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Poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Christus: A Mystery

A COVERED BRIDGE AT LUCERNE

PRINCE HENRY.
God's blessing on the architects who build
The bridges o'er swift rivers and abysses
Before impassable to human feet,
No less than on the builders of cathedrals,
Whose massive walls are bridges thrown across
The dark and terrible abyss of Death.
Well has the name of Pontifex been given
Unto the Church's head, as the chief builder
And architect of the invisible bridge
That leads from earth to heaven.

ELSIE.
                  How dark it grows!
What are these paintings on the walls around us?

PRINCE HENRY.
The Dance Macaber!

ELSIE.
              What?

PRINCE HENRY.
               The Dance of Death!
All that go to and fro must look upon it,
Mindful of what they shall be, while beneath,
Among the wooden piles, the turbulent river
Rushes, impetuous as the river of life,
With dimpling eddies, ever green and bright,
Save where the shadow of this bridge falls on it.

ELSIE.
Oh yes!  I see it now!

PRINCE HENRY.
                     The grim musician
Leads all men through the mazes of that dance,
To different sounds in different measures moving;
Sometimes he plays a lute, sometimes a drum,
To tempt or terrify.

ELSIE.
                   What is this picture?

PRINCE HENRY.
It is a young man singing to a nun,
Who kneels at her devotions, but in kneeling
Turns round to look at him; and Death, meanwhile,
Is putting out the candles on the altar!

ELSIE.
Ah, what a pity 't is that she should listen
Unto such songs, when in her orisons
She might have heard in heaven the angels singing!

PRINCE HENRY.
Here he has stolen a jester's cap and bells
And dances with the Queen.

ELSIE.
                       A foolish jest!

PRINCE HENRY.
And here the heart of the new-wedded wife,
Coming from church with her beloved lord,
He startles with the rattle of his drum.

ELSIE.
Ah, that is sad!  And yet perhaps 't is best
That she should die, with all the sunshine on her,
And all the benedictions of the morning,
Before this affluence of golden light
Shall fade into a cold and clouded gray,
Then into darkness!

PRINCE HENRY.
                   Under it is written,
"Nothing but death shall separate thee and me!"

ELSIE.
And what is this, that follows close upon it?

PRINCE HENRY.
Death playing on a dulcimer.  Behind him,
A poor old woman, with a rosary,
Follows the sound, and seems to wish her feet
Were swifter to o'ertake him.  Underneath,
The inscription reads, "Better is Death than Life."

ELSIE.
Better is Death than Life!  Ah yes! to thousands
Death plays upon a dulcimer, and sings
That song of consolation, till the air
Rings with it, and they cannot choose but follow
Whither he leads.  And not the old alone,
But the young also hear it, and are still.

PRINCE HENRY.
Yes, in their sadder moments.  'T is the sound
Of their own hearts they hear, half full of tears,
Which are like crystal cups, half filled with water,
Responding to the pressure of a finger
With music sweet and low and melancholy.
Let us go forward, and no longer stay
In this great picture-gallery of Death!
I hate it! ay, the very thought of it!

ELSIE.
Why is it hateful to you?

PRINCE HENRY.
                        For the reason
That life, and all that speaks of life, is lovely,
And death, and all that speaks of death, is hateful.

ELSIE.
The grave itself is but a covered bridge,
Leading from light to light, through a brief darkness!

PRINCE HENRY, emerging from the bridge.
I breathe again more freely!  Ah, how pleasant
To come once more into the light of day,
Out of that shadow of death!  To hear again
The hoof-beats of our horses on firm ground,
And not upon those hollow planks, resounding
With a sepulchral echo, like the clods
On coffins in a churchyard!  Yonder lies
The Lake of the Four Forest-Towns, apparelled
In light, and lingering, like a village maiden,
Hid in the bosom of her native mountains
Then pouring all her life into another's,
Changing her name and being!  Overhead,
Shaking his cloudy tresses loose in air,
Rises Pilatus, with his windy pines.

They pass on.