Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  The Ballad of Glastonbury

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
England: Vols. I–IV. 1876–79.


The Ballad of Glastonbury

By Henry Alford (1810–1871)

  • Glastonbury, anciently called Avalon, is a place much celebrated both in tradition and history. It was here, according to old legends, when the neighboring moors were covered by the sea, that St. Joseph of Arimathea landed, and built the first church in England. It was here that the glorious king Arthur was buried, with the inscription:
    Hic jatet Arturus, rex quondam, rexque futurus.

  • THE HILLS have on their royal robes

    Of purple and of gold,

    And over their tops the autumn clouds

    In heaps are onward rolled;

    Below them spreads the fairest plain

    That British eye may see,—

    From Quantock to the Mendip range,

    A broad expanse and free.

    As from those barriers, gray and vast,

    Rolled off the morning mist,

    Leaving the eyesight unrestrained

    To wander where it list,

    So roll, thou ancient chronicler,

    The ages’ mist away;

    Give me an hour of vision clear,

    A dream of the former day.

    At once the flood of the Severn sea

    Flowed over half the plain,

    And a hundred capes, with huts and trees,

    Above the flood remain:

    ’T is water here and water there,

    And the lordly Parret’s way

    Hath never a trace on its pathless face,

    As in the former day.

    Of shining sails that thronged that stream

    There resteth never a one,

    But a little ship to that inland sea

    Comes bounding in alone;

    With stretch of sail and tug of oar

    It comes full merrily,

    And the sailors chant, as they pass the shore,

    Tibi gloria, Domine.


    By this the vessel had floated nigh

    To the turf upon the strand,

    And first that holy man of joy

    Stepped on the Promise-land;

    Until the rest, in order blest,

    Were ranged, and, kneeling there,

    Gave blessing to the God of heaven

    In a lowly chanted prayer.

    Then over the brow of the seaward hill

    In their order blest they pass,

    At every change in the psalmody

    Kissing the holy grass,

    Till they come where they may see full near

    That pointed mountain rise,

    Darkening with its ancient cone

    The light of the eastern skies.

    “This staff hath borne me long and well,”

    Then spake that saint divine,

    “Over mountain and over plain,

    On quest of the Promise-sign;

    For aye let it stand in this western land,

    And God do no more to me

    If there ring not out from this realm about,

    Tibi gloria, Domine.”

    A cloud is on them,—the vision is changed,

    And voices of melody,

    And a ring of harps, like twinkles bright,

    Comes over the inland sea;

    Long and loud is the chant of praise,—

    The hallowed ages glide;

    And once again the mist from the plain

    Rolls up the Mendip side.

    With mourning stole and solemn step,

    Up that same seaward hill,

    There moved of ladies and of knights

    A company sad and still;

    There went before an open bier,

    And, sleeping in a charm,

    With face to heaven and folded palms

    There lay an arméd form.

    It is the winter deep, and all

    The glittering fields that morn

    In Avalon’s isle were over-snowed

    The day the Lord was born;

    And as they cross the northward brow,

    See white, but not with snow,

    The mystic thorn beside their path

    Its holy blossoms show.

    They carry him where from chapel low

    Rings clear the angel-bell,—

    He was the flower of knights and lords,

    So chant the requiem well:

    His wound was deep, and his holy sleep

    Shall last him many a day,

    Till the cry of crime in the latter time

    Shall melt the charm away.

    A cloud is on them,—the vision fades,

    And cries of woe and fear,

    And sounds unblest of neighboring war,

    Are thronging on mine ear:

    Long and loud was the battle-cry,

    And the groans of them that died;

    And once again the mist from the plain

    Rolls up the Mendip side.

    From the postern-door of an abbaye pile,

    Passes with heavy cheer

    A soldier-king in humble mien,

    For the shouting foes are near:

    The holy men by their altars bide,

    In alb and stole they stand;

    The incense-fumes the temple fill

    From blesséd children’s hand.

    Slow past the king that seaward brow,

    Whence turning he might see,

    Streaming upon Saint Michael’s Tor,

    The pagan blazonry;

    Then a pealing shout and a silence long,

    And rolling next on high

    Dark vapor, laced with threads of flame,

    Angered the twilight sky.

    The cloud comes on,—the vision is changed,

    And songs of victory,

    And hymns of praise to the Lord of Peace,

    Come over the inland sea;

    The waters clear, the fields appear,

    The plain is green and wide;

    And once again the mist from the plain

    Rolls up the Mendip side.

    The plats were green with lavish growth,

    And, like a silver cord,

    Down to the northern bay the Brue

    Its glittering water poured.

    Far and near the pilgrims throng,

    With staff and humble mien,

    Where Glastonbury’s crown of towers

    Against the sky is seen.

    By the holy thorn and the holy well,

    And Saint Joseph’s silver shrine,

    They offer thanks to highest Heaven

    For the light and grace divine;

    In the open cheer of the abbaye near

    They dwell their purposed day,

    And then they part, with blessed thoughts,

    Each on his homeward way.


    The winds are high in Saint Michael’s Tor,

    And a sorry sight is there,—

    A dark-browed band, with spear in hand,

    Mount up the turret-stair;

    With heavy cheer and lifted palms

    There kneels a holy priest;

    The fiends of death they grudge his breath

    To hold their rapine-feast.

    The cloud comes on them, the vision is changed,

    And a crash of lofty walls,

    And the short dead sound of music quenched,

    On the sickened hearing falls;

    Quick and sharp is the ruin-cry,

    Unblest the ages glide;

    And once again the mist from the plain

    Rolls up the Mendip side.

    Low sloping over sea and field

    The setting ray had past,

    On roofs and curls of quiet smoke

    The glory-flush was cast.

    Clustered upon the western side

    Of Avalon’s green hill,

    Her ancient homes and fretted towers

    Were lying, bright and still;

    And lower, in the valley-field,

    Hid from the parting day,

    A brotherhood of columns old,

    A ruin rough and gray;

    And over all, Saint Michael’s Tor

    Spired up into the sky,—

    Most like to Tabor’s holy mount

    Of vision blest and high.

    The vision changeth not,—no cloud

    Comes down the Mendip side;

    The moors spread out beneath my feet

    Their free expanse and wide;

    On glittering cots and ancient towers

    That rise among the dells,

    On mountain and on bending stream,

    The light of evening dwells.

    I may not write,—I cannot say

    What change shall next betide;

    Whether that group of columns gray

    Untroubled shall abide,

    Or whether that pile in Avalon’s isle

    Some pious hand shall raise,

    And the vaulted arches ring once more

    With pealing chants of praise.