Our Willie

By Henry Timrod 1828–1867 Henry Timrod
’T was merry Christmas when he came,
Our little boy beneath the sod;
And brighter burned the Christmas flame,
And merrier sped the Christmas game,
Because within the house there lay   
A shape as tiny as a fay—
      The Christmas gift of God!
In wreaths and garlands on the walls   
The holly hung its ruby balls,
      The mistletoe its pearls;
And a Christmas tree’s fantastic fruits   
Woke laughter like a choir of flutes
      From happy boys and girls.
For the mirth, which else had swelled as shrill   
As a school let loose to its errant will,
      Was softened by the thought,   
That in a dim hushed room above   
A mother’s pains in a mother’s love
      Were only just forgot.
The jest, the tale, the toast, the glee,
All took a sober tone;
We spoke of the babe upstairs, as we   
Held festival for him alone.
When the bells rang in the Christmas morn,   
It scarcely seemed a sin to say
That they rang because that babe was born,   
Not less than for the sacred day.
Ah! Christ forgive us for the crime
Which drowned the memories of the time   
      In a merely mortal bliss!
We owned the error when the mirth
Of another Christmas lit the hearth
      Of every home but this.
When, in that lonely burial-ground,
With every Christmas sight and sound   
Removed or shunned, we kept
A mournful Christmas by the mound   
Where little Willie slept!

Ah, hapless mother! darling wife!   
I might say nothing more,
And the dull cold world would hold   
The story of that precious life
      As amply told!
Shall we, shall you and I, before   
That world’s unsympathetic eyes   
Lay other relics from our store
      Of tender memories?
What could it know of the joy and love   
That throbbed and smiled and wept above
      An unresponsive thing?
And who could share the ecstatic thrill   
With which we watched the upturned bill   
Of our bird at its living spring?   
Shall we tell how in the time gone by,   
Beneath all changes of the sky,   
And in an ordinary home
      Amid the city’s din,
Life was to us a crystal dome,   
      Our babe the flame therein?   
Ah! this were jargon on the mart;
And though some gentle friend,
And many and many a suffering heart,   
Would weep and comprehend,   
Yet even these might fail to see   
What we saw daily in the child—
Not the mere creature undefiled,   
But the winged cherub soon to be.
That wandering hand which seemed to reach
      At angel finger-tips,
And that murmur like a mystic speech   
      Upon the rosy lips,
That something in the serious face   
Holier than even its infant grace,   
And that rapt gaze on empty space,   
Which made us, half believing, say,   
“Ah, little wide-eyed seer! who knows   
But that for you this chamber glows   
With stately shapes and solemn shows?”   
Which touched us, too, with vague alarms,   
Lest in the circle of our arms   
We held a being less akin
To his parents in a world of sin   
Than to beings not of clay:
How could we speak in human phrase,   
Of such scarce earthly traits and ways,   
      What would not seem
      A doting dream,
In the creed of these sordid days?   
      No! let us keep
      Deep, deep,
In sorrowing heart and aching brain,   
This story hidden with the pain,   
Which since that blue October night   
When Willie vanished from our sight,   
Must haunt us even in our sleep.
In the gloom of the chamber where he died,   
And by that grave which, through our care,   
From Yule to Yule of every year,   
Is made like spring to bloom;
And where, at times, we catch the sigh
As of an angel floating nigh,
Who longs but has not power to tell
That in that violet-shrouded cell
Lies nothing better than the shell
Which he had cast aside—
By that sweet grave, in that dark room,   
We may weave at will for each other’s ear,
Of that life, and that love, and that early doom,   
The tale which is shadowed here:
To us alone it will always be
As fresh as our own misery;
But enough, alas! for the world is said,
In the brief “Here lieth” of the dead!

Source: The Collected Poems of Henry Timrod (1965)

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Poet Henry Timrod 1828–1867

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Subjects Living, Sorrow & Grieving, Death, Parenthood

Poetic Terms Couplet

Biography

Since Henry Timrod's output before the Civil War was limited to verse sufficient only for a single volume—published in December 1859—his literary reputation at the time was modest. The political activities surrounding the formation of a new nation and the impact of the war itself aroused Timrod's poetic imagination, however, and he quickly became widely known as the literary spokesman and eventually as the so-called poet . . .

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SUBJECT Living, Sorrow & Grieving, Death, Parenthood

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Poetic Terms Couplet

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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