John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). The Poetical Works in Four Volumes. 1892.

Narrative and Legendary Poems


To Frederick A. P. Barnard

THE YEARS are many since, in youth and hope,

Under the Charter Oak, our horoscope

We drew thick-studded with all favoring stars.

Now, with gray beards, and faces seamed with scars

From life’s hard battle, meeting once again,

We smile, half sadly, over dreams so vain;

Knowing, at last, that it is not in man

Who walketh to direct his steps, or plan

His permanent house of life. Alike we loved

The muses’ haunts, and all our fancies moved

To measures of old song. How since that day

Our feet have parted from the path that lay

So fair before us! Rich, from lifelong search

Of truth, within thy Academic porch

Thou sittest now, lord of a realm of fact,

Thy servitors the sciences exact;

Still listening with thy hand on Nature’s keys,

To hear the Samian’s spheral harmonies

And rhythm of law. I called from dream and song,

Thank God! so early to a strife so long,

That, ere it closed, the black, abundant hair

Of boyhood rested silver-sown and spare

On manhood’s temples, now at sunset-chime

Tread with fond feet the path of morning time.

And if perchance too late I linger where

The flowers have ceased to blow, and trees are bare,

Thou, wiser in thy choice, wilt scarcely blame

The friend who shields his folly with thy name.
AMESBURY, 10th mo., 1870.


One Sabbath day my friend and I

After the meeting, quietly

Passed from the crowded village lanes,

White with dry dust for lack of rains,

And climbed the neighboring slope, with feet

Slackened and heavy from the heat,

Although the day was wellnigh done,

And the low angle of the sun

Along the naked hillside cast

Our shadows as of giants vast.

We reached, at length, the topmost swell,

Whence, either way, the green turf fell

In terraces of nature down

To fruit-hung orchards, and the town

With white, pretenceless houses, tall

Church-steeples, and, o’ershadowing all,

Huge mills whose windows had the look

Of eager eyes that ill could brook

The Sabbath rest. We traced the track

Of the sea-seeking river back,

Glistening for miles above its mouth,

Through the long valley to the south,

And, looking eastward, cool to view,

Stretched the illimitable blue

Of ocean, from its curved coast-line;

Sombred and still, the warm sunshine

Filled with pale gold-dust all the reach

Of slumberous woods from hill to beach,—

Slanted on walls of thronged retreats

From city toil and dusty streets,

On grassy bluff, and dune of sand,

And rocky islands miles from land;

Touched the far-glancing sails, and showed

White lines of foam where long waves flowed

Dumb in the distance. In the north,

Dim through their misty hair, looked forth

The space-dwarfed mountains to the sea,

From mystery to mystery!

So, sitting on that green hill-slope,

We talked of human life, its hope

And fear, and unsolved doubts, and what

It might have been, and yet was not.

And, when at last the evening air

Grew sweeter for the bells of prayer

Ringing in steeples far below,

We watched the people churchward go,

Each to his place, as if thereon

The true shekinah only shone;

And my friend queried how it came

To pass that they who owned the same

Great Master still could not agree

To worship Him in company.

Then, broadening in his thought, he ran

Over the whole vast field of man,—

The varying forms of faith and creed

That somehow served the holders’ need;

In which, unquestioned, undenied,

Uncounted millions lived and died;

The bibles of the ancient folk,

Through which the heart of nations spoke;

The old moralities which lent

To home its sweetness and content,

And rendered possible to bear

The life of peoples everywhere:

And asked if we, who boast of light,

Claim not a too exclusive right

To truths which must for all be meant,

Like rain and sunshine freely sent.

In bondage to the letter still,

We give it power to cramp and kill,—

To tax God’s fulness with a scheme

Narrower than Peter’s house-top dream,

His wisdom and his love with plans

Poor and inadequate as man’s.

It must be that He witnesses

Somehow to all men that He is:

That something of His saving grace

Reaches the lowest of the race,

Who, through strange creed and rite, may draw

The hints of a diviner law.

We walk in clearer light;—but then,

Is He not God?—are they not men?

Are His responsibilities

For us alone and not for these?

And I made answer: “Truth is one;

And, in all lands beneath the sun,

Whoso hath eyes to see may see

The tokens of its unity.

No scroll of creed its fulness wraps,

We trace it not by school-boy maps,

Free as the sun and air it is

Of latitudes and boundaries.

In Vedic verse, in dull Korán,

Are messages of good to man;

The angels to our Aryan sires

Talked by the earliest household fires;

The prophets of the elder day,

The slant-eyed sages of Cathay,

Read not the riddle all amiss

Of higher life evolved from this.

“Nor doth it lessen what He taught,

Or make the gospel Jesus brought

Less precious, that His lips retold

Some portion of that truth of old;

Denying not the proven seers,

The tested wisdom of the years;

Confirming with his own impress

The common law of righteousness.

We search the world for truth; we cull

The good, the pure, the beautiful,

From graven stone and written scroll,

From all old flower-fields of the soul;

And, weary seekers of the best,

We come back laden from our quest,

To find that all the sages said

Is in the Book our mothers read,

And all our treasure of old thought

In His harmonious fulness wrought

Who gathers in one sheaf complete

The scattered blades of God’s sown wheat,

The common growth that maketh good

His all-embracing Fatherhood.

“Wherever through the ages rise

The altars of self-sacrifice,

Where love its arms has opened wide,

Or man for man has calmly died,

I see the same white wings outspread

That hovered o’er the Master’s head!

Up from undated time they come,

The martyr souls of heathendom,

And to His cross and passion bring

Their fellowship of suffering.

I trace His presence in the blind

Pathetic gropings of my kind,—

In prayers from sin and sorrow wrung,

In cradle-hymns of life they sung,

Each, in its measure, but a part

Of the unmeasured Over-Heart;

And with a stronger faith confess

The greater that it owns the less.

Good cause it is for thankfulness

That the world-blessing of His life

With the long past is not at strife;

That the great marvel of His death

To the one order witnesseth,

No doubt of changeless goodness wakes,

No link of cause and sequence breaks,

But, one with nature, rooted is

In the eternal verities;

Whereby, while differing in degree

As finite from infinity,

The pain and loss for others borne,

Love’s crown of suffering meekly worn,

The life man giveth for his friend

Become vicarious in the end;

Their healing place in nature take,

And make life sweeter for their sake.

“So welcome I from every source

The tokens of that primal Force,

Older than heaven itself, yet new

As the young heart it reaches to,

Beneath whose steady impulse rolls

The tidal wave of human souls;

Guide, comforter, and inward word,

The eternal spirit of the Lord!

Nor fear I aught that science brings

From searching through material things;

Content to let its glasses prove,

Not by the letter’s oldness move,

The myriad worlds on worlds that course

The spaces of the universe;

Since everywhere the Spirit walks

The garden of the heart, and talks

With man, as under Eden’s trees,

In all his varied languages.

Why mourn above some hopeless flaw

In the stone tables of the law,

When scripture every day afresh

Is traced on tablets of the flesh?

By inward sense, by outward signs,

God’s presence still the heart divines;

Through deepest joy of Him we learn,

In sorest grief to Him we turn,

And reason stoops its pride to share

The child-like instinct of a prayer.”

And then, as is my wont, I told

A story of the days of old,

Not found in printed books,—in sooth,

A fancy, with slight hint of truth,

Showing how differing faiths agree

In one sweet law of charity.

Meanwhile the sky had golden grown,

Our faces in its glory shone;

But shadows down the valley swept,

And gray below the ocean slept,

As time and space I wandered o’er

To tread the Mogul’s marble floor,

And see a fairer sunset fall

On Jumna’s wave and Agra’s wall.

The good Shah Akbar (peace be his alway!)

Came forth from the Divan at close of day

Bowed with the burden of his many cares,

Worn with the hearing of unnumbered prayers,—

Wild cries for justice, the importunate

Appeals of greed and jealousy and hate,

And all the strife of sect and creed and rite,

Santon and Gouroo waging holy fight:

For the wise monarch, claiming not to be

Allah’s avenger, left his people free,

With a faint hope, his Book scarce justified,

That all the paths of faith, though severed wide,

O’er which the feet of prayerful reverence passed,

Met at the gate of Paradise at last.

He sought an alcove of his cool hareem,

Where, far beneath, he heard the Jumna’s stream

Lapse soft and low along his palace wall,

And all about the cool sound of the fall

Of fountains, and of water circling free

Through marble ducts along the balcony;

The voice of women in the distance sweet,

And, sweeter still, of one who, at his feet,

Soothed his tired ear with songs of a far land

Where Tagus shatters on the salt sea-sand

The mirror of its cork-grown hills of drouth

And vales of vine, at Lisbon’s harbor-mouth.

The date-palms rustled not; the peepul laid

Its topmost boughs against the balustrade,

Motionless as the mimic leaves and vines

That, light and graceful as the shawl-designs

Of Delhi or Umritsir, twined in stone;

And the tired monarch, who aside had thrown

The day’s hard burden, sat from care apart,

And let the quiet steal into his heart

From the still hour. Below him Agra slept,

By the long light of sunset overswept:

The river flowing through a level land,

By mango-groves and banks of yellow sand,

Skirted with lime and orange, gay kiosks,

Fountains at play, tall minarets of mosques,

Fair pleasure-gardens, with their flowering trees

Relieved against the mournful cypresses;

And, air-poised lightly as the blown sea-foam,

The marble wonder of some holy dome

Hung a white moonrise over the still wood,

Glassing its beauty in a stiller flood.

Silent the monarch gazed, until the night

Swift-falling hid the city from his sight;

Then to the woman at his feet he said:

“Tell me, O Miriam, something thou hast read

In childhood of the Master of thy faith,

Whom Islam also owns. Our Prophet saith:

‘He was a true apostle, yea, a Word

And Spirit sent before me from the Lord.’

Thus the Book witnesseth; and well I know

By what thou art, O dearest, it is so.

As the lute’s tone the maker’s hand betrays,

The sweet disciple speaks her Master’s praise.”

Then Miriam, glad of heart, (for in some sort

She cherished in the Moslem’s liberal court

The sweet traditions of a Christian child;

And, through her life of sense, the undefiled

And chaste ideal of the sinless One

Gazed on her with an eye she might not shun,—

The sad, reproachful look of pity, born

Of love that hath no part in wrath or scorn,)

Began, with low voice and moist eyes, to tell

Of the all-loving Christ, and what befell

When the fierce zealots, thirsting for her blood,

Dragged to his feet a shame of womanhood.

How, when his searching answer pierced within

Each heart, and touched the secret of its sin,

And her accusers fled his face before,

He bade the poor one go and sin no more.

And Akbar said, after a moments thought,

“Wise is the lesson by thy prophet taught;

Woe unto him who judges and forgets

What hidden evil his own heart besets!

Something of this large charity I find

In all the sects that sever human kind;

I would to Allah that their lives agreed

More nearly with the lesson of their creed!

Those yellow Lamas who at Meerut pray

By wind and water power, and love to say:

‘He who forgiveth not shall, unforgiven,

Fail of the rest of Buddha,’ and who even

Spare the black gnat that stings them, vex my ears

With the poor hates and jealousies and fears

Nursed in their human hives. That lean, fierce priest

Of thy own people, (be his heart increased

By Allah’s love!) his black robes smelling yet

Of Goa’s roasted Jews, have I not met

Meek-faced, barefooted, crying in the street

The saying of his prophet true and sweet,—

‘He who is merciful shall mercy meet!’”

But, next day, so it chanced, as night began

To fall, a murmur through the hareem ran

That one, recalling in her dusky face

The full-lipped, mild-eyed beauty of a race

Known as the blameless Ethiops of Greek song,

Plotting to do her royal master wrong,

Watching, reproachful of the lingering light,

The evening shadows deepen for her flight,

Love-guided, to her home in a far land,

Now waited death at the great Shah’s command.

Shapely as that dark princess for whose smile

A world was bartered, daughter of the Nile

Herself, and veiling in her large, soft eyes

The passion and the languor of her skies,

The Abyssinian knelt low at the feet

Of her stern lord: “O king, if it be meet,

And for thy honor’s sake,” she said, “that I,

Who am the humblest of thy slaves, should die,

I will not tax thy mercy to forgive.

Easier it is to die than to outlive

All that life gave me,—him whose wrong of thee

Was but the outcome of his love for me,

Cherished from childhood, when, beneath the shade

Of templed Axum, side by side we played.

Stolen from his arms, my lover followed me

Through weary seasons over land and sea;

And two days since, sitting disconsolate

Within the shadow of the hareem gate,

Suddenly, as if dropping from the sky,

Down from the lattice of the balcony

Fell the sweet song by Tigre’s cowherds sung

In the old music of his native tongue.

He knew my voice, for love is quick of ear,

Answering in song.
This night he waited near

To fly with me. The fault was mine alone:

He knew thee not, he did but seek his own;

Who, in the very shadow of thy throne,

Sharing thy bounty, knowing all thou art,

Greatest and best of men, and in her heart

Grateful to tears for favor undeserved,

Turned ever homeward, nor one moment swerved

From her young love. He looked into my eyes,

He heard my voice, and could not otherwise

Than he hath done; yet, save one wild embrace

When first we stood together face to face,

And all that fate had done since last we met

Seemed but a dream that left us children yet,

He hath not wronged thee nor thy royal bed;

Spare him, O king! and slay me in his stead!”

But over Akbar’s brows the frown hung black,

And, turning to the eunuch at his back,

“Take them,” he said, “and let the Jumna’s waves

Hide both my shame and these accursed slaves!”

His loathly length the unsexed bondman bowed:

“On my head be it!”
Straightway from a cloud

Of dainty shawls and veils of woven mist

The Christian Miriam rose, and, stooping, kissed

The monarch’s hand. Loose down her shoulders bare

Swept all the rippled darkness of her hair,

Veiling the bosom that, with high, quick swell

Of fear and pity, through it rose and fell.

“Alas!” she cried, “hast thou forgotten quite

The words of Him we spake of yesternight?

Or thy own prophet’s, ‘Whoso doth endure

And pardon, of eternal life is sure’?

O great and good! be thy revenge alone

Felt in thy mercy to the erring shown;

Let thwarted love and youth their pardon plead,

Who sinned but in intent, and not in deed!”

One moment the strong frame of Akbar shook

With the great storm of passion. Then his look

Softened to her uplifted face, that still

Pleaded more strongly than all words, until

Its pride and anger seemed like overblown,

Spent clouds of thunder left to tell alone

Of strife and overcoming. With bowed head,

And smiting on his bosom: “God,” he said,

“Alone is great, and let His holy name

Be honored, even to His servant’s shame!

Well spake thy prophet, Miriam,—he alone

Who hath not sinned is meet to cast a stone

At such as these, who here their doom await,

Held like myself in the strong grasp of fate.

They sinned through love, as I through love forgive;

Take them beyond my realm, but let them live!”

And, like a chorus to the words of grace,

The ancient Fakir, sitting in his place,

Motionless as an idol and as grim,

In the pavilion Akbar built for him

Under the court-yard trees, (for he was wise,

Knew Menu’s laws, and through his close-shut eyes

Saw things far off, and as an open book

Into the thoughts of other men could look,)

Began, half chant, half howling, to rehearse

The fragment of a holy Vedic verse;

And thus it ran: “He who all things forgives

Conquers himself and all things else, and lives

Above the reach of wrong or hate or fear,

Calm as the gods, to whom he is most dear.”

Two leagues from Agra still the traveller sees

The tomb of Akbar through its cypress-trees;

And, near at hand, the marble walls that hide

The Christian Begum sleeping at his side.

And o’er her vault of burial (who shall tell

If it be chance alone or miracle?)

The Mission press with tireless hand unrolls

The words of Jesus on its lettered scrolls,—

Tells, in all tongues, the tale of mercy o’er,

And bids the guilty, “Go and sin no more!”


It now was dew-fall; very still

The night lay on the lonely hill,

Down which our homeward steps we bent,

And, silent, through great silence went,

Save that the tireless crickets played

Their long, monotonous serenade.

A young moon, at its narrowest,

Curved sharp against the darkening west;

And, momently, the beacon’s star,

Slow wheeling o’er its rock afar,

From out the level darkness shot

One instant and again was not.

And then my friend spake quietly

The thought of both: “Yon crescent see!

Like Islam’s symbol-moon it gives

Hints of the light whereby it lives:

Somewhat of goodness, something true

From sun and spirit shining through

All faiths, all worlds, as through the dark

Of ocean shines the lighthouse spark,

Attests the presence everywhere

Of love and providential care.

The faith the old Norse heart confessed

In one dear name,—the hopefulest

And tenderest heard from mortal lips

In pangs of birth or death, from ships

Ice-bitten in the winter sea,

Or lisped beside a mother’s knee,—

The wiser world hath not outgrown,

And the All-Father is our own!”