The American Poet Who Wrote a Waldensian Folk Tale- 4 minutes read - 849 words
Folk stories and songs shape culture. What would the United States be without Davy Crocket and Daniel Boone, England without Robin Hood, Scotland without William Wallace, or France without Joan of Arc? They embody the national spirit and provide legends passed down from parents to children through the generations.
During my ongoing study of the Waldensians, it’s easy to get bogged down in historical dates, names, and places, but miss the intricacies of daily life. They were (and are) a people with a name and even their own language. Yes, they have a written history dispersed across a few dozen books, pamphlets, and tracts. But the Waldensians also have songs, legends, myths, and poems—the kinds of culture parents teach their children and that have survived intact through centuries of oppression.
One in particular that caught my eye about a year ago was in A Short History of the Waldensian Church in the Valleys of Piedmont by Jane Louisa Willyams. In it, she referred to a poem written by an unnamed American poet titled The Vaudois Teacher (Vaudois being the French rendering of Waldensian). The poem told a tale about a Waldensian missionary approaching a noble lady and freely giving her a Bible in secret.
I was intrigued, so I searched for the author of the poem and found it to be none other than John Greenleaf Whittier, the famous Quaker abolitionist poet. Whittier wrote The Vaudois Teacher in 1830, about 25 years before Jane Louisa Willyams published her aforementioned book in 1855. In 1855 Whitter would not have been as well-known, thus the lack of attributing his name to the poem reproduced in her history of the Waldensians.
In John Greenleaf Whittier’s notes about The Vaudois Teacher, he recounts how he came to pen the words. He had read some of the Dominican inquisitor Rainerus Sacco’s description of the Vaudois and how they spread the gospel amongst the people. In 1830, he wrote the poem based on Saccho’s account as well as Waldensian folklore. In time, the poem traveled to Europe, where it was translated into French, Italian, and the Waldensian Occitan dialect. The Waldensians adopted the poem as their own, but little did they know it was written by an American. An American who interacted with Waldensians, when he learned of its American authorship, informed the Waldensian church in Torre Pellice, who thereafter sent a note of thanks to John Greenleaf Whittier.
In the first chapter of my book, The Lord of Luserna, I wanted an opening scene that captured what it was like to be a Waldensian missionary. Whittier’s The Vaudois Teacher was a perfect fit. I adapted the poem into a story featuring one of the main characters, Andreas, and his aged mentor Estève Malan. The scene is tenuous and mysterious, but also hopeful and charming.
The Vaudois Teacher
“O Lady fair, these silks of mine
are beautiful and rare,—
The richest web of the Indian loom, which beauty’s
queen might wear;
And my pearls are pure as thy own fair neck, with whose
radiant light they vie;
I have brought them with me a weary way,—will my
gentle lady buy?”
The lady smiled on the worn old man through the
dark and clustering curls
Which veiled her brow, as she bent to view his
silks and glittering pearls;
And she placed their price in the old man’s hand
and lightly turned away,
But she paused at the wanderer’s earnest call,—
“My gentle lady, stay!
“O lady fair, I have yet a gem which a purer
Than the diamond flash of the jewelled crown on
the lofty brow of kings;
A wonderful pearl of exceeding price, whose virtue
shall not decay,
Whose light shall be as a spell to thee and a
blessing on thy way!”
The lady glanced at the mirroring steel where her
form of grace was seen,
Where her eye shone clear, and her dark locks
waved their clasping pearls between;
“Bring forth thy pearl of exceeding worth, thou
traveller gray and old,
And name the price of thy precious gem, and my
page shall count thy gold.”
The cloud went off from the pilgrim’s brow, as a
small and meagre book,
Unchased with gold or gem of cost, from his
folding robe he took!
“Here, lady fair, is the pearl of price, may it prove
as such to thee
Nay, keep thy gold—I ask it not, for the word of
God is free!”
The hoary traveller went his way, but the gift he
Hath had its pure and perfect work on that high-
born maiden’s mind,
And she hath turned from the pride of sin to the
lowliness of truth,
And given her human heart to God in its beautiful
hour of youth.
And she hath left the gray old halls, where an evil
faith had power,
The courtly knights of her father’s train, and the
maidens of her bower;
And she hath gone to the Vaudois vales by lordly
Where the poor and needy of earth are rich in the
perfect love of God!