Before Dawn


Sweet life, if life were stronger,
Earth clear of years that wrong her,
Then two things might live longer,
Two sweeter things than they;
Delight, the rootless flower,

And love, the bloomless bower;
Delight that lives an hour,
And love that lives a day.
From evensong to daytime,
When April melts in Maytime,

Love lengthens out his playtime,
Love lessens breath by breath,
And kiss by kiss grows older
On listless throat or shoulder
Turned sideways now, turned colder

Than life that dreams of death.
This one thing once worth giving
Life gave, and seemed worth living;
Sin sweet beyond forgiving
And brief beyond regret:

To laugh and love together
And weave with foam and feather
And wind and words the tether
Our memories play with yet.

Ah, one thing worth beginning,
One thread in life worth spinning,
Ah sweet, one sin worth sinning
With all the whole soul’s will;
To lull you till one stilled you,
To kiss you till one killed you,

To feed you till one filled you,
Sweet lips, if love could fill;
To hunt sweet Love and lose him
Between white arms and bosom,
Between the bud and blossom,

Between your throat and chin;
To say of shame— what is it?
Of virtue— we can miss it,
Of sin— we can but kiss it,
And it’s no longer sin:

To feel the strong soul, stricken
Through fleshly pulses, quicken
Beneath swift sighs that thicken,
Soft hands and lips that smite;
Lips that no love can tire,

With hands that sting like fire,
Weaving the web Desire
To snare the bird Delight.
But love so lightly plighted,
Our love with torch unlighted,

Paused near us unaffrighted,
Who found and left him free;
None, seeing us cloven in sunder,
Will weep or laugh or wonder;
Light love stands clear of thunder,

And safe from winds at sea.
As, when late larks give warning
Of dying lights and dawning,
Night murmurs to the morning,
“Lie still, O love, lie still

And half her dark limbs cover
The white limbs of her lover,
With amorous plumes that hover
And fervent lips that chill;
As scornful day represses

Night’s void and vain caresses,
And from her cloudier tresses
Unwinds the gold of his,
With limbs from limbs dividing
And breath by breath subsiding;

For love has no abiding,
But dies before the kiss;
So hath it been, so be it;
For who shall live and flee it?
But look that no man see it

Or hear it unaware;
Lest all who love and choose him
See Love, and so refuse him;
For all who find him lose him,
But all have found him fair.

Algernon Swinburne

“Algernon Swinburne was in height five feet and four and a half inches. He carried his large head very buoyantly on a tiny frame, the apparent fragility of which was exaggerated by the sloping of his shoulders, which gave him, almost into middle life, a girlish look. He held himself upright, and, as he was very restless, he skipped as he stood, with his hands jerking or linked behind him while he talked, and, when he was still, one toe was often pressed against the heel of the other foot. In this attitude his slenderness and slightness gave him a kind of fairy look, which I, for one, have never seen repeated in any other human being. It recurs to my memory as his greatest outward peculiarity.” from The Life of Algernon Swinburne by Edmund Gosse, 1917 (The Macmillan Company)

Algernon Swinburne Contemporaries
William Allingham
Emily Dickinson
Christina Rossetti
Lewis Carroll

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