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Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)

Hertha


              1     I am that which began;
              2          Out of me the years roll;
              3     Out of me God and man;
              4          I am equal and whole;
              5God changes, and man, and the form of them bodily; I am the soul.

              6     Before ever land was,
              7          Before ever the sea,
              8     Or soft hair of the grass,
              9          Or fair limbs of the tree,
            10Or the fresh-coloured fruit of my branches, I was, and thy soul was in me.

            11     First life on my sources
            12          First drifted and swam;
            13     Out of me are the forces
            14          That save it or damn;
            15Out of me man and woman, and wild-beast and bird; before God was, I am.

            16     Beside or above me
            17          Nought is there to go;
            18     Love or unlove me,
            19          Unknow me or know,
            20I am that which unloves me and loves; I am stricken, and I am the blow.

            21     I the mark that is missed
            22          And the arrows that miss,
            23     I the mouth that is kissed
            24          And the breath in the kiss,
            25The search, and the sought, and the seeker, the soul and the body that is.

            26     I am that thing which blesses
            27          My spirit elate;
            28     That which caresses
            29          With hands uncreate
            30My limbs unbegotten that measure the length of the measure of fate.

            31     But what thing dost thou now,
            32          Looking Godward, to cry
            33     "I am I, thou art thou,
            34          I am low, thou art high"?
            35I am thou, whom thou seekest to find him; find thou but thyself, thou art I.

            36     I the grain and the furrow,
            37          The plough-cloven clod
            38     And the ploughshare drawn thorough,
            39          The germ and the sod,
            40The deed and the doer, the seed and the sower, the dust which is God.

            41     Hast thou known how I fashioned thee,
            42          Child, underground?
            43     Fire that impassioned thee,
            44          Iron that bound,
            45Dim changes of water, what thing of all these hast thou known of or found?

            46     Canst thou say in thine heart
            47          Thou hast seen with thine eyes
            48     With what cunning of art
            49          Thou wast wrought in what wise,
            50By what force of what stuff thou wast shapen, and shown on my breast to the skies?

            51     Who hath given, who hath sold it thee,
            52          Knowledge of me?
            53     Hath the wilderness told it thee?
            54          Hast thou learnt of the sea?
            55Hast thou communed in spirit with night? have the winds taken counsel with thee?

            56     Have I set such a star
            57          To show light on thy brow
            58     That thou sawest from afar
            59          What I show to thee now?
            60Have ye spoken as brethren together, the sun and the mountains and thou?

            61     What is here, dost thou know it?
            62          What was, hast thou known?
            63     Prophet nor poet
            64          Nor tripod nor throne
            65Nor spirit nor flesh can make answer, but only thy mother alone.

            66     Mother, not maker,
            67          Born, and not made;
            68     Though her children forsake her,
            69          Allured or afraid,
            70Praying prayers to the God of their fashion, she stirs not for all that have prayed.

            71     A creed is a rod,
            72          And a crown is of night;
            73     But this thing is God,
            74          To be man with thy might,
            75To grow straight in the strength of thy spirit, and live out thy life as the light.

            76     I am in thee to save thee,
            77          As my soul in thee saith;
            78     Give thou as I gave thee,
            79          Thy life-blood and breath,
            80Green leaves of thy labour, white flowers of thy thought, and red fruit of thy death.

            81     Be the ways of thy giving
            82          As mine were to thee;
            83     The free life of thy living,
            84          Be the gift of it free;
            85Not as servant to lord, nor as master to slave, shalt thou give thee to me.

            86     O children of banishment,
            87          Souls overcast,
            88     Were the lights ye see vanish meant
            89          Alway to last,
            90Ye would know not the sun overshining the shadows and stars overpast.

            91     I that saw where ye trod
            92          The dim paths of the night
            93     Set the shadow called God
            94          In your skies to give light;
            95But the morning of manhood is risen, and the shadowless soul is in sight.

            96     The tree many-rooted
            97          That swells to the sky
            98     With frondage red-fruited,
            99          The life-tree am I;
          100In the buds of your lives is the sap of my leaves: ye shall live and not die.

          101     But the Gods of your fashion
          102          That take and that give,
          103     In their pity and passion
          104          That scourge and forgive,
          105They are worms that are bred in the bark that falls off; they shall die and not live.

          106     My own blood is what stanches
          107          The wounds in my bark;
          108     Stars caught in my branches
          109          Make day of the dark,
          110And are worshipped as suns till the sunrise shall tread out their fires as a spark.

          111     Where dead ages hide under
          112          The live roots of the tree,
          113     In my darkness the thunder
          114          Makes utterance of me;
          115In the clash of my boughs with each other ye hear the waves sound of the sea.

          116     That noise is of Time,
          117          As his feathers are spread
          118     And his feet set to climb
          119          Through the boughs overhead,
          120And my foliage rings round him and rustles, and branches are bent with his tread.

          121     The storm-winds of ages
          122          Blow through me and cease,
          123     The war-wind that rages,
          124          The spring-wind of peace,
          125Ere the breath of them roughen my tresses, ere one of my blossoms increase.

          126     All sounds of all changes,
          127          All shadows and lights
          128     On the world's mountain-ranges
          129          And stream-riven heights,
          130Whose tongue is the wind's tongue and language of storm-clouds on earth-shaking nights;

          131     All forms of all faces,
          132          All works of all hands
          133     In unsearchable places
          134          Of time-stricken lands,
          135All death and all life, and all reigns and all ruins, drop through me as sands.

          136     Though sore be my burden
          137          And more than ye know,
          138     And my growth have no guerdon
          139          But only to grow,
          140Yet I fail not of growing for lightnings above me or deathworms below.

          141     These too have their part in me,
          142          As I too in these;
          143     Such fire is at heart in me,
          144          Such sap is this tree's,
          145Which hath in it all sounds and all secrets of infinite lands and of seas.

          146     In the spring-coloured hours
          147          When my mind was as May's,
          148     There brake forth of me flowers
          149          By centuries of days,
          150Strong blossoms with perfume of manhood, shot out from my spirit as rays.

          151     And the sound of them springing
          152          And smell of their shoots
          153     Were as warmth and sweet singing
          154          And strength to my roots;
          155And the lives of my children made perfect with freedom of soul were my fruits.

          156     I bid you but be;
          157          I have need not of prayer;
          158     I have need of you free
          159          As your mouths of mine air;
          160That my heart may be greater within me, beholding the fruits of me fair.

          161     More fair than strange fruit is
          162          Of faiths ye espouse;
          163     In me only the root is
          164          That blooms in your boughs;
          165Behold now your God that ye made you, to feed him with faith of your vows.

          166     In the darkening and whitening
          167          Abysses adored,
          168     With dayspring and lightning
          169          For lamp and for sword,
          170God thunders in heaven, and his angels are red with the wrath of the Lord.

          171     O my sons, O too dutiful
          172          Toward Gods not of me,
          173     Was not I enough beautiful?
          174          Was it hard to be free?
          175For behold, I am with you, am in you and of you; look forth now and see.

          176     Lo, winged with world's wonders,
          177          With miracles shod,
          178     With the fires of his thunders
          179          For raiment and rod,
          180God trembles in heaven, and his angels are white with the terror of God.

          181     For his twilight is come on him,
          182          His anguish is here;
          183     And his spirits gaze dumb on him,
          184          Grown grey from his fear;
          185And his hour taketh hold on him stricken, the last of his infinite year.

          186     Thought made him and breaks him,
          187          Truth slays and forgives;
          188     But to you, as time takes him,
          189          This new thing it gives,
          190Even love, the beloved Republic, that feeds upon freedom and lives.

          191     For truth only is living,
          192          Truth only is whole,
          193     And the love of his giving,
          194          Man's polestar and pole;
          195Man, pulse of my centre, and fruit of my body, and seed of my soul.

          196     One birth of my bosom;
          197          One beam of mine eye;
          198     One topmost blossom
          199          That scales the sky;
          200Man, equal and one with me, man that is made of me, man that is I.

Notes

1] Hertha was in Teutonic mythology the goddess of fertility, "Mother Earth." Swinburne himself wrote: "Of all I have done I rate Hertha highest as a single piece, finding in it the most of lyric force and music combined with the most condensed and clarified thought." He described the poem in a letter of October 26, 1869, to William Michael Rossetti, as "another mystic atheistic democratic anthropologic poem" (The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise [London: William Heinemann, 1926]: II, 45). By January 15, 1870, again writing Rossetti, Swinburne was much more enthusiastic about the poem, still in development:

Yesterday was a good day with me, for ... I had completed and copied out my Hertha -- the poem I think which if I were to die tonight I should choose to be represented and judged by, if one single and separate poem were perforce to be picked out of my lot (though but 140 lines long). It has the most in it of my deliberate thought and personal feeling or faith, and I think is as good in execution and impulse of expression as the best of my others" (II, 85).
For a reproduction of an autograph manuscript of the opening of the poem, see I, 213.

15] Compare John 8: 58: "Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am."

21] S. C. Chew (Swinburne, 1929) compares this with what Emerson had written in "The Oversoul": "And this deep power in which we exist ... is not only self-sufficing every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object are one."

41] The Lord asked Job: "Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? ... Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" (Job 38: 2, 4).

64] Swinburne's particular reference in "tripod" is to the vessel at the shrine of Apollo at Delphi, on which the priestess sat to deliver oracles.

80] These are the colours of the flag of the Italian republic.

96] A reference to the Scandinavian myth of the tree Yggdrasil whose blossoms are human lives.


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, 732-40.
First publication date: 1871
Publication date note: Algernon Charles Swinburne, Songs before Sunrise (London: F. S. Ellis, 1871): 82-92. end S956 S673 1871a Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto)
RPO poem editor: P. F. Morgan
RP edition: 3RP 3.382.
Recent editing: 2:2002/5/2

Composition date: 1869 - 1870
Rhyme: ababb


Other poems by Algernon Charles Swinburne