Home  »  Complete Poetical Works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow  »  Part II. The Golden Legend. II. V. A Village Church

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

Christus: A Mystery

Part II. The Golden Legend. II. V. A Village Church

A woman kneeling at the confessional.

THE PARISH PRIEST, from within.
GO, sin no more! Thy penance o’er,

A new and better life begin!

God maketh thee forever free

From the dominion of thy sin!

Go, sin no more! He will restore

The peace that filled thy heart before,

And pardon thine iniquity!

The woman goes out. The Priest comes forth, and walks slowly up and down the church.

O blessed Lord! how much I need

Thy light to guide me on my way!

So many hands, that, without heed,

Still touch thy wounds, and make them bleed!

So many feet, that, day by day,

Still wander from thy fold astray!

Unless thou fill me with thy light,

I cannot lead thy flock aright;

Nor, without thy support, can bear

The burden of so great a care,

But am myself a castaway!

A pause.

The day is drawing to its close;

And what good deeds, since first it rose,

Have I presented, Lord, to thee,

As offerings of my ministry?

What wrong repressed, what right maintained,

What struggle passed, what victory gained,

What good attempted and attained?

Feeble, at best, is my endeavor!

I see, but cannot reach, the height

That lies forever in the light,

And yet forever and forever,

When seeming just within my grasp,

I feel my feeble hands unclasp,

And sink discouraged into night!

For thine own purpose, thou hast sent

The strife and the discouragement!

A pause.

Why stayest thou, Prince of Hoheneck?

Why keep me pacing to and fro

Amid these aisles of sacred gloom,

Counting my footsteps as I go,

And marking with each step a tomb?

Why should the world for thee make room,

And wait thy leisure and thy beck?

Thou comest in the hope to hear

Some word of comfort and of cheer.

What can I say? I cannot give

The counsel to do this and live;

But rather, firmly to deny

The tempter, though his power be strong,

And, inaccessible to wrong,

Still like a martyr live and die!

A pause.

The evening air grows dusk and brown;

I must go forth into the town,

To visit beds of pain and death,

Of restless limbs, and quivering breath,

And sorrowing hearts, and patient eyes

That see, through tears, the sun go down,

But never more shall see it rise.

The poor in body and estate,

The sick and the disconsolate,

Must not on man’s convenience wait.

Goes out.

Enter LUCIFER, as a Priest.

LUCIFER, with a genuflexion, mocking.
This is the Black Pater-noster.

God was my foster,

He fostered me

Under the book of the Palm-tree!

St. Michael was my dame.

He was born at Bethlehem,

He was made of flesh and blood.

God send me my right food,

My right food, and shelter too,

That I may to yon kirk go,

To read upon yon sweet book

Which the mighty God of heaven shook.

Open, open, hell’s gates!

Shut, shut, heaven’s gates!

All the devils in the air

The stronger be, that hear the Black Prayer!

Looking round the church.

What a darksome and dismal place!

I wonder that any man has the face

To call such a hole the House of the Lord,

And the Gate of Heaven,—yet such is the word.

Ceiling, and walls, and windows old,

Covered with cobwebs, blackened with mould;

Dust on the pulpit, dust on the stairs,

Dust on the benches, and stalls, and chairs!

The pulpit, from which such ponderous sermons

Have fallen down on the brains of the Germans,

With about as much real edification

As if a great Bible, bound in lead,

Had fallen, and struck them on the head;

And I ought to remember that sensation!

Here stands the holy-water stoup!

Holy-water it may be to many,

But to me, the veriest Liquor Gehennæ!

It smells like a filthy fast-day soup!

Near it stands the box for the poor,

With its iron padlock, safe and sure.

I and the priest of the parish know

Whither all these charities go;

Therefore, to keep up the institution,

I will add my little contribution!

He puts in money.

Underneath this mouldering tomb,

With statue of stone, and scutcheon of brass,

Slumbers a great lord of the village.

All his life was riot and pillage,

But at length, to escape the threatened doom

Of the everlasting penal fire,

He died in the dress of a mendicant friar,

And bartered his wealth for a daily mass.

But all that afterwards came to pass,

And whether he finds it dull or pleasant,

Is kept a secret for the present,

At his own particular desire.

And here, in a corner of the wall,

Shadowy, silent, apart from all,

With its awful portal open wide,

And its latticed windows on either side,

And its step well worn by the bended knees

Of one or two pious centuries,

Stands the village confessional!

Within it, as an honored guest,

I will sit down awhile and rest!

Seats himself in the confessional.

Here sits the priest; and faint and low,

Like the sighing of an evening breeze,

Comes through these painted lattices

The ceaseless sound of human woe;

Here, while her bosom aches and throbs

With deep and agonizing sobs,

That half are passion, half contrition,

The luckless daughter of perdition

Slowly confesses her secret shame!

The time, the place, the lover’s name!

Here the grim murderer, with a groan,

From his bruised conscience rolls the stone,

Thinking that thus he can atone

For ravages of sword and flame!

Indeed, I marvel, and marvel greatly,

How a priest can sit here so sedately,

Reading, the whole year out and in,

Naught but the catalogue of sin,

And still keep any faith whatever

In human virtue! Never! never!

I cannot repeat a thousandth part

Of the horrors and crimes and sins and woes

That arise, when with palpitating throes

The graveyard in the human heart

Gives up its dead, at the voice of the priest,

As if he were an archangel, at least.

It makes a peculiar atmosphere,

This odor of earthly passions and crimes,

Such as I like to breathe, at times,

And such as often brings me here

In the hottest and most pestilential season.

To-day, I come for another reason;

To foster and ripen an evil thought

In a heart that is almost to madness wrought,

And to make a murderer out of a prince,

A sleight of hand I learned long since!

He comes. In the twilight he will not see

The difference between his priest and me!

In the same net was the mother caught!

PRINCE HENRY, entering and kneeling at the confessional.
Remorseful, penitent, and lowly,

I come to crave, O Father holy,

Thy benediction on my head.

The benediction shall be said

After confession, not before!

’T is a God-speed to the parting guest,

Who stands already at the door,

Sandalled with holiness, and dressed

In garments pure from earthly stain.

Meanwhile, hast thou searched well thy breast?

Does the same madness fill thy brain?

Or have thy passion and unrest

Vanished forever from thy mind?

By the same madness still made blind,

By the same passion still possessed,

I come again to the house of prayer,

A man afflicted and distressed!

As in a cloudy atmosphere,

Through unseen sluices of the air,

A sudden and impetuous wind

Strikes the great forest white with fear,

And every branch, and bough, and spray

Points all its quivering leaves one way,

And meadows of grass, and fields of grain,

And the clouds above, and the slanting rain,

And smoke from chimneys of the town,

Yield themselves to it, and bow down,

So does this dreadful purpose press

Onward, with irresistible stress,

And all my thoughts and faculties,

Struck level by the strength of this,

From their true inclination turn,

And all stream forward to Salern!

Alas! we are but eddies of dust,

Uplifted by the blast, and whirled

Along the highway of the world

A moment only, then to fall

Back to a common level all,

At the subsiding of the gust!

O holy Father! pardon in me

The oscillation of a mind

Unsteadfast, and that cannot find

Its centre of rest and harmony!

For evermore before mine eyes

This ghastly phantom flits and flies,

And as a madman through a crowd,

With frantic gestures and wild cries,

It hurries onward, and aloud

Repeats its awful prophecies!

Weakness is wretchedness! To be strong

Is to be happy! I am weak,

And cannot find the good I seek,

Because I feel and fear the wrong!

Be not alarmed! The Church is kind,

And in her mercy and her meekness

She meets half-way her children’s weakness,

Writes their transgressions in the dust!

Though in the Decalogue we find

The mandate written, “Thou shalt not kill!”

Yet there are cases when we must.

In war, for instance, or from scathe

To guard and keep the one true Faith

We must look at the Decalogue in the light

Of an ancient statute, that was meant

For a mild and general application,

To be understood with the reservation

That in certain instances the Right

Must yield to the Expedient!

Thou art a Prince. If thou shouldst die,

What hearts and hopes would prostrate lie!

What noble deeds, what fair renown,

Into the grave with thee go down!

What acts of valor and courtesy

Remain undone, and die with thee!

Thou art the last of all thy race!

With thee a noble name expires,

And vanishes from the earth’s face

The glorious memory of thy sires!

She is a peasant. In her veins

Flows common and plebeian blood;

It is such as daily and hourly stains

The dust and the turf of battle plains,

By vassals shed, in a crimson flood,

Without reserve, and without reward,

At the slightest summons of their lord!

But thine is precious; the fore-appointed

Blood of kings, of God’s anointed!

Moreover, what has the world in store,

For one like her, but tears and toil?

Daughter of sorrow, serf of the soil,

A peasant’s child and a peasant’s wife,

And her soul within her sick and sore

With the roughness and barrenness of life

I marvel not at the heart’s recoil

From a fate like this, in one so tender,

Nor at its eagerness to surrender

All the wretchedness, want, and woe

That await it in this world below,

Nor the unutterable splendor

Of the world of rest beyond the skies.

So the Church sanctions the sacrifice:

Therefore inhale this healing balm,

And breathe this fresh life into thine;

Accept the comfort and the calm

She offers, as a gift divine;

Let her fall down and anoint thy feet

With the ointment costly and most sweet

Of her young blood, and thou shalt live.

And will the righteous Heaven forgive?

No action, whether foul or fair,

Is ever done, but it leaves somewhere

A record, written by fingers ghostly,

As a blessing or a curse, and mostly

In the greater weakness or greater strength

Of the acts which follow it, till at length

The wrongs of ages are redressed,

And the justice of God made manifest!

In ancient records it is stated

That, whenever an evil deed is done,

Another devil is created

To scourge and torment the offending one!

But evil is only good perverted,

And Lucifer, the bearer of Light,

But an angel fallen and deserted,

Thrust from his Father’s house with a curse

Into the black and endless night.

If justice rules the universe,

From the good actions of good men

Angels of light should be begotten,

And thus the balance restored again.

Yes; if the world were not so rotten,

And so given over to the Devil!

But this deed, is it good or evil?

Have I thine absolution free

To do it, and without restriction?

Ay; and from whatsoever sin

Lieth around it and within,

From all crimes in which it may involve thee,

I now release thee and absolve thee!

Give me thy holy benediction.

LUCIFER, stretching forth his hand and muttering.
Maledictione perpetua

Maledicat vos

Pater eternus!

THE ANGEL, with the æolian harp.
Take heed! take heed!

Noble art thou in thy birth,

By the good and the great of earth

Hast thou been taught!

Be noble in every thought

And in every deed!

Let not the illusion of thy senses

Betray thee to deadly offences.

Be strong! be good! be pure!

The right only shall endure,

All things else are but false pretences.

I entreat thee, I implore,

Listen no more

To the suggestions of an evil spirit,

That even now is there,

Making the foul seem fair,

And selfishness itself a virtue and a merit.