The Princess - Alfred Tennyson - ebook

The Princess is a serio-comic blank verse narrative poem, written by Alfred Tennyson, published in 1847. Tennyson was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1850 to 1892 and remains one of the most popular English poets. The poem tells the story of an heroic princess who forswears the world of men and founds a women's university where men are forbidden to enter. The prince to whom she was betrothed in infancy enters the university with two friends, disguised as women students. They are discovered and flee, but eventually they fight a battle for The Princess's hand. They lose and are wounded, but the women nurse the men back to health. Eventually The Princess returns the prince's love.

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The Princess


Alfred Tennyson

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Sir Walter Vivian all a summer’s day

Gave his broad lawns until the set of sun

Up to the people: thither flocked at noon

His tenants, wife and child, and thither half

The neighbouring borough with their Institute

Of which he was the patron. I was there

From college, visiting the son,—the son

A Walter too,—with others of our set,

Five others: we were seven at Vivian-place.

And me that morning Walter showed the house,

Greek, set with busts: from vases in the hall

Flowers of all heavens, and lovelier than their names,

Grew side by side; and on the pavement lay

Carved stones of the Abbey-ruin in the park,

Huge Ammonites, and the first bones of Time;

And on the tables every clime and age

Jumbled together; celts and calumets,

Claymore and snowshoe, toys in lava, fans

Of sandal, amber, ancient rosaries,

Laborious orient ivory sphere in sphere,

The cursed Malayan crease, and battle-clubs

From the isles of palm: and higher on the walls,

Betwixt the monstrous horns of elk and deer,

His own forefathers’ arms and armour hung.

And ‘this’ he said ‘was Hugh’s at Agincourt;

And that was old Sir Ralph’s at Ascalon:

A good knight he! we keep a chronicle

With all about him’—which he brought, and I

Dived in a hoard of tales that dealt with knights,

Half-legend, half-historic, counts and kings

Who laid about them at their wills and died;

And mixt with these, a lady, one that armed

Her own fair head, and sallying through the gate,

Had beat her foes with slaughter from her walls.

‘O miracle of women,’ said the book,

‘O noble heart who, being strait-besieged

By this wild king to force her to his wish,

Nor bent, nor broke, nor shunned a soldier’s death,

But now when all was lost or seemed as lost—

Her stature more than mortal in the burst

Of sunrise, her arm lifted, eyes on fire—

Brake with a blast of trumpets from the gate,

And, falling on them like a thunderbolt,

She trampled some beneath her horses’ heels,

And some were whelmed with missiles of the wall,

And some were pushed with lances from the rock,

And part were drowned within the whirling brook:

O miracle of noble womanhood!’

So sang the gallant glorious chronicle;

And, I all rapt in this, ‘Come out,’ he said,

‘To the Abbey: there is Aunt Elizabeth

And sister Lilia with the rest.’ We went

(I kept the book and had my finger in it)

Down through the park: strange was the sight to me;

For all the sloping pasture murmured, sown

With happy faces and with holiday.

There moved the multitude, a thousand heads:

The patient leaders of their Institute

Taught them with facts. One reared a font of stone

And drew, from butts of water on the slope,

The fountain of the moment, playing, now

A twisted snake, and now a rain of pearls,

Or steep-up spout whereon the gilded ball

Danced like a wisp: and somewhat lower down

A man with knobs and wires and vials fired

A cannon: Echo answered in her sleep

From hollow fields: and here were telescopes

For azure views; and there a group of girls

In circle waited, whom the electric shock

Dislinked with shrieks and laughter: round the lake

A little clock-work steamer paddling plied

And shook the lilies: perched about the knolls

A dozen angry models jetted steam:

A petty railway ran: a fire-balloon

Rose gem-like up before the dusky groves

And dropt a fairy parachute and past:

And there through twenty posts of telegraph

They flashed a saucy message to and fro

Between the mimic stations; so that sport

Went hand in hand with Science; otherwhere

Pure sport; a herd of boys with clamour bowled

And stumped the wicket; babies rolled about

Like tumbled fruit in grass; and men and maids

Arranged a country dance, and flew through light

And shadow, while the twangling violin

Struck up with Soldier-laddie, and overhead

The broad ambrosial aisles of lofty lime

Made noise with bees and breeze from end to end.

Strange was the sight and smacking of the time;

And long we gazed, but satiated at length

Came to the ruins. High-arched and ivy-claspt,

Of finest Gothic lighter than a fire,

Through one wide chasm of time and frost they gave

The park, the crowd, the house; but all within

The sward was trim as any garden lawn:

And here we lit on Aunt Elizabeth,

And Lilia with the rest, and lady friends

From neighbour seats: and there was Ralph himself,

A broken statue propt against the wall,

As gay as any. Lilia, wild with sport,

Half child half woman as she was, had wound

A scarf of orange round the stony helm,

And robed the shoulders in a rosy silk,

That made the old warrior from his ivied nook

Glow like a sunbeam: near his tomb a feast

Shone, silver-set; about it lay the guests,

And there we joined them: then the maiden Aunt

Took this fair day for text, and from it preached

An universal culture for the crowd,

And all things great; but we, unworthier, told

Of college: he had climbed across the spikes,

And he had squeezed himself betwixt the bars,

And he had breathed the Proctor’s dogs; and one

Discussed his tutor, rough to common men,

But honeying at the whisper of a lord;

And one the Master, as a rogue in grain

Veneered with sanctimonious theory.

But while they talked, above their heads I saw

The feudal warrior lady-clad; which brought

My book to mind: and opening this I read

Of old Sir Ralph a page or two that rang

With tilt and tourney; then the tale of her

That drove her foes with slaughter from her walls,

And much I praised her nobleness, and ‘Where,’

Asked Walter, patting Lilia’s head (she lay

Beside him) ‘lives there such a woman now?’

Quick answered Lilia ‘There are thousands now

Such women, but convention beats them down:

It is but bringing up; no more than that:

You men have done it: how I hate you all!

Ah, were I something great! I wish I were

Some might poetess, I would shame you then,

That love to keep us children! O I wish

That I were some great princess, I would build

Far off from men a college like a man’s,

And I would teach them all that men are taught;

We are twice as quick!’ And here she shook aside

The hand that played the patron with her curls.

And one said smiling ‘Pretty were the sight

If our old halls could change their sex, and flaunt

With prudes for proctors, dowagers for deans,

And sweet girl-graduates in their golden hair.

I think they should not wear our rusty gowns,

But move as rich as Emperor-moths, or Ralph

Who shines so in the corner; yet I fear,

If there were many Lilias in the brood,

However deep you might embower the nest,

Some boy would spy it.’

At this upon the sward

She tapt her tiny silken-sandaled foot:

‘That’s your light way; but I would make it death

For any male thing but to peep at us.’

Petulant she spoke, and at herself she laughed;

A rosebud set with little wilful thorns,

And sweet as English air could make her, she:

But Walter hailed a score of names upon her,

And ‘petty Ogress’, and ‘ungrateful Puss’,

And swore he longed at college, only longed,

All else was well, for she-society.

They boated and they cricketed; they talked

At wine, in clubs, of art, of politics;

They lost their weeks; they vext the souls of deans;

They rode; they betted; made a hundred friends,

And caught the blossom of the flying terms,

But missed the mignonette of Vivian-place,

The little hearth-flower Lilia. Thus he spoke,

Part banter, part affection.

‘True,’ she said,

‘We doubt not that. O yes, you missed us much.

I’ll stake my ruby ring upon it you did.’

She held it out; and as a parrot turns

Up through gilt wires a crafty loving eye,

And takes a lady’s finger with all care,

And bites it for true heart and not for harm,

So he with Lilia’s. Daintily she shrieked

And wrung it. ‘Doubt my word again!’ he said.

‘Come, listen! here is proof that you were missed:

We seven stayed at Christmas up to read;

And there we took one tutor as to read:

The hard-grained Muses of the cube and square

Were out of season: never man, I think,

So mouldered in a sinecure as he:

For while our cloisters echoed frosty feet,

And our long walks were stript as bare as brooms,

We did but talk you over, pledge you all

In wassail; often, like as many girls—

Sick for the hollies and the yews of home—

As many little trifling Lilias—played

Charades and riddles as at Christmas here,

And what’s my thought and when and where and how,

As here at Christmas.’

She remembered that:

A pleasant game, she thought: she liked it more

Than magic music, forfeits, all the rest.

But these—what kind of tales did men tell men,

She wondered, by themselves?

A half-disdain

Perched on the pouted blossom of her lips:

And Walter nodded at me; ‘He began,

The rest would follow, each in turn; and so

We forged a sevenfold story. Kind? what kind?

Chimeras, crotchets, Christmas solecisms,

Seven-headed monsters only made to kill

Time by the fire in winter.’

‘Kill him now,

The tyrant! kill him in the summer too,’

Said Lilia; ‘Why not now?’ the maiden Aunt.

‘Why not a summer’s as a winter’s tale?

A tale for summer as befits the time,

And something it should be to suit the place,

Heroic, for a hero lies beneath,

Grave, solemn!’

Walter warped his mouth at this

To something so mock-solemn, that I laughed

And Lilia woke with sudden-thrilling mirth

An echo like a ghostly woodpecker,

Hid in the ruins; till the maiden Aunt

(A little sense of wrong had touched her face

With colour) turned to me with ‘As you will;

Heroic if you will, or what you will,

Or be yourself you hero if you will.’

‘Take Lilia, then, for heroine’ clamoured he,

‘And make her some great Princess, six feet high,

Grand, epic, homicidal; and be you

The Prince to win her!’

‘Then follow me, the Prince,’

I answered, ‘each be hero in his turn!

Seven and yet one, like shadows in a dream.—

Heroic seems our Princess as required—

But something made to suit with Time and place,

A Gothic ruin and a Grecian house,

A talk of college and of ladies’ rights,

A feudal knight in silken masquerade,

And, yonder, shrieks and strange experiments

For which the good Sir Ralph had burnt them all—

This were a medley! we should have him back

Who told the “Winter’s tale” to do it for us.

No matter: we will say whatever comes.

And let the ladies sing us, if they will,

From time to time, some ballad or a song

To give us breathing-space.’

So I began,

And the rest followed: and the women sang

Between the rougher voices of the men,

Like linnets in the pauses of the wind:

And here I give the story and the songs.


A prince I was, blue-eyed, and fair in face,

Of temper amorous, as the first of May,

With lengths of yellow ringlet, like a girl,

For on my cradle shone the Northern star.

There lived an ancient legend in our house.

Some sorcerer, whom a far-off grandsire burnt

Because he cast no shadow, had foretold,

Dying, that none of all our blood should know

The shadow from the substance, and that one

Should come to fight with shadows and to fall.

For so, my mother said, the story ran.

And, truly, waking dreams were, more or less,

An old and strange affection of the house.

Myself too had weird seizures, Heaven knows what:

On a sudden in the midst of men and day,

And while I walked and talked as heretofore,

I seemed to move among a world of ghosts,

And feel myself the shadow of a dream.

Our great court-Galen poised his gilt-head cane,

And pawed his beard, and muttered ‘catalepsy’.

My mother pitying made a thousand prayers;

My mother was as mild as any saint,

Half-canonized by all that looked on her,

So gracious was her tact and tenderness:

But my good father thought a king a king;

He cared not for the affection of the house;

He held his sceptre like a pedant’s wand

To lash offence, and with long arms and hands

Reached out, and picked offenders from the mass

For judgment.

Now it chanced that I had been,

While life was yet in bud and blade, bethrothed

To one, a neighbouring Princess: she to me

Was proxy-wedded with a bootless calf

At eight years old; and still from time to time

Came murmurs of her beauty from the South,

And of her brethren, youths of puissance;

And still I wore her picture by my heart,

And one dark tress; and all around them both

Sweet thoughts would swarm as bees about their queen.

But when the days drew nigh that I should wed,

My father sent ambassadors with furs

And jewels, gifts, to fetch her: these brought back

A present, a great labour of the loom;

And therewithal an answer vague as wind:

Besides, they saw the king; he took the gifts;

He said there was a compact; that was true:

But then she had a will; was he to blame?

And maiden fancies; loved to live alone

Among her women; certain, would not wed.

That morning in the presence room I stood

With Cyril and with Florian, my two friends:

The first, a gentleman of broken means

(His father’s fault) but given to starts and bursts

Of revel; and the last, my other heart,

And almost my halfself, for still we moved

Together, twinned as horse’s ear and eye.

Now, while they spake, I saw my father’s face

Grow long and troubled like a rising moon,

Inflamed with wrath: he started on his feet,

Tore the king’s letter, snowed it down, and rent

The wonder of the loom through warp and woof

From skirt to skirt; and at the last he sware

That he would send a hundred thousand men,

And bring her in a whirlwind: then he chewed

The thrice-turned cud of wrath, and cooked his spleen,

Communing with his captains of the war.

At last I spoke. ‘My father, let me go.

It cannot be but some gross error lies

In this report, this answer of a king,

Whom all men rate as kind and hospitable:

Or, maybe, I myself, my bride once seen,

Whate’er my grief to find her less than fame,

May rue the bargain made.’ And Florian said:

‘I have a sister at the foreign court,

Who moves about the Princess; she, you know,

Who wedded with a nobleman from thence:

He, dying lately, left her, as I hear,

The lady of three castles in that land:

Through her this matter might be sifted clean.’

And Cyril whispered: ‘Take me with you too.’

Then laughing ‘what, if these weird seizures come

Upon you in those lands, and no one near

To point you out the shadow from the truth!

Take me: I’ll serve you better in a strait;

I grate on rusty hinges here:’ but ‘No!’

Roared the rough king, ‘you shall not; we ourself

Will crush her pretty maiden fancies dead

In iron gauntlets: break the council up.’

But when the council broke, I rose and past

Through the wild woods that hung about the town;

Found a still place, and plucked her likeness out;

Laid it on flowers, and watched it lying bathed

In the green gleam of dewy-tasselled trees:

What were those fancies? wherefore break her troth?

Proud looked the lips: but while I meditated

A wind arose and rushed upon the South,

And shook the songs, the whispers, and the shrieks

Of the wild woods together; and a Voice

Went with it, ‘Follow, follow, thou shalt win.’