My American Poetry Review: The Belfry of Bruges by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;

Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o’er the town.

DSCN3430

View of Bruges from Belfry

Longfellow’s The Belfry of Bruges, is a literacy couplet narrative of his experience while standing atop a medieval tower, or belfort, in Bruges. On a summer morn in 1842, Longfellow viewed the towns and hamlets from the tower “with streams and vapors gray” and summoned the ghosts of Flemish past and paid homage to them.

This poem transported me back to 2013 when I also stood atop the Belfry in Bruges while the world beneath me slept and “seemed more distant than the sky”.  This poem brought to mind the eerie silence from this aerie viewpoint, only broken by the “iron beating in the ancient tower” of the melancholy chimes.

The heroic “phantoms” that Longfellow summons date back to the Foresters of Flanders: the mighty Baldwin I (879 AD), the first ruler of Flanders who fell in love with the king’ daughter Judith;  Guy de Dampierre from the Third Crusade who intiated the Siege of Acre; and the knights from the Order of the Golden Fleece who were founded in Bruges by Phillip II, Duke of Burgundy. Longfellow also pays homage to the bold Flemish weavers, Namur and Juliers, who fought in the Spurs of Gold.

Afterward, Longfellow recalls hearing the bells of Ghent, which is over 40 miles away.  This brings to his mind the oldest surviving major work of French Literature, The Song of Roland, about the Battle of Roncevaux in 778 AD, during the reign of Charlemagne.  As this story was originally a chanson de geste and was passed down orally for generations before it was put to print, perhaps Longfellow hears the battle cry in the bell chiming: “I am Roland, I am Roland! there is victory in the land”.

christchilds_Market

Christmas Market, Bruges

Longfellow concludes his poem as he is brought back to the present by the sound of drums, which also chase away the phantoms back to their graves.  He is then aware of a “sun-illuminated square” of the city of Bruges below him.

DSCN3443

Burg Square

Bruges is one of the few medieval cities untouched by time.  It is one of my favorite European cities to visit as one can still stroll down cobbled streets lining canals and view 11th century buildings and cathedrals such as The Church of Our Lady which houses Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child (1501).  The Christmas Market in Burg square is something out of a fairy tale, but I will warn you that many hotels have little heating in the winter time!  Perhaps this is one reason Longfellow visited during the summer almost two hundred and fifty years ago!

Madonna_michelangelo

Madonna and Child, Michelangelo

DSCN3414

The Belfry in Bruges

In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;
Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o’er the
town.
As the summer morn was breaking, on that lofty tower I stood,
And the world threw off the darkness, like the weeds of
widowhood.
Thick with towns and hamlets studded, and with streams and vapors
gray,
Like a shield embossed with silver, round and vast the landscape
lay.
At my feet the city slumbered.  From its chimneys, here and
there,
Wreaths of snow-white smoke, ascending, vanished, ghost-like,
into air.
Not a sound rose from the city at that early morning hour,
But I heard a heart of iron beating in the ancient tower.
From their nests beneath the rafters sang the swallows wild and
high;
And the world, beneath me sleeping, seemed more distant than the
sky.
Then most musical and solemn, bringing back the olden times,
With their strange, unearthly changes rang the melancholy chimes,
Like the psalms from some old cloister, when the nuns sing in the
choir;
And the great bell tolled among them, like the chanting of a
friar.
Visions of the days departed, shadowy phantoms filled my brain;
They who live in history only seemed to walk the earth again;
All the Foresters of Flanders,–mighty Baldwin Bras de Fer,
Lyderick du Bucq and Cressy Philip, Guy de Dampierre.
I beheld the pageants splendid that adorned those days of old;
Stately dames, like queens attended, knights who bore the Fleece
of Gold
Lombard and Venetian merchants with deep-laden argosies;
Ministers from twenty nations; more than royal pomp and ease.
I beheld proud Maximilian, kneeling humbly on the ground;
I beheld the gentle Mary, hunting with her hawk and hound;
And her lighted bridal-chamber, where a duke slept with the
queen,
And the armed guard around them, and the sword unsheathed
between.
I beheld the Flemish weavers, with Namur and Juliers bold,
Marching homeward from the bloody battle of the Spurs of Gold;
Saw the light at Minnewater, saw the White Hoods moving west,
Saw great Artevelde victorious scale the Golden Dragon’s nest.
And again the whiskered Spaniard all the land with terror smote;
And again the wild alarum sounded from the tocsin’s throat;
Till the bell of Ghent responded o’er lagoon and dike of sand,
“I am Roland!  I am Roland! there is victory in the land!”
Then the sound of drums aroused me.  The awakened city’s roar
Chased the phantoms I had summoned back into their graves once
more.
Hours had passed away like minutes; and, before I was aware,
Lo! the shadow of the belfry crossed the sun-illumined square.

Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)

One thought on “My American Poetry Review: The Belfry of Bruges by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  1. Pingback: My American Poetry Review: Longfellow the Linguist | My French Quest

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s