Mysticism, Tragedy, and Poetry: the Short Life of Laurence Hope

Adela Florence Nicolson (née Cory) is a British poet who wrote under the pseudonym Laurence Hope.

Adela Florence Nicolson (Laurence Hope)
Adela Florence Nicolson (Laurence Hope)

Details of her life are scant. At age 16, she left England to live with her father in India, where she remained for the rest of her life. She married a fellow Englishman few years later, who was many years older than her, and they had a son together. Adela, whom friends called Violet, and her husband became immersed in the Indian culture. This culture featured prominently into her poetry.

Laurence Hope’s book of poems The Garden of Kama was published in 1901. Stars of the Desert followed in 1903. The sudden and unexpected death of her husband, who was much older than she, threw the poet into a severe depression and she self-administered a fatal dose of poison in 1904. She was 39 years old.

In 1922, Laurence Hope’s son published a book of his mother’s poetry entitled Selected Poems. Few people read her poetry today. In her day though, her works were famous; her Edwardian and Victorian contemporaries were fascinated by the strange imagery her writing evoked.

The poem copied here was originally published in The Garden of Kama in 1901. Enjoy!

1901 illustration by Byam Shaw for The Garden of Kama
1901 illustration by Byam Shaw for The Garden of Kama

THE TEAK FOREST

From The Garden of Kama

WHETHER I loved you who shall say?           

Whether I drifted down your way           

In the endless River of Chance and Change,           

And you woke the strange           

Unknown longings that have no names,                     

But burn us all in their hidden flames,           

Who shall say?           

 

Life is a strange and a wayward thing:           

We heard the bells of the Temples ring,           

The married children, in passing, sing.                   

The month of marriage, the month of spring,           

Was full of the breath of sunburnt flowers           

That bloom in a fiercer light than ours,           

And, under a sky more fiercely blue,           

I came to you!                   

 

You told me tales of your vivid life           

Where death was cruel and danger rife—           

Of deep dark forests, of poisoned trees,           

Of pains and passions that scorch and freeze,           

Of southern noontides and eastern nights,                   

Where love grew frantic with strange delights,           

While men were slaying and maidens danced,           

Till I, who listened, lay still, entranced.           

Then, swift as a swallow heading south,           

I kissed your mouth!                   

 

One night when the plains were bathed in blood           

From sunset light in a crimson flood,           

We wandered under the young teak trees           

Whose branches whined in the light night breeze;

You led me down to the water’s brink,                   

“The Spring where the Panthers come to drink           

At night; there is always water here           

Be the season never so parched and sere.”           

Have we no souls of beasts in the forms of men?           

I fain would have tasted your life-blood then.                    

 

The night fell swiftly; this sudden land           

Can never lend us a twilight strand           

’Twixt the daylight shore and the ocean night,           

But takes—as it gives—at once, the light.           

We laid us down on the steep hillside,                    

While far below us wild peacocks cried,           

And we sometimes heard, in the sunburnt grass,           

The stealthy steps of the Jungle pass.           

We listened; knew not whether they went           

On love or hunger the more intent.                    

And under your kisses I hardly knew           

Whether I loved or hated you.           

 

But your words were flame and your kisses fire,           

And who shall resist a strong desire?           

Not I, whose life is a broken boat                    

On a sea of passions, adrift, afloat.           

And, whether I came in love or hate,           

That I came to you was written by Fate           

In every hue of the blood-red sky,           

In every tone of the peacocks’ cry.                   

 

While every gust of the Jungle night           

Was fanning the flame you had set alight.           

For these things have power to stir the blood           

And compel us all to their own chance mood.           

And to love or not we are no more free                    

Than a ripple to rise and leave the sea.           

 

We are ever and always slaves of these,           

Of the suns that scorch and the winds that freeze,           

Of the faint sweet scents of the sultry air,           

Of the half heard howl from the far off lair.                   

These chance things master us ever. Compel           

To the heights of Heaven, the depths of Hell.           

 

Whether I love you? You do not ask,           

Nor waste yourself on the thankless task.           

I give your kisses at least return,                   

What matter whether they freeze or burn.           

I feel the strength of your fervent arms,           

What matter whether it heals or harms.           

 

You are wise; you take what the Gods have sent.           

You ask no question, but rest content                    

So I am with you to take your kiss,           

And perhaps I value you more for this.           

For this is Wisdom; to love, to live,           

To take what Fate, or the Gods, may give,           

To ask no question, to make no prayer,                   

To kiss the lips and caress the hair,           

Speed passion’s ebb as you greet its flow,—           

To have,—to hold,—and,—in time,—let go!           

 

And this is our Wisdom: we rest together           

On the great lone hills in the storm-filled weather,                   

And watch the skies as they pale and burn,           

The golden stars in their orbits turn,           

While Love is with us, and Time and Peace,           

And life has nothing to give but these.           

But, whether you love me, who shall say,                  

Or whether you, drifting down my way           

In the great sad River of Chance and Change,           

With your looks so weary and words so strange,           

Lit my soul from some hidden flame           

To a passionate longing without a name,                   

Who shall say?           

Not I, who am but a broken boat,           

Content for awhile to drift afloat           

In the little noontide of love’s delights           

Between two Nights.

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