Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IX. Tragedy: Humor
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IX. Tragedy: Humor.  1904.
 
Poems of Tragedy: XII. England
Rizpah
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
 
17—

I.
WAILING, wailing, wailing, the wind over land and sea—
And Willy’s voice in the wind, “O mother, come out to me.”
Why should he call me to-night, when he knows that I cannot go?
For the downs are as bright as day, and the full moon stares at the snow.
 
II.
We should be seen, my dear; they would spy us out of the town.
        5
The loud black nights for us, and the storm rushing over the down,
When I cannot see my own hand, but am led by the creak of the chain,
And grovel and grope for my son till I find myself drenched with the rain.
 
III.
Anything fallen again? nay—what was there left to fall?
I have taken them home, I have numbered the bones, I have hidden them all.        10
What am I saying? and what are you? do you come as a spy?
Falls? what falls? who knows? As the tree falls so must it lie.
 
IV.
Who let her in? how long has she been? you—what have you heard?
Why did you sit so quiet? you never have spoken a word.
O—to pray with me—yes—a lady—none of their spies—        15
But the night has crept into my heart, and begun to darken my eyes.
 
V.
Ah—you, that have lived so soft, what should you know of the night,
The blast and the burning shame and the bitter frost and the fright?
I have done it, while you were asleep—you were only made for the day.
I have gathered my baby together—and now you may go your way.        20
 
VI.
Nay—for it ’s kind of you, Madam, to sit by an old dying wife.
But say nothing hard of my boy, I have only an hour of life.
I kissed my boy in the prison, before he went out to die.
“They dared me to do it,” he said, and he never has told me a lie.
I whipt him for robbing an orchard once when he was but a child—        25
“The farmer dared me to do it,” he said; he was always so wild—
And idle—and couldn’t be idle—my Willy—he never could rest.
The King should have made him a soldier, he would have been one of his best.
 
VII.
But he lived with a lot of wild mates, and they never would let him be good;
They swore that he dare not rob the mail, and he swore that he would:        30
And he took no life, but he took one purse, and when all was done
He flung it among his fellows—I ’ll none of it, said my son.
 
VIII.
I came into court to the Judge and the lawyers. I told them my tale,
God’s own truth—but they killed him, they killed him for robbing the mail.
They hanged him in chains for a show—we had always borne a good name—        35
To be hanged for a thief—and then put away—isn’t that enough shame?
Dust to dust—low down—let us hide! but they set him so high
That all the ships of the world could stare at him, passing by.
God ’ill pardon the hell-black raven and horrible fowls of the air,
But not the black heart of the lawyer who killed him and hanged him there.        40
 
IX.
And the jailer forced me away. I had bid him my last good-bye;
They had fastened the door of his cell. “O mother!” I heard him cry.
I couldn’t get back tho’ I tried, he had something further to say,
And now I never shall know it. The jailer forced me away.
 
X.
Then since I couldn’t but hear that cry of my boy that was dead,
        45
They seized me and shut me up: they fastened me down on my bed.
“Mother, O mother!”—he called in the dark to me year after year—
They beat me for that, they beat me—you know that I couldn’t but hear;
And then at the last they found I had grown so stupid and still
They let me abroad again—but the creatures had worked their will.        50
 
XI.
Flesh of my flesh was gone, but bone of my bone was left—
I stole them all from the lawyers—and you, will you call it a theft?—
My baby, the bones that had sucked me, the bones that had laughed and had cried—
Theirs? O no! they are mine—not theirs—they had moved in my side.
 
XII.
Do you think I was scared by the bones? I kissed ’em, I buried ’em all—
        55
I can’t dig deep, I am old—in the night by the churchyard wall.
My Willy ’ill rise up whole when the trumpet of judgment ’ill sound,
But I charge you never to say that I laid him in holy ground.
 
XIII.
They would scratch him up—they would hang him again on the cursèd tree.
Sin? O yes—we are sinners, I know—let all that be,        60
And read me a Bible verse of the Lord’s good will toward men—
“Full of compassion and mercy, the Lord”—let me hear it again;
“Full of compassion and mercy—long-suffering.” Yes, O yes!
For the lawyer is born but to murder—the Saviour lives but to bless.
He ’ll never put on the black cap except for the worst of the worst,        65
And the first may be last—I have heard it in church—and the last may be first.
Suffering—O long-suffering—yes, as the Lord must know,
Year after year in the mist and the wind and the shower and the snow.
 
XIV.
Heard, have you? what? they have told you he never repented his sin.
How do they know it? are they his mother? are you of his kin?        70
Heard! have you ever heard, when the storm on the downs began,
The wind that ’ill wail like a child and the sea that ’ill moan like a man?
 
XV.
Election, Election and Reprobation—it ’s all very well.
But I go to-night to my boy, and I shall not find him in Hell.
For I cared so much for my boy that the Lord has looked into my care,        75
And He means me I ’m sure to be happy with Willy, I know not where.
 
XVI.
And if he be lost—but to save my soul, that is all your desire:
Do you think that I care for my soul if my boy be gone to the fire?
I have been with God in the dark—go, go, you may leave me alone—
You never have borne a child—you are just as hard as a stone.        80
 
XVII.
Madam, I beg your pardon! I think that you mean to be kind,
But I cannot hear what you say for my Willy’s voice in the wind—
The snow and the sky so bright—he used but to call in the dark,
And he calls to me now from the church and not from the gibbet—for hark!
Nay—you can hear it yourself—it is coming—shaking the walls—        85
Willy—the moon ’s in a cloud—Good night. I am going. He calls.
 
 
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