Home  »  A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895  »  Mother and Poet

Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806–61

Mother and Poet


DEAD! One of them shot by the sea in the east,

And one of them shot in the west by the sea.

Dead! both my boys! When you sit at the feast

And are wanting a great song for Italy free,

Let none look at me!

Yet I was a poetess only last year,

And good at my art, for a woman, men said;

But this woman, this, who is agoniz’d here,

—The east sea and west sea rhyme on in her head

For ever instead.

What art can a woman be good at? Oh, vain!

What art is she good at, but hurting her breast

With the milk-teeth of babes, and a smile at the pain?

Ah boys, how you hurt! you were strong as you press’d,

And I proud, by that test.

What art’s for a woman? To hold on her knees

Both Darlings; to feel all their arms round her throat,

Cling, strangle a little, to sew by degrees

And ’broider the long-clothes and neat little coat;

To dream and to doat.

To teach them … It stings there! I made them indeed

Speak plain the word country. I taught them, no doubt,

That a country’s a thing men should die for at need.

I prated of liberty, rights, and about

The tyrant cast out.

And when their eyes flash’d … O my beautiful eyes!…

I exulted; nay, let them go forth at the wheels

Of the guns, and denied not. But then the surprise

When one sits quite alone! Then one weeps, then one kneels!

God, how the house feels!

At first, happy news came, in gay letters moil’d

With my kisses,—of camp-life and glory, and how

They both lov’d me; and, soon coming home to be spoil’d,

In return would fan off every fly from my brow

With their green laurel-bough.

Then was triumph at Turin: “Ancona was free!”

And someone came out of the cheers in the street,

With a face pale as stone, to say something to me.

My Guido was dead! I fell down at his feet,

While they cheer’d in the street.

I bore it; friends sooth’d me; my grief look’d sublime

As the ransom of Italy. One boy remain’d

To be leant on and walk’d with, recalling the time

When the first grew immortal, while both of us strain’d

To the height he had gain’d.

And letters still came, shorter, sadder, more strong,

Writ now but in one hand, “I was not to faint,—

One lov’d me for two—would be with me ere long:

And Viva l’ Italia!—he died for, our saint,

Who forbids our complaint.”

My Nanni would add, “he was safe, and aware

Of a presence that turn’d off the balls,—was impress’d

It was Guido himself, who knew what I could bear,

And how ’t was impossible, quite dispossess’d,

To live on for the rest.”

On which, without pause, up the telegraph-line,

Swept smoothly the next news from Gaeta:—Shot.

Tell his mother. Ah, ah, “his,” “their” mother,—not “mine,”

No voice says “My mother” again to me. What!

You think Guido forgot?

Are souls straight so happy that, dizzy with Heaven,

They drop earth’s affections, conceive not of woe?

I think not. Themselves were to lately forgiven

Through THAT Love and Sorrow which reconcil’d so

The Above and Below.

O Christ of the five wounds, who look’dst through the dark

To the face of Thy mother! consider, I pray,

How we common mothers stand desolate, mark,

Whose sons, not being Christs, die with eyes turn’d away,

And no last word to say!

Both boys dead? but that ’s out of nature. We all

Have been patriots, yet each house must always keep one.

’T were imbecile, hewing out roads to a wall;

And, when Italy’s made, for what end is it done

If we have not a son?

Ah, ah, ah! when Gaeta’s taken, what then?

When the fair wicked queen sits no more at her sport

Of the fire-balls of death crashing souls out of men?

When the guns of Cavalli with final retort

Have cut the game short?

When Venice and Rome keep their new jubilee,

When your flag takes all heaven for its white, green, and red,

When you have your country from mountain to sea,

When King Victor has Italy’s crown on his head,

(And I have my Dead)—

What then? Do not mock me. Ah, ring your bells low,

And burn your lights faintly! My country is there,

Above the star prick’d by the last peak of snow:

My Italy’s THERE, with my brave civic Pair,

To disfranchise despair!

Forgive me. Some women bear children in strength,

And bite back the cry of their pain in self-scorn;

But the birth-pangs of nations will wring us at length

Into wail such as this—and we sit on forlorn

When the man-child is born.

Dead! One of them shot by the sea in the east,

And one of them shot in the west by the sea,

Both! both my boys! If in keeping the feast

You want a great song for your Italy free,

Let none look at me

[This was Laura Savio, of Turin, a poet and patriot, whose sons were killed at Ancona and Gaeta.]