The King and the Nightingales


King Edward dwelt at Havering-atte-Bower—
Old, and enfeebled by the weight of power—
Sick of the troublous majesty of kings—
Weary of duty and all mortal things—
Weary of day—weary of night—forlorn—
Cursing, like Job, the hour that he was born,
Thick woods environed him, and in their shade
He roamed all day, and told his beads, and prayed.
Men's faces pained him, and he barred his door
That none might find him;—even the sunshine bore
No warmth or comfort to his wretched sight;
And darkness pleased no better than the light.

He scorned himself for eating food like men,
And lived on roots and water from the fen;
And aye he groaned, and bowed his hoary head—
Did penance, and put nettles in his bed—
Wore sackcloth on his loins, and smote his breast—
Told all his follies, all his sins confessed—
Made accusations of himself to Heaven,
And owned to crimes too great to be forgiven,
Which he had thought, although he had not done—
Blackening his blackness; numbering one by one
Unheard of villanies without a name,
As if he gloried in inventing shame,
Or thought to win the grace of heaven by lies,
And gain a saintship in a fiend's disguise.

 Long in these woods he dwelt—a wretched man,
Shut from all fellowship, self-placed in ban—
Laden with ceaseless prayer and boastful vows,
Which day and night he breathed beneath the boughs,
But sore distressed he was, and wretched quite,
For every evening with the waning light
A choir of nightingales, the brakes among,
Deluged the woods with overflow of song.
‘Unholy birds,’ he said, ‘your throats be riven,
You mar my prayers, you take my thoughts from heaven.’
But still the song, magnificent and loud,
Poured from the trees like rain from thunder-cloud.
Now to his vexed and melancholy ear
Sounding like bridal music, pealing clear;
Anon it deepened on his throbbing brain
To full triumphal march or battle strain;
Then seemed to vary to a choral hymn,
Or De Profundis from cathedral dim,
‘ Te Deum ,’ or ‘ Hosanna to the Lord ,’
Chanted by deep-voiced priests in full accord.
He shut his ears, he stamped upon the sod—
‘Be ye accursed, ye take my thoughts from God!
And thou, beloved saint, to whom I bend,
Lamp of my life, my guardian and my friend,
Make intercession for me, sweet St. John,
And hear the anguish of thy suffering son.
May nevermore within these woods be heard
The song of morning or of evening bird,
May nevermore their harmonies awake
Within the precincts of this lonely brake,
For I am weary, old, and full of woe,
And their songs vex me. This one boon bestow,
That I may pray; and give my thoughts to thee,
Without distraction of their melody;
And that within these bowers my groans and sighs
And ceaseless prayers be all the sounds that rise.
Let God alone possess me, last and first;
And, for His sake, be all these birds accursed.’

 This having said, he started where he stood,
And saw a stranger walking in the wood;
A purple glory, pale as amethyst,
Clad him all o'er. He knew th' Evangelist;
And, kneeling on the earth with reverence meet,
He kissed his garment's hem, and clasped his fee.
‘Rise,’ said the saint, ‘and know, unhappy king,
That true Religion hates no living thing;
It loves the sunlight, loves the face of man,
And takes all virtuous pleasure that it can—
Shares in each harmless joy that Nature gives,
Bestows its sympathy on all that lives,
Sings with the bird, rejoices with the bee,
And, wise as manhood, sports with infancy.
Let not the nightingales disturb thy prayers,
But make thy thanksgiving as pure as theirs;
So shall it mount on wings of love to heaven,
And thou, forgiving, be thyself forgiven.’

 The calm voice ceased;—King Edward dared not look,
But bent to earth, and blushed at the rebuke;
And though he closed his eyes and hid his face,
He knew the saint had vanished from the place.
And when he rose, ever the wild woods rang
With the sweet song the birds of evening sang.
No more he cursed them; loitering on his way
He listened pleased, and blessed them for their lay,
And on the morrow quitted Havering
To mix with men, and be again a king,
And fasting, moaning, scorning, praying less,
Increased in virtue and in happiness.
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