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

Belgium: Ypres

The Statue in the Market-place

By Walter Thornbury (1828–1876)

IN the market-place of Ypres, three hundred years ago,

A crumbling statue, old, and rent by many a lightning blow,

Stood—sad and stern, and grim and blank—upon its mossy base;

The woes of many centuries were frozen in its face.

It was a Cæsar some men said, and some said Charlemagne,

Yet no one knew when he it aped began or ceased to reign,

Nor who it was, nor what it was, could any rightly say,

For the date upon its pedestal was fretted quite away.

When blue and ghastly moonshine fell, severing the shadows dark,

And stars above were shining out with many a diamond spark,

It used to cast its giant shade across the market square,

And through the darkness and the shine it fixed its stony stare.

’T was said that where its shadow fell on a certain day and year,

An hour at least past midnight, when the moon was up and clear,

Near to that statue’s mouldy base, deep hid beneath the ground,

A treasure vast of royal wealth was certain to be found.

Slow round, as round a dial-plate, its sharp dark shadow passed,

On fountain and cathedral roof by turns eclipse it cast;

Before it fled the pale blue light, chased as man’s life by death,

And deep you heard the great clock tick, like a sleeping giant’s breath.

In that same market-place there lived an alchemist of fame,

A lean and yellow dark-eyed man, Hans Memling was his name;

In scarlet hood and blood-red robe, in crimson vest and gown,

For twenty years, the moonlight through, he ’d sat and watched the town.

Like one flame-lit he used to peer between the mullions there,

As yonder stars shot blessed light through the clear midnight air;

When chessboard-checkered, black and white, part silver and part jet,

The city lay in light and shade, barred with the moonbeams’ net.

When gable-ends and pinnacles and twisted chimney-stalks

Rose thick around the market square and its old cloistered walks,

When gurgoyles on the Minster tower made faces at the moon,

The convent gardens were as bright as if it had been noon,—

Memling—the miser alchemist—then left his crimson vials,

His Arab books, his bottled toads, his sulphurous fiery trials,

His red-hot crucibles, and dyes that turned from white to blue,

His silver trees that starry rose the crystal vases through.

The room was piled with ponderous tomes, thick ribbed and silver clasped,

The letters twined with crimson flowers, the covers golden hasped,

With dripping stills and furnaces, whose doors were smouldered black,

With maps of stars and charts of seas lined with untraversed track.


Slow round, as round a dial-plate, the statue’s shadow passed,

On fountain and cathedral roof by turns eclipse it cast,

Before it fled the pale blue light, chased as man’s life by death,

Deep, low you heard the great clock tick, like a sleeping giant’s breath.

The moonbeams in cascades of light poured from the poplar’s crown,

Rippling in silvery lustre the leafy columns down,

They roofed the town-hall fair and bright with bonny silver slates,

They even turned to argent pure the bars of the prison gates.

The maiden slumbering in her bed awoke that blessed night,

And thought her angel sisters three had come all veiled in light;

The wild-beast felon in his cell started and thought it day,

Cursing the torturer who, he dreamt, had chid him for delay.

The angel host of King and Saint, o’er the Minster’s western door,

Shone radiant in the blessed light—so radiant ne’er before,

As now began the airy chimes in the cathedral tower

To chant, as with a lingering grief, the dirges of the hour.

That day at sunset there had come a voice unto this man,

And said as plain as Devil-voice or friendly spirit can,

“Go, Memling, dig beneath the base of the statue in the square,

The Secret of all Secrets ’s hid beneath the earth-heaps there.”

He shook his land at stars and moon, then shut his furnace up,

First draining off a magic draught from an Egyptian cup,

For he dreamt he saw his room piled full of solid bars of gold,

Great bags of jewels, diamond-blocks, spoil of the kings of old.

The fitting hour was just at hand, the alchemist arose;

Upon the eaves the rain-drop tears in ice-jags shining froze;

His starry lantern duly lit, with cold he crept and shook,

As with his pickaxe and his spade his stealthy way he took.

The shadow marked the fitting place, King Saturn ruled the hour,

The Devil, floating o’er his slave, smiled at his puny power;

Hans Memling plied his crowbar fast,—the thirteenth blow he gave,

The ponderous statue fell, and crushed the brains out of the knave.

Then clear and still the moonshine pure upon the lone square lay,—

No shadow left to sully it, it spread as bright as day;

At dawn they found Hans Memling, crushed, dead-cold beneath the stone,

But what he saw and what he found has never yet been known.