John Jones's Wife

A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne


At The Piano

Love me and leave me; what love bids retrieve me? can June's fist grasp May?
Leave me and love me; hopes eyed once above me like spring's sprouts decay;
Fall as the snow falls, when summer leaves grow false, cards packed for storm's play!

Nay, say Decay's self be but last May's elf, wing shifted, eye sheathed,
Changeling in April's crib rocked, who lets 'scape rills locked fast since frost breathed,
Skin cast (think!) adder-like, now bloom bursts bladder-like, bloom frost bequeathed?

Ah, how can fear sit and hear as love hears it grief's heart's cracked grate's screech?
Chance lets the gate sway that opens on hate's way and shews on shame's beach
Crouched like an imp sly change watch sweet love's shrimps lie, a toothful in each.

Time feels his tooth slip on husks wet from Truth's lip, which drops them and grins,
Shells where no throb stirs of life left in lobsters since joy thrilled their fins
Hues of the prawn's tail or comb that makes dawn stale, so red for our sins!

Years blind and deaf use the soul's joys as refuse, heart's peace as manure,
Reared whence, next June's rose shall bloom where our moons rose last year, just as pure:
Moons' ends match roses' ends: men by beasts' noses' ends mete sin's stink's cure.

Leaves love last year smelt now feel dead love's tears melt, flies caught in time's mesh!
Salt are the dews in which new time breeds new sin, brews blood and stews flesh;
Next year may see dead more germs than this weeded and reared them afresh.

Old times left perish, there's new time to cherish; life just shifts its tune;
As, when the day dies, earth, half afraid, eyes the growth of the moon;
Love me and save me, take me or waive me; death takes one so soon!


By The Cliff

Is it daytime (guess),
You that feed my soul
To excess
With that light in those eyes
And those curls drawn like a scroll
In that round grave guise?
No or yes?

Oh, the end, I'd say!
Such a foolish thing
(Pure girls' play!)
As a mere mute heart,
Was it worth a kiss, a ring,
This? for two must part,
Not to-day.

Look, the whole sand crawls,
Hums, a heaving hive,
Scrapes and scrawls
Such a buzz and burst!
Here just one thing's not alive,
One that was at first,
But life palls.

Yes, my heart, I know,
Just my heart's stone dead,
Yes, just so.
Sick with heat, those worms
Drop down scorched and overfed,
No more need of germs!
Let them go.

Yes, but you now, look,
You, the rouged stage female
With a crook,
Chalked Arcadian sham,
You that made my soul's sleep's dream ail,
Your soul fit to damn?
Shut the book.


On The Sands

There was nothing at all in the case (conceive)
But love; being love, it was not (understand)
Such a thing as the years let fall (believe)
Like the rope's coil dropt from a fisherman's hand
When the boat's hauled up, "by your leave!"

So, well! How that crab writhes, leg after leg
Drawn, as a worm draws ring upon ring
Gradually, not gladly! Chicken or egg,
Is it more than the ransom (say) of a king
(Take my meaning at least) that I beg?

Not so! You were ready to learn, I think,
What the world said! "He loves you too well (suppose)
For such leanings! These poets, their love's mere ink,
Like a flower, their flame flashes, a rosebud, blows,
Then it all drops down at a wink!

"Ah, the instance! A curl of a blossomless vine
The vinedresser passing it sickens to see
And mutters 'Much hope (under God) of His wine
From the branch and the bark of a barren tree
Spring reared not, and winter lets pine.

"'His wine that should glorify (saith He) the cup
That a man beholding (not tasting) might say
"Pour out life at a draught, drain it dry, drink it up,
Give this one thing, and huddle the rest away,
Save the bitch, and be hanged to the pup!"

"'Let it rot then!' which saying, he leaves it, we'll guess,
Feels (if the sap move at all) thus much,
Yearns, and would blossom, would quicken no less,
Bud at an eye's glance, flower at a touch,
'Die, perhaps, would you not, for her?' 'Yes!'

"Note the hitch there! That's piteous, so much being done,
(He'll think some day, your lover) so little to do!
Such infinite days to wear out, once begun!
Since the hand its glove holds, and the footsole its shoe,
Overhead too there's always the sun!"

Oh, no doubt they had said so, your friends, been profuse
Of good counsel, wise hints, "where the trap lurks, walk warily,
Squeeze the fruit to the core ere you count on the juice!
For the graft may fail, shift, wax, change colour, wane, vary, lie"
You were cautious, God knows, to what use?

This crab's wiser, it strikes me, no twist but implies life,
Not a curl but's so fit you could find none fitter,
For the brute from its brutehood looks up thus and eyes life,
Stoop your soul down and listen, you'll hear it twitter,
Laughing lightly, my crab's life's the wise life!

Those who've read S. T. Coleridge remember how Sammy sighs
To his pensive (I think he says) Sara, "most soothing-sweet"
Crab's bulk's less (look!) than man's, yet (quoth Cancer) I am my size,
And my bulk's girth contents me! Man's maw (see?) craves two things, wheat
And flesh likewise, man's gluttonous, damn his eyes!

Crab's content with crab's provender: crab's love, if soothing,
Is no sweeter than pincers are soft, and a new sickle
Cuts no sharper than crab's claws nip, keen as boar's toothing!
Yet crab's love's no less fervent than bard's, if less musical,
'Tis a new thing I'd lilt, but a true thing.

Old songs tell us, of all drinks for Englishmen fighting, ale's
Out and out best: salt water contents crab, it seems to me,
Though pugnacious as sailors, and skilled to steer right in gales
That craze pilots, if slow to sing, "Sleep'st thou? thou dream'st o' me!"
In such love-strains as mine, or a nightingale's.

Ah, now, look you, tail foremost, the beast sets seaward,
The sea draws it, sand sucks it, he's wise, my crab!
From the napkin out jumps his one talent, good steward,
Just judge! So a man shirks the smile or the stab,
And sets his sail duly to leeward!

Trust me? Hardly! I bid you not lean (remark)
On my spirit, your spirit, my flesh, your flesh,
Hold my hand, and tread safe through the horrible dark,
Quench my soul as with sprinklings of snow, then refresh
With some blast of new bellows the spark!

By no means! This were easy (men tell me) to say,
"Give her all, throw your chance up, fall back on her heart!"
(Say my friends) "she must change! after night follows day,"
No such fool! I am safe set in hell, for my part,
So let heaven do the worst now he may!

What they bid me? Well, this, nothing more, "Tell her this,
'You are mine, I yours, though the whole world fail,
Though things are not, I know there is one thing which is,
Though the oars break, there's hope for us yet, hoist the sail!
Oh, your heart! what's the heart? but your kiss!'

"Then she breaks, she drops down, she lies flat at your feet,
Take her then!" Well, I knew it, what fools are men!
Take the bee by her horns, will your honey prove sweet?
Sweet is grass, will you pasture your cows in a fen?
Oh, if contraries could but once meet!

Love you call it? Some twitch in the moon's face (observe),
Wet blink of her eyelid, tear dropt about dewfall,
Cheek flushed or obscured, does it make the sky swerve?
Fetch the test, work the question to rags, bring to proof all,
Find what souls want and bodies deserve!

Ah, we know you! Your soul works to infinite ends,
Frets, uses life up for death's sake, takes pains,
Flings down love's self, "but you, bear me witness, my friends!
Have I lost spring? count up (see) the winter's fresh gains!
Is the shrub spoilt? the pine's hair impends!"

What, you'd say, "Mark how God works! Years crowd, time wears thin,
Earth keeps good yet, the sun goes on, stars hold their own,
And you'll change, climb past sight of the world, shift your skin,
Never heeding how life moans, 'more flesh now, less bone!'
For that cheek's worn waste outline (death's grin)

"Pleads with time still, 'what good if I lose this? but see,'"
(There's the crab gone!) "'I said, "Though earth sinks,"'" (you perceive?
Ah, true, back there!) your soul now," '"yet some vein might be
(Could one find it alive in the heart's core's pulse, cleave
Through the life-springs where "you" melts in "me").

"'"Some true vein of the absolute soul, which survives
All that flesh runs to waste through", and lo, this fails!
Here's death close on us! One life? a million of lives!
Why choose one sail to watch of these infinite sails?
Time's a tennis-play? thank you, no, fives!

"'Stop life's ball then!' Such folly! melt earth down for that,
Till the pure ore eludes you and leaves you raw scoriæ?
Pish, the vein's wrong!" But you, friends, come, what were you at
When God spat you out suddenly? what was the story He
Cut short thus, the growth He laid flat?

Wait! the crab's twice alive, mark! Oh, worthy, your soul,
Of strange ends, great results, novel labours! Take note,
I reject this for one! (ay, now, straight to the hole!
Safe in sand there, your skirts smooth out all as they float!)
I, shirk drinking through flaws in the bowl?

Or suppose now that rock's cleft, grim, scored to the quick,
As a man's face kept fighting all life through gets scored,
Mossed and marked with grey purulent leprosies, sick,
Flat and foul as man's life here (be swift with your sword,
Cut the soul out, stuck fast where thorns prick!)

Say it let the rock's heart out, its meaning, the thing
All was made for, devised, ruled out gradually, planned,
Ah, that sea-shell, perhaps, since it lies, such a ring
Of pure colour, a cup full of sunbeams, to stand
(Say, in Lent) at the priest's hand,(no king!)

Blame the cleft then? Praise rather! So, just a chance gone!
Had you said, "Save the seed and secure souls in flower",
Ah, how time laughs, years palpitate, pro grapples con,
Till one day you shrug shoulders, "Well, gone, the good hour!"
Till one night, "Is God off now? or on?"


Up The Spout

Hi! Just you drop that! Stop, I say!
Shirk work, think slink off, twist friend's wrist?
Where that spined sand's lined band's the bay,
Lined blind with true sea's blue, as due,
Promising, not to pay?

For the sea's debt leaves wet the sand;
Burst worst fate's weights in one burst gun?
A man's own yacht, blown, What? off land?
Tack back, or veer round here, then, queer!
Reef points, though, understand?

I'm blest if I do. Sigh? be blowed!
Love's doves make break life's ropes, eh? Tropes!
Faith's brig, baulked, sides caulked, rides at road;
Hope's gropes befogged, storm-dogged and bogged,
Clogged, water-logged, her load!

Stowed, by Jove, right and tight, away!
No show now how best plough sea's brow,
Wrinkling, breeze quick, tease thick, ere day,
Clear sheer wave's sheen of green, I mean,
With twinkling wrinkles, eh?

Sea sprinkles winkles, tinkles light
Shells' bells, boy's joys that hap to snap!
It's just sea's fun, breeze done, to spite
God's rods that scourge her surge, I'd urge,
Not proper, is it, quite?

See, fore and aft, life's craft undone!
Crank plank, split spritsail, mark, sea's lark!
That grey cold sea's old sprees, begun
When men lay dark i' the ark, no spark,
All water, just God's fun!

Not bright, at best, his jest to these
Seemed, screamed, shrieked, wreaked on kin for sin!
When for mirth's yell earth's knell seemed please
Some dumb new grim great whim in him
Made Jews take chalk for cheese.

Could God's rods bruise God's Jews? Their jowls
Bobbed, sobbed, gaped, aped the plaice in face:
None heard, 'tis odds, his, God's, folk's howls.
Now, how must I apply, to try
This hookiest-beaked of owls?

Well, I suppose God knows, I don't.
Time's crimes mark dark men's types, in stripes
Broad as fen's lands men's hands were wont
Leave grieve unploughed, though proud and loud
With birds' words, No! he won't!

One never should think good impossible.
Eh? say I'd hide this Jew's oil's cruse,
His shop might hold bright gold, engrossible
By spy, spring's air takes there no care
To wave the heath-flower's glossy bell!

But gold bells chime in time there, coined,
Gold! Old Sphinx winks there, "Read my screed!"
Doctrine Jews learn, use, burn for, joined
(Through new craft's stealth) with health and wealth,
At once all three purloined!

I rose with dawn, to pawn, no doubt,
(Miss this chance, glance untried aside?)
John's shirt, my, no! Ay, so, the lout!
Let yet the door gape, store on floor
And not a soul about?

Such men lay traps, perhaps, and I'm
Weak, meek, mild, child of woe, you know!
But theft, I doubt, my lout calls crime.
Shrink? Think! Love's dawn in pawn, you spawn
Of Jewry! Just in time!


Off The Pier

One last glance at these sands and stones!
Time goes past men, and lives to his liking,
Steals, and ruins, and sometimes atones.
Why should he be king, though, and why not I king?
There now, that wind, like a swarm of sick drones!

Is it heaven or mere earth (come!) that moves so and moans?
Oh, I knew, when you loved me, my soul was in flowerage,
Now the frost comes; from prime, though, I watched through to nones,
Read love's litanies over, his age was not our age!
No more flutes in this world for me now, dear! trombones.

All that youth once denied and made mouths at, age owns.
Facts put fangs out and bite us; life stings and grows viperous;
And time's fugues are a hubbub of meaningless tones.
Once we followed the piper; now why not the piper us?
Love, grown grey, plays mere solos; we want antiphones.

And we sharpen our wits up with passions for hones,
Melt down loadstars for magnets, use women for whetstones,
Learn to bear with dead calms by remembering cyclones,
Snap strings short with sharp thumbnails, till silence begets tones,
Burn our souls out, shift spirits, turn skins and change zones;

Then the heart, when all's done with, wakes, whimpers, intones
Some lost fragment of tune it thought sweet ere it grew sick;
(Is it life that disclaims this, or death that disowns?)
Mere dead metal, scrawled bars, ah, one touch, you make music!
Love's worth saving, youth doubts, but experience depones.

In the darkness (right Dickens) of Tom-All-Alone's
Or the Morgue out in Paris, where tragedy centuples
Life's effects by Death's algebra, Shakespeare (Malone's)
Might have said sleep was murdered, new scholiasts have sent you pills
To purge text of him! Bread? give me, Scotticè, scones!

Think, what use, when youth's saddle galls bay's back or roan's,
To seek chords on love's keys to strike, other than his chords?
There's an error joy winks at and grief half condones,
Or life's counterpoint grates the C major of discords,
'Tis man's choice 'twixt sluts rose-crowned and queens age dethrones.

I for instance might groan as a bag-pipe groans,
Give the flesh of my heart for sharp sorrows to flagellate,
Grief might grind my cheeks down, age make sticks of my bones,
(Though a queen drowned in tears must be worth more than Madge elate)1
Rose might turn burdock, and pine-apples cones;

My skin might change to a pitiful crone's,
My lips to a lizard's, my hair to weed,
My features, in fact, to a series of loans;
Thus much is conceded; now, you, concede
You would hardly salute me by choice, John Jones?

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