English Literature

The Princess by Alfred Tennyson

The Princess by Alfred Tennyson.jpg

PROLOGUE


   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.


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