Home  »  Complete Poetical Works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow  »  Part II. The Golden Legend. V. I. A Covered Bridge at Lucerne

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

Christus: A Mystery

Part II. The Golden Legend. V. I. A Covered Bridge at Lucerne

GOD’S blessing on the architects who build

The bridges o’er swift rivers and abysses

Before impassable to human feet,

No less than on the builders of cathedrals,

Whose massive walls are bridges thrown across

The dark and terrible abyss of Death.

Well has the name of Pontifex been given

Unto the Church’s head, as the chief builder

And architect of the invisible bridge

That leads from earth to heaven.

How dark it grows!

What are these paintings on the walls around us?

The Dance Macaber!


The Dance of Death!

All that go to and fro must look upon it,

Mindful of what they shall be, while beneath,

Among the wooden piles, the turbulent river

Rushes, impetuous as the river of life,

With dimpling eddies, ever green and bright,

Save where the shadow of this bridge falls on it.

Oh yes! I see it now!

The grim musician

Leads all men through the mazes of that dance,

To different sounds in different measures moving;

Sometimes he plays a lute, sometimes a drum,

To tempt or terrify.

What is this picture?

It is a young man singing to a nun,

Who kneels at her devotions, but in kneeling

Turns round to look at him; and Death, meanwhile,

Is putting out the candles on the altar!

Ah, what a pity ’t is that she should listen

Unto such songs, when in her orisons

She might have heard in heaven the angels singing!

Here he has stolen a jester’s cap and bells,

And dances with the Queen.

A foolish jest!

And here the heart of the new-wedded wife,

Coming from church with her beloved lord,

He startles with the rattle of his drum.

Ah, that is sad! And yet perhaps ’t is best

That she should die, with all the sunshine on her,

And all the benedictions of the morning,

Before this affluence of golden light

Shall fade into a cold and clouded gray,

Then into darkness!

Under it is written,

“Nothing but death shall separate thee and me!”

And what is this, that follows close upon it?

Death, playing on a dulcimer. Behind him,

A poor old woman, with a rosary,

Follows the sound, and seems to wish her feet

Were swifter to o’ertake him. Underneath,

The inscription reads, “Better is Death than Life.”

Better is Death than Life! Ah yes! to thousands

Death plays upon a dulcimer, and sings

That song of consolation, till the air

Rings with it, and they cannot choose but follow

Whither he leads. And not the old alone,

But the young also hear it, and are still.

Yes, in their sadder moments. ’T is the sound

Of their own hearts they hear, half full of tears,

Which are like crystal cups, half filled with water,

Responding to the pressure of a finger

With music sweet and low and melancholy.

Let us go forward, and no longer stay

In this great picture-gallery of Death!

I hate it! ay, the very thought of it!

Why is it hateful to you?

For the reason

That life, and all that speaks of life, is lovely,

And death, and all that speaks of death, is hateful.

The grave itself is but a covered bridge,

Leading from light to light, through a brief darkness!

PRINCE HENRY, emerging from the bridge.
I breathe again more freely! Ah, how pleasant

To come once more into the light of day,

Out of that shadow of death! To hear again

The hoof-beats of our horses on firm ground,

And not upon those hollow planks, resounding

With a sepulchral echo, like the clods

On coffins in a churchyard! Yonder lies

The Lake of the Four Forest-Towns, apparelled

In light, and lingering, like a village maiden,

Hid in the bosom of her native mountains,

Then pouring all her life into another’s,

Changing her name and being! Overhead,

Shaking his cloudy tresses loose in air,

Rises Pilatus, with his windy pines.

They pass on.