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Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)

A Ballad of Death


              1Kneel down, fair Love, and fill thyself with tears,
              2Girdle thyself with sighing for a girth
              3Upon the sides of mirth,
              4Cover thy lips and eyelids, let thine ears
              5Be filled with rumour of people sorrowing;
              6Make thee soft raiment out of woven sighs
              7Upon the flesh to cleave,
              8Set pains therein and many a grievous thing,
              9And many sorrows after each his wise
            10For armlet and for gorget and for sleeve.

            11O Love's lute heard about the lands of death,
            12Left hanged upon the trees that were therein;
            13O Love and Time and Sin,
            14Three singing mouths that mourn now underbreath,
            15Three lovers, each one evil spoken of;
            16O smitten lips wherethrough this voice of mine
            17Came softer with her praise;
            18Abide a little for our lady's love.
            19The kisses of her mouth were more than wine,
            20And more than peace the passage of her days.

            21O Love, thou knowest if she were good to see.
            22O Time, thou shalt not find in any land
            23Till, cast out of thine hand,
            24The sunlight and the moonlight fail from thee,
            25Another woman fashioned like as this.
            26O Sin, thou knowest that all thy shame in her
            27Was made a goodly thing;
            28Yea, she caught Shame and shamed him with her kiss,
            29With her fair kiss, and lips much lovelier
            30Than lips of amorous roses in late spring.

            31By night there stood over against my bed
            32Queen Venus with a hood striped gold and black,
            33Both sides drawn fully back
            34From brows wherein the sad blood failed of red,
            35And temples drained of purple and full of death.
            36Her curled hair had the wave of sea-water
            37And the sea's gold in it.
            38Her eyes were as a dove's that sickeneth.
            39Strewn dust of gold she had shed over her,
            40And pearl and purple and amber on her feet.

            41Upon her raiment of dyed sendaline
            42Were painted all the secret ways of love
            43And covered things thereof,
            44That hold delight as grape-flowers hold their wine;
            45Red mouths of maidens and red feet of doves,
            46And brides that kept within the bride-chamber
            47Their garment of soft shame,
            48And weeping faces of the wearied loves
            49That swoon in sleep and awake wearier,
            50With heat of lips and hair shed out like flame.

            51The tears that through her eyelids fell on me
            52Made mine own bitter where they ran between
            53As blood had fallen therein,
            54She saying; Arise, lift up thine eyes and see
            55If any glad thing be or any good
            56Now the best thing is taken forth of us;
            57Even she to whom all praise
            58Was as one flower in a great multitude,
            59One glorious flower of many and glorious,
            60One day found gracious among many days:

            61Even she whose handmaiden was Love--to whom
            62At kissing times across her stateliest bed
            63Kings bowed themselves and shed
            64Pale wine, and honey with the honeycomb,
            65And spikenard bruised for a burnt-offering;
            66Even she between whose lips the kiss became
            67As fire and frankincense;
            68Whose hair was as gold raiment on a king,
            69Whose eyes were as the morning purged with flame,
            70Whose eyelids as sweet savour issuing thence.

            71Then I beheld, and lo on the other side
            72My lady's likeness crowned and robed and dead.
            73Sweet still, but now not red,
            74Was the shut mouth whereby men lived and died.
            75And sweet, but emptied of the blood's blue shade,
            76The great curled eyelids that withheld her eyes.
            77And sweet, but like spoilt gold,
            78The weight of colour in her tresses weighed.
            79And sweet, but as a vesture with new dyes,
            80The body that was clothed with love of old.

            81Ah! that my tears filled all her woven hair
            82And all the hollow bosom of her gown--
            83Ah! that my tears ran down
            84Even to the place where many kisses were,
            85Even where her parted breast-flowers have place,
            86Even where they are cloven apart--who knows not this?
            87Ah! the flowers cleave apart
            88And their sweet fills the tender interspace;
            89Ah! the leaves grown thereof were things to kiss
            90Ere their fine gold was tarnished at the heart.

            91Ah! in the days when God did good to me,
            92Each part about her was a righteous thing;
            93Her mouth an almsgiving,
            94The glory of her garments charity,
            95The beauty of her bosom a good deed,
            96In the good days when God kept sight of us;
            97Love lay upon her eyes,
            98And on that hair whereof the world takes heed;
            99And all her body was more virtuous
          100Than souls of women fashioned otherwise.

          101Now, ballad, gather poppies in thine hands
          102And sheaves of brier and many rusted sheaves
          103Rain-rotten in rank lands,
          104Waste marigold and late unhappy leaves
          105And grass that fades ere any of it be mown;
          106And when thy bosom is filled full thereof
          107Seek out Death's face ere the light altereth,
          108And say "My master that was thrall to Love
          109Is become thrall to Death."
          110Bow down before him, ballad, sigh and groan.
          111But make no sojourn in thy outgoing;
          112For haply it may be
          113That when thy feet return at evening
          114Death shall come in with thee.

Notes

10] gorget: ornamental neck-band.

11-12] Compare Psalms 137:1-2: "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres."

19] Compare The Song of Solomon 1:2: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine."

41] sendaline: silk cloth.


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: Swinburne's Collected Poetical Works, 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1924): I, 4-7.
First publication date: 1866
Publication date note: Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads (London: J. C. Hotten, 1866): 5-10. end S956 P644 1866b Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto)
RPO poem editor: P. F. Morgan
RP edition: 3RP 3.370.
Recent editing: 2:2002/5/2

Rhyme: abbacdecde


Other poems by Algernon Charles Swinburne