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Short poem

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)


              1All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
              2Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
              3Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
              4  Stood and beheld me.

              5Then to me so lying awake a vision
              6Came without sleep over the seas and touched me,
              7Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I too,
              8  Full of the vision,

              9Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
            10Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
            11Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
            12  Saw the reluctant

            13Feet, the straining plumes of the doves that drew her,
            14Looking always, looking with necks reverted,
            15Back to Lesbos, back to the hills whereunder
            16  Shone Mitylene;

            17Heard the flying feet of the Loves behind her
            18Make a sudden thunder upon the waters,
            19As the thunder flung from the strong unclosing
            20  Wings of a great wind.

            21So the goddess fled from her place, with awful
            22Sound of feet and thunder of wings around her;
            23While behind a clamour of singing women
            24  Severed the twilight.

            25Ah the singing, ah the delight, the passion!
            26All the Loves wept, listening; sick with anguish,
            27Stood the crowned nine Muses about Apollo;
            28  Fear was upon them,

            29While the tenth sang wonderful things they knew not.
            30Ah the tenth, the Lesbian! the nine were silent,
            31None endured the sound of her song for weeping;
            32  Laurel by laurel,

            33Faded all their crowns; but about her forehead,
            34Round her woven tresses and ashen temples
            35White as dead snow, paler than grass in summer,
            36  Ravaged with kisses,

            37Shone a light of fire as a crown for ever.
            38Yea, almost the implacable Aphrodite
            39Paused, and almost wept; such a song was that song.
            40  Yea, by her name too

            41Called her, saying, "Turn to me, O my Sappho;"
            42Yet she turned her face from the Loves, she saw not
            43Tears for laughter darken immortal eyelids,
            44  Heard not about her

            45Fearful fitful wings of the doves departing,
            46Saw not how the bosom of Aphrodite
            47Shook with weeping, saw not her shaken raiment,
            48  Saw not her hands wrung;

            49Saw the Lesbians kissing across their smitten
            50Lutes with lips more sweet than the sound of lute-strings,
            51Mouth to mouth and hand upon hand, her chosen,
            52  Fairer than all men;

            53Only saw the beautiful lips and fingers,
            54Full of songs and kisses and little whispers,
            55Full of music; only beheld among them
            56  Soar, as a bird soars

            57Newly fledged, her visible song, a marvel,
            58Made of perfect sound and exceeding passion,
            59Sweetly shapen, terrible, full of thunders,
            60  Clothed with the wind's wings.

            61Then rejoiced she, laughing with love, and scattered
            62Roses, awful roses of holy blossom;
            63Then the Loves thronged sadly with hidden faces
            64  Round Aphrodite,

            65Then the Muses, stricken at heart, were silent;
            66Yea, the gods waxed pale; such a song was that song.
            67All reluctant, all with a fresh repulsion,
            68  Fled from before her.

            69All withdrew long since, and the land was barren,
            70Full of fruitless women and music only.
            71Now perchance, when winds are assuaged at sunset,
            72  Lulled at the dewfall,

            73By the grey sea-side, unassuaged, unheard of,
            74Unbeloved, unseen in the ebb of twilight,
            75Ghosts of outcast women return lamenting,
            76  Purged not in Lethe,

            77Clothed about with flame and with tears, and singing
            78Songs that move the heart of the shaken heaven,
            79Songs that break the heart of the earth with pity,
            80  Hearing, to hear them.


9] Aphrodite: Venus.

15] Lesbos: Greek isle, the home of Sappho, classical poet of lesbian love.

16] Mitylene: birthplace of Sappho, and principal town, of Lesbos.

76] Lethe: river of forgetfulnes in classical Hades.

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, 204-07.
First publication date: 1866
Publication date note: Poems and Ballads (London: J. C. Hotten, 1866): 235-38. end S956 P644 1866b Fisher Rare Book Library
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO (1999).
Recent editing: 2:2002/5/2

Form: Sapphics
Rhyme: unrhyming
Form note: The Sapphic stanza (where / represents a long syllable, in English stressed, and _ a short syllable, in English unstressed).
    / _ / _ / _ _ / _ / _
    / _ / _ / _ _ / _ / _
    / _ / _ / _ _ / _ / _
    / _ _ / _

Other poems by Algernon Charles Swinburne