Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Commentary

The Old Clock on the Stairs Commentary

Somewhat back from the village street
Stands the old-fashioned country-seat.
Across its antique portico
Tall poplar-trees their shadows throw;
And from its station in the hall
An ancient timepiece says to all, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

Half-way up the stairs it stands,
And points and beckons with its hands
From its case of massive oak,
Like a monk, who, under his cloak,
Crosses himself, and sighs, alas!
With sorrowful voice to all who pass, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

By day its voice is low and light;
But in the silent dead of night,
Distinct as a passing footstep’s fall,
It echoes along the vacant hall,
Along the ceiling, along the floor,
And seems to say, at each chamber-door, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

Through days of sorrow and of mirth,
Through days of death and days of birth,
Through every swift vicissitude
Of changeful time, unchanged it has stood,
And as if, like God, it all things saw,
It calmly repeats those words of awe, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

In that mansion used to be
Free-hearted Hospitality;
His great fires up the chimney roared;
The stranger feasted at his board;
But, like the skeleton at the feast,
That warning timepiece never ceased, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

There groups of merry children played,
There youths and maidens dreaming strayed;
O precious hours! O golden prime,
And affluence of love and time!
Even as a miser counts his gold,
Those hours the ancient timepiece told, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

From that chamber, clothed in white,
The bride came forth on her wedding night;
There, in that silent room below,
The dead lay in his shroud of snow;
And in the hush that followed the prayer,
Was heard the old clock on the stair, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

All are scattered now and fled,
Some are married, some are dead;
And when I ask, with throbs of pain,
“Ah! when shall they all meet again?”
As in the days long since gone by,
The ancient timepiece makes reply, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”

Never here, forever there,
Where all parting, pain, and care,
And death, and time shall disappear, —
Forever there, but never here!
The horologe of Eternity
Sayeth this incessantly, —
“Forever — never!
Never — forever!”


“The Old Clock on the Stairs” was originally published by Henry Wadworth Longfellow in Graham’s Magazine, and then made its way into his collection, The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems, which centered around themes from his time in Europe. Longfellow spent much time overseas in Europe after his graduation from Bowdoin College, and ultimately grew to reference the world of Europe in some of his writings. However, “The Old Clock on the Stairs” pertains to the house of his second wife’s grandfather: The Gold House of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The poem finds its way into The Belfry and Bruges collection because much of his poems centered around the Belgian towns are rooted in the overwhelming power and sounds of great clock towers. 

Longfellow has created the poem with nine stanzas of eight lines each, and ends each stanza with a couplet of, “‘Forever — never! / Never — forever!’” Not only does Longfellow’s chorus add to the personification of the clock, but it seems to thrive in the contradiction centered around time and humans relationship to it. Each stanza paints a new story and a new setting of varying lifestyles and the joys, pains, or other emotions they felt at a specific moment; ultimately, echoing the montra: time stops for no man. The poem indicates that no matter who you are, the attributes of time will eventually catch up and there is no escaping the cycle of time.

Longfellow’s second wife, Frances, “Fanny” Appleton, aided Longfellow in much of his poetic endeavors after he began to lose partial eye sight, often Franny would act as a scribe for her husband. This poem is one of two poems written by Longfellow that have been acknowledged as being inspired by Fanny, the other poem being, “The Arsenal at Springfield”, which also appeared in The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems.

Longfellow’s personal relation the clock within the Gold House shines through within the poem by his personification and vivid description of the “the ancient timepiece”, but further imagery within the poem displays Longfellow’s wariness towards the mischief time can often get into if a person were to get too comfortable.

Fletcher Rice

Bibliography and Further Reading “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, Web.; Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “The Old Clock on the Stairs by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,Web.; “Songs. The Old Clock on the Stairs. The Belfry of Bruges and Other Poems. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 1893. Complete Poetical Works.” Essay on Contrasting Ralph and Jack in Lord of the Flies | Bartleby, Web.

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