The Song of Elizabeth Seton


Elizabeth was just a girl,
    And watched as her young mother died.
Her father, in his Yankee way,
    Went out and fetched another bride.
And so it was, that all her life,
    Loss and renewal were close allied.


Years on, her William’s father passed
    And left five children fatherless,
She who had young cares of her own
    Took them still in her tenderness.
And she became a second mother
    To raise and love and school and dress.


The seas, a storm of piracy,
    Beheadings in the squares of France;
The fevers breaking in New York
    Amid a silken formal dance;
Their houses strong-built on good streets
    But crumbling by each hour’s mischance.


Napoleon, at Vienna’s gates,
    Lays waste to all that Europe’s been;
Her father steps from bed to bed
    Among immigrants in quarantine;
The crowd of coarse and stricken Irish
   Bow down in prayer upon the green.


While she looks up at spangled stars
    Spread over the city in the fall,
Brief letters coming from abroad
    Call William’s debts in desperate scrawl.
And when her father dies, all she
    Can do is sit to mend a shawl.


But even as they lose their things,
    Trade sensibility for sense,
She, like her father, tends the sick,
    Gives struggling widows her few cents,
And claims the family pew to hear
    The Reverend Hobart’s eloquence.


“We pay a debt for every pleasure,”
    She writes, “for beauty and for joy,”
“And every suffering we may bear,
    If we the strength of God employ,”
“Our merciful Conductor veils
    Those evils time cannot destroy.”


At last, their fortunes sinking still
    And William growing weak within,
Leaving all children, save their Anne,
    With those they once had taken in,
They crossed to Italy in hopes
    Some resurrection might begin.


But thoughts of showing Anne those churches
    Of worship “sumptuous and splendid”
Were, in the harbor, by armed guards
    With threatening bayonets, upended.
Not to Livorno’s wharf, but to
    The Lazzaretto they descended.


Confined by bare walls and barred windows
    She learned to contemplate her God,
And though her body rest imprisoned,
    Her soul was raised by love to laud.
When Anna says, “Death frees us for Him,”
    Such words from child lips leave her awed.


And death was coming. Through the walls,
    December winds course, sharp with brine,
While they draw deeper in, in prayer,
    Commune on “slips of bread and wine,”
And, helpless, watch as William lies
    And coughs blood in his last decline.


Yes, perfect prayer and happiness
    Resemble, in their stillness, death;
The soul may be drawn into God
    Though captive in the narrowest breadth;
All three knew heaven with their grief
    And left this world with Will’s last breath.


Elizabeth passed from that prison
    Into a Florentine chapel’s dark,
Within whose depths the altar gold
    Glistered with every taper’s spark;
And, seeing the rich and poor at prayer,
    She knew this was God’s holy ark.


And, all her life she gave to it,
    Sent forth from stillness into deed,
To mother those who had no mother,
    And teach the poor to pray and read;
Sent out as Mother Seton now
    To plant her country with faith’s seed.


This is the sixth poem from James Matthew Wilson’s song cycle The River of the Immaculate Conception (Wiseblood Books, 2019). This new book of poems commemorates Frank La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas and was inspired in part by James Matthew Wilson’s childhood sense of America as a Catholic country.

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