Home  »  Complete Poetical Works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow  »  Part Second. The Student’s Tale: The Cobbler of Hagenau

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

Tales of a Wayside Inn

Part Second. The Student’s Tale: The Cobbler of Hagenau

I TRUST that somewhere and somehow

You all have heard of Hagenau,

A quiet, quaint, and ancient town

Among the green Alsatian hills,

A place of valleys, streams, and mills,

Where Barbarossa’s castle, brown

With rust of centuries, still looks down

On the broad, drowsy land below,—

On shadowy forests filled with game,

And the blue river winding slow

Through meadows, where the hedges grow

That give this little town its name.

It happened in the good old times,

While yet the Master-singers filled

The noisy workshop and the guild

With various melodies and rhymes,

That here in Hagenau there dwelt

A cobbler,—one who loved debate,

And, arguing from a postulate,

Would say what others only felt;

A man of forecast and of thrift,

And of a shrewd and careful mind

In this world’s business, but inclined

Somewhat to let the next world drift.

Hans Sachs with vast delight he read,

And Regenbogen’s rhymes of love,

For their poetic fame had spread

Even to the town of Hagenau;

And some Quick Melody of the Plough,

Or Double Harmony of the Dove

Was always running in his head.

He kept, moreover, at his side,

Among his leathers and his tools,

Reynard the Fox, the Ship of Fools,

Or Eulenspiegel, open wide;

With these he was much edified:

He thought them wiser than the Schools.

His good wife, full of godly fear,

Liked not these worldly themes to hear;

The Psalter was her book of songs;

The only music to her ear

Was that which to the Church belongs,

When the loud choir on Sunday chanted,

And the two angels carved in wood,

That by the windy organ stood,

Blew on their trumpets loud and clear,

And all the echoes, far and near,

Gibbered as if the church were haunted.

Outside his door, one afternoon,

This humble votary of the muse

Sat in the narrow strip of shade

By a projecting cornice made,

Mending the Burgomaster’s shoes,

And singing a familiar tune:—

“Our ingress into the world

Was naked and bare;

Our progress through the world

Is trouble and care;

Our egress from the world

Will be nobody knows where:

But if we do well here

We shall do well there;

And I could tell you no more,

Should I preach a whole year!”

Thus sang the cobbler at his work;

And with his gestures marked the time,

Closing together with a jerk

Of his waxed thread the stitch and rhyme.

Meanwhile his quiet little dame

Was leaning o’er the window-sill,

Eager, excited, but mouse-still,

Gazing impatiently to see

What the great throng of folk might be

That onward in procession came,

Along the unfrequented street,

With horns that blew, and drums that beat,

And banners flying, and the flame

Of tapers, and, at times, the sweet

Voices of nuns; and as they sang

Suddenly all the church-bells rang.

In a gay coach, above the crowd,

There sat a monk in ample hood,

Who with his right hand held aloft

A red and ponderous cross of wood,

To which at times he meekly bowed.

In front three horsemen rode, and oft,

With voice and air importunate,

A boisterous herald cried aloud:

“The grace of God is at your gate!”

So onward to the church they passed.

The cobbler slowly turned his last,

And, wagging his sagacious head,

Unto his kneeling housewife said:

“’T is the monk Tetzel. I have heard

The cawings of that reverend bird.

Don’t let him cheat you of your gold;

Indulgence is not bought and sold.”

The church of Hagenau, that night,

Was full of people, full of light;

An odor of incense filled the air,

The priest intoned, the organ groaned

Its inarticulate despair;

The candles on the altar blazed,

And full in front of it upraised

The red cross stood against the glare.

Below, upon the altar-rail

Indulgences were set to sale,

Like ballads at a country fair.

A heavy strong-box, iron-bound

And carved with many a quaint device,

Received, with a melodious sound,

The coin that purchased Paradise.

Then from the pulpit overhead,

Tetzel the monk, with fiery glow,

Thundered upon the crowd below.

“Good people all, draw near!” he said;

“Purchase these letters, signed and sealed,

By which all sins, though unrevealed

And unrepented, are forgiven!

Count but the gain, count not the loss!

Your gold and silver are but dross,

And yet they pave the way to heaven.

I hear your mothers and your sires

Cry from their purgatorial fires,

And will ye not their ransom pay?

O senseless people! when the gate

Of heaven is open, will ye wait?

Will ye not enter in to-day?

To-morrow it will be too late;

I shall be gone upon my way.

Make haste! bring money while ye may!”

The women shuddered, and turned pale;

Allured by hope or driven by fear,

With many a sob and many a tear,

All crowded to the altar-rail.

Pieces of silver and of gold

Into the tinkling strong-box fell

Like pebbles dropped into a well;

And soon the ballads were all sold.

The cobbler’s wife among the rest

Slipped into the capacious chest

A golden florin; then withdrew,

Hiding the paper in her breast;

And homeward through the darkness went

Comforted, quieted, content;

She did not walk, she rather flew,

A dove that settles to her nest,

When some appalling bird of prey

That scared her has been driven away.

The days went by, the monk was gone,

The summer passed, the winter came;

Though seasons changed, yet still the same

The daily round of life went on;

The daily round of household care,

The narrow life of toil and prayer.

But in her heart the cobbler’s dame

Had now a treasure beyond price,

A secret joy without a name,

The certainty of Paradise.

Alas, alas! Dust unto dust!

Before the winter wore away,

Her body in the churchyard lay,

Her patient soul was with the Just!

After her death, among the things

That even the poor preserve with care,—

Some little trinkets and cheap rings,

A locket with her mother’s hair,

Her wedding gown, the faded flowers

She wore upon her wedding day,—

Among these memories of past hours,

That so much of the heart reveal,

Carefully kept and put away,

The Letter of Indulgence lay

Folded, with signature and seal.

Meanwhile the Priest, aggrieved and pained,

Waited and wondered that no word

Of mass or requiem he heard,

As by the Holy Church ordained:

Then to the Magistrate complained,

That as this woman had been dead

A week or more, and no mass said,

It was rank heresy, or at least

Contempt of Church; thus said the Priest;

And straight the cobbler was arraigned.

He came, confiding in his cause,

But rather doubtful of the laws.

The Justice from his elbow-chair

Gave him a look that seemed to say:

“Thou standest before a Magistrate,

Therefore do not prevaricate!”

Then asked him in a business way,

Kindly but cold: “Is thy wife dead?”

The cobbler meekly bowed his head;

“She is,” came struggling from his throat

Scarce audibly. The Justice wrote

The words down in a book, and then

Continued, as he raised his pen;

“She is; and hath a mass been said

For the salvation of her soul?

Come, speak the truth! confess the whole!”

The cobbler without pause replied:

“Of mass or prayer there was no need;

For at the moment when she died

Her soul was with the glorified!”

And from his pocket with all speed

He drew the priestly title-deed,

And prayed the Justice he would read.

The Justice read, amused, amazed;

And as he read his mirth increased;

At times his shaggy brows he raised,

Now wondering at the cobbler gazed,

Now archly at the angry Priest.

“From all excesses, sins, and crimes

Thou hast committed in past times

Thee I absolve! And furthermore,

Purified from all earthly taints,

To the communion of the Saints

And to the sacraments restore!

All stains of weakness, and all trace

Of shame and censure I efface;

Remit the pains thou shouldst endure,

And make thee innocent and pure,

So that in dying, unto thee

The gates of heaven shall open be!

Though long thou livest, yet this grace

Until the moment of thy death

Unchangeable continueth!”

Then said he to the Priest: “I find

This document is duly signed

Brother John Tetzel, his own hand.

At all tribunals in the land

In evidence it may be used;

Therefore acquitted is the accused.”

Then to the cobbler turned: “My friend,

Pray tell me, didst thou ever read

Reynard the Fox?”—“Oh yes, indeed!”—

“I thought so. Don’t forget the end.”