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W. Garrett Horder, comp. The Poets’ Bible: New Testament. 1895.

The Leper

Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867)

“ROOM for the leper! room!” And, as he came,

The cry passed on—“Room for the leper! Room!”

Sunrise was slanting on the city gates

Rosy and beautiful, and from the hills

The early risen poor were coming in,

Duly and cheerfully to their toil, and up

Rose the sharp hammer’s clink and the far hum

Of moving wheels and multitudes astir,

And all that in a city murmur swells—

Unheard but by the watcher’s weary ear,

Aching with night’s dull silence, or the sick

Hailing the welcome light and sounds that chase

The death-like images of the dark away.

“Room for the leper!” And aside they stood—

Matron, and child, and pitiless manhood—all

Who met him on his way—and let him pass.

And onward through the open gate he came,

A leper, with the ashes on his brow,

Sackcloth about his loins, and on his lip

A covering, stepping painfully and slow,

And with a difficult utterance, like one

Whose heart is with an iron nerve put down,

Crying, “Unclean! unclean!”

’Twas now the first

Of the Judean autumn, and the leaves,

Whose shadows lay so still upon his path,

Had put their beauty forth beneath the eye

Of Judah’s palmiest noble. He was young,

And eminently beautiful, and life

Mantled in eloquent fulness on his lip,

And sparkled in his glance; and in his mien

There was a gracious pride that every eye

Followed with benisons—and this was he!

With the soft airs of summer there had come

A torpor on his frame, which not the speed

Of his best barb, nor music, nor the blast

Of the bold huntsman’s horn, nor aught that stirs

The spirit to its bent, might drive away.

The blood beat not as wont within his veins;

Dimness crept o’er his eye: a drowsy sloth

Fettered his limbs like palsy, and his mien,

With all its loftiness, seem’d struck with eld.

Even his voice was changed; a languid moan

Taking the place of the clear silver key;

And brain and sense grew faint, as if the light

And very air were steeped in sluggishness.

He strove with it awhile, as manhood will,

Ever too proud for weakness, till the rein

Slacken’d within his grasp, and in its poise

The arrowy jeered like an aspen shook.

Day after day, he lay, as if in sleep.

His skin grew dry and bloodless, and white scales,

Circled with livid purple, cover’d him.

And then his nails grew black, and fell away

From the dull flesh about them, and the hues

Deepen’d beneath the hard unmoisten’d scales,

And from their edges grew the rank white hair,

—And Helon was a leper!

Day was breaking,

When at the altar of the temple stood

The holy priest of God. The incense lamp

Burn’d with a struggling light, and a low chant

Swell’d through the hollow arches of the roof

Like an articulate wail, and there, alone,

Wasted to ghastly thinness, Helon knelt.

The echoes of the melancholy strain

Died in the distant aisles, and he rose up,

Struggling with weakness, and bow’d down his head

Unto the sprinkled ashes, and put off

His costly raiment for the leper’s garb:

And with the sackcloth round him, and his lip

Hid in a loathsome covering, stood still,

Waiting to hear his doom:—

Depart! depart, O child

Of Israel, from the temple of thy God!

For He has smote thee with His chastening rod;

And to the desert-wild,

From all thou lov’st away, thy feet must flee,

That from thy plague His people may be free.

Depart! and come not near

The busy mart, the crowded city, more;

Nor set thy foot a human threshold o’er;

And stay thou not to hear

Voices that call thee in the way; and fly

From all who in the wilderness pass by.

Wet not thy burning lip

In streams that to a human dwelling glide;

Nor rest thee where the covert fountains hide;

Nor kneel thee down to dip

The water where the pilgrim bends to drink,

By desert well or river’s grassy brink;

And pass thou not between

The weary traveller and the cooling breeze;

And lie not down to sleep beneath the trees

Where human tracks are seen;

Nor milk the goat that browseth on the plain,

Nor pluck the standing corn, or yellow grain.

And now, depart! and when

Thy heart is heavy, and thine eyes are dim,

Lift up thy prayer beseechingly to Him

Who, from the tribes of men,

Selected thee to feel His chastening rod,

Depart! O Leper, and forget not God!

And he went forth—alone! not one of all

The many whom he loved, nor she whose name

Was woven in the fibres of the heart

Breaking within him now, to come and speak

Comfort unto him. Yea—he went his way,

Sick, and heart-broken, and alone—to die!

For God had cursed the leper!

It was noon,

And Helon knelt beside a stagnant pool

In the lone wilderness, and bathed his brow,

Hot with the burning leprosy, and touched

The loathsome water to his fever’d lips,

Praying that he might be so blest—to die!

Footsteps approach’d, and with no strength to flee,

He drew the covering closer on his lip,

Crying, “Unclean! unclean!” and in the folds

Of the coarse sackcloth shrouding up his face,

He fell upon the earth till they should pass.

Nearer the Stranger came, and bending o’er

The leper’s prostrate form, pronounced his name—

“Helon!” The voice was like the master-tone

Of a rich instrument—most strangely sweet;

And the dull pulses of disease awoke,

And for a moment beat beneath the hot

And leprous scales with a restoring thrill.

“Helon! arise!” and he forgot his curse,

And rose and stood before Him.

Love and awe

Mingled in the regard of Helen’s eye

As he beheld the Stranger. He was not

In costly raiment clad, nor on His brow

The symbol of a princely lineage wore;

No followers at His back, nor in His hand

Buckler, or sword, or spear,—yet in His mien

Command sat throned serene, and if He smiled,

A kingly condescension graced His lips,

The lion would have crouch’d to in his lair.

His garb was simple, and His sandals worn;

His stature modell’d with a perfect grace;

His countenance, the impress of a God,

Touch’d with the open innocence of a child;

His eye was blue and calm, as is the sky

In the serenest noon; His hair unshorn

Fell to His shoulders; and his curling beard

The fulness of perfected manhood bore.

He looked on Helon earnestly awhile,

As if His heart were moved, and stooping down,

He took a little water in His hand,

And laved the sufferer’s brow, and said, “Be clean,”

And lo! the scales fell from him, and his blood

Coursed with delicious coolness through his veins,

And his dry palms grew moist, and his lips

The dewy softness of an infant’s stole,

His leprosy was cleansed, and he fell down

Prostrate at Jesus’ feet and worshipped Him.