Brébeuf and Lalemant
Came Jean Brébeuf from Rennes, in Normandy,
To preach the written word in Sainte Marie–
The Ajax of the Jesuit enterprise:
Huge, dominant and bold–augustly wise.
The zealot's flame deep in the hot brown eyes
That glowed with strange and holy whisperings,
And searched the stars, and caught angelic wings
Beating through visions of mysterious things.
Once, in the sky, a cross and martyr's crown
Hung o'er the squalor of the Huron town.
And spectres, armed with javelin and sword,
Foreshadowed the dread army of the Lord;
But, onward through the forest, to his fate
Marched the great priest, unawed by Huron hate:
In every scourge he glimpsed the sacred Tree
And the dear Master of his embassy.
'Twas in St. Louis, where the Hurons lay,
Screened from the blue sweep of the Georgian Bay,
That the frail brother Lalemant, and Brébeuf,
Built a strange sanctuary, whose trembling wall
Was birchen bark, on whose long, curving roof
Lay tawny skins. A spirit seemed to call
In supplication through the holy place
For some strong mercy on the untamed race
That, naked, sat in this thrice wondrous room;
And, peering through the incense-burdened gloom,
Stared at the altar, where the black-robes bent
O'er the bright vessels of their sacrament.
Till, on the grim and memorable day,
When, to the Host, they bade their converts pray,
There flashed a gasping runner through the wood:
'The Iroquois! The Iroquois!' he cried.
As fire that stings the forest into blood
And drives red gales of ruin far and wide,
So frenzied fear ran riot, in a flood
That surged convulsive. But the great priest stood
Like a strong tower, when fretted billows race
Tumultuously about its massy base:
'Courage, my children, through the flame I see
The dear white Christ, whose long sought sons are ye.'
Then suddenly from out the wood there rose
The shouting of innumerable foes,
And waves of painted warriors from the glade
Swept yelping, through the tottering palisade.
Were devils ere so murderous as men
In whose brown breasts those devils breathed again,
When agony the shuddering sky assailed,
When age and youth in choking anguish wailed?
Torn from the breast, the child was cleft in twain,
The mother shrieked, then fell among the slain;
Age had no power to swerve the dripping knife,
Youth gained but torture as the end of life,
The wounded perished in the bursting flame
That left St. Louis but a woeful name.
But 'midst the dead and dying moved the priest,
Closing dead eyes, speeding the soul released;
'Absolvo te'–to trembling lips the word
Descended from the Hurons' new found Lord.
And, ere the night took pity on the dead,
Brébeuf and Lalemant in chains were led;
And one, the giant of Normandy, was bound
To a great stake; when staring boldly round
With ardent gaze, he saw the convert throng
Captive. 'Have courage! It will not be long;
Torture is but salvation's earthly price.
To-day we meet the Christ in Paradise.'
O heart of iron, O strange supernal zeal,
That braves the fire, the torture and the steel!
O torn and shrinking flesh that yet can find
The crown of thorns mysteriously entwined!
O sightless orbs that still their Lord discern,
Howe'er the coals their blackened sockets burn.
Thus sped the Jesuit's triumphant soul.
And Lalemant, ere the rising of the sun,
Achieved through torment his far-shining goal.
And all the Huron missions, one by one,
Were driven by the Iroquois like spray
That strong winds snatch and swiftly whirl away.
Sleep, Lalemant! Brébeuf, a long surcease!
Still moves your martyr's spirit through the glade;
Still mourns the northern forest, when the peace
And benediction of the twilight shade
Awakens in the dark memorial pines
A velvet-footed, cedar-scented breeze,
That whispers where the green and knotted vines
Enmesh the cloistered colonnade of trees.
Alan Sullivan's Other Poems
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