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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Africa: Vol. XXIV. 1876–79.

Introductory to Egypt, Nubia, and Abyssinia

Macarius the Monk

By John Boyle O’Reilly (1884–1890)

IN the old days, while yet the church was young,

And men believed that praise of God was sung

In curbing self as well as singing psalms,

There lived a monk, Macarius by name,

A holy man, to whom the faithful came

With hungry hearts to hear the wondrous Word.

In sight of gushing springs and sheltering palms,

He lived upon the desert; from the marsh

He drank the brackish water, and his food

Was dates and roots,—and all his rule was harsh,

For pampered flesh in those days warred with good.

From those who came in scores a few there were

Who feared the devil more than fast and prayer,

And these remained and took the hermit’s vow.

A dozen saints there grew to be; and now

Macarius, happy, lived in larger care.

He taught his brethren all the lore he knew,

And as they learned, his pious rigors grew.

His whole intent was on the spirit’s goal:

He taught them silence,—words disturb the soul;

He warned of joys, and bade them pray for sorrow,

And be prepared to-day for death to-morrow;

To know that human life alone was given

To prove the souls of those who merit heaven;

He bade the twelve in all things be as brothers,

And die to self, to live and work for others.

“For so,” he said, “we save our love and labors,

And each one gives his own and takes his neighbor’s.”

Thus long he taught, and while they silent heard,

He prayed for fruitful soil to hold the word.

One day, beside the marsh they labored long,—

For worldly work makes sweeter sacred song,—

And when the cruel sun made hot the sand,

And Afric’s gnats the sweltering face and hand

Tormenting stung, a passing traveller stood

And watched the workers by the reeking flood.

Macarius, nigh, with heat and toil was faint;

The traveller saw, and to the suffering saint

A bunch of luscious grapes in pity threw.

Most sweet and fresh and fair they were to view,

A generous cluster, bursting-rich with wine.

Macarius longed to taste. “The fruit is mine,”

He said, and sighed; “but I, who daily teach,

Feel now the bond to practise as I preach.”

He gave the cluster to the nearest one,

And with his heavy toil went patient on.

As one athirst will greet a flowing brim,

The tempting fruit made moist the mouth of him

Who took the gift; but in the yearning eye

Rose brighter light: to one whose lip was dry

He gave the grapes, and bent him to his spade.

And he who took, unknown to any other,

The sweet refreshment handed to a brother.

And so, from each to each, till round was made

The circuit wholly,—when the grapes at last,

Untouched and tempting, to Macarius passed.

“Now God be thanked!” he cried, and ceased to toil;

“The seed was good, but better was the soil.

My brothers, join with me to bless the day.”

But, ere they knelt, he threw the grapes away.