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

Ratisbon (Regensburg)

The Torture-Chamber at Ratisbon

By William Allen Butler (1825–1902)

DOWN the broad, imperial Danube,

As its wandering waters guide,

Past the mountains and the meadows,

Winding with the stream, we glide.

Ratisbon we leave behind us,

Where the spires and gables throng,

And the huge cathedral rises,

Like a fortress, vast and strong.

Close beside it stands the town-hall,

With its massive tower, alone,

Brooding o’er the dismal secret,

Hidden in its heart of stone.

There, beneath the old foundations,

Lay the prisons of the state,

Like the last abodes of vengeance,

In the fabled realms of Fate.

And the tides of life above them

Drifted ever, near and wide,

As at Venice, round the prisons,

Sweeps the sea’s incessant tide.

Never, like the far-off dashing,

Or the nearer rush of waves,

Came the tread or murmur downward,

To those dim, unechoing caves.

There the dungeon clasped its victim,

And a stupor chained his breath,

Till the torture woke his senses,

With a sharper touch than death,

Now, through all the vacant silence,

Reign the darkness and the damp,

Broken only when the traveller

Gropes his way, with guide and lamp,

Peering where, all black and shattered,

Eaten with the rust of time,

Lie the fearful signs and tokens

Of an age when law was crime.

Then the guide, with grim precision,

Tells the dismal tale once more,

Tells to living men the tortures

Living men have borne before.

As he speaks, the death-cold cavern

With a sudden life-gush warms,

And, once more, the Torture-Chamber

With its murderous tenants swarms.

Yonder, through the narrow archway,

Comes the culprit in the gloom,

Falters on the fatal threshold,

Totters to the bloody doom.

Here the executioner, lurking,

Waits, with brutal thirst, his hour,

Tool of bloodier men and bolder,

Drunken with the dregs of power.

There the careful leech sits patient,

Watching face and hue and breath,

Weighing life’s fast-ebbing pulses

With the heavier chance of death.

Eking out the little remnant,

Lest the victim die too soon,

And the torture of the morning

Spare the torture of the noon.

Here, behind the heavy grating,

Sits the scribe, with pen and scroll,

Waiting till the giant terror

Bursts the secrets of the soul;

Till the fearful tale of treason

From the shrieking lips is wrung,

Or the final, false confession

Quivers from the trembling tongue!

But the gray old tower is fading,

Fades, in sunshine, from the eye,

Like some bird whose distant pinion

Dimly blots the morning sky.

So the ancient gloom and terror

Of the ages fade away,

In the sunlight of the present,

Of our better, purer day!