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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

A Test of Love

By Matthew Prior (1664–1721)

From ‘Henry and Emma’

VAINLY thou tell’st me what the woman’s care

Shall in the wildness of the wood prepare:

Thou, ere thou goest, unhappiest of thy kind,

Must leave the habit and the sex behind.

No longer shall thy comely tresses break

In flowing ringlets on thy snowy neck,

Or sit behind thy head, an ample round,

In graceful braids with various ribbon bound;

No longer shall the bodice, aptly laced,

From thy full bosom to thy slender waist,

That air and harmony of shape express,

Fine by degrees and beautifully less;

Nor shall thy lower garment’s artful plait,

From thy fair side dependent to thy feet,

Arm their chaste beauties with a modest pride,

And double every charm they seek to hide.

Th’ ambrosial plenty of thy shining hair,

Cropt off and lost, scarce lower than thy ear

Shall stand uncouth; a horseman’s coat shall hide

Thy taper shape and comeliness of side;

The short trunk-hose shall show thy foot and knee,

Licentious and to common eyesight free:

And, with a bolder stride and looser air,

Mingled with men, a man thou must appear….

Vagrants and outlaws shall offend thy view;

For such must be my friends, a hideous crew:

By adverse fortune mixed in social ill,

Trained to assault, and disciplined to kill;

Their common loves a lewd abandoned pack,

The beadle’s lash still flagrant on their back,—

By sloth corrupted, by disorder fed,

Made bold by want and prostitute for bread:

With such must Emma hunt the tedious day,

Assist their violence and divide their prey;

With such she must return at setting light,—

Though not partaker, witness of their night.

Thy ear, inured to charitable sounds

And pitying love, must feel the hateful wounds

Of jest obscene and vulgar ribaldry,

The ill-bred question and the lewd reply;

Brought by long habitude from bad to worse,

Must hear the frequent oath, the direful curse,—

That latest weapon of the wretches’ war,—

And blasphemy, sad comrade of despair.

Now, Emma, now the last reflection make,

What thou wouldst follow, what thou must forsake:

By our ill-omened stars and adverse Heaven,

No middle object to thy choice is given.

Or yield thy virtue to attain thy love,

Or leave a banished man, condemned in woods to rove.

O grief of heart! that our unhappy fates

Force thee to suffer what thy honor hates:

Mix thee amongst the bad, or make thee run

Too near the paths which virtue bids thee shun.

Yet with her Henry still let Emma go;

With him abhor the vice, but share the woe:

And sure my little heart can never err

Amidst the worst, if Henry still be there….

For thee alone these little charms I drest;

Condemned them or absolved them by thy test.

In comely figure ranged my jewels shone,

Or negligently placed, for thee alone;

For thee again they shall be laid aside:

The woman, Henry, shall put off her pride

For thee; my clothes, my sex, exchanged for thee,

I’ll mingle with the people’s wretched lee,—

Oh, line extreme of human infamy!

Wanting the scissors, with these hands I’ll tear

(If that obstructs my flight) this load of hair.

Black soot, or yellow walnut, shall disgrace

This little red and white of Emma’s face.

These nails with scratches shall deform my breast,

Lest by my look or color be expressed

The mark of aught high-born, or ever better dressed.

Yet in this commerce, under this disguise,

Let me be grateful still to Henry’s eyes;

Lost to the world, let me to him be known:

My fate I can absolve, if he shall own

That, leaving all mankind, I love but him alone.