Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  The Pariah’s Legend

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

India: Ganges, the River

The Pariah’s Legend

By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)

Translated by W. E. Aytoun

WATER from the sacred Ganges,

To bring water from the river,

Goes the noble Brahmin’s wife.

She was chaste and pure and lovely;

High, immaculate, and honored,

And of sternest justice he.

Daily from the sacred river

Does she fetch the pleasant water;

Not in pitcher nor in vessel,

For she hath no need of these.

Rises of itself the water,

Rolled into a ball of crystal,

To the stainless heart and hand

(Such the power of perfect virtue,

Innocence without a shadow),

And she bears it to her home.

This day comes she in the morning,

Praying, to the flood of Ganges,

Bending lightly o’er the stream;

There she sees, as in a mirror,

From the heaven above reflected,

Floating in the liquid ether,

Such a glorious apparition!

Image of a youth, created

By the thought of the Almighty,

As a form of perfect beauty.

On the wondrous vision gazing,

Feels she straight a new sensation

Thrill throughout her inmost being;

Fascinated still she lingers,

Lingers with a secret longing;

Wishes it would pass, but ever

Floats the image back again.

In amazement, in confusion,

Stoops she to the flowing Ganges,

Trying, with her trembling fingers,

From the stream a ball to fashion.

But, alas! the spell is broken!

For the holy water shuns her,

Seems to shrink as she approaches,

Whirling swiftly from her hands.

Nerveless drop her arms, she totters;

Scarce her fainting limbs can bear her,

Scarce she knows the pathway homewards;

Shall she fly, or shall she tarry?

Thought forsakes her; help and counsel

Are to her that day denied.

So she comes before her husband.

And he looks,—his look is judgment!

Silently the sword he seizes,

Leads her to the hill of terrors,

Where adulterers meet their doom.

How can she, the wife, resist him?

What extenuation offer,

Guilty, knowing not her crime?

With the bloody sword yet dripping,

Homeward to his silent dwelling

Went the inexorable man.

Then his son came forth to meet him.

“Whose that blood? O father, father!”

“Blood of an adulteress!” “Never!

On the blade it has not stiffened,

As adulterous blood would do.

Fresh as from the wound ’t is running.

Mother, mother! Oh, come hither!

Unjust was my father never,

What is this that he hath done?”

“Boy, be silent! hers the blood is!”

“Whose?” “Be silent!” “O my mother!

Is it then my mother’s blood?

What ’s her crime? I will be answered!

Say, what evil hath she done?

Here,—the sword!—Lo, now I grasp it!

Thou mightst slay thy wife unchallenged,

But my mother shalt thou not!

Wives through fire their husbands follow,

Children must avenge their mothers!

As the flames unto the widow,

Is the sword unto the son!”

“Hold thy hand!” exclaimed the father,

“Yet there ’s time; oh, hasten, hasten;

Join the head unto the body,

Touch it with the sword of vengeance,

And she ’ll follow thee alive!”

Rushing, breathless, what beholds he,

Stretched upon the hill of terror?

Bodies of two slaughtered women,

And their heads are lying near.

Half distracted, blind, and dizzy,

His dear mother’s head he seizes,

Does not even stay to kiss it,

Joins it to the nearest body:

Pointing then the sword of vengeance,

Piously completes the spell.

Riseth straight a ghastly figure!

From the dear lips of his mother,

Sweet as ever, nowise altered,

Comes this terrible bewail:

“Son, O son! what fatal rashness!

Yonder lies thy mother’s body,

Near it is the head polluted

Of a wretched woman, victim

To the just avenging sword.

Me hast thou in hideous union

Blent forever with her body!

Wise in will, but wild in doing,

Must I move among the spirits.

Yea, that godlike apparition,

Which the eye might blameless look on,

Which the brain might blameless think on,

To the heart becomes a torment,

Stirring passionate desire!

“Still that image must beset me!

Sometimes rising, sometimes falling,

Sometimes bright, and sometimes darkened,

Such is mighty Brahma’s will.

He it was who sent the vision,

Floating on its angel pinions,

Radiant face and form so graceful,

God-created in its beauty,

For my trial and temptation;

Since from heaven we may be tempted,

If the gods decree it so.

So must I, a sad Brahmina,

With my head to heaven pertaining,

Feel the gross and earthly passion

Of the Pariah evermore!

“Go, my son, unto thy father!

Be of comfort! Let no penance,

Dull remorse, or hope of merit,

Through a weary expiation,

Drive him to the wilderness.

Go ye forth among the people,

And, so long as speech remaineth,

Tell, oh, tell the meanest creature

That him also Brahma hears!

“For with him there is no meanness,

In his sight are all men equal.

Be he leper, be he outcast,

Be he sunk in want and sorrow,

Be he desolate, heart-broken,

Be he Brahmin, be he Pariah,—

Whosoever prays for mercy,

He shall have it, he shall find it,

When he turns his face to heaven.

Thousand eyes are watching yonder,

Thousand ears are ever listening,

Everything to God is known.

“When I pass before his footstool,

Me beholding, thus distorted

By a vile transfiguration,

Surely will the Father pity.

Yet my curse may be a blessing

Unto you, my son, and many.

For, in humble adoration,

Meekly shall I strive to utter

What the higher sense inspires;

Then, in frenzied adjuration,

Shall I tell him all the passion

That is raging in this bosom.

Thought and impulse, will and weakness,—

Mystery of mysteries!”