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

Syria: Gilboa


By Robert Browning (1812–1889)

SAID Abner, “At last thou art come!

Ere I tell, ere thou speak,—

Kiss my cheek, wish me well!” Then I wished it,

And did kiss his cheek:

And he, “Since the king, O my friend,

For thy countenance sent,

Nor drunken nor eaten have we;

Nor, until from his tent

Thou return with the joyful assurance

The king liveth yet,

Shall our lip with the honey be brightened,

The water be wet.

“For out of the black mid-tent’s silence,

A space of three days,

No sound hath escaped to thy servants,

Of prayer nor of praise,

To betoken that Saul and the Spirit

Have ended their strife,

And that faint in his triumph the monarch

Sinks back upon life.

“Yet now my heart leaps, O beloved!

God’s child, with his dew

On thy gracious gold hair, and those lilies

Still living and blue

As thou break’st them to twine round thy harp-strings,

As if no wild heat

Were raging to torture the desert!”

Then I, as was meet,

Knelt down to the God of my fathers,

And rose on my feet,

And ran o’er the sand burnt to powder.

The tent was unlooped;

I pulled up the spear that obstructed,

And under I stooped;

Hands and knees o’er the slippery grass-patch—

All withered and gone,—

That leads to the second enclosure,

I groped my way on,

Till I felt where the foldskirts fly open;

Then once more I prayed,

And opened the foldskirts and entered,

And was not afraid;

And spoke, “Here is David, thy servant!”

And no voice replied;

And first I saw naught but the blackness,—

But soon I descried

A something more black than the blackness;

The vast, the upright

Main-prop which sustains the pavilion,—

And slow into sight

Grew a figure, gigantic, against it,

And blackest of all;—

Then a sunbeam, that burst through the tent-roof,

Showed Saul.

He stood as erect as that tent-prop;

Both arms stretched out wide

On the great cross-support in the centre

That goes to each side:

So he bent not a muscle, but hung there

As, caught in his pangs

And waiting his change, the king-serpent

All heavily hangs,

Far away from his kind, in the pine,

Till deliverance come

With the spring-time,—so agonized Saul,

Drear and stark, blind and dumb.

Then I tuned my harp,—took off the lilies

We twine round its chords

Lest they snap ’neath the stress of the noontide,—

Those sunbeams like swords!

And I first played the tune all our sheep know,

As, one after one,

So docile they come to the pen-door

Till folding be done;

They are white and untorn by the bushes,

For lo, they have fed

Where the long grasses stifle the water

Within the stream’s bed;

How one after one seeks its lodging,

As star follows star

Into eve and the blue far above us,—

So blue and so far!

Then the tune for which quails on the cornland

Will leave each his mate

To follow the player; then, what makes

The crickets elate

Till for boldness they fight one another;

And then, what has weight

To set the quick jerboa a-musing

Outside his sand house,—

There are none such as he for a wonder,—

Half bird and half mouse!—

God made all creatures, and gave them

Our love and our fear,

To show we and they are his children,

One family here.

Then I played the help-tune of our reapers,

Their wine-song, when hand

Grasps hand, eye lights eye in good friendship,

And great hearts expand,

And grow one in the sense of this world’s life;

And then, the low song

When the dead man is praised on his journey,—

“Bear, bear him along

With his few faults shut up like dead flowerets;

Are balm-seeds not here

To console us? The land is left none such

As he on the bier—

O, would we might keep thee, my brother!”

And then the glad chant

Of the marriage,—first go the young maidens,

Next, she whom we vaunt

As the beauty, the pride of our dwelling:

And then, the great march

When man runs to man to assist him,

And buttress an arch

Naught can break … who shall harm them, our friends?

Then, the chorus intoned

As the Levites go up to the altar

In glory enthroned,—

But I stopped here,—for here, in the darkness,

Saul groaned.

And I paused, held my breath in such silence!

And listened apart;

And the tent shook, for mighty Saul shuddered,—

And sparkles ’gan dart

From the jewels that woke in his turban,—

At once with a start

All its lordly male sapphires, and rubies

Courageous at heart;

So the head,—but the body still moved not,

Still hung there erect.

And I bent once again to my playing,

Pursued it unchecked,

As I sang, “O, our manhood’s prime vigor!

No spirit feels waste,

No muscle is stopped in its playing,

No sinew unbraced;—

And the wild joys of living! The leaping

From rock up to rock,—

The rending their boughs from the palm-trees,—

The cool silver shock

Of a plunge in the pool’s living water,—

The haunt of the bear,

And the sultriness showing the lion

Is couched in his lair:

And the meal,—the rich dates,—yellowed over

With gold-dust divine,

And the locust’s-flesh steeped in the pitcher,

The full draught of wine,

And the sleep in the dried river channel

Where tall rushes tell

The water was wont to go warbling

So softly and well,—

How good is man’s life here, mere living!

How fit to employ

The heart and the soul and the senses

Forever in joy!

Hast thou loved the white locks of thy father

Whose sword thou didst guard

When he trusted thee forth to the wolf-hunt

For glorious reward?

Didst thou see the thin hands of thy mother

Held up, as men sung

The song of the nearly departed,

And heard her faint tongue

Joining in while it could to the witness

“Let one more attest,

I have lived, seen God’s hand through that lifetime,

And all was for best.”

Then they sung through their tears, in strong triumph,

Not much,—but the rest!

And thy brothers, the help and the contest,

The working whence grew

Such result, as from seething grape-bundles

The spirit so true:

And the friends of thy boyhood—that boyhood

With wonder and hope,

Present promise, and wealth in the future,—

The eye’s eagle scope,—

Till lo, thou art grown to a monarch,

A people is thine!

O, all gifts the world offers singly,

On one head combine,

On one head the joy and the pride,

Even rage like the throe

That opes the rock, helps its glad labor,

And lets the gold go,—

And ambition that sees a sun lead it,—

O, all of these,—all

Combine to unite in one creature—