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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
France: Vols. IX–X. 1876–79.


The Monk of Marmoutier

By Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829–1925)

Or, The Legend of Limerick Bells

THERE is a convent on the Alban hill,

Round whose stone roots the gnarléd olives grow;

Above are murmurs of the mountain rill,

And all the broad campagna lies below;

Where faint gray buildings and a shadowy dome

Suggest the splendor of eternal Rome.

Hundreds of years ago these convent walls

Were reared by masons of the Gothic age:

The date is carved upon the lofty halls,

The story written on the illumined page.

What pains they took to make it strong and fair

The tall bell-tower and sculptured porch declare.

When all the stones were placed, the windows stained,

And the tall bell-tower finished to the crown,

One only want in this fair pile remained,

Whereat a cunning workman of the town

(The little town upon the Alban hill)

Toiled day and night his purpose to fulfil.

Seven bells he made, of very rare device,

With graven lilies twisted up and down;

Seven bells proportionate in differing size,

And full of melody from rim to crown;

So that when shaken by the wind alone

They murmured with a soft Æolian tone.

These being placed within the great bell-tower,

And duly rung by pious skilful hand,

Marked the due prayers of each recurring hour,

And sweetly mixed persuasion with command.

Through the gnarled olive-trees the music wound,

And miles of broad campagna heard the sound.

And then the cunning workman put aside

His forge, his hammer, and the tools he used

To chase those lilies; his keen furnace died;

And all who asked for bells were hence refused.

With these his best his last were also wrought,

And refuge in the convent walls he sought.

There did he live, and there he hoped to die,

Hearing the wind among the cypress-trees

Hint unimagined music, and the sky

Throb full of chimes borne downwards by the breeze;

Whose undulations sweeping through the air

His art might claim as an embodied prayer.


But those were stormy days in Italy:

Down came the spoiler from the uneasy North,

Swept the campagna to the bounding sea,

Sacked pious homes and drove the inmates forth;

Whether a Norman or a German foe

History is silent, and we do not know.

Brothers in faith were they; yet did not deem

The sacred precincts barred destroying hand.

Through those rich windows poured the whitened beam,

Forlorn the church and ruined altar stand.

As the sad monks went forth that selfsame hour

Saw empty silence in the great bell-tower.

The outcast brethren scattered far and wide;

Some by the Danube rested, some in Spain:

On the green Loire the aged abbot died,

By whose loved feet one brother did remain,

Faithful in all his wanderings: it was he

Who cast and chased those bells in Italy.

He, dwelling at Marmoutier, by the tomb

Of his dear father, where the shining Loire

Flows down from Tours amidst the purple bloom

Of meadow-flowers, some years of patience saw,

Those fringéd isles (where poplars tremble still)

Swayed like the olives of the Alban hill.

The man was old, and reverend in his age;

And the “Great Monastery” held him dear.

Stalwart and stern, as some old Roman sage

Subdued to Christ, he lived from year to year,

Till his beard silvered, and the fiery glow

Of his dark eye was overhung with snow.

And being trusted, as of prudent way,

They chose him for a message of import,

Which the “Great Monastery” would convey

To a good patron in an Irish court;

Who by the Shannon sought the means to found

St. Martin’s offshoot on that distant ground.

The old Italian took his staff in hand,

And journeyed slowly from the green Touraine,

Over the heather and salt-shining sand,

Until he saw the leaping-crested main,

Which, dashing round the Cape of Brittany,

Sweeps to the confines of the Irish Sea.

There he took ship, and thence with laboring sail

He crossed the waters, still a faint gray line

Rose in the Northern sky; so faint, so pale,—

Only the heart that loves her would divine,

In her dim welcome, all that fancy paints

Of the green glory of the Isle of Saints.

Through the low banks, where Shannon meets the sea,

Up the broad waters of the River King

(Then populous with a nation), journeyed he,

Through that old Ireland which her poets sing;

And the white vessel, breasting up the stream,

Moved slowly, like a ship within a dream.

When Limerick towers uprose before his gaze,

A sound of music floated in the air,—

Music which held him in a fixed amaze,

Whose silver tenderness was alien there;

Notes full of murmurs of the Southern seas,

And dusky olives swaying in the breeze.

His chimes! the children of the great bell-tower,

Empty and silent now for many a year!

He hears them ringing out the Vesper hour,

Owned in an instant by his loving ear.

Kind angels stayed the spoiler’s hasty hand,

And watched their journeying over sea and land.

The white-sailed boat moved slowly up the stream;

The old man lay with folded hands at rest;

The Shannon glistened in the sunset beam;

The bells rang gently o’er its shining breast,

Shaking out music from each lilied rim:

It was a requiem which they rang for him!

For when the boat was moored beside the quay,

He lay as children lie when lulled by song;

But nevermore to waken. Tenderly

They buried him wild-flowers and grass among,

Where on the cross alights the wandering bird,

And hour by hour the bells he loved are heard.