14 January 2007

Juliet of Nations, from Casa Guidi Windows (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

I heard last night a little child so singing
’Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,
O bella libertà, O bella!—stringing
The same words still on notes he went in search
So high for, you concluded the upspringing
Of such a nimble bird to sky from perch
Must leave the whole bush in a tremble green,
And that the heart of Italy must beat,
While such a voice had leave to rise serene
’Twixt church and palace of a Florence street:
A little child, too, who not long had been
By mother’s finger steadied on his feet,
And still O bella libertà he sang.

Then I thought, musing, of the innumerous
Sweet songs which still for Italy outrang
From older singers’ lips who sang not thus
Exultingly and purely, yet, with pang
Fast sheath’d in music, touch’d the heart of us
So finely that the pity scarcely pain’d.
I thought how Filicaja led on others,
Bewailers for their Italy enchain’d,
And how they call’d her childless among mothers,
Widow of empires, ay, and scarce refrain’d
Cursing her beauty to her face, as brothers
Might a sham’d sister’s,—“Had she been less fair
She were less wretched;”—how, evoking so
From congregated wrong and heap’d despair
Of men and women writhing under blow,
Harrow’d and hideous in a filthy lair,
Some personating Image wherein woe
Was wrapp’d in beauty from offending much,
They call’d it Cybele, or Niobe,
Or laid it corpse-like on a bier for such,
Where all the world might drop for Italy
Those cadenced tears which burn not where they touch,—
“Juliet of nations, canst thou die as we?
And was the violet that crown’d thy head
So over-large, though new buds made it rough,
It slipp’d down and across thine eyelids dead,
O sweet, fair Juliet?” Of such songs enough,
Too many of such complaints! behold, instead,
Void at Verona, Juliet’s marble trough:
As void as that is, are all images
Men set between themselves and actual wrong,
To catch the weight of pity, meet the stress
Of conscience,—since ’t is easier to gaze long
On mournful masks and sad effigies
Than on real, live, weak creatures crush’d by strong.

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