Robert Browning (1812-1889) – The Lost Leader

Just for a Handful – a Lipogram, in which Browning damns Wordsworth for kowtowing to Victoria, to braid his brow with bardic bays.

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
—He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!
We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,
One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
Forced praise on our part—the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him—strike gallantly,
Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!
Just for a handful of Wonga, that sold us,
Just for a ribbon to stick in his coat,
Found just that gift of which Luck hadn’t told us,
Lost gift on gift, and was bought with a groat!
Gold was for giving, but how parsimonious,
Stinting of Wonga, what skinflints at court!
All our small coins in position to pay him,
Rags of dishonour, wrong colour, wrong sort!
All of us, fans of his, following, honouring,
Living in sight of his glory, oh my,
Words to absorb, lucid phrasing to latch upon,
Took him as our prototypical guy!
Stratford-on-Avon and Milton both fought for us,
Burns and Alastor, all watching from tomb:
Only Will Wordsworth abandons, is nought for us,
Sinks to our back-guard, a flunky of doom!
Onward and upward! but not by his succour;
Songs will inspirit us, — not by his chords;
Actions will flourish, but not from this Makar:
‘Crouch’, and not ‘Climb’: such discouraging words!
Blot out his monica, list a lost soul, and
Log tasks unwrought and a footpath untrod:
Joy diabolical, spirit-birds’ sorrow,
A wrong to mankind and an insult to God!
Night falls upon us, and nobody wants him:
Doubt and hiatus, confusion and pain:
Struggling for plaudits in shadowy twilight,
No happy hoping, no morning again.
Just fighting on, as was taught him: ‘Our jugular!
Go for it now. You shall know our command.’
Finally Wordsworth will twig and await us,
Girt with God’s pardon, upon His right hand!

Copyright © Timothy Adès

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