A Royal Princess by Christina Rossetti
I, a princess, king-descended, decked with jewels, gilded, drest,
Would rather be a peasant with her baby at her breast,
For all I shine so like the sun, and am purple like the west.
Two and two my guards behind, two and two before,
Two and two on either hand, they guard me evermore;
Me, poor dove, that must not coo,–eagle, that must not soar.
All my fountains cast up perfumes, all my gardens grow
Scented woods and foreign spices, with all flowers in blow
That are costly, out of season as the seasons go.
All my walls are lost in mirrors, whereupon I trace
Self to right hand, self to left hand, self in every place,
Self-same solitary figure, self-same seeking face.
Then I have an ivory chair high to sit upon,
Almost like my father’s chair, which is an ivory throne;
There I sit uplift and upright, there I sit alone.
Alone by day, alone by night, alone days without end;
My father and my mother give me treasures, search and spend–
O my father! O my mother! have you ne’er a friend?
As I am a lofty princess, so my father is
A lofty king, accomplished in all kingly subtilties,
Holding in his strong right hand world-kingdoms’ balances.
He has quarrelled with his neighbors, he has scourged his foes;
Vassal counts and princes follow where his pennon goes,
Long-descended valiant lords whom the vulture knows,
On whose track the vulture swoops, when they ride in state
To break the strength of armies and topple down the great:
Each of these my courteous servant, none of these my mate.
My father counting up his strength sets down with equal pen
So many head of cattle, head of horses, head of men;
These for slaughter, these for labor, with the how and when.
Some to work on roads, canals; some to man his ships;
Some to smart in mines beneath sharp overseers’ whips;
Some to trap fur-beasts in lands where utmost winter nips.
Once it came into my heart and whelmed me like a flood,
That these too are men and women, human flesh and blood;
Men with hearts and men with souls, though trodden down like mud.
Our feasting was not glad that night, our music was not gay;
On my mother’s graceful head I marked a thread of gray,
My father frowning at the fare seemed every dish to weigh.
I sat beside them sole princess in my exalted place,
My ladies and my gentlemen stood by me on the dais:
A mirror showed me I look old and haggard in the face;
It showed me that my ladies all are fair to gaze upon,
Plump, plenteous-haired, to every one love’s secret lore is known,
They laugh by day, they sleep by night; ah me, what is a throne?
The singing men and women sang that night as usual,
The dancers danced in pairs and sets, but music had a fall,
A melancholy windy fall as at a funeral.
Amid the toss of torches to my chamber back we swept;
My ladies loosed my golden chain; meantime I could have wept
To think of some in galling chains whether they waked or slept.
I took my bath of scented milk, delicately waited on,
They burned sweet things for my delight, cedar and cinnamon,
They lit my shaded silver lamp and left me there alone.
A day went by, a week went by. One day I heard it said:
“Men are clamoring, women, children, clamoring to be fed;
Men like famished dogs are howling in the streets for bread.”
So two whispered by my door, not thinking I could hear,
Vulgar, naked truth, ungarnished for a royal ear;
Fit for cooping in the background, not to stalk so near.
But I strained my utmost sense to catch this truth, and mark:
“There are families out grazing like cattle in the park.”
“A pair of peasants must be saved even if we build an ark.”
A merry jest, a merry laugh, each strolled upon his way;
One was my page, a lad I reared and bore with day by day;
One was my youngest maid, as sweet and white as cream in May.
Other footsteps followed softly with a weightier tramp;
Voices said: “Picked soldiers have been summoned from the camp
To quell these base-born ruffians who make free to howl and stamp.”
“Howl and stamp?” one answered: “They made free to hurl a stone
At the minister’s state coach, well aimed and stoutly thrown.”
“There’s work, then, for the soldiers, for this rank crop must be mown.”
“One I saw, a poor old fool with ashes on his head,
Whimpering because a girl had snatched his crust of bread:
Then he dropped; when some one raised him, it turned out he was dead.”
“After us the deluge,” was retorted with a laugh:
“If bread’s the staff of life, they must walk without a staff.”
“While I’ve a loaf they’re welcome to my blessing and the chaff.”
These passed. The king: stand up. Said my father with a smile:
“Daughter mine, your mother comes to sit with you awhile,
She’s sad to-day, and who but you her sadness can beguile?”
He too left me. Shall I touch my harp now while I wait
(I hear them doubling guard below before our palace gate),
Or shall I work the last gold stitch into my veil of state;
Or shall my woman stand and read some unimpassioned scene,
There’s music of a lulling sort in words that pause between;
Or shall she merely fan me while I wait here for the queen?
Again I caught my father’s voice in sharp word of command:
“Charge!” a clash of steel: “Charge again, the rebels stand.
Smite and spare not, hand to hand; smite and spare not, hand to hand.”
There swelled a tumult at the gate, high voices waxing higher;
A flash of red reflected light lit the cathedral spire;
I heard a cry for faggots, then I heard a yell for fire.
“Sit and roast there with your meat, sit and bake there with your bread,
You who sat to see us starve,” one shrieking woman said:
“Sit on your throne and roast with your crown upon your head.”
Nay, this thing will I do, while my mother tarrieth,
I will take my fine spun gold, but not to sew therewith,
I will take my gold and gems, and rainbow fan and wreath;
With a ransom in my lap, a king’s ransom in my hand,
I will go down to this people, will stand face to face, will stand
Where they curse king, queen, and princess of this cursed land.
They shall take all to buy them bread, take all I have to give;
I, if I perish, perish; they to-day shall eat and live;
I, if I perish, perish; that’s the goal I half conceive:
Once to speak before the world, rend bare my heart and show
The lesson I have learned, which is death, is life, to know.
I, if I perish, perish; in the name of God I go.