Poems That Every Child Should Know/The Shepherd of King Admetus

57292Poems That Every Child Should Know — The Shepherd of King AdmetusJames Russell Lowell

The Shepherd of King Admetus.

Once a year the children learn "The Shepherd of King Admetus," which is one of the finest poems ever written as showing the possible growth of real history into mythology, the tendency of mankind to deify what is fine or sublime in human action. Not every child will learn this entire poem, because it is so long. But every child will learn the best lines in it while the children are teaching it to me and when I take my turn in teaching it to them. No child fails to catch the spirit and intent of the poem and to become entirely familiar with it. (1819-91.)

There came a youth upon the earth,
Some thousand years ago,
Whose slender hands were nothing worth,
Whether to plow, or reap, or sow.

Upon an empty tortoise-shell
He stretched some chords, and drew
Music that made men's bosoms swell
Fearless, or brimmed their eyes with dew.

Then King Admetus, one who had
Pure taste by right divine,
Decreed his singing not too bad
To hear between the cups of wine:

And so, well pleased with being soothed
Into a sweet half-sleep.
Three times his kingly beard he smoothed,
And made him viceroy o'er his sheep.

His words were simple words enough,
And yet he used them so,
That what in other mouths was rough
In his seemed musical and low.

Men called him but a shiftless youth,
In whom no good they saw;
And yet, unwittingly, in truth,
They made his careless words their law.

They knew not how he learned at all,
For idly, hour by hour,
He sat and watched the dead leaves fall,
Or mused upon a common flower.

It seemed the loveliness of things
Did teach him all their use,
For, in mere weeds, and stones, and springs,
He found a healing power profuse.

Men granted that his speech was wise,
But, when a glance they caught
Of his slim grace and woman's eyes,
They laughed, and called him good-for-naught.

Yet after he was dead and gone,
And e'en his memory dim,
Earth seemed more sweet to live upon,
More full of love, because of him.

And day by day more holy grew
Each spot where he had trod,
Till after-poets only knew
Their first-born brother as a god.

James Russell Lowell.