Hector in the Garden

Table of contents

1. Hector in the Garden

Nine years old! The first of any
Seem the happiest years that come.
Yet when I was nine, I said
No such word!—I thought instead
That the Greeks had used as many
In besieging Ilium.6
Nine green years had scarcely brought me
To my childhood’s haunted spring.
I had life, like flowers and bees
In betwixt the country trees,
And the sun the pleasure taught me
Which he teacheth every thing.
If the rain fell, there was sorrow,
Little head leant on the pane,
Little finger drawing down it
The long trailing drops upon it,
And the “Rain, rain, come to-morrow,”17
Said for charm against the rain.
Such a charm was right Canidian19
Though you meet it with a jeer!
If I said it long enough,
Then the rain hummed dimly off,
And the thrush with his pure Lydian 23
Was left only to the ear;
And the sun and I together
Went a-rushing out of doors!
We, our tender spirits, drew
Over hill and dale in view,
Glimmering hither, glimmering thither,
In the footsteps of the showers.
Underneath the chesnuts 31 dripping,
Through the grasses wet and fair,
Straight I sought my garden-ground,
With the laurel 34 on the mound,
And the pear-tree 35 oversweeping
A side-shadow of green air.
In the garden lay supinely
A huge giant wrought of spade!
Arms and legs were stretched at length
In a passive giant strength,—
The fine meadow turf, cut finely,
Round them laid and interlaid.
Call him Hector, son of Priam!
Such his title and degree.
With my rake I smoothed his brow,
Both his cheeks I weeded through,
But a rhymer such as I am,
Scarce can sing his dignity.
Eyes of gentianellas 49 azure,
Staring, winking at the skies,
Nose of gillyflowers 51a and box. 51b
Scented grasses put for locks,
Which a little breeze, at pleasure,
Set a-waving round his eyes.
Brazen helm of daffodillies, 55
With a glitter toward the light.
Purple violets 57 for the mouth,
Breathing perfumes west and south;
And a sword of flashing lilies, 59
Holden 60 ready for the fight.
And a breastplate made of daisies, 61
Closely fitting, leaf on leaf.
Periwinkles 63 interlaced
Drawn for belt about the waist;
While the brown bees, humming praises,
Shot their arrows round the chief.
And who knows, (I sometimes wondered,)
If the disembodied soul
Of old Hector, once of Troy,
Might not take a dreary joy
Here to enter—if it thundered,
Rolling up the thunder-roll?
Rolling this way from Troy-ruin,
In this body rude and rife
Just to enter, and take rest
‘Neath the daisies of the breast—
They, with tender roots, renewing
His heroic heart to life?
Who could know? I sometimes started
At a motion or a sound!
Did his mouth speak—naming Troy,
With an οτοτοτοτοι? 82
Did the pulse of the Strong-hearted
Make the daisies tremble round?
It was hard to answer, often:
But the birds sang in the tree—
But the little birds sang bold
In the pear-tree green and old,
And my terror seemed to soften
Through the courage of their glee. 90
Oh, the birds, the tree, the ruddy
And white blossoms, sleek with rain!
Oh, my garden, rich with pansies! 93
Oh, my childhood’s bright romances!
All revive, like Hector’s body,
And I see them stir again!
And despite life’s changes—chances,
And despite the deathbell’s toll,
They press on me in full seeming!
Help, some angel! stay this dreaming!
As the birds sang in the branches,
Sing God’s patience through my soul!
That no dreamer, no neglecter
Of the present’s work unsped, 104
I may wake up and be doing,
Life’s heroic ends pursuing,
Though my past is dead as Hector,
And though Hector is twice dead.

2. Note on the text

During the Greeks’ siege of Troy, as recounted in Homer’s epic The Iliad (c. 8th century B.C.), noble Hector was the oldest son of the Trojan king, Priam, and his nation’s greatest martial hero. His death was a turning point in the war, leading to Greek victory. This poem, first published in Blackwood’s in October 1846, conveys EBB’s early fascination with classical literature, a lifelong passion that began with her study of Greek at age eleven. In an 1843 letter she referred to the poem’s autobiographical background, describing her girlhood garden, which she “cut … out into a great Hector of Troy, in relievo,a1 with a high heroic box nose & shoe-ties of columbine” (BC 6:316). In its tone the poem echoes EBB’s spirited autobiographical account, probably dating from the early 1840s, of her youthful aspirations to lead Greek troops into battle (BC 1:360-62); her affiliation with the Greeks here registers humorously in her “attacking” Trojan Hector with her gardening implements. In 1846, EBB treated Hector in a more somber tone, translating Homer’s poignant episode of the Trojan hero’s tender leavetaking from his wife and infant son before his death in combat. a2 Victorian reviewers paid scant attention to “Hector in the Garden”; one listed it among poems of “little merit,” on “trivial subjects,” marred by “affected quaintness.” a3 For recent critical comment, see Mermin (1989). For a text with variants and more extended annotation, see The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, General Editor, Sandra Donaldson (London: Pickering and Chatto).

3. Explanatory Notes

Ilium Latin name for Troy, ancient city in northwestern Asia Minor.

Allusion to the children’s rhyme “Rain, rain, go away, / Come again another day.”

Canidian in the manner of the dire sorceress Canidia (see Roman poet Horace, Epodes 3, 5, and 17).

Lydian the Greek musical mode that Plato associated with softness and melancholy (Republic 3.3).

ches[t]nut tree traditionally associated with justice. On the Victorian “language of flowers” see Beverly Seaton, The Language of Flowers: A History (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995).

laurel tree (also called bay) traditionally associated with glory. In ancient competitions, victorious poets were crowned with wreaths of laurel leaves.

pear-tree traditionally associated (like the apple tree) with wisdom and forbidden knowledge.

gentianellas spring gentians, with large, intensely blue blooms.

gillyflowers associated with patience and with lasting beauty.

box shrubbery associated with stoicism.

daffodillies daffodils, associated with self-love and deceit.

violets associated with modesty, humility, and faithfulness.

lilies associated with purity and majesty.

holden held.

daisies associated with innocence, humility, and beauty.

periwinkles associated with memory, especially tender recollections.

οτοτοτοτοι Greek expression of pain or grief.

glee a song scored for multiple parts, unaccompanied by instruments.

pansies associated with remembrance; they traditionally convey the message “think of me” or “I’m thinking of you.”

unsped unsuccessful, not prospering; also, not progressing quickly.

in relievo in relief (Italian), describing sculpture that is not freestanding, but is cast or carved to project from a background surface.

EBB called the Homeric scene “[s]urpassingly & profoundly beautiful” (BC 12:196; see also 177, 199). Her translation (CW 6:157-61) was published in Last Poems (1862).

Eclectic Review, 5th ser. 1 (March 1851): 295-303; in Donaldson (1993), 1851.20.

EBB Archive HomePoemsAbout the EBB Archive

Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 2009-03-04
This page is copyrighted by the EBB Archive