On an Infant Dying as Soon as Born
I saw where in the shroud did lurk
A curious frame of Nature's work.
A flow'ret crushed in the bud,
A nameless piece of Babyhood,
Was in a cradle-coffin lying;
Extinct, with scarce the sense of dying;
So soon to exchange the imprisoning womb
For darker closets of the tomb!
She did but ope an eye, and put
A clear beam forth, then strait up shut
For the long dark: ne'er more to see
Through glasses of mortality.
Riddle of destiny, who can show
What thy short visit meant, or know
What thy errand here below?
Shall we say, that Nature blind
Check'd her hand, and changed her mind,
Just when she had exactly wrought
A finish'd pattern without fault?
Could she flag, or could she tire,
Or lack'd she the Promethean fire
(With her nine moons' long workings sicken'd)
That should thy little limbs have quicken'd?
Limbs so firm, they seem'd to assure
Life of health, and days mature:
Woman's self in miniature!
Limbs so fair, they might supply
(Themselves now but cold imagery)
The sculptor to make Beauty by.
Or did the stern-eyed Fate descry,
That babe, or mother, one must die;
So in mercy left the stock,
And cut the branch; to save the shock
Of young years widow'd; and the pain,
When Single State comes back again
To the lone man who, 'reft of wife,
Thenceforward drags a maimed life?
The economy of Heaven is dark;
And wisest clerks have miss'd the mark,
Why Human Buds, like this, should fall,
More brief than fly ephemeral,
That has his day; while shrivel'd crones
Stiffen with age to stocks and stones;
And crabbed use the conscience sears
In sinners of an hundred years.
Mother's prattle, mother's kiss,
Baby fond, thou ne'er wilt miss.
Rites, which custom does impose,
Silver bells and baby clothes;
Coral redder than those lips,
Which pale death did late eclipse;
Music framed for infants' glee,
Whistle never tuned for thee;
Though thou want'st not, thou shalt have them,
Loving hearts were they which gave them.
Let not one be missing; nurse,
See them laid upon the hearse
Of infant slain by doom perverse.
Why should kings and nobles have
Pictured trophies to their grave;
And we, churls, to thee deny
Thy pretty toys with thee to lie,
A more harmless vanity?
(Based on a short story by Anton Chekhov)
A shoddy lantern lights the scene.
It's twenty after two o'clock
And nurse-maid Varka, aged thirteen,
Can hardly make the cradle rock.
Her eyelids droop, her fingers slip;
Sleep beckons, but she won't succumb.
Reminded of her master's whip,
She carries on her drowsy hum:
'Oh hush, my little baby, hush
So tender dreams come in a rush.'
The child is crying constantly.
As if bewitched, he won't calm down.
The hollers blend into a sea
In which poor Varka drifts and drowns...
She fights to rifle through the mist
And stumbles on a new display:
A crowd of nomads who persist
To wade along the muddy way.
And suddenly, the vagrants fall
Into the mud, two-inches deep.
"Oh - what's that rite for?", Varka calls.
"To sleep!", they answer her, "To sleep!"
A change of scene - she's in her hut.
Her father's twitching on the floor,
His fists are clenched, his eyes are shut.
A body no man can restore.
Her mother weeps, and by the door
The doctor frowns and seeks his horse.
A fright fills Varka's very core,
It hits her with a stunning force -
She's smacked and wakes. Her master fumes.
"Fie! Nodding off, you wretched thing?"
And in the window - daybreak looms,
To bode dull chores the morning brings:
To boil the tea and wipe the plates,
To fix the fence and mend a vest.
But no command can truly grate -
They get the mind off peaceful rest...
Her neck's quite stiff. Her temples throb.
She chuckles oft, though knows not why.
She calmly labors through each job
Until the day's last embers die.
The crib awaits at dinnertime.
The wee one airs his wail and moan
But now, the lines of Varka's rhyme
Are uttered in a blunted tone:
'Oh hush, my little baby, hush
So bitter dreams come in a rush.'
A flood of thoughts drives Varka mad:
Those drifters on the muddy way;
Her weeping mom and beaten dad;
A lifetime full of vile dismay.
What's keeping Varka tightly bound?
It nettles her; it taunts her so,
Until the simple answer's found.
It's him. The baby is the foe.
Ambition fuels her wearied pace:
One final chore to execute.
A pillow meets the infant's face,
Until the vicious foe is mute.
Then, as exhaustion overcomes,
She's more than willing to comply...
The room goes dim as Varka hums
Her slowly fading lullaby.