George Henry Boker (1823-1890)
In a letter to Bayard Taylor, George Henry Boker wrote facetiously that he had written more sonnets "than any poet in the language except Wordsworth." Certain it is that, with the single exception of Lloyd Mifflin, he has written more sonnets than any other American sonneteer.
Of Boker's three hundred and eighty-nine sonnets, of which all but eighteen are Italian in form, three hundred and thirteen form one magnificent Sequence on Profane Love, a sequence but recently discovered, and still more recently published. The sequence, to quote the editor's words, is, in its major part,
perhaps the most remarkable exposition of its sort in English poetry in both the scope of the experience recorded and the duration of the relationship. No mood has been avoided; from the platonic ideality to the fervor of physical consummation, from abject despair to the ecstacy of complete possession, the lover's experiences and emotions are clearly portrayed.
Lear and Cordelia! 't was an ancient tale
Before thy Shakespeare gave it deathless fame:
The times have changed, the moral is the same.
So like an outcast, dowerless, and pale,
Thy daughter went; and in a foreign gale
Spread her young banner, till its sway became
A wonder to the nations. Days of shame
Are close upon thee: prophets raise their wail.
When the rude Cossack with an outstretched hand
Points his long spear across the narrow sea,--
"Lo, there is England!" when thy destiny
Storms on thy straw-crowned head, and thou dost stand
Weak, helpless, mad, a by-word in the land,--
God grant thy daughter a Cordelia be!
Stand, thou great bulwark of man's liberty!
Thou rock of shelter, rising from the wave,
Sole refuge to the overwearied brave
Who planned, arose, and battled to be free,
Fell undeterred, then sadly turned to thee;--
Saved the free spirit from their country's grave,
To rise again, and animate the slave,
When God shall ripen all things. Britons, ye
Who guard the sacred outpost, not in vain
Hold your proud peril! Freemen undefiled,
Keep watch and ward! Let battlements be piled
Around your cliffs; fleets marshalled, till the main
Sinks under them; and if your courage wane,
Through force or fraud, look westward to your child.
Sonnets from A Sequence on Profane Love
Where is my merit? By what special grace
Am I so blessed above all other men?
I have some fancy, and the art to pen
A halting sonnet to thy perfect face.
But what of that? The thrush or twittering wren
Makes sweeter music from his resting-place.
No outward beauty in my life I trace.
No thought or deed heroical; and when
My eyes turn inward, I am stricken blind
At the abyss of weakness, folly, sin,
That like a miner's shaft, sinks far within
My darkened nature. Nowhere can I find
Cause for thy love. Rest, rest, my troubled mind!
Where reason stops, let soaring faith begin.
I strive to live my life in whitest truth,
Even in the face of this deceitful world;
And if in errors I am caught and whirled
From the fair courses of my candid youth,
I view my trespasses with thoughtful ruth;
And the poor mummer's scornful lip is curled,
And a low curse indignantly is hurled
At arts which others blindly take as sooth.
But when I enter thy pure presence, Sweet,
I come as one into a holy shrine.
I taste the mystic wafer and the wine,
And fraud and falsehood from my heart retreat.
Through thy divinity I grow divine,
And my world's mask lies empty at thy feet.
Nothing is stable. Though the deeds we do
May bind the nations in a servile chain,
And give to cowering slaves their joy and pain,
The far result still frowns in open view.
A little wound will let great Caesar through,
An asp make Egypt's dusky charmer plain;
And all the power and beauty that remain
Go shivering naked up the mystic blue.
Earth smiles at tyrants, when the crown is laid
Upon the coffin, and their history
To after times with laughter is displayed.
Death and oblivion are the proudest fee
Of men's endeavor; and the delver's spade
Rounds all our hillocks fair and evenly.
When with the courage lent me by thy smile,
I laid my hands upon thy sacred form,
Dared, passion-wild, thy scented mouth to warm
With cleaving kisses, unrepelled the while;
Was it thy patience or my venturous guile
Shook virtue's outworks with a fiery storm,
And made her guards the trembling ramparts swarm,
To meet a foe who came in friendly stile?
I know not, Love; but since that trustful day
I grow more careful of myself, less stained
By wor[l]dly touch, as though that touch profaned.
I am all thine, more like thee; if thou'lt say
Those kisses brushed thy purese bloom away,
Say also this, that what thou lost, I gained.
Love sat at ease upon Time's bony knee;
Pulled his grey beard; paddled his finger-tips
Among his wrinkles; smote his bloodless lips;
With rosy palms, forbade his eyes to see;
O'erturned his fatal hour-glass; wantonly
Pulled his scythe-edge against that dart which rips
The heart of adamant; cast gibes and quips
Straight in his teeth, out-mocking mockery.
What said this phantom? Nought; he only smiled
To be thus toyed with; held his wasting breath,
Lest he might do some damage to the child;
Till Love, grown weary of that pastime, saith,
"This is too tame; my heart with joy is wild;
Come, Father, come! Let us go play with Death!"