Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  The Royal Portraits

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Germany: Vols. XVII–XVIII. 1876–79.


The Royal Portraits

By William Dean Howells (1837–1920)

CONFRONTING each other the pictures stare

Into each other’s sleepless eyes;

And the daylight into the darkness dies,

From year to year in the palace there:

But they watch and guard that no device

Take either one of them unaware.

Their majesties the king and the queen,

The parents of the reigning prince:

Both put off royalty many years since,

With life and the gifts that have always been

Given to kings from God, to evince

His sense of the mighty over the mean.

I cannot say that I like the face

Of the king; it is something fat and red;

And the neck that lifts the royal head

Is thick and coarse; and a scanty grace

Dwells in the dull blue eyes that are laid

Sullenly on the queen in her place.

He must have been a king in his day

’T were well to pleasure in work and sport:

One of the heaven-anointed sort

Who ruled his people with iron sway,

And knew that, through good and evil report,

God meant him to rule and them to obey.

There are many other likenesses

Of the king in his royal palace there;

You find him depicted everywhere,—

In his robes of state, in his hunting-dress,

In his flowing wig, in his powdered hair,—

A king in all of them, none the less;

But most himself in this on the wall

Over against his consort, whose

Laces, and hoops, and high-heeled shoes

Make her the finest lady of all

The queens or courtly dames you choose,

In the ancestral portrait hall.

A glorious blonde: a luxury

Of luring blue and wanton gold,

Of blanchéd rose and crimson bold,

Of lines that flow voluptuously

In tender, languorous curves to fold

Her form in perfect symmetry.

She might have been false. Of her withered dust

There scarcely would be enough to write

Her guilt in now; and the dead have a right

To our lenient doubt if not to our trust:

So if the truth cannot make her white,

Let us be as merciful as we—must.

The queen died first, the queen died young,

But the king was very old when he died,

Rotten with license and lust and pride;

And the usual Virtues came and hung

Their cypress wreaths on his tomb, and wide

Throughout his kingdom his praise was sung.

How the queen died is not certainly known,

And faithful subjects are all forbid

To speak of the murder which some one did

One night while she slept in the dark alone:

History keeps the story hid,

And Fear only tells it in undertone.

Up from your startled feet aloof,

In the famous Echo-Room, with a bound

Leaps the echo, and round and round

Beating itself against the roof,—

A horrible, gasping, shuddering sound,—

Dies ere its terror can utter proof

Of that it knows. A door is fast,

And none is suffered to enter there.

His sacred majesty could not bear

To look at it toward the last,

As he grew very old. It opened where

The queen died young so many years past.

How the queen died is not certainly known;

But in the palace’s solitude

A harking dread and horror brood,

And a silence, as if a mortal groan

Had been hushed the moment before, and would

Break forth again when you were gone.

The present king has never dwelt

In the desolate palace. From year to year

In the wide and stately garden drear

The snows and the snowy blossoms melt

Unheeded, and a ghastly fear

Through all the shivering leaves is felt.

By night the gathering shadows creep

Along the dusk and hollow halls,

And the slumber-broken palace calls

With stifled moans from its nightmare sleep;

And then the ghostly moonlight falls

Athwart the darkness brown and deep.

At early dawn the light wind sighs,

And through the desert garden blows

The wasted sweetness of the rose;

At noon the feverish sunshine lies

Sick in the walks. But at evening’s close,

When the last, long rays to the windows rise,

And with many a blood-red, wrathful streak

Pierce through the twilight glooms that blur

His cruel vigilance and her

Regard, they light fierce looks that wreak

A hopeless hate that cannot stir,

A voiceless hate that cannot speak

In the awful calm of the sleepless eyes;

And as if she saw her murderer glare

On her face, and he the white despair

Of his victim kindle in wild surmise,

Confronted the conscious pictures stare,—

And their secret back into darkness dies.