Robert Browning: Poems



Said Abner, "At last thou art come! Ere I tell, ere thou speak.

Kiss my cheek, wish me well!" Then I wished it, and did kiss his cheek.

And he, "Since the King, O my friend, for thy countenance sent,

Neither drunken nor eaten have we; nor until from his tent

Thou return with the joyful assurance the King liveth yet,

Shall our lip with the honey be bright, with the water be wet.

For out of the black mid-tent's silence, a space of three days,

Not a sound hath escaped to thy servants, of prayer nor of praise,

To betoken that Saul and the Spirit have ended their strife,

And that, faint in his triumph, the monarch sinks back upon life. 10


"Yet now my heart leaps, O beloved! God's child with his dew

On thy gracious gold hair, and those lilies still living and blue

Just broken to twine round thy harp-strings, as if no wild heat

Were now raging to torture the desert!"


Then I, as was meet,

Knelt down to the God of my fathers, and rose on my feet,

And ran o'er the sand burnt to powder. The tent was unlooped;

I pulled up the spear that obstructed, and under I stooped;

Hands and knees on the slippery grass-patch, all withered and gone,

That extends to the second enclosure. I groped my way on

Till I felt where the foldskirts fly open. Then once more I prayed, 20

And opened the foldskirts and entered, and was not afraid

But spoke, "Here is David, thy servant!" And no voice replied.

At the first I saw naught but the blackness; but soon I descried

A something more black than the blackness--the vast, the upright

Main prop which sustains the pavilion: and slow into sight

Grew a figure against it, gigantic and blackest of all.

Then a sunbeam, that burst thro' the tent roof, showed Saul.


He stood erect as that tent-prop, both arms stretched out wide

On the great cross-support in the centre, that goes to each side;

He relaxed not a muscle, but hung there as, caught in his pangs 30

And waiting his change, the king serpent all heavily hangs,

Far away from his kind, in the pine, till deliverance come

With the spring-time,--so agonized Saul, drear and stark, blind and dumb.


Then I tuned my harp,--took off the lilies we twine round its chords

Lest they snap 'neath the stress of the noontide--those sunbeams like swords!

And I first played the tune all our sheep know, as, one after one,

So docile they come to the pen-door till folding be done.

They are white and untorn by the bushes, for lo, they have fed

Where the long grasses stifle the water within the stream's bed;

And now one after one seeks its lodging, as star follows star 40

Into eve and the blue far above us,--so, blue and so far!


--Then the tune, for which quails on the cornland will each leave his mate

To fly after the player; then, what makes the crickets elate

Till for boldness they fight one another: and then, what has weight

To set the quick jerboa a-musing outside his sand house--

There are none such as he for a wonder, half bird and half mouse!

God made all the creatures and gave them our love and our fear,

To give sign, we and they are his children, one family here.


Then I played the help-tune of our reapers, their wine-song, when hand

Grasps at hand, eye lights eye in good friendship, and great hearts expand 50

And grow one in the sense of this world's life.--And then, the last song

When the dead man is praised on his journey--"Bear, bear him along

With his few faults shut up like dead flowerets!" Are balm-seeds not here

To console us? The land has none left such as he on the bier.

"Oh, would we might keep thee, my brother!"--And then, the glad chaunt

Of the marriage,--first go the young maidens, next, she whom we vaunt

As the beauty, the pride of our dwelling.--And then, the great march

Wherein man runs to man to assist him and buttress an arch

Naught can break; who shall harm them, our friends?--Then, the chorus intoned

As the Levites go up to the altar in glory enthroned. 60

But I stopped here: for here in the darkness Saul groaned.


And I paused, held my breath in such silence, and listened apart;

And the tent shook, for mighty Saul shuddered: and sparkles 'gan dart

From the jewels that woke in his turban, at once with a start,

All its lordly male-sapphires, and rubies courageous at heart.

So the head: but the body still moved not, still hung there erect.

And I bent once again to my playing, pursued it unchecked,

As I sang,--


"Oh, our manhood's prime vigor! No spirit feels waste,

Not a muscle is stopped in its playing nor sinew unbraced.

Oh, the wild joys of living! the leaping from rock up to rock, 70

The strong rending of boughs from the fir-tree, the cool silver shock

Of the plunge in a pool's living water, the hunt of the bear,

And the sultriness showing the lion is couched in his lair.

And the meal, the rich dates yellowed over with gold-dust divine,

And the locust-flesh steeped in the pitcher, the full draught of wine,

And the sleep in the dried river-channel where bulrushes tell

That the water was wont to go warbling so softly and well.

How good is man's life, the mere living! how fit to employ

All the heart and the soul and the senses for ever in joy!

Hast thou loved the white locks of thy father, whose sword thou didst guard 80

When he trusted thee forth with the armies, for glorious reward?

Didst thou see the thin hands of thy mother, held up as men sung

The low song of the nearly departed, and hear her faint tongue

Joining in while it could to the witness, 'Let one more attest,

I have lived, seen God's hand thro' a lifetime, and all was for best!'

Then they sung thro' their tears in strong triumph, not much, but the rest.

And thy brothers, the help and the contest, the working whence grew

Such result as, from seething grape-bundles, the spirit strained true:

And the friends of thy boyhood--that boyhood of wonder and hope,

Present promise and wealth of the future beyond the eye's scope,-- 90

Till lo, thou art grown to a monarch; a people is thine:

And all gifts which the world offers singly, on one head combine!

On one head, all the beauty and strength, love and rage (like the throe

That, a-work in the rock, helps its labour and lets the gold go),

High ambition and deeds which surpass it, fame crowning them,--all

Brought to blaze on the head of one creature--King Saul!"


And lo, with that leap of my spirit,--heart, hand, harp, and voice,

Each lifting Saul's name out of sorrow, each bidding rejoice

Saul's fame in the light it was made for----as when, dare I say,

The Lord's army, in rapture of service, strains thro' its array, 100

And upsoareth the cherubim-chariot--"Saul!" cried I, and stopped,

And waited the thing that should follow. Then Saul, who hung propped

By the tent's cross-support in the centre, was struck by his name.

Have ye seen when Spring's arrowy summons goes right to the aim,

And some mountain, the last to withstand her, that held (he alone,

While the vale laughed in freedom and flowers) on a broad bust of stone

A year's snow bound about for a breastplate,--leaves grasp of the sheet?

Fold on fold all at once it crowds thunderously down to his feet,

And there fronts you, stark, black, but alive yet, your mountain of old,

With his rents, the successive bequeathings of ages untold: 110

Yea, each harm got in fighting your battles, each furrow and scar

Of his head thrust 'twixt you and the tempest--all hail, there they are!

--Now again to be softened with verdure, again hold the nest

Of the dove, tempt the goat and its young to the green on his crest

For their food in the ardours of summer. One long shudder thrilled.

All the tent till the very air tingled, then sank and was stilled

At the King's self left standing before me, released and aware.

What was gone, what remained? All to traverse 'twixt hope and despair.

Death was past, life not come; so he waited. Awhile his right hand

Held the brow, helped the eyes left too vacant, forthwith to remand 120

To their place what new objects should enter: 'twas Saul as before.

I looked up, and dared gaze at those eyes, nor was hurt any more

Than by slow pallid sunsets in autumn, ye watch from the shore,

At their sad level gaze o'er the ocean--a sun's slow decline

Over hills which, resolved in stern silence, o'erlap and entwine

Base with base to knit strength more intensely: so, arm folded arm

O'er the chest whose slow heavings subsided.


What spell or what charm,

(For, awhile there was trouble within me) what next should I urge

To sustain him where song had restored, him? Song filled to the verge

His cup with the wine of this life, pressing all that it yields 130

Of mere fruitage, the strength and the beauty: beyond, on what fields

Glean a vintage more potent and perfect to brighten the eye,

And bring blood to the lip, and commend them the cup they put by?

He saith, "It is good:" still he drinks not: he lets me praise life,

Gives assent, yet would die for his own part.


Then fancies grew rife

Which had come long ago on the pasture, when round me the sheep

Fed in silence--above, the one eagle wheeled slow as in sleep;

And I lay in my hollow and mused on the world that might lie

'Neath his ken, tho' I saw but the strip 'twixt the hill and the sky:

And I laughed--"Since my days are ordained to be passed with my flocks, 140

Let me people at least, with my fancies, the plains and the rocks,

Dream the life I am never to mix with, and image the show

Of mankind as they live in those fashions I hardly shall know!

Schemes of life, its best rules and right uses, the courage that gains,

And the prudence that keeps what men strive for!" And now these old trains

Of vague thought came again; I grew surer; so, once more the string

Of my harp made response to my spirit, as thus--


"Yea, my King,"

I began--"thou dost well in rejecting mere comforts that spring

From the mere mortal life held in common by man and by brute:

In our flesh grows the branch of this life, in our soul it bears fruit. 150

Thou hast marked the slow rise of the tree,--how its stem trembled first

Till it passed the kid's lip, the stag's antler; then safely outburst

The fan-branches all round; and thou mindest when these too, in turn

Broke a-bloom and the palm-tree seemed perfect: yet more was to learn,

E'en the good that comes in with the palm-fruit. Our dates shall we slight,

When their juice brings a cure for all sorrow? or care for the plight

Of the palm's self whose slow growth produced them? Not so! stem and branch.

Shall decay, nor be known in their place, while the palm-wine shall staunch

Every wound of man's spirit in winter. I pour thee such wine.

Leave the flesh to the fate it was fit for! the spirit be thine! 160

By the spirit, when age shall o'ercome thee, thou still shalt enjoy

More indeed, than at first when, inconscious, the life of a boy.

Crush that life, and behold its wine running! Each deed thou hast done

Dies, revives, goes to work in the world; until e'en as the sun

Looking down on the earth, tho' clouds spoil him, tho' tempests efface,

Can find nothing his own deed produced not, must everywhere trace

The results of his past summer-prime,--so, each ray of thy will.

Every flash of thy passion and prowess, long over, shall thrill

Thy whole people, the countless, with ardour, till they too give forth

A like cheer to their sons: who in turn, fill the South and the North 170

With the radiance thy deed was the germ of. Carouse in the past!

But the license of age has its limit; thou diest at last.

As the lion, when age dims his eyeball, the rose at her height,

So with man--so his power and his beauty forever take flight.

No! Again a long draught of my soul-wine! Look forth o'er the years!

Thou hast done now with eyes for the actual; begin with the seer's!

Is Saul dead? In the depth of the vale make his tomb--bid arise

A gray mountain of marble heaped four-square, till, built to the skies,

Let it mark where the great First King slumbers: whose fame would ye know?

Up above see the rock's naked face, where the record shall go 180

In great characters cut by the scribe,--Such was Saul, so he did;

With the sages directing the work, by the populace chid,--

For not half, they'll affirm, is comprised there! Which fault to amend,

In the grove with his kind grows the cedar, whereon they shall spend

(See, in tablets 'tis level before them) their praise, and record

With the gold of the graver, Saul's story,--the statesman's great word.

Side by side with the poet's sweet comment. The river's a-wave

With smooth paper-reeds grazing each other when prophet-winds rave;

So the pen gives unborn generations their due and their part

In thy being! Then, first of the mighty, thank God that thou art!" 190


And behold while I sang ... but O Thou who didst grant me that day,

And before it not seldom had granted Thy help to essay.

Carry on and complete an adventure,--my shield and my sword

In that act where my soul was Thy servant, Thy word was my word,--

Still be with me, who then at the summit of human endeavour

And scaling the highest, man's thought could, gazed hopeless as ever

On the new stretch of heaven above me--till, mighty to save,

Just one lift of Thy hand cleared that distance--God's throne from man's grave!

Let me tell out my tale to its ending--my voice to my heart

Which can scarce dare believe in what marvels last night I took part, 200

As this morning I gather the fragments, alone with my sheep,

And still fear lest the terrible glory evanish like sleep!

For I wake in the gray dewy covert, while Hebron, upheaves

The dawn struggling with night on his shoulder, and Kidron retrieves

Slow the damage of yesterday's sunshine.


I say then,--my song

While I sang thus, assuring the monarch, and, ever more strong,

Made a proffer of good to console him--he slowly resumed.

His old motions and habitudes kingly. The right hand replumed

His black locks to their wonted composure, adjusted the swathes

Of his turban, and see--the huge sweat that his countenance bathes, 210

He wipes off with the robe; and he girds now his loins as of yore,

And feels slow for the armlets of price, with the clasp set before,

He is Saul, ye remember in glory,--ere error had bent

The broad brow from the daily communion; and still, tho' much spent

Be the life and bearing that front you, the same, God did choose,

To receive what a man may waste, desecrate, never quite lose.

So sank he along by the tent-prop, till, stayed by the pile

Of his armour and war-cloak and garments, he leaned there awhile,

And sat out my singing,--one arm round the tent-prop, to raise

His bent head, and the other hung slack--till I touched on the praise 220

I foresaw from all men in all time, to the man patient there;

And thus ended, the harp falling forward. Then first I was 'ware

That he sat, as I say, with my head just above his vast knees

Which were thrust out each side around me, like oak roots which please

To encircle a lamb when it slumbers. I looked up to know

If the best I could do had brought solace: he spoke not, but slow

Lifted up the hand slack at his side, till he laid it with care

Soft and grave, but in mild settled will, on my brow: thro' my hair

The large fingers were pushed, and he bent back my head, with kind power--

All my face back, intent to peruse it, as men do a flower. 230

Thus held he me there with his great eyes that scrutinized mine--

And oh, all my heart how it loved him! but where was the sign?

I yearned--"Could I help thee, my father, inventing a bliss,

I would add, to that life of the past, both the future and this;

I would give thee new life altogether, as good, ages hence.

As this moment,--had love but the warrant, love's heart to dispense!"


Then the truth came upon me. No harp more--no song more! outbroke--


"I have gone the whole round of creation: I saw and I spoke;

I, a work of God's hand for that purpose, received in my brain

And pronounced on the rest of his handwork--returned him again 240

His creation's approval or censure: I spoke as I saw,

Reported, as man may of God's work--all's love, yet all's law.

Now I lay down the judgeship he lent me. Each faculty tasked

To perceive him has gained an abyss, where a dewdrop was asked.

Have I knowledge? confounded it shrivels at Wisdom laid bare.

Have I forethought? how purblind, how blank, to the Infinite Care!

Do I task any faculty highest, to image success?

I but open my eyes,--and perfection, no more and no less,

In the kind I imagined, full-fronts me, and God is seen God

In the star, in the stone, in the flesh, in the soul and the clod. 250

And thus looking within and around me, I ever renew

(With that stoop of the soul which in bending upraises it too)

The submission of man's nothing-perfect to God's all complete,

As by each new obeisance in spirit, I climb to His feet.

Yet with all this abounding experience, this deity known,

I shall dare to discover some province, some gift of my own,

There's a faculty pleasant to exercise, hard to hoodwink,

I am fain to keep still in abeyance (I laugh as I think),

Lest, insisting to claim and parade in it, wot ye, I worst

E'en the Giver in one gift.--Behold, I could love if I durst! 260

But I sink the pretension as fearing a man may o'ertake

God's own speed in the one way of love; I abstain for love's sake.

--What, my soul? see thus far and no farther? when doors great and small,

Nine-and-ninety flew ope at our touch; should the hundredth appal?

In the least things have faith, yet distrust in the greatest of all?

Do I find love so full in my nature, God's ultimate gift,

That I doubt His own love can compete with it? Here, the parts shift?

Here, the creature surpass the creator,--the end, what began?

Would I fain in my impotent yearning do all for this man,

And dare doubt He alone shall not help him, who yet alone can? 270

Would it ever have entered my mind, the bare will, much less power,

To bestow on this Saul what I sang of, the marvellous dower

Of the life he was gifted and filled with? to make such a soul,

Such a body, and then such an earth for insphering the whole?

And doth it not enter my mind (as my warm tears attest),

These good things being given, to go on, and give one more, the best?

Ay, to save and redeem and restore him, maintain at the height

This perfection,--succeed with life's dayspring, death's minute of night?

Interpose at the difficult minute, snatch Saul the mistake,

Saul the failure, the ruin he seems now,--and bid him awake 280

From the dream, the probation, the prelude, to find himself set

Clear and safe in new light and new life,--a new harmony yet

To be run and continued, and ended--who knows?--or endure!

The man taught enough by life's dream, of the rest to make sure;

By the pain-throb, triumphantly winning intensified bliss,

And the next world's reward and repose, by the struggles in this.


"I believe it! 'Tis Thou, God, that givest, 'tis I who receive;

In the first is the last, in Thy will is my power to believe.

All's one gift: Thou canst grant it, moreover, as prompt to my prayer,

As I breathe out this breath, as I open these arms to the air. 290

From Thy will stream the worlds, life and nature, Thy dread Sabaoth:

_I_ will?--the mere atoms despise me! Why am I not loath

To look that, even that in the face too? Why is it I dare

Think but lightly of such impuissance? What stops my despair?

This;--'tis not what man Does which exalts him, but what man Would do!

See the King--I would help him, but cannot, the wishes fall through.

Could I wrestle to raise him from sorrow, grow poor to enrich,

To fill up his life, starve my own out, I would--knowing which,

I know that my service is perfect. Oh, speak thro' me now!

Would I suffer for him that I love? So wouldst Thou--so wilt Thou! 300

So shall crown Thee the topmost, ineffablest, uttermost crown--

And Thy love fill infinitude wholly, nor leave up nor down

One spot for the creature to stand in! It is by no breath,

Turn of eye, wave of hand, that salvation joins issue with death!

As Thy love is discovered almighty, almighty be proved

Thy power, that exists with and for it, of being Beloved!

He who did most, shall bear most; the strongest shall stand the most weak,

'Tis the weakness in strength, that I cry for! my flesh, that I seek

In the Godhead! I seek and I find it, O Saul, it shall be

A Face like my face that receives thee: a Man like to me, 310

Thou shalt love and be loved by, forever: a Hand like this hand

Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ stand!"


I know not too well how I found my way home in the night.

There were witnesses, cohorts about me, to left and to right,

Angels, powers, the unuttered, unseen, the alive, the aware:

I repressed, I got thro' them as hardly, as stragglingly there,

As a runner beset by the populace famished for news--

Life or death. The whole earth was awakened, hell loosed with her crews;

And the stars of night beat with emotion, and tingled and shot

Out in fire the strong pain of pent knowledge: but I fainted not, 320

For the Hand still impelled me at once and supported, suppressed

All the tumult, and quenched it with quiet, and holy behest,

Till the rapture was shut in itself, and the earth sank to rest.

Anon at the dawn, all that trouble had withered from earth--

Not so much, but I saw it die out in the day's tender birth;

In the gathered intensity brought to the gray of the hills;

In the shuddering forests' held breath; in the sudden wind-thrills;

In the startled wild beasts that bore off, each with eye sidling still

Though averted with wonder and dread; in the birds stiff and chill

That rose heavily, as I approached them, made stupid with awe: 330

E'en the serpent that slid away silent--he felt the new law.

The same stared in the white humid faces upturned by the flowers;

The same worked in the heart of the cedar and moved the vine-bowers;

And the little brooks witnessing murmured, persistent and low.

With their obstinate, all but hushed voices--"E'en so, it is so!"