Gold Hair - A Story Of Pornic

A poem by Robert Browning

I.
Oh, the beautiful girl, too white,
Who lived at Pornic, down by the sea,
Just where the sea and the Loire unite!
And a boasted name in Brittany
She bore, which I will not write.

II.
Too white, for the flower of life is red;
Her flesh was the soft seraphic screen
Of a soul that is meant (her parents said)
To just see earth, and hardly be seen,
And blossom in heaven instead.

III.
Yet earth saw one thing, one how fair!
One grace that grew to its full on earth
Smiles might be sparse on her cheek so spare,
And her waist want half a girdle’s girth,
But she had her great gold hair.

IV.
Hair, such a wonder of flix and floss,
Freshness and fragrance, floods of it, too!
Gold, did I say? Nay, gold’s mere dross:
Here, Life smiled, “Think what I meant to do!”
And Love sighed, “Fancy my loss!”

V.
So, when she died, it was scarce more strange
Than that, when delicate evening dies,
And you follow its spent sun’s pallid range,
There’s a shoot of colour startles the skies
With sudden, violent change,

VI.
That, while the breath was nearly to seek,
As they put the little cross to her lips,
She changed; a spot came out on her cheek,
A spark from her eye in mid-eclipse,
And she broke forth, “I must speak!”

VII.
“Not my hair!” made the girl her moan,
“All the rest is gone or to go;
“But the last, last grace, my all, my own,
“Let it stay in the grave, that the ghosts may know!
“Leave my poor gold hair alone!”

VIII.
The passion thus vented, dead lay she;
Her parents sobbed their worst on that;
All friends joined in, nor observed degree
For indeed the hair was to wonder at,
As it spread, not flowing free,

IX.
But curled around her brow, like a crown,
And coiled beside her cheeks, like a cap,
And calmed about her neck, ay, down
To her breast, pressed flat, without a gap
I’ the gold, it reached her gown.

X.
All kissed that face, like a silver wedge
Mid the yellow wealth, nor disturbed its hair
E’en the priest allowed death’s privilege,
As he planted the crucifix with care
On her breast, ’twixt edge and edge.

XI.
And thus was she buried, inviolate
Of body and soul, in the very space
By the altar; keeping saintly state
In Pornic church, for her pride of race,
Pure life and piteous fate.

XII.
And in after-time would your fresh tear fall,
Though your mouth might twitch with a dubious smile,
As they told you of gold, both robe and pall,
How she prayed them leave it alone awhile,
So it never was touched at all.

XIII.
Years flew; this legend grew at last
The life of the lady; all she had done,
All been, in the memories fading fast
Of lover and friend, was summed in one
Sentence survivors passed:

XIV.
To wit, she was meant for heaven, not earth;
Had turned an angel before the time:
Yet, since she was mortal, in such dearth
Of frailty, all you could count a crime
Was, she knew her gold hair’s worth.

XV.
At little pleasant Pornic church,
It chanced, the pavement wanted repair,
Was taken to pieces: left in the lurch,
A certain sacred space lay bare,
And the boys began research.

XVI.
’T was the space where our sires would lay a saint,
A benefactor, a bishop, suppose,
A baron with armour-adornments quaint,
Dame with chased ring and jewelled rose,
Things sanctity saves from taint;

XVII.
So we come to find them in after-days
When the corpse is presumed to have done with gauds
Of use to the living, in many ways
For the boys get pelf, and the town applauds,
And the church deserves the praise.

XVIII.
They grubbed with a will: and at length, O cor
Humanum, pectora cœca, and the rest!
They found no gaud they were prying for,
No ring, no rose, but who would have guessed?
A double Louis-d’or!

XIX.
Here was a case for the priest: he heard,
Marked, inwardly digested, laid
Finger on nose, smiled, “There’s a bird
“Chirps in my ear”: then, “Bring a spade,
Dig deeper!” he gave the word.

XX.
And lo, when they came to the coffin-lid,
Or rotten planks which composed it once,
Why, there lay the girl’s skull wedged amid
A mint of money, it served for the nonce
To hold in its hair-heaps hid!

XXI.
Hid there? Why? Could the girl be wont
(She the stainless soul) to treasure up
Money, earth’s trash and heaven’s affront?
Had a spider found out the communion-cup,
Was a toad in the christening-font?

XXII.
Truth is truth: too true it was.
Gold! She hoarded and hugged it first,
Longed for it, leaned o’er it, loved it, alas,
Till the humour grew to a head and burst,
And she cried, at the final pass,

XXIII.
“Talk not of God, my heart is stone!
“Nor lover nor friend, be gold for both!
“Gold I lack; and, my all, my own,
“It shall hide in my hair. I scarce die loth
“If they let my hair alone!”

XXIV.
Louis-d’or, some six times five,
And duly double, every piece.
Now do you see? With the priest to shrive,
With parents preventing her soul’s release
By kisses that kept alive,

XXV.
With heaven’s gold gates about to ope,
With friends’ praise, gold-like, lingering still,
An instinct had bidden the girl’s hand grope
For gold, the true sort, “Gold in heaven, if you will;
“But I keep earth’s too, I hope.”

XXVI.
Enough! The priest took the grave’s grim yield
The parents, they eyed that price of sin
As if thirty pieces lay revealed
On the place to bury strangers in,
The hideous Potter’s Field.

XXVII.
But the priest bethought him: “‘Milk that’s spilt’
“You know the adage! Watch and pray!
“Saints tumble to earth with so slight a tilt!
“It would build a new altar; that, we may!”
And the altar therewith was built.

XXVIII.
Why I deliver this horrible verse?
As the text of a sermon, which now I preach:
Evil or good may be better or worse
In the human heart, but the mixture of each
Is a marvel and a curse.

XXIX.
The candid incline to surmise of late
That the Christian faith proves false, I find:
For our Essays-and-Reviews’ debate
Begins to tell on the public mind,
And Colenso’s words have weight:

XXX.
I still, to suppose it true, for my part,
See reasons and reasons; this, to begin:
’T is the faith that launched point-blank her dart
At the head of a lie, taught Original Sin.
The Corruption of Man’s Heart.

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