Adown the Lesbian vales, by Michael Field

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Idylle enfantine
William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Idylle enfantine (1900) – from Art Renewal Center

My third selection from the collection Long Ago is a sapphic poem. Young girls make offerings to the poetess, who wonders what to give them in return. She will “sing of their soft cherishing” and “of marriage-loves;” the highest praises would crown them, as the rose “is not so good, so fresh as they,” “opening their glorious, candid maidenhood.

. . . Τάδε νῦν ἐταίραις
ταῖς ἔμαισι τέρπνα κάλως ἀείσω·

ADOWN the Lesbian vales,
When spring first flashes out,
I watch the lovely rout
Of maidens flitting ’mid the honey-bees
For thyme and heath,
Cistus, and trails
Of myrtle-wreath:
They bring me these
My passionate, unsated sense to please.

In turn, to please my maids,
Most deftly will I sing
Of their soft cherishing
In apple-orchards with cool waters by,
Where slumber streams
From quivering shades,
And Cypris seems
To bend and sigh,
Her golden calyx offering amorously.

What praises would be best
Wherewith to crown my girls?
The rose when she unfurls
Her balmy, lighted buds is not so good,
So fresh as they
When on my breast
They lean, and say
All that they would,
Opening their glorious, candid maidenhood.

To that pure band alone
I sing of marriage-loves;
As Aphrodite’s doves
Glance in the sun their colour comes and goes:
No girls let fall
Their maiden zone
At Hymen’s call
Serene as those
Taught by a poet why sweet Hesper glows.

Sources of the poem:: Long Ago (English edition), George Bell and Sons, York Street, Covent Garden (1889); its digitisation can be seen on Baylor University digital collections, and it has been transcribed by Dickinson College, the poem can be seen here. A digitisation of the 1897 American edition (by Thomas B. Mosher, Portland, Maine) can be seen on issuu.

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