A Court Lady

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1. A Court Lady

Her hair was tawny with gold, her eyes with purple were dark,
Her cheeks’ pale opal burnt with a red and restless spark.
Never was lady of Milan nobler in name and in race;
Never was lady of Italy fairer to see in the face.
Never was lady on earth more true as woman and wife,
Larger in judgment and instinct, prouder in manners and life.
She stood in the early morning, and said to her maidens, “Bring
That silken robe made ready to wear at the court of the king.
“Bring me the clasps of diamond, lucid, clear of the mote, 9
Clasp me the large at the waist, and clasp me the small at the throat.
“Diamonds to fasten the hair, and diamonds to fasten the sleeves,
Laces to drop from their rays, like a powder of snow from the eaves.”
Gorgeous she entered the sunlight which gathered her up in a flame,
While, straight in her open carriage, she to the hospital came.
In she went at the door, and gazing from end to end,
“Many and low are the pallets, but each is the place of a friend.”
Up she passed through the wards, and stood at a young man’s bed:
Bloody the band on his brow, and livid the droop of his head.
“Art thou a Lombard,19 my brother? Happy art thou,” she cried,
And smiled like Italy on him: he dreamed in her face and died.
Pale with his passing soul, she went on still to a second:
He was a grave hard man, whose years by dungeons were reckoned.
Wounds in his body were sore, wounds in his life were sorer.
“Art thou a Romagnole?”24 Her eyes drove lightnings before her.
“Austrian and priest had joined to double and tighten the cord
Able to bind thee, O strong one,—free by the stroke of a sword.
“Now be grave for the rest of us, using the life overcast
To ripen our wine of the present, (too new,) in glooms of the past.”
Down she stepped to a pallet where lay a face like a girl’s
Young, and pathetic with dying,—a deep black hole in the curls.
“Art thou from Tuscany,31 brother? and seest thou, dreaming in pain,
Thy mother stand in the piazza,32 searching the List of the slain?”
Kind as a mother herself, she touched his cheeks with her hands:
“Blessed is she who has borne thee, although she should weep as she stands.” 34
On she passed to a Frenchman,35 his arm carried off by a ball:
Kneeling, . . “O more than my brother! how shall I thank thee for all?
“Each of the heroes around us has fought for his land and line,
But thou hast fought for a stranger, in hate of a wrong not thine.
“Happy are all free peoples, too strong to be dispossessed.
But blessed are those among nations, who dare to be strong for the rest!”40
Ever she passed on her way, and came to a couch where pined
One with a face from Venetia,42 white with a hope out of mind.
Long she stood and gazed, and twice she tried at the name,
But two great crystal tears were all that faltered and came.
Only a tear for Venice?—she turned as in passion and loss,
And stooped to his forehead and kissed it, as if she were kissing the cross.
Faint with that strain of heart she moved on then to another,
Stern and strong in his death. “And dost thou suffer, my brother?”
Holding his hands in hers:—“Out of the Piedmont lion49
Cometh the sweetness of freedom! sweetest to live or to die on.”
Holding his cold rough hands,—“Well, oh, well have ye done
In noble, noble Piedmont, who would not be noble alone.”
Back he fell while she spoke. She rose to her feet with a spring—
“That was a Piedmontese! and this is the Court of the King.”

2. Note on the text

This work, first published in The Independent (29 March 1860) and included in Poems before Congress (1860), was inspired by hospital visits that Milan's aristocratic ladies paid to soldiers wounded in battles for Italian independence and unification. These women contrast with the idealized nurse, a feminine role that EBB criticized in 1855 in relation to celebrations of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), famed for nursing achievements in the Crimean War (1854-56): “Every man is on his knees before ladies carrying lint [for bandages], calling them ‘angelic she’s’ [...]. I do not consider the best use to which we can put a gifted and accomplished woman is to make her a hospital nurse. If it is, why then woe to us all who are artists! The woman’s question is at an end.” a.1 In reviewing Poems before Congress , Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine confirmed EBB’s judgment that the same men who revere women as nurses “would curse the[ir] impudence” “if women stir an inch as thinkers or artists from the beaten line (involving more good to general humanity than is involved in lint)” (LEBB 2:189). Explicitly contrasting EBB with Nightingale, the reviewer chided the poet for interfering in politics, declaring that instead, women should enrich “the domestic circle” by singing, cooking, and visiting the sick—work that likens women to angels (“Poetic Aberrations,” April 1860, pp. 490-94). Soon after its publication this poem was translated by the Italian patriot poet and journalist Francesco Dall’Ongaro (1808-73), a friend of the Brownings,a.2 and published in a Florentine broadside distributed to support the struggle for independence in Sicily. Its introduction remarked that “A Court Lady” revealed EBB’s heart and genius (see Donaldson [1993], 86). Criticism: Mermin (1989), Montweiler (2005), and Woodworth (2006).For a text with variants and more extended annotation, see The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Vol. 4, General Editor, Sandra Donaldson (London: Pickering and Chatto).

3. Explanatory Notes

mote spot or blemish.

Lombard a native of Lombardy, a north central Italian province extending up to the Alps. The region had been severely oppressed by Austrian authorities.

Romagnole a native of Romagna, south of Venice and Bologna, a region sandwiched between the Papal States and the holdings of the Habsburg monarchy and therefore doubly oppressed, by the papacy and the Austrians.

Tuscany a west central province, including Florence, Pisa, and Leghorn (Livorno), which had formerly been ruled by a relatively moderate and popular duke, who eventually became an Austrian puppet.

piazza a town square (Italian). Lists naming battle casualties were customarily posted in public spaces.

The line recalls the section of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes (forecasting states of supreme blessedness): “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5.4).

Frenchman Under Emperor Napoleon III France had championed Italy’s cause, in April 1859 declaring war on Austria.

This line trumpets a martial antithesis to Christ’s stricture in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5.5).

Venetia the northeastern region of Italy, bordering Austria, which includes Venice. Despite its episodes of vigorous revolt, Venetia was resigned to Austria by the Treaty of Villafranca, which Napoleon III accepted in July 1859.

Piedmont lion, Piedmont, in the northwest, was the strongest Italian state, the site of the first uprisings against Austrian rule. By 1859 the core of an independent Italy had formed here, its parliament met at the capital Turin, and its king Victor Emmanuel II was declared King of Italy. The line recalls the Biblical tale in which the carcass of a lion slain by Samson produces honey (Judges 14.8).

The phrase “the woman’s [or woman] question” referred collectively to the period’s debates over the capacities and rights of women, including discussions of women’s limited access to formal education, the professions, and voting rights. EBB admired Nightingale, whom she had met briefly in 1852.

See LTA 2:487; also LEBB 2:375, 430-31, 447.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: March 7, 2009
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