Monday, June 29, 2015

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's A Child’s Grave at Florence

A. A. E. C.
Born, July 1848; died, November 1849.

 Of English blood, of Tuscan birth   
  What country should we give her?   
Instead of any on the earth,   
  The civic Heavens receive her.   

And here among the English tombs           
  In Tuscan ground we lay her,   
While the blue Tuscan sky endomes   
  Our English words of prayer.
   
A little child!—how long she lived,   
  By months, not years, is reckoned           
Born in one July, she survived   
  Alone to see a second.   

Bright-featured, as the July sun   
  Her little face still played in,   
And splendours, with her birth begun,           
  Had had no time for fading.   

So, LILY, from those July hours,   
  No wonder we should call her;   
She looked such kinship to the flowers,   
  Was but a little taller.           

A Tuscan Lily,—only white,   
  As Dante, in abhorrence   
Of red corruption, wished aright   
  The lilies of his Florence.   

We could not wish her whiter,—her           
  Who perfumed with pure blossom   
The house—a lovely thing to wear   
  Upon a mother’s bosom!   

This July creature thought perhaps   
  Our speech not worth assuming;           
She sate upon her parents’ laps   
  And mimicked the gnat’s humming;   

Said “father,” “mother,”—then left off   
  For tongues celestial, fitter:   
Her hair had grown just long enough           
  To catch heaven’s jasper-glitter.   

Babes! Love could always hear and see   
  Behind the cloud that hid them.   
“Let little children come to Me,   
  And do not thou forbid them.           

So, unforbidding, have we met,   
  And gently here have laid her,   
Though winter is no time to get   
  The flowers that should o’er-spread her:   

We should bring pansies quick with spring,           
  Rose, violet, daffodilly,   
And also, above everything,   
  White lilies for our Lily.   

Nay, more than flowers, this grave exacts,—   
  Glad, grateful attestations           
Of her sweet eyes and pretty acts,   
  With calm renunciations.   

Her very mother with light feet   
  Should leave the place too earthy,   
Saying, “The angels have thee, Sweet,           
  Because we are not worthy.”   

But winter kills the orange-buds,   
  The gardens in the frost are,   
And all the heart dissolves in floods,   
  Remembering we have lost her.           

Poor earth, poor heart,—too weak, too weak   
  To miss the July shining!   
Poor heart!—what bitter words we speak   
  When God speaks of resigning!   

Sustain this heart in us that faints,           
  Thou God, the self-existent!   
We catch up wild at parting saints   
  And feel Thy heaven too distant.   

The wind that swept them out of sin,   
  Has ruffled all our vesture:           
On the shut door that let them in,   
  We beat with frantic gesture,—   

To us, us also, open straight!   
  The outer life is chilly;   
Are we too, like the earth, to wait           
  Till next year for our Lily?   

—Oh, my own baby on my knees   
  My leaping, dimpled treasure,   
At every word I write like these,   
  Clasped close with stronger pressure!           

Too well my own heart understands,—   
  At every word beats fuller—   
My little feet, my little hands,   
  And hair of Lily’s colour!   

But God gives patience, Love learns strength,           
  And Faith remembers promise,   
And Hope itself can smile at length   
  On other hopes gone from us.   

Love, strong as Death, shall conquer Death,   
  Through struggle, made more glorious:           
This mother stills her sobbing breath,   
  Renouncing yet victorious.   

Arms, empty of her child, she lifts   
  With spirit unbereaven,—   
“God will not all take back His gifts;           
  My Lily’s mine in heaven.   

“Still mine! maternal rights serene   
  Not given to another!   
The crystal bars shine faint between   
  The souls of child and mother.           

“Meanwhile,” the mother cries “content!   
  Our love was well divided:   
Its sweetness following where she went,   
  Its anguish stayed where I did.   

“Well done of God, to halve the lot,           
  And give her all the sweetness;   
To us, the empty room and cot,—   
  To her, the Heaven’s completeness.   

“To us, this grave,—to her, the rows   
  The mystic palm-trees spring in;           
To us, the silence in the house,—   
  To her, the choral singing.   

“For her, to gladden in God’s view,—   
  For us, to hope and bear on.   
Grow, Lily, in thy garden new,           
  Beside the Rose of Sharon!   

“Grow fast in heaven, sweet Lily clipped,   
  In love more calm than this is,   
And may the angels dewy-lipped   
  Remind thee of our kisses!           

“While none shall tell thee of our tears,   
  These human tears now falling,   
Till, after a few patient years,   
  One home shall take us all in.   

“Child, father, mother,—who, left out?           
  Not mother, and not father!   
And when, our dying couch about,   
  The natural mists shall gather,   

“Some smiling angel close shall stand   
  In old Correggio’s fashion,           
And bear a LILY in his hand,   
  For death’s ANNUNCIATION.”


— Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Though she wrote of a child's grave in Florence the accompanying photo with this poem is in fact the grave of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The famed poet is also interred in Florence, Italy and died this day in 1861.