Between a sleep and a sleep

Two poems by Charles Swinburne

Swinburne was one of the most accomplished lyric poets of the Victorian era and was a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. The explicit and often pathological sexual themes of his most important collection of poetry, Poems and Ballads (1866), delighted some, shocked many, and became the dominant feature of Swinburne’s image as both an artist and an individual.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/algernon-charles-swinburne

Wikipedia expands on his “pathologies”: ” A controversial figure at the time, Swinburne was a sado-masochist and alcoholic and was obsessed with the Middle Ages and lesbianism. Swinburne wrote about many taboo topics, such as lesbianism, cannibalism, sado-masochism, and anti-theism.

Whatever Swinburne’s proclivities, it is his use of language that I find captivating. Beautiful and haunting, deeply emotional (he was, after all, the Romantic poet par excellence) it engages one viscerally. After the two poems I have created a sort of ‘montage’ of verses.

A watch in the Night

Watchman, what of the night? –
Storm and thunder and rain,
Lights that waver and wane,
Leaving the watchfires unlit.
Only the balefires are bright,
And the flash of the lamps now and then
From a palace where spoilers sit,
Trampling the children of men.

Prophet, what of the night? –
I stand by the verge of the sea,
Banished, uncomforted, free,
Hearing the noise of the waves
And sudden flashes that smite
Some man’s tyrannous head,
Thundering, heard among graves
That hide the hosts of his dead.

Mourners, what of the night? –
All night through without sleep
We weep, and we weep, and we weep.
Who shall give us our sons ?
Beaks of raven and kite,
Mouths of wolf and of hound,
Give us them back whom the guns
Shot for you dead on the ground.

Dead men, what of the night? –
Cannon and scaffold and sword,
Horror of gibbet and cord,
Mowed us as sheaves for the grave,
Mowed us down for the right.
We do not grudge or repent.
Freely to freedom we gave
Pledges, till life should be spent.

Statesman, what of the night? –
The night will last me my time.
The gold on a crown or a crime
Looks well enough yet by the lamps.
Have we not fingers to write,
Lips to swear at a need?
Then, when danger decamps,
Bury the word with the deed.

Warrior, what of the night? –
Whether it be not or be
Night, is as one thing to me.
I for one, at the least,
Ask not of dews if they blight,
Ask not of flames if they slay,
Ask not of prince or of priest
How long ere we put them away.

Master, what of the night? –
Child, night is not at all
Anywhere, fallen or to fall,
Save in our star-stricken eyes.
Forth of our eyes it takes flight,
Look we but once nor before
Nor behind us, but straight on the skies;
Night is not then any more.

Exile, what of the night? –
The tides and the hours run out,
The seasons of death and of doubt,
The night-watches bitter and sore.
In the quicksands leftward and right
My feet sink down under me;
But I know the scents of the shore
And the broad blown breaths of the sea.

Captives, what of the night? –
It rains outside overhead
Always, a rain that is red,
And our faces are soiled with the rain.
Here in the seasons’ despite
Day-time and night-time are one,
Till the curse of the kings and the chain
Break, and their toils be undone.

Christian, what of the night? –
I cannot tell; I am blind.
I halt and hearken behind
If haply the hours will go back
And return to the dear dead light,
To the watchfires and stars that of old
Shone where the sky now is black,
Glowed where the earth now is cold.

High priest, what of the night? –
The night is horrible here
With haggard faces and fear,
Blood, and the burning of fire.
Mine eyes are emptied of sight,
Mine hands are full of the dust,
If the God of my faith be a liar,
Who is it that I shall trust?

Princes, what of the night? –
Night with pestilent breath
Feeds us, children of death,
Clothes us close with her gloom.
Rapine and famine and fright
Crouch at our feet and are fed.
Earth where we pass is a tomb,
Life where we triumph is dead.

Martyrs, what of the night? –
Nay, is it night with you yet?
We, for our part, we forget
What night was, if it were.
The loud red mouths of the fight
Are silent and shut where we are.
In our eyes the tempestuous air
Shines as the face of a star.

England, what of the night? –
Night is for slumber and sleep,
Warm, no season to weep.
Let me alone till the day.
Sleep would I still if I might,
Who have slept for two hundred years.
Once I had honour, they say;
But slumber is sweeter than tears.

France, what of the night? –
Night is the prostitute’s noon,
Kissed and drugged till she swoon,
Spat upon, trod upon, whored.
With bloodred rose-garlands dight,
Round me reels in the dance
Death, my saviour, my lord,
Crowned; there is no more France.

Italy, what of the night? –
Ah, child, child, it is long!
Moonbeam and starbeam and song
Leave it dumb now and dark.
Yet I perceive on the height
Eastward, not now very far,
A song too loud for the lark,
A light too strong for a star.

Germany, what of the night ? –
Long has it lulled me with dreams;
Now at midwatch, as it seems,
Light is brought back to mine eyes,
And the mastery of old and the might
Lives in the joints of mine hands,
Steadies my limbs as they rise,
Strengthens my foot as it stands.

Europe, what of the night ? –
Ask of heaven, and the sea,
And my babes on the bosom of me,
Nations of mine, but ungrown.
There is one who shall surely requite
All that endure or that err:
She can answer alone:
Ask not of me, but of her.

Liberty, what of the night ? –
I feel not the red rains fall,
Hear not the tempest at all,
Nor thunder in heaven any more.
All the distance is white
With the soundless feet of the sun.
Night, with the woes that it wore,
Night is over and done.

Charles Swinburne


Before The Beginning Of Years

Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time, with a gift of tears;
Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance, fallen from heaven,
And madness risen from hell;
Strength without hands to smite;
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And life, the shadow of death.
And the high gods took in hand
Fire, and the falling of tears,
And a measure of sliding sand
From under the feet of the years;
And froth and the drift of the sea;
And dust of the laboring earth;
And bodies of things to be
In the houses of death and of birth;
And wrought with weeping and laughter,
And fashioned with loathing and love,
With life before and after
And death beneath and above,
For a day and a night and a morrow,
That his strength might endure for a span
With travail and heavy sorrow,
The holy spirit of man.
From the winds of the north and the south,
They gathered as unto strife;
They breathed upon his mouth,
They filled his body with life;
Eyesight and speech they wrought
For the veils of the soul therein,
A time for labor and thought,
A time to serve and to sin;
They gave him light in his ways,
And love, and space for delight,
And beauty, and length of days,
And night, and sleep in the night.
His speech is a burning fire;
With his lips he travaileth;
In his heart is a blind desire,
In his eyes foreknowledge of death;
He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
Sows, and he shall not reap;
His life is a watch or a vision
Between a sleep and a sleep.

(1865)

 


 

A montage of verses I love:

All night through without sleep
We weep, and we weep, and we weep.

Christian, what of the night? –
I cannot tell; I am blind.
I halt and hearken behind

The tides and the hours run out,
The seasons of death and of doubt,

In the quicksands leftward and right
My feet sink down under me;
But I know the scents of the shore
And the broad blown breaths of the sea.

Night, the shadow of light,
And life, the shadow of death.

With travail and heavy sorrow,
The holy spirit of man.

With his lips he travaileth;
In his heart is a blind desire,
In his eyes foreknowledge of death;
He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
Sows, and he shall not reap;
His life is a watch or a vision
Between a sleep and a sleep.

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