The Harpy

By Robert W. Service 1874–1958
There was a woman, and she was wise; woefully wise was she;
She was old, so old, yet her years all told were but a score and three;
And she knew by heart, from finish to start, the Book of Iniquity.

There is no hope for such as I on earth, nor yet in Heaven;
Unloved I live, unloved I die, unpitied, unforgiven;
A loathèd jade, I ply my trade, unhallowed and unshriven.

I paint my cheeks, for they are white, and cheeks of chalk men hate;
Mine eyes with wine I make them shine, that man may seek and sate;
With overhead a lamp of red I sit me down and wait

Until they come, the nightly scum, with drunken eyes aflame;
Your sweethearts, sons, ye scornful ones — ’tis I who know their shame.
The gods, ye see, are brutes to meiand so I play my game.

For life is not the thing we thought, and not the thing we plan;
And Woman in a bitter world must do the best she can —
Must yield the stroke, and bear the yoke, and serve the will of man;

Must serve his need and ever feed the flame of his desire,
Though be she loved for love alone, or be she loved for hire;
For every man since life began is tainted with the mire.

And though you know he love you so and set you on love’s throne;
Yet let your eyes but mock his sighs, and let your heart be stone,
Lest you be left (as I was left) attainted and alone.

From love’s close kiss to hell’s abyss is one sheer flight, I trow,
And wedding ring and bridal bell are will-o’-wisps of woe,
And ’tis not wise to love too well, and this all women know.

Wherefore, the wolf-pack having gorged upon the lamb, their prey,
With siren smile and serpent guile I make the wolf-pack pay —
With velvet paws and flensing claws, a tigress roused to slay.

One who in youth sought truest truth and found a devil’s lies;
A symbol of the sin of man, a human sacrifice.
Yet shall I blame on man the shame? Could it be otherwise?

Was I not born to walk in scorn where others walk in pride?
The Maker marred, and, evil-starred, I drift upon His tide;
And He alone shall judge His own, so I His judgment bide.

Fate has written a tragedy; its name is “The Human Heart.”
The Theatre is the House of Life, Woman the mummer’s part;
The Devil enters the prompter’s box and the play is ready to start.

Source: The Best of Robert Service (1953)

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Poet Robert W. Service 1874–1958

POET’S REGION Canada

Subjects Gender & Sexuality, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Common Measure

 Robert W. Service

Biography

Born in Lancashire, England to a bank cashier and an heiress, poet Robert William Service moved to Scotland at the age of five, living with his grandfather and three aunts until his parents moved to Glasgow four years later and the family reunited. He wrote his first poem on his sixth birthday, and was educated at some of the best schools in Scotland, where his interest in poetry grew alongside a desire for travel and adventure.

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Gender & Sexuality, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION Canada

Poetic Terms Common Measure

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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