Today the Gospel reading in the Episcopal Liturgy is the wonderful passage about Jesus calling upon Simon Peter and Andrew to leave their fishing nets and become “fishers of men/people” (Mark 1:15-20). Looking for something that touched upon the passage, I came across a poem and a poet that were unfamiliar.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was a black woman born free in Boston in 1825. She was a tireless member of the aboltionist movement, worked with the Underground Railroad to smuggle black slaves to freedom, and later in the century would work from women’s suffrage and organize the National Association of Colored Women. (“Poemhunter” has her bio here.) Her poem reminds me a little of William Blake and takes on special meaning in light of her work on behalf of slaves.
First the passage from Mark:
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
And now the poem:
Fishers of Men
By Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
I had a dream, a varied dream:
Before my ravished sight
The city of my Lord arose,
With all its love and light.
The music of a myriad harps
Flowed out with sweet accord;
And saints were casting down their crowns
In homage to our Lord.
My heart leaped up with untold joy,
Life’s toil and pain were o’er;
My weary feet at last had found
The bright and restful shore.
Just as I reached the gates of light,
Ready to enter in,
From earth arose a fearful cry
Of sorrow and of sin.
I turned, and saw behind me surge
A wild and stormy sea;
And drowning men were reaching out
Imploring hands to me.
And ev’ry lip was blanched with dread,
And moaning for relief;
The music of the golden harps
Grew fainter for their grief.
Let me return, I quickly said,
Close to the pearly gate;
My work is with these wretched ones,
So wrecked and desolate.
An angel smiled and gently said:
This is the gate of life,
Wilt thou return to earth’s sad scenes,
Its weariness and strife,
To comfort hearts that sigh and break,
To dry the falling tear,
Wilt thou forego the music sweet
Entrancing now thy ear?
I must return, I firmly said,
The strugglers in that sea
Shall not reach out beseeching hands
In vain for help to me.
I turned to go; but as I turned
The gloomy sea grew bright,
And from my heart there seemed to flow
Ten thousand cords of light.
And sin-wrecked men, with eager hands
Did grasp each golden cord;
And with my heart I drew them on
To see my gracious Lord.
Again I stood beside the gate.
My heart was glad and free;
For with me stood a rescued throng
The Lord had given me.