A character from the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament. Rizpah was the daughter of Aiah and the concubine of Saul. Rizpah was the cause of a quarrel between Abner and Ishbaal. (Since aspiring to have a royal concubine such as Rizpah was to aspire to kingship, and so treason.)

It also happens to mean "floor" in Hebrew. Go thou and figure.


by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Wailing, wailing, wailing, the wind over land and sea -
And Willy’s voice in the wind, ‘O mother, come out to me.’
Why should he call me to-night, when he knows that I cannot go?
For the downs are as bright as day, and the full moon stares at the snow.

We should be seen, my dear; they would spy us out of the town.
The loud black nights for us, and They filled the sky with a tropical storm|the storm rushing] over the down,
When I cannot see my own hand, but am led by the creak of the chain,
And grovel and grope for my son till I find myself drenched with the rain.

Anything fallen again? nay - what was there left to fall?
I have taken them home, I have number’d the bones, I have hidden them all.
What am I saying? and what are you? do you come as a spy?
Falls? what falls? who knows? As the tree falls so must it lie.

Who let her in? how long has she been? you - what have you heard?
Why did you sit so quiet? you never have spoken a word.
O - to pray with me - yes - a lady - none of their spies -
But the night has crept into my heart, and begun to darken my eyes.

Ah - you, that have lived so soft, what should you know of the night,
The blast and the burning shame and bitter frost and the fright?
I have done it, while you were asleep - you were only made for the day.
I have gather’d my baby together - and now you may go your way.

Nay - for it’s kind of you, Madam, to sit by an old dying wife.
But say nothing hard of my boy, I have only an hour of life.
I kiss’d my boy in the prison, before he went out to die.
‘They dared me to do it,’ he said, and he never has told me a lie.
I whipt him for robbing an orchard once when he was but a child -
‘The farmer dared me to do it,’ he said; he was always so wild -
And idle - and couldn’t be idle - my Willy - he never could rest.
The King should have made him a soldier, he would have been one of his best.

But he lived with a lot of wild mates, and they never would let him be good;
They swore that he dare not rob the mail, and he swore that he would;
And he took no life, but he took one purse, and when all was done
He flung it among his fellows - I’ll none of it, said my son.

I came into court to the Judge and the lawyers. I told them my tale,
God’s own truth - but they kill’d him, they kill’d him for robbing the
mail. They hang’d him in chains for a show - we had always borne a good name -
To be hang’d for a thief - and then put away - isn’t that enough shame?
Dust to dust - low down - let us hide! but they set him so high
That all the ships of the world could stare at him, passing by.
God ’ill pardon the hell-black raven and horrible fowls of the air,
But not the black heart of the lawyer who kill’d him and hang’d him there.

And the jailer forced me away. I had bid him my last goodbye;
They had fasten’d the door of his cell. ‘O mother!’ I heard him cry.
I couldn’t get back tho’ I tried, he had something further to say,
And now I never shall know it. The jailer forced me away.

Then since I couldn’t but hear that cry of my boy that was dead,
They seized me and shut me up: they fasten’d me down on my bed.
‘Mother, O mother!’ - he call’d in the dark to me year after year -
They beat me for that, they beat me - you know that I couldn’t but hear;
And then at the last they found I had grown so stupid and still
They let me abroad again - but the creatures had worked their will.

Flesh of my flesh was gone, but bone of my bone was left -
I stole them all from the lawyers - and you, will you call it a theft? -
My baby, the bones that had suck’d me, the bones that had laughed and had cried -
Theirs? O no! they are mine - not theirs - they had moved in my side.

Do you think I was scared by the bones? I kiss’d ’em, I buried ’em all -
I can’t dig deep, I am old - in the night by the My Willy ’ill rise up whole when the trumpet of judgment ’ill sound,
But I charge you never to say that I laid him in holy ground.

They would scratch him up - they would hang him again on the cursed tree.
Sin? O yes - we are sinners, I know - let all that be,
And read me a Bible verse of the Lord’s good will toward men -
‘Full of compassion and mercy, the Lord’ - let me hear it again;
‘Full of compassion and mercy - long-suffering.’ Yes, O yes!
For the lawyer is born but to murder - the Saviour lives but to bless.
He’ll never put on the black cap except for the worst of the worst,
And the first may be last - I have heard it in church - and the last may be first.
Suffering - O long-suffering - yes, as the Lord must know,
Year after year in the mist and the wind and the shower and the snow.

Heard, have you? what? they have told you he never repented his sin.
How do they know it? are they his mother? are you of his kin?
Heard! have you ever heard, when the storm on the downs began,
The wind that ’ill wail like a child and the sea that ’ill moan like a man?

Election, Election and Reprobation - it’s all very well.
But I go to-night to my boy, and I shall not find him in Hell.
For I cared so much for my boy that the Lord has look’d into my care,
And He means me I’m sure to be happy with Willy, I know not where.

And if he be lost - but to save my soul, that is all your desire:
Do you think that I care for my soul if my boy be gone to the fire?
I have been with God in the dark - go, go, you may leave me alone -
You never have borne a child - you are just as hard as a stone.

Madam, I beg your pardon! I think that you mean to be kind,
But I cannot hear what you say for my Willy’s voice in the wind -
The snow and the sky so bright - he used but to call in the dark,
And he calls to me now from the church and not from the gibbet - for hark! Nay - you can hear it yourself - it is coming - shaking the walls -
Willy - the moon’s in a cloud - Good-night. I am going. He calls.

Rizpah is not one of Tennyson's greatest poems, nor is it one of his most lyrical - the stanzas, as you can see, are pretty blocky and come in huge chunks. Despite this, it is still considered to be a great piece of poetry: why? Firstly, here's a quote from the critic James R. Kincaid who gives a good explanation:

But the tentativeness of Tennyson's great comedies helps to explain why he was never fully comfortable in that form. Despite the fact that In Memoriam, for instance, is a finer poem than "Rizpah," the latter is more unified and generically resonant. Tennyson could growl on with "grim affection" about "Bones" (Charles Tennyson, p. 189) -- it is a fully finished and formed utterance -- but he apparently disliked talking of In Memoriam -- partly, I suppose, because he was so close to it, but also because it is so highly complex, almost generically mystifying, offering various directions for our emotions, only to pull them together at the end with a resolution that has not seemed fully satisfying to many. In Memoriam is Tennyson's version of The Divine Comedy, but it lacks entirely the total confidence and the resultant easy coherence of Dante's poem. Tennyson, one feels, could have written ironic poems like "Rizpah" forever. It is a wonder and perhaps a clue to his greatness that he tried with such skill and against such odds to write a poem about a world that could be rescued for sense, loyalty, and love.

The poem draws on mythology (the name) and this is a hallmark of Tennyson (see Tithonus and Ulysses, for example) - my theory is that is (i) allows him to use stories and characters already written out for him - that is, his poems are given a whole new layer of depth and (ii) it distances him slightly from the subject matter. In Memoriam was an intense, personal poem so that is why, as Kincaid says, Tennyson didn't like talking about it. Rizpah is another example of Tennyson taking mytholgical characters and spinning them out into long complicated poems. Strangely, the name Rizpah is only loosley connected withthe content of the poem (unlike, say, in Ulysses where the title's character assumes the narrative). Generally speaking, Rizpah isn't a stunning poem and it really lacks much of the lyrical qualities and imagery present in others - it's still good though. Some parts are fairly amusing and others are well written, since they seem to flow off the tongue. Go on, read it out loud...

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