The Mother's Ghost: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I wanted to do something special on Extraordinary Intelligence for Mother’s Day.  I tried to think of ways to celebrate moms, grandmas, aunties, etc… but no one can do it like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow did with The Mother’s Ghost.

Vintage engraving from 1877 of a man being haunted by the ghost of a woman.

This poem is part of a larger Longfellow compilation called check thatThe Mother’s Ghost tells the story of a young man and woman who fall in love, and over the course of seven years have six children together.  Their charmed life comes to an end when the mother tragically dies.  The man remarries, and brings Longfellow’s version of the wicked stepmother into the family.

The stepmother mistreats the children.  So sorrowful are their cries of anguish that their dearly departed mother hears them from the Other Side.  She pleads to have the opportunity to return to the land of the living so that she can comfort her children.  She is allowed only a brief stay, but it is enough to restore happiness to the lives of her family.   She also takes the opportunity to chastise the father for allowing such evil treatment of their little ones.   She warns him,  “If I come again unto your hall, As cruel a fate shall you befall!”

To me The Mother’s Ghost could easily have been called A Mother’s Love.  It is a touching reminder of how deep the bond between mother and child can be.  Most moms would do as the soul in the poem did;  move heaven and earth to dry the tears of her beloved children.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the moms out there, and also to those who take on the role of mom, in the absence of a biological mother.

The Mother’s Ghost by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Svend Dyring he rideth adown the glade;
I myself was young!
There he hath wooed him so winsome a maid;
Fair words gladden so many a heart.
Together were they for seven years,
And together children six were theirs.
Then came Death abroad through the land,
And blighted the beautiful lily-wand.
Svend Dyring he rideth adown the glade,
And again hath he wooed him another maid,
He hath wooed him a maid and brought home a bride,
But she was bitter and full of pride.
When she came driving into the yard,
There stood the six children weeping so hard.
There stood the small children with sorrowful heart;
From before her feet she thrust them apart.
She gave to them neither ale nor bread;
“Ye shall suffer hunger and hate,” she said.
She took from them their quilts of blue,
And said: “Ye shall lie on the straw we strew.”
She took from them the great waxlight;
“Now ye shall lie in the dark at night.”
In the evening late they cried with cold;
The mother heard it under the mould.
The woman heard it the earth below:
“To my little children I must go.”
She standeth before the Lord of all:
“And may I go to my children small?”
She prayed him so long, and would not cease,
Until he bade her depart in peace.
“At cock-crow thou shalt return again;
Longer thou shalt not there remain!”
She girded up her sorrowful bones,
And rifted the walls and the marble stones.
As through the village she flitted by,
The watch-dogs howled aloud to the sky.
When she came to the castle gate,
There stood her eldest daughter in wait.
“Why standest thou here, dear daughter mine?
How fares it with brothers and sisters thine?”
“Never art thou mother of mine,
For my mother was both fair and fine.
“My mother was white, with cheeks of red,
But thou art pale, and like to the dead.”
“How should I be fair and fine?
I have been dead; pale cheeks are mine.
“How should I be white and red,
So long, so long have I been dead?”
When she came in at the chamber door,
There stood the small children weeping sore.
One she braided, another she brushed,
The third she lifted, the fourth she hushed.
The fifth she took on her lap and pressed,
As if she would suckle it at her breast.
Then to her eldest daughter said she,
“Do thou bid Svend Dyring come hither to me.”
Into the chamber when he came
She spake to him in anger and shame.
“I left behind me both ale and bread;
My children hunger and are not fed.
“I left behind me quilts of blue;
My children lie on the straw ye strew.
“I left behind me the great waxlight;
My children lie in the dark at night.
“If I come again unto your hall,
As cruel a fate shall you befall!
“Now crows the cock with feathers red;
Back to the earth must all the dead.
“Now crows the cock with feathers swart;
The gates of heaven fly wide apart.
“Now crows the cock with feathers white;
I can abide no longer to-night.”
Whenever they heard the watch-dogs wail,
They gave the children bread and ale.
Whenever they heard the watch-dogs bay,
They feared lest the dead were on their way.
Whenever they heard the watch-dogs bark;
I myself was young!
They feared the dead out there in the dark.
Fair words gladden so many a heart.