Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. VII. Descriptive: Narrative
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume VII. Descriptive: Narrative.  1904.
 
Narrative Poems: V. The Orient
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!”
*        *        *        *        *
                And aside they stood,
Matron, and child, and pitiless manhood,—all
Who met him on his way,—and let him pass.        5
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,
And with a difficult utterance, like one        10
Whose heart is with an iron nerve put down,
Crying, “Unclean! unclean!”
*        *        *        *        *
                    Day was breaking
When at the altar of the temple stood
The holy priest of God. The incense-lamp        15
Burned with a struggling light, and a low chant
Swelled 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        20
Died in the distant aisles, and he rose up,
Struggling with weakness, and bowed 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        25
Hid in a loathsome covering, stood still,
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,        30
        And to the desert wild
    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;        35
    Nor set thy foot a human threshold o’er;
        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        40
    In streams that to a human dwelling glide;
    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.        45
 
        “And pass not thou between
    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        50
    Nor pluck the standing corn or yellow grain.
 
        “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,        55
    Selected thee to feel his chastening rod.
    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        60
Breaking within him now, to come and speak
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        65
In the lone wilderness, and bathed his brow,
Hot with the burning leprosy, and touched
The loathsome water to his fevered lips,
Praying that he might be so blest,—to die!
Footsteps approached, and, with no strength to flee,        70
He drew the covering closer on his lip,
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        75
The leper’s prostrate form, pronounced his name.
—“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        80
And leprous scales with a restoring thrill.
“Helon! arise!” and he forgot his curse,
And rose and stood before him.
                            Love and awe
Mingled in the regard of Helon’s eye
As he beheld the stranger. He was not        85
In costly raiment clad, nor on his brow
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,        90
A kingly condescension graced his lips
The lion would have crouched to in his lair.
His garb was simple, and his sandals worn;
His stature modelled with a perfect grace;
His countenance, the impress of a God,        95
Touched with the open innocence of a child;
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.        100
He looked on Helon earnestly awhile,
As if his heart was moved, and, stooping down,
He took a little water in his hand
And laid it on his brow, and said, “Be clean!”
And lo! the scales fell from him, and his blood        105
Coursed with delicious coolness through his veins,
And his dry palms grew moist, and on his brow
The dewy softness of an infant’s stole.
His leprosy was cleansed, and he fell down
Prostrate at Jesus’ feet, and worshipped him.        110
 
 
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