by Herman Melville
The stone huts face the stony wall
Inside — the city's towering screen —
Leaving a reptile lane between;
And streetward not a window small,
Cranny nor loophole least is seen:
Through excess of biting sympathies
So hateful to the people's eyes
Those lepers and their evil nook,
No outlook from it will they brook:
None enter; condolence is none.
That lava glen in Luna's sphere,
More lone than any earthly one —
Whereto they Tycho's name have given —
Not more from visitant is riven
Than this stone lane.
But who crouch here?
Have these been men? these did men greet
As fellows once? It is a scene —
Illusion of time's mirage fleet:
On dry shard-heaps, and things which rot —
Scarce into weeds, for weeds are green —
Backs turned upon their den, they squat,
Some gossips of that tribe unclean.
Time was when Holy Church did take,
Over lands then held by Baldwin's crown,
True care for such for Jesu's sake,
Who (so they read in ages gone)
Even as a leper was foreshown;
And, tho' apart their lot she set,
It was with solemn service yet,
And forms judicial lent their tone:
The sick-mass offered, next was shed
Upon the afflicted human one
The holy water. He was led
Unto the house aloof, his home
Thenceforth. And here, for type of doom,
Some cemetery dust was thrown
Over his head: " Die to the world:
Her wings of hope and fear be furled:
Brother, live now to God alone."
And from the people came the chant:
" My soul is troubled, joy is curbed,
All my bones they are disturbed,
God, Thy strength and mercy grant!"
And next, in order due, the priest
Each habit and utensil blessed —
Hair-cloth and barrel, clapper, glove;
And one by one as these were given,
With law's dread charge pronounced in love,
So, link by link, life's chain was riven —
The leper faded in remove.
The dell of isolation here
To match, console, and (could man prove
More than a man) in part endear,
How well had come that smothered text
Which Julian's pagan mind hath vexed —
And ah, for soul that finds it clear:
" He lives forbid;
From him our faces have we hid;
No heart desires him, none redress,
He hath nor form nor comeliness;
For a transgressor he 's suspected,
Behold, he is a thing infected,
Smitten of God, by men rejected."
But otherwise the ordinance flows.
For, moving toward the allotted cell,
Beside the priest the leper goes:
" I 've chosen it, here will I dwell."
He 's left. At gate the priest puts up
A cross, a can; therein doth drop
The first small alms, which laymen swell.
To aisles returned, the people kneel;
Heart-piercing suppliance — appeal.
But not the austere maternal care
When closed the ritual, ended there
With benediction. Yet to heal,
Rome did not falter, could not faint;
She prompted many a tender saint,
Widow or virgin ministrant.
But chiefly may Sybella here
In chance citation fitly show,
Countess who under Zion's brow
In house of St. John Almoner
Tended the cripples many a year.
Tho' long from Europe's clime be gone
That pest which in the perished age
Could tendance such in love engage,
Still in the East the rot eats on.
Natheless the Syrian leper goes
Unfriended, save that man bestows
(His eye averting) chanceful pence
Then turns, and shares disgust of sense.
Bonds sympathetic bind these three —
Faith, Reverence, and Charity.
If Faith once fail, the faltering mood
Affects — need must — the sisterhood.
Last updated January 14, 2019