Often, poetry is where we find the truth. March 21 is World Poetry Day and to celebrate I’m posting two companion poems written by Edith Nesbit during the early years of her marriage to Hubert Bland, a notorious philander who fathered children with at least two other women.
The first of these poems, ‘The Husband of Today,’ was written in the early 1880s and included in Nesbit’s published collection, Lays and Legends (1886). Here, a straying husband assures his wife that only his fancy has been fired and not his soul. These fleeting passions, he insists, will never usurp the ‘love that lights life’.
The Husband of Today
Eyes caught by beauty, fancy by eyes caught;
Sweet possibilities, question, and wonder –
What did her smile say? What has her brain thought?
Her standard, what? Am I o’er it or under?
Flutter in meeting – in absense dreaming;
Tremor in greeting – for meeting scheming;
Caught by the senses, and yet all through
True with the heart of me, sweetheart, to you.
Only the brute in me yields to the pressure
Of longings inherent – of vices acquired;
All this, my darling, is folly – not pleasure,
Only my fancy – not soul – has been fired.
Sense thrills exalted, thrills to love-madness;
Fancy grown sad becomes almost love-sadness;
And yet love has with it nothing to do,
Love is fast fettered, sweetheart, to you.
Lacking fresh fancies, time flags – grows wingless;
Life without folly would fail – fall flat;
But the love that lights life, and makes death’s self stingless
You, and you only, have wakened that.
Sweet are all women, you are the best of them;
After each fancy has sprung, grown, and died,
Back I come ever, dear, to your side.
The strongest of passions – in joy – seeks the new,
But in grief I turn ever, sweetheart, to you.
The wife answers in a companion poem, ‘The Wife of All Ages,’ also published in Lays and Legends, directly after ‘The Husband of Today’. Here, she dismisses his entreaties and insists that, as far as she is concerned, his ‘meeting, scheming, longing, trembling, dreaming’ is simply love and nothing less. Were their roles reversed, she suggests, he would have little patience with such fine distinctions.
In this powerful response to her husband’s justification of his disloyalty, the wife insists that she would withdraw were she not bound to him, against her better judgement it seems:
The Wife of All Ages
I DO not catch these subtle shades of feeling,
Your fine distinctions are too fine for me;
This meeting, scheming, longing, trembling, dreaming,
To me mean love, and only love, you see;
In me at least ’tis love, you will admit,
And you the only man who wakens it.
Suppose I yearned, and longed, and dreamed, and fluttered,
What would you say or think, or further, do?
Why should one rule be fit for me to follow,
While there exists a different law for you?
If all these fires and fancies came my way,
Would you believe love was so far away?
On all these other women—never doubt it—
‘Tis love you lavish, love you promised me!
What do I care to be the first, or fiftieth?
It is the only one I care to be.
Dear, I would be your sun, as mine you are,
Not the most radiant wonder of a star.
And so, good-bye! Among such sheaves of roses
You will not miss the flower I take from you;
Amid the music of so many voices
You will forget the little songs I knew—
The foolish tender words I used to say,
The little common sweets of every day.
The world, no doubt, has fairest fruits and blossoms
To give to you; but what, ah! what for me?
Nay, after all I am your slave and bondmaid,
And all my world is in my slavery.
So, as before, I welcome any part
Which you may choose to give me of your heart.