Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  The Longest Death-watch

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and Holland: Vols. XIV–XV. 1876–79.

Spain: Burgos

The Longest Death-watch

By Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (1836–1919)

  • “Towards the latter end of December she [Joanna] determined to leave Burgos, and remove her husband’s remains to their final resting-place in Granada. She insisted on seeing them herself, before her departure. The remonstrances of her counsellors, and the holy men of the monastery of Miraflores, proved equally fruitless. Opposition only roused her passions into frenzy, and they were obliged to comply with her mad humors. The corpse was removed from the vault; the two coffins of lead and wood were opened, and such as chose gazed on the mouldering relics, which, notwithstanding their having been embalmed, exhibited scarcely a trace of humanity. The queen was not satisfied till she touched them with her own hand, which she did without shedding a tear or testifying the least emotion.”—Prescott’s Ferdinand and Isabella.

  • THE WOMAN is a picture now.

    The Spanish suns have touched her face;

    The coil of gold upon her brow

    Shines back on an imperial race

    With most forlorn and bitter grace.

    Old palace-lamps behind her burn,

    The ermine moulders on her train.

    Her ever-constant eyes still yearn

    For one who came not back to Spain;

    And dim and hollow is her brain.

    One only thing she knew in life,

    Four hundred ghostly years ago,—

    That she was Flemish Philip’s wife.

    Nor much beyond she cared to know;

    Without a voice she tells me so.

    Philip the Beautiful,—whose eyes

    Might win a woman’s heart, I fear,

    Even from his grave! “He will arise,”

    The monks had murmured by his bier,

    “And reign once more among us here.”

    She heard their whisper, and forgot

    Castile and Aragon, and all

    Save Philip, who had loved her not;

    The cruel darkness of his pall

    Seemed on an empty world to fall.

    She took the dead man,—to her sight

    A prince in death’s disguise, as fair

    As when his wayward smile could light

    The throne he wedded her to share,—

    And followed, hardly knowing where.

    Almost as dumb as he, she fled,

    Pallid and wasted, toward the place

    Where he, the priestly promise said,

    Must wait the hour when God’s sweet grace

    Should breathe into his breathless face.

    Once, when the night was weird with rain,

    She sought a convent’s shelter. When

    The tapers showed a veiléd train

    Of nuns, instead of cowléd men,

    She stole into the night again:

    “These women, sainted though they be,”

    She moaned through all her jealous mind,

    “Are women still, and shall not see

    Philip the Fair,—though he is blind!

    Favor with him I yet shall find.”

    Then, with her piteous yearning wild:

    “Unclose his coffin quick, I pray.”

    Fiercely the sudden lightning smiled,—

    When they had laid the lid away,—

    Like scorn, upon the regal clay.

    She kissed the dead of many days,

    As though he were an hour asleep.

    Dark men with swords to guard her ways

    Wept for her,—but she did not weep;

    She had her vigil still to keep.

    They readied the appointed cloister. While

    The heart of Philip withering lay,

    She, without moan or tear or smile,

    Watched from her window, legends say,—

    Watched seven-and-forty years away!

    Winds blew the blossoms to and fro,

    Into the world and out again:

    “He will come back to me, I know,”—

    Poor whisper of a wandering brain

    To peerless patience, peerless pain.

    Ah, longest, loneliest, saddest tryst

    Was ever kept on earth! And yet

    Had he arisen would he have kissed

    The gray wan woman he had met,

    Or—taught her how the dead forget?

    Could she have won, discrowned and old,

    The love she could not win, in sooth,

    When queenly purple, fold on fold,

    And all the subtle grace of youth,

    Helped her to hide a hapless truth?

    Did she not fancy,—should she see

    That coffin, watched so long, unclose,—

    The royal tenant there would be

    Still young, still fair, when he arose,

    Beside her withered leaves and snows?

    He would have laughed to breathe the tale

    Of this crazed stranger’s love, I fear,

    To moon and rose and nightingale,

    With courtly jewels glimmering near,

    Into some lovely lady’s ear.