Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell

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Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell

POEMS BY CURRER BELL

PILATE'S WIFE'S DREAM

 
I've quench'd my lamp, I struck it in that start
Which every limb convulsed, I heard it fall —
The crash blent with my sleep, I saw depart
Its light, even as I woke, on yonder wall;
Over against my bed, there shone a gleam
Strange, faint, and mingling also with my dream.
 
 
It sank, and I am wrapt in utter gloom;
How far is night advanced, and when will day
Retinge the dusk and livid air with bloom,
And fill this void with warm, creative ray?
Would I could sleep again till, clear and red,
Morning shall on the mountain-tops be spread!
 
 
I'd call my women, but to break their sleep,
Because my own is broken, were unjust;
They've wrought all day, and well-earn'd slumbers steep
Their labours in forgetfulness, I trust;
Let me my feverish watch with patience bear,
Thankful that none with me its sufferings share.
 
 
Yet, oh, for light! one ray would tranquillize
My nerves, my pulses, more than effort can;
I'll draw my curtain and consult the skies:
These trembling stars at dead of night look wan,
Wild, restless, strange, yet cannot be more drear
Than this my couch, shared by a nameless fear.
 
 
All black – one great cloud, drawn from east to west,
Conceals the heavens, but there are lights below;
Torches burn in Jerusalem, and cast
On yonder stony mount a lurid glow.
I see men station'd there, and gleaming spears;
A sound, too, from afar, invades my ears.
 
 
Dull, measured strokes of axe and hammer ring
From street to street, not loud, but through the night
Distinctly heard – and some strange spectral thing
Is now uprear'd – and, fix'd against the light
Of the pale lamps, defined upon that sky,
It stands up like a column, straight and high.
 
 
I see it all – I know the dusky sign —
A cross on Calvary, which Jews uprear
While Romans watch; and when the dawn shall shine
Pilate, to judge the victim, will appear —
Pass sentence-yield Him up to crucify;
And on that cross the spotless Christ must die.
 
 
Dreams, then, are true – for thus my vision ran;
Surely some oracle has been with me,
The gods have chosen me to reveal their plan,
To warn an unjust judge of destiny:
I, slumbering, heard and saw; awake I know,
Christ's coming death, and Pilate's life of woe.
 
 
I do not weep for Pilate – who could prove
Regret for him whose cold and crushing sway
No prayer can soften, no appeal can move:
Who tramples hearts as others trample clay,
Yet with a faltering, an uncertain tread,
That might stir up reprisal in the dead.
 
 
Forced to sit by his side and see his deeds;
Forced to behold that visage, hour by hour,
In whose gaunt lines the abhorrent gazer reads
A triple lust of gold, and blood, and power;
A soul whom motives fierce, yet abject, urge —
Rome's servile slave, and Judah's tyrant scourge.
 
 
How can I love, or mourn, or pity him?
I, who so long my fetter'd hands have wrung;
I, who for grief have wept my eyesight dim;
Because, while life for me was bright and young,
     He robb'd my youth – he quench'd my life's fair ray —
     He crush'd my mind, and did my freedom slay.
 
 
     And at this hour-although I be his wife —
     He has no more of tenderness from me
     Than any other wretch of guilty life;
     Less, for I know his household privacy —
     I see him as he is – without a screen;
     And, by the gods, my soul abhors his mien!
 
 
     Has he not sought my presence, dyed in blood —
     Innocent, righteous blood, shed shamelessly?
     And have I not his red salute withstood?
     Ay, when, as erst, he plunged all Galilee
     In dark bereavement – in affliction sore,
     Mingling their very offerings with their gore.
 
 
     Then came he – in his eyes a serpent-smile,
     Upon his lips some false, endearing word,
     And through the streets of Salem clang'd the while
     His slaughtering, hacking, sacrilegious sword —
     And I, to see a man cause men such woe,
     Trembled with ire – I did not fear to show.
 
 
     And now, the envious Jewish priests have brought
     Jesus – whom they in mock'ry call their king —
     To have, by this grim power, their vengeance wrought;
     By this mean reptile, innocence to sting.
     Oh! could I but the purposed doom avert,
     And shield the blameless head from cruel hurt!
 
 
     Accessible is Pilate's heart to fear,
     Omens will shake his soul, like autumn leaf;
     Could he this night's appalling vision hear,
     This just man's bonds were loosed, his life were safe,
     Unless that bitter priesthood should prevail,
     And make even terror to their malice quail.
 
 
     Yet if I tell the dream – but let me pause.
     What dream? Erewhile the characters were clear,
     Graved on my brain – at once some unknown cause
     Has dimm'd and razed the thoughts, which now appear,
     Like a vague remnant of some by-past scene; —
     Not what will be, but what, long since, has been.
 
 
     I suffer'd many things – I heard foretold
     A dreadful doom for Pilate, – lingering woes,
     In far, barbarian climes, where mountains cold
     Built up a solitude of trackless snows,
     There he and grisly wolves prowl'd side by side,
     There he lived famish'd – there, methought, he died;
 
 
     But not of hunger, nor by malady;
     I saw the snow around him, stain'd with gore;
     I said I had no tears for such as he,
     And, lo! my cheek is wet – mine eyes run o'er;
     I weep for mortal suffering, mortal guilt,
     I weep the impious deed, the blood self-spilt.
 
 
     More I recall not, yet the vision spread
     Into a world remote, an age to come —
     And still the illumined name of Jesus shed
     A light, a clearness, through the unfolding gloom —
     And still I saw that sign, which now I see,
     That cross on yonder brow of Calvary.
 
 
     What is this Hebrew Christ? – to me unknown
     His lineage – doctrine – mission; yet how clear
     Is God-like goodness in his actions shown,
     How straight and stainless is his life's career!
     The ray of Deity that rests on him,
     In my eyes makes Olympian glory dim.
 
 
     The world advances; Greek or Roman rite
     Suffices not the inquiring mind to stay;
     The searching soul demands a purer light
     To guide it on its upward, onward way;
     Ashamed of sculptured gods, Religion turns
     To where the unseen Jehovah's altar burns.
 
 
     Our faith is rotten, all our rites defiled,
     Our temples sullied, and, methinks, this man,
     With his new ordinance, so wise and mild,
     Is come, even as He says, the chaff to fan
     And sever from the wheat; but will his faith
     Survive the terrors of to-morrow's death?
 
* * * * * * *
 
     I feel a firmer trust – a higher hope
     Rise in my soul – it dawns with dawning day;
     Lo! on the Temple's roof – on Moriah's slope
     Appears at length that clear and crimson ray
     Which I so wished for when shut in by night;
     Oh, opening skies, I hail, I bless pour light!
 
 
     Part, clouds and shadows! Glorious Sun appear!
     Part, mental gloom!  Come insight from on high!
     Dusk dawn in heaven still strives with daylight clear
     The longing soul doth still uncertain sigh.
     Oh! to behold the truth – that sun divine,
     How doth my bosom pant, my spirit pine!
 
 
     This day, Time travails with a mighty birth;
     This day, Truth stoops from heaven and visits earth;
     Ere night descends I shall more surely know
     What guide to follow, in what path to go;
     I wait in hope – I wait in solemn fear,
     The oracle of God – the sole – true God – to hear.
 

MEMENTOS

 
     Arranging long-locked drawers and shelves
     Of cabinets, shut up for years,
     What a strange task we've set ourselves!
     How still the lonely room appears!
     How strange this mass of ancient treasures,
     Mementos of past pains and pleasures;
     These volumes, clasped with costly stone,
     With print all faded, gilding gone;
 
 
     These fans of leaves from Indian trees —
     These crimson shells, from Indian seas —
     These tiny portraits, set in rings —
     Once, doubtless, deemed such precious things;
     Keepsakes bestowed by Love on Faith,
     And worn till the receiver's death,
     Now stored with cameos, china, shells,
     In this old closet's dusty cells.
 
 
     I scarcely think, for ten long years,
     A hand has touched these relics old;
     And, coating each, slow-formed, appears
     The growth of green and antique mould.
 
 
     All in this house is mossing over;
     All is unused, and dim, and damp;
     Nor light, nor warmth, the rooms discover —
     Bereft for years of fire and lamp.
 
 
     The sun, sometimes in summer, enters
     The casements, with reviving ray;
     But the long rains of many winters
     Moulder the very walls away.
 
 
     And outside all is ivy, clinging
     To chimney, lattice, gable grey;
     Scarcely one little red rose springing
     Through the green moss can force its way.
 
 
     Unscared, the daw and starling nestle,
     Where the tall turret rises high,
     And winds alone come near to rustle
     The thick leaves where their cradles lie,
 
 
     I sometimes think, when late at even
     I climb the stair reluctantly,
     Some shape that should be well in heaven,
     Or ill elsewhere, will pass by me.
 
 
     I fear to see the very faces,
     Familiar thirty years ago,
     Even in the old accustomed places
     Which look so cold and gloomy now,
 
 
     I've come, to close the window, hither,
     At twilight, when the sun was down,
     And Fear my very soul would wither,
     Lest something should be dimly shown,
 
 
     Too much the buried form resembling,
     Of her who once was mistress here;
     Lest doubtful shade, or moonbeam trembling,
     Might take her aspect, once so dear.
 
 
     Hers was this chamber; in her time
     It seemed to me a pleasant room,
     For then no cloud of grief or crime
     Had cursed it with a settled gloom;
 
 
     I had not seen death's image laid
     In shroud and sheet, on yonder bed.
     Before she married, she was blest —
     Blest in her youth, blest in her worth;
     Her mind was calm, its sunny rest
     Shone in her eyes more clear than mirth.
 
 
     And when attired in rich array,
     Light, lustrous hair about her brow,
     She yonder sat, a kind of day
     Lit up what seems so gloomy now.
     These grim oak walls even then were grim;
     That old carved chair was then antique;
     But what around looked dusk and dim
     Served as a foil to her fresh cheek;
     Her neck and arms, of hue so fair,
     Eyes of unclouded, smiling light;
     Her soft, and curled, and floating hair,
     Gems and attire, as rainbow bright.
 
 
     Reclined in yonder deep recess,
     Ofttimes she would, at evening, lie
     Watching the sun; she seemed to bless
     With happy glance the glorious sky.
     She loved such scenes, and as she gazed,
     Her face evinced her spirit's mood;
     Beauty or grandeur ever raised
     In her, a deep-felt gratitude.
     But of all lovely things, she loved
     A cloudless moon, on summer night,
     Full oft have I impatience proved
     To see how long her still delight
     Would find a theme in reverie,
     Out on the lawn, or where the trees
     Let in the lustre fitfully,
     As their boughs parted momently,
     To the soft, languid, summer breeze.
     Alas! that she should e'er have flung
     Those pure, though lonely joys away —
     Deceived by false and guileful tongue,
     She gave her hand, then suffered wrong;
     Oppressed, ill-used, she faded young,
     And died of grief by slow decay.
 
 
     Open that casket-look how bright
     Those jewels flash upon the sight;
     The brilliants have not lost a ray
     Of lustre, since her wedding day.
     But see – upon that pearly chain —
     How dim lies Time's discolouring stain!
     I've seen that by her daughter worn:
     For, ere she died, a child was born; —
     A child that ne'er its mother knew,
     That lone, and almost friendless grew;
     For, ever, when its step drew nigh,
     Averted was the father's eye;
     And then, a life impure and wild
     Made him a stranger to his child:
     Absorbed in vice, he little cared
     On what she did, or how she fared.
     The love withheld she never sought,
     She grew uncherished – learnt untaught;
     To her the inward life of thought
     Full soon was open laid.
     I know not if her friendlessness
     Did sometimes on her spirit press,
     But plaint she never made.
     The book-shelves were her darling treasure,
     She rarely seemed the time to measure
     While she could read alone.
     And she too loved the twilight wood
     And often, in her mother's mood,
     Away to yonder hill would hie,
     Like her, to watch the setting sun,
     Or see the stars born, one by one,
     Out of the darkening sky.
     Nor would she leave that hill till night
     Trembled from pole to pole with light;
     Even then, upon her homeward way,
     Long – long her wandering steps delayed
     To quit the sombre forest shade,
     Through which her eerie pathway lay.
     You ask if she had beauty's grace?
     I know not – but a nobler face
     My eyes have seldom seen;
     A keen and fine intelligence,
     And, better still, the truest sense
     Were in her speaking mien.
     But bloom or lustre was there none,
     Only at moments, fitful shone
     An ardour in her eye,
     That kindled on her cheek a flush,
     Warm as a red sky's passing blush
     And quick with energy.
     Her speech, too, was not common speech,
     No wish to shine, or aim to teach,
     Was in her words displayed:
     She still began with quiet sense,
     But oft the force of eloquence
     Came to her lips in aid;
     Language and voice unconscious changed,
     And thoughts, in other words arranged,
     Her fervid soul transfused
     Into the hearts of those who heard,
     And transient strength and ardour stirred,
     In minds to strength unused,
     Yet in gay crowd or festal glare,
     Grave and retiring was her air;
     'Twas seldom, save with me alone,
     That fire of feeling freely shone;
     She loved not awe's nor wonder's gaze,
     Nor even exaggerated praise,
     Nor even notice, if too keen
     The curious gazer searched her mien.
     Nature's own green expanse revealed
     The world, the pleasures, she could prize;
     On free hill-side, in sunny field,
     In quiet spots by woods concealed,
     Grew wild and fresh her chosen joys,
     Yet Nature's feelings deeply lay
     In that endowed and youthful frame;
     Shrined in her heart and hid from day,
     They burned unseen with silent flame.
     In youth's first search for mental light,
     She lived but to reflect and learn,
     But soon her mind's maturer might
     For stronger task did pant and yearn;
     And stronger task did fate assign,
     Task that a giant's strength might strain;
     To suffer long and ne'er repine,
     Be calm in frenzy, smile at pain.
 
 
     Pale with the secret war of feeling,
     Sustained with courage, mute, yet high;
     The wounds at which she bled, revealing
     Only by altered cheek and eye;
 
 
     She bore in silence – but when passion
     Surged in her soul with ceaseless foam,
     The storm at last brought desolation,
     And drove her exiled from her home.
 
 
     And silent still, she straight assembled
     The wrecks of strength her soul retained;
     For though the wasted body trembled,
     The unconquered mind, to quail, disdained.
 
 
     She crossed the sea – now lone she wanders
     By Seine's, or Rhine's, or Arno's flow;
     Fain would I know if distance renders
     Relief or comfort to her woe.
 
 
     Fain would I know if, henceforth, ever,
     These eyes shall read in hers again,
     That light of love which faded never,
     Though dimmed so long with secret pain.
 
 
     She will return, but cold and altered,
     Like all whose hopes too soon depart;
     Like all on whom have beat, unsheltered,
     The bitter blasts that blight the heart.
 
 
     No more shall I behold her lying
     Calm on a pillow, smoothed by me;
     No more that spirit, worn with sighing,
     Will know the rest of infancy.
 
 
     If still the paths of lore she follow,
     'Twill be with tired and goaded will;
     She'll only toil, the aching hollow,
     The joyless blank of life to fill.
 
 
     And oh! full oft, quite spent and weary,
     Her hand will pause, her head decline;
     That labour seems so hard and dreary,
     On which no ray of hope may shine.
 
 
     Thus the pale blight of time and sorrow
     Will shade with grey her soft, dark hair;
     Then comes the day that knows no morrow,
     And death succeeds to long despair.
 
 
     So speaks experience, sage and hoary;
     I see it plainly, know it well,
     Like one who, having read a story,
     Each incident therein can tell.
 
 
     Touch not that ring; 'twas his, the sire
     Of that forsaken child;
     And nought his relics can inspire
     Save memories, sin-defiled.
 
 
     I, who sat by his wife's death-bed,
     I, who his daughter loved,
     Could almost curse the guilty dead,
     For woes the guiltless proved.
 
 
     And heaven did curse – they found him laid,
     When crime for wrath was rife,
     Cold – with the suicidal blade
     Clutched in his desperate gripe.
 
 
     'Twas near that long deserted hut,
     Which in the wood decays,
     Death's axe, self-wielded, struck his root,
     And lopped his desperate days.
 
 
     You know the spot, where three black trees,
     Lift up their branches fell,
     And moaning, ceaseless as the seas,
     Still seem, in every passing breeze,
     The deed of blood to tell.
 
 
     They named him mad, and laid his bones
     Where holier ashes lie;
     Yet doubt not that his spirit groans
     In hell's eternity.
 
 
     But, lo! night, closing o'er the earth,
     Infects our thoughts with gloom;
     Come, let us strive to rally mirth
     Where glows a clear and tranquil hearth
     In some more cheerful room.
 

THE WIFE'S WILL

 
     Sit still – a word – a breath may break
     (As light airs stir a sleeping lake)
     The glassy calm that soothes my woes —
     The sweet, the deep, the full repose.
     O leave me not! for ever be
     Thus, more than life itself to me!
 
 
     Yes, close beside thee let me kneel —
     Give me thy hand, that I may feel
     The friend so true – so tried – so dear,
     My heart's own chosen – indeed is near;
     And check me not – this hour divine
     Belongs to me – is fully mine.
 
 
     'Tis thy own hearth thou sitt'st beside,
     After long absence – wandering wide;
     'Tis thy own wife reads in thine eyes
     A promise clear of stormless skies;
     For faith and true love light the rays
     Which shine responsive to her gaze.
 
 
     Ay, – well that single tear may fall;
     Ten thousand might mine eyes recall,
     Which from their lids ran blinding fast,
     In hours of grief, yet scarcely past;
     Well mayst thou speak of love to me,
     For, oh!  most truly – I love thee!
 
 
     Yet smile – for we are happy now.
     Whence, then, that sadness on thy brow?
     What sayst thou?" We muse once again,
     Ere long, be severed by the main!"
     I knew not this – I deemed no more
     Thy step would err from Britain's shore.
 
 
     "Duty commands!" 'Tis true – 'tis just;
     Thy slightest word I wholly trust,
     Nor by request, nor faintest sigh,
     Would I to turn thy purpose try;
     But, William, hear my solemn vow —
     Hear and confirm! – with thee I go.
 
 
     "Distance and suffering," didst thou say?
     "Danger by night, and toil by day?"
     Oh, idle words and vain are these;
     Hear me! I cross with thee the seas.
     Such risk as thou must meet and dare,
     I – thy true wife – will duly share.
 
 
     Passive, at home, I will not pine;
     Thy toils, thy perils shall be mine;
     Grant this – and be hereafter paid
     By a warm heart's devoted aid:
     'Tis granted – with that yielding kiss,
     Entered my soul unmingled bliss.
 
 
     Thanks, William, thanks! thy love has joy,
     Pure, undefiled with base alloy;
     'Tis not a passion, false and blind,
     Inspires, enchains, absorbs my mind;
     Worthy, I feel, art thou to be
     Loved with my perfect energy.
 
 
     This evening now shall sweetly flow,
     Lit by our clear fire's happy glow;
     And parting's peace-embittering fear,
     Is warned our hearts to come not near;
     For fate admits my soul's decree,
     In bliss or bale – to go with thee!
 
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