The Human Sacrifice





Some leading sectarian papers had lately published the letter of a

clergyman, giving an account of his attendance upon a criminal (who had

committed murder during a fit of intoxication), at the time of his

execution, in western New York. The writer describes the agony of the

wretched being, his abortive attempts at prayer, his appeal for life,

his fear of a violent death; and, after declaring his belief that the

poor victim died without hope of salvation, concludes with a warm eulogy

upon the gallows, being more than ever convinced of its utility by the

awful dread and horror which it inspired.





FAR from his close and noisome cell,

By grassy lane and sunny stream,

Blown clover field and strawberry dell,

And green and meadow freshness, fell

The footsteps of his dream.

Again from careless feet the dew

Of summer's misty morn he shook;

Again with merry heart he threw

His light line in the rippling brook.

Back crowded all his school-day joys;

He urged the ball and quoit again,

And heard the shout of laughing boys

Come ringing down the walnut glen.

Again he felt the western breeze,

With scent of flowers and crisping hay;

And down again through wind-stirred trees

He saw the quivering sunlight play.

An angel in home's vine-hung door,

He saw his sister smile once more;

Once more the truant's brown-locked head

Upon his mother's knees was laid,

And sweetly lulled to slumber there,

With evening's holy hymn and prayer!





He woke. At once on heart and brain

The present Terror rushed again;

Clanked on his limbs the felon's chain

He woke, to hear the church-tower tell

Time's footfall on the conscious bell,

And, shuddering, feel that clanging din

His life's last hour had ushered in;

To see within his prison-yard,

Through the small window, iron barred,

The gallows shadow rising dim

Between the sunrise heaven and him;

A horror in God's blessed air;

A blackness in his morning light;

Like some foul devil-altar there

Built up by demon hands at night.

And, maddened by that evil sight,

Dark, horrible, confused, and strange,

A chaos of wild, weltering change,

All power of check and guidance gone,

Dizzy and blind, his mind swept on.

In vain he strove to breathe a prayer,

In vain he turned the Holy Book,

He only heard the gallows-stair

Creak as the wind its timbers shook.

No dream for him of sin forgiven,

While still that baleful spectre stood,

With its hoarse murmur, "Blood for Blood!"

Between him and the pitying Heaven.





Low on his dungeon floor he knelt,

And smote his breast, and on his chain,

Whose iron clasp he always felt,

His hot tears fell like rain;

And near him, with the cold, calm look

And tone of one whose formal part,

Unwarmed, unsoftened of the heart,

Is measured out by rule and book,

With placid lip and tranquil blood,

The hangman's ghostly ally stood,

Blessing with solemn text and word

The gallows-drop and strangling cord;

Lending the sacred Gospel's awe

And sanction to the crime of Law.





He saw the victim's tortured brow,

The sweat of anguish starting there,

The record of a nameless woe

In the dim eye's imploring stare,

Seen hideous through the long, damp hair,--

Fingers of ghastly skin and bone

Working and writhing on the stone!

And heard, by mortal terror wrung

From heaving breast and stiffened tongue,

The choking sob and low hoarse prayer;

As o'er his half-crazed fancy came

A vision of the eternal flame,

Its smoking cloud of agonies,

Its demon-worm that never dies,

The everlasting rise and fall

Of fire-waves round the infernal wall;

While high above that dark red flood,

Black, giant-like, the gallows stood;

Two busy fiends attending there

One with cold mocking rite and prayer,

The other with impatient grasp,

Tightening the death-rope's strangling clasp.





The unfelt rite at length was done,

The prayer unheard at length was said,

An hour had passed: the noonday sun

Smote on the features of the dead!

And he who stood the doomed beside,

Calm gauger of the swelling tide

Of mortal agony and fear,

Heeding with curious eye and ear

Whate'er revealed the keen excess

Of man's extremest wretchedness

And who in that dark anguish saw

An earnest of the victim's fate,

The vengeful terrors of God's law,

The kindlings of Eternal hate,

The first drops of that fiery rain

Which beats the dark red realm of pain,

Did he uplift his earnest cries

Against the crime of Law, which gave

His brother to that fearful grave,

Whereon Hope's moonlight never lies,

And Faith's white blossoms never wave

To the soft breath of Memory's sighs;

Which sent a spirit marred and stained,

By fiends of sin possessed, profaned,

In madness and in blindness stark,

Into the silent, unknown dark?

No, from the wild and shrinking dread,

With which be saw the victim led

Beneath the dark veil which divides

Ever the living from the dead,

And Nature's solemn secret hides,

The man of prayer can only draw

New reasons for his bloody law;

New faith in staying Murder's hand

By murder at that Law's command;

New reverence for the gallows-rope,

As human nature's latest hope;

Last relic of the good old time,

When Power found license for its crime,

And held a writhing world in check

By that fell cord about its neck;

Stifled Sedition's rising shout,

Choked the young breath of Freedom out,

And timely checked the words which sprung

From Heresy's forbidden tongue;

While in its noose of terror bound,

The Church its cherished union found,

Conforming, on the Moslem plan,

The motley-colored mind of man,

Not by the Koran and the Sword,

But by the Bible and the Cord.





O Thou at whose rebuke the grave

Back to warm life its sleeper gave,

Beneath whose sad and tearful glance

The cold and changed countenance

Broke the still horror of its trance,

And, waking, saw with joy above,

A brother's face of tenderest love;

Thou, unto whom the blind and lame,

The sorrowing and the sin-sick came,

And from Thy very garment's hem

Drew life and healing unto them,

The burden of Thy holy faith

Was love and life, not hate and death;

Man's demon ministers of pain,

The fiends of his revenge, were sent

From thy pure Gospel's element

To their dark home again.

Thy name is Love! What, then, is he,

Who in that name the gallows rears,

An awful altar built to Thee,

With sacrifice of blood and tears?

Oh, once again Thy healing lay

On the blind eyes which knew Thee not,

And let the light of Thy pure day

Melt in upon his darkened thought.

Soften his hard, cold heart, and show

The power which in forbearance lies,

And let him feel that mercy now

Is better than old sacrifice.





As on the White Sea's charmed shore,

The Parsee sees his holy hill [10]

With dunnest smoke-clouds curtained o'er,

Yet knows beneath them, evermore,

The low, pale fire is quivering still;

So, underneath its clouds of sin,

The heart of man retaineth yet

Gleams of its holy origin;

And half-quenched stars that never set,

Dim colors of its faded bow,

And early beauty, linger there,

And o'er its wasted desert blow

Faint breathings of its morning air.

Oh, never yet upon the scroll

Of the sin-stained, but priceless soul,

Hath Heaven inscribed "Despair!"

Cast not the clouded gem away,

Quench not the dim but living ray,--

My brother man, Beware!

With that deep voice which from the skies

Forbade the Patriarch's sacrifice,

God's angel cries, Forbear

1843





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