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A Forsaken Garden -- Algernon Charles Swinburne

       
(Poem #1308) A Forsaken Garden
 In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland,
 At the sea-down's edge between windward and lee,
 Walled round with rocks as an inland island,
 The ghost of a garden fronts the sea.
 A girdle of brushwood and thorn encloses
 The steep square slope of the blossomless bed
 Where the weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses
 Now lie dead.

 The fields fall southward, abrupt and broken,
 To the low last edge of the long lone land.
 If a step should sound or a word be spoken,
 Would a ghost not rise at the strange guest's hand?
 So long have the grey bare walks lain guestless,
 Through branches and briers if a man make way,
 He shall find no life but the sea-wind's, restless
 Night and day.

 The dense hard passage is blind and stifled
 That crawls by a track none turn to climb
 To the strait waste place that the years have rifled
 Of all but the thorns that are touched not of time.
 The thorns he spares when the rose is taken;
 The rocks are left when he wastes the plain.
 The wind that wanders, the weeds wind-shaken,
 These remain.

 Not a flower to be pressed of the foot that falls not;
 As the heart of a dead man the seed-plots are dry;
 From the thicket of thorns whence the nightingale calls not,
 Could she call, there were never a rose to reply.
 Over the meadows that blossom and wither
 Rings but the note of a sea-birds's song;
 Only the sun and the rain come hither
 All year long.

 The sun burns sere and the rain dishevels
 One gaunt bleak blossom of scentless breath.
 Only the wind here hovers and revels
 In a round where life seems barren as death.
 Here there was laughing of old, there was weeping,
 Haply, of lovers none ever will know,
 Whose eyes went seaward a hundred sleeping
 Years ago.

 Heart handfast in heart as they stood, "Look thither,"
 Did he whisper? "look forth from the flowers to the sea;
 For the foam-flowers endure when the rose-blossoms wither,
 And men that love lightly may die - but we?"
 And the same wind sang and the same waves whitened,
 And for ever the garden's last petals were shed,
 In the lips that had whispered, the eyes that had lightened,
 Love was dead.

 Or they loved their life through, and then went whither?
 And were one to the end  -but what end who knows?
 Love deep as the sea as a rose must wither,
 As the rose-red seaweed that mocks the rose.
 Shall the dead take thought for the dead to love them?
 What love was ever as deep as a grave?
 They are loveless now as the grass above them
 Or the wave.

 All are at one now, roses and lovers,
 Not known of the cliffs and the fields and the sea.
 Not a breath of the time that has been hovers
 In the air now soft with a summer to be.
 Not a breath shall there sweeten the seasons hereafter
 Of the flowers or the lovers that laugh now or weep,
 When as they that are free now of weeping and laughter
 We shall sleep.

 Here death may deal not again for ever;
 Here change may come not till all change end.
 From the graves they have made they shall rise up never,
 Who have left nought living to ravage and rend.
 Earth, stones, and thorns of the wild ground growing,
 While the sun and the rain live, these shall be;
 Till a last wind's breath upon all these blowing
 Roll the sea.

 Till the slow sea rise and the sheer cliff crumble,
 Till terrace and meadow the deep gulfs drink,
 Till the strength of the waves of the high tides humble
 The fields that lessen, the rocks that shrink,
 Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
 Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
 As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
 Death lies dead.
-- Algernon Charles Swinburne
Swinburne's style has always struck me as more obtrusive than effective.
Delightful, yes, and productive of some very enjoyable poems, but never - as
one tends to expect of a poem - serving primarily to convey the *message*.
Which is not to say that Swinburne is a pure (and hence empty) stylist -
it's just that in most of his poems, the dazzling, dancing patterns of
stresses and rhymes and words-for-their-own-sake tend to overshadow the
poem's "content".  (Of course, the ability to cleanly separate content and
form is illusory at best, but that's a debate for another day).

Which brings us to today's poem - one of those rare, happy instances where
the style blends harmoniously with the content, enhancing rather than
distracting from it. The first three verses, in particular, are wonderfully
descriptive, bringing the scene into clear and precise definition as
effectively as any painting. After that, the poem falters somewhat - the
verses take on a slightly mechanical cast, and, as I often do, I wonder
whether Swinburne should not have cut the poem down a verse or two. There
are still some beautiful passages, but they have to contend for the reader's
attention with lines that contribute little.

I think most of what bothered me about the poem was Swinburne's attempt to
combine images of sterility and decay. The former is brilliantly done; the
garden seems all the more forsaken for having entered that state of
changeless equilibrium where time ceases to have a meaning, and it is
abandoned to the cold winds of eternity. Any reminder, therefore, of passing
time, is a dissonant note that serves only to weaken the poem's impact. I
enjoyed the poem, yes, but with a vague sense of dissatisfaction that I
could not enjoy it more.

martin

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