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

Syria: Gibeah, the Mount

Rizpah with Her Sons

By Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867)

The Day before They Were Hanged on Gibeah

“BREAD for my mother!” said the voice of one

Darkening the door of Rizpah. She looked up,

And lo! the princely countenance and mien

Of dark-browed Armoni. The eye of Saul,

The very voice and presence of the king,—

Limb, port, and majesty,—were present there,

Mocked like an apparition in her son.

Yet, as he stooped his forehead to her hand

With a kind smile, a something of his mother

Unbent the haughty arching of his lip,

And through the darkness of the widow’s heart

Trembled a nerve of tenderness that shook

Her thought of pride all suddenly to tears.

“Whence comest thou?” said Rizpah.

“From the house

Of David. In his gate there stood a soldier,

This in his Land. I plucked it, and I said,

‘A king’s son takes it for his hungry mother!’

God stay the famine!”

As he spoke, a step,

Light as an antelope’s, the threshold pressed,

And like a beam of light into the room

Entered Mephibosheth. What bird of heaven

Or creature of the wild, what flower of earth,

Was like this fairest of the sons of Saul!

The violet’s cup was harsh to his blue eye.

Less agile was the fierce barb’s fiery step.

His voice drew hearts to him. His smile was like

The incarnation of some blessed dream,

Its joyousness so sunned the gazer’s eye!

Fair were his locks. His snowy teeth divided

A bow of love, drawn with a scarlet thread.

His cheek was like the moist heart of the rose;

And, but for nostrils of that breathing fire

That turns the lion back, and limbs as lithe

As is the velvet muscle of the pard,

Mephibosheth had been too fair for man.

As if he were a vision that would fade,

Rizpah gazed on him. Never, to her eye,

Grew his bright form familiar; but, like stars,

That seemed each night new lit in a new heaven,

He was each morn’s sweet gift to her. She loved

Her firstborn, as a mother loves her child,

Tenderly, fondly. But for him,—the last,—

What had she done for Heaven to be his mother!

Her heart rose in her throat to hear his voice;

She looked at him forever through her tears;

Her utterance, when she spoke to him, sank down,

As if the lightest thought of him had lain

In an unfathomed cavern of her soul.

The morning light was part of him, to her

What broke the day for but to show his beauty?

The hours but measured time till he should come;

Too tardy sang the bird when he was gone;

She would have shut the flowers, and called the star

Back to the mountain-top, and bade the sun

Pause at eve’s golden door, to wait for him!

Was this a heart gone wild, or is the love

Of mothers like a madness? Such as this

Is many a poor one in her humble home,

Who silently and sweetly sits alone,

Pouring her life all out upon her child.

What cares she that he does not feel how close

Her heart beats after his,—that all unseen

Are the fond thoughts that follow him by day,

And watch his sleep like angels? And, when moved

By some sore needed Providence, he stops

In his wild path and lifts a thought to heaven,

What cares the mother that he does not see

The link between the blessing and her prayer!