James and Mary Ford, eds. Every Day in the Year. 1902.

February 14

Mother and Poet

By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

  • Turin—After News from Gaeta, Feb. 14, 1861.
  • Gaeta is an Italian town which was taken from the Austrians by Victor Emmanuel’s troops on Feb. 14, 1861, in the war for Italian independence.

  • 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 agonized here,

    The east sea and west sea rhyme on in her head

    Forever 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 pressed,

    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, struggle a little! to sew by degrees

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

    To dream and to dote.

    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 turned out.

    And when their eyes flashed … 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 moiled

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

    They both loved me, and soon, coming home to be spoiled,

    In return would fan off every fly from my brow

    With their green laurel-bough.

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

    And some one 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 cheered in the street.

    I bore it;—friends soothed me: my grief looked sublime

    As the ransom of Italy. One boy remained

    To be leant on and walked with, recalling the time

    When the first grew immortal, while both of us strained

    To the height he had gained.

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

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

    One loved me for two … would be with me ere long:

    And “viva Italia” he died for, our saint,

    Who forbids our complaint.”

    My Nanni would add “he was safe, and aware

    Of a presence that turned off the balls … was imprest

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

    And how ’twas impossible, quite dispossessed,

    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 too lately forgiven

    Through that love and sorrow which reconciled so

    The above and below.

    O Christ of the seven 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 turned 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.

    ’Twere 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 your 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 pricked 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 such wail as this!—and we sit on forlorn

    When the man-child is born.

    Dead! one of them shot by the sea in the west,

    And one of them shot in the east 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!