Poem of the day

A Ballad of Life
by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)


I found in dreams a place of wind and flowers,
⁠      Full of sweet trees and colour of glad grass,
⁠      In midst whereof there was
A lady clothed like summer with sweet hours.
Her beauty, fervent as a fiery moon,
⁠      Made my blood burn and swoon
⁠            Like a flame rained upon.
Sorrow had filled her shaken eyelids’ blue,
And her mouth’s sad red heavy rose all through
⁠            Seemed sad with glad things gone.

She held a little cithern by the strings,
⁠      Shaped heartwise, strung with subtle-coloured hair
⁠      Of some dead lute-player
That in dead years had done delicious things.
The seven strings were named accordingly;
⁠      The first string charity,
⁠            The second tenderness,
The rest were pleasure, sorrow, sleep, and sin,
And loving-kindness, that is pity’s kin
⁠            And is most pitiless.

There were three men with her, each garmented
⁠      With gold and shod with gold upon the feet;
⁠      And with plucked ears of wheat
The first man’s hair was wound upon his head.
His face was red, and his mouth curled and sad;
⁠      All his gold garment had
⁠            Pale stains of dust and rust.
A riven hood was pulled across his eyes;
The token of him being upon this wise
⁠            Made for a sign of Lust.

The next was Shame, with hollow heavy face
⁠      Coloured like green wood when flame kindles it.
⁠      He hath such feeble feet
They may not well endure in any place.
His face was full of grey old miseries,
⁠      And all his blood’s increase
⁠            Was even increase of pain.
The last was Fear, that is akin to Death;
He is Shame’s friend, and always as Shame saith
⁠            Fear answers him again.

My soul said in me; This is marvellous,
⁠      Seeing the air’s face is not so delicate
⁠      Nor the sun’s grace so great,
If sin and she be kin or amorous.
And seeing where maidens served her on their knees,
⁠      I bade one crave of these
⁠            To know the cause thereof.
Then Fear said: I am Pity that was dead.
And Shame said: I am Sorrow comforted.
⁠            And Lust said: I am Love.

Thereat her hands began a lute-playing
⁠      And her sweet mouth a song in a strange tongue;
⁠      And all the while she sung
There was no sound but long tears following
Long tears upon men’s faces waxen white
⁠      With extreme sad delight.
⁠            But those three following men
Became as men raised up among the dead;
Great glad mouths open and fair cheeks made red
⁠            With child’s blood come again.

Then I said: Now assuredly I see
⁠      My lady is perfect, and transfigureth
⁠      All sin and sorrow and death,
Making them fair as her own eyelids be,
Or lips wherein my whole soul’s life abides;
⁠      Or as her sweet white sides
⁠            And bosom carved to kiss.
Now therefore, if her pity further me,
Doubtless for her sake all my days shall be
⁠            As righteous as she is.

Forth, ballad, and take roses in both arms,
⁠      Even till the top rose touch thee in the throat
Where the least thornprick harms;
⁠      And girdled in thy golden singing-coat,
Come thou before my lady and say this;
⁠      Borgia, thy gold hair’s colour burns in me,
⁠            Thy mouth makes beat my blood in feverish rhymes;
⁠      Therefore so many as these roses be,
⁠            Kiss me so many times.
Then it may be, seeing how sweet she is,
⁠      That she will stoop herself none otherwise
⁠            Than a blown vine-branch doth,
⁠And kiss thee with soft laughter on thine eyes,
⁠            Ballad, and on thy mouth.

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