Faustine

By Algernon Charles Swinburne 1837–1909

Ave Faustina Imperatrix, morituri te salutant.

Lean back, and get some minutes' peace;
      Let your head lean
Back to the shoulder with its fleece
      Of locks, Faustine.

The shapely silver shoulder stoops,
      Weighed over clean
With state of splendid hair that droops
      Each side, Faustine.

Let me go over your good gifts
      That crown you queen;
A queen whose kingdom ebbs and shifts
      Each week, Faustine.

Bright heavy brows well gathered up:
      White gloss and sheen;
Carved lips that make my lips a cup
      To drink, Faustine,

Wine and rank poison, milk and blood,
      Being mixed therein
Since first the devil threw dice with God
      For you, Faustine.

Your naked new-born soul, their stake,
      Stood blind between;
God said "let him that wins her take
      And keep Faustine."

But this time Satan throve, no doubt;
      Long since, I ween,
God's part in you was battered out;
      Long since, Faustine.

The die rang sideways as it fell,
      Rang cracked and thin,
Like a man's laughter heard in hell
      Far down, Faustine,

A shadow of laughter like a sigh,
      Dead sorrow's kin;
So rang, thrown down, the devil's die
      That won Faustine.

A suckling of his breed you were,
      One hard to wean;
But God, who lost you, left you fair,
      We see, Faustine.

You have the face that suits a woman
      For her soul's screen —
The sort of beauty that's called human
      In hell, Faustine.

You could do all things but be good
      Or chaste of mien;
And that you would not if you could,
      We know, Faustine.

Even he who cast seven devils out
      Of Magdalene
Could hardly do as much, I doubt,
      For you, Faustine.

Did Satan make you to spite God?
      Or did God mean
To scourge with scorpions for a rod
      Our sins, Faustine?

I know what queen at first you were,
      As though I had seen
Red gold and black imperious hair
      Twice crown Faustine.

As if your fed sarcophagus
      Spared flesh and skin,
You come back face to face with us,
      The same Faustine.

She loved the games men played with death,
      Where death must win;
As though the slain man's blood and breath
      Revived Faustine.

Nets caught the pike, pikes tore the net;
      Lithe limbs and lean
From drained-out pores dripped thick red sweat
      To soothe Faustine.

She drank the steaming drift and dust
      Blown off the scene;
Blood could not ease the bitter lust
      That galled Faustine.

All round the foul fat furrows reeked,
      Where blood sank in;
The circus splashed and seethed and shrieked
      All round Faustine.

But these are gone now: years entomb
      The dust and din;
Yea, even the bath's fierce reek and fume
      That slew Faustine.

Was life worth living then? and now
      Is life worth sin?
Where are the imperial years? and how
      Are you Faustine?

Your soul forgot her joys, forgot
      Her times of teen;
Yea, this life likewise will you not
      Forget, Faustine?

For in the time we know not of
      Did fate begin
Weaving the web of days that wove
      Your doom, Faustine.

The threads were wet with wine, and all
      Were smooth to spin;
They wove you like a Bacchanal,
      The first Faustine.

And Bacchus cast your mates and you
      Wild grapes to glean;
Your flower-like lips were dashed with dew
      From his, Faustine.

Your drenched loose hands were stretched to hold
      The vine's wet green,
Long ere they coined in Roman gold
      Your face, Faustine.

Then after change of soaring feather
      And winnowing fin,
You woke in weeks of feverish weather,
      A new Faustine.

A star upon your birthday burned,
      Whose fierce serene
Red pulseless planet never yearned
      In heaven, Faustine.

Stray breaths of Sapphic song that blew
      Through Mitylene
Shook the fierce quivering blood in you
      By night, Faustine.

The shameless nameless love that makes
      Hell's iron gin
Shut on you like a trap that breaks
      The soul, Faustine.

And when your veins were void and dead,
      What ghosts unclean
Swarmed round the straitened barren bed
      That hid Faustine?

What sterile growths of sexless root
      Or epicene?
What flower of kisses without fruit
      Of love, Faustine?

What adders came to shed their coats?
      What coiled obscene
Small serpents with soft stretching throats
      Caressed Faustine?

But the time came of famished hours,
      Maimed loves and mean,
This ghastly thin-faced time of ours,
      To spoil Faustine.

You seem a thing that hinges hold,
      A love-machine
With clockwork joints of supple gold —
      No more, Faustine.

Not godless, for you serve one God,
      The Lampsacene,
Who metes the gardens with his rod;
      Your lord, Faustine.

If one should love you with real love
      (Such things have been,
Things your fair face knows nothing of,
      It seems, Faustine);

That clear hair heavily bound back,
      The lights wherein
Shift from dead blue to burnt-up black;
      Your throat, Faustine,

Strong, heavy, throwing out the face
      And hard bright chin
And shameful scornful lips that grace
      Their shame, Faustine,

Curled lips, long since half kissed away,
      Still sweet and keen;
You'd give him — poison shall we say?
      Or what, Faustine?

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Poet Algernon Charles Swinburne 1837–1909

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Subjects Love, Disappointment & Failure, Living, Relationships, Mythology & Folklore, Desire, Infatuation & Crushes, Realistic & Complicated

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

 Algernon Charles Swinburne

Biography

Swinburne was one of the most accomplished lyric poets of the Victorian era and was a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. The explicit and often pathological sexual themes of his most important collection of poetry, Poems and Ballads (1866), delighted some, shocked many, and became the dominant feature of Swinburne's image as both an artist and an individual. Nevertheless, critics have . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Love, Disappointment & Failure, Living, Relationships, Mythology & Folklore, Desire, Infatuation & Crushes, Realistic & Complicated

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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