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

On an Infant Dying as soon as Born

By Charles Lamb (1775–1834)

I SAW where in the shroud did lurk

A curious frame of Nature’s work.

A floweret crushèd in the bud,

A nameless piece of Babyhood,

Was in a cradle-coffin lying;

Extinct, with scarce the sense of dying;

So soon to exchange the imprisoning womb

For darker closets of the tomb!

She did but ope an eye, and put

A clear beam forth, then straight up shut

For the long dark: ne’er more to see

Through glasses of mortality.

Riddle of destiny, who can show

What thy short visit meant, or know

What thy errand here below?

Shall we say that Nature blind

Checked her hand and changed her mind,

Just when she had exactly wrought

A finished pattern without fault?

Could she flag, or could she tire,

Or lacked she the Promethean fire

(With her nine moons’ long workings sickened)

That should thy little limbs have quickened?

Limbs so firm they seemed to assure

Life of health, and days mature:

Woman’s self in miniature!

Limbs so fair they might supply

(Themselves now but cold imagery)

The sculptor to make Beauty by.

Or did the stern-eyed Fate descry

That babe or mother—one must die:

So in mercy left the stock,

And cut the branch, to save the shock

Of young years widowed; and the pain,

When single state comes back again

To the lone man who, ’reft of wife,

Thenceforwards drags a maimèd life?

The economy of Heaven is dark;

And wisest clerks have missed the mark,

Why Human Buds, like this, should fall,

More brief than fly ephemeral,

That has his day; while shriveled crones

Stiffen with age to stocks and stones,

And crabbed use the conscience sears

In sinners of an hundred years.

Mother’s prattle, mother’s kiss,

Baby fond, thou ne’er wilt miss.

Rites, which custom does impose,

Silver bells and baby clothes;

Coral redder than those lips,

Which pale death did late eclipse;

Music framed for infant’s glee,

Whistle never tuned for thee:

Though thou want’st not, thou shalt have them,—

Loving hearts were they which gave them.

Let not one be missing; nurse,

See them laid upon the hearse

Of infant slain by doom perverse.

Why should kings and nobles have

Pictured trophies to their grave;

And we, churls, to thee deny

Thy pretty toys with thee to lie,

A more harmless vanity?