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Poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Christus: A Mystery

I

THE CASTLE OF VAUTSBERG ON THE RHINE

A chamber in a tower.  PRINCE HENRY sitting alone, ill and
restless.  
Midnight.

PRINCE HENRY.
I cannot sleep! my fervid brain
Calls up the vanished Past again,
And throws its misty splendors deep
Into the pallid realms of sleep!
A breath from that far-distant shore
Comes freshening ever more and more,
And wafts o'er intervening seas
Sweet odors from the Hesperides!
A wind, that through the corridor
Just stirs the curtain, and no more,
And, touching the aolian strings,
Faints with the burden that it brings!
Come back! ye friendships long departed!
That like o'erflowing streamlets started,
And now are dwindled, one by one,
To stony channels in the sun!
Come back! ye friends, whose lives are ended,
Come back, with all that light attended,
Which seemed to darken and decay
When ye arose and went away!

They come, the shapes of joy and woe,
The airy crowds of long ago,
The dreams and fancies known of yore,
That have been, and shall be no more.
They change the cloisters of the night
Into a garden of delight;
They make the dark and dreary hours
Open and blossom into flowers!
I would not sleep!  I love to be
Again in their fair company;
But ere my lips can bid them stay,
They pass and vanish quite away!
Alas! our memories may retrace
Each circumstance of time and place,
Season and scene come back again,
And outward things unchanged remain;
The rest we cannot reinstate;
Ourselves we can not re-create;
Nor set our souls to the same key
Of the remembered harmony!

Rest! rest!  Oh, give me rest and peace!
The thought of life that ne'er shall cease
Has something in it like despair,
A weight I am too weak to bear!
Sweeter to this afflicted breast
The thought of never-ending rest!
Sweeter the undisturbed and deep
Tranquillity of endless sleep!

A flash of lightning, out of which LUCIFER appears, in the garb
of a travelling Physician.

LUCIFER.
All hail, Prince Henry!

PRINCE HENRY, starting.
                      Who is it speaks?
Who and what are you?

LUCIFER.
                     One who seeks
A moment's audience with the Prince.

PRINCE HENRY.
When came you in?

LUCIFER.
                 A moment since.
I found your study door unlocked,
And thought you answered when I knocked.

PRINCE HENRY.
I did not hear you.

LUCIFER.
               You heard the thunder;
It was loud enough to waken the dead.
And it is not a matter of special wonder
That, when God is walking overhead,
You should not hear my feeble tread.

PRINCE HENRY.
What may your wish or purpose be?

LUCIFER.
Nothing or everything, as it pleases
Your Highness.  You behold in me
Only a travelling Physician;
One of the few who have a mission
To cure incurable diseases,
Or those that are called so.

PRINCE HENRY.
                          Can you bring
The dead to life?

LUCIFER.
                 Yes; very nearly.
And, what is a wiser and better thing,
Can keep the living from ever needing
Such an unnatural, strange proceeding,
By showing conclusively and clearly
That death is a stupid blunder merely,
And not a necessity of our lives.
My being here is accidental;
The storm, that against your casement drives,
In the little village below waylaid me.
And there I heard, with a secret delight,
Of your maladies physical and mental,
Which neither astonished nor dismayed me.
And I hastened hither, though late in the night,
To proffer my aid!

PRINCE HENRY, ironically.
                   For this you came!
Ah, how can I ever hope to requite
This honor from one so erudite?

LUCIFER.
The honor is mine, or will be when
I have cured your disease.

PRINCE HENRY.
                    But not till then.

LUCIFER.
What is your illness?

PRINCE HENRY.
                     It has no name.
A smouldering, dull, perpetual flame,
As in a kiln, burns in my veins,
Sending up vapors to the head;
My heart has become a dull lagoon,
Which a kind of leprosy drinks and drains;
I am accounted as one who is dead,
And, indeed, I think that I shall be soon.

LUCIFER.
And has Gordonius the Divine,
In his famous Lily of Medicine,--
I see the book lies open before you,--
No remedy potent enough to restore you?

PRINCE HENRY.
None whatever!

LUCIFER.
               The dead are dead,
And their oracles dumb, when questioned
Of the new diseases that human life
Evolves in its progress, rank and rife.
Consult the dead upon things that were,
But the living only on things that are.
Have you done this, by the appliance
And aid of doctors?

PRINCE HENRY.
                   Ay, whole schools
Of doctors, with their learned rules;
But the case is quite beyond their science.
Even the doctors of Salern
Send me back word they can discern
No cure for a malady like this,
Save one which in its nature is
Impossible and cannot be!

LUCIFER.
That sounds oracular!

PRINCE HENRY.
                      Unendurable!

LUCIFER.
What is their remedy?

PRINCE HENRY.
                      You shall see;
Writ in this scroll is the mystery.

LUCIFER, reading.
"Not to be cured, yet not incurable!
The only remedy that remains
Is the blood that flows from a maiden's veins,
Who of her own free will shall die,
And give her life as the price of yours!"

That is the strangest of all cures,
And one, I think, you will never try;
The prescription you may well put by,
As something impossible to find
Before the world itself shall end!
And yet who knows?  One cannot say
That into some maiden's brain that kind
Of madness will not find its way.
Meanwhile permit me to recommend,
As the matter admits of no delay,
My wonderful Catholicon,
Of very subtile and magical powers!

PRINCE HENRY.
Purge with your nostrums and drugs infernal
The spouts and gargoyles of these towers,
Not me!  My faith is utterly gone
In every power but the Power Supernal!
Pray tell ne, of what school are you?

LUCIFER.
Both of the Old and of the New!
The school of Hermes Trismegistus,
Who uttered his oracles sublime
Before the Olympiads, in the dew
Of the early dusk and dawn of time,
The reign of dateless old Hephaestus!
As northward, from its Nubian springs,
The Nile, forever new and old,
Among the living and the dead,
Its mighty mystic stream has rolled;
So, starting from its fountain-head
Under the lotus-leaves of Isis,
From the dead demigods of eld,
Through long unbroken lines of kings
Its course the sacred art has held,
Unchecked, unchanged by man's devices.
This art the Arabian Geber taught,
And in alembics, finely wrought,
Distilling herbs and flowers, discovered
The secret that so long had hovered
Upon the misty verge of Truth,
The Elixir of Perpetual Youth,
Called Alcohol, in the Arab speech!
Like him, this wondrous lore I teach!

PRINCE HENRY.
What! an adept?

LUCIFFR.
              Nor less, nor more!

PRINCE HENRY.
I am a reader of your books,
A lover of that mystic lore!
With such a piercing glance it looks
Into great Nature's open eye,
And sees within it trembling lie
The portrait of the Deity!
And yet, alas! with all my pains,
The secret and the mystery
Have baffled and eluded me,
Unseen the grand result remains!

LUCIFER, showing a flask.
Behold it here! this little flask
Contains the wonderful quintessence,
The perfect flower and efflorescence,
Of all the knowledge man can ask!
Hold it up thus against the light!

PRINCE HENRY.
How limpid, pure, and crystalline,
How quick, and tremulous, and bright
The little wavelets dance and shine,
As were it the Water of Life in sooth!

LUCIFER.
It is!  It assuages every pain,
Cures all disease, and gives again
To age the swift delights of youth.
Inhale its fragrance.

PRINCE HENRY.
                     It is sweet.
A thousand different odors meet
And mingle in its rare perfume,
Such as the winds of summer waft
At open windows through a room!

LUCIFER.
Will you not taste it?

PRINCE HENRY.
                      Will one draught
Suffice?

LUCIFER.
        If not, you can drink more.

PRINCE HENRY.
Into this crystal goblet pour
So much as safely I may drink,

LUCIFER, pouring.
Let not the quantity alarm you;
You may drink all; it will not harm you.

PRINCE HENRY.
I am as one who on the brink
Of a dark river stands and sees
The waters flow, the landscape dim
Around him waver, wheel, and swim,
And, ere he plunges, stops to think
Into what whirlpools he may sink;
One moment pauses, and no more,
Then madly plunges from the shore!
Headlong into the mysteries
Of life and death I boldly leap,
Nor fear the fateful current's sweep,
Nor what in ambush lurks below!
For death is better than disease!

An ANGEL with an aeolian harp hovers in the air.

ANGEL.
Woe! woe! eternal woe!
Not only the whispered prayer
Of love,
But the imprecations of hate,
Reverberate
For ever and ever through the air
Above!
This fearful curse
Shakes the great universe!

LUCIFER, disappearing.
Drink! drink!
And thy soul shall sink
Down into the dark abyss,
Into the infinite abyss,
From which no plummet nor rope
Ever drew up the silver sand of hope!

PRINCE HENRY, drinking.
It is like a draught of fire!
Through every vein
I feel again
The fever of youth, the soft desire;
A rapture that is almost pain
Throbs in my heart and fills my brain
O joy! O joy!  I feel
The band of steel
That so long and heavily has pressed
Upon my breast
Uplifted, and the malediction
Of my affliction
Is taken from me, and my weary breast
At length finds rest.

THE ANGEL.
It is but the rest of the fire, from which the air has been
taken!
It is but the rest of the sand, when the hour-glass is not
shaken!
It is but the rest of the tide between the ebb and the flow!
It is but the rest of the wind between the flaws that blow!
With fiendish laughter,
Hereafter,
This false physician
Will mock thee in thy perdition.

PRINCE HENRY.
Speak! speak!
Who says that I am ill?
I am not ill!  I am not weak!
The trance, the swoon, the dream, is o'er!
I feel the chill of death no more!
At length,
I stand renewed in all my strength
Beneath me I can feel
The great earth stagger and reel,
As if the feet of a descending God
Upon its surface trod,
And like a pebble it rolled beneath his heel!
This, O brave physician! this
Is thy great Palingenesis!

Drinks again.

THE ANGEL.
Touch the goblet no more!
It will make thy heart sore
To its very core!
Its perfume is the breath
Of the Angel of Death,
And the light that within it lies
Is the flash of his evil eyes.
Beware!  Oh, beware!
For sickness, sorrow, and care
All are there!

PRINCE HENRY, sinking back.
O thou voice within my breast!
Why entreat me, why upbraid me,
When the steadfast tongues of truth
And the flattering hopes of youth
Have all deceived me and betrayed me?
Give me, give me rest, oh rest!
Golden visions wave and hover,
Golden vapors, waters streaming,
Landscapes moving, changing, gleaming!
I am like a happy lover,
Who illumines life with dreaming!
Brave physician!  Rare physician!
Well hast thou fulfilled thy mission!

His head falls on his book.

THE ANGEL, receding.
Alas! alas!
Like a vapor the golden vision
Shall fade and pass,
And thou wilt find in thy heart again
Only the blight of pain,
And bitter, bitter, bitter contrition!


COURT-YARD OF THE CASTLE

HUBERT standing by the gateway.

HUBERT.
How sad the grand old castle looks!
O'erhead, the unmolested rooks
Upon the turret's windy top
Sit, talking of the farmer's crop
Here in the court-yard springs the grass,
So few are now the feet that pass;
The stately peacocks, bolder grown,
Come hopping down the steps of stone,
As if the castle were their own;
And I, the poor old senesehal,
Haunt, like a ghost, the banquet-hall.
Alas! the merry guests no more
Crowd through the hospitable door;
No eyes with youth and passion shine,
No cheeks glow redder than the wine;
No song, no laugh, no jovial din
Of drinking wassail to the pin;
But all is silent, sad, and drear,
And now the only sounds I hear
Are the hoarse rooks upon the walls,
And horses stamping in their stalls!

A horn sounds.

What ho! that merry, sudden blast
Reminds me of the days long past!
And, as of old resounding, grate
The heavy hinges of the gate,
And, clattering loud, with iron clank,
Down goes the sounding bridge of plank,
As if it were in haste to greet
The pressure of a traveller's feet!

Enter WALTER the Minnesinger.

WALTER.
How now, my friend!  This looks quite lonely!
No banner flying from the walls,
No pages and no seneschals,
No warders, and one porter only!
Is it you, Hubert?

HUBERT.
                  Ah! Master Walter!

WALTER.
Alas! how forms and faces alter!
I did not know you.  You look older!
Your hair has grown much grayer and thinner,
And you stoop a little in the shoulder!

HUBERT.
Alack!  I am a poor old sinner,
And, like these towers, begin to moulder;
And you have been absent many a year!

WALTER.
How is the Prince?

HUBERT.
                  He is not here;
He has been ill: and now has fled.

WALTER.
Speak it out frankly: say he's dead!
Is it not so?

HUBERT.
              No; if you please,
A strange, mysterious disease
Fell on him with a sudden blight.
Whole hours together he would stand
Upon the terrace in a dream,
Resting his head upon his hand,
Best pleased when he was most alone,
Like Saint John Nepomuck in stone,
Looking down into a stream.
In the Round Tower, night after night,
He sat and bleared his eyes with books;
Until one morning we found him there
Stretched on the floor, as if in a swoon
He had fallen from his chair.
We hardly recognized his sweet looks!

WALTER.
Poor Prince!

HUBERT.
       I think he might have mended;
And he did mend; but very soon
The priests came flocking in, like rooks,
With all their crosiers and their crooks,
And so at last the matter ended.

WALTER.
How did it end?

HUBERT.
                Why, in Saint Rochus
They made him stand and wait his doom;
And, as if he were condemned to the tomb,
Began to mutter their hocus-pocus.
First, the Mass for the Dead they chanted,
Then three times laid upon his head
A shovelful of churchyard clay,
Saying to him, as he stood undaunted,
"This is a sign that thou art dead,
So in thy heart be penitent!"
And forth from the chapel door he   went
Into disgrace and banishment,
Clothed in a cloak of hodden gray,
And hearing a wallet, and a bell,
Whose sound should be a perpetual knell
To keep all travellers away.

WALTER.
Oh, horrible fate!  Outcast, rejected,
As one with pestilence infected!

HUBERT.
Then was the family tomb unsealed,
And broken helmet, sword, and shield
Buried together, in common wreck,
As is the custom when the last
Of any princely house has passed,
And thrice, as with a trumpet-blast,
A herald shouted down the stair
The words of warning and despair,--
"O Hoheneck!  O Hoheneck!"

WALTER.
Still in my soul that cry goes on,--
Forever gone! forever gone!
Ah, what a cruel sense of loss,
Like a black shadow, would fall across
The hearts of all, if he should die!
His gracious presence upon earth
Was as a fire upon a hearth;
As pleasant songs, at morning sung,
The words that dropped from his sweet tongue
Strengthened our hearts; or heard at night
Made all our slumbers soft and light.
Where is he?

HUBERT.
             In the Odenwald.
Some of his tenants, unappalled
By fear of death, or priestly word,--
A holy family, that make
Each meal a Supper of the Lord,--
Have him beneath their watch and ward,
For love of him, and Jesus' sake!
Pray you come in.  For why should I
With out-door hospitality
My prince's friend thus entertain?

WALTER.
I would a moment here remain.
But you, good Hubert, go before,
Fill me a goblet of May-drink,
As aromatic as the May
From which it steals the breath away,
And which he loved so well of yore;
It is of him that I would think.
You shall attend me, when I call,
In the ancestral banquet-hall.
Unseen companions, guests of air,
You cannot wait on, will be there;
They taste not food, they drink not wine,
But their soft eyes look into mine,
And their lips speak to me, and all
The vast and shadowy banquet-hall
Is full of looks and words divine!

Leaning over the parapet.

The day is done; and slowly from the scene
The stooping sun up-gathers his spent shafts,
And puts them back into his golden quiver!
Below me in the valley, deep and green
As goblets are, from which in thirsty draughts
We drink its wine, the swift and mantling river
Flows on triumphant through these lovely regions,
Etched with the shadows of its sombre margent,
And soft, reflected clouds of gold and argent!
Yes, there it flows, forever, broad and still
As when the vanguard of the Roman legions
First saw it from the top of yonder hill!
How beautiful it is!  Fresh fields of wheat,
Vineyard and town, and tower with fluttering flag,
The consecrated chapel on the crag,
And the white hamlet gathered round its base,
Like Mary sitting at her Saviour's feet,
And looking up at his beloved face!
O friend!  O best of friends!  Thy absence more
Than the impending night darkens the landscape o'er!