Josef Karl Benedikt von Eichendorff: “The Priest and the Jacobin”
Excerpt, “The Spirit of German Poetry: A Series of translations from the German Poets, with Critical and Biographical Notices.” Translated by Joseph Gostick. 1845.
Translator’s Note: There is one ballad by Eichendorff, which has pleased us well by its picturesque scenery. The Jacobin Captain rests in a little churchyard in Britanny. Raving in the fever of his wound, he confesses that he had burned his own father’s house. At night, he stands on the sea-shore and witnesses a strange spectacle. A priest comes over the quiet sea in a little shallop lit with tapers, and a congregation of worshippers come in their boats and perform their devotions on the waves, as they dare not worship in their church. The Jacobin Captain recognises his own father in the person of the priest, and, overcome with the amazement, falls and dies upon the shore.
The Priest and the Jacobin
The blooming hills of Britanny
Were laved by gentle seas;
A little church stood peacefully
Between two ancient trees.
The corn-fields, and the green woods wide,
Were bright in sabbath’s glow;
But not a bell dare o’er the tide
Its solemn music throw.
For o’er the churchyard’s shady ground
The Frenchmen’s standard waves;
Their steeds are cropping, all around,
The daisies from the graves.
Upon the cross, in mockery,
Canteens and sabres hung;
Instead of solemn litany,
The “Marseillaise” was sung.
Sore wounded leaned the Captain there
Against an ancient tree,
And faintly look’d, with feverish stare,
On sultry land and sea;
And talk’d, as in a fever-dream
“Our castle by the lake—
I fired it!—what a fearful gleam!—
It burns for freedom’s sake!
“I see my father—through the rings
Of fire I see him there—
He stands upon the tower, and swings
His banner in the air!
“I see the standard catch the flame,
Again I see my sire,
As, holding still the shaft, he came
Down through the blazing fire!
“He looked at me, but nothing said—
I had no heart to slay—
The castle fell—my father fled—
He’s now a priest, they say!
“And since that night, in all my dreams
I hear the loud bells ring,
And see, amid the fiery streams,
The cross—that hated thing!
“But soon, no church-bell through the land
Shall break the still of night;
No cross upon the earth shall stand,
A sign of priestly might!
“And yonder lowly church-walls there
(We’ll tear them down to-night!)
Shall sound no more with psalms and prayer
—We come to let in light!”
At night, when woods and waves were still,
And only when he spoke,
The sentinel upon the hill
The dreamy silence broke.
The Captain stood beside the sea—
A soft gray cloud arose,
Upon the waves—what can it be?—
And now it spreads and grows!
And see, amid the misty air,
A tiny twinkling light—
Some little star has fallen there,
Or lost its way to-night.
But see, along the quiet shore,
Where sleep the silent waves,
Dark moving figures, more and more,
Creep from the rocky caves;
And boats are push’d into the sea,
Row’d softly through the night;
The mark they steer for seems to be
That little twinkling light!
The light comes nearer now, afloat,
The rowers all have found it—
It is a little fisher-boat,
With tapers burning round it.
And see, within the shallop stands
An old man tall and gray,
With flowing hair and folded hands,
—A Priest in full array.
And round the floating altar, see,
The boatmen bow their heads:
The old Priest o’er the company
A solemn blessing sheds.
The sea was still, and every breeze—
In marvellous array,
Within their boats, on bended knees,
The congregation lay.
And now, the cross within his hand,
Amid the taper’s glare,
The Captain sees the old Priest stand—
“‘Tis my old father there!”
Said he, as, with a sudden prayer,
He reel’d and fell and swoon’d,
While life’s blood o’er the shingle there
Was streaming from his wound.
The Jacobin soldiers on the shore
Came, found their Captain dead—
Then—death behind and death before,
Through all the land they fled.
Like wither’d leaves in autumn’s breeze,
They fled and pass’d away—
That little church between the trees
Is standing at this day!