(15 August 1858 – 4 May 1924 / Kennington / Surrey / England)

The Sphinx

THIS mystery of golden hair,
Of eyes and lips and bosom fair,
Is not--if one could really see--
Mere flesh and blood, like you and me:
This is a sphinx whose still lips say
This one thing ever, day by day,
To all who cross her in life's ways:
'Which is the way to love?' she says.


For every man who meets her eyes
In their deep depths the question lies;
And vainly would he seek to fly
Or put the wordless challenge by,
Unless within his soul be set
Some true-love vow as amulet:
This clasping, let him flee her spell,
Nor trust its guardian powers too well.


Nothing seems good to think about
But just to find that secret out;
We bring her fruits of earnest hours,
And offer choice of passion-flowers,
Of crowns, of heart's blood, of heart's ache,
Our hopes we spurn, our joys forsake,
While she looks down upon our pain
Without compassion or disdain.


She does not will to question thus--
Fate made her just to torture us;
Nor can she tell you, if she will,
Aught of your guesses, good or ill.
But if you fail to answer well,
Your own foiled heart prepares your hell,
And all your days you walk alone,
And curse the done and the undone.


She does not bid you for her sake
Your soul to wreck, your life to break,
Nor would she choose it for her part.
Only for ever in your heart
The haunting question must abide,
And clamour morn and eventide,
Until no single note your ear
Of all life's harmonies can hear.


Yet to some man it will be given
To find the key that opens heaven;
For him, beloved by all the Fates,
Answer as well as question waits
In those unwakened eyes of hers,
And when their calm that answer stirs,
From her stone sleep the sphinx will wake
Into a woman, for his sake.


What though one's whole life's light grows night
With that unanswered question's blight?
One's one poor chance is richly worth
The richest certainties of earth!
Myself would rather die, I know--
Starved, just because I want her so--
Than feast in highest heaven of bliss
On any other woman's kiss.


Such spells she has, I would not choose
One look or touch of hers to lose,
Though every touch and look have power
To sting me to my dying hour;
Though every breath of hers should bring
Frost on life's bud and blossoming,
What soul could ask a dearer death
Than to be withered by her breath?

by Edith Nesbit

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