Dramatis Personæ

The Worst of It

Robert Browning

WOULD it were I had been false, not you!
    I that am nothing, not you that are all
I, never the worse for a touch or two
    On my speckled hide; not you, the pride
Of the day, my swan, that a first fleck’s fall
    On her wonder of white must unswan, undo!

I had dipped in life’s struggle and, out again,
    Bore specks of it here, there, easy to see,
When I found my swan and the cure was plain;
    The dull turned bright as I caught your white
On my bosom: you saved me—saved in vain
    If you ruined yourself, and all through me!

Yes, all through the speckled beast that I am,
    Who taught you to stoop; you gave me yourself,
And bound your soul by the vows that damn:
    Since on better thought you break, as you ought,
Vows—words, no angel set down, some elf
    Mistook,—for an oath, an epigram!

Yes, might I judge you, here were my heart,
    And a hundred its like, to treat as you pleased!
I choose to be yours, for my proper part,
    Yours, leave or take, or mar me or make;
If I acquiesce, why should you be teased
    With the conscience-prick and the memory-smart!

But what will God say? Oh, my sweet,
    Think, and be sorry you did this thing
Though earth were unworthy to feel your feet,
    There’s a heaven above may deserve your love:
Should you forfeit heaven for a snapt gold ring
    And a promise broke, were it just or meet?

And I to have tempted you! I, who tired
    Your soul, no doubt, till it sank! Unwise,
I loved and was lowly, loved and aspired,
    Loved, grieving or glad, till I made you mad,
And you meant to have hated and despised—
    Whereas, you deceived me nor inquired!

She, ruined? How? No heaven for her?
    Crowns to give, and none for the brow
That looked like marble and smelt like myrrh?
    Shall the robe be worn, and the palm-branch borne,
And she go graceless, she graced now
    Beyond all saints, as themselves aver?

Hardly! That must be understood!
    The earth is your place of penance, then;
And what will it prove? I desire your good,
    But, plot as I may, I can find no way
How a blow should fall, such as falls on men,
    Nor prove too much for your womanhood.

It will come, I suspect, at the end of life,
    When you walk alone, and review the past;
And I, who so long shall have done with strife,
    And journeyed my stage and earned my wage
And retired as was right,—I am called at last,
    When the devil stabs you, to lend the knife.

He stabs for the minute of trivial wrong,
    Nor the other hours are able to save,
The happy, that lasted my whole life long:
    For a promise broke, not for first words spoke,
The true, the only, that turn my grave
    To a blaze of joy and a crash of song.

Witness beforehand! Off I trip
    On a safe path gay through the flowers you flung:
My very name made great by your lip,
    And my heart a-glow with the good I know
Of a perfect year when we both were young,
    And I tasted the angels’ fellowship.

And witness, moreover . . . Ah, but wait!
    I spy the loop whence an arrow shoots!
It may be for yourself, when you meditate,
    That you grieve—for slain ruth, murdered truth.
“Though falsehood escape in the end, what boots?
    How truth would have triumphed!”—you sigh too late.

Ay, who would have triumphed like you, I say!
    Well, it is lost now; well, you must bear,
Abide and grow fit for a better day
    You should hardly grudge, could I be your judge!
But hush! For you, can be no despair
    There’s amends: ’t is a secret: hope and pray!

For I was true at least—oh, true enough!
    And, Dear, truth is not as good as it seems!
Commend me to conscience! Idle stuff!
    Much help is in mine, as I mope and pine,
And skulk through day, and scowl in my dreams
    At my swan’s obtaining the crow’s rebuff.

Men tell me of truth now—“False!” I cry:
    Of beauty—“A mask, friend! Look beneath!”
We take our own method, the devil and I,
    With pleasant and fair and wise and rare
And the best we wish to what lives, is—death;
    Which even in wishing, perhaps we lie!

Far better commit a fault and have done—
    As you, Dear!—for ever; and choose the pure,
And look where the healing waters run,
    And strive and strain to be good again,
And a place in the other world ensure,
    All glass and gold, with God for its sun.

Misery! What shall I say or do?
    I cannot advise, or, at least, persuade:
Most like, you are glad you deceived me—rue
    No whit of the wrong: you endured too long.
Have done no evil and want no aid,
    Will live the old life out and chance the new.

And your sentence is written all the same,
    And I can do nothing,—pray, perhaps
But somehow the world pursues its game,
    If I pray, if I curse,—for better or worse:
And my faith is torn to a thousand scraps,
    And my heart feels ice while my words breathe flame.

Dear, I look from my hiding-place.
    Are you still so fair? Have you still the eyes?
Be happy! Add but the other grace,
    Be good! Why want what the angels vaunt?
I knew you once: but in Paradise,
    If we meet, I will pass nor turn my face.

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