Charles Lamb

(10 February 1775 – 27 December 1834 / London)

The Three Friends - Poem by Charles Lamb

Three young girls in friendship met;
Mary, Martha, Margaret.
Margaret was tall and fair,
Martha shorter by a hair;
If the first excelled in feature,
The other's grace and ease were greater;
Mary, though to rival loth,
In their best gifts equalled both.
They a due proportion kept;
Martha mourned if Margaret wept;
Margaret joyed when any good
She of Martha understood;
And in sympathy for either
Mary was outdone by neither.
Thus far, for a happy space,
All three ran an even race,
A most constant friendship proving,
Equally beloved and loving;
All their wishes, joys, the same;
Sisters only not in name.


Fortune upon each one smiled,
As upon a favourite child;
Well to do and well to see
Were the parents of all three;
Till on Martha's father crosses
Brought a flood of worldly losses,
And his fortunes rich and great
Changed at once to low estate;
Under which o'erwhelming blow
Martha's mother was laid low;
She a hapless orphan left,
Of maternal care bereft,
Trouble following trouble fast,
Lay in a sick bed at last.


In the depth of her affliction
Martha now received conviction,
That a true and faithful friend
Can the surest comfort lend.
Night and day, with friendship tried,
Ever constant by her side
Was her gentle Mary found,
With a love that knew no bound;
And the solace she imparted
Saved her dying broken-hearted.


In this scene of earthly things
There's no good unmixëd springs.
That which had to Martha proved
A sweet consolation, moved
Different feelings of regret
In the mind of Margaret.
She, whose love was not less dear,
Nor affection less sincere
To her friend, was, by occasion
Of more distant habitation,
Fewer visits forced to pay her,
When no other cause did stay her;
And her Mary living nearer,
Margaret began to fear her,
Lest her visits day by day
Martha's heart should steal away.
That whole heart she ill could spare her
Where till now she'd been a sharer.
From this cause with grief she pined,
Till at length her health declined.
All her cheerful spirits flew,
Fast as Martha gathered new;
And her sickness waxëd sore,
Just when Martha felt no more.


Mary, who had quick suspicion
Of her altered friend's condition,
Seeing Martha's convalescence
Less demanded now her presence,
With a goodness built on reason,
Changed her measures with the season;
Turned her steps from Martha's door,
Went where she was wanted more;
All her care and thoughts were set
Now to tend on Margaret.
Mary living 'twixt the two,
From her home could oftener go,
Either of her friends to see,
Than they could together be.


Truth explained is to suspicion
Evermore the best physician.
Soon her visits had the effect;
All that Margaret did suspect,
From her fancy vanished clean;
She was soon what she had been,
And the colour she did lack
To her faded cheek came back.
Wounds which love had made her feel,
Love alone had power to heal.


Martha, who the frequent visit
Now had lost, and sore did miss it,
With impatience waxed cross,
Counted Margaret's gain her loss:
All that Mary did confer
On her friend, thought due to her.
In her girlish bosom rise
Little foolish jealousies,
Which into such rancour wrought,
She one day for Margaret sought;
Finding her by chance alone,
She began, with reasons shown,
To insinuate a fear
Whether Mary was sincere;
Wished that Margaret would take heed
Whence her actions did proceed;
For herself, she'd long been minded
Not with outsides to be blinded;
All that pity and compassion,
She believed was affectation;
In her heart she doubted whether
Mary cared a pin for either;
She could keep whole weeks at distance,
And not know of their existence,
While all things remained the same;
But, when some misfortune came,
Then she made a great parade
Of her sympathy and aid,-
Not that she did really grieve,
It was only make-believe;
And she cared for nothing, so
She might her fine feelings show,
And get credit, on her part,
For a soft and tender heart.


With such speeches, smoothly made,
She found methods to persuade
Margaret (who, being sore
From the doubts she felt before,
Was prepared for mistrust)
To believe her reasons just;
Quite destroyed that comfort glad,
Which in Mary late she had;
Made her, in experience' spite,
Think her friend a hypocrite,
And resolve, with cruel scoff,
To renounce and cast her off.


See how good turns are rewarded!
She of both is now discarded,
Who to both had been so late
Their support in low estate,
All their comfort, and their stay-
Now of both is cast away.
But the league her presence cherished,
Losing its best prop, soon perished;
She, that was a link to either,
To keep them and it together,
Being gone, the two (no wonder)
That were left, soon fell asunder;
Some civilities were kept,
But the heart of friendship slept;
Love with hollow forms was fed,
But the life of love lay dead:
A cold intercourse they held
After Mary was expelled.


Two long years did intervene
Since they'd either of them seen,
Or, by letter, any word
Of their old companion heard,
When, upon a day, once walking,
Of indifferent matters talking,
They a female figure met.-
Martha said to Margaret,
'That young maid in face does carry
A resemblance strong of Mary.'
Margaret, at nearer sight,
Owned her observation right;
But they did not far proceed
Ere they knew 'twas she indeed.
She-but, ah! how changed they view her
From that person which they knew her!
Her fine face disease had scarred,
And its matchless beauty marred:
But enough was left to trace
Mary's sweetness-Mary's grace.
When her eye did first behold them
How they blushed!-but when she told them
How on a sick bed she lay
Months, while they had kept away,
And had no inquiries made
If she were alive or dead;-
How, for want of a true friend,
She was brought near to her end,
And was like so to have died,
With no friend at her bedside;-
How the constant irritation,
Caused by fruitless expectation
Of their coming, had extended
The illness, when she might have mended;
Then, O then, how did reflection
Come on them with recollection!
All that she had done for them,
How it did their fault condemn!


But sweet Mary, still the same,
Kindly eased them of their shame;
Spoke to them with accents bland,
Took them friendly by the hand;
Bound them both with promise fast
Not to speak of troubles past;
Made them on the spot declare
A new league of friendship there;
Which, without a word of strife,
Lasted thenceforth long as life.
Martha now and Margaret
Strove who most should pay the debt
Which they owed her, nor did vary
Ever after from their Mary.


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Poem Submitted: Saturday, April 10, 2010



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