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Short poem

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)

A Sequence of Sonnets on the Death of Robert Browning

          1.1The clearest eyes in all the world they read
          1.2     With sense more keen and spirit of sight more true
          1.3     Than burns and thrills in sunrise, when the dew
          1.4Flames, and absorbs the glory round it shed,
          1.5As they the light of ages quick and dead,
          1.6     Closed now, forsake us: yet the shaft that slew
          1.7     Can slay not one of all the works we knew,
          1.8Nor death discrown that many-laurelled head.

          1.9The works of words whose life seems lightning wrought,
        1.10And moulded of unconquerable thought,
        1.11     And quickened with imperishable flame,
        1.12Stand fast and shine and smile, assured that nought
        1.13     May fade of all their myriad-moulded fame,
        1.14     Nor England's memory clasp not Browning's name.

[Composition Date:] December 13, 1889.

          2.1Death, what hast thou to do with one for whom
          2.2     Time is not lord, but servant? What least part
          2.3     Of all the fire that fed his living heart,
          2.4Of all the light more keen that sundawn's bloom
          2.5That lit and led his spirit, strong as doom
          2.6     And bright as hope, can aught thy breath may dart
          2.7     Quench? Nay, thou knowest he knew thee what thou art,
          2.8A shadow born of terror's barren womb,
          2.9That brings not forth save shadows. What art thou,
        2.10To dream, albeit thou breathe upon his brow,
        2.11     That power on him is given thee,--that thy breath
        2.12Can make him less than love acclaims him now,
        2.13     And hears all time sound back the word it saith?
        2.14     What part hast thou then in his glory, Death?

          3.1A graceless doom it seems that bids us grieve:
          3.2     Venice and winter, hand in deadly hand,
          3.3     Have slain the lover of her sunbright strand
          3.4And singer of a stormbright Christmas Eve.
          3.5A graceless guerdon we that loved receive
          3.6     For all our love, from that the dearest land
          3.7     Love worshipped ever. Blithe and soft and bland,
          3.8Too fair for storm to scathe or fire to cleave,
          3.9Shone on our dreams and memories evermore
        3.10The domes, the towers, the mountains and the shore
        3.11     That gird or guard thee, Venice: cold and black
        3.12Seems now the face we loved as he of yore.
        3.13     We have given thee love--no stint, no stay, no lack:
        3.14     What gift, what gift is this thou hast given us back?

          4.1But he--to him, who knows what gift is thine,
          4.2     Death? Hardly may we think or hope, when we
          4.3     Pass likewise thither where to-night is he,
          4.4Beyond the irremeable outer seas that shine
          4.5And darken round such dreams as half divine
          4.6     Some sunlit harbour in that starless sea
          4.7     Where gleams no ship to windward or to lee,
          4.8To read with him the secret of thy shrine.

          4.9There too, as here, may song, delight, and love,
        4.10The nightingale, the sea-bird, and the dove,
        4.11     Fulfil with joy the splendour of the sky
        4.12Till all beneath wax bright as all above:
        4.13     But none of all that search the heavens, and try
        4.14     The sun, may match the sovereign eagle's eye.

[Composition Date:]  December 14[, 1889]

          5.1Among the wondrous ways of men and time
          5.2     He went as one that ever found and sought
          5.3     And bore in hand the lamp-like spirit of thought
          5.4To illume with instance of its fire sublime
          5.5The dusk of many a cloudlike age and clime.
          5.6     No spirit in shape of light and darkness wrought,
          5.7     No faith, no fear, no dream, no rapture, nought
          5.8That blooms in wisdom, nought that burns in crime,
          5.9No virtue girt and armed and helmed with light,
        5.10No love more lovely than the snows are white,
        5.11     No serpent sleeping in some dead soul's tomb,
        5.12No song-bird singing from some live soul's height,
        5.13     But he might hear, interpret, or illume
        5.14     With sense invasive as the dawn of doom.

          6.1What secret thing of splendour or of shade
          6.2     Surmised in all those wandering ways wherein
          6.3     Man, led of love and life and death and sin,
          6.4Strays, climbs, or cowers, allured, absorbed, afraid,
          6.5Might not the strong and sunlike sense invade
          6.6     Of that full soul that had for aim to win
          6.7     Light, silent over time's dark toil and din,
          6.8Life, at whose touch death fades as dead things fade?
          6.9O spirit of man, what mystery moves in thee
        6.10That he might know not of in spirit, and see
        6.11     The heart within the heart that seems to strive,
        6.12The life within the life that seems to be,
        6.13     And hear, through all thy storms that whirl and drive,
        6.14     The living sound of all men's souls alive?

          7.1He held no dream worth waking: so he said,
          7.2     He who stands now on death's triumphal steep,
          7.3     Awakened out of life wherein we sleep
          7.4And dream of what he knows and sees, being dead.
          7.5But never death for him was dark or dread:
          7.6     "Look forth" he bade the soul, and fear not. Weep,
          7.7     All ye that trust not in his truth, and keep
          7.8Vain memory's vision of a vanished head
          7.9As all that lives of all that once was he
        7.10Save that which lightens from his word: but we,
        7.11     Who, seeing the sunset-coloured waters roll,
        7.12Yet know the sun subdued not of the sea,
        7.13     Nor weep nor doubt that still the spirit is whole,
        7.14     And life and death but shadows of the soul.

[Composition Date:]  December 15[, 1890].


1.1] Browning died at Venice on December 12, 1889. For a facsimile of the manuscript of the opening of this poem, see The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise (London: William Heinemann, 1926): I, 427.

3.4] A reference to Browning's Christmas-Eve and Easter Day.

7.6] See Browning's lyric "Prospice."

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): II, 1046-49.
First publication date: January 1890
Publication date note: Fortnightly Review (Jan. 1890). end S956 T56 1887 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto). Algernon Charles Swinburne, A Sequence of Sonnets on the Death of Robert Browning (London: private circulation, 1890). end poem S956 S38 1890 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto)
RPO poem editor: P. F. Morgan
RP edition: 3RP 3.401.
Recent editing: 2:2002/5/2

Composition date: 13 December 1890 - 15 December 1890
Form: sonnets
Rhyme: abbaabbaccdcdd

Other poems by Algernon Charles Swinburne