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

Narrative and Legendary Poems

The New Wife and the Old

  • The following ballad is founded upon one of the marvellous legends connected with the famous General M——, of Hampton, New Hampshire, who was regarded by his neighbors as a Yankee Faust, in league with the adversary. I give the story, as I heard it when a child, from a venerable family visitant.

  • DARK the halls, and cold the feast,

    Gone the bridemaids, gone the priest.

    All is over, all is done,

    Twain of yesterday are one!

    Blooming girl and manhood gray,

    Autumn in the arms of May!

    Hushed within and hushed without,

    Dancing feet and wrestlers’ shout;

    Dies the bonfire on the hill;

    All is dark and all is still,

    Save the starlight, save the breeze

    Moaning through the graveyard trees;

    And the great sea-waves below,

    Pulse of the midnight beating slow.

    From the brief dream of a bride

    She hath wakened, at his side.

    With half-uttered shriek and start,—

    Feels she not his beating heart?

    And the pressure of his arm,

    And his breathing near and warm?

    Lightly from the bridal bed

    Springs that fair dishevelled head,

    And a feeling, new, intense,

    Half of shame, half innocence,

    Maiden fear and wonder speaks

    Through her lips and changing cheeks.

    From the oaken mantel glowing,

    Faintest light the lamp is throwing

    On the mirror’s antique mould,

    High-backed chair, and wainscot old,

    And, through faded curtains stealing,

    His dark sleeping face revealing.

    Listless lies the strong man there,

    Silver-streaked his careless hair;

    Lips of love have left no trace

    On that hard and haughty face;

    And that forehead’s knitted thought

    Love’s soft hand hath not unwrought.

    “Yet,” she sighs, “he loves me well,

    More than these calm lips will tell.

    Stooping to my lowly state,

    He hath made me rich and great,

    And I bless him, though he be

    Hard and stern to all save me!”

    While she speaketh, falls the light

    O’er her fingers small and white;

    Gold and gem, and costly ring

    Back the timid lustre fling,—

    Love’s selectest gifts, and rare,

    His proud hand had fastened there.

    Gratefully she marks the glow

    From those tapering lines of snow;

    Fondly o’er the sleeper bending

    His black hair with golden blending,

    In her soft and light caress,

    Cheek and lip together press.

    Ha!—that start of horror! why

    That wild stare and wilder cry,

    Full of terror, full of pain?

    Is there madness in her brain?

    Hark! that gasping, hoarse and low,

    “Spare me,—spare me,—let me go!”

    God have mercy!—icy cold

    Spectral hands her own enfold,

    Drawing silently from them

    Love’s fair gifts of gold and gem.

    “Waken! save me!” still as death

    At her side he slumbereth.

    Ring and bracelet all are gone,

    And that ice-cold hand withdrawn;

    But she hears a murmur low,

    Full of sweetness, full of woe,

    Half a sigh and half a moan:

    “Fear not! give the dead her own!”

    Ah!—the dead wife’s voice she knows!

    That cold hand whose pressure froze,

    Once in warmest life had borne

    Gem and band her own hath worn.

    “Wake thee! wake thee!” Lo, his eyes

    Open with a dull surprise.

    In his arms the strong man folds her,

    Closer to his breast he holds her;

    Trembling limbs his own are meeting,

    And he feels her heart’s quick beating:

    “Nay, my dearest, why this fear?”

    “Hush!” she saith, “the dead is here!”

    “Nay, a dream,—an idle dream.”

    But before the lamp’s pale gleam

    Tremblingly her hand she raises.

    There no more the diamond blazes,

    Clasp of pearl, or ring of gold,—

    “Ah!” she sighs, “her hand was cold!”

    Broken words of cheer he saith,

    But his dark lip quivereth,

    And as o’er the past he thinketh,

    From his young wife’s arms he shrinketh;

    Can those soft arms round him lie,

    Underneath his dead wife’s eye?

    She her fair young head can rest

    Soothed and childlike on his breast,

    And in trustful innocence

    Draw new strength and courage thence;

    He, the proud man, feels within

    But the cowardice of sin!

    She can murmur in her thought

    Simple prayers her mother taught,

    And His blessed angels call,

    Whose great love is over all;

    He, alone, in prayerless pride,

    Meets the dark Past at her side!

    One, who living shrank with dread

    From his look, or word, or tread,

    Unto whom her early grave

    Was as freedom to the slave,

    Moves him at this midnight hour,

    With the dead’s unconscious power!

    Ah, the dead, the unforgot!

    From their solemn homes of thought,

    Where the cypress shadows blend

    Darkly over foe and friend,

    Or in love or sad rebuke,

    Back upon the living look.

    And the tenderest ones and weakest,

    Who their wrongs have borne the meekest,

    Lifting from those dark, still places,

    Sweet and sad-remembered faces,

    O’er the guilty hearts behind

    An unwitting triumph find.