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

The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems

Songs. The Old Clock on the Stairs

  • The house commemorated in the poem is the Gold house, now known as the Plunkett mansion, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the homestead of Mrs. Longfellow’s maternal grandfather, whither Mr. Longfellow went after his marriage in the summer of 1843. The poem was not written, however, till November, 1845, when, under date of the 12th of the month, he wrote in his diary: “Began a poem on a clock, with the words ‘Forever, never,’ as the burden; suggested by the words of Bridaine, the old French missionary, who said of eternity, C’est une pendule dont le balancier dit et redit sans cesse ces deux mots seulement dans le silence des tombeaux,—Toujours, jamais! Jamais, toujours! Et pendant ces effrayables révolutions, un réprouvé s’ écrie, ‘Quelle heure est-il?’ et la voix d’un autre misérable lui répond, ‘L’Eternité.’”

  • SOMEWHAT back from the village street

    Stands the old-fashioned country-seat.

    Across its antique portico

    Tall poplar-trees their shadows throw;

    And from its station in the hall

    An ancient timepiece says to all,—



    Half-way up the stairs it stands,

    And points and beckons with its hands

    From its case of massive oak,

    Like a monk, who, under his cloak,

    Crosses himself, and sighs, alas!

    With sorrowful voice to all who pass,—



    By day its voice is low and light;

    But in the silent dead of night,

    Distinct as a passing footstep’s fall,

    It echoes along the vacant hall,

    Along the ceiling, along the floor,

    And seems to say, at each chamber-door,—



    Through days of sorrow and of mirth,

    Through days of death and days of birth,

    Through every swift vicissitude

    Of changeful time, unchanged it has stood,

    And as if, like God, it all things saw,

    It calmly repeats those words of awe,—



    In that mansion used to be

    Free-hearted Hospitality;

    His great fires up the chimney roared;

    The stranger feasted at his board;

    But, like the skeleton at the feast,

    That warning timepiece never ceased,—



    There groups of merry children played,

    There youths and maidens dreaming strayed;

    O precious hours! O golden prime,

    And affluence of love and time!

    Even as a miser counts his gold,

    Those hours the ancient timepiece told,—



    From that chamber, clothed in white,

    The bride came forth on her wedding night;

    There, in that silent room below,

    The dead lay in his shroud of snow;

    And in the hush that followed the prayer,

    Was heard the old clock on the stair,—



    All are scattered now and fled,

    Some are married, some are dead;

    And when I ask, with throbs of pain,

    “Ah! when shall they all meet again?”

    As in the days long since gone by,

    The ancient timepiece makes reply,—



    Never here, forever there,

    Where all parting, pain, and care,

    And death, and time shall disappear,—

    Forever there, but never here!

    The horologe of Eternity

    Sayeth this incessantly,—