Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  Why Are They Shut?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
England: Vols. I–IV. 1876–79.


Why Are They Shut?

By Horace Smith (1779–1849)

  • The following stanzas were composed while the author was sitting outside a country church, in Sussex, much regretting that, as it was week-day, he could not gain admittance to the sacred edifice.

  • WHY are our churches shut with jealous care,

    Bolted and barred against our bosom’s yearning,

    Save for the few short hours of sabbath prayer,

    With the bell’s tolling statedly returning?

    Why are they shut?

    If with diurnal drudgeries o’erwrought,

    Or sick of dissipation’s dull vagaries,

    We wish to snatch one little space for thought,

    Or holy respite in our sanctuaries,

    Why are they shut?

    What! shall the church, the house of prayer, no more

    Give tacit notice from its fastened portals,

    That for six days ’t is useless to adore,

    Since God will hold no communings with mortals?

    Why are they shut?

    Are there no sinners in the churchless week,

    Who wish to sanctify a vowed repentance?

    Are there no hearts bereft which fain would seek

    The only balm for Death’s unpitying sentence?

    Why are they shut?

    Are there no poor, no wronged, no heirs of grief,

    No sick, who, when their strength or courage falters,

    Long for a moment’s respite or relief,

    By kneeling at the God of mercy’s altars?

    Why are they shut?

    Are there no wicked, whom, if tempted in,

    Some qualm of conscience or devout suggestion

    Might suddenly redeem from future sin?

    O, if there be, how solemn is the question,

    Why are they shut?

    In foreign climes mechanics leave their tasks

    To breathe a passing prayer in their cathedrals:

    There they have week-day shrines, and no one asks,

    When he would kneel to them and count his bead-rolls,

    Why are they shut?

    Seeing them enter sad and disconcerted,

    To quit those cheering fanes with looks of gladness,—

    How often have my thoughts to ours reverted!

    How oft have I exclaimed in tones of sadness,

    Why are they shut?

    For who within a parish church can stroll,

    Wrapt in its week-day stillness and vacation,

    Nor feel that in the very air his soul

    Receives a sweet and hallowing lustration?

    Why are they shut?

    The vacant pews, blank aisles, and empty choir,

    All in a deep sepulchral silence shrouded,

    An awe more solemn and intense inspire,

    Than when with sabbath congregations crowded.

    Why are they shut?

    The echoes of our footsteps, as we tread

    On hollow graves, are spiritual voices;

    And holding mental converse with the dead,

    In holy reveries our soul rejoices.

    Why are they shut?

    If there be one—one only—who might share

    This sanctifying week-day adoration,

    Were but our churches open to his prayer,

    Why—I demand with earnest iteration—

    Why are they shut?