Verse > Anthologies > W. Garrett Horder, ed. > The Poets’ Bible: New Testament
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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,        5
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,        10
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        15
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,        20
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,        25
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        30
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        35
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,        40
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.        45
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.        50
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,        55
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        60
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,        65
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,        70
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,        75
  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;        80
      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;        85
  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        90
  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.        95
 
      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,        100
  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        105
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,        110
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,        115
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—        120
“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.        125
“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        130
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,        135
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;        140
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,        145
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,        150
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.
 
 
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