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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). The Poetical Works in Four Volumes. 1892.

Narrative and Legendary Poems

The Demon of the Study

THE BROWNIE sits in the Scotchman’s room

And eats his meat and drinks his ale,

And beats the maid with her unused broom,

And the lazy lout with his idle flail;

But he sweeps the floor and threshes the corn,

And hies him away ere the break of dawn.

The shade of Denmark fled from the sun,

And the Cocklane ghost from the barn-loft cheer,

The fiend of Faust was a faithful one,

Agrippa’s demon wrought in fear,

And the devil of Martin Luther sat

By the stout monk’s side in social chat.

The Old Man of the Sea, on the neck of him

Who seven times crossed the deep,

Twined closely each lean and withered limb,

Like the nightmare in one’s sleep.

But he drank of the wine, and Sindbad cast

The evil weight from his back at last.

But the demon that cometh day by day

To my quiet room and fireside nook,

Where the casement light falls dim and gray

On faded painting and ancient book,

Is a sorrier one than any whose names

Are chronicled well by good King James.

No bearer of burdens like Caliban,

No runner of errands like Ariel,

He comes in the shape of a fat old man,

Without rap of knuckle or pull of bell;

And whence he comes, or whither he goes,

I know as I do of the wind which blows.

A stout old man with a greasy hat

Slouched heavily down to his dark, red nose,

And two gray eyes enveloped in fat,

Looking through glasses with iron bows.

Read ye, and heed ye, and ye who can,

Guard well your doors from that old man!

He comes with a careless “How d’ ye do?”

And seats himself in my elbow-chair;

And my morning paper and pamphlet new

Fall forthwith under his special care,

And he wipes his glasses and clears his throat,

And, button by button, unfolds his coat.

And then he reads from paper and book,

In a low and husky asthmatic tone,

With the stolid sameness of posture and look

Of one who reads to himself alone;

And hour after hour on my senses come

That husky wheeze and that dolorous hum.

The price of stocks, the auction sales,

The poet’s song and the lover’s glee,

The horrible murders, the seaboard gales,

The marriage list, and the jeu d’esprit,

All reach my ear in the self-same tone,—

I shudder at each, but the fiend reads on!

Oh, sweet as the lapse of water at noon

O’er the mossy roots of some forest tree,

The sigh of the wind in the woods of June,

Or sound of flutes o’er a moonlight sea,

Or the low soft music, perchance, which seems

To float through the slumbering singer’s dreams,

So sweet, so dear is the silvery tone,

Of her in whose features I sometimes look,

As I sit at eve by her side alone,

And we read by turns, from the self-same book,

Some tale perhaps of the olden time,

Some lover’s romance or quaint old rhyme.

Then when the story is one of woe,—

Some prisoner’s plaint through his dungeon-bar,

Her blue eye glistens with tears, and low

Her voice sinks down like a moan afar;

And I seem to hear that prisoner’s wail,

And his face looks on me worn and pale.

And when she reads some merrier song,

Her voice is glad as an April bird’s,

And when the tale is of war and wrong,

A trumpet’s summons is in her words,

And the rush of the hosts I seem to hear,

And see the tossing of plume and spear!

Oh, pity me then, when, day by day,

The stout fiend darkens my parlor door;

And reads me perchance the self-same lay

Which melted in music, the night before,

From lips as the lips of Hylas sweet,

And moved like twin roses which zephyrs meet!

I cross my floor with a nervous tread,

I whistle and laugh and sing and shout,

I flourish my cane above his head,

And stir up the fire to roast him out;

I topple the chairs, and drum on the pane,

And press my hands on my ears, in vain!

I ’ve studied Glanville and James the wise,

And wizard black-letter tomes which treat

Of demons of every name and size

Which a Christian man is presumed to meet,

But never a hint and never a line

Can I find of a reading fiend like mine.

I ’ve crossed the Psalter with Brady and Tate,

And laid the Primer above them all,

I ’ve nailed a horseshoe over the grate,

And hung a wig to my parlor wall

Once worn by a learned Judge, they say,

At Salem court in the witchcraft day!

“Conjuro te, sceleratissime,

Abire ad tuum locum!”—still

Like a visible nightmare he sits by me,—

The exorcism has lost its skill;

And I hear again in my haunted room

The husky wheeze and the dolorous hum!

Ah! commend me to Mary Magdalen

With her sevenfold plagues, to the wandering Jew,

To the terrors which haunted Orestes when

The furies his midnight curtains drew,

But charm him off, ye who charm him can,

That reading demon, that fat old man!