Alfred Tennyson

A Dream of Fair Women

Poem by Alfred Tennyson

As when a man, that sails in a balloon,
Downlooking sees the solid shining ground
Stream from beneath him in the broad blue noon,
Tilth, hamlet, mead and mound:

And takes his flags and waves them to the mob,
That shout below, all faces turned to where
Glows ruby-like the far up crimson globe,
Filled with a finer air:

So lifted high, the Poet at his will
Lets the great world flit from him, seeing all,
Higher thro' secret splendours mounting still,
Self-poised, nor fears to fall.


Hearing apart the echoes of his fame.
While I spoke thus, the seedsman, memory,
Sowed my deepfurrowed thought with many a name,
Whose glory will not die.

I read, before my eyelids dropt their shade,
"The Legend of Good Women," long ago
Sung by the morning star [1] of song, who made
His music heard below;

Dan Chaucer, the first warbler, whose sweet breath
Preluded those melodious bursts, that fill
The spacious times of great Elizabeth
With sounds that echo still.

And, for a while, the knowledge of his art
Held me above the subject, as strong gales
Hold swollen clouds from raining, tho' my heart,
Brimful of those wild tales,

Charged both mine eyes with tears.
In every land I saw, wherever light illumineth,
Beauty and anguish walking hand in hand
The downward slope to death. [2]

Those far-renowned brides of ancient song
Peopled the hollow dark, like burning stars,
And I heard sounds of insult, shame, and wrong,
And trumpets blown for wars;

And clattering flints batter'd with clanging hoofs:
And I saw crowds in column'd sanctuaries;
And forms that pass'd [3] at windows and on roofs
Of marble palaces;

Corpses across the threshold; heroes tall
Dislodging pinnacle and parapet
Upon the tortoise creeping to the wall; [4]
Lances in ambush set;

And high shrine-doors burst thro' with heated blasts
That run before the fluttering tongues of fire;
White surf wind-scatter'd over sails and masts,
And ever climbing higher;

Squadrons and squares of men in brazen plates,
Scaffolds, still sheets of water, divers woes,
Ranges of glimmering vaults with iron grates,
And hush'd seraglios.

So shape chased shape as swift as, when to land
Bluster the winds and tides the self-same way,
Crisp foam-flakes scud along the level sand,
Torn from the fringe of spray.

I started once, or seem'd to start in pain,
Resolved on noble things, and strove to speak,
As when a great thought strikes along the brain,
And flushes all the cheek.

And once my arm was lifted to hew down,
A cavalier from off his saddle-bow,
That bore a lady from a leaguer'd town;
And then, I know not how,

All those sharp fancies, by down-lapsing thought
Stream'd onward, lost their edges, and did creep
Roll'd on each other, rounded, smooth'd and brought
Into the gulfs of sleep.

At last methought that I had wander'd far
In an old wood: fresh-wash'd in coolest dew,
The maiden splendours of the morning star
Shook in the steadfast [5] blue.

Enormous elmtree-boles did stoop and lean
Upon the dusky brushwood underneath
Their broad curved branches, fledged with clearest green,
New from its silken sheath.

The dim red morn had died, her journey done,
And with dead lips smiled at the twilight plain,
Half-fall'n across the threshold of the sun,
Never to rise again.

There was no motion in the dumb dead air,
Not any song of bird or sound of rill;
Gross darkness of the inner sepulchre
Is not so deadly still

As that wide forest.
Growths of jasmine turn'd
Their humid arms festooning tree to tree, [6]
And at the root thro' lush green grasses burn'd
The red anemone.

I knew the flowers, I knew the leaves, I knew
The tearful glimmer of the languid dawn
On those long, rank, dark wood-walks, drench'd in dew,
Leading from lawn to lawn.

The smell of violets, hidden in the green,
Pour'd back into my empty soul and frame
The times when I remember to have been
Joyful and free from blame.

And from within me a clear under-tone
Thrill'd thro' mine ears in that unblissful clime
"Pass freely thro': the wood is all thine own,
Until the end of time".

At length I saw a lady [7] within call,
Stiller than chisell'd marble, standing there;
A daughter of the gods, divinely tall, [8]
And most divinely fair.

Her loveliness with shame and with surprise
Froze my swift speech: she turning on my face
The star-like sorrows of immortal eyes,
Spoke slowly in her place.

"I had great beauty: ask thou not my name:
No one can be more wise than destiny.
Many drew swords and died.
Where'er I came I brought calamity."

"No marvel, sovereign lady [9]: in fair field
Myself for such a face had boldly died," [10]
I answer'd free; and turning I appeal'd
To one [11] that stood beside.

But she, with sick and scornful looks averse,
To her full height her stately stature draws;
"My youth," she said, "was blasted with a curse:
This woman was the cause.

"I was cut off from hope in that sad place, [12]
Which yet to name my spirit loathes and fears: [13]
My father held his hand upon his face;
I, blinded with my tears,

"Still strove to speak: my voice was thick with sighs
As in a dream. Dimly I could descry
The stern black-bearded kings with wolfish eyes,
Waiting to see me die.

"The high masts flicker'd as they lay afloat;
The crowds, the temples, waver'd, and the shore;
The bright death quiver'd at the victim's throat;
Touch'd; and I knew no more." [14]

Whereto the other with a downward brow:
"I would the white cold heavy-plunging foam, [15]
Whirl'd by the wind, had roll'd me deep below,
Then when I left my home."

Her slow full words sank thro' the silence drear,
As thunder-drops fall on a sleeping sea:
Sudden I heard a voice that cried, "Come here,
That I may look on thee".

I turning saw, throned on a flowery rise,
One sitting on a crimson scarf unroll'd;
A queen, with swarthy cheeks [16] and bold black eyes,
Brow-bound with burning gold.

She, flashing forth a haughty smile, began:
"I govern'd men by change, and so I sway'd
All moods. Tis long since I have seen a man.
Once, like the moon, I made

"The ever-shifting currents of the blood
According to my humour ebb and flow.
I have no men to govern in this wood:
That makes my only woe.

"Nay--yet it chafes me that I could not bend
One will; nor tame and tutor with mine eye
That dull cold-blooded Caesar. Prythee, friend,
Where is Mark Antony? [17]

"The man, my lover, with whom I rode sublime
On Fortune's neck: we sat as God by God:
The Nilus would have risen before his time
And flooded at our nod. [18]

"We drank the Libyan [19] Sun to sleep, and lit
Lamps which outburn'd Canopus. O my life In Egypt!
O the dalliance and the wit,
The flattery and the strife, [20]

"And the wild kiss, when fresh from war's alarms, [21]
My Hercules, my Roman Antony,
My mailèd Bacchus leapt into my arms,
Contented there to die!

"And there he died: and when I heard my name
Sigh'd forth with life, I would not brook my fear [22]
Of the other: with a worm I balk'd his fame.
What else was left? look here!"

(With that she tore her robe apart, and half
The polish'd argent of her breast to sight
Laid bare. Thereto she pointed with a laugh,
Showing the aspick's bite.)

"I died a Queen. The Roman soldier found [23]
Me lying dead, my crown about my brows,
A name for ever!--lying robed and crown'd,
Worthy a Roman spouse."

Her warbling voice, a lyre of widest range
Struck [24] by all passion, did fall down and glance
From tone to tone, and glided thro' all change
Of liveliest utterance.

When she made pause I knew not for delight;
Because with sudden motion from the ground
She raised her piercing orbs, and fill'd with light
The interval of sound.

Still with their fires Love tipt his keenest darts;
As once they drew into two burning rings
All beams of Love, melting the mighty hearts
Of captains and of kings.

Slowly my sense undazzled. Then I heard
A noise of some one coming thro' the lawn,
And singing clearer than the crested bird,
That claps his wings at dawn.

"The torrent brooks of hallow'd Israel
From craggy hollows pouring, late and soon,
Sound all night long, in falling thro' the dell,
Far-heard beneath the moon.

"The balmy moon of blessed Israel
Floods all the deep-blue gloom with beams divine:
All night the splinter'd crags that wall the dell
With spires of silver shine."

As one that museth where broad sunshine laves
The lawn by some cathedral, thro' the door
Hearing the holy organ rolling waves
Of sound on roof and floor,

Within, and anthem sung, is charm'd and tied
To where he stands,--so stood I, when that flow
Of music left the lips of her that died
To save her father's vow;

The daughter of the warrior Gileadite, [25]
A maiden pure; as when she went along
From Mizpeh's tower'd gate with welcome light,
With timbrel and with song.

My words leapt forth: "Heaven heads the count of crimes
With that wild oath". She render'd answer high:
"Not so, nor once alone; a thousand times
I would be born and die.

"Single I grew, like some green plant, whose root
Creeps to the garden water-pipes beneath,
Feeding the flower; but ere my flower to fruit
Changed, I was ripe for death.

"My God, my land, my father--these did move
Me from my bliss of life, that Nature gave,
Lower'd softly with a threefold cord of love
Down to a silent grave.

"And I went mourning, 'No fair Hebrew boy
Shall smile away my maiden blame among
The Hebrew mothers'--emptied of all joy,
Leaving the dance and song,

"Leaving the olive-gardens far below,
Leaving the promise of my bridal bower,
The valleys of grape-loaded vines that glow
Beneath the battled tower

"The light white cloud swam over us. Anon
We heard the lion roaring from his den; [26]
We saw the large white stars rise one by one,
Or, from the darken'd glen,

"Saw God divide the night with flying flame,
And thunder on the everlasting hills.
I heard Him, for He spake, and grief became
A solemn scorn of ills.

"When the next moon was roll'd into the sky,
Strength came to me that equall'd my desire.
How beautiful a thing it was to die
For God and for my sire!

"It comforts me in this one thought to dwell,
That I subdued me to my father's will;
Because the kiss he gave me, ere I fell,
Sweetens the spirit still.

"Moreover it is written that my race
Hew'd Ammon, hip and thigh, from Aroer [27]
On Arnon unto Minneth." Here her face
Glow'd, as I look'd at her.

She lock'd her lips: she left me where I stood:
"Glory to God," she sang, and past afar,
Thridding the sombre boskage of the wood,
Toward the morning-star.

Losing her carol I stood pensively,
As one that from a casement leans his head,
When midnight bells cease ringing suddenly,
And the old year is dead.

"Alas! alas!" a low voice, full of care,
Murmur'd beside me: "Turn and look on me:
I am that Rosamond, whom men call fair,
If what I was I be.

"Would I had been some maiden coarse and poor!
O me, that I should ever see the light!
Those dragon eyes of anger'd Eleanor
Do haunt me, day and night."

She ceased in tears, fallen from hope and trust:
To whom the Egyptian: "O, you tamely died!
You should have clung to Fulvia's waist, and thrust
The dagger thro' her side".

With that sharp sound the white dawn's creeping beams,
Stol'n to my brain, dissolved the mystery
Of folded sleep. The captain of my dreams
Ruled in the eastern sky.

Morn broaden'd on the borders of the dark,
Ere I saw her, who clasp'd in her last trance
Her murder'd father's head, or Joan of Arc, [28]
A light of ancient France;

Or her, who knew that Love can vanquish Death,
Who kneeling, with one arm about her king,
Drew forth the poison with her balmy breath, [29]
Sweet as new buds in Spring.

No memory labours longer from the deep
Gold-mines of thought to lift the hidden ore
That glimpses, moving up, than I from sleep
To gather and tell o'er

Each little sound and sight. With what dull pain
Compass'd, how eagerly I sought to strike
Into that wondrous track of dreams again!
But no two dreams are like.

As when a soul laments, which hath been blest,
Desiring what is mingled with past years,
In yearnings that can never be exprest
By sighs or groans or tears;

Because all words, tho' cull'd [30] with choicest art,
Failing to give the bitter of the sweet,
Wither beneath the palate, and the heart
Faints, faded by its heat.

[Footnote 1: Suggested apparently by Denham, 'Verses on Cowley's Death':--

Old Chaucer, like the morning star
To us discovers
Day from far.]

[Footnote 2: Here follow in 1833 two stanzas excised in 1842:--

In every land I thought that, more or less,
The stronger sterner nature overbore
The softer, uncontrolled by gentleness
And selfish evermore:

And whether there were any means whereby,
In some far aftertime, the gentler mind
Might reassume its just and full degree
Of rule among mankind.]

[Footnote 3: 1833. Screamed.]

[Footnote 4: The Latin 'testudo' formed of the shields of soldiers held over their heads.]

[Footnote 5: 1883 to 1848 inclusive. Stedfast.]

[Footnote 6: 1833.

Clasping jasmine turned
Its twined arms festooning tree to tree.

Altered to present reading, 1842.]

[Footnote 7: A lady, i.e., Helen.]

[Footnote 8: Tennyson has here noticed what is so often emphasised by Greek writers, that tallness was a great beauty in women. See Aristotle, 'Ethics', iv., 3, and Homer, 'passim, Odyssey', viii., 416; xviii., 190 and 248; xxi., 6. So Xenophon in describing Panthea emphasises her tallness, 'Cyroped.', v.]

[Footnote 9: 1883. Sovran lady.]

[Footnote 10: As the old men say, 'Iliad', iii., 156-8.]

[Footnote 11: The one is Iphigenia.]

[Footnote 12: Aulis.]

[Footnote 13: It was not till 1884 that this line was altered to the reading of the final edition, 'i.e.', "Which men called Aulis in those iron years". For the "iron years" of that reading 'cf.' Thomson, 'Spring', 384, "'iron' times".]

[Footnote 14: From 1833 till 1853 this stanza ran:--

"The tall masts quivered as they lay afloat,
The temples and the people and the shore,
One drew a sharp knife thro' my tender throat
Slowly,--and nothing more".

It is curious that Tennyson should have allowed the last line to stand so long; possibly it may have been to defy Lockhart's sarcastic commentary: "What touching simplicity, what pathetic resignation--he cut my throat, nothing more!" With Tennyson's picture should be compared Æschylus, 'Agamem.', 225-49, and Lucretius, i., 85-100. For the bold and picturesque substitution of the effect for the cause in the "bright death quiver'd" 'cf.' Sophocles, 'Electra', 1395,

[Greek: 'neakonaeton aima cheiroin ech_on,']

"with the newly-whetted blood on his hands". So "vulnus" is frequently used by Virgil, and 'cf.' Silius Italicus, 'Punica', ix., 368-9:--

Per pectora 'sævas'
Exceptat 'mortes'.]

[Footnote 15: She expresses the same wish in 'Iliad', iii., 73-4.]

[Footnote 16: Cleopatra. The skill with which Tennyson has here given us, in quintessence as it were, Shakespeare's superb creation needs no commentary, but it is somewhat surprising to find an accurate scholar like Tennyson guilty of the absurdity of representing Cleopatra as of gipsy complexion. The daughter of Ptolemy Aulates and a lady of Pontus, she was of Greek descent, and had no taint at all of African intermixtures. See Peacock's remarks in 'Gryll Grange', p. 206, 7th edit., 1861.]

[Footnote 17: After this in 1833 and in 1842 are the following stanzas, afterwards excised:--

"By him great Pompey dwarfs and suffers pain,
A mortal man before immortal Mars;
The glories of great Julius lapse and wane,
And shrink from suns to stars.

"That man of all the men I ever knew
Most touched my fancy.
O! what days and nights
We had in Egypt, ever reaping new
Harvest of ripe delights.

"Realm-draining revels! Life was one long feast,
What wit! what words! what sweet words, only made
Less sweet by the kiss that broke 'em, liking best
To be so richly stayed!

"What dainty strifes, when fresh from war's alarms,
My Hercules, my gallant Antony,
My mailed captain leapt into my arms,
Contented there to die!

"And in those arms he died: I heard my name
Sighed forth with life: then I shook off all fear:
Oh, what a little snake stole Caesar's fame!
What else was left? look here!"

"With that she tore her robe apart," etc.]

[Footnote l8: This stanza was added in 1843.]

[Footnote 19: 1845-1848. Lybian.]

[Footnote 20: Added in 1845 as a substitute for

"What nights we had in Egypt! I could hit His humours while I crossed them: O the life I led him, and the dalliance and the wit, The flattery and the strife,

which is the reading of 1843. Canopus is a star in Argo, not visible in the West, but a conspicuous feature in the sky when seen from Egypt, as Pliny notices, 'Hist. Nat.', vi., xxiv. "Fatentes Canopum noctibus sidus ingens et clarum". 'Cf.' Manilius, 'Astron.', i., 216-17, "Nusquam invenies fulgere Canopum donec Niliacas per pontum veneris oras," and Lucan, 'Pharsal.', viii., 181-3.]

[Footnote 21: Substituted in 1843 for the reading of 1833 and 1842.]

[Footnote 22: Substituted in 1845 for the reading of 1833, 1842, 1843, which ran as recorded 'supra'. 1845 to 1848. Lybian. And for the reading of 1843

Sigh'd forth with life I had no further fear,
O what a little worm stole Caesar's fame!]

[Footnote 23: A splendid transfusion of Horace's lines about her, Ode I., xxxvii.

Invidens Privata deduci superto
Non humilis mulier triumpho.]

[Footnote 24: 1833 and 1842. Touched.]

[Footnote 25: For the story of Jephtha's daughter see Judges, chap. xi.]

[Footnote 26: All editions up to and including 1851. In his den.]

[Footnote 27: For reference see Judges xi, 33.]

[Footnote 28: 1833.

Ere I saw her, that in her latest trance
Clasped her dead father's heart, or Joan of Arc.

The reference is, of course, to the well-known story of Margaret Roper, the daughter of Sir Thomas More, who is said to have taken his head when he was executed and preserved it till her death.]

[Footnote 29: Eleanor, the wife of Edward I., is said to have thus saved his life when he was stabbed at Acre with a poisoned dagger.]

[Footnote 30: The earliest and latest editions, 'i.e.', 1833 and 1853, have "tho'," and all the editions between "though". "Though culled," etc.]

First published in 1833 but very extensively altered on its republication in 1842. It had been written by June, 1832, and appears to have been originally entitled 'Legend of Fair Women' (see Spedding's letter dated 21st June, 1832, 'Life', i., 116). In nearly every edition between 1833 and 1853 it was revised, and perhaps no poem proves more strikingly the scrupulous care which Tennyson took to improve what he thought susceptible of improvement.

The work which inspired it, Chaucer's 'Legend of Good Women', was written about 1384, thus "preluding" by nearly two hundred years the "spacious times of great Elizabeth". There is no resemblance between the poems beyond the fact that both are visions and both have as their heroines illustrious women who have been unfortunate. Cleopatra is the only one common to the two poems. Tennyson's is an exquisite work of art--the transition from the anarchy of dreams to the dreamland landscape and to the sharply denned figures--the skill with which the heroines (what could be more perfect that Cleopatra and Jephtha's daughter?) are chosen and contrasted--the wonderful way in which the Iphigenia of Euripides and Lucretius and the Cleopatra of Shakespeare are realised are alike admirable. The poem opened in 1833 with the following strangely irrelevant verses, excised in 1842, which as Fitzgerald observed "make a perfect poem by themselves without affecting the 'dream '":--