A Forgiveness

A poem by Robert Browning

I am indeed the personage you know.
As for my wife, what happened long ago
You have a right to question me, as I
Am bound to answer.

(“Son, a fit reply!”
The monk half spoke, half ground through his clenched teeth,
At the confession-grate I knelt beneath.)

Thus then all happened, Father! Power and place
I had as still I have. I ran life’s race,
With the whole world to see, as only strains
His strength some athlete whose prodigious gains
Of good appall him: happy to excess,
Work freely done should balance happiness
Fully enjoyed; and, since beneath my roof
Housed she who made home heaven, in heaven’s behoof
I went forth every day, and all day long
Worked for the world. Look, how the laborer’s song
Cheers him! Thus sang my soul, at each sharp throe
Of laboring flesh and blood, “She loves me so!”

One day, perhaps such song so knit the nerve
That work grew play and vanished. “I deserve
Haply my heaven an hour before the time!”
I laughed, as silverly the clockhouse-chime
Surprised me passing through the postern-gate
Not the main entry where the menials wait
And wonder why the world’s affairs allow
The master sudden leisure. That was how
I took the private garden-way for once.

Forth from the alcove, I saw start, ensconce
Himself behind the porphyry vase, a man.

My fancies in the natural order ran:
“A spy, perhaps a foe in ambuscade,
A thief, more like, a sweetheart of some maid
Who pitched on the alcove for tryst perhaps.”

“Stand there!” I bid.

Whereat my man but wraps
His face the closelier with uplifted arm
Whereon the cloak lies, strikes in blind alarm
This and that pedestal as, stretch and stoop,
Now in, now out of sight, he thrids the group
Of statues, marble god and goddess ranged
Each side the pathway, till the gate’s exchanged
For safety: one step thence, the street, you know!

Thus far I followed with my gaze. Then, slow,
Near on admiringly, I breathed again,
And back to that last fancy of the train
“A danger risked for hope of just a word
With which of all my nest may be the bird
This poacher covets for her plumage, pray?
Carmen? Juana? Carmen seems too gay
For such adventure, while Juana’s grave
Would scorn the folly. I applaud the knave!
He had the eye, could single from my brood
His proper fledgeling!”

As I turned, there stood
In face of me, my wife stone-still stone-white.
Whether one bound had brought her, at first sight
Of what she judged the encounter, sure to be
Next moment, of the venturous man and me,
Brought her to clutch and keep me from my prey:
Whether impelled because her death no day
Could come so absolutely opportune
As now at joy’s height, like a year in June
Stayed at the fall of its first ripened rose;
Or whether hungry for my hate, who knows?
Eager to end an irksome lie, and taste
Our tingling true relation, hate embraced
By hate one naked moment: anyhow
There stone-still stone-white stood my wife, but now
The woman who made heaven within my house.
Ay, she who faced me was my very spouse
As well as love, you are to recollect!

“Stay!” she said. “Keep at least one soul unspecked
With crime, that’s spotless hitherto, your own!
Kill me who court the blessing, who alone
Was, am, and shall be guilty, first to last!
The man lay helpless in the toils I cast
About him, helpless as the statue there
Against that strangling bell-flower’s bondage: tear
Away and tread to dust the parasite,
But do the passive marble no despite!
I love him as I hate you. Kill me! Strike
At one blow both infinitudes alike
Out of existence, hate and love! Whence love?
That’s safe inside my heart, nor will remove
For any searching of your steel, I think.
Whence hate? The secret lay on lip, at brink
Of speech, in one fierce tremble to escape,
At every form wherein your love took shape;
At each new provocation of your kiss.
Kill me!”

We went in.

Next day after this,
I felt as if the speech might come. I spoke,
Easily, after all.

“The lifted cloak
Was screen sufficient: I concern myself
Hardly with laying hands on who for pelf,
Whate’er the ignoble kind, may prowl and brave
Cuffing and kicking proper to a knave
Detected by my household’s vigilance.
Enough of such! As for my love-romance,
I, like our good Hidalgo, rub my eyes
And wake and wonder how the film could rise
Which changed for me a barbers’ basin straight
Into, Mambrino’s helm? I hesitate
Nowise to say, God’s sacramental cup!
Why should I blame the brass which, burnished up,
Will blaze, to all but me, as good as gold?
To me, a warning I was overbold
In judging metals. The Hidalgo waked
Only to die, if I remember, staked
His life upon the basin’s worth, and lost:
While I confess torpidity at most
In here and there a limb; but, lame and halt,
Still should I work on, still repair my fault
Ere I took rest in death, no fear at all!
Now, work no word before the curtain fall!”

The “curtain”? That of death on life, I meant:
My “word,” permissible in death’s event,
Would be, truth, soul to soul; for, other-wise,
Day by day, three years long, there had to rise
And, night by night, to fall upon our stage,
Ours, doomed to public play by heritage,
Another curtain, when the world, perforce
Our critical assembly, in due course
Came and went, witnessing, gave praise or blame
To art-mimetic. It had spoiled the game
If, suffered to set foot behind our scene,
The world had witnessed how stage-king and queen,
Gallant and lady, but a minute since
Enarming each the other, would evince
No sign of recognition as they took
His way and her way to whatever nook
Waited them in the darkness either side
Of that bright stage where lately groom and bride
Had fired the audience to a frenzy-fit
Of sympathetic rapture, every whit
Earned as the curtain fell on her and me,
Actors. Three whole years, nothing was to see
But calm and concord: where a speech was due
There came the speech; when the smiles were wanted too,
Smiles were as ready. In a place like mine,
Where foreign and domestic cares combine,
There’s audience every day and all day long;
But finally the last of the whole throng
Who linger lets one see his back. For her,
Why, liberty and liking: I aver,
Liking and liberty! For me, I breathed,
Let my face rest from every wrinkle wreathed
Smile-like about the mouth, unlearned my task
Of personation till next day bade mask,
And quietly betook me from that world
To the real world, not pageant: there unfurled
In work, its wings, my soul, the fretted power.
Three years I worked, each minute of each hour
Not claimed by acting: work I may dispense
With talk about, since work in evidence,
Perhaps in history; who knows or cares?

After three years, this way, all unawares,
Our acting ended. She and I, at close
Of a loud night-feast, led, between two rows
Of bending male and female loyalty,
Our lord the king down staircase, while, held high
At arm’s length did the twisted tapers’ flare
Herald his passage from our palace, where
Such visiting left glory evermore.
Again the ascent in public, till at door
As we two stood by the saloon, now blank
And disencumbered of its guests, there sank
A whisper in my ear, so low and yet
So unmistakable!

“I half forget
The chamber you repair to, and I want
Occasion for one short word, if you grant
That grace, within a certain room yon: called
Our ‘Study,’ for you wrote there while I scrawled
Some paper full of faces for my sport.
That room I can remember. Just one short
Word with you there, for the remembrance’ sake!”

“Follow me thither I” I replied.

We break
The gloom a little, as with guiding lamp
I lead the way, leave warmth and cheer, by damp
Blind disused serpentining ways afar
From where the habitable chambers are,
Ascend, descend stairs tunnelled through the stone,
Always in silence, till I reach the lone
Chamber sepulchred for my very own
Out of the palace-quarry. When a boy,
Here was my fortress, stronghold from annoy,
Proof-positive of ownership; in youth
I garnered up my gleanings here uncouth
But precious relics of vain hopes, vain fears;
Finally, this became in after-years
My closet of entrenchment to withstand
Invasion of the foe on every hand,
The multifarious herd in bower and hall,
State-room, rooms whatsoe’er the style, which call
On masters to be mindful that, before
Men, they must look like men and something more.
Here, when our lord the king’s bestowment ceased
To deck me on the day that, golden-fleeced,
I touched ambition’s height, ’twas here, released
From glory (always symbolled by a chain!)
No sooner was I privileged to gain
My secret domicile than glad I flung
That last toy on the table gazed where hung
On hook my father’s gift, the arquebus
And asked myself, “Shall I envisage thus
The new prize and the old prize, when I reach
Another year’s experience? own that each
Equalled advantage, sportsman’s, states-man’s tool?
That brought me down an eagle, this, a fool!”

Into which room on entry, I set down
The lamp, and turning saw whose rustled gown
Had told me my wife followed, pace for pace.
Each of us looked the other in the face.
She spoke. “Since I could die now” . . .

(To explain
Why that first struck me, know, not once again
Since the adventure at the porphyry’s edge
Three years before, which sundered like a wedge
Her soul from mine, though daily, smile to smile,
We stood before the public, all the while
Not once bad I distinguished, in that face
I paid observance to, the faintest trace
Of feature more than requisite for eyes
To do their duty by and recognize:
So did I force mine to obey my will
And pry no further. There exists such skill,
Those know who need it. What physician shrinks
From needful contact with a corpse? He drinks
No plague so long as thirst for knowledge not
An idler impulse prompts inquiry. What,
And will you disbelieve in power to bid
Our spirit back to bounds, as though we chid
A child from scrutiny that’s just and right
In manhood? Sense, not soul, accomplished sight,
Reported daily she it was not how
Nor why a change had come to cheek and brow.)

“Since I could die now of the truth concealed,
Yet dare not, must not die, so seems revealed
The Virgin’s mind to me, for death means peace
Wherein no lawful part have I, whose lease
Of life and punishment the truth avowed
May haply lengthen, let me push the shroud
Away, that steals to muffle ere is just
My penance-fire in snow! I dare I must
Live, by avowal of the truth, this truth,
I loved you! Thanks for the fresh serpent’s tooth
That, by a prompt new pang more exquisite
Than all preceding torture, proves me right!
I loved you yet I lost you! May I go
Burn to the ashes, now my shame you know?”

I think there never was such, how express?
Horror coquetting with voluptuousness,
As in those arms of Eastern workmanship,
Yataghan, kandjar, things that rend and rip,
Gash rough, slash smooth, help hate so many ways,
Yet ever keep a beauty that betrays
Love still at work with the artificer
Throughout his quaint devising. Why prefer,
Except for love’s sake, that a blade should writhe
And bicker like a flame? now play the scythe
As if some broad neck tempted, now contract
And needle off into a fineness lacked
For just that puncture which the heart demands?
Then, such adornment! Wherefore need our hands
Enclose not ivory alone, nor gold
Roughened for use, but jewels? Nay, behold!
Fancy my favorite, which I seem to grasp
While I describe the luxury. No asp
Is diapered more delicate round throat
Than this below the handle! These denote
These mazy lines meandering, to end
Only in flesh they open, what intend
They else but water-purlings, pale contrast
With the life-crimson where they blend at last?
And mark the handle’s dim pellucid green,
Carved, the hard jadestone, as you pinch a bean,
Into a sort of parrot-bird! He pecks
A grape-bunch; his two eyes are ruby-specks
Pure from the mine: seen this way, glassy blank,
But turn them, lo, the inmost fire, that shrank
From sparkling, sends a red dart right to aim!
Why did I choose such toys? Perhaps the game
Of peaceful men is warlike, just as men
War-wearied get amusement from that pen
And paper we grow sick of, statesfolk tired
Of merely (when such measures are required)
Dealing out doom to people by three words,
A signature and seal: we play with swords
Suggestive of quick process. That is how
I came to like the toys described you now,
Store of which glittered on the walls and strewed
The table, even, while my wife pursued
Her purpose to its ending. “Now you know
This shame, my three years’ torture, let me go,
Burn to the very ashes! You, I lost,
Yet you, I loved!”

The thing I pity most
In men is, action prompted by surprise
Of anger: men? nay, bulls, whose onset lies
At instance of the firework and the goad!
Once the foe prostrate, trampling once bestowed,
Prompt follows placability, regret,
Atonement. Trust me, blood-warmth never yet
Betokened strong will! As no leap of pulse
Pricked me, that first time, so did none convulse
My veins at this occasion for resolve.
Had that devolved which did not then devolve
Upon me, I had done, what now to do
Was quietly apparent.

“Tell me who
The man was, crouching by the porphyry vase!”

“No, never! All was folly in his case,
All guilt in mine. I tempted, he complied.”

“And yet you loved me?”

“Loved you. Double-dyed
In folly and in guilt, I thought you gave
Your heart and soul away from me to slave
At statecraft. Since my right in you seemed lost,
I stung myself to teach you, to your cost,
What you rejected could be prized beyond
Life, heaven, by the first fool I threw a fond
Look on, a fatal word to.”

“And you still
Love me? Do I conjecture well or ill?”

“Conjecture, well or ill! I had three years
To spend in learning you.”

“We both are peers
In knowledge, therefore: since three years are spent
Ere thus much of yourself I learn, who went
Back to the house, that day, and brought my mind
To bear upon your action, uncombined
Motive from motive, till the dross, deprived
Of every purer particle, survived
At last in native simple hideousness,
Utter contemptibility, nor less
Nor more. Contemptibility, exempt
How could I, from its proper due, contempt?
I have too much despised you to divert
My life from its set course by help or hurt
Of your all-despicable life, perturb
The calm I work in, by men’s mouths to curb,
Which at such news were clamorous enough
Men’s eyes to shut before my broidered stuff
With the huge hole there, my emblazoned wall
Blank where a scutcheon hung, by, worse than all,
Each day’s procession, my paraded life
Robbed and impoverished through the wanting wife
Now that my life (which means my work) was grown
Riches indeed! Once, just this worth alone
Seemed work to have, that profit gained thereby
Of good and praise would how rewardingly!
Fall at your feet, a crown I hoped to cast
Before your love, my love should crown at last.
No love remaining to cast crown before,
My love stopped work now: but contempt the more
Impelled me task as ever head and hand,
Because the very fiends weave ropes of sand
Rather than taste pure hell in idleness.
Therefore I kept my memory down by stress
Of daily work I had no mind to stay
For the world’s wonder at the wife away.
Oh, it was easy all of it, believe,
For I despised you! But your words retrieve
Importantly the past. No hate assumed
The mask of love at any time! There gloomed
A moment when love took hate’s semblance, urged
By causes you declare; but love’s self purged
Away a fancied wrong I did both loves
Yours and my own: by no hate’s help, it proves,
Purgation was attempted. Then, you rise
High by how many a grade! I did despise
I do but hate you. Let hate’s punishment
Replace contempt’s! First step to which ascent
Write down your own words I re-utter you!
‘I loved my husband and I hated who
He was, I took up as my first chance, mere
Mud-ball to fling and make love foul with!’
Here
Lies paper!”

“Would my blood for ink suffice!”
“It may: this minion from a land of spice.
Silk, feather-every bird of jewelled breast
This poniard’s beauty, ne’er so lightly prat
Above your heart there” . . .

“Thus?”

“It flows, I see.
Dip there the point and write!”

“Dictate to me!
Nay, I remember.”

And she wrote the words.
I read them. Then “Since love, in you, affords
License for hate, in me, to quench (I say)
Contempt why, hate itself has passed away
In vengeance foreign to contempt. Depart
Peacefully to that death which Eastern art
Imbued this weapon with, if tales be true!
Love will succeed to hate. I pardon you
Dead in our chamber!”

True as truth the tale.
She died ere morning; then, I saw how pale
Her cheek was ere it wore day’s paint-disguise,
And what a hollow darkened ’neath her eyes,
Now that I used my own. She sleeps, as erst
Beloved, in this your church: ay, yours!

Immersed
In thought so deeply, Father? Sad, perhaps?
For whose sake, hers or mine or his who wraps
Still plain I seem to see! about his head
The idle cloak, about his heart (instead
Of cuirass) some fond hope he may elude
My vengeance in the cloister’s solitude?
Hardly, I think! As little helped his brow
The cloak then, Father as your grate helps now!

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