The Candle Seller

A poem by Morris Rosenfeld

In Hester Street, hard by a telegraph post,
There sits a poor woman as wan as a ghost.
Her pale face is shrunk, like the face of the dead,
And yet you can tell that her cheeks once were red.
But love, ease and friendship and glory, I ween,
May hardly the cause of their fading have been.
Poor soul, she has wept so, she scarcely can see.
A skeleton infant she holds on her knee.
It tugs at her breast, and it whimpers and sleeps,
But soon at her cry it awakens and weeps--
"Two cents, my good woman, three candles will buy,
As bright as their flame be my star in the sky!"

Tho' few are her wares, and her basket is small,
She earns her own living by these, when at all.
She's there with her baby in wind and in rain,
In frost and in snow-fall, in weakness and pain.
She trades and she trades, through the good times and slack--
No home and no food, and no cloak to her back.
She's kithless and kinless--one friend at the most,
And that one is silent: the telegraph post!
She asks for no alms, the poor Jewess, but still,
Altho' she is wretched, forsaken and ill,
She cries Sabbath candles to those that come nigh,
And all that she pleads is, that people will buy.

To honor the sweet, holy Sabbath, each one
With joy in his heart to the market has gone.
To shops and to pushcarts they hurriedly fare;
But who for the poor, wretched woman will care?
A few of her candles you think they will take?--
They seek the meat patties, the fish and the cake.
She holds forth a hand with the pitiful cry:
"Two cents, my good women, three candles will buy!"
But no one has listened, and no one has heard:
Her voice is so weak, that it fails at each word.
Perchance the poor mite in her lap understood,
She hears mother's crying--but where is the good

I pray you, how long will she sit there and cry
Her candles so feebly to all that pass by?
How long will it be, do you think, ere her breath
Gives out in the horrible struggle with Death?
How long will this frail one in mother-love strong,
Give suck to the babe at her breast? Oh, how long?
The child mother's tears used to swallow before,
But mother's eyes, nowadays, shed them no more.
Oh, dry are the eyes now, and empty the brain,
The heart well-nigh broken, the breath drawn with pain.
Yet ever, tho' faintly, she calls out anew:
"Oh buy but two candles, good women, but two!"

In Hester Street stands on the pavement of stone
A small, orphaned basket, forsaken, alone.
Beside it is sitting a corpse, cold and stark:
The seller of candles--will nobody mark?
No, none of the passers have noticed her yet.
The rich ones, on feasting are busily set,
And such as are pious, you well may believe,
Have no time to spare on the gay Sabbath eve.
So no one has noticed and no one has seen.
And now comes the nightfall, and with it, serene,
The Princess, the Sabbath, from Heaven descends,
And all the gay throng to the synagogue wends.

Within, where they pray, all is cleanly and bright,
The cantor sings sweetly, they list with delight.
But why in a dream stands the tall chandelier,
As dim as the candles that gleam round a bier?
The candles belonged to the woman, you know,
Who died in the street but a short time ago.
The rich and the pious have brought them tonight,
For mother and child they have set them alight.
The rich and the pious their duty have done:
Her tapers are lighted who died all alone.
The rich and the pious are nobly behaved:
A body--what matters? But souls must be saved!

O synagogue lights, be ye witnesses bold
That mother and child died of hunger and cold
Where millions are squandered in idle display;
That men, all unheeded, must starve by the way.
Then hold back your flame, blessed lights, hold it fast!
The great day of judgment will come at the last.
Before the white throne, where imposture is vain,
Ye lights for the soul, ye'll be lighted again!
And upward your flame there shall mount as on wings,
And damn the existing false order of things!

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