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.