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Rahel to Varnhagen

—Rahel Robert and Varnhagen von Ense were married, after many protestations on her part, in 1814.
The marriage—so far as he was concerned at any rate—appears to have been satisfactory.
Now you have read them all; or if not all, As many as in all conscience I should fancy To be enough.
There are no more of them— Or none to burn your sleep, or to bring dreams Of devils.
If these are not sufficient, surely You are a strange young man.
I might live on Alone, and for another forty years, Or not quite forty,—are you happier now?— Always to ask if there prevailed elsewhere Another like yourself that would have held These aged hands as long as you have held them, Not once observing, for all I can see, How they are like your mother’s.
Well, you have read His letters now, and you have heard me say That in them are the cinders of a passion That was my life; and you have not yet broken Your way out of my house, out of my sight,— Into the street.
You are a strange young man.
I know as much as that of you, for certain; And I’m already praying, for your sake, That you be not too strange.
Too much of that May lead you bye and bye through gloomy lanes To a sad wilderness, where one may grope Alone, and always, or until he feels Ferocious and invisible animals That wait for men and eat them in the dark.
Why do you sit there on the floor so long, Smiling at me while I try to be solemn? Do you not hear it said for your salvation, When I say truth? Are you, at four and twenty, So little deceived in us that you interpret The humor of a woman to be noticed As her choice between you and Acheron? Are you so unscathed yet as to infer That if a woman worries when a man, Or a man-child, has wet shoes on his feet She may as well commemorate with ashes The last eclipse of her tranquillity? If you look up at me and blink again, I shall not have to make you tell me lies To know the letters you have not been reading I see now that I may have had for nothing A most unpleasant shivering in my conscience When I laid open for your contemplation The wealth of my worn casket.
If I did, The fault was not yours wholly.
Search again This wreckage we may call for sport a face, And you may chance upon the price of havoc That I have paid for a few sorry stones That shine and have no light—yet once were stars, And sparkled on a crown.
Little and weak They seem; and they are cold, I fear, for you.
But they that once were fire for me may not Be cold again for me until I die; And only God knows if they may be then.
There is a love that ceases to be love In being ourselves.
How, then, are we to lose it? You that are sure that you know everything There is to know of love, answer me that.
Well?… You are not even interested.
Once on a far off time when I was young, I felt with your assurance, and all through me, That I had undergone the last and worst Of love’s inventions.
There was a boy who brought The sun with him and woke me up with it, And that was every morning; every night I tried to dream of him, but never could, More than I might have seen in Adam’s eyes Their fond uncertainty when Eve began The play that all her tireless progeny Are not yet weary of.
One scene of it Was brief, but was eternal while it lasted; And that was while I was the happiest Of an imaginary six or seven, Somewhere in history but not on earth, For whom the sky had shaken and let stars Rain down like diamonds.
Then there were clouds, And a sad end of diamonds; whereupon Despair came, like a blast that would have brought Tears to the eyes of all the bears in Finland, And love was done.
That was how much I knew.
Poor little wretch! I wonder where he is This afternoon.
Out of this rain, I hope.
At last, when I had seen so many days Dressed all alike, and in their marching order, Go by me that I would not always count them, One stopped—shattering the whole file of Time, Or so it seemed; and when I looked again, There was a man.
He struck once with his eyes, And then there was a woman.
I, who had come To wisdom, or to vision, or what you like, By the old hidden road that has no name,— I, who was used to seeing without flying So much that others fly from without seeing, Still looked, and was afraid, and looked again.
And after that, when I had read the story Told in his eyes, and felt within my heart The bleeding wound of their necessity, I knew the fear was his.
If I had failed him And flown away from him, I should have lost Ingloriously my wings in scrambling back, And found them arms again.
If he had struck me Not only with his eyes but with his hands, I might have pitied him and hated love, And then gone mad.
I, who have been so strong— Why don’t you laugh?—might even have done all that.
I, who have learned so much, and said so much, And had the commendations of the great For one who rules herself—why don’t you cry?— And own a certain small authority Among the blind, who see no more than ever, But like my voice,—I would have tossed it all To Tophet for one man; and he was jealous.
I would have wound a snake around my neck And then have let it bite me till I died, If my so doing would have made me sure That one man might have lived; and he was jealous.
I would have driven these hands into a cage That held a thousand scorpions, and crushed them, If only by so poisonous a trial I could have crushed his doubt.
I would have wrung My living blood with mediaeval engines Out of my screaming flesh, if only that Would have made one man sure.
I would have paid For him the tiresome price of body and soul, And let the lash of a tongue-weary town Fall as it might upon my blistered name; And while it fell I could have laughed at it, Knowing that he had found out finally Where the wrong was.
But there was evil in him That would have made no more of his possession Than confirmation of another fault; And there was honor—if you call it honor That hoods itself with doubt and wears a crown Of lead that might as well be gold and fire.
Give it as heavy or as light a name As any there is that fits.
I see myself Without the power to swear to this or that That I might be if he had been without it.
Whatever I might have been that I was not, It only happened that it wasn’t so.
Meanwhile, you might seem to be listening: If you forget yourself and go to sleep, My treasure, I shall not say this again.
Look up once more into my poor old face, Where you see beauty, or the Lord knows what, And say to me aloud what else there is Than ruins in it that you most admire.
No, there was never anything like that; Nature has never fastened such a mask Of radiant and impenetrable merit On any woman as you say there is On this one.
Not a mask? I thank you, sir, But you see more with your determination, I fear, than with your prudence or your conscience; And you have never met me with my eyes In all the mirrors I’ve made faces at.
No, I shall never call you strange again: You are the young and inconvincible Epitome of all blind men since Adam.
May the blind lead the blind, if that be so? And we shall need no mirrors? You are saying What most I feared you might.
But if the blind, Or one of them, be not so fortunate As to put out the eyes of recollection, She might at last, without her meaning it, Lead on the other, without his knowing it, Until the two of them should lose themselves Among dead craters in a lava-field As empty as a desert on the moon.
I am not speaking in a theatre, But in a room so real and so familiar That sometimes I would wreck it.
Then I pause, Remembering there is a King in Weimar— A monarch, and a poet, and a shepherd Of all who are astray and are outside The realm where they should rule.
I think of him, And save the furniture; I think of you, And am forlorn, finding in you the one To lavish aspirations and illusions Upon a faded and forsaken house Where love, being locked alone, was nigh to burning House and himself together.
Yes, you are strange, To see in such an injured architecture Room for new love to live in.
Are you laughing? No? Well, you are not crying, as you should be.
Tears, even if they told only gratitude For your escape, and had no other story, Were surely more becoming than a smile For my unwomanly straightforwardness In seeing for you, through my close gate of years Your forty ways to freedom.
Why do you smile? And while I’m trembling at my faith in you In giving you to read this book of danger That only one man living might have written— These letters, which have been a part of me So long that you may read them all again As often as you look into my face, And hear them when I speak to you, and feel them Whenever you have to touch me with your hand,— Why are you so unwilling to be spared? Why do you still believe in me? But no, I’ll find another way to ask you that.
I wonder if there is another way That says it better, and means anything.
There is no other way that could be worse? I was not asking you; it was myself Alone that I was asking.
Why do I dip For lies, when there is nothing in my well But shining truth, you say? How do you know? Truth has a lonely life down where she lives; And many a time, when she comes up to breathe, She sinks before we seize her, and makes ripples.
Possibly you may know no more of me Than a few ripples; and they may soon be gone, Leaving you then with all my shining truth Drowned in a shining water; and when you look You may not see me there, but something else That never was a woman—being yourself.
You say to me my truth is past all drowning, And safe with you for ever? You know all that? How do you know all that, and who has told you? You know so much that I’m an atom frightened Because you know so little.
And what is this? You know the luxury there is in haunting The blasted thoroughfares of disillusion— If that’s your name for them—with only ghosts For company? You know that when a woman Is blessed, or cursed, with a divine impatience (Another name of yours for a bad temper) She must have one at hand on whom to wreak it (That’s what you mean, whatever the turn you give it), Sure of a kindred sympathy, and thereby Effect a mutual calm? You know that wisdom, Given in vain to make a food for those Who are without it, will be seen at last, And even at last only by those who gave it, As one or more of the forgotten crumbs That others leave? You know that men’s applause And women’s envy savor so much of dust That I go hungry, having at home no fare But the same changeless bread that I may swallow Only with tears and prayers? Who told you that? You know that if I read, and read alone, Too many books that no men yet have written, I may go blind, or worse? You know yourself, Of all insistent and insidious creatures, To be the one to save me, and to guard For me their flaming language? And you know That if I give much headway to the whim That’s in me never to be quite sure that even Through all those years of storm and fire I waited For this one rainy day, I may go on, And on, and on alone, through smoke and ashes, To a cold end? You know so dismal much As that about me?… Well, I believe you do.

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