[Editor: This poem by Agnes Neale was published in Shadows and Sunbeams (1890).]
The First-born of Egypt.
The sun went down behind the crimson west,
And, like a glittering stream of molten gold,
Watched by the pyramids, towards the sea
Proud Egypt’s sacred river slowly rolled.
Night settled down; but not like other nights:
No star gems sparkled from the far-off sky,
Even the breeze that kissed the rippling waves
Seemed murmuring strangely as it wandered by.
And awful darkness lay upon the earth —
A darkness black and thick, that might be felt,
Like the dense folds of some vast funeral pall,
Rested on all the land where Israel dwelt.
Did Egypt sleep in that most fearful hour
When the death-angel spread his wings for flight?
Were there some hearts that felt not his approach?
Did slumber rest upon the land that night?
We know not. Men have slept in danger’s hour,
Have lain with close-sealed lips and soft-drawn breath;
And, all unconscious of the falling sword,
Have slept within the very arms of death.
And it may be that in the land that night
Some mother drew her darling to her breast,
And soothed him with her tender lullaby,
Though all unknowing, to his last long rest.
It may be that some fair young maiden closed
Her drooping eyelids, tired with joy’s sweet pain;
And, dreaming of her lover’s last fond look,
Grew still and silent, ne’er to move again.
The hours wore on. Through all the land there came
The slow sad beat of wide cold wings outspread;
And where the angel paused for one swift glance,
He turned away and left the silent dead.
All through the night dark wings swept to and fro,
All through the night cold hands touched lips life-warm;
And manhood’s strength and childhood’s promise fair
Lay like crushed flowers torn by a winter’s storm!
Then Egypt woke. With one convulsive start
She sprang to life and consciousness again;
And up to God from stricken hearts there swelled
One long deep wail of human love and pain.
Well might the nation cry as with one voice:
Well might eyes turn in sickness from the light:
God’s breath had swept the land from end to end,
And one in every house lay dead that night!
Agnes Neale, Shadows and Sunbeams, Adelaide: Burden & Bonython, 1890, pages 42-44
ne’er = never
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