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

Narrative and Legendary Poems

The King’s Missive

  • 1661
  • This ballad, originally written for The Memorial History of Boston, describes, with pardonable poetic license, a memorable incident in the annals of the city. The interview between Shattuck and the Governor took place, I have since learned, in the residence of the latter, and not in the Council Chamber. The publication of the ballad led to some discussion as to the historical truthfulness of the picture, but I have seen no reason to rub out any of the figures or alter the lines and colors.

  • UNDER the great hill sloping bare

    To cove and meadow and Common lot,

    In his council chamber and oaken chair,

    Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott.

    A grave, strong man, who knew no peer

    In the pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear

    Of God, not man, and for good or ill

    Held his trust with an iron will.

    He had shorn with his sword the cross from out

    The flag, and cloven the May-pole down,

    Harried the heathen round about,

    And whipped the Quakers from town to town.

    Earnest and honest, a man at need

    To burn like a torch for his own harsh creed,

    He kept with the flaming brand of his zeal

    The gate of the holy common weal.

    His brow was clouded, his eye was stern,

    With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath;

    “Woe ’s me!” he murmured: “at every turn

    The pestilent Quakers are in my path!

    Some we have scourged, and banished some,

    Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come.

    Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in,

    Sowing their heresy’s seed of sin.

    “Did we count on this? Did we leave behind

    The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease

    Of our English hearths and homes, to find

    Troublers of Israel such as these?

    Shall I spare? Shall I pity them? God forbid!

    I will do as the prophet to Agag did:

    They come to poison the wells of the Word,

    I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!”

    The door swung open, and Rawson the clerk

    Entered, and whispered under breath,

    “There waits below for the hangman’s work

    A fellow banished on pain of death—

    Shattuck, of Salem, unhealed of the whip,

    Brought over in Master Goldsmith’s ship

    At anchor here in a Christian port,

    With freight of the devil and all his sort!”

    Twice and thrice on the chamber floor

    Striding fiercely from wall to wall,

    “The Lord do so to me and more,”

    The Governor cried, “if I hang not all!

    Bring hither the Quaker.” Calm, sedate,

    With the look of a man at ease with fate,

    Into that presence grim and dread

    Came Samuel Shattuck, with hat on head.

    “Off with the knave’s hat!” An angry hand

    Smote down the offence; but the wearer said,

    With a quiet smile, “By the king’s command

    I bear his message and stand in his stead.”

    In the Governor’s hand a missive he laid

    With the royal arms on its seal displayed,

    And the proud man spake as he gazed thereat,

    Uncovering, “Give Mr. Shattuck his hat.”

    He turned to the Quaker, bowing low,—

    “The king commandeth your friends’ release;

    Doubt not he shall be obeyed, although

    To his subjects’ sorrow and sin’s increase.

    What he here enjoineth, John Endicott,

    His loyal servant, questioneth not.

    You are free! God grant the spirit you own

    May take you from us to parts unknown.”

    So the door of the jail was open cast,

    And, like Daniel, out of the lion’s den

    Tender youth and girlhood passed,

    With age-bowed women and gray-locked men.

    And the voice of one appointed to die

    Was lifted in praise and thanks on high,

    And the little maid from New Netherlands

    Kissed, in her joy, the doomed man’s hands.

    And one, whose call was to minister

    To the souls in prison, beside him went,

    An ancient woman, bearing with her

    The linen shroud for his burial meant.

    For she, not counting her own life dear,

    In the strength of a love that cast out fear,

    Had watched and served where her brethren died,

    Like those who waited the cross beside.

    One moment they paused on their way to look

    On the martyr graves by the Common side,

    And much scourged Wharton of Salem took

    His burden of prophecy up and cried:

    “Rest, souls of the valiant! Not in vain

    Have ye borne the Master’s cross of pain;

    Ye have fought the fight, ye are victors crowned,

    With a fourfold chain ye have Satan bound!”

    The autumn haze lay soft and still

    On wood and meadow and upland farms;

    On the brow of Snow Hill the great windmill

    Slowly and lazily swung its arms;

    Broad in the sunshine stretched away,

    With its capes and islands, the turquoise bay;

    And over water and dusk of pines

    Blue hills lifted their faint outlines.

    The topaz leaves of the walnut glowed,

    The sumach added its crimson fleck,

    And double in air and water showed

    The tinted maples along the Neck;

    Through frost flower clusters of pale star-mist,

    And gentian fringes of amethyst,

    And royal plumes of golden-rod,

    The grazing cattle on Centry trod.

    But as they who see not, the Quakers saw

    The world about them; they only thought

    With deep thanksgiving and pious awe

    On the great deliverance God had wrought.

    Through lane and alley the gazing town

    Noisily followed them up and down;

    Some with scoffing and brutal jeer,

    Some with pity and words of cheer.

    One brave voice rose above the din.

    Upsall, gray with his length of days,

    Cried from the door of his Red Lion Inn:

    “Men of Boston, give God the praise!

    No more shall innocent blood call down

    The bolts of wrath on your guilty town.

    The freedom of worship, dear to you,

    Is dear to all, and to all is due.

    “I see the vision of days to come,

    When your beautiful City of the Bay

    Shall be Christian liberty’s chosen home,

    And none shall his neighbor’s rights gainsay.

    The varying notes of worship shall blend

    And as one great prayer to God ascend,

    And hands of mutual charity raise

    Walls of salvation and gates of praise.”

    So passed the Quakers through Boston town,

    Whose painful ministers sighed to see

    The walls of their sheep-fold falling down,

    And wolves of heresy prowling free.

    But the years went on, and brought no wrong;

    With milder counsels the State grew strong,

    As outward Letter and inward Light

    Kept the balance of truth aright.

    The Puritan spirit perishing not,

    To Concord’s yeomen the signal sent,

    And spake in the voice of the cannon-shot

    That severed the chains of a continent.

    With its gentler mission of peace and good-will

    The thought of the Quaker is living still,

    And the freedom of soul he prophesied

    Is gospel and law where the martyrs died.