"My Sister’s Sleep." Review. Belle Assemblèe 29.2 (Aug. 1848): 140-142.

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"Youth, with pale cheek and slender frame,

And dreams of greatness in thine eye!

Goest thou to build an early name–

Or early in thy tasks to die?

W. C. Bryant

     

Many beautiful little poems appear from time to time in our literary journals, bearing the unmistakable impress of genius, and absolutely startling us by their freshness and originality; while many more of equal, if not superior merit, are–

"–––born to blush unseen,

And waste their sweetness on the desert air."

The youthful poet pours out his soul in music; and a pleasant thing it is to sit singing to one self; but the world is neither wiser nor better for such harmony. Many are the pearls of high and precious imaginings which are lost for want of being gathered together and strung, and which require only to be set in order that men may behold and wonder at their costliness. Unpublished, unknown out of their own narrow sphere, bright thoughts are born, and die, and are forgotten! Frequently this is the author’s own fault, who, with a strange mingling of pride and humility–for true genius is ever humble–underrates his own performance, feeling how very far it falls short of his conception, and the impossibility of realizing his own beautiful ideal! Aspiring, rather than despairing, with the full consciousness of his powers; he presses on towards the goal of perfection, flinging aside the bright blossoms which he may have gathered along the way, and reaching ever upward, to the laurel crown of Fame! And yet many have made a rich bouquet of flowers far less worthy.

"Oh, it is nothing to what I can do, if I am spared!" was the exclamation of a young poetess, in answer to the praises bestowed upon some early and very exquisite performances; and such is the heart’s language of every child of genius.

The following little poem is one of those scattered gems of thought to which we have before alluded, and to which our gentle readers will, we think, thank us for directing their attention. The author is very young–one of a gifted family–humble, yet ambitious; and preferring, perhaps wisely, to withhold his name until years of study and deep thought shall have brought the dawning of that genius, of which he could not but be conscious, to maturity. It would be well for many, whom we could name, if they had followed his example, or made use at least of some such desk as that of the celebrated Bembo, which is said to have had forty divisions, through which each of his sonnets was passed in due succession, and at fixed intervals of time receiving a fresh revisal at every change of place.

The poem of which we sit down to write, and linger over, pointing out its beauties, and dwelling upon its occasional touches of simple and exquisite pathos, is entitled by the author, "My Sister’s Sleep." It opens with a picture:–

"She fell asleep on Christmas Eve,

  Upon her eyes’ most patient calms

  The lids were shut; her uplaid arms

Covered her bosom, I believe.

"Our mother, who had leaned all day

  Over the bed from chime to chime,

  Then raised herself for the first time,

And as she sat her down, did pray."

How beautiful this is!*–the invalid, with her closed lids and "uplaid arms;" and the mother–"our mother," as she is touchingly called–bending over her with a watchful and untiring devotion, "all day from chime to chime;" marking every change upon that beloved face; anticipating the wishes which she was too weak to express; wiping the damp brow, moistening the parched lip, and meeting the longing glance of those sunken eyes with a fond and cheerful smile; shedding no tear, feeling no weariness, forgetful of self–for such is a mother’s love! and now, when a sweet, refreshing sleep fell at length upon her suffering child, sitting down with a heart full of quiet thankfulness to "pray."

The next two verses fill up, as it were, and give the finishing touches to this exquisite picture; and although the colouring (to continue our simile) is not altogether faultless, it is wonderfully true to nature, with here and there a master-stroke of great power:

"Outside there was a good moon up,

  Whose trailing shadow fell within;

  The depth of cloud that it was in

Seemed hollow, like an altar-cup.

"I watched it through the lattice-work;

We had some plants of evergreen

Standing upon the sill: just then

It passed behind, and made them dark."

The italics in the next verse are our own:–

"Silence was speaking at my side

  With an exceedingly clear voice;

  But my thoughts kept a shifted poise,

And going not, would not abide."

Who has not heard the silence speaking? and experienced those shifting, wandering thoughts, coming and going like white-winged birds, now skimming along the earth, and now darting upwards to heaven? The following is equally graphic and truthful, and explains what had gone heretofore:–

"I had been sitting up some nights,

  And my tired mind felt weak and blank;

  Like a sharp strengthening wine, it drank

The silence and the broken lights."

In such a state the following train of thought seems to be as natural as it is beautiful:–

"I said, ‘There is asleep like death;

  There is also a death like sleep;

  Things it is difficult to keep

Apart, when one considereth.’

"I feel as if I might not grieve:

  This sadness on my heart that dwells

  Perhaps would have been sorrow else:

But I am glad ‘tis Christmas Eve."

The first verse reminds me of Sir Thomas Brown, who calls sleep Death’s younger brother. "And so like him," as he somewhere says, "that I never trust him without my prayers." The earthly woe chastened and gilded by the heavenly love, as described in the next verse, is very touching. There is a volume of hope and faith in that one line–

"But I am glad ‘tis Christmas Eve."

The succeeding verse is not faultless, although more than redeemed by that which immediately follows it, and which we have placed in italics, in order to draw attention to its singular power and truthfulness.

"While I was thinking, it struck twelve.

  I said ‘As swift as came and went

  These strokes, so swift is the descent

Of life that once begins to shelve.

"That sound–a sound which all the years

  Has heard each hour–crept off: and then

  The ruffled silence spread again,

Like water that a pebble stirs."

Gentle Reader, have you ever found yourself a lone watcher by the bed of sickness, when the busy household was hushed and still, and you only awake? Do you not recognize this description? Have you never started when the clock struck twelve, and shuddered as the sound

"–––crept off, and

The ruffles silence spread again;"

Yes, even–

"Like water that a pebble stirs"?

Happy are ye, if ye have no such memories!

The poem continues thus:–

"Our mother rose up where she sat.

  Her needles, as she laid them down,

  Met harshly, and her silken gown

Rustled: no other noise than that."

"Our mother," like all mothers, with busy fingers and loving heart! The sound of her needles clashing together as she laid them down, and the "rustling of her silken gown," are among those exquisite little touches of nature with which the poem abounds.

"‘Give praise unto the newly born!’

  So, as said angels, she did say;

  Because we were in Christmas Day,

Though it would still be long till dawn."

We close our eyes and hear afar off, in imagination, the old Christmas Hymn, with which all must be familiar, and, we think, that all must love: it begins thus:–

"Hark! the herald angels sing,

‘Glory to the new-born King;

Peace on earth, and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled!’"

Joyful all ye nations, rise,

Join the triumph of the skies;

With th’ angelic hosts proclaim,

‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’"

But to our task; and truly it is no task, but a labour of love! We are told of that meek and Christian mother, in the next verse, that–

"She stood a moment, with her hands

  Pressed in each other, praying much;

  A moment that the mind may touch

But the heart only understands."

We venture no remark on the above beautifully expressed truth; but pass on to the

succeeding verse, which seems to throw a new light over the little history before us:–

"Just then in the room over us

  There was a pushing back of chairs,

  As some who had sat unawares

So late, heard the clock strike, and rose."

It would appear from this that there were other dwellers in the house; and we are forcibly reminded of the eloquent language of an American author: "In times of the most general gaiety," writes the Rev. F. W. P. Greenwood, "there are always contemporaneous sorrows; some hearts breaking while others are bonding. While we look on gaily thronging crowds, intent on the business, the pleasure, or the wonder of the day, we cannot forget that some houses have their windows darkened, and their doors closed, because within them are the sorrowful, the sick, the dead. Thus are our passions modulated; thus does the low note of sadness run through the music of life, heard in its loudest swells, present in all its variations, uttering its warning accompaniment throughout, and moderating the harmony of the whole."

Those in the room overhead were, most probably, unaware of their near neighbourhood to the chamber of sickness, and had been sitting talking together, heedless of the flight of time, until startled by its warning voice. Their rising up, and the "pushing back of chairs," is very naturally told; while we are left to imagine the clasping hands, and the mutual good wishes usually exchanged at that particular season:–

"Anxious, with softly-stepping haste,

  Our mother went where Margaret lay,

  Fearing the sound o’erhead, that they

Had broken her long-hoped-for rest.

"Lightly she stooped, and smiling turned;

  But suddenly turned back again;

  And all her features seemed in pain

With woe, and her eyes gazed and yearned."

We can almost see "our mother" fearing lest the rest of her darling Margaret–the rest from which she had hoped so much–should be broken, gliding to the bedside with her quiet, noiseless steps; bending over it a moment, and then turning round her smiling face, as much as to say to the companion of all her cares and sorrows, "She is still asleep." But there was something probably in the expression of that pale which startled her all of a sudden. Sleep and Death, as it was before said, are so much alike! Again she looked, and her agony is powerfully depicted:–

"All her features seemed in pain

With woe, and her eyes gazed and yearned."

Not less touching is the silent grief of the narrator:–

"For my part, I but hid my face,

  And held my breath, and spoke no word:

  And there was nought spoken; but I heard

The silence for a little space."

In that audible silence all hope passed from the heart of the bereaved parent, and she turned

away the long gaze of those "yearning eyes" and "wept." The spell was broken:–

"Our mother bowed herself and wept,

And both my arms fell, and I said:

‘God knows I knew that she was dead.’

And there, all white, my sister slept.

"Then kneeling, upon Christmas morn

  A little after twelve o’clock

  We said, as when the last chime struck,

"Christ’s blessing on the newly born!"

So ends the poem; and thus we would have it end. Another verse might have let in the world again, and now all is Faith and Peace and Joy–as it should be upon this Blessed Eve–and again we hear in imagination the sweet Christmas Hymn, of which mention has before been made:–

"Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!

Hail the Son of Righteousness!

Light and life to all he brings,

Risen with healing on his wings,

Mild, he lays his glory by,

Born that man no more may die;

Born to raise the sons of earth;

Born to give them second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing! &c."

* Query the first verse, with its vague expression and faulty rhyme?–Ed. N.M.B.A.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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