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

Syria: Jordan, the River

Baptism of Christ

By Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867)

IT was a green spot in the wilderness,

Touched by the river Jordan. The dark pine

Never had dropped its tassels on the moss

Tufting the leaning bank; nor on the grass

Of the broad circle stretching evenly

To the straight larches, had a heavier foot

Than the wild heron’s trodden. Softly in

Through a long aisle of willows, dim and cool,

Stole the clear waters with their muffled feet,

And, hushing as they spread into the light,

Circled the edges of the pebbled tank

Slowly, then rippled through the woods away.

Hither had come the Apostle of the wild,

Winding the river’s course. ’T was near the flush

Of eve, and, with a multitude around,

Who from the cities had come out to hear,

He stood breast-high amid the running stream,

Baptizing as the Spirit gave him power.

His simple raiment was of camel’s hair,

A leathern girdle close about his loins,

His beard unshorn, and for his daily meat

The locust and wild honey of the wood,—

But like the face of Moses on the mount

Shone his rapt countenance, and in his eye

Burned the mild fire of love,—and as he spoke

The ear leaned to him, and persuasion swift

To the chained spirit of the listener stole.

Silent upon the green and sloping bank

The people sat, and while the leaves were shook

With the birds dropping early to their nests,

And the gray eve came on, within their hearts

They mused if he were Christ. The rippling stream

Still turned its silver courses from his breast

As he divined their thought. “I but baptize,”

He said, “with water; but there cometh One,

The latchet of whose shoes I may not dare

E’en to unloose. He will baptize with fire

And with the Holy Ghost.” And lo! while yet

The words were on his lips, he raised his eyes,

And on the bank stood Jesus. He had laid

His raiment off, and with his loins alone

Girt with a mantle, and his perfect limbs,

In their angelic slightness, meek and bare,

He waited to go in. But John forbade,

And hurried to his feet and stayed him there,

And said, “Nay, Master! I have need of thine,

Not thou of mine!” And Jesus, with a smile

Of heavenly sadness, met his earnest looks,

And answered, “Suffer it to be so now;

For thus it doth become me to fulfil

All righteousness.” And, leaning to the stream,

He took around him the Apostle’s arm,

And drew him gently to the midst. The wood

Was thick with the dim twilight as they came

Up from the water. With his clasped hands

Laid on his breast, the Apostle silently

Followed his master’s steps,—when lo! a light,

Bright as the tenfold glory of the sun,

Yet lambent as the softly burning stars,

Enveloped them, and from the heavens away

Parted the dim blue ether like a veil;

And as a voice, fearful exceedingly,

Broke from the midst, “This is my much loved Son

In whom I am well pleased,” a snow-white dove,

Floating upon its wings, descended through;

And shedding a swift music from its plumes,

Circled, and fluttered to the Saviour’s breast.