Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Sorrows of the Body”

I have never wanted anything more than the wild creatures have,—a broad waft of clean air, a day to lie on the grass at times, with nothing to do but slip the blades through my fingers, and look as long as I pleased at the whole blue arch, and the screens of green and white between; leave for a month to float and float along the salt crests and among the foam, or roll with my naked skin over a clean long stretch of sunshiny sand; food that I liked, straight from the cool ground, and time to taste its sweetness, and time to rest after tasting; sleep when it came, and stillness, that the sleep might leave me when it would, not sooner—Air, room, light rest, nakedness when I would not be clothed, and when I would be clothed, garments that did not fetter; freedom to touch my mother earth, to be with her in storm and shine, as the wild things are,—this is what I wanted,—this, and free contact with my fellows;—not to love, and lie and be ashamed, but to love and say I love, and be glad of it; to feel the currents of ten thousand years of passion flooding me, body to body, as the wild things meet. I have asked no more.

But I have not received. Over me there sits that pitiless tyrant, the Soul; and I am nothing. It has driven me to the city, where the air is fever and fire, and said, “Breathe this;—I would learn; I cannot learn in the empty fields; temples are here,—stay.” And when my poor, stifled lungs have panted till it seemed my chest must burst, the Soul has said, “I will allow you, then, an hour or two; we will ride, and I will take my book and read meanwhile.”

And when my eyes have cried out with tears of pain for the brief vision of freedom drifting by, only for leave to look at the great green and blue an hour, after the long, dull-red horror of walls, the Soul has said, “I cannot waste the time altogether; I must know! Read.” And when my ears have plead for the singing of the crickets and the music of the night, the Soul has answered, “No: gongs and whistles and shrieks are unpleasant if you listen; but school yourself to hearken to the spiritual voice, and it will not matter.”

When I have beat against my narrow confines of brick and mortar, brick and mortar, the Soul has said, “Miserable slave! Why are you not as I, who in one moment fly to the utterest universe? It matters not where you are, I am free.”

When I would have slept, so that the lids fell heavily and I could not lift them, the Soul has struck me with a lash, crying, “Awake! Drink some stimulant for those shrinking nerves of yours! There is no time to sleep till the work is done.” And the cursed poison worked upon me, till its will was done.

When I would have dallied over my food, the Soul has ordered, “Hurry, hurry! Do I have time to waste on this disgusting scene? Fill yourself and be gone!”

When I have envied the very dog, rubbing its bare back along the ground in the sunlight, the Soul has exclaimed, “Would you degrade me so far as to put yourself on a level with beasts?” And my bands were drawn tighter.

When I have looked upon my kind, and longed to embrace them, hungered wildly for the press of arms and lips, the Soul has commanded sternly, “Cease, vile creature of fleshly lusts! Eternal reproach! Will you forever shame me with your beastliness?”

And I have always yielded: mute, joyless, fettered, I have trod the world of the Soul’s choosing, and served and been unrewarded. Now I am broken before my time; bloodless, sleepless, breathless,—half-blind, racked at every joint, trembling with every leaf. “Perhaps I have been too hard,” said the Soul; “you shall have a rest.” The boon has come too late. The roses are beneath my feet now, but the perfume does not reach me; the willows trail across my cheek and the great arch is overhead, but my eyes are too weary to lift to it; the wind is upon my face, but I cannot bare my throat to its caress; vaguely I hear the singing of the Night through the long watches when sleep does not come, but the answering vibration thrills no more. Hands touch mine—I longed for them so once—but I am as a corpse. I remember that I wanted all these things, but now the power to want is crushed from me, and only the memory of my denial throbs on, with its never-dying pain. And still I think, if I were left alone long enough—but already I hear the Tyrant up there plotting to slay me.—“Yes,” it keeps saying, “it is about time! I will not be chained to a rotting carcass. If my days are to pass in perpetual idleness I may as well be annihilated. I will make the wretch do me one more service.—You have clamored to be naked in the water. Go now, and lie in it forever.”

Yes: that is what it is saying, and I—the sea stretches down there——

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Sorrows of the Body,” Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre (Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1914): 451-453.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.