Which?

A poem by Robert Browning

So, the three Court-ladies began
Their trial of who judged best
In esteeming the love of a man:
Who preferred with most reason was thereby confessed
Boy-Cupid’s exemplary catcher and cager;
An Abbé crossed legs to decide on the wager.

First the Duchesse: “Mine for me,
Who were it but God’s for Him,
And the King’s for who but he?
Both faithful and loyal, one grace more shall brim
His cup with perfection: a lady’s true lover,
He holds, save his God and his king, none above her.”

“I require”, outspoke the Marquise,
“Pure thoughts, ay, but also fine deeds:
Play the paladin must he, to please
My whim, and, to prove my knight’s service exceeds
Your saint’s and your loyalist’s praying and kneeling,
Show wounds, each wide mouth to my mercy appealing.”

Then the Comtesse: “My choice be a wretch,
Mere losel in body and soul,
Thrice accurst! What care I, so he stretch
Arms to me his sole savior, love’s ultimate goal,
Out of earth and men’s noise, names of ‘infidel,’ ‘traitor.’
Cast up at him? Crown me, crown’s adjudicator!”

And the Abbé uncrossed his legs,
Took snuff, a reflective pinch,
Broke silence: “The question begs
Much pondering ere I pronounce. Shall I flinch?
The love which to one and one only has reference
Seems terribly like what perhaps gains God’s preference.”

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