Verse > John Greenleaf Whittier > The Poetical Works in Four Volumes
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).  The Poetical Works in Four Volumes.  1892.
Religious Poems
The Cry of a Lost Soul
          Lieutenant Herndon’s Report of the Exploration of the Amazon has a striking description of the peculiar and melancholy notes of a bird heard by night on the shores of the river. The Indian guides called it “The Cry of a Lost Soul”! Among the numerous translations of this poem is one by the Emperor of Brazil. 1

IN that black forest, where, when day is done,
With a snake’s stillness glides the Amazon
Darkly from sunset to the rising sun,
A cry, as of the pained heart of the wood,
The long, despairing moan of solitude        5
And darkness and the absence of all good,
Startles the traveller, with a sound so drear,
So full of hopeless agony and fear,
His heart stands still and listens like his ear.
The guide, as if he heard a dead-bell toll,        10
Starts, drops his oar against the gunwale’s thole,
Crosses himself, and whispers, “A lost soul!”
“No, Señor, not a bird. I know it well,—
It is the pained soul of some infidel
Or cursëd heretic that cries from hell.        15
“Poor fool! with hope still mocking his despair,
He wanders, shrieking on the midnight air
For human pity and for Christian prayer.
“Saints strike him dumb! Our Holy Mother hath
No prayer for him who, sinning unto death,        20
Burns always in the furnace of God’s wrath!”
Thus to the baptized pagan’s cruel lie,
Lending new horror to that mournful cry,
The voyager listens, making no reply.
Dim burns the boat-lamp: shadows deepen round,        25
From giant trees with snake-like creepers wound,
And the black water glides without a sound.
But in the traveller’s heart a secret sense
Of nature plastic to benign intents,
And an eternal good in Providence,        30
Lifts to the starry calm of heaven his eyes;
And lo! rebuking all earth’s ominous cries,
The Cross of pardon lights the tropic skies!
“Father of all!” he urges his strong plea,
“Thou lovest all: Thy erring child may be        35
Lost to himself, but never lost to Thee!
“All souls are Thine; the wings of morning bear
None from that Presence which is everywhere,
Nor hell itself can hide, for Thou art there.
“Through sins of sense, perversities of will,        40
Through doubt and pain, through guilt and shame and ill,
Thy pitying eye is on Thy creature still.
“Wilt thou not make, Eternal Source and Goal!
In Thy long years, life’s broken circle whole,
And change to praise the cry of a lost soul?”

Note 1. The story of the origin of this name, El alma perdida is thus related by Lieut. Herndon. “An Indian and his wife went out from the village to work their chacra, carrying their infant with them. The woman went to the spring to get water, leaving the man in charge of the child, with many cautions to take good care of it. When she arrived at the spring, she found it dried up, and went further to look for another. The husband, alarmed at her long absence, left the child and went in search. When they returned the child was gone; and to their repeated cries, as they wandered through the woods in search, they could get no response save the wailing cry of this little bird heard for the first time, whose notes their anxious and excited imagination syllabled into pa-pa, ma-ma, (the present Quichua name of the bird). I suppose the Spaniards heard this story, and with that religious poetic turn of thought which seems peculiar to this people, called the bird ‘The Lost Soul.’”—Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon made under direction of the Navy Department. By William Lewis Herndon and Lardner Gibbon, Part I. p. 156. [back]

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