Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
The Hindoo Mother
By Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867)
IT was a gentle eve in Hindoostan.
The rains were past, and the delighted earth
Was beautiful once more, and glittering leaves
Were lifting lightly on their beaten stems,
And glancing to the pure, transparent sky,        5
Like a pleased infant smiling through its tears.
Clouds linger’d in the west, and tints were drawn
By sunset fingers on their skirts of gold,
And they were floating as serenely there,
As if the children of the restless storm        10
Could sleep upon the azure floor of heaven.
  Deep ran the holy Ganges, for the rain
Had swollen it from Thibet to the sea.
Its flow was turbid; and, as if the winds
Were not forgotten by the multitude        15
Of its strange waters, they were leaping up,
And with a wondrous glory gathering
The mantle of the sunset over them.
How frequently these living passages
Of nature’s book are opened, and how few        20
Are the high hearts that know them, and can feel
Their eloquence and beauty!
                    Meina stood
Upon the breathing carpet of the shore,
Gazing on the sky and river. There was much        25
In the dark features of the young Hindoo,
That should have won a gentler history.
She had the Eastern eye, with its dark fringe
And shadowy depth of lustre; but, beyond
The elements of beauty, there was writ        30
A something that the wounded roe would trust
For shelter from its hunters. Her closed lips
Were delicate as the tinted pencilling
Of veins upon a flower; and on her cheek
The timid blood had faintly melted through,        35
Like something that was half afraid of light.
There was no slighter print upon the grass
Than her elastic step; and in her frame
There was a perfect symmetry, that seem’d
Aerial as a bird’s. It was the hour        40
For worship in her land; and she had come,
With the religion of a high, pure heart,
To bow herself in prayer. A darker mind
Might pray at such an hour; but she had caught
The spirit of the scene; and, as her eye        45
Follow’d the coursing of the golden waves,
Or rested on the clouds that slept above,
Like isles upon the bosom of the sea,
Her soul was swept to music like a harp,
And she knelt down in her deep blessedness        50
To worship the High Maker. A she pray’d,
Her beautiful young boy—a very dream,
As he might be, of infant loveliness,
With his dark hair upon the summer wind,
And the sweet laugh of a delighted child        55
Like music on his lips—came leaping by,
And, flinging a light wreath upon her brow,
Sprang onward like a bounding antelope.
She turn’d a moment—might she not, for him?
Him, whom she cradled in the whispering tree,        60
And gather’d to her bosom in the hush
Of the still night?—to know if he was there.
’T was but a moment, and she bow’d again;
And, as the murmur of her silver tone
Stole out upon the wind, her images        65
Of majesty came back, and she was fill’d,
Like a deep channel by the whirlwind swept,
Again, with the rich rushing of her prayer.
The shadows of the stealthy evening came
Silently on; but she was up, in thought,        70
Among the crystal palaces of light;
And a still prompting came to her, to pray
That the poor spirit of a passing world,
With all its fond, but frail idolatries,
Might on the altar of her God be flung.        75
She breathed it, and along the holy shore
She heard the whisper of the waters creep:
“Thine is the victory, Meina!”—Was it won?
Won in its cold, bereaving cruelty?
Won from the pride of woman? from her love?        80
Won from thy boy! young mother? No! oh, no!
She had forgotten him! He was too young,
Too purely, beautifully young, to die!
And then the waves repeated to the shore,
And the light echo heard it: “Give him up!”        85
And Meina heard it: “Give him to thy God!”
And the strong heart arose! One arrowy pulse
Of an acuter agony than death;
One fearful shiver at the searching thrill,
And she had won—aye, with her glorious boy        90
Upon her very breast—the victory!
Oh! let the erring oftener be forgiven,
That, in the shadowy twilight of the mind,
They stray a little from the perfect way!
If there is evidence in silent leaves,        95
And the still waters, of a present God,
And all who hear not messages of grace,
Must gather from its dim and hidden words
Their better solaces; remember ye
Who reckon lightly of the poor Hindoo,        100
That, in the scattering of the leaves of life,
His page was written more imperfectly.
  The beautiful sun arose, and there was not
A stain upon the sky; the virgin blue
Was delicate as light; and, as the east        105
Eclipsed night’s pale and starry jewelry,
The pure intensity of noon stole on,
Like the soft deepening of a northern eye.
  “Come! my own glorious boy!” and forth he sprang,
As he had been created of the morn        110
A spirit and an element of light.
“Come! Come!” and he was bounding airily
Beside his stately mother, laughing out
His lisping prattle of the promised boat,
As if her words had been in playfulness,        115
“That the bright waves should float him on to heaven.”
The morning mist stole up, as Meina knelt
To offer him to God. Her eyes were dim;
But her fine forehead, and her calm, still lip,
Were fearfully subdued; and as the cloud        120
Which clothes the lightning slumbers, so they slept.
Her soul was in its strength. She held her boy
Upon her bosom, till she felt the throb
Of his warm pulses numbered on her heart,
And her low, leaden cadences, kept on!        125
His silken hair, as delicately soft
As the light wind that stirr’d it, floated up,
As if to plead at her transparent cheek;
But she had wooed its kisses till it came
To be a fond idolatry, and now        130
She nerved her as the strong heart answer’d it.
And the low words broke severally on,
Distinctly as a common orison!
There is a period in the wreck of hopes
By the affections garnered, calmer far        135
Than an untried serenity. It comes
With the stern conflict ever, and awaits
The passage of that hour, as if the soul
Were girded, and had champion’d suffering;
And it is strange, how a weak human heart        140
Will thus be quiet like a hushing storm,
And, with a fetter on its pulses, wait
To measure spirits for the mastery!
  The low “Amen!” died on the silent air,
And Meina’s heart was ready. The young boy        145
Sprang joyously away, as if her arms
Had prison’d him too long; and, as he saw
The painted boat heave lightly to the swell
Upon the reedy shore, and caught the breath
Of her wreathed helm of flowers, he gave a shout,        150
In his impatient gladness, and away,
Like a warm vision of aerial birth,
He bounded to implore that she would come.
Calmly and steadily came Meina on,
Led by her victim boy. The boat was there        155
Among the tall wet reeds, and she went in
And scann’d its light frame over, and arranged
Its mimic ornaments; and then again,
When she had seen it all, and he had grown
Impatient, she began to note once more        160
The frailties in its lightly plaited reeds,
As if she did not know that it was meant
To kill. It is a wonderful effect
Of nature in the heart, that in the strength
Of a mistaken duty, it will turn,        165
And almost trifle with its tenderness,
As if it half misgave that all was wrong.
  “Come!” and he sprang into his mother’s arms
With a light leap, and, scarcely faltering
In his gay laugh, he look’d into her face,        170
And in a tone of fondness whisper’d her,
“Will the boat bear, dear mother?” She had quell’d
Her feelings until now; had nerved herself
To the light grace with which he bounded by;
Had heard his voice, and look’d upon his hair        175
In its light, breezy floatings, and had shut
Her heart up, with an iron thought, to all.
But this one doubt, half sadness as it came
From his delighted lips, and with his look
Of childlike and appealing confidence,        180
Was keener than a mother’s heart could bear!
She bow’d her head, and struggled, as if life
Were bursting from its seal; and, as the thought
Rush’d over her to take her idol back,
And keep him for her God, he murmur’d low,        185
“And are you sure, my mother?”—“No! my son!”
And the strong tide of nature gather’d back
With a resistless energy. She clasp’d
Her boy convulsively, and he had lived
To quicken, in its gifted elements,        190
The radiant spirit written on his brow,
But a high strengthening she knew not of,
Awaken’d her, and pressing down her lips
In a long fervent kiss upon his cheek,
She hush’d him into peace, and lifting up        195
Her face to heaven, she breathed the name of God,
And laid him down—for ever!
                    The light bark
Went smoothly with the tide, and floated on
Till his dark eye was scarcely visible.        200
On, and yet on, she bounded! The bright waves
Seem’d playful in their leaping joyousness,
And the curl’d ripple feather’d at the prow
Like a glad thing of life. Had death grown slow?
Or were the waters “stay’d,” that they should keep        205
Their cold embraces from him? On, still on,
With her quick undulations! Hope revived
In the sick heart of Meina, and she rose
To gaze more keenly forward. He was there,
And his small arms were lifted; and she thought        210
That, as he toss’d them upward, she could hear
A cadence of his sweet and silvery voice
Like a delighted shouting. It died off,
And then again she heard it. Was it joy
That broke upon her ear? oh! was there joy        215
In that long cry, thou mother? Hark to it!
’T is like the arrowy piercing of the wind!
He moveth, and she bade him to be still!
He riseth! ’t is his boyish restlessness!
Look, Meina! Does he dash his little hands,        220
In mirth, upon the waters? Hark! once more!
“Mother!” He calls thee! Is thy child afraid?
Again! How very fearfully it comes!
“Help! Mother!” ’t is a cry of agony!
He sinks! Fly! Fly! he calls to thee! Oh fly!        225
“Mother!” God help thee! Dost thou see him now?

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