The Old Clock on the Stairs


Somewhat back from the village street
Stands the old-fashioned country-seat.
Across its antique portico
Tall poplar-trees their shadows throw;
And from its station in the hall
An ancient timepiece says to all,
“Forever—never!
Never—forever!”
Half-way up the stairs it stands,
And points and beckons with its hands
From its case of massive oak,
Like a monk, who, under his cloak,
Crosses himself, and sighs, alas!
With sorrowful voice to all who pass, —
“Forever—never!
Never —forever!”
By day its voice is low and light;
But in the silent dead of night,
Distinct as a passing footstep’s fall,
It echoes along the vacant hall,
Along the ceiling, along the floor,
And seems to say, at each chamber-door, —
“Forever—never!
Never—forever!”
Through days of sorrow and of mirth,
Through days of death and days of birth,
Through every swift vicissitude
Of changeful time, unchanged it has stood,
And as if, like God, it all things saw,
It calmly repeats those words of awe,––
“Forever—never!
Never—forever!”
In that mansion used to be
Free-hearted Hospitality;
His great fires up the chimney roared;
The stranger feasted at his board;
But, like the skeleton at the feast,
That warning timepiece never ceased,—
“Forever—never!
Never—forever!”
There groups of merry children played,
There youths and maidens dreaming strayed;
O precious hours! O golden prime,
And affluence of love and time!
Even as a miser counts his gold,
Those hours the ancient timepiece told,—
“Forever—never!
Never—forever!”
From that chamber, clothed in white,
The bride came forth on her wedding night;
There, in that silent room below,
The dead lay in his shroud of snow;
And in the hush that followed the prayer,
Was heard the old clock on the stair,—
“Forever—never!
Never—forever!”
All are scattered now and fled,
Some are married, some are dead;
And when I ask, with throbs of pain,
“Ah! when shall they all meet again?”
As in the days long since gone by,
The ancient timepiece makes reply,—
“Forever—never!
Never—forever!”
Never here, forever there,
Where all parting, pain, and care,
And death, and time shall disappear,—
Forever there, but never here!
The horologe of Eternity
Sayeth this incessantly,—
“Forever—never!
Never—forever!”

*

“The Old Clock on the Stairs” was originally published in Graham’s Magazine and then in The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems, a collection, published in 1845, that centered around themes from Longfellow’s travels in Europe. Many of the poems in this collection reference Longfellow’s experiences in Europe following his graduation from Bowdoin College. However, “The Old Clock on the Stairs” pertains to the house of his second wife’s grandfather: The Gold House of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The poem is composed in nine stanzas of eight lines each and ending each stanza with a couplet, “‘Forever — never! / Never — forever!’” Longfellow’s refrain add to the personification of the clock and reinforces time and humans relationship to it. Each stanza tells a distinct story and setting of a lifestyle and feelings of  joy, pain, or other emotions felt at a specific moment; this repetition echoes the mantra: time stops for no man. The poem insists that there is no escaping the cycle of time.

This poem is one of two poems written by Longfellow that have been acknowledged as being inspired by his second wife Fanny, the other poem being, “The Arsenal at Springfield,” which also appeared in The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems. Fanny aided Longfellow in much of his poetic endeavors after he began to lose partial eyesight, often she would act as a scribe for her husband. Longfellow’s personal relation the clock within the Gold House shines through within the poem by his personification and vivid description of the “the ancient timepiece,” the imagery displays Longfellow’s interest and thoughts on the topic of time.

Bibliography and Further Reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” Poetry Foundation. “Songs. The Old Clock on the Stairs,”  The Complete Poetical WorksThe Cambridge Edition of the Poets., ed. by Horace E. Scudder (1893).

Credits Composed by Fletcher Rice, fall 2018. Reading by Fletcher Rice.

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American Poetry and Poetics by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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