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

Narrative and Legendary Poems

The Hermit of the Thebaid

O STRONG, upwelling prayers of faith,

From inmost founts of life ye start,—

The spirit’s pulse, the vital breath

Of soul and heart!

From pastoral toil, from traffic’s din,

Alone, in crowds, at home, abroad,

Unheard of man, ye enter in

The ear of God.

Ye brook no forced and measured tasks,

Nor weary rote, nor formal chains;

The simple heart, that freely asks

In love, obtains.

For man the living temple is:

The mercy-seat and cherubim,

And all the holy mysteries,

He bears with him.

And most avails the prayer of love,

Which, wordless, shapes itself in needs,

And wearies Heaven for naught above

Our common needs.

Which brings to God’s all-perfect will

That trust of His undoubting child

Whereby all seeming good and ill

Are reconciled.

And, seeking not for special signs

Of favor, is content to fall

Within the providence which shines

And rains on all.

Alone, the Thebaid hermit leaned

At noontime o’er the sacred word.

Was it an angel or a fiend

Whose voice he heard?

It broke the desert’s hush of awe,

A human utterance, sweet and mild;

And, looking up, the hermit saw

A little child.

A child, with wonder-widened eyes,

O’erawed and troubled by the sight

Of hot, red sands, and brazen skies,

And anchorite.

“What dost thou here, poor man? No shade

Of cool, green palms, nor grass, nor well,

Nor corn, nor vines.” The hermit said:

“With God I dwell.

“Alone with Him in this great calm,

I live not by the outward sense;

My Nile his love, my sheltering palm

His providence.”

The child gazed round him. “Does God live

Here only?—where the desert’s rim

Is green with corn, at morn and eve,

We pray to Him.

“My brother tills beside the Nile

His little field; beneath the leaves

My sisters sit and spin, the while

My mother weaves.

“And when the millet’s ripe heads fall,

And all the bean-field hangs in pod,

My mother smiles, and says that all

Are gifts from God.

“And when to share our evening meal,

She calls the stranger at the door,

She says God fills the hands that deal

Food to the poor.”

Adown the hermit’s wasted cheeks

Glistened the flow of human tears;

“Dear Lord!” he said, “Thy angel speaks,

Thy servant hears.”

Within his arms the child he took,

And thought of home and life with men;

And all his pilgrim feet forsook

Returned again.

The palmy shadows cool and long,

The eyes that smiled through lavish locks,

Home’s cradle-hymn and harvest-song,

And bleat of flocks.

“O child!” he said, “thou teachest me

There is no place where God is not;

That love will make, where’er it be,

A holy spot.”

He rose from off the desert sand,

And, leaning on his staff of thorn,

Went with the young child hand in hand,

Like night with morn.

They crossed the desert’s burning line,

And heard the palm-tree’s rustling fan,

The Nile-bird’s cry, the low of kine,

And voice of man.

Unquestioning, his childish guide

He followed, as the small hand led

To where a woman, gentle-eyed,

Her distaff fed.

She rose, she clasped her truant boy,

She thanked the stranger with her eyes;

The hermit gazed in doubt and joy

And dumb surprise.

And lo!—with sudden warmth and light

A tender memory thrilled his frame;

New-born, the world-lost anchorite

A man became.

“O sister of El Zara’s race,

Behold me!—had we not one mother?”

She gazed into the stranger’s face:

“Thou art my brother!”

“O kin of blood! Thy life of use

And patient trust is more than mine;

And wiser than the gray recluse

This child of thine.

“For, taught of him whom God hath sent,

That toil is praise, and love is prayer,

I come, life’s cares and pains content

With thee to share.”

Even as his foot the threshold crossed,

The hermit’s better life began;

Its holiest saint the Thebaid lost,

And found a man!