The House of Night – Philip Freneau
Philip Freneau (1752-1832), is a widely renowned American poet and editor. He is perhaps best known for House of Night, which contains gothic, dark elements said to’ve inspired much of Edgar Allan Poe’s work.
[Note: The original piece was authored for a pre-Victorian audience and utilized many archaic spellings. It is incredibly difficult for a modern reader. This version has been verbally adjusted to suit a modern audience. Obscure or archaic words are defined within brackets. This version copyright (c) Appalachia Obscura.]
The House of Night
Trembling I write my dream, and recollect
A fearful vision at the midnight hour;
So late, Death over me spread his sable wings,
Painted with fancies of malignant power!
Such was the dream the sage Chaldean saw
Disclosed to him that felt heaven’s vengeful rod,
Such was the ghost, who through deep silence cried,
Shall mortal man—be juster than his God?
Let others draw from smiling skies their theme,
And tell of climes that boast unfading light,
I draw a darker scene, replete with gloom,
I sing the horrors of the House of Night.
Stranger, believe the truth experience tells,
Poetic dreams are of a finer cast
Than those which o’er the sober brain diffused,
Are but a repetition of some action past.
Fancy, I own thy power—when sunk in sleep
Thou playest thy wild delusive part so well
You lift me into immortality,
Depict new heavens, or draw the scenes of hell.
By some sad means, when Reason holds no sway,
Lonely I roved at midnight over a plain
Where murmuring streams and mingling rivers flow
Far to their springs, or seek the sea again.
Sweet vernal May! tho’ then thy woods in bloom
Flourished, yet naught of this could Fancy see,
No wild pinks blessed the meadows, no green the fields,
And naked seemed to stand each lifeless tree:
Dark was the sky, and not one friendly star
Shone from the zenith or horizon, clear,
Mist sate upon the woods, and darkness rode
In her black chariot, with a wild career.
And from the woods the late resounding note
Issued of the loquacious Whip-poor-will,
Hoarse, howling dogs, and nightly roving wolves
Clamored from far off cliffs invisible.
Rude, from the wide extended Chesapeake
I heard the winds the dashing waves assail,
And saw from far, by picturing fancy formed,
The black ship traveling through the noisy gale.
At last, by chance and guardian fancy led,
I reached a noble dome, raised fair and high,
And saw the light from upper windows flame,
Presage of mirth and hospitality.
And by that light around the dome appeared
A mournful garden of autumnal hue,
Its lately pleasing flowers all drooping stood
Amidst high weeds that in rank plenty grew.
The Primrose there, the violet darkly blue,
Daisies and fair Narcissus ceased to rise,
Gay spotted pinks their charming bloom withdrew,
And Polyanthus [called a “florist’s primrose] quenched its thousand dyes.
No pleasant fruit or blossom gaily smiled,
Naught but unhappy plants or trees were seen,
The yew, the myrtle, and the church-yard elm,
The cypress, with its melancholy green.
There cedars dark, the osier, and the pine.
Shorn tamarisks [a kind of shrub or bush], and weeping willows grew
The poplar tall, the lotos, and the lime,
And pyracantha [a.k.a. firethorn] did her leaves renew.
The poppy there, companion to repose,
Displayed her blossoms that began to fall,
And here the purple amaranthus rose
With mint strong-scented, for the funeral.
And here and there with laurel shrubs between
A tombstone lay, inscribed with strains of woe.
And stanzas sad, throughout the dismal green,
Lamented for the dead that slept below.
Peace to this awful dome!—when strait I heard
The voice of men in a secluded room,
Much did they talk of death, and much of life,
Of coffins, shrouds, and horrors of a tomb.
Pathetic were their words, and well they aimed
To explain the mystic paths of providence,
Learned were they all, but there remained not I
To hear the upshot of their conference.
Meantime from an adjoining chamber came
Confused murmurings, half distinguished sounds,
And as I nearer drew, disputes arose
Of surgery, and remedies for wounds.
Dull were their feuds, for they went on to talk
Of Anchylosis [joint disease], and the shoulder blade,
Of Femoris Trochanters [the bony protrusion of the thigh bone]—and whatever
Has been discussed by Cheselden or Meade:
And often each, to prove his notion true,
Brought proofs from Galen or Hippocrates—
But fancy led me hence—and left them so,
Firm at their points of hardy No and Yes.
Then up three winding stairs my feet were brought
To a high chamber, hung with mourning sad,
The unsnuffed candles glared with visage dim,
‘Midst grief, in ecstasy of woe run mad.
A wide leafed table stood on either side,
Well fraught with phials, half their liquids spent,
And from a couch, behind the curtain’s veil,
I heard a hollow voice of loud lament.
Turning to view the object whence it came,
My frighted eyes a horrid form surveyed; Fancy,
I own thy power—Death on the couch,
With fleshless limbs, at rueful length, was laid.
And o’er his head flew jealousies and cares,
Ghosts, imps, and half the black Tartarian crew,
Arch-angels damned, nor was their Prince remote,
Borne on the vaporous wings of Stygian dew.
Around his bed, by the dull flambeaux’s [a flaming torch] glare,
I saw pale phantoms—Rage to madness vexed,
Wan, wasting grief, and ever musing care,
Distressful pain, and poverty perplexed.
Sad was his countenance, if we can call no
That countenance, where only bones were seen
And eyes sunk in their sockets, dark and low,
And teeth, that only showed themselves to grin.
Reft [disheveled] was his scull of hair, and no fresh bloom
Of cheerful mirth sate on his visage hoar [appearing aged or ill]:
Sometimes he raised his head, while deep-drawn groans
Were mixed with words that did his fate deplore.
Oft did he wish to see the daylight spring,
And often toward the window leaned to hear,
Fore-runner of the scarlet-mantled morn,
The early note of wakeful Chanticleer.
Thus he—But at my hand a portly youth
Of comely countenance, began to tell,
“That this was Death upon his dying bed,
“Sullen, morose, and peevish to be well;
“Fixed is his doom—the miscreant reigns no more
“The tyrant of the dying or the dead;
“This night concludes his all-consuming reign,
“Pour out, ye heavens, your vengeance on his head.
“But since, my friend (said he), chance leads you here,
“With me this night upon the sick attend,
“You on this bed of death must watch, and I
“Will not be distant from the fretful fiend.
“Before he made this lofty pile his home,
“In undisturbed repose I sweetly slept,
“But when he came to this sequestered dome,
‘Twas then my troubles came, and then I wept:
“Twice three long nights, in this sad chamber, I,
“As though a brother languished in despair,
“Have ‘tended faithful round his gloomy bed,
“Have been content to breathe this loathsome air.
‘Waking I found my weary night a dream;
Dreams are perhaps forebodings of the soul;
Learned sages tell why all these whims arose,
And from what source such mystic visions roll.
Do they portend approaching death, which tells
I soon must hence my darksome journey go?
Sweet Cherub Hope! Dispel the clouded dream
Sweet Cherub Hope, man’s guardian god below.
Stranger, whoever thou art, who this shall read,
Say does thy nightly fancy rove like mine;
Transport thee o’er wide lands and wider seas
Now underneath the pole and now the burning line?
“A while relieve the languors that I feel,
“Sleep’s magic forces close my weary eyes;
“Soft o’er my soul unwonted slumbers steal,
“Aid the weak patient till you see me rise.
“But let no slumbers on your eye-lids fall,
“That if he ask for powder or for pill
“You may be ready at the word to start,
“And still seem anxious to perform his will.
Poet, who thus dost rove, say, shall thou fear
New Jordan’s stream prefigured by the old?
It will but waft thee where thy fathers are
The bards with long eternity enrolled.
It will but waft thee where thy Homer shrouds
His laurelled head in some Elysian grove,
And on whose skirts perhaps in future years,
At awful distance you and I may rove.
Enough—when God and nature give the word,
I’ll tempt the dusky shore and narrow sea:
Content to die, just as it be decreed,
At four score years, or now at twenty-three.”
“The bleeding Savior of a world undone
“Bade thy compassion rise toward thy foe;
“Then, stranger, for the sake of Mary’s son,
“Thy tears of pity on this wretch bestow.
“Twas he that stole from my adoring arms
“Aspasia, she the loveliest of her kind,
“Lucretia’s virtue, with a Helen’s charms,
“Charms of the face, and beauties of the mind.
“The blushy cheek, the lively, beaming eye,
“The ruby lip, the flowing jetty hair,
“The stature tall, the aspect so divine,
“All beauty, you would think, had centered there.
“Each future age her virtues shall extol,
“Nor the just tribute to her worth refuse;
“Famed, to the stars Urania bids her rise,
“Theme of the moral, and the tragic Muse.
“Sweet as the fragrance of the vernal morn,
“Nipped in its bloom this faded flower I see;
“The inspiring angel from that breast is gone,
“And life’s warm tide forever chilled in thee!
“Such charms shall greet my longing soul no more,
“Her lively eyes are closed in endless shade,
“Torpid, she rests on yonder marble floor;
“Approach, and see what havoc Death has made.
“Yet, stranger, hold—her charms are so divine,
“Such tints of life still on her visage glow,
“That even in death this slumbering bride of mine
“May seize thy heart, and make thee wretched too.
“O shun the sight—forbid thy trembling hand
“From her pale face to raise the enshrouding lawn,—
“Death claims thy care, obey his stern command,
“Trim the dull tapers, for I see no dawn!”
So said, at Death’s left side I sate me down,
The mourning youth toward his right reclined;
Death in the middle lay, with all his groans,
And much he tossed and tumbled, sighed and pined.
But now this man of hell toward me turned,
And strait, in hideous tone, began to speak;
Long held he sage discourse, but I forbore
To answer him, much less his news to seek.
He talked of tomb-stones and of monuments,
Of Equinoctial climes and India shores,
He talked of stars that shed their influence,
Fevers and plagues, and all their noxious stores.
He mentioned, too, the guileful calenture [fever delirium]
Tempting the sailor on the deep sea main,
That paints gay groves upon the ocean floor,
Beckoning her victim to the faithless scene.
Much spoke he of the myrtle and the yew,
Of ghosts that nightly walk the church-yard o’er,
Of storms that through the wintry ocean blow
And dash the well-manned galley on the shore,
Of broad-mouthed cannons, and the thunderbolt,
Of sieges and convulsions, dearth and fire,
Of poisonous weeds—but seemed to sneer at these
Who by the laurel o’er him did aspire.
Then with a hollow voice thus went he on:
“Get up, and search, and bring, when found, to me,
“Some cordial, potion, or some pleasant draught [drink],
“Sweet, slumberous poppy, or the mild Bohea [Chinese black tea].
“But hark, my pitying friend!—and, if you can,
“Deceive the grim physician at the door—
“Bring half the mountain springs — ah! Hither bring
“The cold rock water from the shady bower.
“For till this night such thirst did ne’er invade,
“A thirst provoked by heaven’s avenging hand;
“Hence bear me, friends, to quaff, and quaff again
“The cool wave bubbling from the yellow sand.
“To these dark walls with stately step I came,
“Prepared your drugs and doses to defy;
“Smote with the love of never dying fame,
“I came, alas! to conquer—not to die!”
Glad, from his side I sprang, and fetched the draught,
Which down his greedy throat he quickly swills,
Then on a second errand sent me strait,
To search in some dark corner for his pills.
Quoth he, “These pills have long compounded been,
“Of dead men’s bones and bitter roots, I trow;
“But that I may to wonted health return,
“Throughout my lank veins shall their substance go.”
So down they went.—He raised his fainting head
And oft in feeble tone essayed to talk;
Quoth he, “Since remedies have small avail,
“Assist unhappy Death once more to walk.”
Then slowly rising from his loathsome bed,
On wasted legs the meager monster stood,
Gaped wide, and foamed, and hungry seemed to ask,
Tho’ sick, an endless quantity of food.
Said he, “The sweet melodious flute prepare,
“The anthem, and the organ’s solemn sound,
“Such as may strike my soul with ecstasy,
“Such as may from yon’ lofty wall rebound.
“Sweet music can the fiercest pains assuage,
”She bids the soul to heaven’s blessed mansions rise,
“She calms despair, controls infernal rage
“And deepest anguish, when it hears her, dies.
“And see, the mizzling [light rain], misty midnight reigns,
“And no soft dews are on my eye-lids sent! —
“Here, stranger, lend thy hand; assist me, pray,
“To walk a circuit of no large extent.”—
On my prest [ready or able] shoulders leaning, round he went,
And could have made the boldest specter flee,
I led him up stairs, and I led him down,
But not one moment’s rest from pain got he.
Then with his dart, its cusp unpointed now,
Thrice with main strength he smote the trembling floor;
The roof resounded to the fearful blow,
And Cleon [Athenian statesman] started, doomed to sleep no more.
When thus spoke Death, impatient of control,
“Quick, move, and bring from yonder black bureau
“The sacred book that may preserve my soul
“From long damnation, and eternal woe.
“And with it bring—for you may find them there,
“The works of holy authors, dead and gone,
“The sacred tome of moving Drelincourt [French Protestant Divine],
“Or what more solemn Sherlock mused upon:
“And read, my Cleon, what these sages say,
“And what the sacred Penman hath declared,
“That when the wicked leaves his odious way,
“His sins shall vanish, and his soul be spared.”
But he, unmindful of the vain command,
Reasoned with Death, nor were his reasonings few:
Quoth he—” My Lord, what frenzy moves your brain,
“Pray, what, my Lord, can Sherlock be to you,
“Or all the sage divines that ever wrote,
“Grave Drelincourt, or heaven’s unerring page;
“These point their arrows at your hostile breast,
“And raise new pains that time must ne’er assuage.
“And why should thus thy woe disturb my rest?
“Much of Theology I once did read,
“And there ’tis fixed, sure as my God is so,
“That Death shall perish, tho’ a God should bleed.
“The martyr, doomed the pangs of fire to feel,
“Lives but a moment in the sultry blast;
“The victim groans, and dies beneath the steel,
“But thy severer pains shall always last.
“O miscreant vile, thy age has made thee dote—
“If peace, if sacred peace were found for you,
“Hell would cry out, and all the damned arise
“And, more deserving, seek for pity too.
“Seek not for Paradise—’tis not for thee,
“Where high in heaven its sweetest blossoms blow,
“Nor even where, gliding to the Persian main,
“Thy waves, Euphrates, through the garden flow!
“Bloody has been thy reign, O man of hell,
“Who sympathized with no departing groan;
“Cruel wast thou, and hardly dost deserve
“To have His face stamped upon thy stone.
“Me that could build his mansion o’er the tombs,
“Depending still on sickness and decay,
“May dwell unmoved amidst these drowsier glooms,
“May laugh the dullest of these shades away.
“Remember how with unrelenting ire
“You tore the infant from the unwilling breast—
“Aspasia fell, and Cleon must expire,
“Doomed by the impartial God to endless rest:
“In vain with stars he decked yon’ spangled skies,
“And bade the mind to heaven’s bright regions soar,
“And brought so far to my admiring eyes
“A glimpse of glories that shall blaze no more!
“Even now, to glut thy devilish wrath, I see
“From eastern realms a wasteful army rise:
“Why else those lights that tremble in the north?
“Why else yon’ comet blazing through the skies?
“Rejoice, O fiend; Britannia’s tyrant sends
“From German plains his myriads to our shore.
“The fierce Hibernian with the Briton joined—
“Bring them, ye winds!—but waft them back no more.
“To you, alas! the fates in wrath deny
“The comforts to our parting moments due,
“And leave you here to languish and to die,
“Your crimes too many, and your tears too few.
“No cheering voice to thee shall cry, Repent!
“As once it echoed through the wilderness—
“No patron died for thee—damned, damned art thou
“Like all the devils, nor one jot the less.
“A gloomy land, with sullen skies is thine,
“Where never rose or amaranthus grow,
“No daffodils, nor comely columbine,
“No hyacinths nor asphodels for you.
“The barren trees that flourish on the shore
“With leaves or fruit were never seen to bend,
“O’er languid waves unblossomed branches hang,
“And every branch sustains some vagrant fiend.
“And now no more remains, but to prepare
“To take possession of thy punishment;
“That’s thy inheritance, that thy domain,
“A land of bitter woe, and loud lament.
“And oh that He, who spread the universe,
“Would cast one pitying glance on thee below!
“Millions of years in torments thou mightiest fry,
“But thy eternity!—who can conceive its woe!”
He heard, and round with his black eye-balls gazed,
Full of despair, and cursed, and raved, and swore:
“And since this is my doom,” said he, “call up
“Your wood-mechanics to my chamber door:
“Blame not on me the ravage to be made;
“Proclaim,—even Death abhors such woe to see;
“I’ll quit the world, while decently I can,
“And leave the work to George my deputy.”
Up rushed a band, with compasses and scales
To measure his slim carcase, long and lean—
“Be sure,” said he, “to frame my coffin strong,
“You, master workman, and your men, I mean:
“For if the Devil, so late my trusty friend,
“Should get one hint where I am laid, from you,
“Not with my soul content, he’d seek to find
“That mouldering mass of bones, my body, too!
“Of hardest ebon [a very dark black] let the plank be found,
“With clamps and ponderous bars secured around,
“That if the box by Satan should be stormed,
“It may be able for resistance found.”
“Yes,” said the master workman, “noble Death,
“Your coffin shall be strong—that leave to me—
“But who shall these your funeral dues discharge?
“Nor friends nor pence you have, that I can see.”
To this said Death—”You might have asked me, too,
“Base caitiff, who are my executors,
“Where my estate, and who the men that shall
“Partake my substance, and be called my heirs.
“Know, then, that hell is my inheritance,
“The devil himself my funeral dues must pay—
“Go—since you must be paid—go, ask of him,
“For he has gold, as fabling [storyteller] poets say.”
Strait they retired—when thus he gave me charge,
Pointing from the light window to the west,
“Go three miles o’er the plain, and you shall see
“A burying-yard of sinners dead, unblessed.
“Amid the graves a spiry building stands
“Whose solemn knell resounding through the gloom
“Shall call thee over the circumjacent [surrounding] lands
“To the dull mansion destined for my tomb.
”There, since ’tis dark, I’ll plant a glimmering light
“Just snatched from hell, by whose reflected beams
“Thou shalt behold a tomb-stone, full eight feet,
“Fast by a grave, replete with ghosts and dreams.
“And on that stone engrave this epitaph,
“Since Death, it seems, must die like mortal men;
“Yes—on that stone engrave this epitaph,
“Though all hell’s furies aim to snatch the pen.
“Death in this tomb his weary bones hath laid,
“Sick of dominion o’er the human kind—
”Behold what devastations he hath made,
“Survey the millions by his arm confined.
“Six thousand years has sovereign sway been mine,
”None, but myself, can real glory claim;
”Great Regent of the world I reigned alone,
“And princes trembled when my mandate came.
“Vast and unmatched throughout the world, my fame
“Takes place of gods, and asks no mortal date—
“No; by myself, and by the heavens, I swear,
“Not Alexander’s name is half so great.
“Nor swords nor darts my prowess could withstand,
“All quit their arms, and bowed to my decree,
“Even mighty Julius died beneath my hand,
”For slaves and Cesars were the same to me!
“Traveler, wouldst thou his noblest trophies seek,
“Search in no narrow spot obscure for those;
“The sea profound, the surface of all land
“Is moulded [shaped] with the myriads of his foes.”
Scarce had he spoke, when on the lofty dome
Rushed from the clouds a hoarse resounding blast—
Round the four eaves so loud and sad it played
As though all music were to breathe its last.
Warm was the gale, and such as travelers say
Sport with the winds on Zaara’s [archaic form of Saharra] barren waste;
Black was the sky, a mourning carpet spread,
Its azure blotted, and its stars overcast!
Lights in the air like burning stars were hurled,
Dogs howled, heaven muttered, and the tempest blew,
The red half-moon leaped from behind a cloud
As if in dread the amazing scene to view.
The mournful trees that in the garden stood
Bent to the tempest as it rushed along,
The elm, the myrtle, and the cypress sad
More melancholy tuned its bellowing song.
No more that elm its noble branches spread,
The yew, the cypress, or the myrtle tree,
Rent from the roots the tempest tore them down,
And all the grove in wild confusion lay.
Yet, mindful of his dread command, I part
Glad from the magic dome—nor found relief;
Damps from the dead hung heavier round my heart,
While sad remembrance roused her stores of grief.
O’er a dark field I held my dubious way
Where Jack-a-lantern walked his lonely round,
Beneath my feet substantial darkness lay,
And screams were heard from the distempered ground.
Nor looked I back, till to a far off wood,
Trembling with fear, my weary feet had sped—
Dark was the night, but at the enchanted dome
I saw the infernal windows flaming red.
And from within the howls of Death I heard,
Cursing the dismal night that gave him birth,
Damning his ancient sire, and mother sin,
Who at the gates of hell, accursed, brought him forth.
For fancy gave to my enraptured soul
An eagle’s eye, with keenest glance to see,
And bade those distant sounds distinctly roll,
Which, waking, never had affected me.]
Oft his pale breast with cruel hand he smote,
And tearing from his limbs a winding sheet,
Roared to the black skies, while the woods around,
As wicked as himself, his words repeat.
Thrice [three times] toward the skies his meager arms he reared,
Invoked all hell, and thunders on his head,
Bid lightnings fly, earth yawn, and tempests roar,
And the sea wrap him in its oozy bed.
“My life for one cool draught!—O, fetch your springs,
“Can one unfeeling to my woes be found!
“No friendly visage comes to my relief,
“But ghosts impend, and specters hover round.
“Though humbled now, disheartened and distressed,
“Yet, when admitted to the peaceful ground,
“With heroes, kings, and conquerors I shall rest,
“Shall sleep as safely, and perhaps as sound.”
Dim burnt the lamp, and now the phantom Death
Gave his last groans in horror and despair—
“All hell demands me hence,”—he said, and threw
The red lamp hissing through the midnight air.
Trembling, across the plain my course I held,
And found the grave-yard, loitering through the gloom,
And, in the midst, a hell-red, wandering light,
Walking in fiery circles round the tomb.
Among the graves a spiry building stood,
Whose tolling bell, resounding through the shade,
Sung doleful ditties to the adjacent wood,
And many a dismal drowsy thing it said.
This fabric tall, with towers and chancels graced,
Was raised by sinners’ hands, in ages fled;
The roof they painted, and the beams they braced.
And texts from scripture o’er the walls they spread:
But wicked were their hearts, for they refused
To aid the helpless orphan, when distressed,
The shivering, naked stranger they misused,
And banished from their doors the starving guest.
By laws protected, cruel and profane,
The poor man’s ox these monsters drove away; —
And left Distress to attend her infant train,
No friend to comfort, and no bread to stay.
But heaven looked on with keen, resentful eye,
And doomed them to perdition and the grave,
That as they felt not for the wretch distressed,
So heaven no pity on their souls would have.
In pride they raised this building tall and fair,
Their hearts were on perpetual mischief bent,
With pride they preached, and pride was in their prayer,
With pride they were deceived, and so to hell they went.
At distance far approaching to the tomb,
By lamps and lanterns guided through the shade,
A coal-black chariot hurried through the gloom,
Specters attending, in black weeds [another name for mourning clothing] arrayed,
Whose woeful forms yet chill my soul with dread,
Each wore a vest in Stygian chambers wove,
Death’s kindred all—Death’s horses they bestrode,
And galloped fiercely, as the chariot drove.
Each horrid face a grisly mask concealed,
Their busy eyes shot terror to my soul
As now and then, by the pale lantern’s glare,
I saw them for their parted friend condole.
Before the hearse Death’s chaplain seemed to go,
Who strove to comfort, what he could, the dead;
Talked much of Satan, and the land of woe,
And many a chapter from the scriptures read.
At last he raised the swelling anthem high,
In dismal numbers seemed he to complain;
The captive tribes that by Euphrates wept,
Their song was jovial to his dreary strain.
That done, they placed the carcase in the tomb,
To dust and dull oblivion now resigned,
Then turned the chariot toward the House of Night,
Which soon flew off, and left no trace behind.
But as I stooped to write the appointed verse,
Swifter than thought the airy scene decayed;
Blushing the morn arose, and from the east
With her gay streams of light dispelled the shade.
What is this Death, ye deep read sophists, say?—
Death is no more than one unceasing change;
New forms arise, while other forms decay,
Yet all is Life throughout creation’s range.
The towering Alps, the haughty Appenine,
The Andes, wrapped in everlasting snow,
The Appalachian and the Ararat
Sooner or later must to ruin go.
Hills sink to plains, and man returns to dust,
That dust supports a reptile or a flower;
Each changeful atom by some other nursed
Takes some new form, to perish in an hour.
Too nearly joined to sickness, toils, and pains,
(Perhaps for former crimes imprisoned here)
True to itself the immortal soul remains,
And seeks new mansions in the starry sphere.
When Nature bids thee from the world retire,
With joy thy lodging leave, a fated guest;
In Paradise, the land of thy desire,
Existing always, always to be blessed.