Sonnets of a Portrait-Painter
by Arthur Davison Ficke
Mitchell Kennerley, 1914
- I. "Dear fellow actor of this little stage"
- II. "It needs no maxims drawn from Socrates"
- III. "Hell's self shall mock a brain that daily smears"
- IV. "A thousand walls immure your days,--and yet"
- V. "Fate, with devoted and incessant care"
- VI. "Why deck yourself with such unholy art"
- VII. "I sometimes wonder if you did not choose"
- VIII. "'Farewell, thou are too dear for my possessing!'"
- IX. "Your beauty is as timeless as the earth"
- X. "Come forth! for Spring is singing in the boughs"
- XI. "Did not each poet amorous of old"
- XII. "Take you my brushes, child of light, and lay"
- XIII. "I am in love with high far-seeing places"
- XIV. "Joy, like a faun, her beautiful young head"
- XV. "I have seen beauties where light stabs the hills"
- XVI. "It was the night, the night of all my dreams"
- XVII. "O rare and holy, O taper lit for me"
- XVIII. "The entrails of a cat,--some rusty wood"
- XIX. "Strange! to remember that I late was fain"
- XX. "Ah, life is good! And good thus to behold"
- XXI. "To-day, grown rich with what I late have won"
- XXII. "I see the days stretch out in wavering line"
- XXIII. "There stretch between us wonder-woven bonds"
- XXIV. "Now jewelled, alight, you lead the midnight dances"
- XXV. "You are unworthy any man's desires"
- XXVI. "What is he but a common gutter-cur"
- XXVII. "Over profoundest deeps, light lacy foam"
- XXVIII. "You are not peace, you are not happiness"
- XXIX. "In the fair picture of my life's estate"
- XXX. "You mean, my friend, you do not greatly care"
- XXXI. "Strange modern world wherein our days are passed"
- XXXII. "Are you the same? You love me as of old?"
- XXXIII. "To-day put by the tumult of our wars"
- XXXIV. "I have not brought you asphodel, or laid"
- XXXV. "Now, O belovèd, in this pausing hour"
- XXXVI. "Fields far below us,--silence in the wood"
- XXXVII. "Through vales of Thrace, Peneus' stream is flowing"
- XXXVIII. "Low suns and moons, long days and spacious nights"
- XXXIX. "I held no trust in this, that it should last!"
- XL. "Well, now they know! the world's malicious arms"
- XLI. "What Beatrice was, so much you are"
- XLII. "What! shall all thwartings of malignant chance"
- XLIII. "Pale star whose light is dearer than all days"
- XLIV. "When men no longer hear the sunrise-hail"
- XLV. "A world of beauty and a reign of law"
- XLVI. "There is a love that bursts all hindering bars"
- XLVII. "Seldom the powers of heaven or hell declare"
- XLVIII. "The clouds that steal across the sun of June"
- XLIX. "There is a sickness in my channelled blood"
- L. "I needs must know that in the days to come"
- LI. "What if some lover in a far-off Spring"
- LII. "This is a record of what has not been"
- LIII. "There are strange shadows fostered of the moon"
- LIV. "Across the shaken bastions of the year"
- LV. "They brought me tidings; and I did not hear"
- LVI. "Out of the dusk into whose gloom you went"
- LVII. "Now from the living fountains of my thought"
I. "Dear fellow actor of this little stage"
Dear fellow actor of this little stage,
We play the hackneyed parts right merrily,--
Trifle with words drawn from the poet's page,
And match our skill with cool and conscious eye.
All gracious gestures of each shining role
Have been the garments of our summer sport. . . .
But now, when ominous thunders shake my soul,
My reason gives of us no high report. . . .
I could not mimic Romeo had I lain
By Juliet's bier in bitter dizzy truth.
Henceforth my mouthings, choked, inept, and vain,
Will lack the light touch fitting amorous youth.
Let fall the mask! Let end the tinselled play!
Ghastly the footlights front this sudden day.
II. "It needs no maxims drawn from Socrates"
It needs no maxims drawn from Socrates
To tell me this is madness in my blood.
Nor does what wisdom I have learned from these
Serve to abate my most unreasoned mood.
What would I of you? What gift could you bring,
That to await you in the common street
Sets all my secret ecstasy a-wing
Into wild regions of sublime retreat?
And if you come, you will speak common words,
Smiling as quite ten thousand others smile--
And I, poor fool, shall thrill with ghostly chords,
And with a dream my sober sense beguile.
And yet, being mad, I am not mad alone:
Alight you come! . . . That folly dwarfs my own.
III. "Hell's self shall mock a brain that daily smears"
Hell's self shall mock a brain that daily smears
Canvases thus in vision-tortured strife
To draw some beauty from the bitter years
And cast some glow on man's misshapen life,--
And then, a-sudden, he who thought to give
His forms a beauty alien to man's clay,
Finds in one form that seems to breathe and live
Such fairness that he throws his brush away!
The recreant priest may some day be forgiven;
The soldier who has fled yet hopes to win;
The rich man shall perchance creep into heaven;
Tannhäuser still may purge him of his sin:--
But I misdoubt if any blossoms start
On his dead staff who has betrayed his art.
IV. "A thousand walls immure your days,--and yet"
A thousand walls immure your days,--and yet
What are they all when, of the thousand, one
Has fallen beneath the curious urge and fret
Of you toward me, of me toward you begun?
When the first fell, I shuddered half-aghast;
The second, now a-crumble in my sight,
Predicts less thunder than the fall late past;
And I await the third with clear delight.
Mingled with all the phantoms of my fear
Are lights of utter lure. Wherefore I choose
To linger watching, thou right well I bear
Knowledge that naught's to gain and much to lose,--
And that there is reserved Hell's choicest flame
For pairs of fools who play this silly game.
V. "Fate, with devoted and incessant care"
Fate, with devoted and incessant care,
Has showered grotesqueness round us day by day,
If we turn grave, a hurdy-gurdy's air
Is sure to rasp across the words we say.
If we stand tense on brink of perilous choices,
'Tis never where Miltonic headlands loom,
But mid the sound of comic-opera voices
Or the cheap blaze of some hair-dresser's room.
Heaven knows what moonlit turrets, hazed in bliss,
Saw Launcelot and night and Guinevere!
I only know our first impassioned kiss
Was in your cellar, rummaging for beer. . . .
The Sea-born One must hate us: but the Troll
Of modern life acclaims us from his soul!
VI. "Why deck yourself with such unholy art"
Why deck yourself with such unholy art
When none of all this beauty is for me?
I have two eyes; also, a living heart
That takes some impress from the things I see.
Wherefore, I say, this cruelty to-night?
When you came forth in low-cut sweeping dress,
With flaming lips, pale shoulders, eyes alight,--
A cry of youth, a lamp of loveliness!
O what an evil in you has its nest
That my poor writhings should assuage your will!
A serpent coils within your warm white breast
And sucks the nectar of this flower of ill.
Yet . . . when I come, meet me, as thus to-night,--
With flaming lips, pale shoulders, eyes alight!
VII. "I sometimes wonder if you did not choose"
I sometimes wonder if you did not choose
Which, of the many an uncommingling state
Of man-and-woman love, you best could lose,--
And hold the choice wisely inviolate?
Perhaps you said--"Life, with its myriad jars,
Would wreck us, linked together, into dust.
Nor grow we any nearer to the stars
By the high constancy of sundered trust.
Wherefore, instead of separate deathless faith,--
Instead of bursts of amorous pulsing strife,--
Instead of friendship, that poor maskèd wraith,--
Instead of the magnificence of joined life,--
Let this man give me, be it boon or curse,
Love's restless glances,--and a little verse."
VIII. "'Farewell, thou are too dear for my possessing!'"
"Farewell, thou are too dear for my possessing!" *
How could he know, who thus consenting sung,
Of the white beauties, the shot gloom oppressing
Cloudlike my heart and tempestlike my tongue!
For he sang love when you were uncreate;
Nor all his skill could pass the shore of birth
To prophesy you, come a wanderer late,
Walking in new and starry fire the earth.
Sublime his power, who could such fairness mould
Without this pattern set before his eye!
His song pours sunward: mine, alternate cold
And flame shake till its chant becomes a cry!
Yet had he seen,--then too his subtle art
Had crashed beneath the whirlwinds of my heart!
IX. "Your beauty is as timeless as the earth"
Your beauty is as timeless as the earth;
All storied women meet rebloomed in you:--
Yet with some element of later birth,
Some savor strange, some light troubling and new.
You were not possible until to-day;
For in your soul the risen Celtic wind
Breathes audible; and tragic shadows grey
From dark Norwegian winters tinge your mind.
The longing of young painters who have been
Lemans of beauty, and grown faint thereby,--
The fierce unrest of toilers who have seen
Life as a cage of steam-shot agony,--
All weave around you, in the burning Now,
A lure undreamed on Helen's Phidian brow.
X. "Come forth! for Spring is singing in the boughs"
Come forth! for Spring is singing in the boughs
Of every white and tremulous apple-tree.
This is the season of eternal vows;
Yet what are the vows that they should solace me?
For on the winds wild loveliness is crying,
And in all flowers wild joy its present worth
Proclaims, as from the dying to the dying--
"Seize, clasp thy hour of sun upon the earth!"
O never dream that fire or beauty stays
More than one April moment in its flight
Toward regions where the sea-drift of all days
Sinks in a vast, desireless, lonely night.
Away with eternal vows!--and give me breath
Of one white hour here on the marge of death!
XI. "Did not each poet amorous of old"
Did not each poet amorous of old
Plead the sweet pretext of wingèd time
To urge his lady that she be not cold
To the dissolving master of that rhyme?
I with no new importunings address
One not less proud and beautiful than they
Whose lovers breathed--"Fleet is thy loveliness;
Let not its treasure slip unused away."
Light hearts! Light words! Here in my transient Spring
Let them suffice to hide the things unsaid.
No shadow from the lonely deeps I bring.
Nay, I with gayest flowers will wreathe your head.
Here in the sun I put apart from me
Cassandra, Helen, and Persephone.
XII. "Take you my brushes, child of light, and lay"
Take you my brushes, child of light, and lay
Your colors on the canvas as you choose:--
Paint me the soft glow of this crystal day;
My harder touch would grasp them but to lose
The rose-hung veils, the liquid golden flood,--
I who with palette-knife must pry and strain
To wrench from attitude, face, figure, mood,
A living soul and limn its riddle plain.
What need you teachings of my labored art?
The brush will serve your April winsomeness.
Yet . . . rather lay your head upon my heart--
Draw me to you in a supreme caress,--
That one day, as I paint some throat or hair,
Spring's whole delight bloom like a marvel there!
XIII. "I am in love with high far-seeing places"
I am in love with high far-seeing places
That look on plains half-sunlight and half-storm,--
In love with hours when from the circling faces
Veils pass, and laughing fellowship grows warm.
You who look on me with grave eyes where rapture
And April love of living burn confessed,--
The Gods are good! The world lies free to capture!
Life has no walls. O take me to your breast!
Take me,--be with me for a moment's span!--
I am in love with all unveilèd faces.
I seek the wonder at the heart of man;
I would go up to the far-seeing places.
While youth is ours, turn toward me for a space
The marvel of your rapture-lighted face!
XIV. "Joy, like a faun, her beautiful young head"
Joy, like a faun, her beautiful young head
Lifted from out the couches of the grass
Where, but a moment since, pursued you fled;
And smiled to hear your tripping footfall pass.
For two passed by,--into the meadows gleaming
With evening light across an amber stream.
O Sweet! I marvel now, with all our dreaming,
To find the sweetness sweeter than our dream.
Now we return; and Joy amid her grasses
Follows our steps with soft and curious eyes,
Smiling to see, as your light figure passes,
Your hand that in my hand so quiet lies.
Wide laughing light across the fields is shed. . . .
Gravely Joy bends her beautiful young head.
XV. "I have seen beauties where light stabs the hills"
I have seen beauties where light stabs the hills
Gold-shafted through a cloud of rosy stain.
I have known splendor where the summer spills
Its tropic wildness of torrential rain.
I have felt all the free young dominance
Of winds that walk the mountains in delight
To tear the tree-trunks from their rooted stance
And make the gorges thunderous of their might.
The light, the torrents, and the winds, in you
I thought I had perceived to kinship grown.
It was a dream. Until this hour, I knew
Nothing--nay, nothing all my days have known
Where beauty, splendor, freedom, held such part
As when you came,--and swept me to your heart.
XVI. "It was the night, the night of all my dreams"
It was the night, the night of all my dreams.
Across the lofty spaces of that room
You stole; and where the moonlight's silver streams
Cloudily slanted in upon the gloom,
More silver radiance met them where you moved;
And all the beauty of that hazèd west,
Wherein the moon was sinking, lay approved
Because thus lay your pale, slow-curving breast.
I shall remember,--aye, when death must cover
My soul and body with its rayless tide,--
The madness and the peace of that wild lover
Drunken with life's whole wonder at your side.
I shall remember in life's stormiest deep,--
Even as that night I knew you there in sleep.
XVII. "O rare and holy, O taper lit for me"
O rare and holy, O taper lit for me
Before vast altars in the lonely dark,--
Without your gleam, dim were my soul to see
Where in star-spaces, imperial and stark
And sacrosanct, his ancient thronéd reign
God holds o'er stars and swallows as of yore;
Up through his Gothic vault I yearned in vain
And turned back baffled from him evermore.
In secular joys I must interpret heaven;
In ecstasies profane I must embrace
His glory,--seek in revels lightning-riven
All I shall ever witness of his face,--
And in wild flight, with passion winged and shod,
Circle and beat the citadel of God.
XVIII. "The entrails of a cat,--some rusty wood"
The entrails of a cat,--some rusty wood,--
Certain pegs, pins, in curious manner bent,--
These yield the spirit in its singing mood
The one supreme heaven-scaling instrument.
And I, who rate man's clay not overmuch,
Marvel not more when from the bow-swept strings
Celestial music soars, than when we touch
From mortal flesh strains of immortal things.
To worlds beyond the world of its resort
The viol uplifts its ecstasy or despair.--
O love, who knows what white Hyperian court
Welcomes our spirits, through the cloven air
Rising, beyond the instrument set free
On the wild wings of loosened melody?
XIX. "Strange! to remember that I late was fain"
Strange! to remember that I late was fain
To yield death back my poor undated lease,
So wearied had I at life's gate in vain