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Shirval: A Tale of Jerusalem



EARTH, this huge clod over which we tread, enwraps the lost outlines, the mixed remains, of myriads of human forms that were once as we are now. Nor is the truth a stale one, old as it may be.2 Also, it is a beautiful and solemn truth.

Those buried men and women lived and loved—wrought and grieved, like us;—had their crimes and their agonies, as the living now have. Death came to their dwellings3 and struck down those for whom affection was strong. Anger and hate and pride, three wicked ministers of unhappiness, held sway over them;—love and charity, too, stole into their hearts, and found a home there. And thus they were, and thus they passed away.—O Earth! huge tomb-yard of humanity! if the brown pall under which are hidden the things of old ages—of ancient generations—of the men who have been folded in thy recesses when  per_nhg.00136_large.jpg thyself wast in the earlier life—if that far-stretching pall could be removed, what eye might look unquailed4 on the awful wonders of the scene!

Let me go to times and people away in the twilight of years past. It is the pen's prerogative to roll back the curtains of centuries that can have a real existence no more, and make them live in fiction5 —pleasing thus, and, haply, fostering thoughts which the moralist would smile upon. Such are among the sweetest rewards of us humble bookmen, whose spur comes in the hope that we may gain, not alone for our frail paragraphs, some passing thought of friendliness to ourselves, from a portion of that outer world we love so well.

Very beauteous was the coming of the sun, one day, over the cities of JUDAH. The tops of the mountains, which received his first warm kisses, smiled down upon each neighboring valley; and the Israelites and dark-eyed women went forth to their tasks with cheerful hearts. The dewy grass, and the olive trees, glittered as with countless diamonds. All nature was glad like a laughing infant.

But in a street in a city of NAIN stood the house of tears—the house of the widow UNNI, whose son, the preceding night, had been forsaken, by the angels of Life, and now lay a cold corpse in the inner chamber. And there came a young Jewish maid, early in the morning, and went into the chamber. Her cheeks, as she walked through the fresh air, were like the roses of the plains of SHARON; but when she passed the portals, and entered, and saw the dead man, her face imaged the colour of ashes, the emblem of mourning and decay. The maid was ZAR, the beloved of SHIRVAL, the widow's son. Her mission was to inquire about his illness: she found it ended.

Noon came.—The preparations for the burial had been made, and ere the daylight should close, the body of the youth was to be put in its sepulchre,6 without the walls of the town.

He looked beautiful in his manly proportions, even in death. The curls of his hair were drawn back from his forehead, and a linen bandage had been passed under his chin, and tied around his face. And on one side stood his mother, and on the other side ZAR, his beloved. UNNI wept, and rent the air with shrieks of agony; but the maid was silent and tearless.

Twenty-and-four years had SHIRVAL lived in his native city; and it was known that his mother, to whom he was ever obedient, leaned on him as the staff of her declining age. He was her only child.

"O, God of Judgments!" cried UNNI, "what am I that thou hast afflicted me thus!"

And her grey hairs were bowed to the ground, and she would not receive consolation.

So as the young man's body lay there, the day still waned, and the mourners arrived to attend him to the last resting-place. They placed the corpse upon the bier, and set forth.

No one could tell why it was so,—that, as they advanced, many spectators, people of NAIN, gathered around them, and walked with them on their solemn errand. The rich men and the officers joined the crowd; and it swelled to many hundreds. Yet none spoke, or understood  per_nhg.00137_large.jpg what mysterious impulse led him thus to honour the funeral-march of the poor widow's son.

Now they came to the gates of the town, and the foremost mourners passed out, and went no farther; for a band of travellers were before them, coming inward, and stopped the way. The travellers paused too—all but a small group who approached the mourners of SHIRVAL. Most of those in the group were wayworn and coarse in their appearance; but their look imported strange things—and ONE of their number as HE walked a little before the rest, fixed all eyes, while the hearts of the wide assembly throbbed, as at the nearness of an UNDEFINABLE PRESENCE, more than mortal.

The BEING was of middle stature and fair proportions, in every motion whereof was easy grace. His step was neither rapid or very slow; and his look more sought the earth than swept around him with glances of pride. His face was beautifully clear, and his eyes, blue as the sky above them, beamed forth benevolence and love. His brown hair was parted in the middle of his head, and flowed in heavy ringlets down upon his shoulders. The aspect of the stranger was not deficient in dignity, but it seemed far unlike the dignity of princes and captains.

As this PRESENCE came in among them, the haughtiest of NAIN were awed: and the concourse paused, with the expectation, as it were, of an unwonted event. It needed not that any one should inform the BEING what had happened. SHIRVAL's corpse was there, borne upon its bier; and the widow was nigh, convulsed in her grief; and ZAR, the maiden, followed meekly.

A moment only were the compassionate eyes of the BEING bent upon this sight of agony and death—bent with a mortal look of sympathy. He stept forth, and stood before UNNI. He spoke,—and his voice, musical and manly, thrilled to the fine chords of every soul in that multitude.

"Widow of NAIN," he said, "weep not!"

And he looked about, and waived his hand gently; and as he touched the bier with one finger, they who carried it put it upon the ground, and stood away. And the stranger bent over the young man's corpse, and gazed upon the face.

O, Nazarine! thou who didst pour out bloody sweat upon the cross, at the Place of Skulls! what feelings of human pity—what yearning for the weal of all mankind—what prophetic horror at the agonies of thine own death—what sympathy with the woes of earth, which the mortality of thy nature gave thee to feel as mortals themselves feel—what soul-tears for that pain and wretchedness, which must still continue through time—what of all these were thine during that fearful minute, it were almost blasphemous to transcribe!

There was a stillness over all the gathering. Even the grief of UNNI was hushed. The people had given back from around the BEING, and he and the dead form were together—all eyes bent toward them.

A second time he spoke—and at the awful nature of the command he gave, the hearts of the people paused in motion, and the breathings were suspended.


"Live! thou who art dead!—Arise, and speak to the woman, thy mother!"

At the word, the white vestments wherewith they had bound SHIRVAL began to move. His eyes unclosed, and the colour came back into his cheeks. The lips that had been still, parted a passage for the misty breath,—and the leaden fingers glowed with the warmth of life. The ashy hue of his skin was marked by the creeping blood, as it started to fulfil its circulation in the veins—and the nostrils quivered at the inward and outward motion of air. His limbs felt the wondrous impulse—he rose, and stood up among them, wrapped in his shroud and the white linen.

"I have slept!" said he, turning to his mother, "but there have been no dreams."

And he kissed the widow's cheek, and smiled pleasantly on ZAR. Then the awe of the presence of the Stranger gathered like a mantle7 upon him—and the three knelt upon the ground and bent their faces on the earth-worn sandals of the MAN OF WO.


1. This biblical tale is based on the incidents found in Luke 7:11–18. When he republished the story in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on January 22, 1846, while he was editing that paper, Whitman included a poem just before the story titled "Thoughts of Heaven." For more information on the publication history of the tale, see "About 'Shirval: A Tale of Jerusalem.'" [back]

2. This sentence was cut from the story in the Eagle. Whitman crossed out both this sentence and the sentence following it in a clipping now located in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection at the Library of Congress, which he marked up with intended revisions for Specimen Days & Collect (1882), although he ultimately decided not to include this story in that volume. For more information and a complete list of Whitman's revisions to the clipping, see Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 292–295. [back]

3. In the Eagle, this word is "dwelling." In the Feinberg clipping, "dwellings" remains, but the rest of the sentence is marked for deletion. [back]

4. Unquailed means to look without fear. [back]

5. In the Feinberg clipping, the rest of this paragraph is deleted. [back]

6. A sepulchre is a stone room that serves as a burial chamber. In the Eagle, this clause reads: "the youth was to be put in his sepulchre." [back]

7. A mantle is a cloak or a shawl. [back]

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