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Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Saul


I
              1Said Abner, "At last thou art come! Ere I tell, ere thou speak,
              2Kiss my cheek, wish me well!" Then I wished it, and did kiss his cheek.
              3And he: "Since the King, O my friend, for thy countenance sent,
              4Neither drunken nor eaten have we; nor until from his tent
              5Thou return with the joyful assurance the King liveth yet,
              6Shall our lip with the honey be bright, with the water be wet.
              7For out of the black mid-tent's silence, a space of three days,
              8Not a sound hath escaped to thy servants, of prayer nor of praise,
              9To betoken that Saul and the Spirit have ended their strife,
            10And that, faint in his triumph, the monarch sinks back upon life.

II
            11"Yet now my heart leaps, O beloved! God's child with His dew
            12On thy gracious gold hair, and those lilies still living and blue
            13Just broken to twine round thy harp-strings, as if no wild heat
            14Were now raging to torture the desert!"

III
            15                                                              Then I, as was meet,
            16Knelt down to the God of my fathers, and rose on my feet,
            17And ran o'er the sand burnt to powder. The tent was unlooped;
            18I pulled up the spear that obstructed, and under I stooped;
            19Hands and knees on the slippery grass-patch, all withered and gone,
            20That extends to the second enclosure, I groped my way on
            21Till I felt where the fold-skirts fly open. Then once more I prayed,
            22And opened the fold-skirts and entered, and was not afraid
            23But spoke, "Here is David, thy servant!" And no voice replied.
            24At the first I saw naught but the blackness: but soon I descried
            25A something more black than the blackness--the vast, the upright
            26Main prop which sustains the pavilion: and slow into sight
            27Grew a figure against it, gigantic and blackest of all.
            28Then a sunbeam, that burst through the tent-roof, showed Saul.

IV
            29He stood as erect as that tent-prop, both arms stretched out wide
            30On the great cross-support in the centre, that goes to each side;
            31He relaxed not a muscle, but hung there as, caught in his pangs
            32And waiting his change, the king-serpent all heavily hangs,
            33Far away from his kind, in the pine, till deliverance come
            34With the spring-time,--so agonized Saul, drear and stark, blind and dumb.

V
            35Then I tuned my harp,--took off the lilies we twine round its chords
            36Lest they snap 'neath the stress of the noontide--those sunbeams like swords!
            37And I first played the tune all our sheep know, as, one after one,
            38So docile they come to the pen-door till folding be done.
            39They are white and untorn by the bushes, for lo, they have fed
            40Where the long grasses stifle the water within the stream's bed;
            41And now one after one seeks its lodging, as star follows star
            42Into eve and the blue far above us,--so blue and so far!

VI
            43--Then the tune for which quails on the corn-land will each leave his mate
            44To fly after the player; then, what makes the crickets elate
            45Till for boldness they fight one another; and then, what has weight
            46To set the quick jerboa a-musing outside his sand house--
            47There are none such as he for a wonder, half bird and half mouse!
            48God made all the creatures and gave them our love and our fear,
            49To give sign, we and they are his children, one family here.

VII
            50Then I played the help-tune of our reapers, their wine-song, when hand
            51Grasps at hand, eye lights eye in good friendship, and great hearts expand
            52And grow one in the sense of this world's life.--And then, the last song
            53When the dead man is praised on his journey--"Bear, bear him along,
            54With his few faults shut up like dead flowerets! Are balm seeds not here
            55To console us? The land has none left such as he on the bier.
            56Oh, would we might keep thee, my brother!"--And then, the glad chaunt
            57Of the marriage,--first go the young maidens, next, she whom we vaunt
            58As the beauty, the pride of our dwelling.--And then, the great march
            59Wherein man runs to man to assist him and buttress an arch
            60Nought can break; who shall harm them. our friends? Then, the chorus intoned
            61As the Levites go up to the altar in glory enthroned.
            62But I stopped here: for here in the darkness Saul groaned.

VIII
            63And I paused, held my breath in such silence, and listened apart;
            64And the tent shook, for mighty Saul shuddered: and sparkles 'gan dart
            65From the jewels that woke in his turban, at once, with a start,
            66All its lordly male-sapphires, and rubies courageous at heart.
            67So the head: but the body still moved not, still hung there erect.
            68And I bent once again to my playing, pursued it unchecked,
            69As I sang,--

IX
            70                    "Oh, our manhood's prime vigour! No spirit feels waste,
            71Not a muscle is stopped in its playing nor sinew unbraced.
            72Oh, the wild joys of living! the leaping from rock up to rock,
            73The strong rending of boughs from the fir-tree, the cool silver shock
            74Of the plunge in a pool's living water, the hunt of the bear,
            75And the sultriness showing the lion is couched in his lair.
            76And the meal, the rich dates yellowed over with gold dust divine,
            77And the locust-flesh steeped in the pitcher, the full draught of wine,
            78And the sleep in the dried river-channel where bulrushes tell
            79That the water was wont to go warbling so softly and well.
            80How good is man's life, the mere living! how fit to employ
            81All the heart and the soul and the senses forever in joy!
            82Hast thou loved the white locks of thy father, whose sword thou didst guard
            83When he trusted thee forth with the armies, for glorious reward?
            84Didst thou see the thin hands of thy mother, held up as men sung
            85The low song of the nearly-departed, and hear her faint tongue
            86Joining in while it could to the witness, "Let one more attest,
            87I have lived, seen God's hand, thro' a life-time, and all was for best?"
            88Then they sung through their tears in strong triumph, not much, but the rest.
            89And thy brothers, the help and the contest, the working whence grew
            90Such result as, from seething grape-bundles, the spirit strained true:
            91And the friends of thy boyhood--that boyhood of wonder and hope,
            92Present promise and wealth of the future beyond the eye's scope,--
            93Till lo, thou art grown to a monarch; a people is thine;
            94And all gifts, which the world offers singly, on one head combine!
            95On one head, all the beauty and strength, love and rage (like the throe
            96That, a-work in the rock, helps its labour and lets the gold go)
            97High ambition and deeds which surpass it, fame crowning them,--all
            98Brought to blaze on the head of one creature--King Saul!"

X
            99And lo, with that leap of my spirit,--heart, hand, harp and voice,
          100Each lifting Saul's name out of sorrow, each bidding rejoice
          101Saul's fame in the light it was made for--as when, dare I say,
          102The Lord's army, in rapture of service, strains through its array,
          103And upsoareth the cherubim-chariot--"Saul!" cried I, and stopped,
          104And waited the thing that should follow. Then Saul, who hung propped
          105By the tent's cross-support in the centre, was struck by his name.
          106Have ye seen when Spring's arrowy summons goes right to the aim,
          107And some mountain, the last to withstand her, that held (he alone,
          108While the vale laughed in freedom and flowers) on a broad bust of stone
          109A year's snow bound about for a breast-plate,--leaves grasp of the sheet?
          110Fold on fold all at once it crowds thunderously down to his feet,
          111And there fronts you, stark, black, but alive yet, your mountain of old,
          112With his rents, the successive bequeathings of ages untold--
          113Yea, each harm got in fighting your battles, each furrow and scar
          114Of his head thrust 'twixt you and the tempest--all hail, there they are!
          115Now again to be softened with verdure, again hold the nest
          116Of the dove, tempt the goat and its young to the green on his crest
          117For their food in the ardours of summer. One long shudder thrilled
          118All the tent till the very air tingled, then sank and was stilled
          119At the King's self left standing before me, released and aware.
          120What was gone, what remained? All to traverse 'twixt hope and despair;
          121Death was past, life not come: so he waited. Awhile his right hand
          122Held the brow, helped the eyes left too vacant forthwith to remand
          123To their place what new objects should enter: 'twas Saul as before.
          124I looked up and dared gaze at those eyes, nor was hurt any more
          125Than by slow pallid sunsets in autumn, ye watch from the shore,
          126At their sad level gaze o'er the ocean--a sun's slow decline
          127Over hills which, resolved in stern silence, o'erlap and entwine
          128Base with base to knit strength more intensely: so, arm folded arm
          129O'er the chest whose slow heavings subsided.

XI
          130                                                                        What spell or what charm,
          131(For awhile there was trouble within me), what next should I urge
          132To sustain him where song had restored him?--Song filled to the verge
          133His cup with the wine of this life, pressing all that it yields
          134Of mere fruitage, the strength and the beauty: beyond, on what fields,
          135Glean a vintage more potent and perfect to brighten the eye
          136And bring blood to the lip, and commend them the cup they put by?
          137He saith, "It is good"; still he drinks not: he lets me praise life,
          138Gives assent, yet would die for his own part.

XII
          139                                                                      Then fancies grew rife
          140Which had come long ago on the pasture, when round me the sheep
          141Fed in silence--above, the one eagle wheeled slow as in sleep;
          142And I lay in my hollow and mused on the world that might lie
          143'Neath his ken, though I saw but the strip 'twixt the hill and the sky:
          144And I laughed--"Since my days are ordained to be passed with my flocks
          145Let me people at least, with my fancies, the plains and the rocks,
          146Dream the life I am never to mix with, and image the show
          147Of mankind as they live in those fashions I hardly shall know!
          148Schemes of life, its best rules and right uses, the courage that gains,
          149And the prudence that keeps what men strive for." And now these old trains
          150Of vague thought came again; I grew surer; so, once more the string
          151Of my harp made response to my spirit, as thus--

XIII
          152                                                                              "Yea, my King,"
          153I began--"thou dost well in rejecting mere comforts that spring
          154From the mere mortal life held in common by man and by brute:
          155In our flesh grows the branch of this life, in our soul it bears fruit.
          156Thou hast marked the slow rise of the tree,---how its stem trembled first
          157Till it passed the kid's lip, the stag's antler; then safely outburst
          158The fan-branches all round; and thou mindest when these too, in turn,
          159Broke a-bloom and the palm-tree seemed perfect: yet more was to learn,
          160E'en the good that comes in with the palm-fruit. Our dates shall we slight,
          161When their juice brings a cure for all sorrow? or care for the plight
          162Of the palm's self whose slow growth produced them? Not so! stem and branch
          163Shall decay, nor be known in their place, while the palm-wine shall staunch
          164Every wound of man's spirit in winter. I pour thee such wine.
          165Leave the flesh to the fate it was fit for! the spirit be thine!
          166By the spirit, when age shall o'ercome thee, thou still shalt enjoy
          167More indeed, than at first when inconscious, the life of a boy.
          168Crush that life, and behold its wine running! Each deed thou hast done
          169Dies, revives, goes to work in the world; until e'en as the sun
          170Looking down on the earth though clouds spoil him, though tempests efface,
          171Can find nothing his own deed produced not, must everywhere trace
          172The results of his past summer-prime,--so, each ray of thy will,
          173Every flash of thy passion and prowess, long over, shall thrill
          174Thy whole people, the countless, with ardour, till they too give forth
          175A like cheer to their sons, who in turn, fill the South and the North
          176With the radiance thy deed was the germ of. Carouse in the past!
          177But the license of age has its limit; thou diest at last:
          178As the lion when age dims his eyeball, the rose at her height,
          179So with man--so his power and his beauty forever take flight.
          180No! Again a long draught of my soul-wine! Look forth o'er the years!
          181Thou hast done now with eyes for the actual; begin with the seer's!
          182Is Saul dead? In the depth of the vale make his tomb--bid arise
          183A gray mountain of marble heaped four-square, till, built to the skies,
          184Let it mark where the great First King slumbers: whose fame would ye know?
          185Up and above see the rock's naked face, where the record shall go
          186In great characters cut by the scribe,--Such was Saul, so he did;
          187With the sages directing the work, by the populace chid,--
          188For not half, they'll affirm, is comprised there! Which fault to amend,
          189In the grove with his kind grows the cedar, whereon they shall spend
          190(See, in tablets 'tis level before them) their praise, and record
          191With the gold of the graver, Saul's story,--the statesman's great word
          192Side by side with the poet's sweet comment. The river's a-wave
          193With smooth paper-reeds grazing each other when prophet-winds rave:
          194So the pen gives unborn generations their due and their part
          195In thy being! Then, first of the mighty, thank God that thou art!"

XIV
          196And behold while I sang . . . but O thou who didst grant me that day,
          197And before it not seldom hast granted thy help to essay,
          198Carry on and complete an adventure,--my shield and my sword
          199In that act where my soul was thy servant, thy word was my word,--
          200Still be with me, who then at the summit of human endeavour
          201And scaling the highest, man's thought could, gazed hopeless as ever
          202On the new stretch of heaven above me--till, mighty to save,
          203Just one lift of thy hand cleared that distance--God's throne from man's grave!
          204Let me tell out my tale to its ending--my voice to my heart
          205Which can scarce dare believe in what marvels last night I took part,
          206As this morning I gather the fragments, alone with my sheep,
          207And still fear lest the terrible glory evanish like sleep!
          208For I wake in the gray dewy covert, while Hebron upheaves
          209The dawn struggling with night on his shoulder, and Kidron retrieves
          210Slow the damage of yesterday's sunshine.

XV
          211                                                                 I say then, --my song
          212While I sang thus, assuring the monarch, and ever more strong
          213Made a proffer of good to console him--he slowly resumed
          214His old motions and habitudes kingly. The right hand replumed
          215His black locks to their wonted composure, adjusted the swathes
          216Of his turban, and see--the huge sweat that his countenance bathes,
          217He wipes off with the robe; and he girds now his loins as of yore,
          218And feels slow for the armlets of price, with the clasp set before.
          219He is Saul, ye remember in glory,--ere error had bent
          220The broad brow from the daily communion; and still, though much spent
          221Be the life and the bearing that front you, the same, God did choose,
          222To receive what a man may waste, desecrate, never quite lose.
          223So sank he along by the tent-prop till, stayed by the pile
          224Of his armour and war-cloak and garments, he leaned there awhile,
          225And sat out my singing,--one arm round the tent-prop, to raise
          226His bent head, and the other hung slack--till I touched on the praise
          227I foresaw from all men in all time, to the man patient there;
          228And thus ended, the harp falling forward. Then first I was 'ware
          229That he sat, as I say, with my head just above his vast knees
          230Which were thrust out on each side around me, like oak roots which please
          231To encircle a lamb when it slumbers. I looked up to know
          232If the best I could do had brought solace: he spoke not, but slow
          233Lifted up the hand slack at his side, till he laid it with care
          234Soft and grave, but in mild settled will, on my brow: through my hair
          235The large fingers were pushed, and he bent back my head, with kind power--
          236All my face back, intent to peruse it, as men do a flower.
          237Thus held he me there with his great eyes that scrutinized mine--
          238And oh, all my heart how it loved him! but where was the sign?
          239I yearned--"could I help thee, my father, inventing a bliss,
          240I would add, to that life of the past, both the future and this;
          241I would give thee new life altogether, as good, ages hence,
          242As this moment,--had love but the warrant, love's heart to dispense!"

XVI
          243Then the truth came upon me. No harp more--no song more! outbroke--

XVII
          244"I have gone the whole round of creation: I saw and I spoke:
          245I, a work of God's hand for that purpose received in my brain
          246And pronounced on the rest of his hand-work--returned him again
          247His creation's approval or censure: I spoke as I saw:
          248I report, as a man may of God's work--all's love, yet all's law.
          249Now I lay down the judgeship he lent me. Each faculty tasked
          250To perceive him, has gained an abyss, where a dewdrop was asked.
          251Have I knowledge? confounded it shrivels at Wisdom laid bare.
          252Have I forethought? how purblind, how blank to the Infinite Care!
          253Do I task any faculty highest, to image success?
          254I but open my eyes,--and perfection, no more and no less,
          255In the kind I imagined, full-fronts me, and God is seen God
          256In the star, in the stone, in the flesh, in the soul and the clod.
          257And thus looking within and around me, I ever renew
          258(With that stoop of the soul which in bending upraises it too)
          259The submission of man's nothing-perfect to God's all-complete,
          260As by each new obeisance in spirit, I climb to his feet.
          261Yet with all this abounding experience, this deity known,
          262I shall dare to discover some province, some gift of my own.
          263There's a faculty pleasant to exercise, hard to hoodwink,
          264I am fain to keep still in abeyance, (I laugh as I think)
          265Lest, insisting to claim and parade in it, wot ye, I worst
          266E'en the Giver in one gift.--Behold, I could love if I durst!
          267But I sink the pretension as fearing a man may o'ertake
          268God's own speed in the one way of love: I abstain for love's sake.
          269--What, my soul? see thus far and no farther? when doors great and small,
          270Nine-and-ninety flew ope at our touch, should the hundreth appal?
          271In the least things have faith, yet distrust in the greatest of all?
          272Do I find love so full in my nature, God's ultimate gift,
          273That I doubt his own love can compete with it? Here, the parts shift?
          274Here, the creature surpass the Creator,--the end, what Began?
          275Would I fain in my impotent yearning do all for this man,
          276And dare doubt he alone shall not help him, who yet alone can?
          277Would it ever have entered my mind, the bare will, much less power,
          278To bestow on this Saul what I sang of, the marvellous dower
          279Of the life he was gifted and filled with? to make such a soul,
          280Such a body, and then such an earth for insphering the whole?
          281And doth it not enter my mind (as my warm tears attest)
          282These good things being given, to go on, and give one more, the best?
          283Ay, to save and redeem and restore him, maintain at the height
          284Thus perfection,--succeed with life's dayspring, death's minute of night?
          285Interpose at the difficult minute, snatch Saul the mistake,
          286Saul the failure, the ruin he seems now--and bid him awake
          287From the dream, the probation, the prelude, to find himself
          288Clear and safe in new light and new life,--a new harmony yet
          289To be run, and continued, and ended--who knows?--or endure!
          290The man taught enough by life's dream, of the rest to make sure;
          291By the pain-throb, triumphantly winning intensified bliss,
          292And the next world's reward and repose, by the struggles in this.

XVIII
          293"I believe it! 'Tis Thou, God, that givest, 'tis I who receive:
          294In the first is the last, in thy will is my power to believe.
          295All 's one gift: thou canst grant it moreover, as prompt to my prayer
          296As I breathe out this breath, as I open these arms to the air.
          297From thy will stream the worlds, life and nature, thy dread Sabaoth:
          298I will?--the mere atoms despise me! Why am I not loth
          299To look that, even that in the face too? Why is it I dare
          300Think but lightly of such impuissance? What stops my despair?
          301This;--'tis not what man Does which exalts him, but what man Would do!
          302See the King--I would help him but cannot, the wishes fall through.
          303Could I wrestle to raise him from sorrow, grow poor to enrich,
          304To fill up his life, starve my own out, I would--knowing which,
          305I know that my service is perfect. Oh, speak through me now!
          306Would I suffer for him that I love? So wouldst thou--so wilt thou!
          307So shall crown thee the topmost, ineffablest, uttermost crown--
          308And thy love fill infinitude wholly, nor leave up nor down
          309One spot for the creature to stand in! It is by no breath,
          310Turn of eye, wave of hand, that salvation joins issue with death!
          311As thy Love is discovered almighty, almighty be proved
          312Thy power, that exists with and for it, of being Beloved!
          313He who did most, shall bear most; the strongest shall stand the most weak.
          314'Tis the weakness in strength, that I cry for! my flesh, that I seek
          315In the Godhead! I seek and I find it. O Saul, it shall be
          316A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me,
          317Thou shalt love and be loved by, forever: a Hand like this hand
          318Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ stand!"

XIX
          319I know not too well how I found my way home in the night.
          320There were witnesses, cohorts about me, to left and to right,
          321Angels, powers, the unuttered, unseen, the alive, the aware:
          322I repressed, I got through them as hardly, as strugglingly there,
          323As a runner beset by the populace famished for news--
          324Life or death. The whole earth was awakened, hell loosed with her crews;
          325And the stars of night beat with emotion, and tingled and shot
          326Out in fire the strong pain of pent knowledge: but I fainted not,
          327For the Hand still impelled me at once and supported, suppressed
          328All the tumult, and quenched it with quiet, and holy behest,
          329Till the rapture was shut in itself, and the earth sank to rest.
          330Anon at the dawn, all that trouble had withered from earth--
          331Not so much, but I saw it die out in the day's tender birth;
          332In the gathered intensity brought to the grey of the hills;
          333In the shuddering forests' held breath; in the sudden wind-thrills;
          334In the startled wild beasts that bore off, each with eye sidling still
          335Though averted with wonder and dread; in the birds stiff and chill
          336That rose heavily, as I approached them, made stupid with awe:
          337E'en the serpent that slid away silent,--he felt the new law.
          338The same stared in the white humid faces upturned by the flowers;
          339The same worked in the heart of the cedar and moved the vine-bowers:
          340And the little brooks witnessing murmured, persistent and low,
          341With their obstinate, all but hushed voices--
          342"E'en so, it is so!"

Notes

1] The first nine sections (lines 1-102) were first published, printed in short lines of three and two feet, in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, 1845. The complete poem (with much revision of section IX) appeared in the second volume of Men and Women, 1855. For the basis of the poem, see I Samuel 16.
Abner: "the captain of the host" (I Samuel 17: 55).

46] jerboa: a small rodent, which in the proportions of its fore and hind limbs and in its motions resembles the kangaroo.

66] male-sapphires. The dark-coloured were so called.

102] strains: seemingly refers to the emotion of rapture passing through the host.

208] Hebron: a town south-west of Jerusalem; here Browning is evidently speaking of a mountain.

209] Kidron: a brook; II Samuel 15: 23.

297] Sabaoth: Hebrew word meaning "armies" or "hosts."


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: Robert Browning, Men and Women, 2 vols. (1855.) Rev. 1863.
First publication date: 1855
RPO poem editor: F. E. L. Priestley
RP edition: 3RP 3.116.
Recent editing: 2:2002/1/10

Form: couplets


Other poems by Robert Browning