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

Narrative and Legendary Poems

The Female Martyr

  • Mary G——, aged eighteen, a “Sister of Charity,” died in one of our Atlantic cities, during the prevalence of the Indian cholera, while in voluntary attendance upon the sick.

  • BRING out your dead!” The midnight street

    Heard and gave back the hoarse, low call;

    Harsh fell the tread of hasty feet,

    Glanced through the dark the coarse white sheet,

    Her coffin and her pall.

    “What—only one!” the brutal hack-man said,

    As, with an oath, he spurned away the dead.

    How sunk the inmost hearts of all,

    As rolled that dead-cart slowly by,

    With creaking wheel and harsh hoof-fall!

    The dying turned him to the wall,

    To hear it and to die!

    Onward it rolled; while oft its driver stayed,

    And hoarsely clamored, “Ho! bring out your dead.”

    It paused beside the burial-place;

    “Toss in your load!” and it was done.

    With quick hand and averted face,

    Hastily to the grave’s embrace

    They cast them, one by one,

    Stranger and friend, the evil and the just,

    Together trodden in the churchyard dust!

    And thou, young martyr! thou wast there;

    No white-robed sisters round thee trod,

    Nor holy hymn, nor funeral prayer

    Rose through the damp and noisome air,

    Giving thee to thy God;

    Nor flower, nor cross, nor hallowed taper gave

    Grace to the dead, and beauty to the grave!

    Yet, gentle sufferer! there shall be,

    In every heart of kindly feeling,

    A rite as holy paid to thee

    As if beneath the convent-tree

    Thy sisterhood were kneeling,

    At vesper hours, like sorrowing angels, keeping

    Their tearful watch around thy place of sleeping.

    For thou wast one in whom the light

    Of Heaven’s own love was kindled well;

    Enduring with a martyr’s might,

    Through weary day and wakeful night,

    Far more than words may tell:

    Gentle, and meek, and lowly, and unknown,

    Thy mercies measured by thy God alone!

    Where manly hearts were failing, where

    The throngful street grew foul with death,

    O high-souled martyr! thou wast there,

    Inhaling, from the loathsome air,

    Poison with every breath.

    Yet shrinking not from offices of dread

    For the wrung dying, and the unconscious dead.

    And, where the sickly taper shed

    Its light through vapors, damp, confined,

    Hushed as a seraph’s fell thy tread,

    A new Electra by the bed

    Of suffering human-kind!

    Pointing the spirit, in its dark dismay,

    To that pure hope which fadeth not away.

    Innocent teacher of the high

    And holy mysteries of Heaven!

    How turned to thee each glazing eye,

    In mute and awful sympathy,

    As thy low prayers were given;

    And the o’er-hovering Spoiler wore, the while,

    An angel’s features, a deliverer’s smile!

    A blessed task! and worthy one

    Who, turning from the world, as thou,

    Before life’s pathway had begun

    To leave its spring-time flower and sun,

    Had sealed her early vow;

    Giving to God her beauty and her youth,

    Her pure affections and her guileless truth.

    Earth may not claim thee. Nothing here

    Could be for thee a meet reward;

    Thine is a treasure far more dear:

    Eye hath not seen it, nor the ear

    Of living mortal heard

    The joys prepared, the promised bliss above,

    The holy presence of Eternal Love!

    Sleep on in peace. The earth has not

    A nobler name than thine shall be.

    The deeds by martial manhood wrought,

    The lofty energies of thought,

    The fire of poesy,

    These have but frail and fading honors; thine

    Shall Time unto Eternity consign.

    Yea, and when thrones shall crumble down,

    And human pride and grandeur fall,

    The herald’s line of long renown,

    The mitre and the kingly crown,—

    Perishing glories all!

    The pure devotion of thy generous heart

    Shall live in Heaven, of which it was a part.