April 5, 2013

Harte: As Yerba Buena is the good herb known

Bret Harte published his poem "The Yerba Buena" in the April 5, 1863 issue of the Golden Era in California. The title, Spanish for "the good herb," referenced an abundant low-lying plant in the mint family. It was also the original name for San Francisco. The poem deftly combines the various meanings by telling the story of the original Spanish missions, their influence on the local natives, and the well-known California plant (with a little satire of religious belief too):

When from the distant lands, and burning South,
Came Junipero — through the plains of drouth,—
Bringing God's promise by the word of mouth,

With blistered feet and fever-stricken brain,
He sank one night upon the arid plain,—
If God so willed it — not to rise again;

A heathen convert stood in wonder by;
"If God is God — the Father shall not die,"
He said. The dying priest made no reply.

"This in His name!" the savage cried, and drew
From the parched brook an herb that thereby grew,
And rubbed its leaves his dusky fingers through;

Then with the bruised stalks he bound straightway
The Padre's feet and temples where he lay,
And sat him down in faith, to wait till day;

When rose the Padre — as the dead may rise —
Heading the story in the convert's eyes,
"A miracle! God's herb" — the savage cries.

"Not so," replies the ever humble priest;
"God's loving goodness showeth in the least,
Not God's but good be known the herb thou seest!"

Then rising up he wandered forth alone;
And ever since, where'er its seed be sown,
As Yerba Buena is the good herb known.

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