Poetry: A Woman's Apology, by Alfred Austin

In addition to writing fiction, I've been making a study, for the last several years, of poetry, trying to spend a week or more on an individual poet, as well as studying various forms.  As this poem is quite long, I'll save for another post my thoughts on why it matters to study the art forms of previous times (and yet another post, or perhaps a book or two, why studying the arts mattes at all) and just give a brief introduction to Alfred Austin.

Austin is not so well known today, but in his time, the late 1800s to early 1900s, he wrote steadily for half a century and in 1896 succeeded Tennyson as the poet laureate of England.  Among his many, many poems, is A Woman's Apology.


love, forgiveness, reconciliation, apology, poetry, alfred austin, i'm sorry
In the green darkness of a summer wood,
Wherethro' ran winding ways, a lady stood,
Carved from the air in curving womanhood.

A maiden's form crowned by a matron's mien,
As, about Lammas, wheat-stems may be seen,
The ear all golden, but the stalk still green.

There as she stood, waiting for sight or sound,
Down a dim alley without break or bound,
Slowly he came, his gaze upon the ground.

Nor ever once he lifted up his eyes
Till he no more her presence could disguise;
Then he her face saluted silentwise.

And silentwise no less she turned, as though
She was the leaf and he the current's flow,
And where he went, there she perforce must go.

And both kept speechless as the dumb or dead,
Nor did the earth so much as speak their tread,
So soft by last year's leaves 'twas carpeted.

And not a sound moved all the greenwood through,
Save when some quest with fluttering wings outflew,
Ruffling the leaves; then silence was anew.

And when the track they followed forked in twain,
They never doubted which one should be ta'en,
But chose as though obeying secret rein.

Until they came where boughs no longer screened
The sky, and soon abruptly intervened
A rustic gate, and over it they leaned.

Leaned over it, and green before them lay
A meadow ribbed with drying swathes of hay,
From which the hinds had lately gone away.

Beyond it, yet more woods, these too at rest,
Smooth-dipping down to shore, unseen, but guessed;
For lo! the Sea, with nothing on its breast.

``I was sure you would come,'' she said, with a voice like a broken wing
That flutters, and fails, then flags, while it nurses the failure's sting;
``You could not refuse me that, 'tis but such a little thing.

``Do I remember the words, the farewell words that you spoke,
Answering soft with hard, ere we parted under the oak?
Remember them? Can I forget? For each of them cut like a stroke.

``True-were they true? You think so, or they had never been said;
But somehow, like lightning flashes, they flickered about my head,
Flickered but touched me not. They ought to have stricken me dead.

``What do I want with you now? What I always wanted, you know;
A voice to be heard in the darkness, a flower to be seen in the snow,
And a bond linking each fresh future with a lengthening long-ago.

``Is it too much? Too little! Well, little or much, 'tis all
That rescues my life from the nothing it seems to be when I call
For a life to reply, and my voice comes back like a voice from the wall.

``If one played sweet on a lute, yea so soft that you scarce could hear,
Would you clang all the chords with your hand that the octaves might ring out clear?
Lo! asunder the strings are snapped, and the music shrinks silent for fear.

``See! the earth through the infinite spaces goes silently round and round,
And the moon moveth on through the heavens and never maketh a sound,
And the wheels of eternity traverse their journey in stillness profound.

``'Tis only the barren breakers that bellow on barren shore;
'Tis only the braggart thunders that rumble and rage and roar;
Like a wave is the love that babbles; but silent love loves evermore.

``Feeble, shadowy, shallow? Is ocean then shallow that keeps
Its harvest of shell and seaweed that none or garners or reaps,
That the diver may sound a moment, but never drag from its deeps?

``Cowardice? Yes, we are cowards; cowards from cradle to bier,
And the terror of life grows upon us as we grow year by year;
Our smiles are but trembling ripples urged on by a subtide of fear.

``And hence, or at substance or shadow we start, though we scarce know why.
Life seems like a haunted wood, where we tremble and crouch and cry.
Beast, or robber, or ghost,-our courage is still to fly.

``So we look around for a guide, and to place all our fears in his hand,
That his courage may keep us brave, that his grandeur may make us grand:
But, remember, a guide, not an ambush. Oh, tell me you understand!

``Still silent, still unpersuaded. Ah! I know what your thoughts repeat.
We are all alike, and we love to keep passion aglow at our feet,
Like one that sitteth in shade and complacently smiles at the heat.

``You think so? Then come into shade. Rise up, take the seat at my side;
Or, see, I will kneel, not you. What is humble, if this be pride?
What seems cold now will chance feel warm when the fierce glare of noon hath died.

``Have you never, when waves were breaking, watched children at sport on the beach,
With their little feet tempting the foam-fringe, till with stronger and further reach
Than they dreamed of, a billow comes bursting, how they turn and scamper and screech!

``Are we more than timider children? With its blending of terror and glee,
To us life-call it love, if you will-is a deep mysterious sea,
That we play with till it grows earnest; then straight we tremble and flee.

``Oh, never the pale east flushes with ripples of rising day,
Never, never, the birds awakening sing loud upon gable and spray,
But afresh you dawn on my life, and my soul chants its matin lay.

``When the scent of the elder is wafted from the hedge in the cottage lane,
Up the walk, and over the terrace, and in at the open pane,
You are there, and my life seems perfumed like a garden after rain.

``The nightingale brings you nearer, the woodpecker borrows your voice;
The flower where the bees cling and cluster seems the flower of the flowers of your choice.
I am sad with the cloud of your sadness, with the joy of your joy I rejoice.

``What dearer, what nearer would you? Once heart is betrothed to heart,
No closeness can bring them closer, no parting can put them apart.
Oh! take all the balm, leave the bitter, give the sweetness with none of its smart.''

The blue sea now had saddened into gray;
Solid and close the darkening woodlands lay,
And twilight's floating dews clung heavy with the hay.

One with all these, he neither stirred nor spake,
Though for a sound the silence seemed to ache,
Waiting and wondering when his voice the pain would break.

Then since the words hope forced despair to say
Seemed to have vanished with the vanished day,
She turned her from the gate, and slowly moved away.

And he too turned; but pacing side by side,
This mocking nearness did them more divide,
Than if betwixt them moaned the round of ocean wide.

But when o'erhead boughs once more met and spanned,
She halted, laid upon his arm her hand,
And questioned blank his face, his heart to understand.

Had trust or tenderness been hovering there,
She would have known it in the duskiest air;
But face and form alike of every trace was bare.

Her touch he neither welcomed nor repelled;
Pulses that once had quickened straight seemed quelled;
He stood like one that is by courteous bondage held.

One hand thus foiled, the other rescuing came,
And in the darkness sheltered against shame,
She fawned on him with both, and trembled out his name.

Then as a reaper, when the days are meet,
His sickle curves about the bending wheat,
He hollowed out his arms, and harvested his sweet.

``Now what shall I cling to?'' she murmured, ``Behold! I am weak, you are strong.
Brief, brief is the bridal of summer, the mourning of winter is long;
Never leave me unloved to discover love's right was but rapturous wrong!''

Again was silence. Then she slowly felt
The clasp of cruel fondness round her melt,
And heard a voice that seemed the voice of one that knelt.

``The long, long mourning of the winter days
Waits sure for them that bask in summer rays;
One must depart, then life is death to one that stays.

``This fixed decree we can nor change nor cheat;
For I must either leave or lose you, sweet,
And all love's triumphs end in death and dark defeat.

``Death is unconscious change, change conscious death.
Better to die outright than gasp for breath.
Life, dead, hath done with pain; Love, lingering, suffereth.

``The only loss-and this may you be spared!-
For which who stake on love must be prepared,
Is still that, though life may, yet death can not be shared.

``No other pain shall come to you from me.
What love withholds, love needs must ask. But, see!
Since you embrace love's chains, love's self doth set you free.''

So free they wandered, drinking with delight
The scented silence of the summer night,
And in the darkness saw what ne'er is seen in light.

Hushed deep in slumber seemed all earthy jars,
And, looking up, they saw, 'twixt leafy bars,
The untrod fields of Heaven glistening with dewy stars.
                      
                                              


COMING UP:

  • February 26: I'll be reading on the Vehicle of Expression, part of the Art Shanty Project

  • February 25, 2017: I will co-host Food Freedom on AM 950 with Laura Hedlund and Karen Olson Johnson.  Guests: Michael Agnew, craft beer expert and Ross Fishman on Russian literature.  We'll taste Russian beer: listen to the whole program from last month.

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