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From Lesbia Brandon By Algernon Charles Swinburne

(from Chapter 16, Lecadia (1))

<Lesbia> "I dreamt of the old stories; I was always fond of them. I saw Lethe; it was not dark water, nor slow. It was pale and rapid and steady; there was a smell of meadowsweet on the banks. I must have been thinking of your Endson woods. And when one came close there was a new smell, more faint and rank; it came from the water-flowers; many were dead and decaying, and all sickly. And opposite me just across there ran out a wharf into the water: like the end of the pier at Wansdale. I saw nothing anywhere that was not like something I had seen already. I canít get that out of my head; as soon as I woke it frightened me: but I didnít wake at once. I remember the green ooze and slime on the piles of the wharf; it was all matted with dead soft stuff that smelt wet. Not like the smell of the sea, but the smell of a lock in a river. And no boat came, and I didnít want one. I felt growing deliciously cold inside my head and behind my eyelids and down to the palms of my hands and feet. I ought to have awakened with a sneeze, and found I had caught cold in fact: but I didnít. And I saw no face anywhere for hours; and that was like a beginning of rest. Then I tried to see Proserpine, and saw her. She stood up to the knees in almost full-blown poppies(2), single and double. She was not the old Proserpina who comes and goes up and down between Sicily(3) and hell; she had never seen the sun. She was pale and pleased; there was nothing in her like memory or aspiration. The dead element was vital for her; she could not have breathed in higher or lower air. The poppies at her foot were red, and those in her hand were white. "

"Well?" said Herbert as she paused: her voice had filled him with subtle dim emotions, and he was absorbed at once by the strange sound and sense of the words.

"She had grey eyes, bluish like the mingling of mist and water; and soft hair that lay about her breast and arms in sharp pointed locks like tongues of fire. As she looked at me this hair began to vibrate with the sudden motion of her breast, and her eyes brightened into the brilliance of eyes I knew; your sisterís; and I began to wonder if she would melt entirely into that likeness. All the time I knew it was impossible she should, because she was incarnate death; and the other I knew was a live. And behind her the whole place all at once because populous with pale figures, hollow all through like an empty dress set upright; stately shadows with a grey light reflected against them; and the whole world as far as I saw was not in darkness, but under a solid cloud that never moved and made the air darker and cooler than the mistiest day upon earth. And in the fields beyond the water there was a splendid harvest of aconite(4): no other flower anywhere; but the grass was as pale, all yellow and brown, as if the sun had burnt it. Only where the goddess stood there were poppies growing apart; and their red cups, and the big blue lamps of the aconite, all like hung heavily without wind. I remember, when I was little, wondering whether those flowers were likest lamps or bells; I thought any light or sound that could come of them must be so like daylight and the music of a dead world. Well, I donít remember much more: but I was haunted with the fear that there might be nothing new behind death after all; no real rest and no real change. And the flowers vexed me. Only these, and no roses; I thought that white single sort of rose might grow there well enough. And I saw no men there, and no children."

  • (1) Refers to Saphoís death upon the isle of Lecadia.
  • (2) Most poppies are extreamly poisonous (including several kinds of red poppies). The opium poppy (also poisonous) is white.
  • (3) Sicily was where Proserpine was abducted by Hades, according to myth.
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