The Romance of the Lily

Ever love the lily pale,
The flower of ladies’ breasts;
   For there is passion on its cheek,
   Its leaves a timorous sorrow speak,
And its perfume sighs a gentle tale
To its own young buds, and the wooing gale,
      And the piteous dew that near it rests.
It is no earthly common flower
   For man to pull, and maidens wear
   On the wreathed midnight of their hair.
Deep affection is its dower;
   For Venus kissed it as it sprung,
      And gave it one immortal tear,
   When the forgotten goddess hung,
Woe-bowed o’er Adon’s daisied bier:
Its petals, brimmed with cool sweet air,
Are chaste as the words of a virgin’s prayer;
   And it lives alight in the greenwood shade,
      Like a love-thought, chequered o’er with fear,
   In the memory of that self-same maid.

I ever have loved the lily pale,
   For the sake of one whom heaven has ta’en
   From the prison of man, the palace of pain.
      In autumn, Mary, thou didst die;
(Die! no, thou didst not—but some other way
Wentest to bliss; she could not die like men;
      Immortal into immortality
She went; our sorrows know she went:) and then
   We laid her in a grassy bed
      (The mortal her) to live for ever,
   And there was nought above her head,
      No flower to bend, no leaf to quiver.
At length, in spring, her beauty dear,
Awakened by my well-known tear,
      And at its thrill returning,
      Or her love and anguish burning,
         Wrought spells within the earth;
         For a human bloom, a baby flower,
      Uprose in talismanic birth;
   Where foliage was forbid to wave,
         Engendered by no seed or shower,
   A lily grew on Mary’s grave.

Last eve I lay by that blossom fair,
      Alone I lay to think and weep;
   An awe was on the fading hour:
   And ‘midst the sweetness of the flower
There played a star of plumage rare,
   A bird from off the ebon trees,
      That grow o’er midnight’s rocky steep;
   One of those whose glorious eyes,
      In miriads sown, the restless sees,
   And thinks what lustrous dew there lies
   Upon the violets of the skies:—
      And to itself unnumbered ditties
         Sang that angel nightingale,
      Secrets of the heavenly cities;
         And many a strange and fearful word,
         Which in her arbour she had heard,
         When the court of seraphs sate
         To seal some ghost’s eternal fate;
      And the wind, beneath whose current deep
      My soul was pillowed in her sleep,
         Thus breathed the mystic warbler’s tale-

KING BALTHASAR has a tower of gold,
      And rubies pave his hall;
   A magic sun of diamond blazes
      Above his palace wall;
   And beaming spheres play round in mazes,
With locks of incense o’er them rolled.
         Young Balthasar is the Libyan king,
   The lord of wizard sages;
      He hath read the sun, he hath read the moon,—
   Heaven’s thoughts are on their pages;
      He knows the meaning of night and noon,
         And the spell on morning’s wing:
   The ocean he hath studied well,
      Its maddest waves he hath subdued,
         Beneath an icy yoke,
         And lashed them till they howled, and spoke
      The mysteries of the Titan brood,
   And all their god forbade them tell.
      He hath beheld the storm,
      When the phantom of its form
         Leans out of heaven to trace,
            Upon the earth and sea,
         And air’s cerulean face,
   In earthquake, thunder, war, and fire,
   And pestilence, and madness dire,
            That mighty woe, futurity.

From the roof of his tower he talks to Jove,
As the god enthroned sits above:
Night roosts upon his turret’s height,
And the sun is the clasp of its girdle of light;
And the stars upon his terrace dwell:—
But the roots of that tower are snakes in hell.
Balthasar’s soul is a curse and a sin,
And nothing is human that dwells within,
   But a tender, beauteous love,
      That grows upon his haunted heart,
Like a scented bloom on a madhouse-wall;
For, amid the wrath and roar of all,
      It gathers life with blessed art,
   And calmly blossoms on above.

Bright Sabra, when thy thoughts are seen
   Moving within those azure eyes,
Like spirits in a star at e’en;
   And when that little dimple flies,
      As air upon a rosy bush,
      To hide behind thy fluttering blush;
   When kisses those rich lips unclose,
   And love’s own music from them flows;
   A god might love,—a demon does.
   —’Tis night upon the sprinkled sky,
   And on their couch of roses
      The king and lady lie,
   While the tremulous lid of each discloses
      A narrow streak of the living eye;
As when a beetle, afloat in the sun,
On a rocking leaf, has just begun
   To sever the clasp of his outer wing,
      So lightly, that you scarce can see
His little, lace pinions’ delicate fold,
And a line of his body of breathing gold,
   Girt with many a panting ring,
Before it quivers, and shuts again,
Like a smothered regret in the breast of men,
      Or a sigh on the lips of chastity.

One bright hand, dawning through her hair,
Bids it be black, itself as fair
   As the cold moon’s palest daughter,
The last dim star, with doubtful ray
Snow-like melting into day,
   Echoed to the eye on water:
Round his neck and on his breast
   The other curls, and bends its bell
   Petalled inward as it fell,
Like a tented flower at rest.
   She dreams of him, for rayed joys hover
      In dimples round her timorous lip,
   And she turns to clasp her sleeping lover,
Kissing the lid of his tender eye,
And brushing off the dews that lie
      Upon its lash’s tip;
   And now she stirs no more,—
      But the thoughts of her breast are still,
      As a song of a frozen rill
   Which winter spreads his dark roof o’er.
      In the still and moony hour
         Of that calm entwining sleep,
   From the utmost tombs of earth
   The vision-land of death and birth,
      Came a black, malignant power,
         A spectre of the desert deep:
And it is Plague, the spotted fiend, the drunkard of the tomb;
Upon her mildewed temples the thunderbolts of doom,
And blight-buds of hell’s red fire, like gory wounds in bloom,
         Are twisted for a wreath;
And there’s a chalice in her hand, whence bloody flashes gleam,
While struggling snakes with arrowy tongues twist o’er it for a steam,
And its liquor is of Phlegethon, and Ætna’s wrathful stream,
         And icy dews of death.

   Like a rapid dream she came,
   And vanished like the flame
      Of a burning ship at sea,
   But to his shrinking lips she pressed
      The cup of boiling misery,
   And he quaffed it in his tortured rest,
      And woke in the pangs of lunacy.
         As a buried soul awaking
            From the cycle of its sleep,
      Panic-struck and sad doth lie
      Beneath its mind’s dim canopy,
         And marks the stars of memory breaking
            From ‘neath oblivion’s ebbing deep,
      While clouds of doubt bewilder the true sky,—
         So in the hieroglyphic portal
            Of his dreams sate Balthasar,
      Awake amidst his slumbering senses,
         And felt as feels man’s ghost immortal,
      Whom the corpse’s earthen fences
            From his vast existence bar.
      The pestilence was in his breast,
         And boiled and bubbled o’er his brain;
      His thoughtless eyes in their unrest
         Would have burst their circling chain,
      Scattering their fiery venom wide,
         But for the soft, endearing rain,
      With which the trembler at his side
Fed those gushing orbs of white,
As evening feeds the waves, with looks of quiet light.
      The tear upon his cheek’s fierce flush;
         The cool breath on his brow;
      And the healthy presage of a blush,
         Sketched in faint tints behind his skin;
         And the hush of settling thoughts within,
   Sabra hath given, and she will need them now.
      For, as the echo of a grove
      Keeps its dim shadow ‘neath some song of love,
         And gives her life away to it in sound,
      Soft spreading her wild harmony,
      Like a tress of smoking censery,
         Or a ring of water round,—
      So all the flowery wealth
      Of her happiness and health
   Untwined from Sabra’s strength, and grew
      Into the blasted stem of Balthasar’s pale life,
   And his is the beauty and bliss that flew
      On the wings of her love from his sinking wife.
         The fading wanness of despair
            Was the one colour of her cheek,
         And tears upon her bosom fair
            Wrote the woe she dared not speak;
         But life was in her. Yes: it played
            In tremulous and fitful grace,
         Like a flame’s reflected breath
         Shivering in the throes of death
            Against the monumental face
         Of some sad, voiceless marble maid.
      And what is a woman to Balthasar,
         Whom love has weakened, bowed,and broken?
      Upon his forehead’s darksome war,
         His lip’s curled meaning, yet unspoken,
      The lowering of his wrinkled brow,
‘Tis graved,—he spurns, he loaths her now.

      Along the sea, at night’s black noon,
         Alone the king and lady float,
         With music in a snowy boat,
      That glides in light, an ocean-moon;
         From billow to billow it dances,
         And the spray around it glances,
         And the mimic rocks and caves,
         Beneath the mountains of the waves,
         Reflect a joyous song
         As the merry bark is borne along;
         And now it stays its eager sail
         Within a dark sepulchral vale,
            Amid the living Alps of Ocean,
         ‘Round which the crags in tumult rise
         And make a fragment of the skies;
            Beneath whose precipice’s motion
         The folded dragons of the deep
         Lie with lidless eyes asleep:
            It pauses; and—Is that a shriek
               That agonizes the still air,
            And makes the dead day move and speak
         From beneath its midnight pall,—
         Or the ruined billow’s fall?
               The boat is soaring lighter there,
         The voice of woman sounds no more.—
         That night the water-crescent bore
         Dark Balthasar alone unto the living shore.

            Tears, tears for Sabra; who will weep?
      O blossoms, ye have dew,
      And grief-dissembling storms might strew
            Thick-dropping woe upon her sleep.
         False sea, why dost thou look like sorrow,
         Why is thy cold heart of water?
      Or rather why are tears of thee
      Compassionless, bad sea?
         For not a drop does thy stern spirit borrow,
         To mourn o’er beauty’s fairest daughter.
      Heaven, blue heaven, thou art not kind,
         Or else the sun is not thine eye,
      For thou should’st be with weeping blind,
         Not thus forgetful, bright, and dry.
      O that I were a plume of snow,
   To melt away and die
   In a long chain of bubbling harmony!—
         My tribute shall be sweet tho’ small;
      A cup of the vale-lily bloom
   Filled with white and liquid woe—
         Give it to her ocean-pall:
   With such deluge-seeds I’ll sow
      Her mighty, elemental tomb,
   Until the lamentations grow
   Into a foaming crop of populous overflow.

      Hither, like a bird of prey,
         Whom red anticipations feed,
      Flaming along the fearful day
         Revenge’s thirsty hour doth fly.
   Heaven has said a fearful word;
   (Which hell’s eternal labyrinths heard,
   And the wave of time
   Shall answer to the depths sublime,
         Reflecting it in deed;)
         “Balthasar the king must die.”
   Must die; for all his power is fled,
         His spells dissolved, his spirits gone,
   And magic cannot ease the bed
         Where lies the necromant alone.
      What thought is gnawing in his heart,
   What struggles madly in his brain?
   See, the force, the fiery pain
      Of silence makes his eyeballs start.
         O ease thy bosom, dare to tell—
   But grey-haired pity speaks in vain;
         That bitter shriek, that hopeless yell,
         Has given the secret safe to hell.
   Like a ruffled nightingale,
         Balanced upon dewy wings,
   Through the palace weeps the tale,
         Leaving tears, where’er she sings:
   And, around the icy dead,
         Maids are winding
   Kingly robes of mocking lead,
         And with leafy garlands binding
   The unresisting, careless head:
   Gems are flashing, garments wave
   ‘Round the bridegroom of the grave.
   Hark! A shout of wild surprise,
         A burst of terrible amaze!
   The lids are moving up his eyes,
         They open, kindle, beam, and gaze.—
   Grave, thy bars are broken,
         Quenched the flames of pain,
   Falsely fate hath spoken,
         The dead is born again.
   As when the moon and shadows’ strife,
         On some rebellious night,
   Looks a pale statue into life,
         And gives his watching form the action of their light,—
   So stilly strode the awakened one,
   And with the voice of stone,
      Which troubled caverns screech,
         Cursing the tempest’s maniac might,
      He uttered human speech.
   “Tremble, living ones, and hear;
   By the name of death and fear,
   By lightning, earthquake, fire and war,
   And him whose snakes and hounds they are,
   From whose judgment-seat I come,
   Listen, crouch, be dumb.
   My soul is drowned beneath a flood
   Of conscience, red with Sabra’s blood;
      And, from yon blue infinity,
         Doomed and tortured I am sent
      To confess the deed and fly:
         Wail not for me,—yourselves repent:
         Eternity is punishment;
      Listen, crouch, and die.”
         With that word his body fell,
   As dust upon the storm,—
   Flash-like darkened was his form;
   While through their souls in horror rang
   The dragon-shout, the thunderous clang
         Of the closing gates of hell.

[Kelsall, 1851]