Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
France: Vols. IX–X. 1876–79.


Gold Hair

By Robert Browning (1812–1889)


O THE BEAUTIFUL girl, too white,

Who lived at Pornic, down by the sea,

Just where the sea and the Loire unite!

And a boasted name in Brittany

She bore, which I will not write.

Too white, for the flower of life is red;

Her flesh was the soft, seraphic screen

Of a soul that is meant (her parents said)

To just see earth, and hardly be seen,

And blossom in heaven instead.

Yet earth saw one thing, one how fair!

One grace that grew to its full on earth:

Smiles might be sparse on her cheek so spare,

And her waist want half a girdle’s girth,

But she had her great gold hair.

Hair, such a wonder of flix and floss,

Freshness and fragrance,—floods of it, too!

Gold, did I say? Nay, gold ’s mere dross:

Here, Life smiled, “Think what I meant to do!”

And Love sighed, “Fancy my loss!”

So, when she died, it was scarce more strange

Than that, when some delicate evening dies,

And you follow its spent sun’s pallid range,

There ’s a shoot of color startles the skies

With sudden, violent change,—

That, while the breath was nearly to seek,

As they put the little cross to her lips,

She changed; a spot came out on her cheek,

A spark from her eye in mid-eclipse,

And she broke forth, “I must speak!”

“Not my hair!” made the girl her moan,—

“All the rest is gone or to go;

But the last, last grace, my all, my own,

Let it stay in the grave, that the ghosts may know!

Leave my poor gold hair alone!”

The passion thus vented, dead lay she;

Her parents sobbed their worst on that,

All friends joined in, nor observed degree:

For indeed the hair was to wonder at,

As it spread—not flowing free,

But curled around her brow, like a crown,

And coiled beside her cheeks, like a cap,

And calmed about her neck—ay, down

To her breast, pressed flat, without a gap

I’ the gold, it reached her gown.

All kissed that face, like a silver wedge

Mid the yellow wealth, nor disturbed its hair;

E’en the priest allowed death’s privilege,

As he planted the crucifix with care

On her breast, ’twixt edge and edge.

And thus was she buried, inviolate

Of body and soul, in the very space

By the altar; keeping saintly state

In Pornic church, for her pride of race,

Pure life, and piteous fate.

And in after-time would your fresh tear fall,

Though your mouth might twitch with a dubious smile,

As they told you of gold both robe and pall,

How she prayed them leave it alone awhile,

So it never was touched at all.

Years flew; this legend grew at last

The life of the lady; all she had done,

All been, in the memories fading fast

Of lover and friend, was summed in one

Sentence survivors passed:

To wit, she was meant for heaven, not earth;

Had turned an angel before the time:

Yet, since she was mortal, in such dearth

Of frailty, all you could count a crime

Was—she knew her gold hair’s worth.

At little pleasant Pornic church,

It chanced, the pavement wanted repair,

Was taken to pieces: left in the lurch,

A certain sacred space lay bare,

And the boys began research.

’T was the space where our sires would lay a saint,

A benefactor,—a bishop, suppose;

A baron with armor-adornments quaint;

A dame with chased ring and jewelled rose,

Things sanctity saves from taint:

So we come to find them in after-days,

When the corpse is presumed to have done with gauds

Of use to the living, in many ways;

For the boys get pelf, and the town applauds,

And the church deserves the praise.

They grubbed with a will: and at length—O cor

Humanum, pectora cæca, and the rest!—

They found—no gauds they were prying for,

No ring, no rose, but—who would have guessed?—

A double Louis-d’or!

Here was a case for the priest: he heard,

Marked, inwardly digested, laid

Finger on nose, smiled, “A little bird

Chirps in my ear”; then, “Bring a spade,

Dig deeper!”—he gave the word.

And lo! when they came to the coffin-lid,

Or the rotten planks which composed it once,

Why, there lay the girl’s skull wedged amid

A mint of money, it served for the nonce

To hold in its hair-heaps hid.


Louis-d’ors, some six times five;

And duly double, every piece.

Now, do you see? With the priest to shrive,

With parents preventing her soul’s release

By kisses that keep alive,—

With Heaven’s gold gates about to ope,

With friends’ praise, gold-like, lingering still,

What instinct had bidden the girl’s hand grope

For gold, the true sort—“Gold in Heaven, I hope;

But I keep earth’s, if God will!”

Enough! The priest took the grave’s grim yield;

The parents, they eyed that price of sin

As if thirty pieces lay revealed

On the place to bury strangers in,

The hideous Potter’s Field.

But the priest bethought him: “‘Milk that ’s spilt’—

You know the adage! Watch and pray!

Saints tumble to earth with so slight a tilt!

It would build a new altar; that, we may!”

And the altar therewith was built.

Why I deliver this horrible verse?

As the text of a sermon, which now I preach:

Evil or good may be better or worse

In the human heart, but the mixture of each

Is a marvel and a curse.

The candid incline to surmise of late

That the Christian faith may be false, I find;

For our Essays-and-Reviews’ debate

Begins to tell on the public mind,

And Colenso’s words have weight:

I still, to suppose it true, for my part,

See reasons and reasons; this, to begin:

’T is the faith that launched point-blank her dart

At the head of a lie,—taught Original Sin,

The Corruption of Man’s Heart.