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

Tales of a Wayside Inn

Part Third. Prelude

THE EVENING came; the golden vane

A moment in the sunset glanced,

Then darkened, and then gleamed again,

As from the east the moon advanced

And touched it with a softer light;

While underneath, with flowing mane,

Upon the sign the Red Horse pranced,

And galloped forth into the night.

But brighter than the afternoon

That followed the dark day of rain,

And brighter than the golden vane

That glistened in the rising moon,

Within, the ruddy fire-light gleamed;

And every separate window-pane,

Backed by the outer darkness, showed

A mirror, where the flamelets gleamed

And flickered to and fro, and seemed

A bonfire lighted in the road.

Amid the hospitable glow,

Like an old actor on the stage,

With the uncertain voice of age,

The singing chimney chanted low

The homely songs of long ago.

The voice that Ossian heard of yore,

When midnight winds were in his hall;

A ghostly and appealing call,

A sound of days that are no more!

And dark as Ossian sat the Jew,

And listened to the sound, and knew

The passing of the airy hosts,

The gray and misty cloud of ghosts

In their interminable flight;

And listening muttered in his beard,

With accent indistinct and weird,

“Who are ye, children of the Night?”

Beholding his mysterious face,

“Tell me,” the gay Sicilian said,

“Why was it that in breaking bread

At supper, you bent down your head

And, musing, paused a little space,

As one who says a silent grace?”

The Jew replied, with solemn air,

“I said the Manichæan’s prayer.

It was his faith,—perhaps is mine,—

That life in all its forms is one,

And that its secret conduits run

Unseen, but in unbroken line,

From the great fountain-head divine

Through man and beast, through grain and grass.

Howe’er we struggle, strive, and cry,

From death there can be no escape,

And no escape from life, alas!

Because we cannot die, but pass

From one into another shape:

It is but into life we die.

“Therefore the Manichæan said

This simple prayer on breaking bread,

Lest he with hasty hand or knife

Might wound the incarcerated life,

The soul in things that we call dead:

‘I did not reap thee, did not bind thee,

I did not thrash thee, did not grind thee,

Nor did I in the oven bake thee!

It was not I, it was another

Did these things unto thee, O brother;

I only have thee, hold thee, break thee!’”

“That birds have souls I can concede,”

The Poet cried, with glowing cheeks;

“The flocks that from their beds of reed

Uprising north or southward fly,

And flying write upon the sky

The biforked letter of the Greeks,

As hath been said by Rucellai;

All birds that sing or chirp or cry,

Even those migratory bands,

The minor poets of the air,

The plover, peep, and sanderling,

That hardly can be said to sing,

But pipe along the barren sands,—

All these have souls akin to ours;

So hath the lovely race of flowers:

Thus much I grant, but nothing more.

The rusty hinges of a door

Are not alive because they creak;

This chimney, with its dreary roar,

These rattling windows, do not speak!”

“To me they speak,” the Jew replied;

“And in the sounds that sink and soar,

I hear the voices of a tide

That breaks upon an unknown shore!”

Here the Sicilian interfered:

“That was your dream, then, as you dozed

A moment since, with eyes half-closed,

And murmured something in your beard.”

The Hebrew smiled, and answered, “Nay;

Not that, but something very near;

Like, and yet not the same, may seem

The vision of my waking dream;

Before it wholly dies away,

Listen to me, and you shall hear.”