Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Asia: Vols. XXI–XXIII. 1876–79.

Syria: Jordan, the River


By Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867)

(See full text.)

THE WATERS slept. Night’s silvery veil hung low

On Jordan’s bosom, and the eddies curled

Their glassy rings beneath it, like the still,

Unbroken beating of the sleeper’s pulse.

The reeds bent down the stream; the willow leaves,

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 leaned, in graceful attitudes, to rest.

How strikingly the course of nature tells,

By its light heed of human suffering,

That it was fashioned for a happier world!

King David’s limbs were weary. He had fled

From far Jerusalem; and now he stood,

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

That he could see his people until now.

They gathered 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 bowed his head upon his hands to pray.

O, 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!

He prayed for Israel, and his voice went up

Strongly and fervently. He prayed for those

Whose love had been his shield, and his deep tones

Grew tremulous. But, O, for Absalom,—

For his estranged, misguided Absalom,—

The proud, bright being, who had burst away

In all his princely beauty, to defy

The heart that cherished him,—for him he poured,

In agony that would not be controlled,

Strong supplication, and forgave him there,

Before his God, for his deep sinfulness.


The pall was settled. He who slept beneath

Was straightened for the grave; and as the folds

Sunk to the still proportions, they betrayed

The matchless symmetry of Absalom.

His hair was yet unshorn, and silken curls

Were floating round the tassels as they swayed

To the admitted air, as glossy now

As when, in hours of gentle dalliance, bathing

The snowy fingers of Judæa’s daughters.

His helm was at his feet; his banner, soiled

With trailing through Jerusalem, was laid,

Reversed, beside him; and the jewelled hilt,

Whose diamonds lit the passage of his blade,

Rested, like mockery, on his covered brow.

The soldiers of the king trod to and fro,

Clad in the garb of battle; and their chief,

The mighty Joab, stood beside the bier,

And gazed upon the dark pall steadfastly,

As if he feared the slumberer might stir.

A slow step startled him. He grasped his blade

As if a trumpet rang; but the bent form

Of David entered, and he gave command,

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,

He bowed his head upon him, and broke forth

In the resistless eloquence of woe:

“Alas! my noble boy! that thou shouldst die!

Thou, who wert made so beautifully fair!

That death should settle in thy glorious eye,

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,

As to my bosom I have tried to press thee!

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!

“But death is on thee. I shall hear the gush

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!

“And O, 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,

Yearn for thine ear to drink its last deep token!

It were so sweet, amid death’s gathering gloom,

To see thee, Absalom!

“And now, farewell! ’T is hard to give thee up,

With death so like a gentle slumber on thee;—

And thy dark sin! O, I could drink the cup,

If from this woe its bitterness had won thee.

May God have called thee, like a wanderer, home,

My lost boy Absalom!”

He covered up his face, and bowed himself

A moment on his child; then, giving him

A look of melting tenderness, he clasped

His hands convulsively, as if in prayer;

And, as if strength were given him of God,

He rose up calmly, and composed the pall

Firmly and decently, and left him there,

As if his rest had been a breathing sleep.