Home  »  Complete Poetical Works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow  »  Part II. The Golden Legend. IV. VII. The Neighboring Nunnery

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

Christus: A Mystery

Part II. The Golden Legend. IV. VII. The Neighboring Nunnery

The ABBESS IRMINGARD sitting with ELSIE in the moonlight.

THE NIGHT is silent, the wind is still,

The moon is looking from yonder hill

Down upon convent, and grove, and garden;

The clouds have passed away from her face,

Leaving behind them no sorrowful trace,

Only the tender and quiet grace

Of one whose heart has been healed with pardon!

And such am I. My soul within

Was dark with passion and soiled with sin.

But now its wounds are healed again;

Gone are the anguish, the terror, and pain;

For across that desolate land of woe,

O’er whose burning sands I was forced to go,

A wind from heaven began to blow;

And all my being trembled and shook,

As the leaves of the tree, or the grass of the field,

And I was healed, as the sick are healed,

When fanned by the leaves of the Holy Book!

As thou sittest in the moonlight there,

Its glory flooding thy golden hair,

And the only darkness that which lies

In the haunted chambers of thine eyes,

I feel my soul drawn unto thee,

Strangely, and strongly, and more and more,

As to one I have known and loved before;

For every soul is akin to me

That dwells in the land of mystery!

I am the Lady Irmingard,

Born of a noble race and name!

Many a wandering Suabian bard,

Whose life was dreary, and bleak, and hard,

Has found through me the way to fame.

Brief and bright were those days, and the night

Which followed was full of a lurid light.

Love, that of every woman’s heart

Will have the whole, and not a part,

That is to her, in Nature’s plan,

More than ambition is to man,

Her light, her life, her very breath,

With no alternative but death,

Found me a maiden soft and young,

Just from the convent’s cloistered school,

And seated on my lowly stool,

Attentive while the minstrels sung.

Gallant, graceful, gentle, tall,

Fairest, noblest, best of all,

Was Walter of the Vogelweid;

And, whatsoever may betide,

Still I think of him with pride!

His song was of the summer-time,

The very birds sang in his rhyme;

The sunshine, the delicious air,

The fragrance of the flowers, were there;

And I grew restless as I heard,

Restless and buoyant as a bird,

Down soft, aerial currents sailing,

O’er blossomed orchards, and fields in bloom,

And through the momentary gloom

Of shadows o’er the landscape trailing,

Yielding and borne I knew not where,

But feeling resistance unavailing.

And thus, unnoticed and apart,

And more by accident than choice,

I listened to that single voice

Until the chambers of my heart

Were filled with it by night and day.

One night,—it was a night in May,—

Within the garden, unawares,

Under the blossoms in the gloom,

I heard it utter my own name

With protestations and wild prayers;

And it rang through me, and became

Like the archangel’s trump of doom,

Which the soul hears, and must obey;

And mine arose as from a tomb.

My former life now seemed to me

Such as hereafter death may be,

When in the great Eternity

We shall awake and find it day.

It was a dream, and would not stay;

A dream, that in a single night

Faded and vanished out of sight.

My father’s anger followed fast

This passion, as a freshening blast

Seeks out and fans the fire, whose rage

It may increase, but not assuage.

And he exclaimed: “No wandering bard

Shall win thy hand, O Irmingard!

For which Prince Henry of Hoheneck

By messenger and letter sues.”

Gently, but firmly, I replied:

“Henry of Hoheneck I discard!

Never the hand of Irmingard

Shall lie in his as the hand of a bride!”

This said I, Walter, for thy sake;

This said I, for I could not choose.

After a pause, my father spake

In that cold and deliberate tone

Which turns the hearer into stone,

And seems itself the act to be

That follows with such dread certainty:

“This or the cloister and the veil!”

No other words than these he said,

But they were like a funeral wail;

My life was ended, my heart was dead.

That night from the castle-gate went down,

With silent, slow, and stealthy pace,

Two shadows, mounted on shadowy steeds,

Taking the narrow path that leads

Into the forest dense and brown.

In the leafy darkness of the place,

One could not distinguish form nor face,

Only a bulk without a shape,

A darker shadow in the shade;

One scarce could say it moved or stayed.

Thus it was we made our escape!

A foaming brook, with many a bound,

Followed us like a playful hound;

Then leaped before us, and in the hollow

Paused, and waited for us to follow,

And seemed impatient, and afraid

That our tardy flight should be betrayed

By the sound our horses’ hoof-beats made.

And when we reached the plain below,

We paused a moment and drew rein

To look back at the castle again;

And we saw the windows all aglow

With lights, that were passing to and fro;

Our hearts with terror ceased to beat;

The brook crept silent to our feet;

We knew what most we feared to know.

Then suddenly horns began to blow;

And we heard a shout, and a heavy tramp,

And our horses snorted in the damp

Night-air of the meadows green and wide,

And in a moment, side by side,

So close, they must have seemed but one,

The shadows across the moonlight run,

And another came, and swept behind,

Like the shadow of clouds before the wind!

How I remember that breathless flight

Across the moors, in the summer night!

How under our feet the long, white road

Backward like a river flowed,

Sweeping with it fences and hedges,

Whilst farther away and overhead,

Paler than I, with fear and dread,

The moon fled with us as we fled

Along the forest’s jagged edges!

All this I can remember well;

But of what afterwards befell

I nothing further can recall

Than a blind, desperate, headlong fall;

The rest is a blank and darkness all.

When I awoke out of this swoon,

The sun was shining, not the moon,

Making a cross upon the wall

With the bars of my windows narrow and tall;

And I prayed to it, as I had been wont to pray,

From early childhood, day by day,

Each morning, as in bed I lay!

I was lying again in my own room!

And I thanked God, in my fever and pain,

That those shadows on the midnight plain

Were gone, and could not come again!

I struggled no longer with my doom!

This happened many years ago.

I left my father’s home to come

Like Catherine to her martyrdom,

For blindly I esteemed it so.

And when I heard the convent door

Behind me close, to ope no more,

I felt it smite me like a blow.

Through all my limbs a shudder ran,

And on my bruisèd spirit fell

The dampness of my narrow cell

As night-air on a wounded man,

Giving intolerable pain.

But now a better life began.

I felt the agony decrease

By slow degrees, then wholly cease,

Ending in perfect rest and peace!

It was not apathy, nor dulness,

That weighed and pressed upon my brain,

But the same passion I had given

To earth before, now turned to heaven

With all its overflowing fulness.

Alas! the world is full of peril!

The path that runs through the fairest meads,

On the sunniest side of the valley, leads

Into a region bleak and sterile!

Alike in the high-born and the lowly,

The will is feeble, and passion strong.

We cannot sever right from wrong;

Some falsehood mingles with all truth;

Nor is it strange the heart of youth

Should waver and comprehend but slowly

The things that are holy and unholy!

But in this sacred, calm retreat,

We are all well and safely shielded

From winds that blow, and waves that beat,

From the cold, and rain, and blighting heat,

To which the strongest hearts have yielded.

Here we stand as the Virgins Seven,

For our celestial bridegroom yearning;

Our hearts are lamps forever burning,

With a steady and unwavering flame,

Pointing upward, forever the same,

Steadily upward toward the heaven!

The moon is hidden behind a cloud;

A sudden darkness fills the room,

And thy deep eyes, amid the gloom,

Shine like jewels in a shroud.

On the leaves is a sound of falling rain;

A bird, awakened in its nest,

Gives a faint twitter of unrest,

Then smooths its plumes and sleeps again.

No other sounds than these I hear;

The hour of midnight must be near.

Thou art o’erspent with the day’s fatigue

Of riding many a dusty league;

Sink, then, gently to thy slumber;

Me so many cares encumber,

So many ghosts, and forms of fright,

Have started from their graves to-night,

They have driven sleep from mine eyes away:

I will go down to the chapel and pray.