"Absalom" sets a poem of Paul Goodman from his volume The Lordly Hudson, which was published in 1962. Rorem wrote the piano/vocal version of this song in 1946, followed by a voice and orchestra version in 1947.
The story of Absalom, the third son of David, comes from the second book of Samuel in the Bible. Absalom, referred to in the Bible as the most beautiful man alive, was renowned for his extraordinary hair and declared himself king while his father David was already King of Israel. In the Battle of Ephraim Wood, against David's army, Absalom's army is tricked by David's messenger, caught unawares, and Absalom, in his attempt to retreat, is caught and hung by his hair in an oak-tree. Joab, one of David's commanders, runs through Absalom with three spears and kills him. Despite everything, David still grieves for his son.
by Paul Goodman
In the roomy oak among the fluttering leaves
and the shadows and the apertures in motion
where the nestling sparrows chirrup in commotion and hop about in fright,
and a voice grieves,
what is this golden moss that interweaves
the branches like an unaccustomed snare
dismaying birds and gleaming brilliantly?
Is it not human hair in the oak-tree?
Absalom hanging tangled by the hair
motionless even to the frightened stare!
Whom Joab like a fowler in the sun looming,
destroyed, spotting the green with blood;
and David, when at last he understood
the rumour, mourned: "O my son Absalom!"
he wept, "O Absalom, my son, my son!"