Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century
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CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
Alfred H. Miles, ed.  The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
 
Lazarus and Other Poems (1865).
Three Cups of Cold Water
By Edward Hayes Plumptre (1821–1891)
 
I.
THE PRINCELY David, with his outlaw-band,
Lodged in the cave Adullam. Wild and fierce,
With lion-like faces, and with eagle eyes,
They followed where he led. The danger pressed,
For over all the land the Philistines        5
Had spread their armies. Through Rephaim’s vale
Their dark tents mustered thick, and David’s home,
His father’s city, Bethlehem, owned them lords.
’Twas harvest, and the crops of ripening corn
They ravaged, and with rude feet trampled down        10
The tender vines. Men hid themselves for fear
In woods or caves. The brave undaunted few,
Gathering round David, sought the mountain hold.
The sun was hot, and all day long they watched
With spear in hand and never-resting eye,        15
As those who wait for battle. But at eve
The eye grew dim, the lips were parched with thirst,
And from that arid rock no trickling stream
Of living water gushed. From time-worn skins
The tainted drops were poured, and fevered lips        20
Half-loathing drank them up. And David’s soul
Was weary; the hot simoom scorched his veins;
The strong sun smote on him, and, faint and sick,
He sat beneath the shadow of the rock:
And then before his eyes a vision came,        25
Cool evening, meadows green, and pleasant sounds
Of murmuring fountains. Oft in days of youth,
When leading home his flocks as sunset fell,
That fount had quenched his thirst, and dark-eyed girls,
The pride and joy of Bethlehem, meeting there,        30
Greeted the shepherd boy, their chieftain’s son
(As, bright and fair with waving locks of gold
Exulting in the flush of youth’s full glow,
He mingled with their throng), and gazing, rapt
With wonder at his beauty, gave him drink.        35
And now the words came feebly from his lips,
A murmur half in silence, which the ear
Of faithful followers caught: “Ah! who will bring
From that fair stream, which flowing by the gate
Of Bethlehem’s wall makes music in the ear,        40
One drop to cool this tongue?” They heard, the three,
The mightiest of the thirty, swift of foot
As are the harts upon the mountains, strong
As are the lions down by Jordan’s banks;
They heard and darted forth; down rock and crag        45
They leapt, as leaps the torrent on its course,
Through plain and vale they sped, and never stayed,
Until the wide encampment of the foe
Warned them of danger nigh. But not for fear
Abandoned they their task. When evening fell,        50
And all the Philistines were hushed in sleep,
And over all the plain the full, bright moon
Poured its rich lustre, onward still they stole,
By tent fires, creeping with hushed breath, and feet
That feared to wake the echoes, till at last        55
They heard the babbling music, and the gleam
Of rippling moonlight caught their eager eye,
And o’er them fell the shade of Bethlehem’s gate.
They tarried not. One full delicious draught
Slaked their fierce thirst, and then with anxious haste        60
They filled their water-urn, and full of joy,
They bore it back in triumph to their lord.
With quickened steps they tracked their path again
O’er plain and valley, up o’er rock and crag,
And as the early sunlight kissed the hills        65
They stood before him. He had won their hearts
By brave deeds, gentle words, and stainless life;
And now they came to give him proof of love,
And pouring out the water bade him drink.
But lo! he would not taste. He heard their tale        70
(In few words told, as brave men tell their deeds),
And lifting up his hands with solemn prayer,
As though he stood, a priest, before the shrine,
He poured it on the earth before the Lord.
“Far be it from me, God, that I should drink,        75
The slave of selfish lust, forgetting Thee,
Forgetting these my brothers. In Thine eyes
This water fresh and cool is as the blood
Of hero-souls who jeopardied their lives:
That blood I may not taste. As shrink the lips        80
From the hot life-stream of the Paschal Lamb,
So shrinks my soul from this. To Thee, O Lord,
To Thee I pour it. Thou wilt pardon me
For mine unkingly weakness, pardon them
For all rough deeds of war. Their noble love        85
Shall cover all their sins; for Thou hast claimed,
More than all blood of bulls and goats, the will
That, self-forgetting, lives in deeds like this.”
  So spake the hero-king, and all the host
Looked on and wondered; and those noble three,        90
The mightiest of the thirty, felt their souls
Knit closer to King David and to God.
 
II.
THROUGH wastes of sand the train of camels wound
Their lingering way. The pilgrims, hasting on
To Mecca’s shrine, were grieved and vexed at heart,        95
Impatient of delay. The scorching sand
Lay hot and blinding round them, and the blast
Of sultry winds, as from a furnace mouth,
Brought blackness to all faces. Whirling clouds
Of white dust filled their eyes, and, falling flat,        100
Crouching in fear, they waited till it passed.
Then, lifting up their eyes, there met their gaze
One fierce, hot glare, a waveless sea of sand.
No track of pilgrims’ feet, nor whitening bones
Of camels or of asses, marked their way.        105
They wandered on, by sun and moon and stars
Guessing their path, not knowing where they went,
But Mecca’s shrine they saw not. Day by day,
Their scant stores scantier grew. Their camels died;
No green oasis met their yearning eyes,        110
No rippling stream brought gladness to their hearts;
But glittering lakes that sparkled in the light,
Girt with the soft green tufts of feathery palm,
Enticed them, hour by hour, to wander on,
And, as they neared them, turned to wastes of sand.        115
They thirsted, and with looks of blank despair
Beheld the emptied skins. One only, borne
By Ka’ab’s camel, met their wistful gaze,—
Ka’ab, the rich, the noble, he who knew
The depths of Islam, 1 unto Allah’s will        120
Resigning all his soul. And now he showed
How out of that submission flows the strength
For noblest acts of love. That priceless store
He claimed not as his own: the “mine” and “thine”
Of selfish right he scattered to the winds,        125
And to his fellow-pilgrims offered all.
They shared it all alike. To Ka’ab’s self
And Ka’ab’s slave an equal portion came:
“Allah is great,” he cried, about to drink
With thankful adoration, when a wail        130
Of eager craving burst from parchèd lips,
And upturned eyes with fevered anguish watched
The precious life-draught. Ka’ab heard that cry,
His eye beheld that anguish, and his heart
Was stirred with pity. Tasting not a drop,        135
With calm and loving look he passed the cup
To those poor dying lips, and bore his thirst,
As martyrs bear their flames. His soul had learnt,
Not Islam’s creed alone that God is great:
A mightier name was written on his heart,        140
“God, the compassionate, the merciful;”
And yielding up his will to God’s, the three,
Compassion, mercy, greatness, were as one.
  So ends the tale. And whether death came soon
As sleep’s twin-brother, with the longed-for rest,        145
And clear bright streams in Paradise refreshed
The fevered thirsts of earth; or if the dawn
Revealed the distant gleam of Mecca’s shrine,
And led those pilgrims on to Zemzem’s fount,
We know not. This we know, that evermore,        150
Like living water from the flinty rock,
Gladdening the hearts of Hagar’s sons, as once
God’s angel helped the mother and her child,
The memory of that noble deed flows on,
And quickens into life each fainting heart,        155
And through long ages, in each Arab’s tent
It passed into a proverb—“Ka’ab’s deed
Of noble goodness:—There is none like that.” 2
 
III.
THE SETTING sun fell low on Zutphen’s plain;
The fight was over, and the victory won,        160
And out of all the din and stir of war
They bore the flower of Christian chivalry,
The life-blood gushing out. He came, the pure,
The true, the stainless, all youth’s fiery glow,
All manhood’s wisdom, blended into one,        165
To help the weak against the strong, to drive
The Spaniard from a land which was not his,
And claim the right of all men to be free,
Free in their life, their polity, their faith.
He came, no poor ambition urging on,        170
But loyalty and duty, first to God,
And then to her, the Virgin Queen, who ruled
His guileless heart, and of a thousand good
Found him the best. We wonder that he bowed
Before so poor an idol, knowing not        175
That noble souls transfer their nobleness
To that whereon they gaze, and through the veils
Of custom or of weakness reach the heart
That beats, as theirs, with lofty thoughts and true.
And now that life was ebbing. Men had hoped        180
To see in him the saviour of the state
From thickening perils, one in open war
To cope with Alva, and in subtle skill,
Bating no jot of openness and truth,
To baffle all the tortuous wiles of Spain:        185
And some who knew him better hoped to see
His poet’s spirit do a poet’s work,
With sweetest music giving voice and shape
To all the wondrous thoughts that stirred the age,
Moving the world’s great heart, attracting all,        190
The children at their play, the old man bent
By blazing hearths, to listen and rejoice.
  And now his sun was setting. Faint and weak
They bore him to his tent, and loss of blood
Brought on the burning thirst of wounded men,        195
And he too craved for water. Brothers true,
Companions of his purpose and his risk,
Brought from the river in their helmet cup
The draught he longed for. Yet he drank it not;
That eye had fallen on another’s woe,        200
That ear was open to another’s sigh,
That hand was free to give, and pitying love,
In that sharp pain of death, had conquered self.
The words were few and simple: “Not for me;
I may not taste: He needs it more than I:”        205
Few as all noblest words are, pearls and gems
Of rarest lustre; but they found their way,
More than all gifts of speech or poet’s skill,
To stir the depths of England’s heart of hearts,
And gave to Sidney’s name a brighter life,        210
A nobler fame through all the immortal years,
Than Raleigh’s friendship, or his own brave deeds,
Or counsel’s wise, or Spenser’s silver notes,—
A trumpet-call to bid the heart awake,
A beacon-light to all the rising youth,        215
Fit crown of glory to that stainless life,
The perfect pattern of a Christian knight,
The noblest hero of our noblest age.
 
IV.
AND one day they shall meet before their God,
The Hebrew, and the Moslem, and the flower        220
Of England’s knighthood. On the great white throne
The Judge shall sit, and from his lips shall flow
Divinest words: “Come, friends and brothers, come;
I speak as one whose soul has known your pangs;
Your weariness and woe were also mine;        225
The cry, ‘I thirst,’ has issued from these lips,
And I too would not drink, but bore the pain,
Yielding my will to do my Father’s work,
And so that work was finished; so I learnt
The fullest measure of obedience, learnt        230
The wide, deep love embracing all mankind,
Passing through all the phases of their woe
That I before their God might plead for all.
And thus through all the pulses of their life
I suffer when they suffer; count each deed        235
Of mercy done to them as done to Me,
Am one with them in sorrow and in joy,
Rejoicing in their likeness to My life,
And bearing still the burden of their sins
For which I once was offered. I was there,        240
The light of each man’s soul, in that wild cave,
On that parched desert, on that tented field;
That self-forgetting love I owned as Mine,
And ye who, true to that diviner Light
Which triumphed over nature, freely gave        245
That water to the thirsty, gave to Me.
*        *        *        *        *
 
Note 1. Islam—resignation, submission to the will of God—was proclaimed by Mahomet as the one essential religion, which had been inherited from the patriarchs, preached by the prophets, and revived by himself as its new and greatest apostle. Comp. Koran, ch. ii. and iii. (Sale’s Translation); or ch. xci. and xcvii. (Rodwell’s).
  “They who set their face with resignation Godward and do what is right, their reward is with the Lord.”
  “When his Lord said to Abraham, ‘Resign thyself to Me,’ he said, ‘I resign myself to the Lord of the Worlds.’”
  “And this to his children did Abraham bequeath, and Jacob also, saying, ‘O, my children! truly God has chosen a religion for you; so die not unless ye also be Muslims’” (sc., resigned). (Rodwell, xci.) [back]
Note 2. The story is given by Kallius in his notes to Rostgaard’s translation of the collection of proverbs known as Arabum Philosophia Popularis, p. 57. The current form of the proverb is that Arabs, in speaking of any one whose nobleness they wish to praise, describe him as “more generous than Kalab.” See also Pocock, Hist. Arab., p. 344. [back]
 
 
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