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Short poem

William Morris (1834-1896)

The Earthly Paradise: The Lady of the Land

The Argument

A certain man having landed on an island in the Greek sea, found there a beautiful damsel, whom he would fain have delivered from a strange & dreadful doom, but failing herein, he died soon afterwards.

              1It happened once, some men of Italy
              2Midst the Greek Islands went a sea-roving,
              3And much good fortune had they on the sea:
              4Of many a man they had the ransoming,
              5And many a chain they gat and goodly thing;
              6And midst their voyage to an isle they came,
              7Whereof my story keepeth not the name.

              8Now though but little was there left to gain,
              9Because the richer folk had gone away,
            10Yet since by this of water they were fain
            11They came to anchor in a land-locked bay,
            12Whence in a while some went ashore to play,
            13Going but lightly armed in twos or threes,
            14For midst that folk they feared no enemies.

            15And of these fellows that thus went ashore,
            16One was there who left all his friends behind;
            17Who going inland ever more and more,
            18And being left quite alone, at last did find
            19A lonely valley sheltered from the wind,
            20Wherein, amidst an ancient cypress wood,
            21A long-deserted ruined castle stood.

            22The wood, once ordered in fair grove and glade,
            23With gardens overlooked by terraces,
            24And marble-pavèd pools for pleasure made,
            25Was tangled now and choked with fallen trees;
            26And he who went there, with but little ease
            27Must stumble by the stream's side, once made meet
            28For tender women's dainty wandering feet.

            29The raven's croak, the low wind choked and drear,
            30The baffled stream, the grey wolf's doleful cry,
            31Were all the sounds that mariner could hear,
            32As through the wood he wandered painfully;
            33But as unto the house he drew anigh,
            34The pillars of a ruined shrine he saw,
            35The once fair temple of a fallen law.

            36No image was there left behind to tell
            37Before whose face the knees of men had bowed;
            38An altar of black stone, of old wrought well,
            39Alone beneath a ruined roof now showed
            40The goal whereto the folk were wont to crowd,
            41Seeking for things forgotten long ago,
            42Praying for heads long ages laid a-low.

            43Close to the temple was the castle-gate,
            44Doorless and crumbling; there our fellow turned,
            45Trembling indeed at what might chance to wait
            46The prey entrapped, yet with a heart that burned
            47To know the most of what might there be learned,
            48And hoping somewhat too, amid his fear,
            49To light on such things as all men hold dear.

            50Noble the house was, nor seemed built for war,
            51But rather like the work of other days,
            52When men, in better peace than now they are,
            53Had leisure on the world around to gaze,
            54And noted well the past times' changing ways;
            55And fair with sculptured stories it was wrought,
            56By lapse of time unto dim ruin brought.

            57Now as he looked about on all these things
            58And strove to read the mouldering histories,
            59Above the door an image with wide wings,
            60Whose unclad limbs a serpent seemed to seize,
            61He dimly saw, although the western breeze
            62And years of biting frost and washing rain
            63Had made the carver's lab our well-nigh vain.

            64But this, though perished sore and worn away,
            65He noted well, because it seemed to be,
            66After the fashion of another day,
            67Some great man's badge of war or armoury;
            68And round it a carved wreath he seemed to see:
            69But taking note of these things, at the last
            70The mariner beneath the gateway passed.

            71And there a lovely cloistered court he found,
            72A fountain in the mist o'erthrown and dry,
            73And in the cloister briers twining round
            74The slender shafts; the wondrous imagery
            75Outworn by more than many years gone by;
            76Because the country people, in their fear
            77Of wizardry, had wrought destruction here,

            78And piteously these fair things had been maimed;
            79There stood great Jove, lacking his head of might;
            80Here was the archer, swift Apollo, lamed;
            81The shapely limbs of Venus hid from sight
            82By weeds and shards; Diana's ankles light
            83Bound with the cable of some coasting ship;
            84And rusty nails through Helen's maddening lip.

            85Therefrom unto the chambers did he pass,
            86And found them fair still, midst of their decay,
            87Though in them now no sign of man there was,
            88And everything but stone had passed away
            89That made them lovely in that vanished day;
            90Nay, the mere walls themselves would soon be gone
            91And nought be left but heaps of mouldering stone.

            92But he, when all the place he had gone o'er,
            93And with much trouble clomb the broken stair,
            94And from the topmost turret seen the shore
            95And his good ship drawn up at anchor there,
            96Came down again, and found a crypt most fair
            97Built wonderfully beneath the greatest hall,
            98And there he saw a door within the wall,

            99Well-hinged, close shut; nor was there in that place
          100Another on its hinges, therefore he
          101Stood there and pondered for a little space
          102And thought: "Perchance some marvel I shall see,
          103For surely here some dweller there must be,
          104Because this door seems whole and new and sound,
          105While nought but ruin I can see around."

          106So with that word, moved by a strong desire,
          107He tried the hasp, that yielded to his hand,
          108And in a strange place, lit as by a fire
          109Unseen but near, he presently did stand;
          110And by an odorous breeze his face was fanned,
          111As though in some Arabian plain he stood,
          112Anigh the border of a spice-tree wood.

          113He moved not for awhile, but looking round,
          114He wondered much to see the place so fair,
          115Because, unlike the castle above ground,
          116No pillager or wrecker had been there;
          117It seemed that time had passed on otherwhere,
          118Nor laid a finger on this hidden place
          119Rich with the wealth of some forgotten race.

          120With hangings, fresh as when they left the loom,
          121The walls were hung a space above the head,
          122Slim ivory chairs were set about the room,
          123And in one corner was a dainty bed
          124That seemed for some fair queen apparellèd;
          125And marble was the worst stone on the floor,
          126That with rich Indian webs was covered o'er.

          127The wanderer trembled when he saw all this,
          128Because he deemed by magic it was wrought;
          129Yet in his heart a longing for some bliss
          130Whereof the hard and changing world knows nought,
          131Arose and urged him on, and dimmed the thought
          132That there perchance some devil lurked to slay
          133The heedless wanderer from the light of day.

          134Over against him was another door
          135Set in the wall, so casting fear aside,
          136With hurried steps he crossed the varied floor,
          137And there again the silver latch he tried
          138And with no pain the door he opened wide,
          139And entering the new chamber cautiously
          140The glory of great heaps of gold could see.

          141Upon the floor uncounted medals lay
          142Like things of little value; here and there
          143Stood golden caldrons, that might well outweigh
          144The biggest midst an emperor's copper-ware,
          145And golden cups were set on tables fair,
          146Themselves of gold; and in all hollow things
          147Were stored great gems, worthy the crowns of kings.

          148The walls and roof with gold were overlaid,
          149And precious raiment from the wall hung down;
          150The fall of kings that treasure might have stayed,
          151Or gained some longing conqueror great renown,
          152Or built again some God-destroyed old town;
          153What wonder if this plunderer of the sea
          154Stood gazing at it long and dizzily?

          155But at the last his troubled eyes and dazed
          156He lifted from the glory of that gold,
          157And then the image, that well-nigh erased
          158Over the castle-gate he did behold,
          159Above a door well wrought in coloured gold
          160Again he saw; a naked girl with wings
          161Enfolded in a serpent's scaly rings.

          162And even as his eyes were fixed on it
          163A woman's voice came from the other side,
          164And through his heart strange hopes began to flit
          165That in some wondrous land he might abide
          166Not dying, master of a deathless bride,
          167So o'er the gold which now he scarce could see
          168He went, and passed this last door eagerly.

          169Then in a room he stood wherein there was
          170A marble bath, whose brimming water yet
          171Was scarcely still; a vessel of green glass
          172Half full of odorous ointment was there set
          173Upon the topmost step that still was wet,
          174And jewelled shoes and women's dainty gear,
          175Lay cast upon the varied pavement near.

          176In one quick glance these things his eyes did see,
          177But speedily they turned round to behold
          178Another sight, for throned on ivory
          179There sat a woman, whose wet tresses rolled
          180On to the floor in waves of gleaming gold,
          181Cast back from such a form as, erewhile shown
          182To one poor shepherd, lighted up Troy town.

          183Naked she was, the kisses of her feet
          184Upon the floor a dying path had made
          185From the full bath unto her ivory seat;
          186In her right hand, upon her bosom laid,
          187She held a golden comb, a mirror weighed
          188Her left hand down, aback her fair head lay
          189Dreaming awake of some long vanished day.

          190Her eyes were shut but she seemed not to sleep,
          191Her lips were murmuring things unheard and low,
          192Or sometimes twitched as though she needs must weep,
          193Though from her eyes the tears refused to flow,
          194And oft with heavenly red her cheek did glow,
          195As if remembrance of some half-sweet shame
          196Across the web of many memories came.

          197There stood the man, scarce daring to draw breath
          198For fear the lovely sight should fade away;
          199Forgetting heaven, forgetting life and death,
          200Trembling for fear lest something he should say
          201Unwitting, lest some sob should yet betray
          202His presence there, for to his eager eyes
          203Already did the tears begin to rise.

          204But as he gazed she moved, and with a sigh
          205Bent forward, dropping down her golden head:
          206"Alas, alas! another day gone by,
          207Another day and no soul come," she said;
          208"Another year, and still I am not dead!"
          209And with that word once more her head she raised,
          210And on the trembling man with great eyes gazed.

          211Then he imploring hands to her did reach,
          212And toward her very slowly 'gan to move
          213And with wet eyes her pity did beseech,
          214And seeing her about to speak he strove
          215From trembling lips to utter words of love;
          216But with a look she stayed his doubtful feet,
          217And made sweet music as their eyes did meet.

          218For now she spoke in gentle voice and clear,
          219Using the Greek tongue that he knew full well:
          220"What man art thou that thus hast wandered here,
          221And found this lonely chamber where I dwell?
          222Beware, beware! for I have many a spell;
          223If greed of power and gold have led thee on,
          224Not lightly shall this untold wealth be won.

          225"But if thou com'st here knowing of my tale,
          226In hope to bear away my body fair,
          227Stout must thine heart be, nor shall that avail
          228If thou a wicked soul in thee dost bear;
          229So once again I bid thee to beware,
          230Because no base man things like this may see,
          231And live thereafter long and happily."

          232"Lady," he said, "in Florence is my home,
          233And in my city noble is my name;
          234Neither on peddling voyage am I come,
          235But, like my fathers, bent to gather fame;
          236And though thy face has set my heart a-flame
          237Yet of thy story nothing do I know
          238But here have wandered heedlessly enow.

          239"But since the sight of thee mine eyes did bless,
          240What can I be but thine? what would'st thou have?
          241From those thy words, I deem from some distress
          242By deeds of mine thy dear life I might save;
          243O then, delay not! if one ever gave
          244His life to any, mine I give to thee;
          245Come, tell me what the price of love must be?

          246"Swift death, to be with thee a day and night
          247And with the earliest dawning to be slain?
          248Or better, a long year of great delight,
          249And many years of misery and pain?
          250Or worse, and this poor hour for all my gain?
          251A sorry merchant am I on this day,
          252E'en as thou willest so must I obey."

          253She said, "What brave words! nought divine am I,
          254But an unhappy and unheard-of maid
          255Compelled by evil fate and destiny
          256To live, who long ago should have been laid
          257Under the earth within the cypress shade.
          258Hearken awhile, and quickly shalt thou know
          259What deed I pray thee to accomplish now.

          260"God grant indeed thy words are not for nought!
          261Then shalt thou save me, since for many a day
          262To such a dreadful life I have been brought:
          263Nor will I spare with all my heart to pay
          264What man soever takes my grief away;
          265Ah! I will love thee, if thou lovest me
          266But well enough my saviour now to be.

          267"My father lived a many years agone
          268Lord of this land, master of all cunning,
          269Who ruddy gold could draw from out grey stone
          270And gather wealth from many an uncouth thing;
          271He made the wilderness rejoice and sing,
          272And such a leech he was that none could say
          273Without his word what soul should pass away.

          274"Unto Diana such a gift he gave,
          275Goddess above, below and on the earth,
          276That I should be her virgin and her slave
          277From the first hour of my most wretched birth;
          278Therefore my life had known but little mirth
          279When I had come unto my twentieth year
          280And the last time of hallowing drew anear.

          281"So in her temple had I lived and died
          282And all would long ago have passed away,
          283But ere that time came, did strange things betide,
          284Whereby I am alive unto this day;
          285Alas, the bitter words that I must say!
          286Ah! can I bring my wretched tongue to tell
          287How I was brought unto this fearful hell.

          288"A queen I was, what Gods I knew I loved,
          289And nothing evil was there in my thought,
          290And yet by love my wretched heart was moved
          291Until to utter ruin I was brought!
          292Alas! thou sayest our gods were vain and nought,
          293Wait, wait, till thou hast heard this tale of mine,
          294Then shalt thou think them devilish or divine.

          295"Hearken! in spite of father and of vow
          296I loved a man; but for that sin I think
          297Men had forgiven me--yea, yea, even thou;
          298But from the Gods the full cup must I drink
          299And into misery unheard-of sink,
          300Tormented when their own names are forgot,
          301And men must doubt e'er if they lived or not.

          302"Glorious my lover was unto my sight,
          303Most beautiful; of love we grew so fain
          304That we at last agreed, that on a night
          305We should be happy, but that he were slain
          306Or shut in hold; and neither joy nor pain
          307Should else forbid that hoped-for time to be;
          308So came the night that made a wretch of me.

          309"Ah! well do I remember all that night,
          310When through the window shone the orb of June,
          311And by the bed flickered the taper's light,
          312Whereby I trembled, gazing at the moon:
          313Ah me! the meeting that we had, when soon
          314Into his strong, well-trusted arms I fell
          315And many a sorrow we began to tell.

          316"Ah me! what parting on that night we had!
          317I think the story of my great despair
          318A little while might merry folk make sad;
          319For, as he swept away my yellow hair
          320To make my shoulder and my bosom bare,
          321I raised mine eyes, and shuddering could behold
          322A shadow cast upon the bed of gold:

          323"Then suddenly was quenched my hot desire
          324And he untwined his arms; the moon so pale
          325A while ago, seemed changed to blood and fire,
          326And yet my limbs beneath me did not fail,
          327And neither had I strength to cry or wail,
          328But stood there helpless, bare and shivering,
          329With staring eyes still fixed upon the thing.

          330"Because the shade that on the bed of gold
          331The changed and dreadful moon was throwing down
          332Was of Diana, whom I did behold
          333With knotted hair and shining girt-up gown,
          334And on the high white brow a deadly frown
          335Bent upon us, who stood scarce drawing breath,
          336Striving to meet the horrible sure death.

          337"No word at all the dreadful Goddess said,
          338But soon across my feet my lover lay,
          339And well indeed I knew that he was dead;
          340And would that I had died on that same day!
          341For in a while the image turned away,
          342And without words my doom I understood,
          343And felt a horror change my human blood.

          344"And there I fell, and on the floor I lay
          345By the dead man, till daylight came on me,
          346And not a word thenceforward could I say
          347For three years; till of grief and misery,
          348The lingering pest, the cruel enemy,
          349My father and his folk were dead and gone,
          350And in this castle I was left alone:

          351"And then the doom foreseen upon me fell,
          352For Queen Diana did my body change
          353Into a fork-tongued dragon flesh and fell,
          354And through the island nightly do I range,
          355Or in the green sea mate with monsters strange,
          356When in the middle of the moonlit night
          357The sleepy mariner I do affright.

          358"But all day long upon this gold I lie
          359Within this place, where never mason's hand
          360Smote trowel on the marble noisily;
          361Drowsy I lie, no folk at my command,
          362Who once was called the Lady of the Land;
          363Who might have bought a kingdom with a kiss,
          364Yea, half the world with such a sight as this."

          365And therewithal, with rosy fingers light,
          366Backward her heavy-hanging hair she threw,
          367To give her naked beauty more to sight;
          368But when, forgetting all the things he knew,
          369Maddened with love unto the prize he drew,
          370She cried: "Nay, wait! for wherefore wilt thou die,
          371Why should we not be happy, thou and I?

          372"Wilt thou not save me? once in every year
          373This rightful form of mine that thou dost see
          374By favour of the Goddess have I here
          375From sunrise unto sunset given me,
          376That some brave man may end my misery.
          377And thou--art thou not brave? can thy heart fail,
          378Whose eyes e'en now are weeping at my tale?

          379"Then listen! when this day is overpast,
          380A fearful monster shall I be again,
          381And thou mayst be my saviour at the last,
          382Unless, once more, thy words are nought and vain.
          383If thou of love and sovereignty art fain,
          384Come thou next morn, and when thou seest here
          385A hideous dragon, have thereof no fear,

          386"But take the loathsome head up in thine hands
          387And kiss it, and be master presently
          388Of twice the wealth that is in all the lands
          389From Cathay to the head of Italy;
          390And master also, if it pleaseth thee,
          391Of all thou praisest as so fresh and bright,
          392Of what thou callest crown of all delight.

          393"Ah! with what joy then shall I see again
          394The sunlight on the green grass and the trees,
          395And hear the clatter of the summer rain,
          396And see the joyous folk beyond the seas.
          397Ah, me! to hold my child upon my knees
          398After the weeping of unkindly tears
          399And all the wrongs of these four hundred years.

          400"Go now, go quick! leave this grey heap of stone;
          401And from thy glad heart think upon thy way,
          402How I shall love thee--yea, love thee alone,
          403That bringest me from dark death unto day;
          404For this shall be thy wages and thy pay;
          405Unheard-of wealth, unheard-of love is near,
          406If thou hast heart a little dread to bear."

          407Therewith she turned to go; but he cried out:
          408"Ah! wilt thou leave me then without one kiss,
          409To slay the very seeds of fear and doubt,
          410That glad to-morrow may bring certain bliss?
          411Hast thou forgotten how love lives by this,
          412The memory of some hopeful close embrace,
          413Low whispered words within some lonely place?"

          414But she, when his bright glittering eyes she saw
          415And burning cheeks, cried out: "Alas, alas!
          416Must I be quite undone, and wilt thou draw
          417A worse fate on me than the first one was?
          418O haste thee from this fatal place to pass!
          419Yet, ere thou goest, take this, lest thou shouldst deem
          420Thou hast been fooled by some strange midday dream."

          421So saying, blushing like a new-kissed maid,
          422From off her neck a little gem she drew,
          423That 'twixt those snowy rose-tinged hillocks laid,
          424The secrets of her glorious beauty knew;
          425And ere he well perceived what she would do,
          426She touched his hand, the gem within it lay,
          427And, turning, from his sight she fled away.

          428Then at the doorway where her rosy heel
          429Had glanced and vanished, he awhile did stare,
          430And still upon his hand he seemed to feel
          431The varying kisses of her fingers fair;
          432Then turned he toward the dreary crypt and bare,
          433And dizzily throughout the castle passed
          434Till by the ruined fane he stood at last.

          435Then weighing still the gem within his hand,
          436He stumbled backward through the cypress wood,
          437Thinking the while of some strange lovely land
          438Where all his life should be most fair and good;
          439Till on the valley's wall of hills he stood,
          440And slowly thence passed down unto the bay
          441Red with the death of that bewildering day.

          442The next day came, and he, who all the night
          443Had ceaselessly been turning in his bed,
          444Arose and clad himself in armour bright,
          445And many a danger he rememberèd;
          446Storming of towns, lone sieges full of dread,
          447That with renown his heart had borne him through,
          448And this thing seemed a little thing to do.

          449So on he went, and on the way he thought
          450Of all the glorious things of yesterday,
          451Nought of the price whereat they must be bought,
          452But ever to himself did softly say
          453"No roaming now, my wars are passed away,
          454No long dull days devoid of happiness,
          455When such a love my yearning heart shall bless."

          456Thus to the castle did he come at last,
          457But when unto the gateway he drew near,
          458And underneath its ruined archway passed
          459Into the court, a strange noise did he hear,
          460And through his heart there shot a pang of fear;
          461Trembling, he gat his sword into his hand,
          462And midmost of the cloisters took his stand.

          463But for a while that unknown noise increased,
          464A rattling, that with strident roars did blend
          465And whining moans; but suddenly it ceased,
          466A fearful thing stood at the cloister's end
          467And eyed him for a while, then 'gan to wend
          468Adown the cloisters, and began again
          469That rattling, and the moan like fiends in pain.

          470And as it came on towards him, with its teeth
          471The body of a slain goat did it tear,
          472The blood whereof in its hot jaws did seethe,
          473And on its tongue he saw the smoking hair;
          474Then his heart sank, and standing trembling there,
          475Throughout his mind wild thoughts and fearful ran:
          476"Some fiend she was," he said, "the bane of man."

          477Yet he abode her still, although his blood
          478Curdled within him: the thing dropped the goat,
          479And creeping on, came close to where he stood,
          480And raised its head to him and wrinkled throat.
          481Then he cried out and wildly at her smote,
          482Shutting his eyes, and turned and from the place
          483Ran swiftly, with a white and ghastly face.

          484But little things rough stones and tree-trunks seemed,
          485And if he fell, he rose and ran on still;
          486No more he felt his hurts than if he dreamed,
          487He made no stay for valley or steep hill,
          488Heedless he dashed through many a foaming rill,
          489Until he came unto the ship at last
          490And with no word into the deep hold passed.

          491Meanwhile the dragon, seeing him clean gone,
          492Followed him not, but crying horribly,
          493Caught up within her jaws a block of stone
          494And ground it into powder, then turned she,
          495With cries that folk could hear far out at sea,
          496And reached the treasure set apart of old,
          497To brood above the hidden heaps of gold.

          498Yet was she seen again on many a day
          499By some half-waking mariner or herd,
          500Playing amid the ripples of the bay,
          501Or on the hills making all things afeard,
          502Or in the wood that did that castle gird,
          503But never any man again durst go
          504To seek her woman 's form, and end her woe.

          505As for the man, who knows what things he bore?
          506What mournful faces peopled the sad night,
          507What wailings vexed him with reproaches sore,
          508What images of that nigh-gained delight!
          509What dreamed caresses from soft hands and white,
          510Turning to horrors ere they reached the best;
          511What struggles vain, what shame, what huge unrest?

          512No man he knew, three days he lay and raved
          513And cried for death, until a lethargy
          514Fell on him, and his fellows thought him saved;
          515But on the third night he awoke to die;
          516And at Byzantium doth his body lie
          517Between two blossoming pomegranate trees,
          518Within the churchyard of the Genoese.


1] The Earthly Paradise consists of twenty-four long narrative poems held together by a framework, after the fashion of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. They are supposed to be told on a remote island where some Norwegian wanderers of the fourteenth century find the descendants of a band of Greeks who had settled there long before. Islanders and strangers meet monthly for a whole year, and tell alternate stories from ancient sources--Greek and Norse. "The Lady of the Land" is one of the June tales. It is a retelling of the shorter story in the fourth chapter of The Voyage of Sir John Maundeville, a fourteenth-century book of travel and romance.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: William Morris, The Earthly Paradise; a poem, 6 vols. (London: F. S. Ellis, 1868-70). end M677 E38 1868a Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto) v. 1-6.
First publication date: 1868
RPO poem editor: P. F. Morgan
RP edition: 3RP 3.341.
Recent editing: 2:2002/4/10

Rhyme: ababbcc

Other poems by William Morris