Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Fountain of Oblivion
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (18071882)
[Hyperion. A Romance. 1839.]
THE POWER of magic in the Middle Ages created monsters who followed the unhappy magician everywhere. The power of love in all ages creates angels, who likewise follow the happy or unhappy lover everywhere, even in his dreams. By such an angel was Paul Flemming now haunted, both when he waked and when he slept. He walked as in a dream, and was hardly conscious of the presence of those around him. A sweet face looked at him from every page of every book he read; and it was the face of Mary Ashburton!a sweet voice spake to him in every sound he heard; and it was the voice of Mary Ashburton! Day and night succeeded each other, with pleasant interchange of light and darkness; but to him the passing of time was only as a dream. When he arose in the morning, he thought only of her, and wondered if she were yet awake; and when he lay down at night, he thought only of her, and how, like the Lady Christabel,
Her gentle limbs she did undress,
And lay down in her loveliness.
And the livelong day he was with her, either in reality or in day-dreams hardly less real; for, in each delirious vision of his waking hours, her beauteous form passed like the form of Beatrice through Dantes heaven; and, as he lay in the summer afternoon, and heard at times the sound of the wind in the trees, and the sound of Sabbath bells ascending up to heaven, holy wishes and prayers ascended with them from his inmost soul, beseeching that he might not love in vain! And whenever, in silence and alone, he looked into the silent, lonely countenance of Night, he recalled the impassioned lines of Plato:
Lookest thou at the stars? If I were heaven,
With all the eyes of heaven would I look down on thee!
O, how beautiful it is to love! Even thou, that sneerest at this page, and laughest in cold indifference or scorn, if others are near thee,thou, too, must acknowledge its truth, when thou art alone; and confess that a foolish world is prone to laugh in public at what in private it reveres, as one of the highest impulses of our nature,namely, Love!
One by one the objects of our affection depart from us. But our affections remain, and like vines stretch forth their broken, wounded tendrils for support. The bleeding heart needs a balm to heal it; and there is none but the love of its kind,none but the affection of a human heart! Thus the wounded, broken affections of Flemming began to lift themselves from the dust and cling around this new object. Days and weeks passed; and, like the Student Crisostomo, he ceased to love, because he began to adore. And with this adoration mingled the prayer, that, in that hour when the world is still, and the voices that praise are mute, and reflection cometh like twilight, and the maiden, in her daydreams, counted the number of her friends, some voice in the sacred silence of her thoughts might whisper his name!
They were sitting together one morning, on the green, flowery meadow, under the ruins of Burg Unspunnen. She was sketching the ruins. The birds were singing, one and all, as if there were no aching hearts, no sin nor sorrow, in the world. So motionless was the bright air, that the shadow of the trees lay engraven on the grass. The distant snow-peaks sparkled in the sun, and nothing frowned, save the square tower of the old ruin above them.
O, yes! I made three, the other day, about the Rhine, and one very old one about the Black Forest. A lady with dishevelled hair; a robber with a horrible slouched hat; and a night storm among the roaring pines.
I will unite this ruin and the forest together. But first promise not to interrupt me. If you snap the golden threads of thought, they will float away on the air like the film of the gossamer, and I shall never be able to recover them.
Gentle Lady! Dost thou remember the linden-trees of Bülach,those tall and stately trees, with velvet down upon their shining leaves, and rustic benches underneath their overhanging eaves? A leafy dwelling, fit to be the home of elf or fairy, where first I told my love to thee, thou cold and stately Hermione! A little peasant girl stood near, and listened all the while, with eyes of wonder and delight, and an unconscious smile, to hear the stranger still speak on in accents deep yet mild,none else was with us in that hour, save God and that little child!
This was the reverie of the Student Hieronymus, as he sat at midnight in a chamber of this old tower, with his hands clasped together, and resting upon an open volume, which he should have been reading. His pale face was raised, and the pupils of his eyes dilated, as if the spirit-world were open before him, and some beauteous vision were standing there, and drawing the students soul through his eyes up into heaven,as the evening sun, through parting summer-clouds, seems to draw into its bosom the vapors of the earth. O, it was a lovely vision! I can see it before me now!
Near the student stood an antique bronze lamp, with strange figures carved upon it. It was a magic lamp, which once belonged to the Arabian astrologer El Geber, in Spain. Its light was beautiful as the light of stars; and, night after night, as the lonely wight sat alone and read in this lofty tower, through the mist, and mirk, and dropping rain, it streamed out into the darkness, and was seen by many wakeful eyes. To the poor Student Hieronymus it was a wonderful Aladdins Lamp; for in its flame a Divinity revealed herself unto him, and showed him treasures. Whenever he opened a ponderous, antiquated tome, it seemed as if some angel opened for him the gates of Paradise; and already he was known in the land as Hieronymus the Learned.
But, alas! he could read no more. The charm was broken. Hour after hour he passed with his hands clasped before him, and his fair eyes gazing at vacancy. What could so disturb the studies of this melancholy wight? Lady, he was in love! Have you ever been in love? He had seen the face of the beautiful Hermione; and as, when we have thoughtlessly looked at the sun, our dazzled eyes, though closed, behold it still; so he beheld by day and by night the radiant image of her upon whom he had too rashly gazed. Alas! he was unhappy; for the proud Hermione disdained the love of a poor student, whose only wealth was a magic lamp. In marble halls, and amid the gay crowd that worshipped her, she had almost forgotten that such a being lived as the Student Hieronymus. The adoration of his heart had been to her only as the perfume of a wild-flower which she had carelessly crushed with her foot, in passing. But he had lost all; for he had lost the quiet of his thoughts; and his agitated soul reflected only broken and distorted images of things. The world laughed at the poor student, who, in his threadbare cassock, dared to lift his eyes to the Lady Hermione; while he sat alone, in his desolate chamber, and suffered in silence. He remembered many things which he would fain have forgotten; but which, if he had forgotten them, he would have wished again to remember. Such were the linden-trees of Bülach, under whose pleasant shades he had told his love to Hermione. This was the scene which he wished most to forget, yet loved most to remember; and of this he was now dreaming, with his hands clasped upon his book, and that music in his thoughts, which you, Lady, mistook for rhyme.
Suddenly, with a melancholy clang, the convent clock struck twelve. It roused the Student Hieronymus from his dream; and rang in his ears, like the iron hoofs of the steeds of Time. The magic hour had come, when the Divinity of the lamp most willingly revealed herself to her votary. The bronze figures seemed alive; a white cloud rose from the flame and spread itself through the chamber, whose four walls dilated into magnificent cloud-vistas; a fragrance, as of wild-flowers, filled the air; and a dreamy music, like distant, sweet-chiming bells, announced the approach of the midnight Divinity. Through his streaming tears, the heart-broken Student beheld her once more descending a pass in the snowy cloud-mountains, as, at evening, the dewy Hesperus comes from the bosom of the mist, and assumes his station in the sky. At her approach, his spirit grew more calm; for her presence was, to his feverish heart, like a tropical night,beautiful and soothing and invigorating. At length she stood before him, revealed in all her beauty; and he comprehended the visible language of her sweet but silent lips, which seemed to say,What would the Student Hieronymus to-night?Peace! he answered, raising his clasped hands, and smiling through his tears. The Student Hieronymus imploreth peace! Then go, said the spirit, go to the Fountain of Oblivion in the deepest solitude of the Black Forest, and cast this scroll into its waters; and thou shalt be at peace once more. Hieronymus opened his arms to embrace the Divinity, for her countenance assumed the features of Hermione; but she vanished away; the music ceased; the gorgeous cloud-land sank and fell asunder; and the Student was alone within the four bare walls of his chamber. As he bowed his head downward, his eye fell upon a parchment scroll, which was lying beside the lamp. Upon it was written only the name of Hermione!
The next morning Hieronymus put the scroll into his bosom and went his way in search of the Fountain of Oblivion. A few days brought him to the skirts of the Black Forest. He entered, not without a feeling of dread, that land of shadows; and passed onward under melancholy pines and cedars, whose branches grew abroad and mingled together, and, as they swayed up and down, filled the air with solemn twilight and a sound of sorrow. As he advanced into the forest, the waving moss hung, like curtains, from the branches overhead, and more and more shut out the light of heaven; and he knew that the Fountain of Oblivion was not far off. Even then the sound of falling waters was mingling with the roar of the pines above him; and ere long he came to a river, moving in solemn majesty through the forest, and falling with a dull, leaden sound into a motionless and stagnant lake, above which the branches of the forest met and mingled, forming perpetual night. This was the Fountain of Oblivion.
Upon its brink the Student paused, and gazed into the dark waters with a steadfast look. They were limpid waters, dark with shadows only. And as he gazed, he beheld, far down in their silent depths, dim and ill-defined outlines, wavering to and fro, like the folds of a white garment in the twilight. Then more distinct and permanent shapes arose,shapes familiar to his mind, yet forgotten and remembered again, as the fragments of a dream; till at length, far, far below him he beheld the great City of the Past, with silent marble streets, and moss-grown walls, and spires uprising with a wave-like, flickering motion. And, amid the crowd that thronged those streets, he beheld faces once familiar and dear to him; and heard sorrowful, sweet voices singing, O, forget us not! forget us not! and then the distant, mournful sound of funeral bells, that were tolling below, in the City of the Past. But in the gardens of that city there were children playing, and among them one who wore his features, as they had been in childhood. He was leading a little girl by the hand, and caressed her often, and adorned her with flowers. Then, like a dream, the scene changed, and the boy had grown older, and stood alone, gazing into the sky; and as he gazed, his countenance changed again, and Hieronymus beheld him, as if it had been his own image in the clear water; and before him stood a beauteous maiden, whose face was like the face of Hermione, and he feared lest the scroll had fallen into the water, as he bent over it. Starting, as from a dream, he put his hand into his bosom, and breathed freely again, when he found the scroll still there. He drew it forth, and read the blessed name of Hermione, and the city beneath him vanished away, and the air grew fragrant as with the breath of May-flowers, and a light streamed through the shadowy forest and gleamed upon the lake; and the Student Hieronymus pressed the dear name to his lips and exclaimed, with streaming eyes: O, scorn me as thou wilt, still, still will I love thee; and thy name shall irradiate the gloom of my life, and make the waters of Oblivion smile! And the name was no longer Hermione, but was changed to Mary; and the Student Hieronymusis lying at your feet O gentle Lady!