The Captive

A poem by James Russell Lowell

It was past the hour of trysting,
But she lingered for him still;
Like a child, the eager streamlet
Leaped and laughed adown the hill,
Happy to be free at twilight
From its toiling at the mill.

Then the great moon on a sudden
Ominous, and red as blood,
Startling as a new creation,
O'er the eastern hilltop stood,
Casting deep and deeper shadows
Through the mystery of the wood.

Dread closed fast and vague about her,
And her thoughts turned fearfully
To her heart, if there some shelter
From the silence there might be,
Like bare cedars leaning inland
From the blighting of the sea.

Yet he came not, and the stillness
Dampened round her like a tomb;
She could feel cold eyes of spirits
Looking on her through the gloom,
She could hear the groping footsteps
Of some blind, gigantic doom.

Suddenly the silence wavered
Like a light mist in the wind,
For a voice broke gently through it,
Felt like sunshine by the blind,
And the dread, like mist in sunshine,
Furled serenely from her mind.

'Once my love, my love forever,
Flesh or spirit, still the same,
If I failed at time of trysting,
Deem then not my faith to blame;
I, alas, was made a captive,
As from Holy Land I came.

'On a green spot in the desert,
Gleaming like an emerald star,
Where a palm-tree, in lone silence,
Yearning for its mate afar,
Droops above a silver runnel,
Slender as a scimitar,

'There thou'lt find the humble postern
To the castle of my foe;
If thy love burn clear and faithful,
Strike the gateway, green and low,
Ask to enter, and the warder
Surely will not say thee no.'

Slept again the aspen silence,
But her loneliness was o'er;
Bound her soul a motherly patience
Clasped its arms forevermore;
From her heart ebbed back the sorrow,
Leaving smooth the golden shore.

Donned she now the pilgrim scallop,
Took the pilgrim staff in hand;
Like a cloud-shade flitting eastward,
Wandered she o'er sea and land;
And her footsteps in the desert
Fell like cool rain on the sand.

Soon, beneath the palm-tree's shadow,
Knelt she at the postern low;
And thereat she knocked full gently,
Fearing much the warder's no;
All her heart stood still and listened,
As the door swung backward slow.

There she saw no surly warder
With an eye like bolt and bar;
Through her soul a sense of music
Throbbed, and, like a guardian Lar,
On the threshold stood an angel,
Bright and silent as a star.

Fairest seemed he of God's seraphs,
And her spirit, lily-wise,
Opened when he turned upon her
The deep welcome of his eyes,
Sending upward to that sunlight
All its dew for sacrifice.

Then she heard a voice come onward
Singing with a rapture new,
As Eve heard the songs in Eden,
Dropping earthward with the dew;
Well she knew the happy singer,
Well the happy song she knew.

Forward leaped she o'er the threshold,
Eager as a glancing surf;
Fell from her the spirit's languor,
Fell from her the body's scurf;
'Neath the palm next day some Arabs
Found a corpse upon the turf.

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