The Letters of the Living


There, then, on that Purest Spot,
with the night pregnant with the day,
Shiva the Destroyer lifted up
and threw down on the knee of His love
the entire world and the heavens thereof,
breaking them then, all that lay therein
so that they fell, cast deep into darkness and doubt.

There were but Twenty still living:
the First, the eighteen and the Second,
Witness unto Himself. What Word
on that day did those eighteen say
so that the reunion could finally begin?
“Yea!” they cried, voices flung in abandon,
high unto the heavens.
“Yea!” they cried, necks bared to the blade,
arms lifted taut with joy.
“Yea!” they cried and thus they died
leaving only their echoes to recall them.
But here in my place, God help me,
I think I hear them still.


This is a poem that is steeped in the history of the Bahá’í Faith and the allusions will be unclear to non-Bahá’ís, so let me explain very briefly:

Much like John the Baptist came first to prepare the world for Jesus Christ, the Báb (“the First” in the poem) came to prepare the world for Bahá’u’lláh (“the Second” in the poem), the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. The first eighteen brave souls—martyrs all, as was the Báb Himself—who declared Their belief in Him are referred to as the Letters of the Living.

This concept of “living”  i.e. spiritual rejuvenation through belief in a new Manifestation of God, is developed also in the first stanza, where Shiva—a Hindu deity—fulfills one of the roles of God and “destroys” the world (everyone is metaphorically dead upon His arrival) and then transforms it, through giving “life”, i.e. spiritual rejuvenation through faith in Him.

Thank you for reading The Letters of the Living. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph is entitled Burst and was taken in Washington, DC on Memorial Day, several years ago. For more photography, please visit the Book of Bokeh.


Photograph, poem and notes © 2014 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2014 by John Etheridge, The photograph is not licensed for use or reproduction in any way, unless so granted in writing by the copyright owner.


Filed under Poetry

9 responses to “The Letters of the Living

  1. Stephanie Fielding

    You are so inspiring, John! Now I have to write Fast prayer. Mine has to do with the long one that starts every stanza: “I beseech Thee, O my God . . .” I realized on the second day of the Fast that the first twelve stanzas were in couplets for the Most Holy, the Most Luminous, the Most Mighty, the Most Great, the Most Exalted, and the Most Glorious.

    • Stephanie,

      Thank you so much dear, I am so glad that you liked it!

      Isn’t that Fast prayer just one of the most awesome things you have ever read?! On the first day of the Fast this year I nearly wept, the words were so sublime. I still, every time I read it, rejoice in your observation that the Names of God refer to the Manifestations of the Abrahamic line. (PS: By the way, I claim that observation as my own now. I know, that makes me petty and mean, but there you go, what can I say, that’s me! ;-D )

      I had always noticed the design of the couplets and been amazed at their perfection, and in fact, I count 13 total couplets of the same style, including the last. It is the penultimate verse that sets up the ending, being one long line. It just goes to show how the Guardian could not only translate meaning, but style and grace too.

      Again, thank you dear, I really appreciate it.


  2. WOW. I learn something when I stop by. This is a very sobering, and a very inspiring piece. T

    • It’s funny. I have been sitting on this poem for years, knowing I wanted to post it but there was just a little something I had to work out. Finally it came to me; it was the line, “and only the echoes to recall them”. Bang, done! I’m not sure I’ll write too many lines as good as, “breaking them then, all that lay therein/so that they fell, cast deep into darkness and doubt” in my lifetime.

  3. A lovely picture and poem, John! And I certainly benefited from your explanation following 🙂


    • Elizabeth, you are as kind as usual! I am trying to cut down on the commentary (with, as you can see, little luck) but for non-Bahai’s it would have been too much confusion. And my poems are confusing enough as they are. Thank you as always for dropping by.

      • I’m a bit curious, why are you cutting down on the commentary?

      • I just got to thinking that in some cases the commentary was too long (and I fear boring) and that with better writing and editing it could be both more succinct and easier to read. Plus, it would leave more emphasis on the poem itself, which is the real reason the post exists in the first place. This is an attitude I even continue to take with my poems, still trying to learn to say things more briefly.

      • I like the commentaries (maybe because I’m not very good at figuring out poetry?) but I have no idea what the average reader thinks, and this sounds well thought out 🙂 Conciseness is a virtue, haha