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

The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

  • ‘But see, the Virgin blest
  • Hath laid her babe to rest.’
  • MILTON’S Hymn on the Nativity, ll. 237–8.

  • SLEEP, sleep, mine Holy One!

    My flesh, my Lord!—what name? I do not know

    A name that seemeth not too high or low,

    Too far from me or Heaven.

    My Jesus, that is best! that word being given

    By the majestic angel whose command

    Was softly as a man’s beseeching said,

    When I and all the earth appeared to stand

    In the great overflow

    Of light celestial from his wings and head.

    Sleep, sleep, my saving One.

    And art thou come for saving, baby-browed

    And speechless Being—art Thou come for saving?

    The palm that grows beside our door is bowed

    By treadings of the low wind from the south,

    A restless shadow through the chamber waving;

    Upon its bough a bird sings in the sun;

    But Thou, with that close slumber on Thy mouth,

    Dost seem of wind and sun already weary.

    Art come for saving, O my weary One?

    Perchance this sleep that shutteth out the dreary

    Earth-sounds and motions, opens on Thy soul

    High dreams on fire with God;

    High songs that make the pathways where they roll

    More bright than stars do theirs; and visions new

    Of Thine eternal Nature’s old abode.

    Suffer this mother’s kiss,

    Best thing that earthly is,

    To glide the music and the glory through,

    Nor narrow in Thy dream the broad upliftings

    Of any seraph wing!

    Thus, noiseless, thus. Sleep, sleep, my dreaming One!

    The slumber of His lips meseems to run

    Through my lips to mine heart; to all its shiftings

    Of sensual life, bringing contrariousness

    In a great calm. I feel I could lie down

    As Moses did, and die—and then live most.

    I am ’ware of you, heavenly Presences,

    That stand with your peculiar light unlost,

    Each forehead with a high thought for a crown,

    Unsunned i’ the sunshine! I am ’ware. Ye throw

    No shade against the wall! How motionless

    Ye round me with your living statuary,

    While through your whiteness, in and outwardly,

    Continual thoughts of God appear to go,

    Like light’s soul in itself. I bear, I bear,

    To look upon the dropt lids of your eyes.

    Though their external shining testifies

    To that beatitude within, which were

    Enough to blast an eagle at his sun:

    I fall not on my sad clay face before ye—

    I look on His. I know

    My spirit which dilateth with the woe

    Of His mortality,

    May well contain your glory.

    Yea, drop your lids more low,

    Ye are but fellow-worshippers with me!

    Sleep, sleep, my worshipped One!

    We sate among the stalls at Bethlehem.

    The dumb kine from their fodder turning them,

    Softened their horned faces

    To almost human gazes

    Towards the newly Born:

    The simple shepherds from the star-lit brooks

    Brought visionary looks,

    As yet in their astonied hearing rung

    The strange sweet-angel tongue:

    The magi of the East, in sandals worn,

    Knelt reverent, sweeping round,

    With long pale beards their gifts upon the ground.

    The incense, myrrh, and gold,

    These baby hands were impotent to hold:

    So let all earthlies and celestials wait

    Upon Thy royal state!

    Sleep, sleep, my kingly One!

    I am not proud—meek angels, ye invest

    New meeknesses to hear such utterance rest

    On mortal lips—‘I am not proud’—not proud!

    Albeit in my flesh God sent his Son,

    Albeit over Him my head is bowed

    As others bow before Him, still mine heart

    Bows lower than their knees. O centuries,—

    That roll, in vision, your futurities

    My future grave athwart—

    Whose murmurs seem to reach me while I keep

    Watch o’er this sleep—

    Say of me as the Heavenly said, ‘Thou art

    The blessedest of women!’—blessedest,

    Not holiest, not noblest—no high name,

    Whose height misplaced may pierce me like a shame,

    When I sit meek in heaven!
    For me, for me,

    God knows that I am feeble like the rest!

    I often wandered forth, more child than maiden,

    Among the midnight hills of Galilee,

    Whose summits looked heaven-laden;

    Listening to silence as it seemed to be

    God’s voice, so soft yet strong, so fain to press

    Upon my heart as Heaven did on the height,

    And waken up its shadows by a light,

    And show its vileness by a holiness.

    Then I knelt down most silent like the night,

    Too self-renounced for fears,

    Raising my small face to the boundless blue

    Whose stars did mix and tremble in my tears.

    God heard them falling after, with his dew.

    So, seeing my corruption, can I see

    This Incorruptible now born of me,

    This fair new Innocence no sun did chance

    To shine on (for even Adam was no child),

    Created from my nature all defiled,

    This mystery from out mine ignorance,—

    Nor feel the blindness, stain, corruption, more

    Than others do, or I did heretofore!

    Can hands wherein such burden pure has been,

    Not open with the cry, ‘Unclean, unclean!’

    More oft than any else beneath the skies?

    Ah King, ah Christ, ah son!

    The kine, the shepherds, the abaséd wise,

    Must all less lowly wait

    Than I, upon Thy state!

    Sleep, sleep, my kingly One!

    Art thou a King, then? Come, His universe,

    Come, crown me Him a King!

    Pluck rays from all such stars as never fling

    Their light where fell a curse,

    And make a crowning for this kingly brow!—

    What is my word? Each empyreal star

    Sits in a sphere afar

    In shining ambuscade:

    The child-brow, crowned by none,

    Keeps its unchildlike shade.

    Sleep, sleep, my crownless One!

    Unchildlike shade! No other babe doth wear

    An aspect very sorrowful, as Thou.

    No small babe-smiles, my watching heart has seen,

    To float like speech the speechless lips between;

    No dovelike cooing in the golden air,

    No quick short joys of leaping babyhood:

    Alas, our earthly good

    In heaven thought evil, seems too good for Thee:

    Yet, sleep, my weary One!

    And then the drear sharp tongue of prophecy,

    With the dread sense of things which shall be done,

    Doth smite me inly, like a sword: a sword?

    (That ‘smites the Shepherd!’) then, I think aloud

    The words ‘despised,’ ‘rejected,’ every word

    Recoiling into darkness as I view

    The DARLING on my knee.

    Bright angels, move not! lest ye stir the cloud

    Betwixt my soul and His futurity?

    I must not die, with mother’s work to do.

    And could not live and see.

    It is enough to bear

    This image still and fair,

    This holier in sleep,

    Than a saint at prayer,

    This aspect of a child

    Who never sinned or smiled;

    This Presence in an infant’s face:

    This sadness most like love,

    This love than love more deep,

    This weakness like omnipotence,

    It is so strong to move.

    Awful is this watching place,

    Awful what I see from hence—

    A King, without regalia,

    A God, without the thunder,

    A Child, without the heart for play;

    Ay, a Creator rent asunder

    From His first glory, and cast away

    On His own world, for me alone

    To hold in hands created, crying—SON!

    That tear fell not on THEE,

    Beloved, yet thou stirrest in thy slumber!

    THOU, stirring not for glad sounds out of number

    Which through the vibratory palm-trees run

    From summer wind and bird,

    So quickly hast thou heard

    A tear fall silently?

    Wak’st thou, O loving One?