A Ballad of a Nun

Original Text: 

John Davidson, Ballads and Songs (London: John Lane, 1894: 52-61. SRLF_UCLA:LAGE-1068447. Internet Archive.

1From Eastertide to Eastertide
2    For ten long years her patient knees
3Engraved the stones--the fittest bride
4    Of Christ in all the diocese.
5She conquered every earthly lust;
6    The abbess loved her more and more;
7And, as a mark of perfect trust,
8    Made her the keeper of the door.
9High on a hill the convent hung,
10    Across a duchy looking down,
11Where everlasting mountains flung
12    Their shadows over tower and town.
13The jewels of their lofty snows
14    In constellations flashed at night;
15Above their crests the moon arose;
16    The deep earth shuddered with delight.
17Long ere she left her cloudy bed,
18    Still dreaming in the orient land,
19Oil many a mountain's happy head
20    Dawn lightly laid her rosy hand.
21The adventurous sun took Heaven by storm;
22    Clouds scattered largesses of rain;
23The sounding cities, rich and warm,
24    Smouldered and glittered in the plain.
25Sometimes it was a wandering wind,
26    Sometimes the fragrance of the pine,
27Sometimes the thought how others sinned,
28    That turned her sweet blood into wine.
29Sometimes she heard a serenade
30    Complaining sweetly far away:
31She said, "A young man woos a maid";
32    "And dreamt of love till break of day.
33Then would she ply her knotted scourge
34    Until she swooned; but evermore
35She had the same red sin to purge,
36    Poor, passionate keeper of the door !
37For still night's starry scroll unfurled,
38    And still the day came like a flood:
39It was the greatness of the world
40    That made her long to use her blood.
41In winter-time when Lent drew nigh,
42    And hill and plain were wrapped in snow,
43She watched beneath the frosty sky
44    The nearest city nightly glow.
45Like peals of airy bells outworn
46    Faint laughter died above her head
47In gusts of broken music borne:
48    "They keep the Carnival," she said.
49Her hungry heart devoured the town:
50    "Heaven save me by a miracle!
51Unless God sends an angel down,
52    Thither I go though it were Hell."
53She dug her nails deep in her breast,
54    Sobbed, shrieked, and straight withdrew the bar:
55A fledgling flying from the nest,
56    A pale moth rushing to a star.
57Fillet and veil in strips she tore;
58    Her golden tresses floated wide;
59The ring and bracelet that she wore
60    As Christ's betrothed, she cast aside.
61"Life's dearest meaning I shall probe;
62    Lo! I shall taste of love at last!
63Away!" She doffed her outer robe,
64    And sent it sailing down the blast.
65Her body seemed to warm the wind;
66    With bleeding feet o'er ice she ran:
67"I leave the righteous God behind;
68    I go to worship sinful man."
69She reached the sounding city's gate;
70    No question did the warder ask:
71He passed her in: "Welcome, wild mate!"
72    He thought her some fantastic mask.
73Half-naked through the town she went;
74    Each footstep left a bloody mark;
75Crowds followed her with looks intent;
76    Her bright eyes made the torches dark.
77Alone and watching in the street
78    There stood a grave youth nobly dressed;
79To him she knelt and kissed his feet;
80    Her face her great desire confessed.
81Straight to his house the nun he led:
82    "Strange lady, what would you with me"
83"Your love, your love, sweet lord," she said;
84    "I bring you my virginity."
85He healed her bosom with a kiss;
86    She gave him all her passion's hoard;
87And sobbed and murmured ever, "This
88    Is life's great meaning, dear, my lord.
89"I care not for my broken vow;
90    Though God should come in thunder soon,
91I am sister to the mountains now,
92    And sister to the sun and moon."
93Through all the towns of Belmarie
94    She made a progress like a queen.
95"She is," they said, "whate'er she be,
96    The strangest woman ever seen.
97"From fairyland she must have come,
98    Or else she is a mer maiden."
99Some said she was a ghoul, and some
100    A heathen goddess born again.
101But soon her fire to ashes burned;
102    Her beauty changed to haggardness;
103Her golden hair to silver turned;
104    The hour came of her last caress.
105At midnight from her lonely bed
106    She rose, and said, "I have had my will."
107The old ragged robe she donned, and fled
108    Back to the convent on the hill.
109Half-naked as she went before,
110    She hurried to the city wall,
111Unnoticed in the rush and roar
112    And splendour of the carnival.
113No question did the warder ask:
114    Her ragged robe, her shrunken limb,
115Her dreadful eyes! "It is no mask;
116    It is a she-wolf, gaunt and grim!"
117She ran across the icy plain;
118    Her worn blood curdled in the blast;
119Each footstep left a crimson stain;
120    The white-faced moon looked on aghast.
121She said between her chattering jaws,
122    "Deep peace is mine, I cease to strive;
123Oh, comfortable convent laws.
124    That bury foolish nuns alive!
125"A trowel for my passing-bell,
126    A little bed within the wall,
127A coverlet of stones; how well
128    I there shall keep the Carnival!"
129Like tired bells chiming in their sleep,
130    The wind faint peals of laughter bore;
131She stopped her ears and climbed the steep,
132    And thundered at the convent door.
133It opened straight: she entered in,
134    And at the wardress' feet fell prone:
135"I come to purge away my sin;
136    Bury me, close me up in stone."
137The wardress raised her tenderly;
138    She touched her wet and fast-shut eyes:
139"Look, sister; sister, look at me;
140    Look; can you see through my disguise?"
141She looked and saw her own sad face,
142    And trembled, wondering, "Who art thou?"
143"God sent me down to fill your place:
144    I am the Virgin Mary now."
145And with the word, God's mother shone:
146    The wanderer whispered, "Mary, hail!"
147The vision helped her to put on
148    Bracelet and fillet, ring and veil.
149"You are sister to the mountains now,
150    And sister to the day and night;
151Sister to God." And on the brow
152    She kissed her thrice, and left her sight.
153While dreaming in her cloudy bed,
154    Far in the crimson orient land.
155On many a mountain's happy head
156    Dawn lightly laid her rosy hand.
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: