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Poem by Menella Bute Smedley

The Mother's Lesson

All night she wept the hours away,
With burning cheek and throbbing head,
Crying, Alas! and Well-a-day!
Woe is me, for my sons are dead!

She could not rest, she could not sleep,
She tossed in fever on her bed;
She could not pray: she could but weep,
Woe is me, for my sons are dead!

As the weary hours went by,
As the chimes rang heavily,
That lonely one did shrink and start
From the slow stern tread of misery
Printing its footstep on her heart.

Sometimes their names did in her brain
Sound, and sound, and sound again,
In a strange and ceaseless round,
As though a whirling wheel were there,
And every ruthless turn did tear
A fresh and bleeding wound,

Sometimes a trivial phrase or glance,
With her deep grief at variance,
Would in her memory rise;
And there, it mocked her desolation
By meaningless reiteration
Of peevish fantasies,
Like shape or pattern deftly wrought,
Vexing a sick man's feverish thought.

But never did she dare to see
The faces of the newly dead
Rise up before her memory
By life and love retenanted;
As shrinks the victim from the blade,
Her spirit, helpless and afraid,
Did from that vision shrink.
No passing pain her sorrows were,
No ancient and familiar care,
But the bitterness of new despair,
Which is afraid to think.

And so she wept the hours away,
And tossed in fever on her bed;
She could not sleep, she could not pray,
She could but wring her hands and say,
Woe is me, for my sons are dead!

Soft, and clear, and calm, and slow,
Steals a sound upon her woe.
It is the matin-bell!
Dropping, like the gradual rain
On some parched and lifeless plain,
Sounds which in their fulness are
Measured, deep, and regular;
Strangely with her grief it blent,
And a stranger softness lent
To each tear that fell.

She leaves her couch, she seeks her door,
And far athwart the filmy night
The coming day shines pale and grey,
Like shadowy moonshine's colder light;

The sleeping flowers forget to raise
Their downcast heads to greet its gaze;
All voiceless are the sheltering trees,
Where birds should pour their melodies;
The sheeted dew gleams white and wan,
As if beneath the stars it shone;
But still these chiming bells repeat
Their matin warning, grave, and sweet.

Slow to the church the mourner hied,
Scarce conscious of the well-known way;
The sacred doors are opened wide,
She enters, and she kneels to pray;
No torches flung their blaze aloof
Upon the tall and arching roof;
No taper shed its holier light
On sculptured shrine and column white,
But all along the ancient aisles,
And by the tombs where slept the dead,
O'er cavern niche and tracery rich,
There seemed a solemn twilight spread,
Clinging to cross and image pale,
Like the clear folding of a veil.

By that mysterious light she sees
A multitude upon their knees,
Shapes half familiar and half strange,
Like friends that have endured a change;
Antique in garb, they seemed a crowd
Of worshippers from other lands,
And every hidden face was bowed
Upon the clasped and lifted hands,
And not a sound of psalm or prayer
Arose upon the vacant air.
They moved no limb, they spake no word,
Save inarticulate murmurs heard,
Like leaves that in the wind are stirred,
Or like the slumberous roll of seas
When not a breath awakes the breeze.

At once their faces all upraise!
What sight hath chilled her with amaze?
Lo, every face right well she knows,
And some were friends and some were foes,
And some were young and some were old,
And some were kind and some were cold,
And some were fair and some were brave,
But ALL had long been in the grave.

From early childhood's gladsome years,
Down to this time of lonely tears,
All she had known, loved, feared, and lost,
Were round her in a solemn host,
Wearing on every brow of gloom
The paleness of its placethe tomb!
Now on her feet the mother stood,
With giddy brain and curdling blood,
And now in frantic hope she scanned
The younger faces of the band;
But she sees not there the shining hair,
And the cloudless eyes so clear and fair.
She wrings her hands in fresh despair;
She cries aloud, In vain! In vain!
O, could I see my sons again!

A mighty sound the silence broke,
The echoes of the aisles awoke,
It was as if the organ spoke
With voice articulate;
Look to the East! it said, and ceased;
Then through the vaulted space once more
Went the dead silence as before,
And all was desolate.

The mourner turned, the mourner saw
O sight of horror and of awe!
There stood a block on the altar floor,
And a fearful wheel by the sacred door,
Whereon two hapless ones did lie,
Wrestling with life's last agony!
Each in prison-garb and guise,
Each a youth just grown a man.
Jesu! In their filmèd eyes,
In their lips so cold and wan,
Lo, the lineaments she traces
Of her sons' remembered faces,
Even as they perchance might grow
After years of crime and woe!

With staring eyes and clenching hands,
Without a cry, a word, a groan,
Motionless the mother stands,
Like a sudden shape of stone,
While again the silence breaks,
And the mighty voice awakes:

Murmurer at the will of Heaven!
Doubter of the love of God!
See the life thou wouldst have given,
See the path they must have trod!
Now they sleep as infants sleep,
Taken from the woes to come.
Hence, poor wanderer, pray and weep!
But thou, too, shalt find thy home!

Ceased the Voice, and over all
Did a rapid darkness fall,
Save for scattered rays that stream,
With a dim and earthly gleam,
From the lamp that mourner bore;
While upon the marble floor,
Fall, through windows arched and old,
Streams of silver moonlight cold.

Patiently she wept awhile,
Patiently she prayed for grace,
Till the comfort of a smile
Settled on her placid face.
Kneeling thus, she prayed she wept,
Till it seemed as though she slept,
For, by angel-fingers shed,

Death's kind balm upon her head
Dropped so gently. Tears, a few
Of repentance, calm and meek,
Glistened, as baptismal dew
Glistens on an infant's cheek,
Washing from the heart within
Shades of grief and stains of sin.

Menella Bute Smedley

Menella Bute Smedley's other poems:
  1. What Hearest Thou?
  2. To a Little Girl
  3. The Lay of King James I in his Captivity
  4. Odin's Sacrifice
  5. Love for the Young

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