By the Fire-side

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By the Fire-side  (1855) 
by Robert Browning



I

How well I know what I mean to do
     When the long dark Autumn evenings come:
And where, my soul, is thy pleasant hue?
     With the music of all thy voices, dumb
In life's November too!

II

I shall be found by the fire, suppose,
     O'er a great wise book as beseemeth age,
While the shutters flap as the cross-wind blows
     And I turn the page, and I turn the page,
Not verse now, only prose!

III

Till the young ones whisper, finger on lip,
     "There he is at it, deep in Greek:
Now then, or never, out we slip
     To cut from the hazels by the creek
A mainmast for our ship!"

IV

I shall be at it indeed, my friends:
     Greek puts already on either side
Such a branch-work forth as soon extends
     To a vista opening far and wide,
And I pass out where it ends.

V

The outside-frame, like your hazel-trees:
     But the inside-archway widens fast,
And a rarer sort succeeds to these,
     And we slope to Italy at last
And youth, by green degrees.

VI

I follow wherever I am led,
     Knowing so well the leader's hand:
Oh woman-country, wooed not wed,
     Loved all the more by earth's male-lands,
Laid to their hearts instead!

VII

Look at the ruined chapel again
     Half way up in the Alpine gorge!
Is that a tower, I point you plain,
     Or is it a mill, or an iron forge
Breaks solitude in vain?

VIII

A turn, and we stand in the heart of things;
     The woods are round us, heaped and dim;
From slab to slab how it slips and springs,
     The thread of water single and slim,
Thro' the ravage some torrent brings!

IX

Does it feed the little lake below?
     That speck of white just on its marge
Is Pella; see, in the evening glow
     How sharp the silver spear-heads charge
When Alp meets Heaven in snow!

X

On our other side is the straight-up rock;
     And a path is kept 'twixt the gorge and it
By boulder-stones where lichens mock
     The marks on a moth, and small ferns fit
Their teeth to the polished block.

XI

Oh the sense of the yellow mountain-flowers,
     And the thorny balls, each three in one,
The chestnuts throw on our path in showers!
     For the drop of the woodland fruit's begun
These early November hours,

XII

That crimson the creeper's leaf across
     Like a splash of blood, intense, abrupt,
O'er a shield else gold from rim to boss,
     And lay it for show on the fairy-cupped
Elf-needled mat of moss,

XIII

By the rose-flesh mushrooms, undivulged
     Last evening—nay, in to-day's first dew
Yon sudden coral nipple bulged
     Where a freaked fawn-coloured flaky crew
Of toadstools peep indulged.

XIV

And yonder, at foot of the fronting ridge
     That takes the turn to a range beyond,
Is the chapel reached by the one-arched bridge
     Where the water is stopped in a stagnant pond
Danced over by the midge.

XV

The chapel and bridge are of stone alike,
     Blackish gray and mostly wet;
Cut hemp-stalks steep in the narrow dyke.
     See here again, how the lichens fret
And the roots of the ivy strike!

XVI

Poor little place, where its one priest comes
     On a festa-day, if he comes at all,
To the dozen folk from their scattered homes,
     Gathered within that precinct small
By the dozen ways one roams—

XVII

To drop from the charcoal-burners' huts,
     Or climb from the hemp-dressers' low shed,
Leave the grange where the woodman stores his nuts,
     Or the wattled cote where the fowlers spread
Their gear on the rock's bare juts.

XVIII

It has some pretension too, this front,
     With its bit of fresco half-moon-wise
Set over the porch, Art's early wont:
     'Tis John in the Desert, I surmise,
But has borne the weather's brunt—

XIX

Not from the fault of the builder, though,
     For a pent-house properly projects
Where three carved beams make a certain show,
     Dating—good thought of our architect's—
'Five, six, nine, he lets you know.

XX

And all day long a bird sings there,
     And a stray sheep drinks at the pond at times;
The place is silent and aware;
     It has had its scenes, its joys and crimes,
But that is its own affair.

XXI

My perfect wife, my Leonor,
     Oh heart, my own, oh eyes, mine too,
Whom else could I dare look backward for,
     With whom beside should I dare pursue
The path gray heads abhor?

XXII

For it leads to a crag's sheer edge with them;
     Youth, flowery all the way, there stops—
Not they; age threatens and they contemn,
     Till they reach the gulf wherein youth drops,
One inch from life's safe hem!

XXIII

With me, youth led . . . I will speak now,
     No longer watch you as you sit
Reading by fire-light, that great brow
     And the spirit-small hand propping it
Mutely, my heart knows how—

XXIV

When, if I think but deep enough,
     You are wont to answer, prompt as rhyme;
And you, too, find without rebuff
     The response your soul seeks many a time
Piercing its fine flesh-stuff.

XXV

My own, confirm me! If I tread
     This path back, is it not in pride
To think how little I dreamed it led
     To an age so blest that, by its side,
Youth seems the waste instead?

XXVI

My own, see where the years conduct!
     At first, 'twas something our two souls
Should mix as mists do; each is sucked
     In each now: on, the new stream rolls,
Whatever rocks obstruct.

XXVII

Think, when our one soul understands
     The great Word which makes all things new,
When earth breaks up and Heaven expands,
     How will the change strike me and you
In the house not made with hands?

XXVIII

Oh I must feel your brain prompt mine,
     Your heart anticipate my heart,
You must be just before, in fine,
     See and make me see, for your part,
New depths of the Divine!

XXIX

But who could have expected this
     When we two drew together first
Just for the obvious human bliss,
     To satisfy life's daily thirst
With a thing men seldom miss?

XXX

Come back with me to the first of all,
     Let us lean and love it over again,
Let us now forget and now recall,
     Break the rosary in a pearly rain,
And gather what we let fall!

XXXI

What did I say?—that a small bird sings
     All day long, save when a brown pair
Of hawks from the wood float with wide wings
     Strained to a bell: 'gainst the noonday glare
You count the streaks and rings.

XXXII

But at afternoon or almost eve
     'Tis better; then the silence grows
To that degree, you half believe
     It must get rid of what it knows,
Its bosom does so heave.

XXXIII

Hither we walked, then, side by side,
     Arm in arm and cheek to cheek,
And still I questioned or replied,
     While my heart, convulsed to really speak,
Lay choking in its pride.

XXXIV

Silent the crumbling bridge we cross,
     And pity and praise the chapel sweet,
And care about the fresco's loss,
     And wish for our souls a like retreat,
And wonder at the moss.

XXXV

Stoop and kneel on the settle under,
     Look through the window's grated square:
Nothing to see! For fear of plunder,
     The cross is down and the altar bare,
As if thieves don't fear thunder.

XXXVI

We stoop and look in through the grate,
     See the little porch and rustic door,
Read duly the dead builder's date;
     Then cross the bridge we crossed before,
Take the path again—but wait!

XXXVII

Oh moment, one and infinite!
     The water slips o'er stock and stone;
The West is tender, hardly bright:
     How grey at once is the evening grown—
One star, its chrysolite!

XXXVIII

We two stood there with never a third,
     But each by each, as each knew well:
The sights we saw and the sounds we heard,
     The lights and the shades made up a spell
Till the trouble grew and stirred.

XXXIX

Oh, the little more, and how much it is!
     And the little less, and what worlds away!
How a sound shall quicken content to bliss,
     Or a breath suspend the blood's best play,
And life be a proof of this!

XL

Had she willed it, still had stood the screen
     So slight, so sure, 'twixt my love and her:
I could fix her face with a guard between,
     And find her soul as when friends confer,
Friends—lovers that might have been.

XLI

For my heart had a touch of the woodland-time,
     Wanting to sleep now over its best.
Shake the whole tree in the summer-prime,
     But bring to the last leaf no such test!
"Hold the last fast!" says the rhyme.

XLII

For a chance to make your little much,
     To gain a lover and lose a friend,
Venture the tree and a myriad such,
     When nothing you mar but the year can mend:
But a last leaf—fear to touch!

XLIII

Yet should it unfasten itself and fall
     Eddying down till it find your face
At some slight wind—best chance of all!
     Be your heart henceforth its dwelling-place
You trembled to forestall!

XLIV

Worth how well, those dark grey eyes,
     That hair so dark and dear, how worth
That a man should strive and agonize,
     And taste a very hell on earth
For the hope of such a prize!

XLV

You might have turned and tried a man,
     Set him a space to weary and wear,
And prove which suited more your plan,
     His best of hope or his worst despair,
Yet end as he began.

XLVI

But you spared me this, like the heart you are,
     And filled my empty heart at a word.
If two lives join, there is oft a scar,
     They are one and one, with a shadowy third;
One near one is too far.

XLVII

A moment after, and hands unseen
     Were hanging the night around us fast;
But we knew that a bar was broken between
     Life and life: we were mixed at last
In spite of the mortal screen.

XLVIII

The forests had done it; there they stood;
     We caught for a moment the powers at play:
They had mingled us so, for once and for good,
     Their work was done—we might go or stay,
They relapsed to their ancient mood.

XLIX

How the world is made for each of us!
     How all we perceive and know in it
Tends to some moment's product thus,
     When a soul declares itself—to wit,
By its fruit—the thing it does!

L

Be hate that fruit or love that fruit,
     It forwards the general deed of man,
And each of the Many helps to recruit
     The life of the race by a general plan;
Each living his own, to boot.

LI

I am named and known by that hour's feat;
     There took my station and degree;
So grew my own small life complete,
     As nature obtained her best of me—
One born to love you, sweet!

LII

And to watch you sink by the fire-side now
     Back again, as you mutely sit
Musing by fire-light, that great brow
     And the spirit-small hand propping it,
Yonder, my heart knows how!

LIII

So the earth has gained by one man the more,
     And the gain of earth must be heaven's gain too;
And the whole is well worth thinking o'er
     When the autumn comes: which I mean to do
One day, as I said before.