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

The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems

To a Child

  • This poem was begun October 2, 1845, and on the 13th of the next month Mr. Longfellow noted in his diary: “Walked in the garden and tried to finish the Ode to a Child; but could not find the exact expressions I wanted, to round and complete the whole.” After the publication of the volume containing it, he wrote: “The poem To a Child and The Old Clock on the Stairs seem to be the favorites. This is the best answer to my assailants.” Possibly the charge was made then as frequently afterward that his poetry was an echo of foreign scenes. It is at any rate noticeable that in this poem he first strongly expressed that domestic sentiment which was to be so conspicuous in his after work. It will be remembered that he was married to Miss Appleton in July, 1843, and his second child was born at the time when he was writing this ode. Five years later he made the following entry in his diary: “Some years ago, writing an Ode to a Child, I spoke of
  • The buried treasures of the miser, Time.
  • What was my astonishment to-day, in reading for the first time in my life Wordsworth’s beautiful ode On the Power of Sound, to read
  • All treasures hoarded by the miser, Time.”

  • DEAR child! how radiant on thy mother’s knee,

    With merry-making eyes and jocund smiles,

    Thou gazest at the painted tiles,

    Whose figures grace,

    With many a grotesque form and face,

    The ancient chimney of thy nursery!

    The lady with the gay macaw,

    The dancing girl, the grave bashaw

    With bearded lip and chin;

    And, leaning idly o’er his gate,

    Beneath the imperial fan of state,

    The Chinese mandarin.

    With what a look of proud command

    Thou shakest in thy little hand

    The coral rattle with its silver bells,

    Making a merry tune!

    Thousands of years in Indian seas

    That coral grew, by slow degrees,

    Until some deadly and wild monsoon

    Dashed it on Coromandel’s sand!

    Those silver bells

    Reposed of yore,

    As shapeless ore,

    Far down in the deep-sunken wells

    Of darksome mines,

    In some obscure and sunless place,

    Beneath huge Chimborazo’s base,

    Or Potosí’s o’erhanging pines!

    And thus for thee, O little child,

    Through many a danger and escape,

    The tall ships passed the stormy cape;

    For thee in foreign lands remote,

    Beneath a burning, tropic clime,

    The Indian peasant, chasing the wild goat,

    Himself as swift and wild,

    In falling, clutched the frail arbute,

    The fibres of whose shallow root,

    Uplifted from the soil, betrayed

    The silver veins beneath it laid,

    The buried treasures of the miser, Time.

    But, lo! thy door is left ajar!

    Thou hearest footsteps from afar!

    And, at the sound,

    Thou turnest round

    With quick and questioning eyes,

    Like one, who, in a foreign land,

    Beholds on every hand

    Some source of wonder and surprise!

    And, restlessly, impatiently,

    Thou strivest, strugglest, to be free.

    The four walls of thy nursery

    Are now like prison walls to thee.

    No more thy mother’s smiles,

    No more the painted tiles,

    Delight thee, nor the playthings on the floor,

    That won thy little, beating heart before;

    Thou strugglest for the open door.

    Through these once solitary halls

    Thy pattering footstep falls.

    The sound of thy merry voice

    Makes the old walls

    Jubilant, and they rejoice

    With the joy of thy young heart,

    O’er the light of whose gladness

    No shadows of sadness

    From the sombre background of memory start.

    Once, ah, once, within these walls,

    One whom memory oft recalls,

    The Father of his Country, dwelt.

    And yonder meadows broad and damp

    The fires of the besieging camp

    Encircled with a burning belt.

    Up and down these echoing stairs,

    Heavy with the weight of cares,

    Sounded his majestic tread;

    Yes, within this very room

    Sat he in those hours of gloom,

    Weary both in heart and head.

    But what are these grave thoughts to thee?

    Out, out! into the open air!

    Thy only dream is liberty,

    Thou carest little how or where.

    I see thee eager at thy play,

    Now shouting to the apples on the tree,

    With cheeks as round and red as they;

    And now among the yellow stalks,

    Among the flowering shrubs and plants,

    As restless as the bee.

    Along the garden walks,

    The tracks of thy small carriage-wheels I trace;

    And see at every turn how they efface

    Whole villages of sand-roofed tents,

    That rise like golden domes

    Above the cavernous and secret homes

    Of wandering and nomadic tribes of ants.

    Ah, cruel little Tamerlane,

    Who, with thy dreadful reign,

    Dost persecute and overwhelm

    These hapless Troglodytes of thy realm!

    What! tired already! with those suppliant looks,

    And voice more beautiful than a poet’s books

    Or murmuring sound of water as it flows,

    Thou comest back to parley with repose!

    This rustic seat in the old apple-tree,

    With its o’erhanging golden canopy

    Of leaves illuminate with autumnal hues,

    And shining with the argent light of dews,

    Shall for a season be our place of rest.

    Beneath us, like an oriole’s pendent nest,

    From which the laughing birds have taken wing,

    By thee abandoned, hangs thy vacant swing.

    Dream-like the waters of the river gleam;

    A sailless vessel drops adown the stream,

    And like it, to a sea as wide and deep,

    Thou driftest gently down the tides of sleep.

    O child! O new-born denizen

    Of life’s great city! on thy head

    The glory of the morn is shed,

    Like a celestial benison!

    Here at the portal thou dost stand,

    And with thy little hand

    Thou openest the mysterious gate

    Into the future’s undiscovered land.

    I see its valves expand,

    As at the touch of Fate!

    Into those realms of love and hate,

    Into that darkness blank and drear,

    By some prophetic feeling taught,

    I launch the bold, adventurous thought,

    Freighted with hope and fear;

    As upon subterranean streams,

    In caverns unexplored and dark,

    Men sometimes launch a fragile bark,

    Laden with flickering fire,

    And watch its swift-receding beams,

    Until at length they disappear,

    And in the distant dark expire.

    By what astrology of fear or hope

    Dare I to cast thy horoscope!

    Like the new moon thy life appears;

    A little strip of silver light,

    And widening outward into night

    The shadowy disk of future years;

    And yet upon its outer rim,

    A luminous circle, faint and dim,

    And scarcely visible to us here,

    Rounds and completes the perfect sphere;

    A prophecy and intimation,

    A pale and feeble adumbration,

    Of the great world of light, that lies

    Behind all human destinies.

    Ah! if thy fate, with anguish fraught,

    Should be to wet the dusty soil

    With the hot tears and sweat of toil,—

    To struggle with imperious thought,

    Until the overburdened brain,

    Weary with labor, faint with pain,

    Like a jarred pendulum, retain

    Only its motion, not its power,—

    Remember, in that perilous hour,

    When most afflicted and oppressed,

    From labor there shall come forth rest.

    And if a more auspicious fate

    On thy advancing steps await,

    Still let it ever be thy pride

    To linger by the laborer’s side;

    With words of sympathy or song

    To cheer the dreary march along

    Of the great army of the poor,

    O’er desert sand, o’er dangerous moor.

    Nor to thyself the task shall be

    Without reward; for thou shalt learn

    The wisdom early to discern

    True beauty in utility;

    As great Pythagoras of yore,

    Standing beside the blacksmith’s door,

    And hearing the hammers, as they smote

    The anvils with a different note,

    Stole from the varying tones, that hung

    Vibrant on every iron tongue,

    The secret of the sounding wire,

    And formed the seven-chorded lyre.

    Enough! I will not play the Seer;

    I will no longer strive to ope

    The mystic volume, where appear

    The herald Hope, forerunning Fear,

    And Fear, the pursuivant of Hope.

    Thy destiny remains untold;

    For, like Acestes’ shaft of old,

    The swift thought kindles as it flies,

    And burns to ashes in the skies.