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Poem by Walter Scott

William and Helen


From heavy dreams fair Helen rose,
And eyed the dawning red:
'Alas, my love, thou tarriest long!
O art thou false or dead?'-


With gallant Fred'rick's princely power
He sought the bold Crusade;
But not a word from Judah's wars
Told Helen how he sped.


With Paynim and with Saracen
At length a truce was made,
And every knight return'd to dry
The tears his love had shed.


Our gallant host was homeward bound
With many a song of joy;
Green waved the laurel in each plume,
The badge of victory.


And old and young, and sire and son,
To meet them crowd the way,
With shouts, and mirth, and melody,
The debt of love to pay.


Full many a maid her true-love met,
And sobb'd in his embrace,
And flutt'ring joy in tears and smiles
Array'd full many a face.


Nor joy nor smile for Helen sad
She sought the host in vain;
For none could tell her William's fate,
In faithless, or if slain.


The martial band is past and gone;
She rends her raven hair,
And in distraction's bitter mood
She weeps with wild despair.


'O rise, my child,' her mother said,
'Nor sorrow thus in vain;
A perjured lover's fleeting heart
No tears recall again.'-


'O mother, what is gone, is gone,
What's lost for ever lorn:
Death, death alone can comfort me;
O had I ne'er been born!


'O break, my heart, - O break at once!
Drink my life-blood, Despair!
No joy remains on earth for me,
For me in Heaven no share.'-


'O enter not in judgement, Lord!'
The pious mother prays;
'Impute not guilt to thy frail child!
She knows not what she says.


'O say thy pater noster, child,
O turn to God and grace!
His will, that turn'd thy bliss to bale,
Can change thy bale to bliss.'-


'O mother, mother, what is bliss?
O mother, what is bale?
My William's love was heaven on earth,
Without it earth is hell.


'Why should I pray to ruthless Heaven,
Since my loved William's slain?
I only pray'd for William's sake,
And all my prayers were vain.'-


'O take the sacrament, my child,
And check these tears that flow;
By resignation's humble prayer,
O hallow'd be thy woe!'-


'No sacrament can quench this fire,
Or slake this scorching pain;
No sacrament can bid the dead
Arise and live again.


'O break, my heart, - O break at once!
Be thou my God, Despair!
Heaven's heaviest blow has fallen on me,
And vain each fruitless prayer.'-


'O enter not in judgement, Lord,
With thy frail child of clay!
She knows not what her tongue has spoke;
Impute it not, I pray!


'Forbear, my child, this desperate woe,
And turn to God and grace;
Well can devotion's heavenly glow
Convert thy bale to bliss.'-


'O mother, mother, what is bliss?
O mother, what is bale?
Without my William what were heaven,
Or with him what were hell?'-


Wild she arraigns the eternal doom,
Upbraids each sacred power,
Till, spent, she sought her silent room,
All in the lonely tower.


She beat her breast, she wrung her hands,
Till sun and day were o'er,
And through the glimmering lattice shone
The twinkling of the star.


Then, crash! the heavy drawbridge fell
That o'er the moat was hung;
And, clatter! clatter! on its boards
The hoof of courser rung.


The clank of echoing steel was heard
As off the rider bounded;
And slowly on the winding stair
A heavy footstep sounded.


And hark! and hark! a knock - Tap! tap!
A rustling stifled noise;-
Door-latch and tinkling staples ring;-
At length a whispering voice.


'Awake, awake, arise, my love!
How, Helen, dost thou fare?
Wak'st thou, or sleep'st? laugh'st thou or weep'st?
Hast thought on me, my fair?'-


'My love! my love! - so late by night!-
I waked, I wept for thee:
Much have I borne since dawn of morn;
Where, William, couldst thou be?'-


'We saddle late - from Hungary
I rode since darkness fell;
And to its bourne we both return
Before the matin-bell.'-


'O rest this night within my arms,
And warm thee in their fold!
Chill howls through hawthorn bush the wind:-
My love is deadly cold.'-


'Let the wind howl through hawthorn bush!
This night we must away;
The steed is wight, the spur is bright;
I cannot stay till day.


'Busk, busk, and boune! Thou mount'st behind
Upon my black barb steed:
O'er stock and stile, a hundred miles,
We haste to bridal bed.'-


'To-night - to-night a hundred miles!-
O dearest William, stay!
The bell strikes twelve - dark, dismal hour!
O wait, my love, till day!'-


'Look here, look here - the moon shines clear-
Full fast I ween we ride;
Mount and away! for ere the day
We reach our bridal bed.


'The black barb snorts, the bridle rings;
Haste, busk, and boune, and seat thee!
The feast is made, the chamber spread,
The bridal guests await thee.'-


Strong love prevail'd: She busks, she bounes,
She mounts barb behind,
And round her darling William's waist
Her lily arms she twined.


And, hurry! hurry! off they rode,
As fast as fast might be;
Spurn'd from the courser's thundering heels
The flashing pebbles flee.


And on the right, and on the left,
Ere they could snatch a view,
Fast, fast each mountain, mead, and plain,
And cot, and castle, flew.


'Sit fast - dost fear? - The moon shines clear -
Fleet goes my barb - keep hold!
Fear'st thou?' - 'O no!' she faintly said;
'But why so stern and cold?


'What yonder rings? what yonder sings?
Why shrieks the owlet grey?'-
''Tis death-bells' clang, 'tis funeral song,
The body to the clay.


'With song and clang, at morrow's dawn,
Ye may inter the dead:
To-night I ride with my young bride,
To deck our bridal bed.


'Come with thy choir, thou coffin'd guest,
To swell our nuptial song!
Come, priest, to bless our marriage feast!
Come all, come all along!'-


Ceased clang and song; down sunk the bier;
The shrouded corpse arose:
And, hurry! hurry! all the train
The thundering steed pursues.


And, forward! forward! on they go;
High snorts the straining steed;
Thick pants the rider's labouring breath,
As headlong on they speed.


'O William, why this savage haste?
And where thy bridal bed?'-
''Tis distant far, low, damp, and chill,
And narrow, trustless maid.'-


'No room for me?' - 'Enough for both;-
Speed, speed, my barb, thy course!'
O'er thundering bridge, through boiling surge
He drove the furious horse.


Tramp! tramp! along the land they rode,
Splash! splash! along the sea;
The scourge is wight, the spur is bright,
The flashing pebbles flee.


Fled past on right and left how fast
Each forest, grove, and bower!
On right and left fled past how fast
Each city, town, and tower!


'Dost fear? dost fear? The moon shines clear,
Dost fear to ride with me?-
Hurrah! hurrah! the dead can ride!'-
'O William, let them be!-


'See there, see there! What yonder swings
And creaks 'mid whistling rain?'-
'Gibbet and steel, th' accursed wheel;
A murderer in his chain.-


'Hollo! thou felon, follow here:
To bridal bed we ride;
And thou shalt prance a fetter dance
Before me and my bride.'-


And, hurry! hurry! clash, clash, clash!
The wasted form descends;
And fleet as wind through hazel bush
The wild career attends.


Tramp! tramp! along the land they rode,
Splash! splash! along the sea;
The scourge is red, the spur drops blood,
The flashing pebbles flee.


How fled what moonshine faintly show'd!
How fled what darkness hid!
How fled the earth beneath their feet,
The heaven above their head!


'Dost fear? dost fear? The moon shines clear,
And well the dead can ride;
Does faithful Helen fear for them?'-
'O leave in peace the dead!'-


'Barb! Barb! methinks I hear the cock;
The sand will soon be run:
Barb! Barb! I smell the morning air;
The race is wellnigh done.'


Tramp! tramp! along the land they rode;
Splash! splash! along the sea;
The scourge is red, the spur drops blood,
The flashing pebbles flee.


'Hurrah! hurrah! well ride the dead;
The bride, the bridge is come;
And soon we reach the bridal bed,
For, Helen, here's my home.'-


Reluctant on its rusty hinge
Revolved an iron door,
And by the pale moon's setting beam
Were seen a church and tower.


With many a shriek and cry whiz round
The birds of midnight, scared;
And rustling like autumnal leaves
Unhallow'd ghosts were heard.


O'er many a tomb and tombstones pale
He spurr'd the fiery horse,
Till sudden at an open grave
He check'd the wondrous course.


The falling gauntlet quits the rein,
Down drops the casque of steel,
The cuirass leaves his shrinking side,
The spur his gory heel.


The eyes desert the naked skull,
The mould'ring flesh the bone,
Till Helen's lily arms entwine
A ghastly skeleton.


The furious barb snorts fire and foam,
And, with a fearful bound,
Dissolves at once in empty air,
And leaves her on the ground.


Half seen by fits, by fits half heard,
Pale spectres flit along,
Wheel round the maid in dismal dance,
And howl the funeral song;


'E'en when the heart's with anguish cleft,
Revere the doom of Heaven,
Her soul is from her body reft;
Her spirit be forgiven!' 

Walter Scott

Walter Scott's other poems:
  1. The Monks of Bangors March
  2. On Ettrick Forests Mountains Dun
  3. Lines Addressed to Ranald Macdonald, Esq., of Staffa
  4. The Sun upon the Weirdlaw Hill
  5. The Maid of Isla

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