Philip James Bailey
An Ancient Legend - Poem by Philip James Bailey
A stone stands in a rustic town
Which once the neighbouring hill did crown;
Nigh to the house of God it lay
Before 'twas set where now it stands,
And how and why there, graybeards say,
Was ne'er the work of mortal hands.
But list, and ye eftsoons shall know,
From runes translated into rhyme,
How saint and fiend would have it so
Far back within the olden time.
That holy church stands fair and free,
Those festive bells peal merrily,
As well they might and still they may
On many a bright autumnal day,
When both in hostel, cot, and hall,
They hold the village festival.
The godly rustics on that day
At church had met to praise and pray,
And thank the Giver of all good,
Through Him that died upon the rood,
For harvests stored and daily food;
And as saint Wilfrid's care they claimed
Oft in their prayers his name was named.
At morn, at noon, at eventide,
Their task the merry ringers plied,
Pealing each time with joy increased
A welcome to the rustic feast.
But it roused the wrath of the fell fiend,
As high o'er minster--fane he leaned,
In the dim glooming of the day
Blent with the moonlight's silvery gray.
Quoth he ``I hate that holy peal,
Yon festal church my wrath shall feel.''
He said; and from the stately lands,
Whereon the high cathedral stands,
He heaved a huge gray granite stone
Erst as a Druid's altar known;
And lifting it between his teeth,
And three times scantly drawing breath,
Wide on the air his arms he spread
And dropped it on the minster's head;
E'en as an eagle drops a hare
Brought for her callow younglets' fare.
Upon the main tower straight he stands,
And as he glanced o'er field and fell,
He weighed the weapon in his hands
And took his aim and distance well;
And when the moon's last glimmering ray
Died on the tall church spire away,
Three hours he gazed it through the dark,
Nor winked his eye once on the mark.
As midnight tolled, for mightiest then
Is all demoniac power o'er men,
The rock he raised--Foul fiend forbear!--
And hurled it hurtling through the air.
Saint Wilfrid, from his seat above,
Where with the blest, whose deathless days
Are passed 'tween deeds of sacred love
And their adored Redeemer's praise,
Cast on the house of praise and prayer,
The object of his hallowed care,
One glance, and marked the missile fly
Midway betwixt the earth and sky.
A momentary prayer he made;
And there the mighty mass was stayed;
Aloft in air the altar hung,
As moveless as before 'twas flung.
Then spake saint Wilfrid: ``Baffled fiend,
What evil can from Heaven be screened?
Though in the depth of midnight thou
Didst ween to crush yon pile below,
Yet know that to celestial eyes
Divinest daylight never dies,
And saints defend the things they love
As God protects the saints above.
While men invoke their holy names,
And on their prayers for succour call,
So long shall saints fulfil their claims,
So long their shrines shall never fall.
He ceased; the air--arrested rock
Fell earthwards with a harmless shock,
A long half mile beyond the bound
Of the good church's hallowed ground.
The Demon balked made off in rage,
And the stone slept for many an age.
And still--a startling sight I ween--
The foul fiend's teeth--dints may be seen;
And still, though gray and wondrous old,
The stone itself is never cold,
But keeps within its fated form
A gust of the fiend's fire--breath warm.
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