Reference > Anthologies > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library > Verse

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Mother and Poet
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)
          [On Laura Savio of Turin, a poetess and patriot, whose sons were killed at Ancona and Gaeta.]

DEAD! One of them shot by the sea in the east,
  And one of them shot in the west by the sea.
Dead! both my boys! When you sit at the feast,
  And are wanting a great song for Italy free,
        Let none look at me!        5
Yet I was a poetess only last year,
  And good at my art, for a woman, men said:
But this woman, this, who is agonized here,—
  The east sea and west sea rhyme on in her head
        Forever instead.        10
What art can a woman be good at? Oh, vain!
  What art is she good at, but hurting her breast
With the milk-teeth of babes, and a smile at the pain?
  Ah, boys, how you hurt! you were strong as you prest,
        And I proud by that test.        15
What art’s for a woman? To hold on her knees
  Both darlings! to feel all their arms round her throat
Cling, strangle a little! to sew by degrees,
  And ’broider the long-clothes and neat little coat;
        To dream and to dote.        20
To teach them…. It stings there! I made them indeed
  Speak plain the word country. I taught them, no doubt,
That a country’s a thing men should die for at need.
  I prated of liberty, rights, and about
        The tyrant cast out.        25
And when their eyes flashed … O my beautiful eyes!…
  I exulted; nay, let them go forth at the wheels
Of the guns, and denied not. But then the surprise
  When one sits quite alone! Then one weeps, then one kneels.
        God, how the house feels!        30
At first, happy news came, in gay letters moiled
  With my kisses, of camp-life and glory, and how
They both loved me; and soon, coming home to be spoiled,
  In return would fan off every fly from my brow
        With their green laurel-bough.        35
There was triumph at Turin: “Ancona was free!”
  And some one came out of the cheers in the street,
With a face pale as stone, to say something to me.
  My Guido was dead! I fell down at his feet,
        While they cheered in the street.        40
I bore it; friends soothed me; my grief looked sublime
  As the ransom of Italy. One boy remained
To be leant on and walked with, recalling the time
  When the first grew immortal, while both of us strained
        To the height he had gained.        45
And letters still came; shorter, sadder, more strong,
  Writ now but in one hand:—“I was not to faint,—
One loved me for two; would be with me ere long:
  And Viva l’Italia he died for, our saint,
        Who forbids our complaint.”        50
My Nanni would add, “he was safe, and aware
  Of a presence that turned off the balls,—was imprest
It was Guido himself, who knew what I could bear,
  And how ’twas impossible, quite dispossest,
        To live on for the rest.”        55
On which, without pause, up the telegraph-line
  Swept smoothly the next news from Gaeta,—“Shot.
Tell his mother.” Ah, ah! “his,” “their” mother, not “mine”:
  No voice says, “My mother,” again to me. What!
        You think Guido forgot?        60
Are souls straight so happy, that, dizzy with heaven,
  They drop earth’s affections, conceive not of woe?
I think not! Themselves were too lately forgiven
  Through that Love and that Sorrow which reconciled so
        The Above and Below.        65
O Christ of the seven wounds, who look’dst through the dark
  To the face of thy mother! Consider, I pray,
How we common mothers stand desolate, mark,—
  Whose sons, not being Christs, die with eyes turned away,
        And no last word to say!        70
Both boys dead? but that’s out of nature. We all
  Have been patriots, yet each house must always keep one.
’Twere imbecile, hewing out roads to a wall;
  And when Italy’s made, for what end is it done,
        If we have not a son?        75
Ah, ah, ah! when Gaeta’s taken, what then?
  When the fair wicked queen sits no more at her sport
Of the fire-balls of death crashing souls out of men;
  When the guns of Cavalli with final retort
        Have cut the game short;        80
When Venice and Rome keep their new jubilee;
  When your flag takes all heaven for its white, green, and red;
When you have your country from mountain to sea,
  When King Victor has Italy’s crown on his head,
        (And I have my dead)—        85
What then? Do not mock me. Ah, ring your bells low
  And burn your lights faintly! My country is there.
Above the star pricked by the last peak of snow:
  My Italy’s THERE, with my brave civic pair,
        To disfranchise despair!        90
Forgive me. Some women bear children in strength,
  And bite back the cry of their pain in self-scorn;
But the birth-pangs of nations will wring us at length
  Into wail such as this, and we sit on forlorn
        When the man-child is born.        95
Dead! One of them shot by the sea in the east,
  And one of them shot in the west by the sea.
Both! both my boys! If in keeping the feast
  You want a great song for your Italy free,
        Let none look at me!        100

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