The Great Saint Bernard

Samuel Rogers

NIGHT was again descending, when my mule,
That all day long had climbed among the clouds,
Higher and higher still, as by a stair,
Let down from heaven itself, transporting me,
Stopped, to the joy of both, at that low door,—
That door which ever, as self-opened, moves
To them that knock, and nightly sends abroad
Ministering spirits. Lying on the watch,
Two dogs of grave demeanor welcomed me,
All meekness, gentleness, though large of limb;
And a lay-brother of the Hospital,
Who, as we toiled below, had heard by fits
The distant echoes gaining on his ear,
Came and held fast my stirrup in his hand
While I alighted. Long could I have stood,
With a religious awe contemplating
That house, the highest in the Ancient World,
And destined to perform from age to age
The noblest service, welcoming as guests
All of all nations and of every faith;
A temple, sacred to humanity!
It was a pile of simplest masonry,
With narrow windows and vast buttresses,
Built to endure the shocks of time and chance;
Yet showing many a rent, as well it might,
Warred on forever by the elements,
And in an evil day, nor long ago,
By violent men,—when on the mountain-top
The French and Austrian banners met in conflict.
  On the same rock beside it stood the church,
Reft of its cross, not of its sanctity;
The vesper-bell, for ’t was the vesper hour,
Duly proclaiming through the wilderness,
“All ye who hear, whatever be your work,
Stop for an instant,—move your lips in prayer!”
And, just beneath it, in that dreary dale,
If dale it might be called, so near to heaven,
A little lake, where never fish leaped up,
Lay like a spot of ink amid the snow;
A star, the only one in that small sky,
On its dead surface glimmering. ’T was a place
Resembling nothing I had left behind,
As if all worldly ties were now dissolved;—
And, to incline the mind still more to thought,
To thought and sadness, on the eastern shore
Under a beetling cliff stood half in gloom
A lonely chapel destined for the dead,
For such as, having wandered from their way,
Had perished miserably. Side by side,
Within they lie, a mournful company,
All in their shrouds, no earth to cover them;
Their features full of life yet motionless
In the broad day, nor soon to suffer change,
Though the barred windows, barred against the wolf,
Are always open! But the North blew cold;
And, bidden to a spare but cheerful meal,
I sate among the holy brotherhood
At their long board. The fare indeed was such
As is prescribed on days of abstinence,
But might have pleased a nicer taste than mine.
And through the floor came up, an ancient crone
Serving unseen below; while from the roof
(The roof, the floor, the walls of native fir)
A lamp hung flickering, such as loves to fling
Its partial light on apostolic heads,
And sheds a grace on all. Theirs Time as yet
Had changed not. Some were almost in the prime;
Nor was a brow o’ercast. Seen as they sate,
Ranged round their ample hearthstone in an hour
Of rest, they were as gay, as free from guile,
As children; answering, and at once, to all
The gentler impulses, to pleasure, mirth;
Mingling, at intervals, with rational talk
Music; and gathering news from them that came,
As of some other world. But when the storm
Rose, and the snow rolled on in ocean-waves,
When on his face the experienced traveller fell,
Sheltering his lips and nostrils with his hands,
Then all was changed; and, sallying with their pack
Into that blank of nature, they became
Unearthly beings. “Anselm, higher up,
Just where it drifts, a dog howls loud and long,
And now, as guided by a voice from heaven,
Digs with his feet. That noble vehemence
Whose can it be, but his who never erred?
A man lies underneath! Let us to work!
But who descends Mont Velan? ’T is La Croix.
Away, away! if not, alas, too late.
Homeward he drags an old man and a boy,
Faltering and falling, and but half awaked,
Asking to sleep again.” Such their discourse.
  Oft has a venerable roof received me;
Saint Bruno’s once,—where, when the winds were hushed,
Nor from the cataract the voice came up,
You might have heard the mole work underground,
So great the stillness there; none seen throughout,
Save when from rock to rock a hermit crossed
By some rude bridge,—or one at midnight tolled
To matins, and white habits, issuing forth,
Glided along those aisles interminable,
All, all observant of the sacred law
Of silence. Nor is that sequestered spot,
Once called “Sweet Waters,” now “The Shady Vale,”
To me unknown; that house so rich of old,
So courteous, and, by two that passed that way,
Amply requited with immortal verse,
The Poet’s payment. But among them all,
None can with this compare, the dangerous seat
Of generous, active virtue. What though frost
Reign everlastingly, and ice and snow
Thaw not, but gather,—there is that within,
Which, where it comes, makes summer; and, in thought,
Oft am I sitting on the bench beneath
Their garden-plot, where all that vegetates
Is but some scanty lettuce, to observe
Those from the South ascending, every step
As though it were their last,—and instantly
Restored, renewed, advancing as with songs,
Soon as they see, turning a lofty crag,
That plain, that modest structure, promising
Bread to the hungry, to the weary rest.