Verse > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow > Complete Poetical Works
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882).  Complete Poetical Works.  1893.
 
Christus: A Mystery
Part II. The Golden Legend.
II. V. A Village Church
 
A woman kneeling at the confessional.

THE PARISH PRIEST, from within.
GO, sin no more! Thy penance o’er,
A new and better life begin!
God maketh thee forever free
From the dominion of thy sin!
Go, sin no more! He will restore        5
The peace that filled thy heart before,
And pardon thine iniquity!
The woman goes out. The Priest comes forth, and walks slowly up and down the church.
O blessed Lord! how much I need
Thy light to guide me on my way!
So many hands, that, without heed,        10
Still touch thy wounds, and make them bleed!
So many feet, that, day by day,
Still wander from thy fold astray!
Unless thou fill me with thy light,
I cannot lead thy flock aright;        15
Nor, without thy support, can bear
The burden of so great a care,
But am myself a castaway!
A pause.
The day is drawing to its close;
And what good deeds, since first it rose,        20
Have I presented, Lord, to thee,
As offerings of my ministry?
What wrong repressed, what right maintained,
What struggle passed, what victory gained,
What good attempted and attained?        25
Feeble, at best, is my endeavor!
I see, but cannot reach, the height
That lies forever in the light,
And yet forever and forever,
When seeming just within my grasp,        30
I feel my feeble hands unclasp,
And sink discouraged into night!
For thine own purpose, thou hast sent
The strife and the discouragement!
A pause.
Why stayest thou, Prince of Hoheneck?        35
Why keep me pacing to and fro
Amid these aisles of sacred gloom,
Counting my footsteps as I go,
And marking with each step a tomb?
Why should the world for thee make room,        40
And wait thy leisure and thy beck?
Thou comest in the hope to hear
Some word of comfort and of cheer.
What can I say? I cannot give
The counsel to do this and live;        45
But rather, firmly to deny
The tempter, though his power be strong,
And, inaccessible to wrong,
Still like a martyr live and die!
A pause.
The evening air grows dusk and brown;        50
I must go forth into the town,
To visit beds of pain and death,
Of restless limbs, and quivering breath,
And sorrowing hearts, and patient eyes
That see, through tears, the sun go down,        55
But never more shall see it rise.
The poor in body and estate,
The sick and the disconsolate,
Must not on man’s convenience wait.
Goes out.
 
Enter LUCIFER, as a Priest.

LUCIFER, with a genuflexion, mocking.
This is the Black Pater-noster.
        60
God was my foster,
He fostered me
Under the book of the Palm-tree!
St. Michael was my dame.
He was born at Bethlehem,        65
He was made of flesh and blood.
God send me my right food,
My right food, and shelter too,
That I may to yon kirk go,
To read upon yon sweet book        70
Which the mighty God of heaven shook.
Open, open, hell’s gates!
Shut, shut, heaven’s gates!
All the devils in the air
The stronger be, that hear the Black Prayer!
Looking round the church.
        75
What a darksome and dismal place!
I wonder that any man has the face
To call such a hole the House of the Lord,
And the Gate of Heaven,—yet such is the word.
Ceiling, and walls, and windows old,        80
Covered with cobwebs, blackened with mould;
Dust on the pulpit, dust on the stairs,
Dust on the benches, and stalls, and chairs!
The pulpit, from which such ponderous sermons
Have fallen down on the brains of the Germans,        85
With about as much real edification
As if a great Bible, bound in lead,
Had fallen, and struck them on the head;
And I ought to remember that sensation!
Here stands the holy-water stoup!        90
Holy-water it may be to many,
But to me, the veriest Liquor Gehennæ!
It smells like a filthy fast-day soup!
Near it stands the box for the poor,
With its iron padlock, safe and sure.        95
I and the priest of the parish know
Whither all these charities go;
Therefore, to keep up the institution,
I will add my little contribution!
He puts in money.
Underneath this mouldering tomb,        100
With statue of stone, and scutcheon of brass,
Slumbers a great lord of the village.
All his life was riot and pillage,
But at length, to escape the threatened doom
Of the everlasting penal fire,        105
He died in the dress of a mendicant friar,
And bartered his wealth for a daily mass.
But all that afterwards came to pass,
And whether he finds it dull or pleasant,
Is kept a secret for the present,        110
At his own particular desire.
 
And here, in a corner of the wall,
Shadowy, silent, apart from all,
With its awful portal open wide,
And its latticed windows on either side,        115
And its step well worn by the bended knees
Of one or two pious centuries,
Stands the village confessional!
Within it, as an honored guest,
I will sit down awhile and rest!
Seats himself in the confessional.
        120
Here sits the priest; and faint and low,
Like the sighing of an evening breeze,
Comes through these painted lattices
The ceaseless sound of human woe;
Here, while her bosom aches and throbs        125
With deep and agonizing sobs,
That half are passion, half contrition,
The luckless daughter of perdition
Slowly confesses her secret shame!
The time, the place, the lover’s name!        130
Here the grim murderer, with a groan,
From his bruised conscience rolls the stone,
Thinking that thus he can atone
For ravages of sword and flame!
 
Indeed, I marvel, and marvel greatly,        135
How a priest can sit here so sedately,
Reading, the whole year out and in,
Naught but the catalogue of sin,
And still keep any faith whatever
In human virtue! Never! never!        140
 
I cannot repeat a thousandth part
Of the horrors and crimes and sins and woes
That arise, when with palpitating throes
The graveyard in the human heart
Gives up its dead, at the voice of the priest,        145
As if he were an archangel, at least.
It makes a peculiar atmosphere,
This odor of earthly passions and crimes,
Such as I like to breathe, at times,
And such as often brings me here        150
In the hottest and most pestilential season.
To-day, I come for another reason;
To foster and ripen an evil thought
In a heart that is almost to madness wrought,
And to make a murderer out of a prince,        155
A sleight of hand I learned long since!
He comes. In the twilight he will not see
The difference between his priest and me!
In the same net was the mother caught!
 
PRINCE HENRY, entering and kneeling at the confessional.
Remorseful, penitent, and lowly,
        160
I come to crave, O Father holy,
Thy benediction on my head.
 
LUCIFER.
The benediction shall be said
After confession, not before!
’T is a God-speed to the parting guest,        165
Who stands already at the door,
Sandalled with holiness, and dressed
In garments pure from earthly stain.
Meanwhile, hast thou searched well thy breast?
Does the same madness fill thy brain?        170
Or have thy passion and unrest
Vanished forever from thy mind?
 
PRINCE HENRY.
By the same madness still made blind,
By the same passion still possessed,
I come again to the house of prayer,        175
A man afflicted and distressed!
As in a cloudy atmosphere,
Through unseen sluices of the air,
A sudden and impetuous wind
Strikes the great forest white with fear,        180
And every branch, and bough, and spray
Points all its quivering leaves one way,
And meadows of grass, and fields of grain,
And the clouds above, and the slanting rain,
And smoke from chimneys of the town,        185
Yield themselves to it, and bow down,
So does this dreadful purpose press
Onward, with irresistible stress,
And all my thoughts and faculties,
Struck level by the strength of this,        190
From their true inclination turn,
And all stream forward to Salern!
 
LUCIFER.
Alas! we are but eddies of dust,
Uplifted by the blast, and whirled
Along the highway of the world        195
A moment only, then to fall
Back to a common level all,
At the subsiding of the gust!
 
PRINCE HENRY.
O holy Father! pardon in me
The oscillation of a mind        200
Unsteadfast, and that cannot find
Its centre of rest and harmony!
For evermore before mine eyes
This ghastly phantom flits and flies,
And as a madman through a crowd,        205
With frantic gestures and wild cries,
It hurries onward, and aloud
Repeats its awful prophecies!
Weakness is wretchedness! To be strong
Is to be happy! I am weak,        210
And cannot find the good I seek,
Because I feel and fear the wrong!
 
LUCIFER.
Be not alarmed! The Church is kind,
And in her mercy and her meekness
She meets half-way her children’s weakness,        215
Writes their transgressions in the dust!
Though in the Decalogue we find
The mandate written, “Thou shalt not kill!”
Yet there are cases when we must.
In war, for instance, or from scathe        220
To guard and keep the one true Faith
We must look at the Decalogue in the light
Of an ancient statute, that was meant
For a mild and general application,
To be understood with the reservation        225
That in certain instances the Right
Must yield to the Expedient!
Thou art a Prince. If thou shouldst die,
What hearts and hopes would prostrate lie!
What noble deeds, what fair renown,        230
Into the grave with thee go down!
What acts of valor and courtesy
Remain undone, and die with thee!
Thou art the last of all thy race!
With thee a noble name expires,        235
And vanishes from the earth’s face
The glorious memory of thy sires!
She is a peasant. In her veins
Flows common and plebeian blood;
It is such as daily and hourly stains        240
The dust and the turf of battle plains,
By vassals shed, in a crimson flood,
Without reserve, and without reward,
At the slightest summons of their lord!
But thine is precious; the fore-appointed        245
Blood of kings, of God’s anointed!
Moreover, what has the world in store,
For one like her, but tears and toil?
Daughter of sorrow, serf of the soil,
A peasant’s child and a peasant’s wife,        250
And her soul within her sick and sore
With the roughness and barrenness of life
I marvel not at the heart’s recoil
From a fate like this, in one so tender,
Nor at its eagerness to surrender        255
All the wretchedness, want, and woe
That await it in this world below,
Nor the unutterable splendor
Of the world of rest beyond the skies.
So the Church sanctions the sacrifice:        260
Therefore inhale this healing balm,
And breathe this fresh life into thine;
Accept the comfort and the calm
She offers, as a gift divine;
Let her fall down and anoint thy feet        265
With the ointment costly and most sweet
Of her young blood, and thou shalt live.
 
PRINCE HENRY.
And will the righteous Heaven forgive?
No action, whether foul or fair,
Is ever done, but it leaves somewhere        270
A record, written by fingers ghostly,
As a blessing or a curse, and mostly
In the greater weakness or greater strength
Of the acts which follow it, till at length
The wrongs of ages are redressed,        275
And the justice of God made manifest!
 
LUCIFER.
In ancient records it is stated
That, whenever an evil deed is done,
Another devil is created
To scourge and torment the offending one!        280
But evil is only good perverted,
And Lucifer, the bearer of Light,
But an angel fallen and deserted,
Thrust from his Father’s house with a curse
Into the black and endless night.        285
 
PRINCE HENRY.
If justice rules the universe,
From the good actions of good men
Angels of light should be begotten,
And thus the balance restored again.
 
LUCIFER.
Yes; if the world were not so rotten,
        290
And so given over to the Devil!
 
PRINCE HENRY.
But this deed, is it good or evil?
Have I thine absolution free
To do it, and without restriction?
 
LUCIFER.
Ay; and from whatsoever sin
        295
Lieth around it and within,
From all crimes in which it may involve thee,
I now release thee and absolve thee!
 
PRINCE HENRY.
Give me thy holy benediction.
 
LUCIFER, stretching forth his hand and muttering.
            Maledictione perpetua
        300
            Maledicat vos
            Pater eternus!
 
THE ANGEL, with the æolian harp.
Take heed! take heed!
Noble art thou in thy birth,
By the good and the great of earth        305
Hast thou been taught!
Be noble in every thought
And in every deed!
Let not the illusion of thy senses
Betray thee to deadly offences.        310
Be strong! be good! be pure!
The right only shall endure,
All things else are but false pretences.
I entreat thee, I implore,
Listen no more        315
To the suggestions of an evil spirit,
That even now is there,
Making the foul seem fair,
And selfishness itself a virtue and a merit.
 
 
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