Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Here you will find the Long Poem The Sisters' Tragedy of poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich

The Sisters' Tragedy

A.D. 1670

AGLÄE, a widow.
MURIEL, her unmarried sister.

It happened once, in that brave land that lies 
For half the twelvemonth wrapt in sombre skies, 
Two sisters loved one man. He being dead, 
Grief loosed the lips of her he had not wed, 
And all the passion that through heavy years 
Had masked in smiles unmasked itself in tears. 
No purer love may mortals know than this, 
The hidden love that guards another's bliss. 
High in a turret's westward-facing room, 
Whose painted window held the sunset's bloom, 
The two together grieving, each to each 
Unveiled her soul with sobs and broken speech.

Both were young, in life's rich summer yet; 
And one was dark, with tints of violet 
In hair and eyes, and one was blond as she 
Who rose--a second daybreak--from the sea, 
Gold-tressed and azure-eyed. In that lone place, 
Like dusk and dawn, they sat there face to face.

She spoke the first whose strangely silvering hair 
No wreath had worn, nor widow's weed might wear, 
And told her blameless love, and knew no shame-- 
Her holy love that, like a vestal flame 
Beside the body of some queen 
Within a guarded crypt, had burned unseen 
From weary year to year. And she who heard 
Smiled proudly through her tears and said no word, 
But, drawing closer, on the troubled brow 
Laid one long kiss, and that was words enow!


Be still, my heart! Grown patient with thine ache, 
Thou shouldst be dumb, yet needs must speak, or break. 
The world is empty now that he is gone.


Ay, sweetheart!


None was like him, no, not one. 
From other men he stood apart, alone 
In honor spotless as unfallen snow. 
Nothing all evil was it his to know; 
His charity still found some germ, some spark 
Of light in natures that seemed wholly dark. 
He read men's souls; the lowly and the high 
Moved on the self-same level in his eye. 
Gracious to all, to none subservient, 
Without offence he spake the word he meant-- 
His word no trick of tact or courtly art, 
But the white flowering of the noble heart. 
Careless he was of much the world counts gain, 
Careless of self, too simple to be vain, 
Yet strung so finely that for conscience-sake 
He would have gone like Cranmer to the stake. 
I saw--how could I help but love? And you--


At this perfection did I worship too . . . 
'T was this that stabbed me. Heed not what I say! 
I meant it not, my wits are gone astray, 
With all that is and has been. No, I lie-- 
Had he been less perfection, happier I!


Strange words and wild! 'T is the distracted mind 
Breathes them, not you, and I no meaning find.


Yet 't were as plain as writing on a scroll 
had you but eyes to read within my soul.-- 
How a grief hidden feeds on its own mood, 
Poison's the healthful currents of the blood 
With bitterness, and turns the heart to stone! 
I think, in truth, 't were better to make moan, 
And so be done with it. This many a year, 
Sweetheart, have I laughed lightly and made cheer, 
Pierced through with sorrow!

Then the widowed one 
With sorrowfullest eyes beneath the sun, 
Faltered, irresolute, and bending low 
Her head, half whispered,

Dear, how could you know? 
What masks are faces!--yours, unread by me 
These seven long summers; mine, so placidly 
Shielding my woe! No tremble of the lip, 
No cheek's quick pallor let our secret slip! 
Mere players we, and she that played the queen, 
Now in her homespun, looks how poor and mean! 
How shall I say it, how find words to tell 
What thing it was for me made earth a hell 
That else had been my heaven! 'T would blanch your cheek 
Were I to speak it. Nay, but I will speak, 
Since like two souls at compt we seem to stand, 
Where nothing may be hidden. Hold my hand, 
But look not at me! Noble 't was, and meet, 
To hide your heart, nor fling it at his feet 
To lie despised there. Thus saved you our pride 
And that white honor for which earls have died. 
You were not all unhappy, loving so! 
I with a difference wore my weight of woe. 
My lord was he. It was my cruel lot, 
My hell, to love him--for he loved me not!

Then came a silence. Suddenly like death 
The truth flashed on them, and each held her breath-- 
A flash of light whereby they both were slain, 
She that was loved and she that loved in vain!