Verse > Anthologies > W. Garrett Horder, ed. > The Poets’ Bible: New Testament
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W. Garrett Horder, comp.  The Poets’ Bible: New Testament.  1895.
 
The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)
 
        ‘But see, the Virgin blest
Hath laid her babe to rest.’
MILTON’S Hymn on the Nativity, ll. 237–8.    

  SLEEP, sleep, mine Holy One!
  My flesh, my Lord!—what name? I do not know
A name that seemeth not too high or low,
  Too far from me or Heaven.
My Jesus, that is best! that word being given        5
By the majestic angel whose command
Was softly as a man’s beseeching said,
When I and all the earth appeared to stand
  In the great overflow
Of light celestial from his wings and head.        10
  Sleep, sleep, my saving One.
 
And art thou come for saving, baby-browed
And speechless Being—art Thou come for saving?
The palm that grows beside our door is bowed
By treadings of the low wind from the south,        15
A restless shadow through the chamber waving;
Upon its bough a bird sings in the sun;
But Thou, with that close slumber on Thy mouth,
Dost seem of wind and sun already weary.
Art come for saving, O my weary One?        20
 
Perchance this sleep that shutteth out the dreary
Earth-sounds and motions, opens on Thy soul
High dreams on fire with God;
High songs that make the pathways where they roll
More bright than stars do theirs; and visions new        25
Of Thine eternal Nature’s old abode.
  Suffer this mother’s kiss,
  Best thing that earthly is,
To glide the music and the glory through,
Nor narrow in Thy dream the broad upliftings        30
  Of any seraph wing!
Thus, noiseless, thus. Sleep, sleep, my dreaming One!
 
The slumber of His lips meseems to run
Through my lips to mine heart; to all its shiftings
Of sensual life, bringing contrariousness        35
In a great calm. I feel I could lie down
As Moses did, and die 1—and then live most.
I am ’ware of you, heavenly Presences,
That stand with your peculiar light unlost,
Each forehead with a high thought for a crown,        40
Unsunned i’ the sunshine! I am ’ware. Ye throw
No shade against the wall! How motionless
Ye round me with your living statuary,
While through your whiteness, in and outwardly,
Continual thoughts of God appear to go,        45
Like light’s soul in itself. I bear, I bear,
To look upon the dropt lids of your eyes.
Though their external shining testifies
To that beatitude within, which were
Enough to blast an eagle at his sun:        50
I fall not on my sad clay face before ye—
  I look on His. I know
My spirit which dilateth with the woe
  Of His mortality,
  May well contain your glory.        55
  Yea, drop your lids more low,
Ye are but fellow-worshippers with me!
  Sleep, sleep, my worshipped One!
 
We sate among the stalls at Bethlehem.
The dumb kine from their fodder turning them,        60
  Softened their horned faces
  To almost human gazes
  Towards the newly Born:
The simple shepherds from the star-lit brooks
  Brought visionary looks,        65
As yet in their astonied hearing rung
  The strange sweet-angel tongue:
The magi of the East, in sandals worn,
  Knelt reverent, sweeping round,
With long pale beards their gifts upon the ground.        70
  The incense, myrrh, and gold,
These baby hands were impotent to hold:
So let all earthlies and celestials wait
  Upon Thy royal state!
  Sleep, sleep, my kingly One!        75
 
I am not proud—meek angels, ye invest
New meeknesses to hear such utterance rest
On mortal lips—‘I am not proud’—not proud!
Albeit in my flesh God sent his Son,
Albeit over Him my head is bowed        80
As others bow before Him, still mine heart
Bows lower than their knees. O centuries,—
That roll, in vision, your futurities
  My future grave athwart—
Whose murmurs seem to reach me while I keep        85
  Watch o’er this sleep—
Say of me as the Heavenly said, ‘Thou art
The blessedest of women!’—blessedest,
Not holiest, not noblest—no high name,
Whose height misplaced may pierce me like a shame,        90
When I sit meek in heaven!
                    For me, for me,
God knows that I am feeble like the rest!
I often wandered forth, more child than maiden,
Among the midnight hills of Galilee,
  Whose summits looked heaven-laden;        95
Listening to silence as it seemed to be
God’s voice, so soft yet strong, so fain to press
Upon my heart as Heaven did on the height,
And waken up its shadows by a light,
And show its vileness by a holiness.        100
Then I knelt down most silent like the night,
  Too self-renounced for fears,
Raising my small face to the boundless blue
Whose stars did mix and tremble in my tears.
God heard them falling after, with his dew.        105
So, seeing my corruption, can I see
This Incorruptible now born of me,
This fair new Innocence no sun did chance
To shine on (for even Adam was no child),
Created from my nature all defiled,        110
This mystery from out mine ignorance,—
Nor feel the blindness, stain, corruption, more
Than others do, or I did heretofore!
Can hands wherein such burden pure has been,
Not open with the cry, ‘Unclean, unclean!’        115
More oft than any else beneath the skies?
  Ah King, ah Christ, ah son!
The kine, the shepherds, the abaséd wise,
  Must all less lowly wait
  Than I, upon Thy state!        120
  Sleep, sleep, my kingly One!
 
Art thou a King, then? Come, His universe,
  Come, crown me Him a King!
Pluck rays from all such stars as never fling
  Their light where fell a curse,        125
And make a crowning for this kingly brow!—
What is my word? Each empyreal star
  Sits in a sphere afar
  In shining ambuscade:
  The child-brow, crowned by none,        130
  Keeps its unchildlike shade.
  Sleep, sleep, my crownless One!
 
Unchildlike shade! No other babe doth wear
An aspect very sorrowful, as Thou.
No small babe-smiles, my watching heart has seen,        135
To float like speech the speechless lips between;
No dovelike cooing in the golden air,
No quick short joys of leaping babyhood:
  Alas, our earthly good
In heaven thought evil, seems too good for Thee:        140
  Yet, sleep, my weary One!
 
And then the drear sharp tongue of prophecy,
With the dread sense of things which shall be done,
Doth smite me inly, like a sword: a sword?
(That ‘smites the Shepherd!’) then, I think aloud        145
The words ‘despised,’ ‘rejected,’ every word
Recoiling into darkness as I view
  The DARLING on my knee.
Bright angels, move not! lest ye stir the cloud
Betwixt my soul and His futurity?        150
I must not die, with mother’s work to do.
  And could not live and see.
 
        It is enough to bear
        This image still and fair,
        This holier in sleep,        155
        Than a saint at prayer,
        This aspect of a child
        Who never sinned or smiled;
        This Presence in an infant’s face:
        This sadness most like love,        160
        This love than love more deep,
        This weakness like omnipotence,
        It is so strong to move.
        Awful is this watching place,
        Awful what I see from hence—        165
        A King, without regalia,
        A God, without the thunder,
        A Child, without the heart for play;
        Ay, a Creator rent asunder
        From His first glory, and cast away        170
        On His own world, for me alone
        To hold in hands created, crying—SON!
 
  That tear fell not on THEE,
Beloved, yet thou stirrest in thy slumber!
THOU, stirring not for glad sounds out of number        175
Which through the vibratory palm-trees run
  From summer wind and bird,
  So quickly hast thou heard
  A tear fall silently?
  Wak’st thou, O loving One?        180
 
Note 1. It is a Jewish tradition that Moses died of the kisses of God’s lips. [back]
 
 
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