The Princess

By Jack Thompson,2014-11-30 10:32
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The Princess

by Alfred Tennyson


Sir Walter Vivian all a summer's day

    Gave his broad lawns until the set of sun

    Up to the people: thither flocked at noon

    His tenants, wife and child, and thither half

    The neighbouring borough with their Institute Of which he was the patron. I was there From college, visiting the son,--the son A Walter too,--with others of our set,

    Five others: we were seven at Vivian-place.

     And me that morning Walter showed the house, Greek, set with busts: from vases in the hall Flowers of all heavens, and lovelier than their names, Grew side by side; and on the pavement lay Carved stones of the Abbey-ruin in the park, Huge Ammonites, and the first bones of Time; And on the tables every clime and age

    Jumbled together; celts and calumets,

    Claymore and snowshoe, toys in lava, fans Of sandal, amber, ancient rosaries,

    Laborious orient ivory sphere in sphere, The cursed Malayan crease, and battle-clubs From the isles of palm: and higher on the walls, Betwixt the monstrous horns of elk and deer, His own forefathers' arms and armour hung.

     And 'this' he said 'was Hugh's at Agincourt; And that was old Sir Ralph's at Ascalon: A good knight he! we keep a chronicle

    With all about him'--which he brought, and I Dived in a hoard of tales that dealt with knights, Half-legend, half-historic, counts and kings Who laid about them at their wills and died; And mixt with these, a lady, one that armed Her own fair head, and sallying through the gate, Had beat her foes with slaughter from her walls.

     'O miracle of women,' said the book, 'O noble heart who, being strait-besieged By this wild king to force her to his wish, Nor bent, nor broke, nor shunned a soldier's death, But now when all was lost or seemed as lost-- Her stature more than mortal in the burst Of sunrise, her arm lifted, eyes on fire-- Brake with a blast of trumpets from the gate, And, falling on them like a thunderbolt, She trampled some beneath her horses' heels, And some were whelmed with missiles of the wall,

    And some were pushed with lances from the rock, And part were drowned within the whirling brook: O miracle of noble womanhood!'

     So sang the gallant glorious chronicle; And, I all rapt in this, 'Come out,' he said, 'To the Abbey: there is Aunt Elizabeth And sister Lilia with the rest.' We went (I kept the book and had my finger in it) Down through the park: strange was the sight to me; For all the sloping pasture murmured, sown With happy faces and with holiday.

    There moved the multitude, a thousand heads: The patient leaders of their Institute Taught them with facts. One reared a font of stone And drew, from butts of water on the slope, The fountain of the moment, playing, now A twisted snake, and now a rain of pearls, Or steep-up spout whereon the gilded ball Danced like a wisp: and somewhat lower down A man with knobs and wires and vials fired A cannon: Echo answered in her sleep

    From hollow fields: and here were telescopes For azure views; and there a group of girls In circle waited, whom the electric shock Dislinked with shrieks and laughter: round the lake A little clock-work steamer paddling plied And shook the lilies: perched about the knolls A dozen angry models jetted steam:

    A petty railway ran: a fire-balloon

    Rose gem-like up before the dusky groves And dropt a fairy parachute and past:

    And there through twenty posts of telegraph They flashed a saucy message to and fro Between the mimic stations; so that sport Went hand in hand with Science; otherwhere Pure sport; a herd of boys with clamour bowled And stumped the wicket; babies rolled about Like tumbled fruit in grass; and men and maids Arranged a country dance, and flew through light And shadow, while the twangling violin Struck up with Soldier-laddie, and overhead The broad ambrosial aisles of lofty lime Made noise with bees and breeze from end to end.

     Strange was the sight and smacking of the time; And long we gazed, but satiated at length Came to the ruins. High-arched and ivy-claspt, Of finest Gothic lighter than a fire,

    Through one wide chasm of time and frost they gave The park, the crowd, the house; but all within The sward was trim as any garden lawn:

    And here we lit on Aunt Elizabeth,

    And Lilia with the rest, and lady friends From neighbour seats: and there was Ralph himself, A broken statue propt against the wall, As gay as any. Lilia, wild with sport, Half child half woman as she was, had wound A scarf of orange round the stony helm, And robed the shoulders in a rosy silk, That made the old warrior from his ivied nook Glow like a sunbeam: near his tomb a feast Shone, silver-set; about it lay the guests, And there we joined them: then the maiden Aunt Took this fair day for text, and from it preached An universal culture for the crowd,

    And all things great; but we, unworthier, told Of college: he had climbed across the spikes, And he had squeezed himself betwixt the bars, And he had breathed the Proctor's dogs; and one Discussed his tutor, rough to common men, But honeying at the whisper of a lord;

    And one the Master, as a rogue in grain Veneered with sanctimonious theory.

     But while they talked, above their heads I saw The feudal warrior lady-clad; which brought My book to mind: and opening this I read Of old Sir Ralph a page or two that rang With tilt and tourney; then the tale of her That drove her foes with slaughter from her walls, And much I praised her nobleness, and 'Where,' Asked Walter, patting Lilia's head (she lay Beside him) 'lives there such a woman now?'

     Quick answered Lilia 'There are thousands now Such women, but convention beats them down: It is but bringing up; no more than that: You men have done it: how I hate you all!

    Ah, were I something great! I wish I were Some might poetess, I would shame you then, That love to keep us children! O I wish That I were some great princess, I would build Far off from men a college like a man's, And I would teach them all that men are taught; We are twice as quick!' And here she shook aside The hand that played the patron with her curls.

     And one said smiling 'Pretty were the sight If our old halls could change their sex, and flaunt With prudes for proctors, dowagers for deans, And sweet girl-graduates in their golden hair. I think they should not wear our rusty gowns, But move as rich as Emperor-moths, or Ralph Who shines so in the corner; yet I fear, If there were many Lilias in the brood, However deep you might embower the nest, Some boy would spy it.'

     At this upon the sward She tapt her tiny silken-sandaled foot: 'That's your light way; but I would make it death For any male thing but to peep at us.'

     Petulant she spoke, and at herself she laughed; A rosebud set with little wilful thorns, And sweet as English air could make her, she: But Walter hailed a score of names upon her, And 'petty Ogress', and 'ungrateful Puss', And swore he longed at college, only longed, All else was well, for she-society.

    They boated and they cricketed; they talked At wine, in clubs, of art, of politics; They lost their weeks; they vext the souls of deans; They rode; they betted; made a hundred friends, And caught the blossom of the flying terms, But missed the mignonette of Vivian-place, The little hearth-flower Lilia. Thus he spoke, Part banter, part affection.

     'True,' she said, 'We doubt not that. O yes, you missed us much. I'll stake my ruby ring upon it you did.'

     She held it out; and as a parrot turns

    Up through gilt wires a crafty loving eye, And takes a lady's finger with all care, And bites it for true heart and not for harm, So he with Lilia's. Daintily she shrieked And wrung it. 'Doubt my word again!' he said. 'Come, listen! here is proof that you were missed: We seven stayed at Christmas up to read; And there we took one tutor as to read: The hard-grained Muses of the cube and square Were out of season: never man, I think, So mouldered in a sinecure as he:

    For while our cloisters echoed frosty feet, And our long walks were stript as bare as brooms, We did but talk you over, pledge you all In wassail; often, like as many girls-- Sick for the hollies and the yews of home-- As many little trifling Lilias--played Charades and riddles as at Christmas here, And ~what's my thought~ and ~when~ and ~where~ and ~how~,

    As here at Christmas.'

     She remembered that: A pleasant game, she thought: she liked it more Than magic music, forfeits, all the rest. But these--what kind of tales did men tell men, She wondered, by themselves?

     A half-disdain Perched on the pouted blossom of her lips: And Walter nodded at me; '~He~ began, The rest would follow, each in turn; and so We forged a sevenfold story. Kind? what kind? Chimeras, crotchets, Christmas solecisms, Seven-headed monsters only made to kill Time by the fire in winter.'

     'Kill him now, The tyrant! kill him in the summer too,' Said Lilia; 'Why not now?' the maiden Aunt. 'Why not a summer's as a winter's tale? A tale for summer as befits the time, And something it should be to suit the place, Heroic, for a hero lies beneath,

    Grave, solemn!'

     Walter warped his mouth at this To something so mock-solemn, that I laughed And Lilia woke with sudden-thrilling mirth

An echo like a ghostly woodpecker,

    Hid in the ruins; till the maiden Aunt (A little sense of wrong had touched her face With colour) turned to me with 'As you will; Heroic if you will, or what you will, Or be yourself you hero if you will.'

     'Take Lilia, then, for heroine' clamoured he, 'And make her some great Princess, six feet high, Grand, epic, homicidal; and be you

    The Prince to win her!'

     'Then follow me, the Prince,' I answered, 'each be hero in his turn! Seven and yet one, like shadows in a dream.-- Heroic seems our Princess as required-- But something made to suit with Time and place, A Gothic ruin and a Grecian house,

    A talk of college and of ladies' rights, A feudal knight in silken masquerade, And, yonder, shrieks and strange experiments For which the good Sir Ralph had burnt them all-- This ~were~ a medley! we should have him back Who told the "Winter's tale" to do it for us. No matter: we will say whatever comes. And let the ladies sing us, if they will, From time to time, some ballad or a song To give us breathing-space.'

     So I began, And the rest followed: and the women sang Between the rougher voices of the men, Like linnets in the pauses of the wind: And here I give the story and the songs.


    A prince I was, blue-eyed, and fair in face, Of temper amorous, as the first of May, With lengths of yellow ringlet, like a girl, For on my cradle shone the Northern star.

     There lived an ancient legend in our house. Some sorcerer, whom a far-off grandsire burnt Because he cast no shadow, had foretold, Dying, that none of all our blood should know The shadow from the substance, and that one Should come to fight with shadows and to fall. For so, my mother said, the story ran. And, truly, waking dreams were, more or less, An old and strange affection of the house. Myself too had weird seizures, Heaven knows what: On a sudden in the midst of men and day, And while I walked and talked as heretofore, I seemed to move among a world of ghosts, And feel myself the shadow of a dream. Our great court-Galen poised his gilt-head cane, And pawed his beard, and muttered 'catalepsy'. My mother pitying made a thousand prayers; My mother was as mild as any saint,

    Half-canonized by all that looked on her, So gracious was her tact and tenderness: But my good father thought a king a king; He cared not for the affection of the house; He held his sceptre like a pedant's wand To lash offence, and with long arms and hands Reached out, and picked offenders from the mass For judgment.

     Now it chanced that I had been, While life was yet in bud and blade, bethrothed To one, a neighbouring Princess: she to me Was proxy-wedded with a bootless calf

    At eight years old; and still from time to time Came murmurs of her beauty from the South, And of her brethren, youths of puissance; And still I wore her picture by my heart, And one dark tress; and all around them both Sweet thoughts would swarm as bees about their queen.

     But when the days drew nigh that I should wed, My father sent ambassadors with furs

    And jewels, gifts, to fetch her: these brought back A present, a great labour of the loom; And therewithal an answer vague as wind: Besides, they saw the king; he took the gifts;

    He said there was a compact; that was true: But then she had a will; was he to blame? And maiden fancies; loved to live alone Among her women; certain, would not wed.

     That morning in the presence room I stood With Cyril and with Florian, my two friends: The first, a gentleman of broken means

    (His father's fault) but given to starts and bursts Of revel; and the last, my other heart, And almost my half-self, for still we moved Together, twinned as horse's ear and eye.

     Now, while they spake, I saw my father's face Grow long and troubled like a rising moon, Inflamed with wrath: he started on his feet, Tore the king's letter, snowed it down, and rent The wonder of the loom through warp and woof From skirt to skirt; and at the last he sware That he would send a hundred thousand men, And bring her in a whirlwind: then he chewed The thrice-turned cud of wrath, and cooked his spleen, Communing with his captains of the war.

     At last I spoke. 'My father, let me go. It cannot be but some gross error lies

    In this report, this answer of a king,

    Whom all men rate as kind and hospitable: Or, maybe, I myself, my bride once seen, Whate'er my grief to find her less than fame, May rue the bargain made.' And Florian said: 'I have a sister at the foreign court,

    Who moves about the Princess; she, you know, Who wedded with a nobleman from thence: He, dying lately, left her, as I hear,

    The lady of three castles in that land: Through her this matter might be sifted clean.' And Cyril whispered: 'Take me with you too.' Then laughing 'what, if these weird seizures come Upon you in those lands, and no one near To point you out the shadow from the truth! Take me: I'll serve you better in a strait; I grate on rusty hinges here:' but 'No!' Roared the rough king, 'you shall not; we ourself

    Will crush her pretty maiden fancies dead In iron gauntlets: break the council up.'

     But when the council broke, I rose and past Through the wild woods that hung about the town; Found a still place, and plucked her likeness out; Laid it on flowers, and watched it lying bathed In the green gleam of dewy-tasselled trees: What were those fancies? wherefore break her troth? Proud looked the lips: but while I meditated A wind arose and rushed upon the South, And shook the songs, the whispers, and the shrieks Of the wild woods together; and a Voice Went with it, 'Follow, follow, thou shalt win.'

     Then, ere the silver sickle of that month Became her golden shield, I stole from court With Cyril and with Florian, unperceived, Cat-footed through the town and half in dread To hear my father's clamour at our backs With Ho! from some bay-window shake the night; But all was quiet: from the bastioned walls Like threaded spiders, one by one, we dropt, And flying reached the frontier: then we crost To a livelier land; and so by tilth and grange, And vines, and blowing bosks of wilderness, We gained the mother city thick with towers, And in the imperial palace found the king.

     His name was Gama; cracked and small his voice, But bland the smile that like a wrinkling wind On glassy water drove his cheek in lines; A little dry old man, without a star,

    Not like a king: three days he feasted us, And on the fourth I spake of why we came, And my bethrothed. 'You do us, Prince,' he said, Airing a snowy hand and signet gem,

    'All honour. We remember love ourselves In our sweet youth: there did a compact pass Long summers back, a kind of ceremony-- I think the year in which our olives failed. I would you had her, Prince, with all my heart, With my full heart: but there were widows here, Two widows, Lady Psyche, Lady Blanche;

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