Verse > John Greenleaf Whittier > The Poetical Works in Four Volumes
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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).  The Poetical Works in Four Volumes.  1892.
 
Narrative and Legendary Poems
The Prophecy of Samuel Sewall
 
          The prose version of this prophecy is to be found in Sewall’s The New Heaven upon the New Earth, 1697, quoted in Joshua Coffin’s History of Newbury. Judge Sewall’s father, Henry Sewall, was one of the pioneers of Newbury.

UP and down the village streets
Strange are the forms my fancy meets,
For the thoughts and things of to-day are hid,
And through the veil of a closëd lid
The ancient worthies I see again:        5
I hear the tap of the elder’s cane,
And his awful periwig I see,
And the silver buckles of shoe and knee.
Stately and slow, with thoughtful air,
His black cap hiding his whitened hair,        10
Walks the Judge of the great Assize,
Samuel Sewall the good and wise.
His face with lines of firmness wrought,
He wears the look of a man unbought,
Who swears to his hurt and changes not;        15
Yet, touched and softened nevertheless
With the grace of Christian gentleness,
The face that a child would climb to kiss!
True and tender and brave and just,
That man might honor and woman trust.        20
 
  Touching and sad, a tale is told,
Like a penitent hymn of the Psalmist old,
Of the fast which the good man lifelong kept 1
With a haunting sorrow that never slept,
As the circling year brought round the time        25
Of an error that left the sting of crime,
When he sat on the bench of the witchcraft courts,
With the laws of Moses and Hale’s Reports,
And spake, in the name of both, the word
That gave the witch’s neck to the cord,        30
And piled the oaken planks that pressed
The feeble life from the warlock’s breast!
All the day long, from dawn to dawn,
His door was bolted, his curtain drawn;
No foot on his silent threshold trod,        35
No eye looked on him save that of God,
As he baffled the ghosts of the dead with charms
Of penitent tears, and prayers, and psalms,
And, with precious proofs from the sacred word
Of the boundless pity and love of the Lord,        40
His faith confirmed and his trust renewed
That the sin of his ignorance, sorely rued,
Might be washed away in the mingled flood
Of his human sorrow and Christ’s dear blood!
 
  Green forever the memory be        45
Of the Judge of the old Theocracy,
Whom even his errors glorified,
Like a far-seen, sunlit mountain-side
By the cloudy shadows which o’er it glide!
Honor and praise to the Puritan        50
Who the halting step of his age outran,
And, seeing the infinite worth of man
In the priceless gift the Father gave,
In the infinite love that stooped to save,
Dared not brand his brother a slave!        55
“Who doth such wrong,” he was wont to say,
In his own quaint, picture-loving way,
“Flings up to Heaven a hand-grenade
Which God shall cast down upon his head!”
 
  Widely as heaven and hell, contrast        60
That brave old jurist of the past
And the cunning trickster and knave of courts
Who the holy features of Truth distorts,—
Ruling as right the will of the strong,
Poverty, crime, and weakness wrong;        65
Wide-eared to power, to the wronged and weak
Deaf as Egypt’s gods of leek;
Scoffing aside at party’s nod
Order of nature and law of God;
For whose dabbled ermine respect were waste,        70
Reverence folly, and awe misplaced;
Justice of whom ’t were vain to seek
As from Koordish robber or Syrian Sheik!
Oh, leave the wretch to his bribes and sins;
Let him rot in the web of lies he spins!        75
To the saintly soul of the early day,
To the Christian judge, let us turn and say:
“Praise and thanks for an honest man!—
Glory to God for the Puritan!”
 
  I see, far southward, this quiet day,        80
The hills of Newbury rolling away,
With the many tints of the season gay,
Dreamily blending in autumn mist
Crimson, and gold, and amethyst.
Long and low, with dwarf trees crowned,        85
Plum Island lies, like a whale aground,
A stone’s toss over the narrow sound.
Inland, as far as the eye can go,
The hills curve round like a bended bow;
A silver arrow from out them sprung,        90
I see the shine of the Quasycung;
And, round and round, over valley and hill,
Old roads winding, as old roads will,
Here to a ferry, and there to a mill;
And glimpses of chimneys and gabled eaves,        95
Through green elm arches and maple leaves,—
Old homesteads sacred to all that can
Gladden or sadden the heart of man,
Over whose thresholds of oak and stone
Life and Death have come and gone!        100
There pictured tiles in the fireplace show,
Great beams sag from the ceiling low,
The dresser glitters with polished wares,
The long clock ticks on the foot-worn stairs,
And the low, broad chimney shows the crack        105
By the earthquake made a century back.
Up from their midst springs the village spire
With the crest of its cock in the sun afire;
Beyond are orchards and planting lands,
And great salt marshes and glimmering sands,        110
And, where north and south the coast-lines run,
The blink of the sea in breeze and sun!
 
  I see it all like a chart unrolled,
But my thoughts are full of the past and old,
I hear the tales of my boyhood told;        115
And the shadows and shapes of early days
Flit dimly by in the veiling haze,
With measured movement and rhythmic chime
Weaving like shuttles my web of rhyme.
I think of the old man wise and good        120
Who once on yon misty hillsides stood,
(A poet who never measured rhyme,
A seer unknown to his dull-eared time,)
And, propped on his staff of age, looked down,
With his boyhood’s love, on his native town,        125
Where, written, as if on its hills and plains,
His burden of prophecy yet remains,
For the voices of wood, and wave, and wind
To read in the ear of the musing mind:—
 
  “As long as Plum Island, to guard the coast        130
As God appointed, shall keep its post;
As long as a salmon shall haunt the deep
Of Merrimac River, or sturgeon leap;
As long as pickerel swift and slim,
Or red-backed perch, in Crane Pond swim;        135
As long as the annual sea-fowl know
Their time to come and their time to go;
As long as cattle shall roam at will
The green, grass meadows by Turkey Hill;
As long as sheep shall look from the side        140
Of Oldtown Hill on marishes wide,
And Parker River, and salt-sea tide;
As long as a wandering pigeon shall search
The fields below from his white-oak perch,
When the barley-harvest is ripe and shorn,        145
And the dry husks fall from the standing corn;
As long as Nature shall not grow old,
Nor drop her work from her doting hold,
And her care for the Indian corn forget,
And the yellow rows in pairs to set;—        150
So long shall Christians here be born,
Grow up and ripen as God’s sweet corn!—
By the beak of bird, by the breath of frost,
Shall never a holy ear be lost,
But, husked by Death in the Planter’s sight,        155
Be sown again in the fields of light!”
 
The Island still is purple with plums,
Up the river the salmon comes,
The sturgeon leaps, and the wild-fowl feeds
On hillside berries and marish seeds,—        160
All the beautiful signs remain,
From spring-time sowing to autumn rain
The good man’s vision returns again!
And let us hope, as well we can,
That the Silent Angel who garners man        165
May find some grain as of old he found
In the human cornfield ripe and sound,
And the Lord of the Harvest deign to own
The precious seed by the fathers sown!

  1859.
 
Note 1. It was the custom in Sewall’s time for churches and individuals to hold fasts whenever any public or private need suggested the fitness; and as state and church were very closely connected, the General Court sometimes ordered a fast. Out of this custom sprang the annual fast in spring, now observed, but it is of comparatively recent date. Such a fast was ordered on the 14th of January, 1697, when Sewall made his special confession of guilt in condemning innocent persons under the supposition that they were witches. He is said to have observed the day privately on each annual return thereafter. [back]
 
 
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