An Old Portrait
Flower-decked, wide-skirted, from her oval frame
She watches us between the drooping curls
And smiles a little as she always smiled.
She was a woman of the older day:
She could not cry of elemental things,
She suffered them, scarce knowing what they were—
She could not speak of them aloud to men.
Lady and slave, saint and barbarian,
She was not just cold or merciful,
She only swiftly hated or adored;
Her heart was narrow-bound and passionate,
Smoothed out and wreathed with blue forget-me-nots
Valentine-fashion, lest the red should show.
She could not speak of love aloud to men—
She could have died for love:
Brave for her love’s sake against gods or friends,
Brave for her love’s sake against even men
(The more real gods of her idolatry)
She was not wise nor public-spirited;
She could bear heroes, never understand them.
Her passions hid themselves in sentiment
Or broke in sobs at night-time silently
Lest anyone should hear them and be grieved.
She drugged her mind when all her work was through
For a brief time, with other women’s work,
Stories of feverish love she dreamed might be,
Or knew was not, or wished could be for her,
Of women like herself, men she had seen
Through the rose-glow of courtship long ago,
Ere she was flung from haloed ignorance
Into the pit of Truth her wedding-ring
Was trap to—and through all the shock held still
And smiled a little as she always smiled.
She lived within a world with walls made proof
From noise of evil or suffering,
Shut in her cell from other women’s pain;
But then she hated other women still
Beneath her gentleness and courtesy;
They might desire to win some man of hers,
Husband or son or brother that she loved.
Sincere in self-deception, loving God,
(That personal God who could not help the ill,
But it must be thanked for good), doing for Him
Kind concrete little deeds to palliate
The great world-sores the while she shut her eyes
To the sores’ causes—
Still she sits, a sphinx,
Half goddess, half a tigress! Silent still
And smiling: gentle, good, she bends and smiles
Between the drooping curls, below the wreath,
Down at the fetter-bracelets on her hands,
Smiles up a little still from out the frame
That circumscribes her like her world of old.
This poem is in the public domain.
Margaret Widdemer was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1884. In 1919, she won the Pulitzer Prize, then known as the Columbia University Prize, for her 1919 collection The Old Road to Paradise. She died in 1978.
Date Published: 1915-01-01
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/old-portrait