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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Habeas Corpus

By Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885)

MY body, eh? Friend Death, how now?

Why all this tedious pomp of writ?

Thou hast reclaimed it sure and slow

For half a century, bit by bit.

In faith thou knowest more to-day

Than I do, where it can be found!

This shriveled lump of suffering clay,

To which I now am chained and bound,

Has not of kith or kin a trace

To the good body once I bore:

Look at this shrunken, ghastly face,—

Didst ever see that face before?

Ah, well, friend Death, good friend thou art;

Thy only fault thy lagging gait,

Mistaken pity in thy heart

For timorous ones that bid thee wait.

Do quickly all thou hast to do,

Nor I nor mine will hindrance make:

I shall be free when thou art through;

I grudge thee naught that thou must take!

Stay! I have lied: I grudge thee one,

Yes, two I grudge thee at this last,—

Two members which have faithful done

My will and bidding in the past.

I grudge thee this right hand of mine;

I grudge thee this quick-beating heart:

They never gave me coward sign,

Nor played me once a traitor’s part.

I see now why in olden days

Men in barbaric love or hate

Nailed enemies’ hands at wild crossways,

Shrined leaders’ hearts in costly state:

The symbol, sign, and instrument

Of each soul’s purpose, passion, strife,

Of fires in which are poured and spent

Their all of love, their all of life.

O feeble, mighty human hand!

O fragile, dauntless human heart!

The universe holds nothing planned

With such sublime, transcendent art!

Yes, Death, I own I grudge thee mine:

Poor little hand, so feeble now;

Its wrinkled palm, its altered line,

Its veins so pallid and so slow.

[A stanza here was left incomplete.]

Ah, well, friend Death, good friend thou art:

I shall be free when thou art through.

Take all there is—take hand and heart:

There must be somewhere work to do.