Gateway to the Classics: Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by Mary E. Burt
Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by  Mary E. Burt

The Gift of Poesy

There was once a learned man named Valmiki who loved God and his fellow men; and he took up his abode in a wild and lonely forest that he might learn what was right by thinking. Just as a traveller climbs a mountain to get a view of the whole country about him that he need not go astray, so did Valmiki seek the temple of nature that by thinking over all he had met and seen, he should know people better and be able to serve them more acceptably.

The forest where he dwelt was very beautiful. There were lofty tamarind and mango trees where birds of a thousand hues flashed to and fro, and the ground was strewn with rich blossoms whose incense perfumed the air.

Here Valmiki lived all alone for many years praising the great Creator and contemplating how it might best come about that all men should be taught the universal brotherhood of all living creatures.

The inhabitants of the woods learned to love the kind man who lived on roots and berries, and after awhile they came to him when they were in trouble. Even the timid gazelles which came in flocks to the stream to quench their thirst would look up into his face as much as to say, "We wish you a good evening, Valmiki."

The glow-worm and the firefly shed their lights around him in the dark lest he should tread upon a poisonous plant or serpent, and the tigers and other beasts crept out of sight. At the sound of his steps the flowers opened their corollas and smiled, saying, "Are you ill, Valmiki? there is a healing power for you in my root."

At length as Valmiki sat at the door of his hut one evening, there came the messenger of the gods and said to him, "If men learn to love the great universal nature, if they learn to love the good and the true, it must be through hearing stories of heroic lives; is this not so, Valmiki?"

"Not so," said Valmiki; "if man learns to be truly noble, he must have one great hero to follow, one who, although poor and weak and suffering, has done generously and well, endured sorrow without bitterness, controlled his passions, dealt kindly with all living creatures. One such example man needs—to follow."

"There is such a hero," said the messenger, "but what poet is there that is great enough to tell his virtues to the people in a poem which all men shall love to read,—a poem so great that men shall believe it and shall seek to follow the life of the hero?

"I charge you, Valmiki," said the messenger of the gods, "by your love of man, never rest until you have discovered this poet." With this the heavenly messenger returned to his celestial home. Then Valmiki was sorely troubled and said to himself, "How shall I find such a poet in this solitary forest? To be clean and pure is the great wisdom. I will lave my body in the water and keep my soul pure, and perhaps the great God will give me clear perception that I may find the gifted poet, worthy to write the song of the hero."

So saying, the hermit prepared to bathe himself in the river, but as he lingered on the brink, he beheld on the opposite shore two herons of surpassingly beautiful plumage. It was the season when the buds are bursting forth from the trees and all Nature thrills with love. There is at this time more beauty in the world; all living things are radiant with ardor; the color of the trees and flowers are of a richer dye, and the birds break forth into song.

"We thank Thee, O Supreme Author of life!" exclaimed these herons of marvelous plumage, "for the gift of lustrous waters, for the wings which give us empire over the realms of air, and above all for the love which we find in each other."

But while these harmless birds expressed joyously their thanksgiving, the arrow of some pitiless hunter hissed through the startled air, and, piercing the poor breast of one of the winged lovers, destroyed the life that had just reached its happiest moment. Then the mournful shrieks of the bereaved heron, which beheld his innocent mate stretched there dabbled in blood, saddened the shores of the lake and saddened, too, the kind heart of the hermit. "O cruel hunter!" he cried, "mayst thou attain no glory in the eternal revolution of years, since thou hast not feared to strike this heron in its supreme happiness."

As the bubbling springs gush from the soil, so leapt the words from his heart. And as the sound of flowing waters mellows itself into harmony, so did his grief for the desolate bird sing itself into measure, swaying his thoughts to and fro with a musical, dreamy movement, as the breeze blows forward and back the boughs of the sad weeping-willow.

The rhythm of his lamentations rang in his ears while he bathed in the limpid waters, and even when he had left the crystal lake the enchanting measure still haunted him. Against his will he kept repeating it over and over, until, sorely puzzled and distressed, he fancied that some charm had bewitched him.

That day the greatest of the gods came to visit the meek hermit. Valmiki reverently bowed himself to the earth, his hands clasped above his head as befitting the presence of one worthy of honor, and he begged the most illustrious of the gods to inform him of his pleasure.

Then Brahma, the god, said: "The fame of your wisdom and holiness had reached me, O Hermit! I long to hear you speak of virtue and knowledge, and of the grave contemplations that have absorbed your mind while you have lived in this forest." Valmiki tried to tell his illustrious guest of the way to encourage man to become noble and generous and pure. But his tongue could only repeat the musical words in which he deplored the death of the heron.

Valmiki was abashed and confused and he trembled before the most ancient of the gods, fearing that Brahma would think that he meant to mock him. But the eternal Brahma smiled and said, "Happy art thou, Valmiki, who hast found favor in the sight of the ardent goddess of eloquence! The divine quality of pity has drawn to thee the kiss of the goddess of harmony. Up, then, oh man, who hath tasted an immortal's love, and speak forth the divine breath which inspires thee! Sing to the listening ages the wondrous story of the great hero whose beauty shall not fade till the stars grow dim in the sky."

Thus did Valmiki receive the divine gift of poesy in exchange for tears of pity, because there dwelt in his heart the feeling of universal brotherhood.

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