A dread disease, a time of woe Struck three hundred years ago And then again, and then again, So of this tale, I know not when— It happened late, or it happened then.
They lived ‘round Massachusetts Bay; They once had known a happier day When sages had the rule of things And scientists in place of kings As if in China’s ancient way.
But in the years before it came, Around the Bay was lost the name Republic, and their liberty Was stolen far across the sea By the dragon usury.
Yet they kept to their affairs, To their workdays and their prayers, Fondly were their children taught What they could, and what they ought, Which had all been made for naught.
Thinking life would still abide, Through the loss of truth and pride, As it had in liberty, Unhappy folk, they did not see The angel Death was at their side.
Cruelly then was Boston tried, So many stricken, many died, And the worst was each one’s fear That the pox was coming near The cottage where they tried to hide.
And their keening rose to be Shrill as winds off of the sea, They were buffeted and swept By the waves of death, and wept Through the prayers that they had kept.
“Is there no one, is there none Who will find what can be done? No divine to pray and try What God and nature might supply, Ere we sicken all, and die?”
Just one elder sage remained Whose hope and courage were not drained— He was learned, he’d grown poor Doing good; and he was sure That life by truth could be regained.
He’d led them in the better time, He’d made their love and learning rhyme, And they trusted that he could Make the dread into the good, Even the plague itself sublime.
Said he: “The tests must be begun First with me, and then my son; You are parents all, I know, Thus we must be first to go If this battle will be won.”
Then waited every man and wife On this trial of priceless life, Held their hope against their fear— If the verdict but be clear— And the pox did not appear!
Then the fear was taken away In the parts where he held sway And his fever for the good Increased beneath the solitude Of prayer by night and work by day.
Then arose a second pox— One that ravages and mocks— Men with venom-voices crying, “`Tis by him so many are dying, He gives poison to our flocks!”
“How can that be?” his people said, He brought us hope—all hope was fled! But might there be—How can we know?— Some Christians who to him did go— Might some yet have lived, who now are dead?”
In the pulpit and the press He was made a wickedness, `Til the church would have him not— This, the church he had begot— Cast him in the wilderness.
They rehearsed his death in scenes Of the Hellfire libertines, In their mouths his name was devil `Til his flock lost good and evil And all that the difference means.
And he saw how they fell dumb, Hellish wise, and heaven-numb; “I am ancient to this age, With no more battle here to wage.” Then hot as fire the pox did rage. From the towns around the Bay The birds of fortune had flown away; Some remembered still his prayers But it was fallen to his heirs To fight the plague another day.
Paul Gallagher is a poet, translator and also an economics journalist. He lives in Virginia with his wife.