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Anne Reeve Aldrich: American Sappho

Anne Reeve Aldrich was an American poet and novelist. She was born April 25, 1866, in New York and died June 22, 1892, also in New York. Her books include The Rose of Flame (1889), The Feet of Love (1890), Nadine and Other Poems (1893), A Village Ophelia and Other Stories (1899) and Songs about Life, Love, and Death (1892). She wrote a number of poems in which she seemed to prophesy an early death for herself, then died at the tender age of 26. According to the preface of Songs about Life, Love, and Death, which was published posthumously, at the time of her death she was so weak that she couldn’t lift her pen, and thus had to dictate her last poem, “Death at Daybreak.” Her grand-uncle was the poet James Aldrich. She published her first volume of poetry, The Rose of Flame in 1889; it was not well received (critics cited its "unrestrained expression"). She was also said to have written “erotic” poems. But she persevered, publishing a novel, The Feet of Love, in 1890, and it seems she was working on her final volume of poems even on her deathbed.

SONGS ABOUT LIFE, LOVE, AND DEATH: “Passion and agony, the one because of the other, are the keys of Anne Reeve Aldrich's nature and verse. This woman is of the few who nearest share the moods of Sappho and her talents.”Springfield Republican, circa 1892, as quoted in The Book Buyer, volume X, no. 3, April, 1893

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Anne Reeve Aldrich (1866-1892)

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Artistic rendering of Sappho by William Adolphe Bouguereau



Servitude

The church was dim at vespers.
My eyes were on the Rood.
But yet I felt thee near me,
In every drop of blood.

In helpless, trembling bondage
My soul's weight lies on thee,
O call me not at dead of night,
Lest I should come to thee!



When I Was Thine

"Ricordati da me quand 'ero teco." Tuscan Rispetto.

THE sullen rain breaks on the convent window,
  The distant chanting dies upon mine ears.
—Soon comes the morn for which my soul hath languished,
  For which my soul hath yearned these many years;
Forget of me this life which I resign,
Think of me in the days when I was thine.

Forget the paths my weary feet have travelled,
  The thorns and stones that pierced them as I went;
These later days of prayer and scourge and penance,
  These hours of anguish now so nearly spent.
Forget I left thy life for life divine,
Think of me in the days when I was thine.

Forget the rigid brow as thou wilt see it,
  The folded eyelids, and the quiet mouth.
Think how my eyes grew brighter at thy coming,
  Think of those fervid noontides in the South.
Think when my kisses made life half divine,
Think of me in the days when I was thine.

Forget this nearer past, I do adjure thee,
  Remember only what was long ago.
Think when our love was fire unquenched by ashes,
  Think of our Spring, and not this Winter's snow.
Forget me as I lie, past speech or sign.
Think of me in the days when I was thine.



Souvenirs

Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

Where is the glove that I gave to him,
Perfumed and warm from my arm that night?
And where is the rose that another stole
When the land was flooded with June moonlight,
And the satin slipper I wore?—Alack,
Some one had that—it was wrong, I fear.
Where are these souvenirs today?
But where are the snows of yesteryear?

The glove was burned at his next love's prayer,
And the rose was lost in the mire of the street;
And the satin slipper he tossed away,
For his jealous bride had not fairy feet.
Give what you will, but know, mesdames,
For a day alone are your favors dear.
Be sure for the next fair woman's sake
They will go—like the snows of yesteryear.



A Little Parable

I made the cross myself whose weight
Was later laid on me.
This thought is torture as I toil
Up life’s steep Calvary.

To think mine own hands drove the nails!
I sang a merry song,
And chose the heaviest wood I had
To build it firm and strong.

If I had guessed—if I had dreamed
Its weight was meant for me,
I should have made a lighter cross
To bear up Calvary!



My Guerdon

I stood where gifts were showered on men from Heaven,
And some had honors and the joy thereof;
And some received with solemn, radiant faces
The gift of love.

The green I saw of bay-leaves, and of laurel,
Of gold the gleam.
A voice spoke to me, standing empty-handed,
"For thee a dream."

Forbear to pity, ye who richly laden
Forth from the place of Heaven s bounty went;
Who marvel that I smile, my hands still empty
I am content.

Ye cannot guess how dowered beyond the measure
Of your receiving to myself I seem.
Lonely and cold, I yet pass on enraptured—
I have my dream.



The Prayer of Dolores

Madrid, 1888

Beneath the grass, I hear them say,
Live loathsome things that hate the day,—
Strange crawling shapes with blinded eyes,
Whose very image terrifies.
I dread not these: make deep my bed
With good black mold round heart and head.
But oh! the fear a Thought may creep
Down from the world to where I sleep,
Pierce through the earth to heart and brain
And coil there, in its home again!
Father, thou hast the good God’s ear, —
And when priests speak He bends to hear,—
Say, " Lord, this woman of Madrid
Begs, when herself in earth is hid,
Her soul s guilt paid for, grain by grain,
In throes of purgatorial pain,
That Thou her soul wouldst clean destroy;
She hath no wish for heavenly joy,

But just to be dissolved to Naught,
Beyond the reach of any thought.
Some sinners dare to beg for bliss,
I know my place, and ask but this:
That He, who made will then unmake
My soul, for His sweet mercy s sake!"



Fraternity

I ask not how thy suffering came,
Or if by sin, or if by shame,
Or if by Fate’s capricious rulings:
To my large pity all’s the same.

Come close and lean against a heart
Eaten by pain and stung by smart;
It is enough if thou hast suffered,—
Brother or sister then thou art.

We will not speak of what we know,
Rehearse the pang, nor count the throe,
Nor ask what agony admitted
Thee to the Brotherhood of Woe.

But in our anguish-darkened land
Let us draw close, and clasp the hand;
Our whispered password holds assuagement,—
The solemn “Yea, I understand!”



Separation

If it were land, oh, weary feet could travel,
If it were sea, a ship might cleave the wave,
If it were Death, sad Love could look to heaven.
And see through tears the sunlight on the grave.
Not land, or sea. or death keeps us apart
But only thou, oh unforgiving Heart.

If it were land, through piercing thorns I'd travel.
If it were sea, I'd cross to thee, or die.
If it were Death, I'd tear Life's veil asunder
That I might see thee with a clearer eye.
Ah none of these could keep our souls apart —
Forget, forgive, oh unforgiving Heart.



The End

Do you recall that little room
Close blinded from the searching sun,
So dim, my blossoms dreamed of dusk?
And shut their petals one by one.
And then a certain crimson eve,
The death of day upon the tide;
How all its blood spread on the waves,
And stained the waters far and wide.
Ah, you forget;
But I remember yet.

When I awake in middle night,
And stretch warm hands to touch your face,
There is no chance that I shall find
Aught but your chill and empty place.
I have no bitter word to say,
The Past is worth this anguish sore,
—But mouth to mouth, and heart to heart,
No more on earth, O God, no more!
For Love is dead;
Would 't were I, instead.



In Extremis

The sacred tapers flickered fair,
The priest has gone with Host and prayer;
I heard the "Nunc Dimittis" said,
Not with the heart, but with the head.

Though I, the while, lay dying near,
This was all my heart could hear:
"I love thee, lay thy lips on mine,
Thy kisses turn my head like wine."

And this was all my heart could see,
Instead of the cross held out to me,
That well-known small and scented room,
Made sweetly dusk by curtain's gloom.

And this was all my heart could feel,
Spite of these pains like stabbing steel,
The throbbing pulses of thy breast,
Where, weary, I was wont to rest.

O what shall come to me, alas!
Whose soul so soon in death must pass
The soul too wholly thine to dwell
On hope of heaven, or dread of hell.

If heaven, that awful glassy sea,
May still reflect some memory.
If hell, not all eternal fire,
Can quite burn out the old desire.

Instead of name of pitying saint
Breathed as the passing soul's last plaint,
Thy name will be my latest breath.
Who wast my life, who art my death.



Love, the Destroyer

               Love is a Fire;
Nor Shame, nor Pride can well withstand Desire.
"For what are they," we cry, "that they should dare
To keep, O Love, the haughty look they wear?
Nay, burn the victims, O thou sacred Fire,
That with their death thou mayst but flame the higher.
Let them feel once the fierceness of thy breath,
And make thee still more beauteous with their death."

               Love is a Fire;
But ah, how short-lived is the flame Desire!
Love, having burnt whatever once we cherished,
And blackened all things else, itself hath perished.
And now alone in gathering night we stand,
Ashes and ruin stretch on either hand.
Yet while we mourn, our sad hearts whisper low:
"We served the mightiest God that man can know."



Outer Darkness

Where shall I look for help? Our gracious God
Pities all those who weep for sin ingrain,
And potent is the Kingly Victim's blood
To wash repented guilt, and leave no stain.

But ah, what hope for me in Heaven above,
What consolation left beneath the sun,
In those black hours when my lost soul laments
Because it left that one sweet sin undone?



A Return to the Valley

Behold me at thy feet. Alone I climbed
And wandered through the mountain land of Art
Amid God's awful snows; the keen thin air
Pierced through my brain, and chilled me at the heart.

Behold me at thy feet. A famished heart
Does ill to travel by such paths as these.
Better for me to seek this vale once more,
Better for me to crouch here at thy knees.

Behold me at thy feet. And thou dost stretch
No tender hand to raise me to thy breast.
Ah, 't is a foolish bird that hopes to find
Untouched, in leafless hedge, its last year's nest.

I will depart, and seek again the heights,
Above hot love, or wholesome hate of foes.
But from this day my pilgrim feet must leave
A track of blood across the awful snows.



A Song About Singing

O nightingale, the poet's bird,
A kinsman dear thou art,
Who never sings so well as when
The rose-thorns bruise his heart.

But since thy agony can make
A listening world so blest,
Be sure it cares but little for
Thy wounded, bleeding breast!



April—and Dying

Green blood fresh pulsing through the trees,
Blacks buds, that sun and shower distend;
All other things begin anew,
But I must end.

Warm sunlight on faint-colored sward,
Warm fragrance in the breezes’ breath;
For other things art heat and life,
For me is death.



Death at Daybreak

I shall go out when the light comes in—
There lie my cast-off form and face;
I shall pass Dawn on her way to earth,
As I seek for a path through space.

I shall go out when the light comes in;
Would I might take one ray with me!
It is blackest night between the worlds,
And how is a soul to see?



In Conclusion

O Love, take these my songs, made for thy joy,
And speak one tender word of them to me.
And other praise or blame that word will drown
As voice of brook is drowned by sounding sea.

Like all my joys and woes, my garnered verse
To lay at thy dear feet I haste to bring.
Be gracious. Love, remembering that the mouth
Touched by thine own, could scarcely fail to sing!



A Draught

A bitter cup you offer me,
Though roses hide its brim with red.
Yet since your strong hand proffers it,
I shall not spurn, but drink instead.

And when the draught has done its work.
And I lie low, who now stand high.
You, who encompassed this, will pass
With loathing and averted eye.

Yet none the less I humbly bow.
And drain the cup on bended knee.
That holds within its hollow gold
Your pleasure, and your scorn of me.



Recollection

How can it be that I forget
The way he phrased my doom,
When I recall the arabesques
That carpeted the room?

How can it be that I forget
His look and mein that hour,
When I recall I wore a rose,
And still can smell the flower?

How can it be that I forget
Those words that were his last,
When I recall the tune a man
Was whistling as he passed?

These things are what we keep from life's
Supremest joy or pain;
For memory locks her chaff in bins
And throws away the grain.



Suppose

How sad if, by some strange new law,
All kisses scarred!
For she who is most beautiful
Would be most marred.

And we might be surprised to see
Some lovely wife
Smooth-visaged, while a seeming prude
Was marked for life.



In November

Brown earth-line meets gray heaven,
And all the land looks sad;
But Love’s the little leaven
That works the whole world glad.
Sigh, bitter win; lower, frore clouds of gray:
My Love and I are living now in May!



Love's Change

I went to dig a grave for Love,
But the earth was so stiff and cold
That, though I stove through the bitter night,
I could not break the mould.

And I said: 'Must he lie in my house in state,
And stay in his wonted place?
Must I have him with me another day,
With that awful change in his face?'



Music Of Hungary

My body answers you, my blood
Leaps at your maddening, piercing call
The fierce notes startle, and the veil
Of this dull present seems to fall.
My soul responds to that long cry;
It wants its country, Hungary!
Not mine by birth. Yet have I not
Some strain of that old Magyar race?
Else why the secret stir of sense
At sight of swarthy Tzigane face,
That warns me: 'Lo, thy kinsmen nigh.'
All's dear that tastes of Hungary.

Once more, O let me hear once more
The passion and barbaric rage!
Let me forget my exile here
In this mild land, in this mild age;
Once more that unrestrained wild cry
That takes me to my Hungary!

They listen with approving smile,
But I, O God, I want my home!
I want the Tzigane tongue, the dance,
The nights in tents, the days to roam,
O music, O fierce life and free
God made my soul for Hungary!



The Rose of Flame

Look at this tangled snare of undergrowth,
These low-branched trees that darken all below;
Drink in the hot scent of this noontide air,
And hear, far off, some distant river flow,
Lamenting ever till it finds the sea.
New Life, new World, what's Shame to thee and me ?

Let us slay Shame; we shall forget his grave
Locked in the rapture of our lone embrace.
Yet what if there should rise, as once of old,
New wonder of this new, yet ancient place:
An angel, with a whirling sword of flame,
To drive us forth forever in God's name!



A Wanderer

The snows lie thick around his door,
That door made fast by bar and lock.
He will not heed thee, trembling, chilled;
He will not hear thy piteous knock.

Poor wandering Heart, canst thou not see
There is no welcome here for thee?
The air is numb with frost and night.
O wait no longer in the snow,

For lo, from yonder latticed pane
Faint music and the fire-light's glow;
He hath another guest in state,
And thou, poor Heart, thou art too late!



Lent

Ah, the road is a weary road
That leads one on to God,
And all too swift the eager race
To suit a lagging pace,
And far, far distant looks the goal
To the most patient soul.
So I forsook the sharp set road,
And walked where pleasant herbs were sowed.
I flung the sandals from tired feet,
And strayed where honeyed flowers grew sweet,
Nor strained tense nerves, nor onward pressed,
But made the goal his breast.
His circling arms my Heaven I made,
And, save to him, no more I prayed.
So for my sin I paid the price
Of endless joys of Paradise.
Good fellow-pilgrims, go your way.
For me 't is all in vain to pray.
I weep, when o'er the windy track
Your victors' hymns float echoing back,
But still I know, with eyelids wet,
I could return, but not forget.



Dreams

So still I lay within his arms
  He dreamed I was asleep,
Across my lips I felt his breath
  Like burning breezes creep.

I felt his watchful, searching gaze
  Though closed eyes cannot see;
I felt his warm and tender grasp
  More closely prison me.

The waking dream was all too sweet
  For me to wish to sleep.
I was too far beyond Earth's woes
  To speak, or smile, or weep.

How after this, could I endure
  The troublous times of Age and Tears,
To sit and wait for Death to dawn
  Across the midnight of my years!

Love will not stay, though we entreat;
  Death will not come at call.
Ah, to return to life and grief!
  Ah, having risen to fall!

I felt his mouth burn on my own;
  I raised my eyes to his eyes' deep.
He thought his kiss had wakened me,
  —He dreamed I was asleep!



Under the Rose

He moved with trembling fingers
From my throat, the band of red,
And a band of burning kisses
His lips set there instead.

Then he tied again the ribbon.
"I will hide them, Love," said he,
"And the secret of thy necklace
None shall know, save thee and me."

It was just a foolish fancy,
But from that day to this,
I wore the crimson ribbon
To hide my lover's kiss.

He has gone, and love is over,
But this blade within my hand,
Still shall hide our secret kisses
With another crimson band.



Immolation

Take her, and lay her head upon thy breast,
And be thou blest beyond thy heart's desire;
And as the star that ushers in the dawn
Fades from the sight in morning's glow and fire,

So, having heralded thy break of day,
'T is Nature's law that I no longer stay.
A path was I that led thee to thy goal;
Forget the path, since now the goal is won.

That was its proper place in all the land,
And it was made to set thy feet upon.
Its blessing is that all its course did tend
To bring thee to thy journey's happy end.



Arcadia

Sunlight on us, Love;
Not a shadow comes between.
Midway of the field we stand,
Heart in heart and hand in hand
And all the land is green.

Look around thee, Love,
Naught but meadows shining fair,
Save, as far as eye can see,
Long, low hills, clothed tenderly
By the veils of mist they wear.

But below us, Love,
Hidden by the meadow's rise,
Whispers brokenly a stream
Like a voice heard in a dream;
Clear its current as thine eyes.

Thou must linger, Love,
For a little on this side;
Both its banks are soft with moss.
Grieve not, Dear, that I shall cross,
For but shallow is its tide.

Canst not see it, Love?
Nay, Heart's Dearest, nor can I;
But in pauses to mine ear
Comes the sound thou canst not hear,
Filling silence with a sigh.

Smile again, dear Love,
Brighter day was never seen.
Pull these blossoms for thy hair;
Spring-time's joy is in the air,
And all the land is green.



Two Partings

He said good-bye with laughing eyes,
Too careless of me to be wise
  And see I grieved, since he must go.
With weary tears, through night and day,
In thought, I follow on his way,
For he must go, and I must stay.
  —I dread the bitter winds that blow.

Now time, at last, brings near a day
When I must go, and he must stay,
  And I, like him, shall smile to go.
And when he says good-bye to me,
Although he weep, I shall not see,
But if in thoughts he follow me,
  —He need not dread the winds that blow.



Rose Song

Plant, above my lifeless heart
Crimson roses, red as blood.
As if the love, pent there so long
Were pouring forth its flood.

Then, through them, my heart may tell,
Its Past of Love and Grief,
And I shall feel them grow from it,
And know a vague relief.

Through rotting shroud shall feel their roots,
And unto them myself shall grow,
And when I blossom at her feet,
She, on that day, shall know!



A New Year

THY bride is waiting in the kirk,
The wedding wine waits in thy hall.
              Adieu.
For me, the stream's cold tide to drink,
Where once we lingered at its brink,
The kirk-yard waits thy Summer's work.
              Adieu.

For her, the sweetest flowers that grow,
For me, the faded Autumn grass,
              Adieu.
For me, the dead leaves' tarnished gold.
Ah, linger not, for once of old,
Love, thou did'st stay when I said "Go!"
              Adieu.

For her, the pearl wrought marriage-dress,
The choir, the Mass, the ring of gold.
              Adieu.
For me, the chants that night-birds sing.
My hand in thine, I asked no ring,
Nor blessed by love, the Church to bless.
              Adieu.

For her, the wedding sheets are spread,
For her, the cup of Love and Life.
              Adieu.
For me, the cup of Love and Death.
Then earth to earth, as the priest saith,
My bed of love, and my last bed.
              Adieu.



A Fete-Day

They brought me snowy roses,
A picture of my Saint,
A little dove, whose tender note
Was like a virgin's plaint.

But you? You brought fierce kisses
That caught my heart in snare,
They crushed the snowy roses,
That decked my throat and hair.

The pictured Saint, in anguish,
Gazed down from carven frame,
And prayed, perhaps in heaven,
For her who bears her name.

The frightened dove moaned softly,
With ruffled wing and crest.
And never since will nestle
As once, within my breast!


In Exculpation

You seared both eyes with kisses,
And then bade me, blinded, go.
Nor leave betraying foot-prints
Upon your life's pure snow.

Ah, Love, you should remember
Ere you set blind captives free
They cannot find the by-paths
Who can no longer see!

Ah, Love, 't was your cruel folly
That set me journeying so,
And hoped to find, thereafter,
No foot-prints on the snow.



The Rose of Flame

God-like ignorance have they
  Who the voyage dare undertake.
Yet men venture every day
  For the mystic Blossom's sake.
Smile and weep for such as they,
If perchance ye know the way.
Smile for foe, and weep for friend,
Strange the journey, sure its end.

Through wide, twilight seas the course.
  He may start from any port.
Fate alone stands at the helm,
  Be the sailing long or short.
Night or day or weary week,
Still she guides, and does not speak.
No wild gale, or tempest's wrath
Dares to cross his vessel's path.

And what place of dreams is this,
  Where the keel slides in the sand?
Never mortal's eyes but once
  Gaze on such a magic strand.
The shore is veiled by mists of Shame
Where grows the luring Rose of Flame.
Bare sand, without a shrub or tree,
And vapor white, and whispering sea.

And now Fate holds him by the hand,
  And leads him inland, till no more
The mist of Shame cleaves to the sand,
  And distant grows the sea and shore.
Out of the desert, stretching bare,
Come dizzy scents that load the air.
Blindly and unfatigued he goes;
He breathes the perfume of the Rose.

Nearer—he feels the burning heat.
  Can desert hold a flower like this?
He sees, is blinded by its glow;
  The scent is like a clinging kiss.
The perfume deepens to a pang,
And in his brain strange music sang,
Such as lost Spirits sing in Hell.
Then,—days,—or years; he best can tell.

Withered, sere, and scorched at heart,
  He must seek the world once more.
Never shall he sail again
  Through such seas, to touch such shore,
And the memory of that strand
Makes him loathe all other land,
And no flower seems worth the name,
Since he saw the Rose of Flame.

Related pages: Romanticism Then and Now, Romanticism Defined, The Best Romantic Poetry, The Best Romantic Poets, American Sapphos

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