Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE JEW'S GIFT; A.D. 1200, by THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH



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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

THE JEW'S GIFT; A.D. 1200, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The abbot willed it, and it was done
Last Line: "well, well! Since he gave his beard to the birds!"
Subject(s): Jews; Judaism


THE Abbot willed it, and it was done.
They hanged him high in an iron cage
For the spiteful wind and the patient sun
To bleach him. Faith,'t was a cruel age!
Just for no crime they hanged him there.
When one is a Jew, why, one remains
A Jew to the end, though he swing in air
From year to year in a suit of chains.

'T was May, and the buds into blossom broke,
And the apple-boughs were pink and white:
What grewsome fruit was that on the oak,
Swaying and swaying day and night!
The miller, urging his piebald mare
Over the cross-road, stopped and leered;
But never an urchin ventured there,
For fear of the dead man's long white beard.

A long white beard like carded wool,
Reaching down to the very knee --
Of a proper sort with which to pull
A heretic Jew to the gallows-tree!
Piteous women-folk turned away,
Having no heart for such a thing;
But the blackbirds on the alder-spray
For very joy of it seemed to sing.

Whenever a monk went shuffling by
To the convent over against the hill,
He would lift a pitiless pious eye,
And mutter, "The Abbot but did God's will!"
And the Abbot himself slept no whit less,
But rather the more, for this his deed:
And the May moon filled, and the loveliness
Of springtide flooded upland and mead.

Then an odd thing chanced. A certain clown,
On a certain morning breaking stone
By the hill-side, saw, as he glanced down,
That the heretic's long white beard was gone --
Shaved as clean and close as you choose,
As close and clean as his polished pate!
Like wildfire spread the marvellous news,
From the ale-house bench to the convent gate.

And the good folk flocked from far and near,
And the monks trooped down the rocky height:
'T was a miracle, that was very clear --
The Devil had shaved the Israelite!
Where is the Abbot? Quick, go tell!
Summon him, knave, God's death! straightway!
The Devil hath sent his barber from hell,
Perchance there will be the devil to pay!

Now a lad that had climbed an alder-tree,
The better to overlook the rest,
Suddenly gave a shout of glee
At finding a wondrous blackbird-nest,
Then suddenly flung it from his hand,
For lo! it was woven of human hair,
Plaited and braided strand upon strand --
No marvel the heretic's chin was bare!

Silence fell upon priest and clown,
Each stood riveted in his place;
The brat that tugged at his mother's gown
Caught the terror that blanched her face.
Then one, a patriarch, bent and gray,
Wise with the grief of years fourscore,
Picked up his staff, and took his way
By the mountain-path to the Abbot's door --

And bravely told this thing of the nest,
How the birds had never touched cheek or eye,
But daintily plucked the fleece from the breast
To build a home for their young thereby.
"Surely, if they were not afeard
(God's little choristers, free of guile!)
To serve themselves of the Hebrew's beard,
It was that he was not wholly vile!

"Perhaps they saw with their keener eyes
The grace that we missed, but which God sees:
Ah, but He reads all hearts likewise,
The good in those, and the guilt in these.
Precious is mercy, O my lord!"
Humbly the Abbot bowed his head,
And, making a gesture of accord --
"What would you have? The knave is dead."

"Certes, the man is dead! No doubt
Deserved to die; as a Jew, he died;
But now he hath served the sentence out
(With a dole or two thrown in beside),
Suffered all that he may of men --
Why not earth him, and no more words?"
The Abbot pondered, and smiled, and then --
"Well, well! since he gave his beard to the birds!"





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