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
Miriam
 
To Frederick A. P. Barnard

THE YEARS are many since, in youth and hope,
Under the Charter Oak, our horoscope
We drew thick-studded with all favoring stars.
Now, with gray beards, and faces seamed with scars
From life’s hard battle, meeting once again,        5
We smile, half sadly, over dreams so vain;
Knowing, at last, that it is not in man
Who walketh to direct his steps, or plan
His permanent house of life. Alike we loved
The muses’ haunts, and all our fancies moved        10
To measures of old song. How since that day
Our feet have parted from the path that lay
So fair before us! Rich, from lifelong search
Of truth, within thy Academic porch
Thou sittest now, lord of a realm of fact,        15
Thy servitors the sciences exact;
Still listening with thy hand on Nature’s keys,
To hear the Samian’s spheral harmonies
And rhythm of law. I called from dream and song,
Thank God! so early to a strife so long,        20
That, ere it closed, the black, abundant hair
Of boyhood rested silver-sown and spare
On manhood’s temples, now at sunset-chime
Tread with fond feet the path of morning time.
And if perchance too late I linger where        25
The flowers have ceased to blow, and trees are bare,
Thou, wiser in thy choice, wilt scarcely blame
The friend who shields his folly with thy name.
  AMESBURY, 10th mo., 1870.
*        *        *        *        *
One Sabbath day my friend and I
After the meeting, quietly        30
Passed from the crowded village lanes,
White with dry dust for lack of rains,
And climbed the neighboring slope, with feet
Slackened and heavy from the heat,
Although the day was wellnigh done,        35
And the low angle of the sun
Along the naked hillside cast
Our shadows as of giants vast.
We reached, at length, the topmost swell,
Whence, either way, the green turf fell        40
In terraces of nature down
To fruit-hung orchards, and the town
With white, pretenceless houses, tall
Church-steeples, and, o’ershadowing all,
Huge mills whose windows had the look        45
Of eager eyes that ill could brook
The Sabbath rest. We traced the track
Of the sea-seeking river back,
Glistening for miles above its mouth,
Through the long valley to the south,        50
And, looking eastward, cool to view,
Stretched the illimitable blue
Of ocean, from its curved coast-line;
Sombred and still, the warm sunshine
Filled with pale gold-dust all the reach        55
Of slumberous woods from hill to beach,—
Slanted on walls of thronged retreats
From city toil and dusty streets,
On grassy bluff, and dune of sand,
And rocky islands miles from land;        60
Touched the far-glancing sails, and showed
White lines of foam where long waves flowed
Dumb in the distance. In the north,
Dim through their misty hair, looked forth
The space-dwarfed mountains to the sea,        65
From mystery to mystery!
 
  So, sitting on that green hill-slope,
We talked of human life, its hope
And fear, and unsolved doubts, and what
It might have been, and yet was not.        70
And, when at last the evening air
Grew sweeter for the bells of prayer
Ringing in steeples far below,
We watched the people churchward go,
Each to his place, as if thereon        75
The true shekinah only shone;
And my friend queried how it came
To pass that they who owned the same
Great Master still could not agree
To worship Him in company.        80
Then, broadening in his thought, he ran
Over the whole vast field of man,—
The varying forms of faith and creed
That somehow served the holders’ need;
In which, unquestioned, undenied,        85
Uncounted millions lived and died;
The bibles of the ancient folk,
Through which the heart of nations spoke;
The old moralities which lent
To home its sweetness and content,        90
And rendered possible to bear
The life of peoples everywhere:
And asked if we, who boast of light,
Claim not a too exclusive right
To truths which must for all be meant,        95
Like rain and sunshine freely sent.
In bondage to the letter still,
We give it power to cramp and kill,—
To tax God’s fulness with a scheme
Narrower than Peter’s house-top dream,        100
His wisdom and his love with plans
Poor and inadequate as man’s.
It must be that He witnesses
Somehow to all men that He is:
That something of His saving grace        105
Reaches the lowest of the race,
Who, through strange creed and rite, may draw
The hints of a diviner law.
We walk in clearer light;—but then,
Is He not God?—are they not men?        110
Are His responsibilities
For us alone and not for these?
 
  And I made answer: “Truth is one;
And, in all lands beneath the sun,
Whoso hath eyes to see may see        115
The tokens of its unity.
No scroll of creed its fulness wraps,
We trace it not by school-boy maps,
Free as the sun and air it is
Of latitudes and boundaries.        120
In Vedic verse, in dull Korán,
Are messages of good to man;
The angels to our Aryan sires
Talked by the earliest household fires;
The prophets of the elder day,        125
The slant-eyed sages of Cathay,
Read not the riddle all amiss
Of higher life evolved from this.
 
  “Nor doth it lessen what He taught,
Or make the gospel Jesus brought        130
Less precious, that His lips retold
Some portion of that truth of old;
Denying not the proven seers,
The tested wisdom of the years;
Confirming with his own impress        135
The common law of righteousness.
We search the world for truth; we cull
The good, the pure, the beautiful,
From graven stone and written scroll,
From all old flower-fields of the soul;        140
And, weary seekers of the best,
We come back laden from our quest,
To find that all the sages said
Is in the Book our mothers read,
And all our treasure of old thought        145
In His harmonious fulness wrought
Who gathers in one sheaf complete
The scattered blades of God’s sown wheat,
The common growth that maketh good
His all-embracing Fatherhood.        150
 
  “Wherever through the ages rise
The altars of self-sacrifice,
Where love its arms has opened wide,
Or man for man has calmly died,
I see the same white wings outspread        155
That hovered o’er the Master’s head!
Up from undated time they come,
The martyr souls of heathendom,
And to His cross and passion bring
Their fellowship of suffering.        160
I trace His presence in the blind
Pathetic gropings of my kind,—
In prayers from sin and sorrow wrung,
In cradle-hymns of life they sung,
Each, in its measure, but a part        165
Of the unmeasured Over-Heart;
And with a stronger faith confess
The greater that it owns the less.
Good cause it is for thankfulness
That the world-blessing of His life        170
With the long past is not at strife;
That the great marvel of His death
To the one order witnesseth,
No doubt of changeless goodness wakes,
No link of cause and sequence breaks,        175
But, one with nature, rooted is
In the eternal verities;
Whereby, while differing in degree
As finite from infinity,
The pain and loss for others borne,        180
Love’s crown of suffering meekly worn,
The life man giveth for his friend
Become vicarious in the end;
Their healing place in nature take,
And make life sweeter for their sake.        185
 
  “So welcome I from every source
The tokens of that primal Force,
Older than heaven itself, yet new
As the young heart it reaches to,
Beneath whose steady impulse rolls        190
The tidal wave of human souls;
Guide, comforter, and inward word,
The eternal spirit of the Lord!
Nor fear I aught that science brings
From searching through material things;        195
Content to let its glasses prove,
Not by the letter’s oldness move,
The myriad worlds on worlds that course
The spaces of the universe;
Since everywhere the Spirit walks        200
The garden of the heart, and talks
With man, as under Eden’s trees,
In all his varied languages.
Why mourn above some hopeless flaw
In the stone tables of the law,        205
When scripture every day afresh
Is traced on tablets of the flesh?
By inward sense, by outward signs,
God’s presence still the heart divines;
Through deepest joy of Him we learn,        210
In sorest grief to Him we turn,
And reason stoops its pride to share
The child-like instinct of a prayer.”
 
  And then, as is my wont, I told
A story of the days of old,        215
Not found in printed books,—in sooth,
A fancy, with slight hint of truth,
Showing how differing faiths agree
In one sweet law of charity.
Meanwhile the sky had golden grown,        220
Our faces in its glory shone;
But shadows down the valley swept,
And gray below the ocean slept,
As time and space I wandered o’er
To tread the Mogul’s marble floor,        225
And see a fairer sunset fall
On Jumna’s wave and Agra’s wall.
The good Shah Akbar (peace be his alway!)
Came forth from the Divan at close of day
Bowed with the burden of his many cares,        230
Worn with the hearing of unnumbered prayers,—
Wild cries for justice, the importunate
Appeals of greed and jealousy and hate,
And all the strife of sect and creed and rite,
Santon and Gouroo waging holy fight:        235
For the wise monarch, claiming not to be
Allah’s avenger, left his people free,
With a faint hope, his Book scarce justified,
That all the paths of faith, though severed wide,
O’er which the feet of prayerful reverence passed,        240
Met at the gate of Paradise at last.
 
  He sought an alcove of his cool hareem,
Where, far beneath, he heard the Jumna’s stream
Lapse soft and low along his palace wall,
And all about the cool sound of the fall        245
Of fountains, and of water circling free
Through marble ducts along the balcony;
The voice of women in the distance sweet,
And, sweeter still, of one who, at his feet,
Soothed his tired ear with songs of a far land        250
Where Tagus shatters on the salt sea-sand
The mirror of its cork-grown hills of drouth
And vales of vine, at Lisbon’s harbor-mouth.
 
  The date-palms rustled not; the peepul laid
Its topmost boughs against the balustrade,        255
Motionless as the mimic leaves and vines
That, light and graceful as the shawl-designs
Of Delhi or Umritsir, twined in stone;
And the tired monarch, who aside had thrown
The day’s hard burden, sat from care apart,        260
And let the quiet steal into his heart
From the still hour. Below him Agra slept,
By the long light of sunset overswept:
The river flowing through a level land,
By mango-groves and banks of yellow sand,        265
Skirted with lime and orange, gay kiosks,
Fountains at play, tall minarets of mosques,
Fair pleasure-gardens, with their flowering trees
Relieved against the mournful cypresses;
And, air-poised lightly as the blown sea-foam,        270
The marble wonder of some holy dome
Hung a white moonrise over the still wood,
Glassing its beauty in a stiller flood.
 
  Silent the monarch gazed, until the night
Swift-falling hid the city from his sight;        275
Then to the woman at his feet he said:
“Tell me, O Miriam, something thou hast read
In childhood of the Master of thy faith,
Whom Islam also owns. Our Prophet saith:
‘He was a true apostle, yea, a Word        280
And Spirit sent before me from the Lord.’
Thus the Book witnesseth; and well I know
By what thou art, O dearest, it is so.
As the lute’s tone the maker’s hand betrays,
The sweet disciple speaks her Master’s praise.”        285
 
  Then Miriam, glad of heart, (for in some sort
She cherished in the Moslem’s liberal court
The sweet traditions of a Christian child;
And, through her life of sense, the undefiled
And chaste ideal of the sinless One        290
Gazed on her with an eye she might not shun,—
The sad, reproachful look of pity, born
Of love that hath no part in wrath or scorn,)
Began, with low voice and moist eyes, to tell
Of the all-loving Christ, and what befell        295
When the fierce zealots, thirsting for her blood,
Dragged to his feet a shame of womanhood.
How, when his searching answer pierced within
Each heart, and touched the secret of its sin,
And her accusers fled his face before,        300
He bade the poor one go and sin no more.
And Akbar said, after a moments thought,
“Wise is the lesson by thy prophet taught;
Woe unto him who judges and forgets
What hidden evil his own heart besets!        305
Something of this large charity I find
In all the sects that sever human kind;
I would to Allah that their lives agreed
More nearly with the lesson of their creed!
Those yellow Lamas who at Meerut pray        310
By wind and water power, and love to say:
‘He who forgiveth not shall, unforgiven,
Fail of the rest of Buddha,’ and who even
Spare the black gnat that stings them, vex my ears
With the poor hates and jealousies and fears        315
Nursed in their human hives. That lean, fierce priest
Of thy own people, (be his heart increased
By Allah’s love!) his black robes smelling yet
Of Goa’s roasted Jews, have I not met
Meek-faced, barefooted, crying in the street        320
The saying of his prophet true and sweet,—
‘He who is merciful shall mercy meet!’”
 
  But, next day, so it chanced, as night began
To fall, a murmur through the hareem ran
That one, recalling in her dusky face        325
The full-lipped, mild-eyed beauty of a race
Known as the blameless Ethiops of Greek song,
Plotting to do her royal master wrong,
Watching, reproachful of the lingering light,
The evening shadows deepen for her flight,        330
Love-guided, to her home in a far land,
Now waited death at the great Shah’s command.
 
  Shapely as that dark princess for whose smile
A world was bartered, daughter of the Nile
Herself, and veiling in her large, soft eyes        335
The passion and the languor of her skies,
The Abyssinian knelt low at the feet
Of her stern lord: “O king, if it be meet,
And for thy honor’s sake,” she said, “that I,
Who am the humblest of thy slaves, should die,        340
I will not tax thy mercy to forgive.
Easier it is to die than to outlive
All that life gave me,—him whose wrong of thee
Was but the outcome of his love for me,
Cherished from childhood, when, beneath the shade        345
Of templed Axum, side by side we played.
Stolen from his arms, my lover followed me
Through weary seasons over land and sea;
And two days since, sitting disconsolate
Within the shadow of the hareem gate,        350
Suddenly, as if dropping from the sky,
Down from the lattice of the balcony
Fell the sweet song by Tigre’s cowherds sung
In the old music of his native tongue.
He knew my voice, for love is quick of ear,        355
Answering in song.
                This night he waited near
To fly with me. The fault was mine alone:
He knew thee not, he did but seek his own;
Who, in the very shadow of thy throne,
Sharing thy bounty, knowing all thou art,        360
Greatest and best of men, and in her heart
Grateful to tears for favor undeserved,
Turned ever homeward, nor one moment swerved
From her young love. He looked into my eyes,
He heard my voice, and could not otherwise        365
Than he hath done; yet, save one wild embrace
When first we stood together face to face,
And all that fate had done since last we met
Seemed but a dream that left us children yet,
He hath not wronged thee nor thy royal bed;        370
Spare him, O king! and slay me in his stead!”
 
  But over Akbar’s brows the frown hung black,
And, turning to the eunuch at his back,
“Take them,” he said, “and let the Jumna’s waves
Hide both my shame and these accursed slaves!”        375
His loathly length the unsexed bondman bowed:
“On my head be it!”
                    Straightway from a cloud
Of dainty shawls and veils of woven mist
The Christian Miriam rose, and, stooping, kissed
The monarch’s hand. Loose down her shoulders bare        380
Swept all the rippled darkness of her hair,
Veiling the bosom that, with high, quick swell
Of fear and pity, through it rose and fell.
 
  “Alas!” she cried, “hast thou forgotten quite
The words of Him we spake of yesternight?        385
Or thy own prophet’s, ‘Whoso doth endure
And pardon, of eternal life is sure’?
O great and good! be thy revenge alone
Felt in thy mercy to the erring shown;
Let thwarted love and youth their pardon plead,        390
Who sinned but in intent, and not in deed!”
 
  One moment the strong frame of Akbar shook
With the great storm of passion. Then his look
Softened to her uplifted face, that still
Pleaded more strongly than all words, until        395
Its pride and anger seemed like overblown,
Spent clouds of thunder left to tell alone
Of strife and overcoming. With bowed head,
And smiting on his bosom: “God,” he said,
“Alone is great, and let His holy name        400
Be honored, even to His servant’s shame!
Well spake thy prophet, Miriam,—he alone
Who hath not sinned is meet to cast a stone
At such as these, who here their doom await,
Held like myself in the strong grasp of fate.        405
They sinned through love, as I through love forgive;
Take them beyond my realm, but let them live!”
 
  And, like a chorus to the words of grace,
The ancient Fakir, sitting in his place,
Motionless as an idol and as grim,        410
In the pavilion Akbar built for him
Under the court-yard trees, (for he was wise,
Knew Menu’s laws, and through his close-shut eyes
Saw things far off, and as an open book
Into the thoughts of other men could look,)        415
Began, half chant, half howling, to rehearse
The fragment of a holy Vedic verse;
And thus it ran: “He who all things forgives
Conquers himself and all things else, and lives
Above the reach of wrong or hate or fear,        420
Calm as the gods, to whom he is most dear.”
 
  Two leagues from Agra still the traveller sees
The tomb of Akbar through its cypress-trees;
And, near at hand, the marble walls that hide
The Christian Begum sleeping at his side.        425
And o’er her vault of burial (who shall tell
If it be chance alone or miracle?)
The Mission press with tireless hand unrolls
The words of Jesus on its lettered scrolls,—
Tells, in all tongues, the tale of mercy o’er,        430
And bids the guilty, “Go and sin no more!”
*        *        *        *        *
      It now was dew-fall; very still
    The night lay on the lonely hill,
    Down which our homeward steps we bent,
    And, silent, through great silence went,        435
    Save that the tireless crickets played
    Their long, monotonous serenade.
    A young moon, at its narrowest,
    Curved sharp against the darkening west;
    And, momently, the beacon’s star,        440
    Slow wheeling o’er its rock afar,
    From out the level darkness shot
    One instant and again was not.
    And then my friend spake quietly
    The thought of both: “Yon crescent see!        445
    Like Islam’s symbol-moon it gives
    Hints of the light whereby it lives:
    Somewhat of goodness, something true
    From sun and spirit shining through
    All faiths, all worlds, as through the dark        450
    Of ocean shines the lighthouse spark,
    Attests the presence everywhere
    Of love and providential care.
    The faith the old Norse heart confessed
    In one dear name,—the hopefulest        455
    And tenderest heard from mortal lips
    In pangs of birth or death, from ships
    Ice-bitten in the winter sea,
    Or lisped beside a mother’s knee,—
    The wiser world hath not outgrown,        460
    And the All-Father is our own!”
 
 
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