, toiling blunted
  In the roaring factory’s lurid gloom?        330
What of cradled infants starved and stunted?
  What of woman’s nameless martyrdom?
The all-seeing sun shines on unheeding,
  Shines by night the calm, unruffled moon,
Though the human myriads, preying, bleeding,        335
  Put creation harshly out of tune.
 
“Hence, ah, hence”—I sobbed in quivering passion—
  “From these fearful haunts of fiendish men!
Better far the plain, carnivorous fashion
  Which is practised in the lion’s den.”        340
And I fled—yet staggering still did follow
  In the footprints of my shrouded guide—
To the sea-caves echoing with the hollow
  Immemorial moaning of the tide.
 
Sinking, swelling roared the wintry ocean,        345
  Pitch-black chasms struck with flying blaze,
As the cloud-winged storm-sky’s sheer commotion
  Showed the blank Moon’s mute Medusa face
White o’er wastes of water—surges crashing
  Over surges in the formless gloom,        350
And a mastless hulk, with great seas washing
  Her scourged flanks, pitched toppling to her doom.
 
Through the crash of wave on wave gigantic,
  Through the thunder of the hurricane,
My wild heart in breaking shrilled with frantic        355
  Exultation—“Chaos come again!
Yea, let earth be split and cloven asunder
  With man’s still accumulating curse—
Life is but a momentary blunder
  In the cycle of the Universe.        360
 
“Yea, let earth with forest-belted mountains,
  Hills and valleys, cataracts and plains,
With her clouds and storms and fires and fountains,
  Pass with all her rolling sphere contains,
Melt, dissolve again into the ocean,        365
  Ocean fade into a nebulous haze!”
And I sank back without sense or motion
  ’Neath the blank Moon’s mute Medusa face.
 
Moments, years, or ages passed, when, lifting
  Freezing lids, I felt the heavens on high,        370
And, innumerable as the sea-sands drifting,
  Stars unnumbered drifted through the sky.
Rhythmical in luminous rotation,
  In dædalian maze they reel and fly,
And their rushing light is Time’s pulsation        375
  In his passage through Eternity.
 
Constellated suns, fresh lit, declining,
  Were ignited now, now quenched in space,
Rolling round each other, or inclining
  Orb to orb in multi-coloured rays.        380
Ever showering from their flaming fountains
  Light more light on each far-circling earth,
Till life stirred crepuscular seas, and mountains
  Heaved convulsive with the throes of birth.
 
And the noble brotherhood of planets,        385
  Knitted each to each by links of light,
Circled round their suns, nor knew a minute’s
  Lapse or languor in their ceaseless flight.
And pale moons and rings and burning splinters
  Of wrecked worlds swept round their parent spheres,        390
Clothed with spring or sunk in polar winters
  As their sun draws nigh or disappears.
 
Still new vistas of new stars—far dwindling—
  Through the firmament like dewdrops roll,
Torches of the Cosmos which enkindling        395
  Flash their revelation on the soul.
Yea, One spake there—though nor form nor feature
  Shown—a Voice came from the peaks of time:—
“Wilt thou judge me, wilt thou curse me, Creature
  Whom I raised up from the Ocean slime?        400
 
“Long I waited—ages rolled o’er ages—
  As I crystallized in granite rocks,
Struggling dumb through immemorial stages,
  Glacial æons, fiery earthquake shocks.
In fierce throbs of flame or slow upheaval,        405
  Speck by tiny speck, I topped the seas,
Leaped from earth’s dark womb, and in primeval
  Forests shot up shafts of mammoth trees.
 
“Through a myriad forms I yearned and panted,
  Putting forth quick shoots in endless swarms—        410
Giant-hoofed, sharp-tusked, or finned or planted
  Writhing on the reef with pinioned arms.
I have climbed from reek of sanguine revels
  In Cimmerian wood and thorny wild,
Slowly upwards to the dawnlit levels        415
  Where I bore thee, oh my youngest Child!
 
“Oh, my heir and hope of my to-morrow,
  I—I draw thee on through fume and fret,
Croon to thee in pain and call through sorrow,
  Flowers and stars take for thy alphabet.        420
Through the eyes of animals appealing,
  Feel my fettered spirit yearn to thine,
Who, in storm of will and clash of feeling,
  Shape the life that shall be—the divine.
 
“Oh, redeem me from my tiger rages,        425
  Reptile greed, and foul hyæna lust;
With the hero’s deeds, the thoughts of sages,
  Sow and fructify this passive dust;
Drop in dew and healing love of woman
  On the bloodstained hands of hungry strife,        430
Till there break from passion of the Human
  Morning-glory of transfigured life.
 
“I have cast my burden on thy shoulder;
  Unimagined potencies have given
That from formless Chaos thou shalt mould her        435
  And translate gross earth to luminous heaven.
Bear, oh, bear the terrible compulsion,
  Flinch not from the path thy fathers trod,
From Man’s martyrdom in slow convulsion,
  Will be born the infinite goodness—God.”        440
 
Ceased the Voice: and as it ceased it drifted
  Like the seashell’s inarticulate moan;
From the Deep, on wings of flame uplifted,
  Rose the sun rejoicing and alone.
Laughed in light upon the living ocean,        445
  Danced and rocked itself upon the spray,
And its shivered beams in twinkling motion
  Gleamed like star-motes of the Milky Way.
 
And beside me in the golden morning
  I beheld my shrouded phantom-guide;        450
But no longer sorrow-veiled and mourning—
  It became transfigured by my side.
And I knew—as one escaped from prison
  Sees old things again with fresh surprise—
It was Love himself, Love re-arisen        455
  With the Eternal shining through his eyes.
 
 
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