The stern old judge, in relentless mood,
Glanced at the two who before him stood—
She was bowed and haggard and old,
He was young and defiant and bold—
Mother and son; and to gaze at the pair,
Their different attitudes, look and air,
One would believe, ere the truth were won,
The mother convicted, and not the son.
There was the mother ; the boy stood nigh
With a shameless look, and his head held high.
Age had come over her, sorrow and care;
These mattered but little so he was there,
A prop to her years and a light to her eyes,
And prized as only a mother can prize;
But what for him could a mother say,
Waiting his doom on the sentence-day?
Her husband had died in his shame and sin;
And she, a widow, her living to win
Had toiled and straggled from morn to night,
Making with want a wearisome fight,
Bent over her work with a resolute zeal,
Till she felt her old frame totter and reel,
Her weak limbs tremble, her eves grow dim;
But she had her boy, and she toiled for him.
And he—he stood in the criminal dock,
With a heart as hard as the flinty rock,
An impudent glance and reckless air,
Braving the scorn of the gazers there;
Dipped in crime and encompassed round
With proofs of his guilt by his captors found,
Ready to stand, as he praised it, “game,”
Holding not crime, but penitence, shame.
Poured in a flood o’er the mother’s cheek
The moistening prayers where the tongue was weak,
And she saw through the mist of those bitter tears
Only the child in his innocent years;
She remembered him pure as a child might be,
The guilt of the present she could not see;
And for mercy her wistful looks made prayer
To the stern old judge in his cushioned chair.
“Woman,” the old judge crabbedly said—
“Your boy is the neighbor’s plague and dread;
Of a gang of reprobates chosen chief;
An idler and rioter, ruffian and thief.
The jury did right, for the facts were plain;
Denial is idle, excuses are vain.
The sentence the court imposes is one—”
“Your honor,” she cried, “he’s my only son.”
The tipstaves grinned at the words she spoke,
And a ripple of fun through the court-room broke;
But over the face of the culprit came
An angry look and a shadow of shame.
“Don’t laugh at my mother!” loud cried he;
“You’ve got me fast, and can deal with me;
But she’s too good for your coward jeers,
And I’ll—” then his utterance choked with tears.
The judge for a moment bent his head,
And looked at him keenly, and then he said—
“We suspend the sentence — the boy can go;”
And the words were tremulous, forced and low.
“But stay!” and he raised his finger then—
“Don’t let them bring you hither again
There is something good in you yet, I know;
I’ll give you a chance—make the most of it—Go!”
The twain went forth, and the old judge said—
“I meant to have given him a year instead;
And perhaps ’tis a difficult thing to tell
If clemency be ill or well,
But a rock was struck in that callous heart
From which a fountain of good may start;
For one on the ocean of crime long tossed
Who loves his mother, is not quite lost.
“Poetry: Smiting the Rock“, Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Maryborough, Qld.), 12 March 1881, p. 1 (supplement to The Maryborough Chronicle).
“Touch of Nature: Smiting the Rock“, The Fort Worth Gazette (Fort Worth, Texas), vol. 15 no. 291, 2 August 1891, p. 5 (bottom of 7th column) [which cites its source as Phonographic World magazine].
Notes by Andrew Guild:
I tried to track down who the author of this poem was, but had no luck in doing so.
I have found copies of this in various old Australian and American newspapers (and a catalogue entry which listed it as appearing in an old American book), but could not locate any mention of the author.
Possibly it is an American poem, but that is only a guess on my part.