Title: Eris; A Spirit Record
Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as Walter Whitman]
Date: March 1844
Whitman Archive ID: per.00331
Source: The Columbian Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine 1 (March 1844): –139. Transcribed from digital images of an original issue held at the American Antiquarian Society.
Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock, Nicole Gray, and Kirsten Clawson
ERIS; A SPIRIT RECORD.1
BY WALTER WHITMAN.
WHO says that there are not angels or invisible spirits watching around us?2 The teeming regions of the air swarm with bodiless ghosts—bodiless to human sight, because of their exceeding and too dazzling beauty!
And there is one, childlike, with helpless and unsteady movements, but a countenance of immortal bloom, whose long-lashed eyes droop downward. The name of the shape is Dai. When he comes near, the angels are silent, and gaze upon him with pity and affection. And the fair eyes of the shape roll, but fix upon no object; while his lips move, but a plaintive tone only is heard, the speaking of a single name. Wandering in the confines of earth, or restlessly amid the streets of the beautiful land, goes Dai, earnestly calling on one he loves.
Wherefore is there no response?
Soft as the feathery leaf of the frailest flower—pure as the heart of flame—of a beauty so lustrous that the sons of Heaven themselves might well be drunken to gaze thereon—with fleecy robes that but half apparel a maddening whiteness and grace—dwells Eris among the creatures beautiful, a chosen and cherished one. And Eris is the name called by the wandering angel,—while no answer comes, and the loved flies swiftly away, with a look of sadness and displeasure.
It had been years before that a maid and her betrothed lived in one of the pleasant places of earth. Their hearts clung to each other with the fondness of young life, and all its dreamy passion. Each was simple and innocent. Mortality might not know a thing better than their love, or more sunny than their happiness.
In the method of the rule of fate, it was ordered that the maid should sicken, and be drawn nigh to the gates of death—nigh, but not through them. Now to the young who love purely, High Power commissions to each a gentle guardian, who hovers around unseen day and night. The office of this spirit is to keep a sleepless watch, and fill the heart of his charge with strange and mysterious and lovely thoughts. Over the maid was placed Dai, and through her illness the unknown presence of the youth hung near continually.
To the immortal, days, years and centuries are the same.3
Erewhile, a cloud was seen in Heaven. The delicate ones bent their necks, and shook as if a chill blast had swept by—and white robes were drawn around shivering and terrified forms.4
An archangel with veiled cheeks cleaved the air. Silence spread through the hosts of the passed away, who gazed in wonder and fear. And as they gazed they saw a new companion of wondrous loveliness among them—a strange and timid creature, who, were it not that pain must never enter those borders with innocence, would have been called unhappy. The angels gathered around the late comer with caresses and kisses, and they smiled pleasantly with joy in each other's eyes.
Then the archangel's voice was heard—and they who heard it knew that One still mightier spake his will therein:
"The child Dai!" said he.
A far reply sounded out in tones of trembling and apprehension,
"I am here!"
And the youth came forth from the distant confines, whither he had been in solitude. The placid look of peace no more illumined his brow with silver light, and his unearthly beauty was as a choice statue enveloped in mist and smoke.
"Oh, weak and wicked spirit!" said the archangel, "thou hast been false to thy mission and thy Master!"
The quivering limbs of Dai felt weak and cold. He would have made an answer in agony—but at that moment he lifted his eyes and beheld the countenance of Eris, the late comer.
Love is potent, even in Heaven! And subtle passion creeps into the hearts of the sons of beauty, who feel the delicious impulse, and know that there is a soft sadness sweeter than aught in the round of their pleasure eternal.
When the youth saw Eris, he sprang forward with lightning swiftness to her side. But the late comer turned away with aversion. The band of good-will might not be between them, because of wrongs done, and the planting of despair in two happy human hearts.
At the same moment, the myriads of interlinked spirits that range step by step from the throne of the Uppermost, (as the power of that light and presence which is unbearable even to the deathless,
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must be tempered for the sight of any created thing, however lofty,) were conscious of a motion of the mind of God. Quicker than electric thought the command was accomplished! The disobedient angel felt himself enveloped in a sudden cloud, impenetrably dark. The face of Eris gladdened and maddened him no more. He turned himself to and fro, and stretched out his arms—but though he knew the nearness of his companions, the light of Heaven, and of the eyes of Eris, was strangely sealed to him. The youth was blind forever.
So a wandering angel sweeps through space with restless and unsteady movements—and the sound heard from his lips is the calling of a single name. But the loved flies swiftly away in sadness, and heeds him not. Onward and onward speeds the angel, amid scenes of ineffable splendor, though to his sight the splendor is darkness. But there is one scene that rests before him alway. It is of a low brown dwelling among the children of men; and in an inner room a couch, whereon lies a young maid, whose cheeks rival the frailness and paleness of foam. Near by is a youth; and the filmy eyes of the girl are bent upon him in fondness. What dim shape hovers overhead? He is invisible to mortals; but oh! well may the blind spirit, by the token of throbs of guilty and fiery love beating through him, know that hovering form! Thrust forward by such fiery love, the shape dared transcend his duty. Again the youth looked upon the couch, and beheld a lifeless corpse.
This is the picture upon the vision of Dai. His brethren of the bands of light, as they meet him in his journeyings, pause awhile for pity; yet never do the pangs of their sympathy, the only pangs known to those sinless creatures, or arms thrown softly around him, or kisses on his brow, efface the pale lineaments of the sick girl—the dead.
In the portals of Heaven stands Eris, oft peering into the outer distance. Nor of the millions of winged messengers that hourly come and go, does one enter there whose features are not earnestly scanned by the watcher. And the fond joy resides in her soul, that the time is nigh at hand; for a thread yet binds the angel down to the old abode, and until the breaking of that bond, Eris keeps vigil in the portals of Heaven.
The limit of the watch comes soon. On earth, a toil-worn man has returned from distant travel, and lays him down, weary and faint at heart, on a floor amid the ruins of that low brown dwelling. The slight echo is heard of moans coming from the breast of one who yearns to die. Life, and rosy light, and the pleasant things of nature, and the voice and sight of his fellows, and the glory of thought—the sun, the flowers, the glittering stars, the soft breeze—have no joy for him. And the coffin and the cold earth have no horror; they are a path to the unforgotten.
Thus the tale is told in Heaven, how the pure love of two human beings is a sacred thing, which the immortal themselves must not dare to cross. In pity to the disobedient angel he is blind, that he may not gaze ceaselessly on one who returns his love with displeasure. And haply Dai is the spirit of the destiny of those whose selfishness would seek to mar the peace of gentle hearts, by their own unreturned and unhallowed passion.5
1. Whitman republished this story in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on August 18, 1846, while he was editing that paper, under the title "The Love of Eris.—A Spirit Record." On the same page of that issue of the Eagle, right before the story, he included a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow titled "Footsteps of Angels." For more about the publication history of "Eris," see "About 'Eris; A Spirit Record.'" [back]
2. This is one of several short stories that includes angels and/or invisible spirits. Other tales with similar themes or incidents include "The Angel of Tears," "The Child's Champion," and "The Child and the Profligate." [back]
3. In the Eagle, this sentence was omitted. [back]
4. This sentence was cut from the Eagle version, and this paragraph was combined with the next one. [back]
5. In the Eagle, this phrase was revised to: "by their own intrusive and unhallowed passion." [back]