Portrait of Henry Timrod

Henry Timrod

Dec 8, 1828 - Oct 6, 1867


The Problem

by Henry Timrod

Not to win thy favor, maiden, not to steal away thy heart,
Have I ever sought thy presence, ever stooped to any art;
Thou wast but a 'wildering problem, which I aimed to solve, and then
Make it matter for my note-book, or a picture for my pen; ---
So, I daily conned thee over, thinking it no dangerous task,
Peeping underneath thy lashes, peering underneath thy mask, ---
For thou wear'st one, -- no denial! -- there is much within thine eyes;
But those stars have other secrets than are patent in their skies.
And I read thee, read thee closely, every grace and every sin,
Looked behind the outward seeming to the strange wild world within,
Where thy future self is forming, where I saw -- no matter what! ---
There was something less than angel, there was many an earthly spot.
Yet so beautiful thy errors that I had no heart for blame,
And thy virtues made thee dearer than my dearest hopes of fame,
All so blended, that in wishing one peculiar trait removed,
We indeed might make thee better, but less lovely and less loved.
All my mind was in the study,-- so two thrilling fortnights passed, ---
All my mind was in the study -- till my heart was touched at last.
Well! and then the book was finished; the absorbing task was done!
I awoke as one who had been dreaming in a noonday sun;
With a fever on my forehead, and a throbbing in my brain;
In my soul delirious wishes, in my heart a lasting pain;
Yet so hopeless, yet so cureless, -- as in every great despair,--
I was very calm and silent, and I never stooped to prayer,
Like a sick man unattended, reckless of the coming death,
Only for he knows it certain, and he feels no sister's breath.
All the while as by an ATÉ, with no pity in her face,
Yet with eyes of witching beauty, and with form of matchless grace,
I was haunted by thy presence -- oh! for weary nights and days,
I was haunted by thy spirit, I was troubled by thy gaze.
And the question which to answer I had taxed a subtle brain,
What thou art, and what thou wilt be, came again and yet again,
With its opposite deductions, it recurred a thousand times,
Like a coward's apprehensions, like a madman's favorite rhymes.
But to-night my thoughts flow calmer -- in thy room I think I stand,
See a fair white page before thee, and a pen within thy hand;
And thy fingers sweep the paper, and a light is in thine eyes,
Whilst I read thy secret fancies, whilst I hear thy secret sighs.
What they are I will not whisper -- those are lovely, these are deep --
But one name is left unwritten -- that is only breathed in sleep.
Is it wonder that my passion bursts at once from out its nest?
I have bent my knee before thee, and my love is all confessed;
Though I knew that name unwritten was another name than mine,
Though I felt those sighs half murmured -- what I could but half divine.
Aye! I hear thy haughty answer! Aye! I see thy proud lip curl!
"What presumption, and what folly!" -- why, I only love a girl
With some very winning graces, with some very noble traits,
But no better than a thousand who have bent to humbler fates.
That I ask not; I have, maiden, just as haught a soul as thine;
If thou think'st thy place above me, thou shalt never stoop to mine.
Yet as long as blood runs redly, yet as long as mental worth,
Is a nobler gift than fortune, is a holier thing than birth,
I will claim the right to utter, to the high and to the low,
That I love them, or I hate them, that I am a friend or foe.
Nor shall any slight unman me, -- I have yet some little strength,
Yet my songs shall sound as sweetly, yet a power be mine at length!
Then, oh, then! -- but moans are idle -- hear me, pitying saints above!
With a chaplet on my forehead, I will justify my love;
And perhaps when thou art leaning on some less devoted breast,
Thou shalt murmur, He was worthier than my blinded spirit guessed.

Turning to the stars that yonder roll through tranquil depths of space, --
There, oh, God! ev'n there I see thee, and I meet that earnest face!
Siren! hence! I seldom pray, but let me pass this night in prayer, --
God! thou know'st my heart is earthly! God! my stormy heart is bare!
But I need thy consolation, -- there is that within my soul
Which should wake thy tender mercy, which requires thy strong control;
In this world where I must wander without any hand in mine,
When too bold, or when too feeble, Father! wilt thou lend me thine!
Touch my songs with holier feeling, touch my lips with sacred fire,
Give me strength to calm the throbbing of this passionate desire!
I demand no earthly blessings, I demand no worldly joys --
I would leave these tainted pleasures unto women and to boys;
Only in thy strong protection, only shielded by thy love,
Let me give the world a memory, let me lift my soul above --
And when shadows close around me, and when death is on my brow,
O! forgive me if I whisper that dear name I whisper now.


Copyright 1860
Ticknor And Fields, Boston