2.2.1 Medieval

Realism, symbolism and medieval


I, a princess, king-descended, decked with jewels, gilded, drest,
Would rather be a peasant with her baby at her breast,
For all I shine so like the sun, and am purple like the west.

Two and two my guards behind, two and two before,
Two and two on either hand, they guard me evermore;
Me, poor dove, that must not coo—eagle that must not soar.

All my fountains cast up perfumes, all my gardens grow
Scented woods and foreign spices, with all flowers in blow
That are costly, out of season as the seasons go.

All my walls are lost in mirrors, whereupon I trace
Self to right hand, self to left hand, self in every place,
Self-same solitary figure, self-same seeking face.

Then I have an ivory chair high to sit upon,
Almost like my father’s chair, which is an ivory throne;
There I sit uplift and upright, there I sit alone.

Alone by day, alone by night, alone days without end;
My father and my mother give me treasures, search and spend—
O my father! O my mother! have you ne’er a friend?

As I am a lofty princess, so my father is
A lofty king, accomplished in all kingly subtilties,
Holding in his strong right hand world-kingdoms’ balances.

He has quarrelled with his neighbours, he has scourged his foes;
Vassal counts and princes follow where his pennon goes,
Long-descended valiant lords whom the vulture knows,

On whose track the vulture swoops, when they ride in state
To break the strength of armies and topple down the great:
Each of these my courteous servant, none of these my mate.

My father counting up his strength sets down with equal pen
So many head of cattle, head of horses, head of men;
These for slaughter, these for breeding, with the how and when.

Some to work on roads, canals; some to man his ships;
Some to smart in mines beneath sharp overseers’ whips;
Some to trap fur-beasts in lands where utmost winter nips.

Once it came into my heart, and whelmed me like a flood,
That these too are men and women, human flesh and blood;
Men with hearts and men with souls, though trodden down like mud.

Our feasting was not glad that night, our music was not gay:
On my mother’s graceful head I marked a thread of grey,
My father frowning at the fare seemed every dish to weigh.

I sat beside them sole princess in my exalted place,
My ladies and my gentlemen stood by me on the dais:
A mirror showed me I look old and haggard in the face;

It showed me that my ladies all are fair to gaze upon,
Plump, plenteous-haired, to every one love’s secret lore is known,
They laugh by day, they sleep by night; ah me, what is a throne?

The singing men and women sang that night as usual,
The dancers danced in pairs and sets, but music had a fall,
A melancholy windy fall as at a funeral.

Amid the toss of torches to my chamber back we swept;
My ladies loosed my golden chain; meantime I could have wept
To think of some in galling chains whether they waked or slept.

I took my bath of scented milk, delicately waited on,
They burned sweet things for my delight, cedar and cinnamon,
They lit my shaded silver lamp, and left me there alone.

A day went by, a week went by. One day I heard it said:
‘Men are clamouring, women, children, clamouring to be fed;
Men like famished dogs are howling in the streets for bread.’

So two whispered by my door, not thinking I could hear,
Vulgar naked truth, ungarnished for a royal ear;
Fit for cooping in the background, not to stalk so near.

But I strained my utmost sense to catch this truth, and mark:
‘There are families out grazing like cattle in the park.’
‘A pair of peasants must be saved even if we build an ark.’

A merry jest, a merry laugh, each strolled upon his way;
One was my page, a lad I reared and bore with day by day;
One was my youngest maid as sweet and white as cream in May.

Other footsteps followed softly with a weightier tramp;
Voices said: ‘Picked soldiers have been summoned from the camp
To quell these base-born ruffians who make free to howl and stamp.’

‘Howl and stamp?’ one answered: ‘They made free to hurl a stone
At the minister’s state coach, well aimed and stoutly thrown.’
‘There’s work then for the soldiers, for this rank crop must be mown.’

‘One I saw, a poor old fool with ashes on his head,
Whimpering because a girl had snatched his crust of bread:
Then he dropped; when some one raised him, it turned out he was dead.’

‘After us the deluge,’ was retorted with a laugh:
‘If bread’s the staff of life, they must walk without a staff.’
‘While I’ve a loaf they’re welcome to my blessing and the chaff.’

These passed. The king: stand up. Said my father with a smile:
‘Daughter mine, your mother comes to sit with you awhile,
She’s sad to-day, and who but you her sadness can beguile?’

He too left me. Shall I touch my harp now while I wait,—
(I hear them doubling guard below before our palace gate—)
Or shall I work the last gold stitch into my veil of state;

Or shall my woman stand and read some unimpassioned scene,
There’s music of a lulling sort in words that pause between;
Or shall she merely fan me while I wait here for the queen?

Again I caught my father’s voice in sharp word of command:
‘Charge!’ a clash of steel: ‘Charge again, the rebels stand.
Smite and spare not, hand to hand; smite and spare not, hand to hand.’

There swelled a tumult at the gate, high voices waxing higher;
A flash of red reflected light lit the cathedral spire;
I heard a cry for faggots, then I heard a yell for fire.

‘Sit and roast there with your meat, sit and bake there with your bread,
You who sat to see us starve,’ one shrieking woman said:
‘Sit on your throne and roast with your crown upon your head.’

Nay, this thing will I do, while my mother tarrieth,
I will take my fine spun gold, but not to sew therewith,
I will take my gold and gems, and rainbow fan and wreath;

With a ransom in my lap, a king’s ransom in my hand,
I will go down to this people, will stand face to face, will stand
Where they curse king, queen, and princess of this cursed land.

They shall take all to buy them bread, take all I have to give;
I, if I perish, perish; they to-day shall eat and live;
I, if I perish, perish; that’s the goal I half conceive:

Once to speak before the world, rend bare my heart and show
The lesson I have learned which is death, is life, to know.
I, if I perish, perish; in the name of God I go.


Till all sweet gums and juices flow,
Till the blossom of blossoms blow,
The long hours go and come and go,
The bride she sleepeth, waketh, sleepeth,
Waiting for one whose coming is slow:—
Hark! the bride weepeth.

‘How long shall I wait, come heat come rime?’—
‘Till the strong Prince comes, who must come in time’
(Her women say), ‘there’s a mountain to climb,
A river to ford. Sleep, dream and sleep;
Sleep’ (they say): ‘we’ve muffled the chime,
Better dream than weep.’

In his world-end palace the strong Prince sat,
Taking his ease on cushion and mat,
Close at hand lay his staff and his hat.
‘When wilt thou start? the bride waits, O youth.’—
‘Now the moon’s at full; I tarried for that,
Now I start in truth.

‘But tell me first, true voice of my doom,
Of my veiled bride in her maiden bloom;
Keeps she watch through glare and through gloom,
Watch for me asleep and awake?’—
‘Spell-bound she watches in one white room,
And is patient for thy sake.

‘By her head lilies and rosebuds grow;
The lilies droop, will the rosebuds blow?
The silver slim lilies hang the head low;
Their stream is scanty, their sunshine rare:
Let the sun blaze out, and let the stream flow,
They will blossom and wax fair.

‘Red and white poppies grow at her feet,
The blood-red wait for sweet summer heat,
Wrapped in bud-coats hairy and neat;
But the white buds swell, one day they will burst,
Will open their death-cups drowsy and sweet—
Which will open the first?’

Then a hundred sad voices lifted a wail,
And a hundred glad voices piped on the gale:
‘Time is short, life is short,’ they took up the tale:
‘Life is sweet, love is sweet, use to-day while you may;
Love is sweet, and to-morrow may fail;
Love is sweet, use to-day.’

While the song swept by, beseeching and meek,
Up rose the Prince with a flush on his cheek,
Up he rose to stir and to seek,
Going forth in the joy of his strength;
Strong of limb if of purpose weak,
Starting at length.

Forth he set in the breezy morn,
Crossing green fields of nodding corn,
As goodly a Prince as ever was born;
Carolling with the carolling lark;—
Sure his bride will be won and worn,
Ere fall of the dark.

So light his step, so merry his smile,
A milkmaid loitered beside a stile,
Set down her pail and rested awhile,
A wave-haired milkmaid, rosy and white;
The Prince, who had journeyed at least a mile,
Grew athirst at the sight.

‘Will you give me a morning draught?’—
‘You’re kindly welcome,’ she said, and laughed.
He lifted the pail, new milk he quaffed;
Then wiping his curly black beard like silk:
‘Whitest cow that ever was calved
Surely gave you this milk.’

Was it milk now, or was it cream?
Was she a maid, or an evil dream?
Here eyes began to glitter and gleam;
He would have gone, but he stayed instead;
Green they gleamed as he looked in them:
‘Give me my fee,’ she said.—

‘I will give you a jewel of gold.’—
‘Not so; gold is heavy and cold.’—
‘I will give you a velvet fold
Of foreign work your beauty to deck.’—
‘Better I like my kerchief rolled
Light and white round my neck.’—

‘Nay,’ cried he, ‘but fix your own fee.’—
She laughed, ‘You may give the full moon to me;
Or else sit under this apple-tree
Here for one idle day by my side;
After that I’ll let you go free,
And the world is wide.’

Loth to stay, but to leave her slack,
He half turned away, then he quite turned back:
For courtesy’s sake he could not lack
To redeem his own royal pledge;
Ahead too the windy heaven lowered black
With a fire-cloven edge.

So he stretched his length in the apple-tree shade,
Lay and laughed and talked to the maid,
Who twisted her hair in a cunning braid
And writhed it shining in serpent-coils,
And held him a day and night fast laid
In her subtle toils.

At the death of night and the birth of day,
When the owl left off his sober play,
And the bat hung himself out of the way,
Woke the song of mavis and merle,
And heaven put off its hodden grey
For mother-o’-pearl.

Peeped up daisies here and there,
Here, there, and everywhere;
Rose a hopeful lark in the air,
Spreading out towards the sun his breast;
While the moon set solemn and fair
Away in the West.

‘Up, up, up,’ called the watchman lark,
In his clear réveillée: ‘Hearken, oh hark!
Press to the high goal, fly to the mark.
Up, O sluggard, new morn is born;
If still asleep when the night falls dark,
Thou must wait a second morn.’

‘Up, up, up,’ sad glad voices swelled:
‘So the tree falls and lies as it’s felled.
Be thy bands loosed, O sleeper, long held
In sweet sleep whose end is not sweet.
Be the slackness girt and the softness quelled
And the slowness fleet.’

Off he set. The grass grew rare,
A blight lurked in the darkening air,
The very moss grew hueless and spare,
The last daisy stood all astunt;
Behind his back the soil lay bare,
But barer in front.

A land of chasm and rent, a land
Of rugged blackness on either hand:
If water trickled its track was tanned
With an edge of rust to the chink;
If one stamped on stone or on sand
It returned a clink.

A lifeless land, a loveless land,
Without lair or nest on either hand:
Only scorpions jerked in the sand,
Black as black iron, or dusty pale;
From point to point sheer rock was manned
By scorpions in mail.

A land of neither life nor death,
Where no man buildeth or fashioneth,
Where none draws living or dying breath;
No man cometh or goeth there,
No man doeth, seeketh, saith,
In the stagnant air.

Some old volcanic upset must
Have rent the crust and blackened the crust;
Wrenched and ribbed it beneath its dust
Above earth’s molten centre at seethe,
Heaved and heaped it by huge upthrust
Of fire beneath.

Untrodden before, untrodden since:
Tedious land for a social Prince;
Halting, he scanned the outs and ins,
Endless, labyrinthine, grim,
Of the solitude that made him wince,
Laying wait for him.

By bulging rock and gaping cleft,
Even of half mere daylight reft,
Rueful he peered to right and left,
Muttering in his altered mood:
‘The fate is hard that weaves my weft,
Though my lot be good.’

Dim the changes of day to night,
Of night scarce dark to day not bright.
Still his road wound towards the right,
Still he went, and still he went,
Till one night he espied a light,
In his discontent.

Out it flashed from a yawn-mouthed cave,
Like a red-hot eye from a grave.
No man stood there of whom to crave
Rest for wayfarer plodding by:
Though the tenant were churl or knave
The Prince might try.

In he passed and tarried not,
Groping his way from spot to spot,
Towards where the cavern flare glowed hot:—
An old, old mortal, cramped and double,
Was peering into a seething-pot,
In a world of trouble.

The veriest atomy he looked,
With grimy fingers clutching and crooked,
Tight skin, a nose all bony and hooked,
And a shaking, sharp, suspicious way;
His blinking eyes had scarcely brooked
The light of day.

Stared the Prince, for the sight was new;
Stared, but asked without more ado:
‘My a weary traveller lodge with you,
Old father, here in your lair?
In your country the inns seem few,
And scanty the fare.’

The head turned not to hear him speak;
The old voice whistled as through a leak
(Out it came in a quavering squeak):
‘Work for wage is a bargain fit:
If there’s aught of mine that you seek
You must work for it.

‘Buried alive from light and air
This year is the hundredth year,
I feed my fire with a sleepless care,
Watching my potion wane or wax:
Elixir of Life is simmering there,
And but one thing lacks.

‘If you’re fain to lodge here with me,
Take that pair of bellows you see—
Too heavy for my old hands they be—
Take the bellows and puff and puff:
When the steam curls rosy and free
The broth’s boiled enough.

‘Then take your choice of all I have;
I will give you life if you crave.
Already I’m mildewed for the grave,
So first myself I must drink my fill:
But all the rest may be yours, to save
Whomever you will.’

‘Done,’ quoth the Prince, and the bargain stood,
First he piled on resinous wood,
Next plied the bellows in hopeful mood;
Thinking, ‘My love and I will live.
If I tarry, why life is good,
And she may forgive.’

The pot began to bubble and boil;
The old man cast in essence and oil,
He stirred all up with a triple coil
Of gold and silver and iron wire,
Dredged in a pinch of virgin soil,
And fed the fire.

But still the steam curled watery white;
Night turned to day and day to night;
One thing lacked, by his feeble sight
Unseen, unguessed by his feeble mind:
Life might miss him, but Death the blight
Was sure to find.

So when the hundredth year was full
The thread was cut and finished the school.
Death snapped the old worn-out tool,
Snapped him short while he stood and stirred
(Though stiff he stood as a stiff-necked mule)
With never a word.

Thus at length the old crab was nipped.
The dead hand slipped, the dead finger dipped
In the broth as the dead man slipped,—
That same instant, a rosy red
Flushed the steam, and quivered and clipped
Round the dead old head.

The last ingredient was supplied
(Unless the dead man mistook or lied).
Up started the Prince, he cast aside
The bellows plied through the tedious trial,
Made sure that his host had died,
And filled a phial.

‘One night’s rest,’ though the Prince: ‘This done,
Forth I start with the rising sun:
With the morrow I rise and run,
Come what will of wind or of weather.
This draught of Life when my Bride is won
We’ll drink together.’

Thus the dead man stayed in his grave,
Self-chosen, the dead man in his cave;
There he stayed, were he fool or knave,
Or honest seeker who had not found:
While the Prince outside was prompt to crave
Sleep on the ground.

‘If she watches, go bid her sleep;
Bit her sleep, for the road is steep:
He can sleep who holdeth her cheap,
Sleep and wake and sleep again.
Let him sow, one day he shall reap,
Let him sow the grain.

‘When there blows a sweet garden rose,
Let it bloom and wither if no man knows:
But if one knows when the sweet thing blows,
Knows, and lets it open and drop,
If but a nettle his garden grows
He hath earned the crop.’

Through his sleep the summons rang,
Into his ears it sobbed and it sang.
Slow he woke with a drowsy pang,
Shook himself without much debate,
Turned where he saw green branches hang,
Started though late.

For the black land was travelled o’er,
He should see the grim land no more.
A flowering country stretched before
His face when the lovely day came back:
He hugged the phial of Life he bore,
And resumed his track.

By willow courses he took his path,
Spied what a nest the kingfisher hath,
Marked the fields green to aftermath,
Marked where the red-brown field-mouse ran,
Loitered a while for a deep-stream bath,
Yawned for a fellow-man.

Up on the hills not a soul in view,
In a vale not many nor few;
Leaves, still leaves, and nothing new.
It’s oh for a second maiden, at least,
To bear the flagon, and taste it too,
And flavour the feast.

Lagging he moved, and apt to swerve;
Lazy of limb, but quick of nerve.
At length the water-bed took a curve,
The deep river swept its bankside bare;
Waters streamed from the hill-reserve—
Waters here, waters there.

High above, and deep below,
Bursting, bubbling, swelling the flow,
Like hill torrents after the snow,—
Bubbling, gurgling, in whirling strife,
Swaying, sweeping, to and fro,—
He must swim for his life.

Which way?—which way?—his eyes grew dim
With the dizzying whirl—which way to swim?
The thunderous downshoot deafened him;
Half he choked in the lashing spray:
Life is sweet, and the grave is grim—
Which way?—which way?

A flash of light, a shout from the strand:
‘This way—this way; here lies the land!’
His phial clutched in one drowning hand;
He catches—misses—catches a rope;
His feet slip on the slipping sand:
Is there life?—is there hope?

Just saved, without pulse or breath,—
Scarcely saved from the gulp of death;
Laid where a willow shadoweth—
Laid where a swelling turf is smooth.
(O Bride! but the Bridegroom lingereth
For all thy sweet youth.)

Kind hands do and undo,
Kind voices whisper and coo:
‘I will chafe his hands’—’And I’—’And you
Raise his head, put his hair aside.’
(If many laugh, one well may rue:
Sleep on, thou Bride.)

So the Prince was tended with care:
One wrung foul ooze from his clustered hair;
Two chafed his hands, and did not spare;
But one held his drooping head breast-high,
Till his eyes oped, and at unaware
They met eye to eye.

Oh, a moon face in a shadowy place,
And a light touch and a winsome grace,
And a thrilling tender voice that says:
‘Safe from waters that seek the sea—
Cold waters by rugged ways—
Safe with me.’

While overhead bird whistles to bird,
And round about plays a gamesome herd:
‘Safe with us’—some take up the word—
‘Safe with us, dear lord and friend:
All the sweeter if long deferred
Is rest in the end.’

Had he stayed to weigh and to scan,
He had been more or less than a man:
He did what a young man can,
Spoke of toil and an arduous way—
Toil to-morrow, while golden ran
The sands of to-day.

Slip past, slip fast,
Uncounted hours from first to last,
Many hours till the last is past,
Many hours dwindling to one—
One hour whose die is cast,
One last hour gone.

Come, gone—gone for ever—
Gone as an unreturning river—
Gone as to death the merriest liver—
Gone as the year at the dying fall—
To-morrow, to-day, yesterday, never—
Gone once for all.

Came at length the starting-day,
With last words, and last words to say,
With bodiless cries from far away—
Chiding wailing voices that rang
Like a trumpet-call to the tug and fray;
And thus they sang:

‘Is there life?—the lamp burns low;
Is there hope?—the coming is slow:
The promise promised so long ago,
The long promise, has not been kept.
Does she live?—does she die?—she slumbers so
Who so oft has wept.

‘Does she live?—does she die?—she languisheth
As a lily drooping to death,
As a drought-worn bird with failing breath,
As a lovely vine without a stay,
As a tree whereof the owner saith,
“Hew it down to-day.”‘

Stung by that word the Prince was fain
To start on his tedious road again.
He crossed the stream where a ford was plain,
He clomb the opposite bank though steep,
And swore to himself to strain and attain
Ere he tasted sleep.

Huge before him a mountain frowned
With foot of rock on the valley ground,
And head with snows incessant crowned,
And a cloud mantle about its strength,
And a path which the wild goat hath not found
In its breadth and length.

But he was strong to do and dare:
If a host had withstood him there,
He had braved a host with little care
In his lusty youth and his pride,
Tough to grapple though weak to snare.
He comes, O Bride.

Up he went where the goat scarce clings,
Up where the eagle folds her wings,
Past the green line of living things,
Where the sun cannot warm the cold,—
Up he went as a flame enrings
Where there seems no hold.

Up a fissure barren and black,
Till the eagles tired upon his track,
And the clouds were left behind his back,
Up till the utmost peak was past,
Then he gasped for breath and his strength fell slack;
He paused at last.

Before his face a valley spread
Where fatness laughed, wine, oil, and bread,
Where all fruit-trees their sweetness shed,
Where all birds made love to their kind,
Where jewels twinkled, and gold lay red
And not hard to find.

Midway down the mountain side
(On its green slope the path was wide)
Stood a house for a royal bride,
Built all of changing opal stone,
The royal palace, till now descried
In his dreams alone.

Less bold than in days of yore,
Doubting now though never before,
Doubting he goes and lags the more:
Is the time late? does the day grow dim?
Rose, will she open the crimson core
Of her heart to him?

Take heart of grace! the potion of Life
May go far to woo him a wife:
If she frown, yet a lover’s strife
Lightly raised can be laid again:
A hasty word is never the knife
To cut love in twain.

Far away stretched the royal land,
Fed by dew, by a spice-wind fanned:
Light labour more, and his foot would stand
On the threshold, all labour done;
Easy pleasure laid at his hand,
And the dear Bride won.

His slackening steps pause at the gate—
Does she wake or sleep?—the time is late—
Does she sleep now, or watch and wait?
She has watched, she has waited long,
Watching athwart the golden grate
With a patient song.

Fling the golden portals wide,
The Bridegroom comes to his promised Bride;
Draw the gold-stiff curtains aside,
Let them look on each other’s face,
She in her meekness, he in his pride—
Day wears apace.

Day is over, the day that wore.
What is this that comes through the door,
The face covered, the feet before?
This that coming takes his breath;
The Bride not seen, to be seen no more
Save of Bridegroom Death?

Veiled figures carrying her
Sweep by yet make no stir;
There is a smell of spice and myrrh,
A bride-chant burdened with one name;
The bride-song rises steadier
Than the torches’ flame:

‘Too late for love, too late for joy,
Too late, too late!
You loitered on the road too long,
You trifled at the gate:
The enchanted dove upon her branch
Died without a mate;
The enchanted princess in her tower
Slept, died, behind the grate;
Her heart was starving all this while
You made it wait.

‘Ten years ago, five years ago,
One year ago,
Even then you had arrived in time,
Though somewhat slow;
Then you had known her living face
Which now you cannot know:
The frozen fountain would have leaped,
The buds gone on to blow,
The warm south wind would have awaked
To melt the snow.

‘Is she fair now as she lies?
Once she was fair;
Meet queen for any kingly king,
With gold-dust on her hair.
Now these are poppies in her locks,
White poppies she must wear;
Must wear a veil to shroud her face
And the want graven there:
Or is the hunger fed at length,
Cast off the care?

‘We never saw her with a smile
Or with a frown;
Her bed seemed never soft to her,
Though tossed of down;
She little heeded what she wore,
Kirtle, or wreath, or gown;
We think her white brows often ached
Beneath her crown,
Till silvery hairs showed in her locks
That used to be so brown.

‘We never heard her speak in haste;
Her tones were sweet,
And modulated just so much
As it was meet:
Her heart sat silent through the noise
And concourse of the street.
There was no hurry in her hands,
No hurry in her feet;
There was no bliss drew nigh to her,
That she might run to greet.

‘You should have wept her yesterday,
Wasting upon her bed:
But wherefore should you weep to-day
That she is dead?
Lo, we who love weep not to-day,
But crown her royal head.
Let be these poppies that we strew,
Your roses are too red:
Let be these poppies, not for you
Cut down and spread.’

Christina Rossetti’s “A Royal Princess” and “The Prince’s Progress” sharply criticise the medieval paradigms imagined by her male contemporaries.

“A Royal Princess” openly criticises the roles to which chivalry consigned medieval maidens and Victorian women. Confined in the palace, the princess narrator acknowledges, as, for example, Carlyle, Tennyson, and Disraeli do not, that the feudal system works best for those who hold the power. It could be an allusion to her brother Dante Gabriel Rosetti, since as he was the first-born and he was a man would hold the winning cards with her, her sister.

The poem, submitted and published as part of a social relief fund project, outlines a world bereft of tournaments and chivalry. The princess’s real desire is the self-expression that paternal feudalism has denied her, as Christina Rossetti’s dream. Her admitted “goal” is “once to speak before the world”. The princess embodies the voices marginalized (as Christina Rosetti’s voice) by authoritarian social structures.

In writing the poem, Rossetti also “speaks before the world” about women’s secondary status in the Victorian social ideal. “The Prince’s Progress”, like “A Royal Princess”, examines the oppressive dichotomy of masculine action versus feminine submission and patience. In a darkly humorous parody of the hero’s quest, the prince embarks on a “peril-less” journey, doing no great deed and arriving to find his beloved dead, killed presumably by his wandering sexual interest and sloth-like “progress” toward her tower.

Both poems are united in their insistence that the reader reconsider the prescription of present social limits endorsed by an unthinking acceptance of a quasi-fictional past.

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