Agnes

A poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes

PART FIRST

THE KNIGHT

The tale I tell is gospel true,
As all the bookmen know,
And pilgrims who have strayed to view
The wrecks still left to show.

The old, old story, - fair, and young,
And fond, - and not too wise, -
That matrons tell, with sharpened tongue,
To maids with downcast eyes.

Ah! maidens err and matrons warn
Beneath the coldest sky;
Love lurks amid the tasselled corn
As in the bearded rye!

But who would dream our sober sires
Had learned the old world's ways,
And warmed their hearths with lawless fires
In Shirley's homespun days?

'T is like some poet's pictured trance
His idle rhymes recite, -
This old New England-born romance
Of Agnes and the Knight;

Yet, known to all the country round,
Their home is standing still,
Between Wachusett's lonely mound
And Shawmut's threefold hill.

One hour we rumble on the rail,
One half-hour guide the rein,
We reach at last, o'er hill and dale,
The village on the plain.

With blackening wall and mossy roof,
With stained and warping floor,
A stately mansion stands aloof
And bars its haughty door.

This lowlier portal may be tried,
That breaks the gable wall;
And lo! with arches opening wide,
Sir Harry Frankland's hall!

'T was in the second George's day
They sought the forest shade,
The knotted trunks they cleared away,
The massive beams they laid,

They piled the rock-hewn chimney tall,
They smoothed the terraced ground,
They reared the marble-pillared wall
That fenced the mansion round.

Far stretched beyond the village bound
The Master's broad domain;
With page and valet, horse and hound,
He kept a goodly train.

And, all the midland county through,
The ploughman stopped to gaze
Whene'er his chariot swept in view
Behind the shining bays,

With mute obeisance, grave and slow,
Repaid by nod polite, -
For such the way with high and low
Till after Concord fight.

Nor less to courtly circles known
That graced the three-hilled town
With far-off splendors of the Throne,
And glimmerings from the Crown;

Wise Phipps, who held the seals of state
For Shirley over sea;
Brave Knowles, whose press-gang moved of late
The King Street mob's decree;

And judges grave, and colonels grand,
Fair dames and stately men,
The mighty people of the land,
The "World" of there and then.

'T was strange no Chloe's "beauteous Form,"
And "Eyes' celestial Blew,"
This Strephon of the West could warm,
No Nymph his Heart subdue.

Perchance he wooed as gallants use,
Whom fleeting loves enchain,
But still unfettered, free to choose,
Would brook no bridle-rein.

He saw the fairest of the fair,
But smiled alike on all;
No band his roving foot might snare,
No ring his hand enthrall.



PART SECOND

THE MAIDEN

Why seeks the knight that rocky cape
Beyond the Bay of Lynn?
What chance his wayward course may shape
To reach its village inn?

No story tells; whate'er we guess,
The past lies deaf and still,
But Fate, who rules to blight or bless,
Can lead us where she will.

Make way! Sir Harry's coach and four,
And liveried grooms that ride!
They cross the ferry, touch the shore
On Winnisimmet's side.

They hear the wash on Chelsea Beach, -
The level marsh they pass,
Where miles on miles the desert reach
Is rough with bitter grass.

The shining horses foam and pant,
And now the smells begin
Of fishy Swampscott, salt Nahant,
And leather-scented Lynn.

Next, on their left, the slender spires
And glittering vanes that crown
The home of Salem's frugal sires,
The old, witch-haunted town.

So onward, o'er the rugged way
That runs through rocks and sand,
Showered by the tempest-driven spray,
From bays on either hand,

That shut between their outstretched arms
The crews of Marblehead,
The lords of ocean's watery farms,
Who plough the waves for bread.

At last the ancient inn appears,
The spreading elm below,
Whose flapping sign these fifty years
Has seesawed to and fro.

How fair the azure fields in sight
Before the low-browed inn
The tumbling billows fringe with light
The crescent shore of Lynn;

Nahant thrusts outward through the waves
Her arm of yellow sand,
And breaks the roaring surge that braves
The gauntlet on her hand;

With eddying whirl the waters lock
Yon treeless mound forlorn,
The sharp-winged sea-fowl's breeding-rock,
That fronts the Spouting Horn;

Then free the white-sailed shallops glide,
And wide the ocean smiles,
Till, shoreward bent, his streams divide
The two bare Misery Isles.

The master's silent signal stays
The wearied cavalcade;
The coachman reins his smoking bays
Beneath the elm-tree's shade.

A gathering on the village green!
The cocked-hats crowd to see,
On legs in ancient velveteen,
With buckles at the knee.

A clustering round the tavern-door
Of square-toed village boys,
Still wearing, as their grandsires wore,
The old-world corduroys!

A scampering at the "Fountain" inn, - -
A rush of great and small, -
With hurrying servants' mingled din
And screaming matron's call.

Poor Agnes! with her work half done
They caught her unaware;
As, humbly, like a praying nun,
She knelt upon the stair;

Bent o'er the steps, with lowliest mien
She knelt, but not to pray, -
Her little hands must keep them clean,
And wash their stains away.

A foot, an ankle, bare and white,
Her girlish shapes betrayed, -
"Ha! Nymphs and Graces!" spoke the Knight;
"Look up, my beauteous Maid!"

She turned, - a reddening rose in bud,
Its calyx half withdrawn, -
Her cheek on fire with damasked blood
Of girlhood's glowing dawn!

He searched her features through and through,
As royal lovers look
On lowly maidens, when they woo
Without the ring and book.

"Come hither, Fair one! Here, my Sweet!
Nay, prithee, look not down!
Take this to shoe those little feet," -
He tossed a silver crown.

A sudden paleness struck her brow, -
A swifter blush succeeds;
It burns her cheek; it kindles now
Beneath her golden beads.

She flitted, but the glittering eye
Still sought the lovely face.
Who was she? What, and whence? and why
Doomed to such menial place?

A skipper's daughter, - so they said, -
Left orphan by the gale
That cost the fleet of Marblehead
And Gloucester thirty sail.

Ah! many a lonely home is found
Along the Essex shore,
That cheered its goodman outward bound,
And sees his face no more!

"Not so," the matron whispered, - "sure
No orphan girl is she, -
The Surriage folk are deadly poor
Since Edward left the sea,

"And Mary, with her growing brood,
Has work enough to do
To find the children clothes and food
With Thomas, John, and Hugh.

"This girl of Mary's, growing tall, -
(Just turned her sixteenth year,) -
To earn her bread and help them all,
Would work as housemaid here."

So Agnes, with her golden beads,
And naught beside as dower,
Grew at the wayside with the weeds,
Herself a garden-flower.

'T was strange, 't was sad, - so fresh, so fair!
Thus Pity's voice began.
Such grace! an angel's shape and air!
The half-heard whisper ran.

For eyes could see in George's time,
As now in later days,
And lips could shape, in prose and rhyme,
The honeyed breath of praise.

No time to woo! The train must go
Long ere the sun is down,
To reach, before the night-winds blow,
The many-steepled town.

'T is midnight, - street and square are still;
Dark roll the whispering waves
That lap the piers beneath the hill
Ridged thick with ancient graves.

Ah, gentle sleep! thy hand will smooth
The weary couch of pain,
When all thy poppies fail to soothe
The lover's throbbing brain!

'T is morn, - the orange-mantled sun
Breaks through the fading gray,
And long and loud the Castle gun
Peals o'er the glistening bay.

"Thank God 't is day!" With eager eye
He hails the morning shine: -
"If art can win, or gold can buy,
The maiden shall be mine!"



PART THIRD

THE CONQUEST

"Who saw this hussy when she came?
What is the wench, and who?"
They whisper. "Agnes - is her name?
Pray what has she to do?"

The housemaids parley at the gate,
The scullions on the stair,
And in the footmen's grave debate
The butler deigns to share.

Black Dinah, stolen when a child,
And sold on Boston pier,
Grown up in service, petted, spoiled,
Speaks in the coachman's ear:

"What, all this household at his will?
And all are yet too few?
More servants, and more servants still, -
This pert young madam too!"

"Servant! fine servant!" laughed aloud
The man of coach and steeds;
"She looks too fair, she steps too proud,
This girl with golden beads!

"I tell you, you may fret and frown,
And call her what you choose,
You 'll find my Lady in her gown,
Your Mistress in her shoes!"

Ah, gentle maidens, free from blame,
God grant you never know
The little whisper, loud with shame,
That makes the world your foe!

Why tell the lordly flatterer's art,
That won the maiden's ear, -
The fluttering of the frightened heart,
The blush, the smile, the tear?

Alas! it were the saddening tale
That every language knows, -
The wooing wind, the yielding sail,
The sunbeam and the rose.

And now the gown of sober stuff
Has changed to fair brocade,
With broidered hem, and hanging cuff,
And flower of silken braid;

And clasped around her blanching wrist
A jewelled bracelet shines,
Her flowing tresses' massive twist
A glittering net confines;

And mingling with their truant wave
A fretted chain is hung;
But ah! the gift her mother gave, -
Its beads are all unstrung!

Her place is at the master's board,
Where none disputes her claim;
She walks beside the mansion's lord,
His bride in all but name.

The busy tongues have ceased to talk,
Or speak in softened tone,
So gracious in her daily walk
The angel light has shown.

No want that kindness may relieve
Assails her heart in vain,
The lifting of a ragged sleeve
Will check her palfrey's rein.

A thoughtful calm, a quiet grace
In every movement shown,
Reveal her moulded for the place
She may not call her own.

And, save that on her youthful brow
There broods a shadowy care,
No matron sealed with holy vow
In all the land so fair.



PART FOURTH

THE RESCUE

A ship comes foaming up the bay,
Along the pier she glides;
Before her furrow melts away,
A courier mounts and rides.

"Haste, Haste, post Haste!" the letters bear;
"Sir Harry Frankland, These."
Sad news to tell the loving pair!
The knight must cross the seas.

"Alas! we part!" - the lips that spoke
Lost all their rosy red,
As when a crystal cup is broke,
And all its wine is shed.

"Nay, droop not thus, - where'er," he cried,
"I go by land or sea,
My love, my life, my joy, my pride,
Thy place is still by me!"

Through town and city, far and wide,
Their wandering feet have strayed,
From Alpine lake to ocean tide,
And cold Sierra's shade.

At length they see the waters gleam
Amid the fragrant bowers
Where Lisbon mirrors in the stream
Her belt of ancient towers.

Red is the orange on its bough,
To-morrow's sun shall fling
O'er Cintra's hazel-shaded brow
The flush of April's wing.

The streets are loud with noisy mirth,
They dance on every green;
The morning's dial marks the birth
Of proud Braganza's queen.

At eve beneath their pictured dome
The gilded courtiers throng;
The broad moidores have cheated Rome
Of all her lords of song.

AH! Lisbon dreams not of the day -
Pleased with her painted scenes -
When all her towers shall slide away
As now these canvas screens!

The spring has passed, the summer fled,
And yet they linger still,
Though autumn's rustling leaves have spread
The flank of Cintra's hill.

The town has learned their Saxon name,
And touched their English gold,
Nor tale of doubt nor hint of blame
From over sea is told.

Three hours the first November dawn
Has climbed with feeble ray
Through mists like heavy curtains drawn
Before the darkened day.

How still the muffled echoes sleep!
Hark! hark! a hollow sound, -
A noise like chariots rumbling deep
Beneath the solid ground.

The channel lifts, the water slides
And bares its bar of sand,
Anon a mountain billow strides
And crashes o'er the land.

The turrets lean, the steeples reel
Like masts on ocean's swell,
And clash a long discordant peal,
The death-doomed city's knell.

The pavement bursts, the earth upheaves
Beneath the staggering town!
The turrets crack - the castle cleaves -
The spires come rushing down.

Around, the lurid mountains glow
With strange unearthly gleams;
While black abysses gape below,
Then close in jagged seams.

And all is over. Street and square
In ruined heaps are piled;
Ah! where is she, so frail, so fair,
Amid the tumult wild?

Unscathed, she treads the wreck-piled street,
Whose narrow gaps afford
A pathway for her bleeding feet,
To seek her absent lord.

A temple's broken walls arrest
Her wild and wandering eyes;
Beneath its shattered portal pressed,
Her lord unconscious lies.

The power that living hearts obey
Shall lifeless blocks withstand?
Love led her footsteps where he lay, -
Love nerves her woman's hand.

One cry, - the marble shaft she grasps, -
Up heaves the ponderous stone: -
He breathes, - her fainting form he clasps, -
Her life has bought his own!



PART FIFTH

THE REWARD

How like the starless night of death
Our being's brief eclipse,
When faltering heart and failing breath
Have bleached the fading lips!

The earth has folded like a wave,
And thrice a thousand score,
Clasped, shroudless, in their closing grave,
The sun shall see no more!

She lives! What guerdon shall repay
His debt of ransomed life?
One word can charm all wrongs away, -
The sacred name of WIFE!

The love that won her girlish charms
Must shield her matron fame,
And write beneath the Frankland arms
The village beauty's name.

Go, call the priest! no vain delay
Shall dim the sacred ring!
Who knows what change the passing day,
The fleeting hour, may bring?

Before the holy altar bent,
There kneels a goodly pair;
A stately man, of high descent,
A woman, passing fair.

No jewels lend the blinding sheen
That meaner beauty needs,
But on her bosom heaves unseen
A string of golden beads.

The vow is spoke, - the prayer is said, -
And with a gentle pride
The Lady Agnes lifts her head,
Sir Harry Frankland's bride.

No more her faithful heart shall bear
Those griefs so meekly borne, -
The passing sneer, the freezing stare,
The icy look of scorn;

No more the blue-eyed English dames
Their haughty lips shall curl,
Whene'er a hissing whisper names
The poor New England girl.

But stay! - his mother's haughty brow, -
The pride of ancient race, -
Will plighted faith, and holy vow,
Win back her fond embrace?

Too well she knew the saddening tale
Of love no vow had blest,
That turned his blushing honors pale
And stained his knightly crest.

They seek his Northern home, - alas
He goes alone before; -
His own dear Agnes may not pass
The proud, ancestral door.

He stood before the stately dame;
He spoke; she calmly heard,
But not to pity, nor to blame;
She breathed no single word.

He told his love, - her faith betrayed;
She heard with tearless eyes;
Could she forgive the erring maid?
She stared in cold surprise.

How fond her heart, he told, - how true;
The haughty eyelids fell; -
The kindly deeds she loved to do;
She murmured, "It is well."

But when he told that fearful day,
And how her feet were led
To where entombed in life he lay,
The breathing with the dead,

And how she bruised her tender breasts
Against the crushing stone,
That still the strong-armed clown protests
No man can lift alone, -

Oh! then the frozen spring was broke;
By turns she wept and smiled; -
"Sweet Agnes!" so the mother spoke,
"God bless my angel child.

"She saved thee from the jaws of death, -
'T is thine to right her wrongs;
I tell thee, - I, who gave thee breath, -
To her thy life belongs!"

Thus Agnes won her noble name,
Her lawless lover's hand;
The lowly maiden so became
A lady in the land!



PART SIXTH

CONCLUSION

The tale is done; it little needs
To track their after ways,
And string again the golden beads
Of love's uncounted days.

They leave the fair ancestral isle
For bleak New England's shore;
How gracious is the courtly smile
Of all who frowned before!

Again through Lisbon's orange bowers
They watch the river's gleam,
And shudder as her shadowy towers
Shake in the trembling stream.

Fate parts at length the fondest pair;
His cheek, alas! grows pale;
The breast that trampling death could spare
His noiseless shafts assail.

He longs to change the heaven of blue
For England's clouded sky, -
To breathe the air his boyhood knew;
He seeks then but to die.

Hard by the terraced hillside town,
Where healing streamlets run,
Still sparkling with their old renown, -
The "Waters of the Sun," -

The Lady Agnes raised the stone
That marks his honored grave,
And there Sir Harry sleeps alone
By Wiltshire Avon's wave.

The home of early love was dear;
She sought its peaceful shade,
And kept her state for many a year,
With none to make afraid.

At last the evil days were come
That saw the red cross fall;
She hears the rebels' rattling drum, -
Farewell to Frankland Hall!

I tell you, as my tale began,
The hall is standing still;
And you, kind listener, maid or man,
May see it if you will.

The box is glistening huge and green,
Like trees the lilacs grow,
Three elms high-arching still are seen,
And one lies stretched below.

The hangings, rough with velvet flowers,
Flap on the latticed wall;
And o'er the mossy ridge-pole towers
The rock-hewn chimney tall.

The doors on mighty hinges clash
With massive bolt and bar,
The heavy English-moulded sash
Scarce can the night-winds jar.

Behold the chosen room he sought
Alone, to fast and pray,
Each year, as chill November brought
The dismal earthquake day.

There hung the rapier blade he wore,
Bent in its flattened sheath;
The coat the shrieking woman tore
Caught in her clenching teeth; -

The coat with tarnished silver lace
She snapped at as she slid,
And down upon her death-white face
Crashed the huge coffin's lid.

A graded terrace yet remains;
If on its turf you stand
And look along the wooded plains
That stretch on either hand,

The broken forest walls define
A dim, receding view,
Where, on the far horizon's line,
He cut his vista through.

If further story you shall crave,
Or ask for living proof,
Go see old Julia, born a slave
Beneath Sir Harry's roof.

She told me half that I have told,
And she remembers well
The mansion as it looked of old
Before its glories fell; -

The box, when round the terraced square
Its glossy wall was drawn;
The climbing vines, the snow-balls fair,
The roses on the lawn.

And Julia says, with truthful look
Stamped on her wrinkled face,
That in her own black hands she took
The coat with silver lace.

And you may hold the story light,
Or, if you like, believe;
But there it was, the woman's bite, -
A mouthful from the sleeve.

Now go your ways; - I need not tell
The moral of my rhyme;
But, youths and maidens, ponder well
This tale of olden time!

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