An Epistle Edward Sackville to Venetia Digby


Ainsi, bruyante abeille, au retour du matin,
Je vois changer en miel les délices du thym.

First, last and always dearest, closest, best,
Source of my travail and my rest,
The letter which I shall not send, I write
To cheer my more than arctic night.
Sole day and all my summer in that year
Of darkness, you were here,
Were here but yesterday, and still I go
Rapt in its golden afterglow.
Caught in the webs of memory and desire,
The cooling and the kindling fire,
Through all this house, from room to room I pace:
Here at the stair we met; this place
You sat in; still I see you sitting there,
As though some trace the printless air
Retained; a tremulous hush, as though you spoke,
Enchants its silence; here your cloak
I held for you and here you looked farewell
And went, but did not break the spell,
By which I feel you here yet know you gone—
So men, who winking see the sun
And turn into the dark, awhile descry
His image on the dazzled eye.
But like a tale I tell it all again
And gloss it with a scholar’s pen,
For so Love, though he harvest all his store,
Gleans in bare fields to make it more.
Now like the garner ant when frosts begin,
I have my harvest heaped within:
Abundance for my year to come, a feast
Still cherished, still increased;
For all it spends from its ripe yesterday
The heart shall copiously repay:
Words, glances, motions, all that I rehearse
My joy transfigures, as great verse
From music may have a perfection lent
More than the poet knew or meant;
And as the cunning craftsman can prolong
Through cadences and shifts of song,
And make what was by nature beautiful,
By art more dulcet, keen and full,
So from one day, one meeting, I prepare
Music to last me out the year.

Yet I cannot recall it as I should;
Too much surprised by joy I stood,
A child who finds his long expected treat,
Coming, too sudden and too sweet—
Or greedily I gulped it like a beast
And missed the true, the lasting taste.

“Poor beast,” I say, “poor beast indeed, who comes
To be content with scraps and crumbs!
Poor heart, poor Lazarus, overjoyed to wait
The scrapings of another’s plate!”
For, though I could restore, vivid and strong,
That late, pure, breathless trance of song,
I know myself but a dumb listener, where
I have sung bourdon to her air

I that was rich, now at the treasury door
May only glimpse that golden store
Piled in fantastic heaps; the jewelled shrine
Worship, not touch, no longer mine;
At most, a starveling Tantalus, must see
The shadow crop upon my tree
Slide through the hand and from my gaping lip
The mocking naiad glide and slip.

Or rather—for in similes of woe
I lose my way—full well I know
The food was real: ‘Twas I who could not eat
The spirit’s insubstantial meat,
Pleasure of angels, such as flesh and blood
Taste not, though all may take their food.
I, who have held you in my human arms,
Must gaze as if on ghostly charms,
Or on the painting of a mistress dead—
Yet we both breathe and might to bed.
To bed! At the mere thought I feel arise
That rebel in the flesh, who cries:

“It was no picture we saw yesterday,
But she, in all the living play
Of light on restless body, limbs, hair, breast,
Eyes, hands—what need to tell the rest?”
What need? But, ah, what sure recourse of joy!
This nothing can or shall destroy,
Custom deny nor honour stand between,
Nor your own change of heart demean.
He whose you are, your husband and my friend
—I do not grudge it, but commend—
Took, when he took you hence, your picture too
Lest I should keep some part in you.

What should I care, who had my gallery lined,
Crowded with pictures of the mind?
What care for silk or lute string who possess
The splendour of your nakedness,
The lily, the jet, the coral and the rose
Varied in pleasure and repose?
Three years we lived as blessed angels do
Who to each other show the true
Bareness of spirit and, only when they would
Travel abroad, wear flesh and blood.
So clothed we met the world: at set of sun,
Our foolish, needful business done,
Home we would turn, eager to taste at even
Our native and our naked heaven.
So now by heart each single grace and all
Their glowing postures I recall.
Absent, you come unbidden; present, you
Walk naked to my naked view;
Dead, I could resurrect you from your dust;
So exquisite, individual, just
The bare, bright flesh, I swear my eyes could tell
You by throat, thighs or breast as well,
Or any least part almost, as your face.

Alas, as courtiers out of place
Speak of the court, I boast and dream the rest.
In exile now and dispossessed
I think of how we used, so long ago,
In that tremendous overthrow
Of our first worlds, when first we loved, first knew
No world except these selves, this Two,
How we would laugh to see that Last World pass
For real beyond our Wall of Glass;
And we untouched, untouchable, serene,
Plighted within our magic screen,
Would pity those without, whose curious eyes
Could see, could judge, could recognise,
Know with the mind, but coldly and in part,
Not with the comprehending heart.
This was our game; and, with the growth of love,
We said, these walls of glass remove;
We re-embody those shadows by our joy;
The frontiers of desire deploy
Until our latitudes of grace extend
Round the great globe and bend
Back on themselves, to end where we begin
Love’s wars that take the whole world in.
So little states, rich in great men and sound
In arts and virtues, gather ground
And grow to empires mighty in their day.
And we, we said, more blest than they,
Shall not decline as Persian kingdoms do
Or those the Tartar overthrew.
Who lives outside our universal state?
And all within ourselves create.
Will angels fall twice, or the moon breed Turks?
Or dread we our own works?—
But even while the architects designed
The finials, their towers were mined.
He, your child-lover, twice reported dead,
Once false—but all was false—some said
He died at Pont-de-Cé, and some said not
But on rough alps his bones might rot—
For whom, though your heart grieved, it grieved as for
Childhood itself that comes no more,
Yet came, and not as ghosts come from the grave,
But as strong spirits come to save,
And claimed the love we buried long ago.
I watched it rise and live. I know,
Alas, I know, though I believed it not,
The spell he casts who breaks the knot;
And this you told me once and bade me learn
Even before his strange return.

Now it is I outside our Wall. I stand
And once a year may kiss that hand
Which once with my whole body of man made free—
O, my twice-lost Eurydice,
Twice must I make my journey down to Hell,
Twice its grim gods by prayer compel,
And twice, to win you only for a day,
The spirit’s bitter reckoning pay,
Yet for my first default their just decree
Grants me to hear you now and see,
As deserts know peace, as barren waters calms,
Only forbidding me your arms.
Why, since my case is hopeless, do I still
Exacerbate this wrench of will
Against the force of reason, honour, rest
And all that is in manhood best?
Is not this second Orpheus worse than he
Who perished in his misery,
Torn by the drunken women in their chase
Among the echoing hills of Thrace?
To cherish and prolong the state I loathe
Am I not drunk or mad or both?

Not so! These torments mind and heart approve,
And are the sacrifice of love.
The soul sitting apart sees what I do,
Who win powers more than Orpheus knew,
Though he tamed tigers and enchanted trees
And broached the chthonic mysteries.
The gate beyond the gate that I found fast
Has opened to your touch at last.
Nothing is lost for those who pass this door:
They contemplate their world before
And in the carcass of the lion come
Upon the unguessed honeycomb.
There are no words for this new happiness,
But such as fables may express.
Fabling I tell it then as best I can:
That pre-diluvian age of man
Most like had mighty poets, even as ours,
Or grant them nobler themes and powers.
When Nature fashioned giants in the dew
Surely the morning Muses too
Created genius in an ampler mould
To celebrate her Age of Gold.
Yet think, for lack of letters all was lost,
Think Homer’s Iliads to our cost
Gone like those epics from before the Flood
As, but for Cadmus, sure they would.
Books now preserve for us the boasts of time;
But what preserved them in the Prime?
Where did they live, those royal poems then,
But in the hearts and mouths of men,
Men of no special genius, talents, parts,
Patience their sole gift, all their arts
Memory, the nurse, not mother, of ancient songs;
No seraph from God’s fire with tongs
Took the live coal and laid it on their lips;
And yet, until their last eclipse,
Age after age, those giant harmonies
Lodged in such brains, as birds in trees.
The music of the spheres, which no man’s wit
Conceives, once heard, he may transmit:
Love was that music, and by love indeed
We serve the greater nature’s need.
As on the rough back of some stream in flood
Whose current is by rocks withstood,
We see in all that ruin and rush endure
A form miraculously pure;
A standing wave through which the waters race
Yet keeps its crystal shape and place,
So shapes and creatures of eternity
We form or bear. Though more than we,
Their substance and their being we sustain
Awhile, though they, not we, remain.
And, still, while we have part in them, we can
Surpass the single reach of man,
Put on strange powers and vision we knew not of—
And thus it has been with my love.
Fresh modes of being, unguessed forms of bliss
Have been, are mine: But more than this,
Our bodies, aching in their blind embrace,
Once thought they touched the pitch of grace.
Made for that end alone, in their delight,
They thought that single act and rite
Paid nature’s debt and heaven’s. Even so
There was a thing they could not know:
Nature, who makes each member to one end,
May give it powers which transcend
Its first and fruitful purpose. When she made
The Tongue for taste, who in the shade
Of summer vines, what speechless manlike brute,
Biting sharp rind or sweeter fruit,
Could have conceived the improbable tale, the long
Strange fable of the Speaking Tongue?
So Love, which Nature’s craft at first designed
For comfort and increase of kind,
Puts on another nature, grows to be
The language of the mystery;
The heart resolves its chaos then, the soul
Lucidly contemplates the whole
Just order of the random world; and through
That dance she moves, and dances too.

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