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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Asia: Vols. XXI–XXIII. 1876–79.

India: Ganges, the River

A Romance of the Ganges

By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

SEVEN maidens ’neath the midnight

Stand near the river-sea,

Whose water sweepeth white around

The shadow of the tree.

The moon and earth are face to face,

And earth is slumbering deep;

The wave-voice seems the voice of dreams

That wander through her sleep.

The river floweth on.

What bring they ’neath the midnight,

Beside the river-sea?

They bring the human heart wherein

No nightly calm can be,—

That droppeth never with the wind,

Nor drieth with the dew:

O, calm it, God! Thy calm is broad

To cover spirits, too.

The river floweth on.

The maidens lean them over

The waters, side by side,

And shun each other’s deepening eyes,

And gaze adown the tide:

For each within a little boat

A little lamp hath put,

And heaped for freight some lily’s weight

Or scarlet rose half shut.

The river floweth on.

Of a shell of cocoa carven,

Each little boat is made:

Each carries a lamp, and carries a flower,

And carries a hope unsaid.

And when the boat hath carried the lamp

Unquenched, till out of sight,

The maidens are sure that love will endure,—

But love will fail with light.

The river floweth on.

Why, all the stars are ready

To symbolize the soul,

The stars untroubled by the wind,

Unwearied as they roll;

And yet the soul by instinct sad

Reverts to symbols low,—

To that small flame whose very name,

Breathed o’er it, shakes it so!

The river floweth on.

Six boats are on the river,

Seven maidens on the shore,

While still above them steadfastly

The stars shine evermore.

Go, little boats, go soft and safe,

And guard the symbol spark!

The boats aright go safe and bright

Across the waters dark.

The river floweth on.

The maiden Luti watcheth

Where onwardly they float.

That look in her dilating eyes

Might seem to drive her boat;

Her eyes still mark the constant fire,

And kindling unawares

That hopeful while she lets a smile

Creep silent through her prayers.

The river floweth on.

The smile,—where hath it wandered?

She riseth from her knee,

She holds her dark, wet locks away,—

There is no light to see!

She cries a quick and bitter cry,

“Nuleeni, launch me thine!

We must have light abroad to-night,

For all the wreck of mine.”

The river floweth on.

“I do remember watching

Beside this river-bed,

When on my childish knee was laid

My dying father’s head.

I turned mine own, to keep the tears

From falling on his face,—

What doth it prove when death and love

Choose out the selfsame place?”

The river floweth on.

“They say the dead are joyful

The death-change here receiving.

Who say,—all me! who dare to say

Where joy comes to the living?

Thy boat, Nuleeni! look not sad,—

Light up the waters rather!

I weep no faithless lover where

I wept a loving father.”

The river floweth on.

“My heart foretold his falsehood

Ere my little boat grew dim:

And though I closed mine eyes to dream

That one last dream of him,

They shall not now be wet to see

The shining vision go:

From earth’s cold love I look above

To the holy house of snow.”

The river floweth on.

“Come thou,—thou never knewest

A grief, that thou shouldst fear one!

Thou wearest still the happy look

That shines beneath a dear one!

Thy humming-bird is in the sun,

Thy cuckoo in the grove,

And all the three broad worlds, for thee

Are full of wandering love.”

The river floweth on.

“Why, maiden, dost thou loiter?

What secret wouldst thou cover?

That peepul cannot hide thy boat,

And I can guess thy lover:

I heard thee sob his name in sleep,—

It was a name I knew,—

Come, little maid, be not afraid,

But let us prove him true!”

The river floweth on.

The little maiden cometh,

She cometh shy and slow;

I ween she seeth through her lids,

They drop adown so low:

Her tresses meet her small bare feet,—

She stands and speaketh naught,

Yet blusheth red, as if she said

The name she only thought.

The river floweth on.

She knelt beside the water,

She lighted up the flame,

And o’er her youthful forehead’s calm

The fitful radiance came:

“Go, little boat, go, soft and safe,

And guard the symbol spark!”

Soft, safe, doth float the little boat

Across the waters dark.

The river floweth on.

Glad tears her eyes have blinded;

The light they cannot reach:

She turneth with that sudden smile

She learnt before her speech,—

“I do not hear his voice! the tears

Have dimmed my light away!

But the symbol light will last to-night,

The love will last for aye.”

The river floweth on.

Then Luti spake behind her,—

Outspake she bitterly:

“By the symbol light that lasts to-night,

Wilt vow a vow to me?”

Nuleeni gazeth up her face,—

Soft answer maketh she:

“By loves that last when lights are past,

I vow that vow to thee!”

The river floweth on.

An earthly look had Luti

Though her voice was deep as prayer,—

“The rice is gathered from the plains

To cast upon thine hair;

But when he comes, his marriage-band

Around thy neck to throw,

Thy bride-smile raise to meet his gaze,

And whisper,—There is one betrays,

When Luti suffers woe.”

The river floweth on.

“And when in seasons after,

Thy little bright-faced son

Shall kneel against thy knee and ask

What deeds his sire hath done,

Press deeper down thy mother-smile

His glossy curls among,—

View deep his pretty childish eyes,

And whisper,—There is none denies,

When Luti speaks of wrong.”

The river floweth on.

Nuleeni looked in wonder

Yet softly answered she,—

“By loves that last when lights are past,

I vowed that vow to thee.

But why glads it thee that a bride-day be

By a word of woe defiled?

That a word of wrong take the cradle-song

From the ear of a sinless child?”

“Why,” Luti said, and her laugh was dread,

And her eyes dilated wild,—

“That the fair new love may her bridegroom prove,

And the father shame the child.”

The river floweth on.

“Thou flowest still, O river,

Thou flowest ’neath the moon,—

Thy lily hath not changed a leaf.

Thy charméd lute a tune!

He mixed his voice with thine,—and his

Was all I heard around;

But now, beside his chosen bride,

I hear the river’s sound.”

The river floweth on.

“I gaze upon her beauty

Through the tresses that enwreathe it:

The light above thy wave is hers,—

My rest, alone beneath it.

O, give me back the dying look

My father gave thy water!

Give back! and let a little love

O’erwatch his weary daughter!”

The river floweth on.

“Give back!” she hath departed,—

The word is wandering with her,

And the stricken maidens hear afar

The step and cry together.

Frail symbols? None are frail enow

For mortal joys to borrow!

While bright doth float Nuleeni’s boat,

She weepeth, dark with sorrow.

The river floweth on.