The Sisters (1880)

A poem by Alfred Tennyson

They have left the doors ajar; and by their clash,
And prelude on the keys, I know the song,
Their favourite—which I call ‘The Tables Turned.’
Evelyn begins it ‘O diviner Air.’


O diviner Air,
Thro’ the heat, the drowth, the dust, the glare,
Far from out the west in shadowing showers,
Over all the meadow baked and bare,
Making fresh and fair
All the bowers and the flowers,
Fainting flowers, faded bowers,
Over all this weary world of ours,
Breathe, diviner Air!

A sweet voice that—you scarce could better that.
Now follows Edith echoing Evelyn.


O diviner light,
Thro’ the cloud that roofs our noon with night,
Thro’ the blotting mist, the blinding showers,
Far from out a sky for ever bright,
Over all the woodland’s flooded bowers,
Over all the meadow’s drowning flowers,
Over all this ruin’d world of ours,
Break, diviner light!

Marvellously like, their voices—and themselves
Tho’ one is somewhat deeper than the other,
As one is somewhat graver than the other—
Edith than Evelyn. Your good Uncle, whom
You count the father of your fortune, longs
For this alliance: let me ask you then,
Which voice most takes you? for I do not doubt
Being a watchful parent, you are taken
With one or other: tho’ sometimes I fear
You may be flickering, fluttering in a doubt
Between the two—which must not be—which might
Be death to one: they both are beautiful:
Evelyn is gayer, wittier, prettier, says
The common voice, if one may trust it: she?
No! but the paler and the graver, Edith.
Woo her and gain her then: no wavering, boy!
The graver is perhaps the one for you
Who jest and laugh so easily and so well.
For love will go by contrast, as by likes.

No sisters ever prized each other more.
Not so: their mother and her sister loved
More passionately still.
But that my best
And oldest friend, your Uncle, wishes it,
And that I know you worthy everyway
To be my son, I might, perchance, be loath
To part them, or part from them: and yet one
Should marry, or all the broad lands in your view
From this bay window—which our house has held
Three hundred years—will pass collaterally.

My father with a child on either knee,
A hand upon the head of either child,
Smoothing their locks, as golden as his own
Were silver, ‘get them wedded’ would he say.
And once my prattling Edith ask’d him why?’
Ay, why? said he, ‘ for why should I go lame?’
Then told them of his wars, and of his wound.
For see—this wine—the grape from whence it flow’d
Was blackening on the slopes of Portugal,
When that brave soldier, down the terrible ridge
Plunged in the last fierce charge at Waterloo,
And caught the laming bullet. He left me this.
Which yet retains a memory of its youth,
As I of mine, and my first passion. Come!
Here’s to your happy union with my child!

Yet must you change your name: no fault of mine!
You say that you can do it as willingly
As birds make ready for their bridal-time
By change of feather: for all that, my boy,
Some birds are sick and sullen when they moult.
An old and worthy name! but mine that stirr’d
Among our civil wars and earlier too
Among the Roses, the more venerable.
I care not for a name—no fault of mine.
Once more—a happier marriage than my own!

You see yon Lombard poplar on the plain.
The highway running by it leaves a breadth
Of sward to left and right, where, long ago,
One bright May morning in a world of song,
I lay at leisure, watching overhead
The aërial poplar wave, an amber spire.

I dozed; I woke. An open landaulet
Whirl’d by, which, after it had past me, show’d
Turning my way, the loveliest face on earth.
The face of one there sitting opposite.
On whom I brought a strange unhappiness,
That time I did not see.

Love at first sight
May seem—with goodly rhyme and reason for it—
Possible—at first glimpse, and for a face
Gone in a moment—strange. Yet once, when first
I came on lake Llanberris in the dark,
A moonless night with storm—one lightning-fork
Flash’d out the lake; and tho’ I loiter’d there
The full day after, yet in retrospect
That less than momentary thunder-sketch
Of lake and mountain conquers all the day.

The Sun himself has limn’d the face for me.
Not quite so quickly, no, nor half as well.
For look you here—the shadows are too deep,
And like the critic’s blurring comment make
The veriest beauties of the work appear
The darkest faults: the sweet eyes frown: the lips
Seem but a gash. My sole memorial
Of Edith—no, the other,—both indeed.

So that bright face was flash’d thro’ sense and soul
And by the poplar vanish’d—to be found
Long after, as it seem’d, beneath the tall
Tree-bowers, and those long-sweeping beechen boughs
Of our New Forest. I was there alone:
The phantom of the whirling landaulet
For ever past me by: when one quick peal
Of laughter drew me thro’ the glimmering glades
Down to the snowlike sparkle of a cloth
On fern and foxglove. Lo, the face again,
My Rosalind in this Arden—Edith—all
One bloom of youth, health, beauty, happiness,
And moved to merriment at a passing jest.

There one of those about her knowing me
Call’d me to join them; so with these I spent
What seem’d my crowning hour, my day of days.

I wood her then, nor unsuccessfully,
The worse for her, for me! was I content?
Ay—no, not quite; for now and then I thought
Laziness, vague love-longings, the bright May,
Had made a heated haze to magnify
The charm of Edith—that a man’s ideal
Is high in Heaven, and lodged with Plato’s God,
Not findable here—content, and not content,
In some such fashion as a man may be
That having had the portrait of his friend
Drawn by an artist, looks at it, and says,
‘Good! very like! not altogether he.’

As yet I had not bound myself by words,
Only, believing I loved Edith, made
Edith love me. Then came the day when I,
Flattering myself that all my doubts were fools
Born of the fool this Age that doubts of all—
Not I that day of Edith’s love or mine—
Had braced my purpose to declare myself:
I stood upon the stairs of Paradise.
The golden gates would open at a word.
I spoke it—told her of my passion, seen
And lost and found again, had got so far,
Had caught her hand, her eyelids fell—I heard
Wheels, and a noise of welcome at the doors—
On a sudden after two Italian years
I lad set the blossom of her health again,
The younger sister, Evelyn, enter’d—there,
There was the face, and altogether she.
The mother fell about the daughter’s neck,
The sisters closed in one another’s arms,
Their people throng’d about them from the hall,
And in the thick of question and reply
I fled the house, driven by one angel face,
And all the Furies.

I was bound to her;
I could not free myself in honour—bound
Not by the sounded letter of the word,
Put counterpressures of the yielded hand
That timorously and faintly echoed mine,
Quick blushes, the sweet dwelling of her eyes
Upon me when she thought I did not see—
Were these not bonds? nay, nay, but could I wed her
Loving the other? do her that great wrong?
Had I not dream’d I loved her yestermorn?
Had I not known where Love, at first a fear,
Grew after marriage to full height and form?
Yet after marriage, that mock-sister there—
Brother-in-law—the fiery nearness of it—
Unlawful and disloyal brotherhood—
What end but darkness could ensue from this
For all the three? So Love and Honour jarr’d
Tho’ Love and honour join’d to raise the full
High-tide of doubt that sway’d me up and down
Advancing nor retreating.

Edith wrote:
‘My mother bid; me ask’ (I did not tell you—
A widow with less guile than many a child.
God help the wrinkled children that are Christ’s
As well as the plump cheek—she wrought us harm,
Poor soul, not knowing) ‘are you ill?’ (so ran
The letter) ‘you have not been here of late.
You will not find me here. At last I go
On that long-promised visit to the North.
I told your wayside story to my mother
And Evelyn. She remembers you. Farewell.
Pray come and see my mother. Almost blind
With ever-growing cataract, yet she thinks
She sees you when she hears. Again farewell.

Cold words from one I had hoped to warm so far
That I could stamp my image on her heart!
‘Pray come and see my mother, and farewell.’
Cold, but as welcome as free airs of heaven
After a dungeon’s closeness. Selfish, strange!
What dwarfs are men! my strangled vanity
Utter’d a stifled cry—to have vext myself
And all in vain for her—cold heart or none—
No bride for me. Yet so my path was clear
To win the sister.
Whom I woo’d and won.
For Evelyn knew not of my former suit,
Because the simple mother work’d upon
By Edith pray it me not to whisper of it.
And Edith would be bridesmaid on the day.
But on that day, not being all at ease,
I from the altar glancing back upon her,
Before the first ‘I will’ was utter’d, saw
The bridesmaid pale, statuelike, passionless—
‘No harm, no harm’ I turn’d again, and placed
My ring upon the finger of my bride.

So, when we parted, Edith spoke no word,
She wept no tear, but round my Evelyn clung
In utter silence for so long, I thought
‘What, will she never set her sister free?’

We left her, happy each in each, and then,
As tho’ the happiness of each in each
Were not enough, must fain have torrents, lakes,
Hills, the great things of Nature and the fair,
To lift us as it were from commonplace,
And help us to our joy. Better have sent
Our Edith thro’ the glories of the earth,
To change with her horizon, if true Love
Were not his own imperial all-in-all.

Far off we went. My God, I would not live
Save that I think this gross hard-seeming world
Is our misshaping vision of the Powers
Behind the world, that make our griefs our gains.

For on the dark night of our marriage-day
The great Tragedian, that had quench’d herself
In that assumption of the bridesmaid—she
That loved me—our true Edith—her brain broke
With over-acting, till she rose and fled
Beneath a pitiless rush of Autumn rain
To the deaf church—to be let in—to pray
Before that altar—so I think; and there
They found her beating the hard Protestant doors.
She died and she was buried ere we knew.

I learnt it first. I had to speak. At once
The bright quick smile of Evelyn, that had sunn’d
The morning of our marriage, past away
And on our home-return the daily want
Of Edith in the house, the garden, still
Haunted us like her ghost; and by and by,
Either from that necessity for talk
Which lives with blindness, or plain innocence
Of nature, or desire that her lost child
Should earn from both the praise of heroism,
The mother broke her promise to the dead,
And told the living daughter with what love
Edith had welcomed my brief wooing of her,
And all her sweet self-sacrifice and death.

Henceforth that mystic bond betwixt the twins—
Did I not tell you they were twins?—prevail’d
So far that no caress could win my wife
Back to that passionate answer of full heart
I had from her at first. Not that her love,
Tho’ scarce as great as Edith’s power of love,
Had lessen’d, but the mother’s garrulous wail
For ever woke the unhappy Past again,
Till that dead bridesmaid, meant to be my bride,
Put forth cold hands between us, and I fear’d
The very fountains of her life were chill’d;
So took her thence, and brought her here, and here
She bore a child, whom reverently we call’d
Edith; and in the second year was born
A second—this I named from her own self,
Evelyn; then two weeks—no more—she joined,
In and beyond the grave, that one she loved.
Now in this quiet of declining life,
Thro’ dreams by night and trances of the day,
The sisters glide about me hand in hand,
Both beautiful alike, nor can I tell
One from the other, no, nor care to tell
One from the other, only know they come,
They smile upon me, till, remembering all
The love they both have borne me, and the love
I bore them both—divided as I am
From either by the stillness of the grave—
I know not which of these I love the best.

But you love Edith; and her own true eyes
Are traitors to her: our quick Evelyn—
The merrier, prettier, wittier, as they talk,
And not without good reason, my good son—
Is yet untouch’d: and I that hold them both
Dearest of all things—well, I am not sure—
But if there lie a preference eitherway,
And in the rich vocabulary of Love
‘Most dearest’ be a true superlative—
I think I likewise love your Edith most.

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