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Poem by Arthur Hugh Clough
These are the words of Jacob’s wives, the words Which Leah spake and Rachel to his ears, When, in the shade at eventide, he sat By the tent door, a palm-tree overhead, A spring beside him, and the sheep around. And Rachel spake and said, The nightfall comes Night, which all day I wait for, and for thee. And Leah also spake, The day is done; My lord with toil is weary and would rest. And Rachel said, Come, O my Jacob, come; And we will think we sit beside the well, As in that day, the long long years agone, When first I met thee with my father’s flock. And Leah said, Come, Israel, unto me; And thou shalt reap an harvest of fair sons, E’en as before I bare thee goodly babes; For when was Leah fruitless to my lord? And Rachel said, Ah come! as then thou cam’st, Come once again to set thy seal of love; As then, down bending, when the sheep had drunk, Thou settedst it, my shepherd O sweet seal! Upon the unwitting, half-foretasting lips, Which, shy and trembling, thirsted yet for thine As cattle thirsted never for the spring. And Leah answered, Are not these their names As Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah four? Like four young saplings by the water’s brim, Where straining rivers through the great plain wind Four saplings soon to rise to goodly trees Four trees whose growth shall cast an huger shade Than ever yet on river-side was seen. And Rachel said, And shall it be again As, when dissevered far, unheard, alone, Consumed in bitter anger all night long, I moaned and wept, while, silent and discreet, One reaped the fruit of love that Rachel’s was Upon the breast of him that knew her not? And Leah said, And was it then a wrong That, in submission to a father’s word, Trembling yet hopeful, to that bond I crept, Which God hath greatly prospered, and my lord, Content, in after-wisdom not disowned, Joyful, in after-thankfulness approved? And Rachel said, But we will not complain, Though, all life long, an alien, unsought third, She trouble our companionship of love. And Leah answered, No, complain we not, Though years on years she loiter in the tent, A fretful, vain, unprofitable wife. And Rachel answered, Ah! she little knows What in old days to Jacob Rachel was. And Leah said, And wilt thou dare to say, Because my lord was gracious to thee then, No deeper thought his riper cares hath claimed, No stronger purpose passed into his life? That, youth and maid once fondly, softly touched, Time’s years must still the casual dream repeat, And all the river far, from source to sea, One flitting moment’s chance reflection bear? Also she added, Who is she to judge Of thoughts maternal, and a father’s heart? And Rachel said, But what to supersede The rights which choice bestowed hath Leah done? What which my handmaid or which hers hath not? Is Simeon more than Napthali? is Dan Less than his brother Levi in the house? That part that Billah and that Zilpah have, That, and no more, hath Leah in her lord; And let her with the same be satisfied. Leah asked then, And shall these things compare (Fond wishes, and the pastime, and the play) With serious aims and forward-working hopes Aims as far-reaching as to earth’s last age, And hopes far-travelling as from east to west? Rachel replied, That love which in his youth, Through trial proved, consoles his perfect age; Shall this with project and with plan compare? Is not for-ever shorter than all time, And love more straitened than from east to west? Leah spake further, Hath my lord not told How, in the visions of the night, his God, The God of Abraham and of Isaac, spake And said, Increase, and multiply, and fill With sons to serve Me this thy land and mine; And I will surely do thee good, and make Thy seed as is the sand beside the sea, Which is not numbered for its multitude? Shall Rachel bear this progeny to God? But Rachel wept and answered, And if God Hath closed the womb of Rachel until now, Shall He not at His pleasure open it? Hath Leah read the counsels of the Lord? Was it not told her, in the ancient days, How Sarah, mother of great Israel’s sire, Lived to long years, insulted of her slave, Or e’er to light the Child of Promise came, Whom Rachel too to Jacob yet may bear? Moreover, Rachel said, Shall Leah mock, Who stole the prime embraces of my love, My first long-destined, long-withheld caress? But not, she said, methought, but not for this, In the old days, did Jacob seek his bride; Where art thou now, O thou that sought’st me then? Where is thy loving tenderness of old? And where that fervency of faith to which Seven weary years were even as a few days? And Rachel wept and ended, Ah, my life! Though Leah bear thee sons on sons, methought The child of love, late-born, were worth them all. And Leah groaned and answered, It is well: She that hath kept from me my husband’s heart Will set their father’s soul against my sons. Yet, also, not, she said, I thought, for this, Not for the feverish nor the doating love, Doth Israel, father of a nation, seek; Nor to light dalliance, as of boy and girl, Incline the thoughts of matron and of man, Or lapse the wisdom of maturer mind. And Leah ended, Father of my sons, Come, thou shalt dream of Rachel if thou wilt, So Leah fold thee in a wife’s embrace. These are the words of Jacob’s wives, who sat In the tent door, and listened to their speech, The spring beside him, and above the palm, While all the sheep were gathered for the night.
Arthur Hugh Clough
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