The Old Clock on the Stairs

Original Text: 
The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Bibliographical and Critical Notes, Riverside Edition (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1890), I, 231-33. PS 2250 E90 Robarts Library.
2Stands the old-fashioned country-seat.
4Tall poplar-trees their shadows throw;
5And from its station in the hall
6An ancient timepiece says to all, --
7    "Forever -- never!
8    Never -- forever!"
9Half-way up the stairs it stands,
10And points and beckons with its hands
11From its case of massive oak,
12Like a monk, who, under his cloak,
13Crosses himself, and sighs, alas!
14With sorrowful voice to all who pass, --
15    "Forever -- never!
16    Never -- forever!"
17By day its voice is low and light;
18But in the silent dead of night,
19Distinct as a passing footstep's fall,
20It echoes along the vacant hall,
21Along the ceiling, along the floor,
22And seems to say, at each chamber-door, --
23    "Forever -- never!
24    Never -- forever!"
25Through days of sorrow and of mirth,
26Through days of death and days of birth,
27Through every swift vicissitude
28Of changeful time, unchanged it has stood,
29And as if, like God, it all things saw,
30It calmly repeats those words of awe, --
31    "Forever -- never!
32    Never -- forever!"
33In that mansion used to be
34Free-hearted Hospitality;
35His great fires up the chimney roared;
36The stranger feasted at his board;
37But, like the skeleton at the feast,
38That warning timepiece never ceased, --
39    "Forever -- never!
40    Never -- forever!"
41There groups of merry children played,
42There youths and maidens dreaming strayed;
43O precious hours! O golden prime,
44And affluence of love and time!
45Even as a miser counts his gold,
46Those hours the ancient timepiece told, --
47    "Forever -- never!
48    Never -- forever!"
49From that chamber, clothed in white,
50The bride came forth on her wedding night;
51There, in that silent room below,
52The dead lay in his shroud of snow;
53And in the hush that followed the prayer,
54Was heard the old clock on the stair, --
55    "Forever -- never!
56    Never -- forever!"
57All are scattered now and fled,
58Some are married, some are dead;
59And when I ask, with throbs of pain,
60"Ah! when shall they all meet again?"
61As in the days long since gone by,
62The ancient timepiece makes reply, --
63    "Forever -- never!
64    Never -- forever!"
65Never here, forever there,
66Where all parting, pain, and care,
67And death, and time shall disappear, --
68Forever there, but never here!
69The horologe of Eternity
70Sayeth this incessantly, --
71    "Forever -- never!
72    Never -- forever!"


1] "The house commemorated in the poem is the Gold house, now known as the Plunkett mansion, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the homestead of Mrs. Longfellow's maternal grandfather, whither Mr. Longfellow went after his marriage in the summer of1843. The poem was not written, however, till November, 1845, when, under date of the 12th of the month, he wrote in his diary: `Began a poem on a clock, with the words "Forever, never, "as the burden; suggested by the words of Bridaine, the old French missionary, who said of eternity, c'est une penduledont le balancier dit et redit sans cesse ces deux mots seulement dans le silence des tombeaux,--Toujours, jamais! Jamais, toujours! Etpendant ces effrayables révolutions, un réprouvés'écrie, "Quelle heure est-il?" et la voix d'un autre misérablelui répond, "L'Eternité."'" (Editor, p. 231.) The French passage reads, in English: "This is a clock of which the pendulum says and repeats endlessly those two words only in the tombs' silence, -- Always, never! Never, always! And during these frightening changes, a condemned one cries out, `What time is it?' and the voice of another wretched one replies, `Eternity.'" Back to Line
3] portico: enclosure standing in front of the door of a building. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
In The Belfry of Bruges
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1998.