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

Narrative and Legendary Poems

The Cypress-Tree of Ceylon

  • Ibn Batuta, the celebrated Mussulman traveller of the fourteenth century, speaks of a cypress-tree in Ceylon, universally held sacred by the natives, the leaves of which were said to fall only at certain intervals, and he who had the happiness to find and eat one of them was restored, at once, to youth and vigor. The traveller saw several venerable Jogees, or saints, sitting silent and motionless under the tree, patiently awaiting the falling of a leaf.

  • THEY sat in silent watchfulness

    The sacred cypress-tree about,

    And, from beneath old wrinkled brows,

    Their failing eyes looked out.

    Gray Age and Sickness waiting there

    Through weary night and lingering day,—

    Grim as the idols at their side,

    And motionless as they.

    Unheeded in the boughs above

    The song of Ceylon’s birds was sweet;

    Unseen of them the island flowers

    Bloomed brightly at their feet.

    O’er them the tropic night-storm swept,

    The thunder crashed on rock and hill;

    The cloud-fire on their eyeballs blazed,

    Yet there they waited still!

    What was the world without to them?

    The Moslem’s sunset-call, the dance

    Of Ceylon’s maids, the passing gleam

    Of battle-flag and lance?

    They waited for that falling leaf

    Of which the wandering Jogees sing:

    Which lends once more to wintry age

    The greenness of its spring.

    Oh, if these poor and blinded ones

    In trustful patience wait to feel

    O’er torpid pulse and failing limb

    A youthful freshness steal;

    Shall we, who sit beneath that Tree

    Whose healing leaves of life are shed,

    In answer to the breath of prayer,

    Upon the waiting head—

    Not to restore our failing forms,

    And build the spirit’s broken shrine,

    But on the fainting soul to shed

    A light and life divine—

    Shall we grow weary in our watch,

    And murmur at the long delay?

    Impatient of our Father’s time

    And His appointed way?

    Or shall the stir of outward things

    Allure and claim the Christian’s eye,

    When on the heathen watcher’s ear

    Their powerless murmurs die?

    Alas! a deeper test of faith

    Than prison cell or martyr’s stake,

    The self-abasing watchfulness

    Of silent prayer may make.

    We gird us bravely to rebuke

    Our erring brother in the wrong,—

    And in the ear of Pride and Power

    Our warning voice is strong.

    Easier to smite with Peter’s sword

    Than “watch one hour” in humbling prayer.

    Life’s “great things,” like the Syrian lord,

    Our hearts can do and dare.

    But oh! we shrink from Jordan’s side,

    From waters which alone can save;

    And murmur for Abana’s banks

    And Pharpar’s brighter wave.

    O Thou, who in the garden’s shade

    Didst wake Thy weary ones again,

    Who slumbered at that fearful hour

    Forgetful of Thy pain;

    Bend o’er us now, as over them,

    And set our sleep-bound spirits free,

    Nor leave us slumbering in the watch

    Our souls should keep with Thee!