You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
You do not have to be good.
I tied together
a few slender reeds, cut
notches to breathe across and made
such music you stood
shock still and then
followed as I wandered growing
moment by moment
slant-eyes and shaggy, my feet
slamming over the rocks, growing
hard as horn, and there
you were behind me, drowning
in the music, letting
the silver clasps out of your hair,
hurrying, taking off
I can’t remember
where this happened but I think
it was late summer when everything
is full of fire and rounding to fruition
and whatever doesn’t,
must lie like a field of dark water under
the pulling moon,
tossing and tossing.
In the brutal elegance of cities
I have walked down
the halls of hotels
and heard this music behind
Do you think the heart
is accountable? Do you think the body
any more than a branch
of the honey locust tree,
hunching toward the sun,
shivering, when it feels
that good, into
Or do you think there is a kind
of music, a certain strand
that lights up the otherwise
blunt wilderness of the body –
and unaccountable selectivity?
Ah well, anyway, whether or not
it was late summer, or even
in our part of the world, it is all
only a dream, I did not
turn into the lithe goat god. Nor did you come running
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d.
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.
At first the surprise
of being singled out,
the dance floor crowded
and me not looking my best,
a too-often-worn dress
and the man with me
a budding casualty
of one repetition too much.
God just touched his shoulder
and he left.
Then the confirmation
of an old guess:
God was a wild god,
into the most mindless rock,
looking—this excited me—
like no one I could love,
cruel mouth, eyes evocative
of promises unkept.
I never danced better, freer,
as if dancing were my way
of saying how easily
I could be with him, or apart.
When the music turned slow
God held me close
and I felt for a moment
I’d mistaken him,
that he was Death
and this the famous embrace
before the lights go out.
But God kept holding me
and I him
until the band stopped
and I stood looking at a figure
I wanted to slap
or forgive for something,
I couldn’t decide which.
He left then, no thanks,
that he’d felt anything
more than an earthly moment
with someone who could’ve been
anyone on earth.
To this day I don’t know why
I thought he was God,
though it was clear
there was no going back
to the man who brought me,
with whom I’d slept
and grown tired,
who danced wrong,
who never again
could do anything right.
I sing of Artemis, whose shafts are of gold, who cheers on the hounds, the pure maiden, shooter of stags, who delights in archery, own sister to Apollo with the golden sword. Over the shadowy hills and windy peaks she draws her golden bow, rejoicing in the chase, and sends out grievous shafts. The tops of the high mountains tremble and the tangled wood echoes awesomely with the outcry of beasts: earth quakes and the sea also where fishes shoal. But the goddess with a bold heart turns every way destroying the race of wild beasts: and when she is satisfied and has cheered her heart, this huntress who delights in arrows slackens her supple bow and goes to the great house of her dear brother Phoebus Apollo, to the rich land of Delphi, there to order the lovely dance of the Muses and Graces. There she hangs up her curved bow and her arrows, and heads and leads the dances, gracefully arrayed, while all they utter their heavenly voice, singing how neat-ankled Leto bare children supreme among the immortals both in thought and in deed.
Hail to you, children of Zeus and rich-haired Leto! And now I will remember you and another song also.
“Her only home was here in this forest, among the high rocks,
sending her long arrows in flight through the standing pines
as if threading nets in the air.
She’d never seen a cup of wine or a perfumed room, or a bed:
she drank chill water from the mountain brook and had only ever
lain with lionesses…”
Read the rest here, or listen to the poet recite:
From the collection Hill of Doors.
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning