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This rather grim song is actually a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), written as “The Reaper and the Flowers”, published in the anthology “Voices of the Night” in 1839. The original words are:
There is a Reaper, whose name is Death,
And, with his sickle keen,
He reaps the bearded grain at a breath,
And the flowers that grow between.
“Shall I have naught that is fair?” saith he;
“Have naught but the bearded grain?
Though the breath of these flowers is sweet to me,
I will give them all back again.”
He gazed at the flowers with tearful eyes,
He kissed their drooping leaves;
It was for the Lord of Paradise
He bound them in his sheaves.
“My Lord has need of these flowerets gay,”
The Reaper said, and smiled;
“Dear tokens of the earth are they,
Where He was once a child.
“They shall all bloom in fields of light,
Transplanted by my care,
And saints, upon their garments white,
These sacred blossoms wear.”
And the mother gave, in tears and pain,
The flowers she most did love;
She knew she should find them all again
In the fields of light above.
Oh, not in cruelty, not in wrath,
The Reaper came that day;
‘T was an angel visited the green earth,
And took the flowers away.
This is the only version that has appeared in oral tradition.