Ethel Lynn Eliot Beers

(1827-1879 / the United States)

Which Shall It Be - Poem by Ethel Lynn Eliot Beers

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Which shall it be? Which shall it be?
I look'd at John-John look'd at me
(Dear, patient John, who loves me yet
As well as though my locks were jet);
And when I found that I must speak,
My voice seem'd strangely low and weak:
``Tell me again what Robert said?''
And then I, listening, bent my head.
``This is his letter:

``'I will give
A house and land while you shall live,
If, in return, from out your seven,
One child to me for aye is given.'''
I look'd at John's old garments worn,
I thought of all that John had borne
Of poverty, and work, and care,
Which I, though willing, could not share;
I thought of seven mouths to feed,
Of seven little children's need,
And then of this.

``Come, John,'' said I,
``We'll choose among them as they lie
Asleep''; so, walking hand in hand,
Dear John and I survey'd our band.
First to the cradle lightly stepp'd,
Where Lilian the baby slept,
A glory 'gainst the pillow white.
Softly the father stooped to lay
His rough hand down in loving way,
When dream or whisper made her stir,
And huskily he said: ``Not her!''

We stopped beside the trundle-bed
And one long ray of lamp-light shed
Athwart the boyish faces there,
In sleep so pitiful and fair;
I saw on Jamie's rough, red cheek,
A tear undried. Ere John could speak,
``He's but a baby, too,'' said I,
And kissed him as we hurried by.

Pale, patient Robbie's angel face
Still in his sleep bore suffering's trace;
``No, for a thousand crowns, not him,''
He whispered, while our eyes were dim.

Poor Dick! bad Dick! our wayward son,
Turbulent, reckless, idle one-
Could he be spared? ``Nay, He who gave,
Bade us befriend him to the grave;
Only a mother's heart can be
Patient enough for such as he;
And so,'' said John, ``I would not dare
To send him from her bedside prayer.''

Then stole we softly up above
And knelt by Mary, child of love.
``Perhaps for her 'twould better be,''
I said to John, Quite silently
He lifted up a curl that lay
Acorss her cheek in willful way,
And shook his head, ``Nay, love, not thee,''
The while my heart beat audibly.

Only one more, our eldest lad,
Trusty and truthful, good and glad-
So like his father. ``No, John, no-
I can not, will not let him go.''

And so we wrote in courteous way,
We could not drive one child away,
And afterward, toil lighter seemed,
Thinking of that of which we dreamed;
Happy, in truth, that not one face
We missed from its accustomed place;
Thankful to work for all the seven,
Trusting the rest to One in heaven!


Comments about Which Shall It Be by Ethel Lynn Eliot Beers

  • (7/26/2016 10:30:00 AM)


    This is different than the version I've been reading my whole life. This only has 6 children. In the version I have...the baby doesn't have a name and Lily is a seperate child.  

    First to the cradle lightly stepped, where the new nameless baby slept. Shall it be baby, whispered John. I took his hand and hurried on, to Lily's crib, her sleeping grasp, held it's old doll within it's clasp. Her soft curls lay like gold alight, a glory against the pillow white. Then her father stopped to lay his rough hand down in a loving way. When dream or whisper made her stir, the huskily said John, Not her, not her!

    The rest is the same. It looks like when this was put on here, two children were squished into one.
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  • Elisabeth Wingle (7/29/2015 3:00:00 PM)


    This poem is on my top five list. I have been reading this poem since I was a little girl and yet, every time I read it my eyes fill up with tears. I can picture the parents, hand in hand walking through the dark quiet house. Going from bedside to bedside, child to child, trying to choose the one.... (Report) Reply

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Poem Submitted: Thursday, September 23, 2010



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