“Who are these on golden wings … ?” Keble’s poem for the Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents.

These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.  Rev. xiv. 4.

   Say, ye celestial guards, who wait
In Bethlehem, round the Saviour’s palace gate,
Say, who are these on golden wings,
That hover o’er the new-born King of kings,
Their palms and garlands telling plain
That they are of the glorious martyr-train,
Next to yourselves ordained to praise
His Name, and brighten as on Him they gaze?

   But where their spoils and trophies? where
The glorious dint a martyr’s shield should bear?
How chance no cheek among them wears
The deep-worn trace of penitential tears,
But all is bright and smiling love,
As if, fresh-borne from Eden’s happy grove,
They had flown here, their King to see,
Nor ever had been heirs of dark mortality?

   Ask, and some angel will reply,
“These, like yourselves, were born to sin and die,
But ere the poison root was grown,
God set His seal, and marked them for His own.
Baptised its blood for Jesus’ sake,
Now underneath the Cross their bed they make,
Not to be scared from that sure rest
By frightened mother’s shriek, or warrior’s waving crest.”

   Mindful of these, the firstfruits sweet
Borne by this suffering Church her Lord to greet;
Blessed Jesus ever loved to trace
The “innocent brightness” of an infant’s face.
He raised them in His holy arms,
He blessed them from the world and all its harms:
Heirs though they were of sin and shame,
He blessed them in his own and in his Father’s Name.

   Then, as each fond unconscious child
On the everlasting Parent sweetly smiled
(Like infants sporting on the shore,
That tremble not at Ocean’s boundless roar),
Were they not present to Thy thought,
All souls, that in their cradles Thou hast bought?
But chiefly these, who died for Thee,
That Thou might’st live for them a sadder death to see.

   And next to these, Thy gracious word
Was as a pledge of benediction stored
For Christian mothers, while they moan
Their treasured hopes, just born, baptised, and gone.
Oh, joy for Rachel’s broken heart!
She and her babes shall meet no more to part;
So dear to Christ her pious haste
To trust them in His arms for ever safe embraced.

   She dares not grudge to leave them there,
Where to behold them was her heart’s first prayer;
She dares not grieve—but she must weep,
As her pale placid martyr sinks to sleep,
Teaching so well and silently
How at the shepherd’s call the lamb should die:
How happier far than life the end
Of souls that infant-like beneath their burthen bend.

SOURCE

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