Sister Helen

Original Text: 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poems (London: Ellis and White, 1881). end R677 A155 1881 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
2          Sister Helen?
3To-day is the third since you began."
4"The time was long, yet the time ran,
5          Little brother."
6     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
7Three days to-day, between Hell and Heaven!)
8"But if you have done your work aright,
9          Sister Helen,
10You'll let me play, for you said I might."
11"Be very still in your play to-night,
12          Little brother."
13     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
14Third night, to-night, between Hell and Heaven!)
15"You said it must melt ere vesper-bell,
16          Sister Helen;
17If now it be molten, all is well."
18"Even so,--nay, peace! you cannot tell,
19          Little brother."
20     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
21O what is this, between Hell and Heaven?)
22"Oh the waxen knave was plump to-day,
23          Sister Helen;
24How like dead folk he has dropp'd away!"
25"Nay now, of the dead what can you say,
26          Little brother?"
27     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
28What of the dead, between Hell and Heaven?)
29"See, see, the sunken pile of wood,
30          Sister Helen,
31Shines through the thinn'd wax red as blood!"
32"Nay now, when look'd you yet on blood,
33          Little brother?"
34     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
35How pale she is, between Hell and Heaven!)
36"Now close your eyes, for they're sick and sore,
37          Sister Helen,
38And I'll play without the gallery door."
39"Aye, let me rest,--I'll lie on the floor,
40          Little brother."
41     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
42What rest to-night, between Hell and Heaven?)
43"Here high up in the balcony,
44          Sister Helen,
45The moon flies face to face with me."
46"Aye, look and say whatever you see,
47          Little brother."
48     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
49What sight to-night, between Hell and Heaven?)
50"Outside it's merry in the wind's wake,
51          Sister Helen;
52In the shaken trees the chill stars shake."
53"Hush, heard you a horse-tread as you spake,
54          Little brother?"
55     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
56What sound to-night, between Hell and Heaven?)
57"I hear a horse-tread, and I see,
58          Sister Helen,
59Three horsemen that ride terribly."
60"Little brother, whence come the three,
61          Little brother?"
62     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
63Whence should they come, between Hell and Heaven?)
64"They come by the hill-verge from Boyne Bar,
65          Sister Helen,
66And one draws nigh, but two are afar."
67"Look, look, do you know them who they are,
68          Little brother?"
69     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
70Who should they be, between Hell and Heaven?)
71"Oh, it's Keith of Eastholm rides so fast,
72          Sister Helen,
73For I know the white mane on the blast."
74"The hour has come, has come at last,
75          Little brother!"
76     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
77Her hour at last, between Hell and Heaven!)
78"He has made a sign and called Halloo!
79          Sister Helen,
80And he says that he would speak with you."
81"Oh tell him I fear the frozen dew,
82          Little brother."
83     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
84Why laughs she thus, between Hell and Heaven?)
85"The wind is loud, but I hear him cry,
86          Sister Helen,
87That Keith of Ewern's like to die."
88"And he and thou, and thou and I,
89          Little brother."
90     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
91And they and we, between Hell and Heaven!)
92"Three days ago, on his marriage-morn,
93          Sister Helen,
94He sicken'd, and lies since then forlorn."
95"For bridegroom's side is the bride a thorn,
96          Little brother?"
97     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
98Cold bridal cheer, between Hell and Heaven!)
99"Three days and nights he has lain abed,
100          Sister Helen,
101And he prays in torment to be dead."
102"The thing may chance, if he have pray'd,
103          Little brother!"
104     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
105If he have pray'd, between Hell and Heaven!)
106"But he has not ceas'd to cry to-day,
107          Sister Helen,
108That you should take your curse away."
109"My prayer was heard,--he need but pray,
110          Little brother!"
111     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
112Shall God not hear, between Hell and Heaven?)
113"But he says, till you take back your ban,
114          Sister Helen,
115His soul would pass, yet never can."
116"Nay then, shall I slay a living man,
117          Little brother?"
118     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
119A living soul, between Hell and Heaven!)
120"But he calls for ever on your name,
121          Sister Helen,
122And says that he melts before a flame."
123"My heart for his pleasure far'd the same,
124          Little brother."
125     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
126Fire at the heart, between Hell and Heaven!)
127"Here's Keith of Westholm riding fast,
128          Sister Helen,
129For I know the white plume on the blast."
130"The hour, the sweet hour I forecast,
131          Little brother!"
132     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
133Is the hour sweet, between Hell and Heaven?)
134"He stops to speak, and he stills his horse,
135          Sister Helen;
136But his words are drown'd in the wind's course."
137"Nay hear, nay hear, you must hear perforce,
138          Little brother!"
139     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
140What word now heard, between Hell and Heaven?)
141"Oh he says that Keith of Ewern's cry,
142          Sister Helen,
143Is ever to see you ere he die."
144"In all that his soul sees, there am I
145          Little brother!"
146     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
147The soul's one sight, between Hell and Heaven!)
148"He sends a ring and a broken coin,
149          Sister Helen,
150And bids you mind the banks of Boyne."
151"What else he broke will he ever join,
152          Little brother?"
153     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
154No, never join'd, between Hell and Heaven!)
155"He yields you these and craves full fain,
156          Sister Helen,
157You pardon him in his mortal pain."
158"What else he took will he give again,
159          Little brother?"
160     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
161Not twice to give, between Hell and Heaven!)
162"He calls your name in an agony,
163          Sister Helen,
164That even dead Love must weep to see."
165"Hate, born of Love, is blind as he,
166          Little brother!"
167     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
168Love turn'd to hate, between Hell and Heaven!)
169"Oh it's Keith of Keith now that rides fast,
170          Sister Helen,
171For I know the white hair on the blast."
172"The short short hour will soon be past,
173          Little brother!"
174     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
175Will soon be past, between Hell and Heaven!)
176"He looks at me and he tries to speak,
177          Sister Helen,
178But oh! his voice is sad and weak!"
179"What here should the mighty Baron seek,
180          Little brother?"
181     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
182Is this the end, between Hell and Heaven?)
183"Oh his son still cries, if you forgive,
184          Sister Helen,
185The body dies but the soul shall live."
186"Fire shall forgive me as I forgive,
187          Little brother!"
188     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
189As she forgives, between Hell and Heaven!)
190"Oh he prays you, as his heart would rive,
191          Sister Helen,
192To save his dear son's soul alive."
193"Fire cannot slay it, it shall thrive,
194          Little brother!"
195     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
196Alas, alas, between Hell and Heaven!)
197"He cries to you, kneeling in the road,
198          Sister Helen,
199To go with him for the love of God!"
200"The way is long to his son's abode,
201          Little brother."
202     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
203The way is long, between Hell and Heaven!)
204"A lady's here, by a dark steed brought,
205          Sister Helen,
206So darkly clad, I saw her not."
207"See her now or never see aught,
208          Little brother!"
209     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
210What more to see, between Hell and Heaven?)
211"Her hood falls back, and the moon shines fair,
212          Sister Helen,
213On the Lady of Ewern's golden hair."
214"Blest hour of my power and her despair,
215          Little brother!"
216     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
217Hour blest and bann'd, between Hell and Heaven!)
218"Pale, pale her cheeks, that in pride did glow,
219          Sister Helen,
220'Neath the bridal-wreath three days ago."
221"One morn for pride and three days for woe,
222          Little brother!"
223     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
224Three days, three nights, between Hell and Heaven!)
225"Her clasp'd hands stretch from her bending head,
226          Sister Helen;
227With the loud wind's wail her sobs are wed."
228"What wedding-strains hath her bridal-bed,
229          Little brother?"
230     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
231What strain but death's, between Hell and Heaven?)
232"She may not speak, she sinks in a swoon,
233          Sister Helen,--
234She lifts her lips and gasps on the moon."
235"Oh! might I but hear her soul's blithe tune,
236          Little brother!"
237     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
238Her woe's dumb cry, between Hell and Heaven!)
239"They've caught her to Westholm's saddle-bow,
240          Sister Helen,
241And her moonlit hair gleams white in its flow."
242"Let it turn whiter than winter snow,
243          Little brother!"
244     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
245Woe-wither'd gold, between Hell and Heaven!)
246"O Sister Helen, you heard the bell,
247          Sister Helen!
248More loud than the vesper-chime it fell."
249"No vesper-chime, but a dying knell,
250          Little brother!"
251     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
252His dying knell, between Hell and Heaven!)
253"Alas! but I fear the heavy sound,
254          Sister Helen;
255Is it in the sky or in the ground?"
256"Say, have they turn'd their horses round,
257          Little brother?"
258     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
259What would she more, between Hell and Heaven?)
260"They have rais'd the old man from his knee,
261          Sister Helen,
262And they ride in silence hastily."
263"More fast the naked soul doth flee,
264          Little brother!"
265     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
266The naked soul, between Hell and Heaven!)
267"Flank to flank are the three steeds gone,
268          Sister Helen,
269But the lady's dark steed goes alone."
270"And lonely her bridegroom's soul hath flown,
271          Little brother."
272     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
273The lonely ghost, between Hell and Heaven!)
274"Oh the wind is sad in the iron chill,
275          Sister Helen,
276And weary sad they look by the hill."
277"But he and I are sadder still,
278          Little brother!"
279     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
280Most sad of all, between Hell and Heaven!)
281"See, see, the wax has dropp'd from its place,
282          Sister Helen,
283And the flames are winning up apace!"
284"Yet here they burn but for a space,
285          Little brother! "
286     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
287Here for a space, between Hell and Heaven!)
288"Ah! what white thing at the door has cross'd,
289          Sister Helen?
290Ah! what is this that sighs in the frost?"
291"A soul that's lost as mine is lost,
292          Little brother!"
293     (O Mother, Mary Mother,
294Lost, lost, all lost, between Hell and Heaven!)


1] Published anonymously in the English edition of the Dusseldorf Artists' Album, 1854. The ballad was revised and expanded (by the addition of lines 11, 43-49, 120-26, 162-68) for inclusion in Poems, 1870, and again revised, with eight new stanzas added (lines 92-98, 204-45, 267-73 ) for Poems, 1881. The narrative is based on a widespread magical belief that one may destroy the life of an enemy by melting a waxen image of him before a fire. In Rossetti's ballad Helen's destructive fire merges into the fires of hell as the fatal effects of the magic rite are extended beyond death to include the damnation of the souls of Helen and her victim. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Margaret Frances (Sister St. Francis) Nims
RPO Edition: 
3RP 3.270.