Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, ORA PRO NOBIS, by ANNA HEMPSTEAD BRANCH



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ORA PRO NOBIS, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: While I was still a child so young
Last Line: Ave maria, ora pro nobis.
Subject(s): Mary. Mother Of Jesus; Women In The Bible; Virgin Mary


I

While I was still a child so young
I had no words upon my tongue
(Hail Mary.)
They led me to a convent gray
And here they told me I must stay
And learn to think high thoughts and pray.
(Hail Mary.)
They taught me I must keep my ways
Fresh for God's sight and fit for praise,
As clean as angels all my days.
(Hail Mary.)
They taught me that my words should fall
With silence sweet for interval,
And that God's praise should sphere them all
As the sky holds this earthen ball.
(Hail Mary.)
"And my looks too," said I, "shall they
Not praise Him, like a child at play?"
" Hush, little Daughter," answered they,
And made me stitch the livelong day.
(Hail Mary.)
"Let all your thoughts be sweet and mild,
Like the wings of doves, or silver-wild
Sing round God's heart, for thou art a child."
(Hail Mary.)
Long years I dwelt in that dark hall,
There was no mirror on the wall,
I never saw my face at all.
(Hail Mary.)
In a great peace they kept me there,
A straight white robe they had me wear,
And the white bands about my hair.
I did not know that I was fair.
(Hail Mary.)
I did not know how bright my looks
Shone in that place like rippling brooks.
But the gray nuns in shadowy bands
Closed thick around me as the sands
Lift water in their slow grave hands.
And so I glistened all alone
Like a water singing cheerly,
Knowing not it sings so clearly.
Oh, for a wild rush down the mountain!
Hidden in a basin of stone
I sprang and sang like a golden fountain.
Sometimes we sewed at magic gowns
For great gay ladies in the towns,
Color of flame and russet browns,
(Hail Mary.)
Stuff of blue and cloth of red
And thin apparel for the dead,
Stitched in and out with a lily-white thread.
(Hail Mary.)
Sometimes we chanted a slow hymn,
And in the cloister, long and dim,
We stood in ranks like lilies slim.
(Hail Mary.)
The pale Priest swung a starry light,
And sometimes in my dreams at night
The great kind angels warm and bright
Wove me garments of delight.
(Hail Mary.)
Sometimes made strange with cloudlike needs
I used to tell the Lord my beads.
They were as beautiful as deeds
That won the blessed saints their meeds.
(Hail Mary.)
When to the Crucifix I came
I kissed it, out of love and shame,
And then great wings would round me flame.
(Hail Mary.)
Sometimes alone and vision struck
I made black letters in a book,
Or such a glory round them shook
They blossomed with a flowering look.
I wrought them round with smooth green leaves,
Where scarlet fruitage interweaves,
And the pale light of water-lily sheaves
Spread a tranquil splendor under
A warm vintage of purple and green,
Angels' warm garments shone between,
And mellowed with a yellowed wonder
The rich page of the Breviary,
Whose words stepped in a solemn tune
Mindful of an inner rune
As black nuns in the afternoon
Pace a hot garden, flowered with June.
And those dark words upon the page,
Bound on their holy pilgrimage,
And the brighter words that blazoned them round
Uttered a strange beamy sound
More musical than any sound --
For all the words in the Breviary
Were written in the praise of Mary.
Mary Mother, be thou kind to us,
In thy Heaven, turn thy mind to us,
Among thy angels, be not blind to us!
I give my perfectness to thee,
My innocence and virginity.
Keep me in purity,
So shall I blessed be.
Ave Maria, Ora Pro nobis.
Once I that was not wise from age
Left a kiss upon the page.
(Hail Mary.)
I thought the words might bloom more rare
If innocent kisses warmed them there.
I did not know that I was fair.
(Hail Mary.)


II

The corridor was long and lone,
And it was flagged with shining stone,
Polished by feet long dead and gone.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
I used to travel ever night
Those stones, and as a lily white
Sheds petals, so my taper bright
Reflected a slow swimming light.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
Upon one side a corridor
Into a garden opened sweet,
Heavy with summer, rich with heat,
And sometimes whitened thin with sleet.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
At midnight how it used to smell
Of rose and jasmine, and the bell
From the high tower dropped a sound
Sphering through the spicy dell
Orbed and golden to the ground.
I used to wonder, if I found it,
With all its music wrapped around it,
If I could keep it shaped just so,
A star of sound in a golden glow.
The whole year long and every night
My bare feet traveled, silver white.
Looking neither left nor right,
In my hand I held a light.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
I went with oil to Mary's shrine
To feed the blessed light divine
That perpetually must shine.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
Of all the nuns I was the least.
Each night I met the pale worn Priest,
Whose fasting was his only feast,
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
Pacing darkly by the wall
To the nuns' confessional,
I could hear his footsteps fall,
Stop at the cross, and that was all.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
I knew how once upon the stone
Kissing the cross he prayed alone
Until its pangs consumed his bone,
And in his flesh that grief was shown.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
And now upon his hands and breast
Christ's precious wounds were manifest,
Making him holier than the rest.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
Three long years I faced him there
Every night, and felt his prayer
Shine round him like a starry air.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
He turned from me his unseeing eye
Like one who was about to die,
And knelt at the cross as I passed by.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
It was upon a winter's night,
My bare feet traveled, silver white
Through fine sheer sleet that glittered bright.
Looking neither left nor right,
In my hand I bore a light.
A garment spun of whirling sleet
Wove me round from head to feet,
I shone as in a winding sheet.
My clinging feet left blood upon
The sharp strange coldness of the stone.
I drifted on without a moan.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
Before the blast my head was bent,
I could not see which way I went,
When at the cross I fell, clean spent.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
The Priest came staggering through the blast.
For forty nights he kept his fast
Even like the Christ -this was the last.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
His cast-out dreams appeared to glow,
A pageant and a blazing show,
Round about I saw them go,
Fire woven in a snow.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
The visions that he drove from him
About my eyelids, beating dim,
Like radiant vapors seemed to swim,
And suddenly unfurled,
The air showed in its cordial fold
High blazoned chambers floored with gold
Built in a magic world.
Strong blocks of air reared musical
Were quarried for a shining wall,
With thrill of lute and zithern call,
I seemed to know the names of all.
The wind was shaped in colonnades,
Turret and dome and long arcades,
While blossoming fruit trees cast their shades
Over the laughing cavalcades
Of knights and ladies, lads and maids.
High flowering vines reached up to clamber
In sunlit rings to icy airs,
Green boughs laughed out with plums and pears,
While silvery feet of dancing fairs
Wheeled, like white birds, down golden stairs
To a golden paven chamber
Whereon their footfalls shone like amber.
The Priest beat on his breast and cried,
I will not see them." Barren eyed
He stared them from him and defied.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
The towers built of thought and dream
A moment terribly did gleam,
Then ran like water in a stream.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
He beat from him the beauteous net.
About his brow the frozen sweat
Flashed like a visor sternly set.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
"If I can reach the cross," he cried,
"Whereon my Lord was crucified,
Then the whole world has been denied,
Devil, beast, or human."
Bleeding before the cross he knelt,
Dimly through the snow he felt,
And his kiss fell on me -- a woman.
The sweet chill fragrance of the snow
More fine than lilies all aglow
Breathed around -- he saw me so,
In garments spun of fire and snow.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
His hands were on my face and hair,
His high, stern eyes that would forswear
All earthly beauty, saw me there.
Oh, then I knew that I was fair!
(Mary, intercede for us.)
He drove me from him through the night.
My bare feet traveled, silver white.
Looking neither left nor right,
In my band I held a light,
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
I went with oil to Mary's shrine
To feed the blessed light divine
That perpetually must shine.
(Mary, intercede for us.)


III

Great is the will and great the need
Of him who strives against a deed,
How often does he faint and bleed;
But he can crouch behind a stone,
Or hide in barren fields alone,
Bondsman until the hour is done.
Sterner is the battle fought
By him who strives against a thought.
I knelt before the shrine that day
Where Mary smiles on them that pray,
Not once I let my thoughts astray.
I kept my dreams on angels' wings,
And oh, they were but empty things,
Frail lights and golden vanishings.
'Twixt him and me the Holy Cup
Pale hands of thought had lifted up,
But lo, it broke ere I could sup.
(Sweet Mary, pray for us.)
'Twixt him and me I brought the face
Of my dead Christ and sued for grace,
But his looks blurred it from the place.
(Ave Maria, Ora Pro Nobis.)
The thoughts I sent 'twixt me and him
Like holy incense fluttered dim
(Sweet Mary, pray for us.)
A moment breathed, a fragile sheen,
A simple blueness blown between,
A little dimness briefly seen.
(Ave Maria, Ora Pro Nobis.)
Oh, then I ran with battling cries,
Beating the vision from my eyes.
Yes, round and round in frantic wise!
But still that thought would seem to blow
And drift my body like helpless snow
In a strange shape I did not know, --
A foolish, white, and dropping thing,
That hurried where I would not go,
Distraught with wandering.
Then I raised up to God my prayer,
I swept its strong and circling air
Betwixt me and the great despair.
(Sweet Mary, pray for us.)
But when before the sacred shrine
I knelt to kiss the cross benign,
Mary, I thought his lips touched mine.
(Ave Maria, Ora Pro Nobis.)
Stepping darkly by the wall
One and one, with slow footfall,
We entered the confessional.
(Sweet Mary, pray for us.)
I thought that Heaven would take me in
If so I did but speak my sin.
(Ave Maria, Ora Pro Nobis.)
Softly to the grate I trod;
He seemed to me more far than God;
My great shame scourged me like a rod.
Father, I think of you all day,
I cannot work. I cannot pray.
I love you. Purge my love away."
Then he, with eyes that saw me not,
Spoke with pure lips that had forgot.
(Holy Mother, pray for us.)
Go thou to Mary's shrine to-night
And keep with oil the eternal light,
But ere thou goest from her sight
(Sweet Mary, pray for us.)
Take thou the fearful rods and thresh
The forbidden dreaming from thy flesh."
(Mary, intercede for us.)


IV

In the middle of the night
My bare feet traveled, sleety white.
Looking neither left nor right,
In my hand I held a light.
(Hail Mary.)
I went with oil to Mary's shrine
To feed the blessed light divine
That perpetually must shine.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
Before my trembling hand could lift
The sacred oil for her gift
(Hail Mary.)
I scourged my body till it leapt
And I could hear it -- how it wept.
Then broken to her feet I crept
And worn with that great vigil, slept.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
When I woke, I saw his face
Float towards me in that empty space.
Mary's white figure, bowered in grace,
Shone on us from her lighted place.
(Sweet Mary, pray for us.)
Lord, keep me from this child," he cried,
"Or it were better I had died."
And straight, I found him at my side.
(Mary, intercede for us.)
My cheek upon his bosom laid,
I saw the eternal burning fade.
With sacred oil it was not stayed.
(Sweet Mary, pray for us.)
I would have lighted it, but oh,
His circling arm contained me so!
Dark came. I had no will to go.
(Mary, intercede for us.)


V

They scourged us round the walls of gray,
They stoned us till the end of day.
They drove him, where I cannot say.
(Hail Mary.)
They shut me in a cell of stone.
Years and years are dead and gone
Since I have tarried here alone.
(Hail Mary.)
They took my new-born child away,
I have not seen her since that day.
What sweet prayers has she learned to say!
(Hail Mary.)
There used to be a convent bell
Dropped golden sound through a spicy dell
I can remember it so well.
(Hail Mary.)
One time I used to go at night
And feed with oil the virgin's light.
Sometimes the sleet would glitter bright.
(Hail Mary.)
Some was blue and some was red
And some was white to please the dead.
We sewed it with a lily-white thread.
(Hail Mary.)
A jasmine grew beside the wall
The moon hung like a yellow ball.
I have never seen my face at all.
They took him far and far away
To a dark cell, I heard them say,
That never sees the light of day.
Each night at twelve they have him pray.
(Hail Mary.)
When at that hour before the shrine
I kiss, like him, the cross benign,
Father in Heaven -- his lips touch mine.
(Hail Mary.)
I have grown old and spent with age
But still my hand is swift and sage
To make sweet letters on a page.
And all the words in the Breviary
Are written in the praise of Mary.
Mary Mother, be thou kind to us!
In thy Heaven have a mind to us
Among thy angels he not blind to us
I give my perfectness to thee,
My innocence and virginity,
Keep me in purity.
So shall I blessed be.
Ave Maria, Ora Pro Nobis.





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