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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Paolo and Francesca

By George Henry Boker (1823–1890)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1823. Died there, 1890. Francesca Da Rimini: A Tragedy.—Plays and Poems. 1856.]

SCENE.Rimini. The Garden of the Castle.

PAOLO.Our poem waits

I have been reading while you talked with Ritta.

How did you get her off?
FRAN.By some device.

She will not come again.
PAOLO.I hate the girl:

She seems to stand between me and the light.

And now for the romance. Where left we off?

FRAN.Where Lancelot and Queen Guenevra strayed

Along the forest, in the youth of May.

You marked the figure of the birds that sang

Their melancholy farewell to the sun—

Rich in his loss, their sorrow glorified—

Like gentle mourners o’er a great man’s grave.

Was it not there? No, no; ’twas where they sat

Down on the bank, by one impulsive wish

That neither uttered.

PAOLO.[Turning over the book.]Here it is.[Reads.]“So sat

Guenevra and Sir Lancelot”—’Twere well

To follow them in that.[They sit upon a bank.]
FRAN.I listen: read.

Nay, do not; I can wait, if you desire.

PAOLO.My dagger frets me; let me take it off.[Rises.]

In thoughts of love, we’ll lay our weapons by.

[Lays aside his dagger, and sits again.]
Draw closer: I am weak in voice to-day.[Reads.]

“So sat Guenevra and Sir Lancelot,

Under the blaze of the descending sun,

But all his cloudy splendors were forgot.

Each bore a thought, the only secret one,

Which each had hidden from the other’s heart,

That with sweet mystery well-nigh overrun.

Anon, Sir Lancelot, with gentle start,

Put by the ripples of her golden hair,

Gazing upon her with his lips apart.

He marvelled human thing could be so fair;

Essayed to speak; but, in the very deed,

His words expired of self-betrayed despair.

Little she helped him, at his direst need,

Roving her eyes o’er hill, and wood, and sky,

Peering intently at the meanest weed;

Ay, doing aught but look in Lancelot’s eye.

Then, with the small pique of her velvet shoe,

Uprooted she each herb that blossomed nigh;

Or strange wild figures in the dust she drew;

Until she felt Sir Lancelot’s arm around

Her waist, upon her cheek his breath like dew.

While through his fingers timidly he wound

Her shining locks; and, haply, when he brushed

Her ivory skin, Guenevra nearly swound:

For where he touched, the quivering surface blushed,

Firing her blood with most contagious heat,

Till brow, cheek, neck, and bosom, all were flushed.

Each heart was listening to the other beat.

As twin-born lilies on one golden stalk,

Drooping with Summer, in warm languor meet,

So met their faces. Down the forest walk

Sir Lancelot looked—he looked east, west, north, south—

No soul was nigh, his dearest wish to balk:

She smiled; he kissed her full upon the mouth.”

I’ll read no more![Starts up, dashing down the book.]
PAOLO.I am mad!

The torture of unnumbered hours is o’er,

The straining cord has broken, and my heart

Riots in free delirium! O, Heaven!

I struggled with it, but it mastered me!

I fought against it, but it beat me down!

I prayed, I wept, but Heaven was deaf to me;

And every tear rolled backward on my heart,

To blight and poison!
FRAN.And dost thou regret?

PAOLO.The love? No, no! I’d dare it all again,

Its direst agonies and meanest fears,

For that one kiss. Away with fond remorse!

Here, on the brink of ruin, we two stand;

Lock hands with me, and brave the fearful plunge!

Thou canst not name a terror so profound

That I will look or falter from. Be bold!

I know thy love—I knew it long ago—

Trembled and fled from it. But now I clasp

The peril to my breast, and ask of thee

A kindred desperation.

FRAN.[Throwing herself into his arms.]Take me all,—

Body and soul! The women of our clime

Do never give away but half a heart:

I have not part to give, part to withhold,

In selfish safety. When I saw thee first,

Riding alone amid a thousand men,

Sole in the lustre of thy majesty,

And Guido da Polenta said to me,

“Daughter, behold thy husband!” with abound

My heart went forth to meet thee. He deceived,

He lied to me—ah! that’s the aptest word—

And I believed. Shall I not turn again,

And meet him, craft with craft? Paolo, love,

Thou’rt dull—thou’rt dying like a feeble fire

Before the sunshine. Was it but a blaze,

A flash of glory, and a long, long night?

PAOLO.No, darling, no! You could not bend me back;

My course is onward; but my heart is sick

With coming fears.
FRAN.Away with them! Must I

Teach thee to love? and reinform the ear

Of thy spent passion with some sorcery

To raise the chilly dead?
PAOLO.Thy lips have not

A sorcery to rouse me as this spell.[Kisses her.]

FRAN.I give thy kisses back to thee again:

And, like a spendthrift, only ask of thee

To take while I can give.
PAOLO.Give, give forever!

Have we not touched the height of human bliss?

And if the sharp rebound may hurl us back

Among the prostrate, did we not soar once?—

Taste heavenly nectar, banquet with the gods

On high Olympus? If they cast us, now,

Amid the furies, shall we not go down

With rich ambrosia clinging to our lips,

And richer memories settled in our hearts?

PAOLO.The sun is sinking low

Upon the ashes of his fading pyre,

And gray possesses the eternal blue;

The evening star is stealing after him,

Fixed, like a beacon, on the prow of night;

The world is shutting up its heavy eye

Upon the stir and bustle of to-day;—

On what shall it awake?
FRAN.On love that gives

Joy at all seasons, changes night to day,

Makes sorrow smile, plucks out the barbèd dart

Of moaning anguish, pours celestial balm

In all the gaping wounds of earth, and lulls

The nervous fancies of unsheltered fear

Into a slumber sweet as infancy’s!

On love that laughs at the impending sword,

And puts aside the shield of caution: cries,

To all its enemies, “Come, strike me now!—

Now, while I hold my kingdom, while my crown

Of amaranth and myrtle is yet green,

Undimmed, unwithered; for I cannot tell

That I shall e’er be happier!” Dear Paolo

Would you lapse down from misery to death,

Tottering through sorrow and infirmity?

Or would you perish at a single blow,

Cut off amid your wildest revelry,

Falling among the wine-cups and the flowers,

And tasting Bacchus when your drowsy sense

First gazed around eternity? Come, love!

The present whispers joy to us; we’ll hear

The voiceless future when its turn arrives.

PAOLO.Thou art a siren. Sing, forever sing!

Hearing thy voice, I cannot tell what fate

Thou hast provided when the song is o’er;—

But I will venture it.
FRAN.In, in, my love![Exeunt.]

[PEPE steals from behind the bushes.]
PEPE.O, brother Lanciotto!—O, my stars!—

If this thing lasts, I simply shall go mad!

[Laughs, and rolls on the ground.]
O Lord! to think my pretty lady puss

Had tricks like this, and we ne’er know of it!

I tell you, Lanciotto, you and I

Must have a patent for our foolery!

“She smiled; he kissed her full upon the mouth!”—

There’s the beginning, where’s the end of it?

O poesy! debauch thee only once,

And thou’rt the greatest wanton in the world!

O cousin Lanciotto—ho, ho, ho![Laughing.]

Can a man die of laughter? Here we sat;

Mistress Francesca so demure and calm;

Paolo grand, poetical, sublime!—

Eh! what is this? Paolo’s dagger? Good!

Here is more proof, sweet cousin Broken-back.

“In thoughts of love, we’ll lay our weapons by!”

[Mimicking PAOLO.]
That’s very pretty! Here’s its counterpart:

In thoughts of hate, we’ll pick them up again!

[Takes the dagger.]
Now for my soldier, now for crook-backed Mars!

Ere long all Rimini will be ablaze.

He’ll kill me? Yes: what then? That’s nothing new,

Except to me: I’ll bear for custom’s sake.

More blood will follow; like the royal sun,

I shall go down in purple. Fools for luck;

The proverb holds like iron. I must run,

Ere laughter smother me.—O, ho, ho, ho!

[Exit, laughing.]