Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
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CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
 
Absalom
By Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867)
 
  TTHE WATERS slept. Night’s silvery veil hung low
On Jordan’s bosom, and the eddies curl’d
Their glassy rings beneath it, like the still
Unbroken beating of the sleeper’s pulse.
The reeds bent down the stream. The willow leaves,        5
With a soft cheek upon the lulling tide,
Forgot the lifting winds; and the long stems,
Whose flowers the water, like a gentle nurse,
Bears on its bosom, quietly gave way
And lean’d in graceful attitudes to rest.        10
How strikingly the course of nature tells,
By its light heed of human suffering,
That it was fashion’d for a perfect world!
  King David’s limbs were weary. He had fled
From far Jerusalem, and now he stood        15
With his faint people for a little rest
Upon the shore of Jordan. The light wind
Of morn was stirring, and he bared his brow
To its refreshing breath; for he had worn
The mourner’s covering, and he had not felt        20
That he could see his people until now.
They gather’d round him on the fresh green bank,
And spoke their kindly words; and as the sun
Rose up in heaven, he knelt among them there,
And bow’d his head upon his hands to pray.        25
Oh! when the heart is full, when bitter thoughts
Come crowding thickly up for utterance,
And the poor common words of courtesy
Are such a very mockery, how much
The bursting heart may pour itself in prayer!        30
He pray’d for Israel; and his voice went up
Strongly and fervently; he pray’d for those
Whose love had been his shield; and his deep tone
Grew tremulous; but oh! for Absalom!
For his estranged, misguided Absalom—        35
The proud, bright being who had burst away,
In all his princely beauty, to defy
The heart that cherish’d him—for him he pour’d,
In agony that would not be controll’d,
Strong supplication, and forgave him there        40
Before his God, for his deep sinfulness.
  The hosts were number’d. At Mahanaim’s gate
Sat David, as the glittering thousands pass’d
Forth to the battle. With a troubled eye
He look’d upon their pomp, and as the helms        45
Bent low before him, and the banners sway’d
Like burnish’d wings to do him reverence,
His look grew restless, and he did not wear
The lofty sternness of a monarch’s brow.
The leader of the host came by. His form        50
Was like a son of Anak, and he strode
Majestically on, and bore his crest
As men were waters, and his frame a rock.
The King rose up to Joab, and came near,
As his tall helm was bow’d; and by the love        55
He bore his master, he besought him there
That he would spare him Absalom alive.
He pass’d with his stern warriors on; the trump
And the loud cymbal died upon the ear;
And as the king turn’d off his weary gaze,        60
The last faint gleam had vanish’d, and the wood
Of Ephraim had received a thousand men,
To whom its pleasant shadows were a grave.
  The pall was settled. He who slept beneath
Was straighten’d for the grave; and as the folds        65
Sunk to the still proportions, they betray’d
The matchless symmetry of Absalom.
His hair was yet unshorn, and silken curls
Were floating round the tassels as they sway’d
To the admitted air, as glossy now        70
As when in hours of gentle dalliance bathing
The snowy fingers of Judea’s girls.
His helm was at his feet; his banner, soil’d
With trailing through Jerusalem, was laid
Reversed beside him; and the jewell’d hilt,        75
Whose diamonds lit the passage of his blade,
Rested like mockery on his cover’d brow.
The soldiers of the king trod to and fro,
Clad in the garb of battle, and their chief,
The mighty Joab, stood beside his bier        80
And gazed upon the dark pall steadfastly,
As if he fear’d the slumberer might stir.
A slow step startled him. He grasp’d his blade
As if a trumpet rang; but the bent form
Of David enter’d, and he gave command        85
In a low tone to his few followers,
And left him with his dead. The king stood still
Till the last echo died; then throwing off
The sackcloth from his brow, and laying back
The pall from the still features of his child,        90
He bow’d his head upon him, and broke forth
In the resistless eloquence of wo.
 
‘Alas! my noble boy, that thou shouldst die!
Thou, who wert made so beautifully fair!
That death should settle in thy glorious eye,        95
  And leave his stillness in this clustering hair!
How could he mark thee for the silent tomb,
  My proud boy, Absalom!
 
‘Cold is thy brow, my son! and I am chill
  When to my bosom I would try to press thee;        100
How was I wont to feel my pulses thrill,
  Like a rich harp string, yearning to caress thee,
And hear thy sweet “My Father!” from these dumb
  And cold lips, Absalom!
 
‘The grave hath won thee; I shall hear the gush        105
  Of music and the voices of the young;
And life will pass me in the mantling blush,
  And the dark tresses to the soft winds flung;
But thou no more with thy sweet voice shalt come
  To meet me, Absalom!        110
 
‘And oh! when I am stricken, and my heart
  Like a bruised reed is waiting to be broken;
How will its love for thee, as I depart,
  Long for thine ear to catch its dying token!
It were so sweet, amid death’s gathering gloom,        115
  To see thee, Absalom!
 
‘And now farewell! ’tis hard to give thee up,
  With death so like a gentle slumber on thee;—
And thy dark sin—oh! I could drink the cup,
  If from this wo its bitterness had won thee—        120
May God have call’d thee like a wanderer home,
  My erring Absalom!”
 
  He cover’d up his face, and bow’d himself
A moment on his child; then giving him
A look of melting tenderness, he clasp’d        125
His hands convulsively, as if in prayer;
And as a strength were given him of God,
He rose up calmly, and composed the pall
About him decently, and left him there
As if his rest had been a breathing sleep.        130
 
 
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