Three Kings came riding from far away,
Melchior and Gaspar and Baltasar;
Three Wise Men out of the East were they,
And they travelled by night and they slept by day,
For their guide was a beautiful, wonderful star.
The star was so beautiful, large and clear,
That all the other stars of the sky
Became a white mist in the atmosphere,
And by this they knew that the coming was near
Of the Prince foretold in the prophecy.
Three caskets they bore on their saddle-bows,
Three caskets of gold with golden keys;
Their robes were of crimson silk with rows
Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows,
Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees.
And so the Three Kings rode into the West,
Through the dusk of the night, over hill and dell,
And sometimes they nodded with beard on breast,
And sometimes talked, as they paused to rest,
With the people they met at some wayside well.
"Of the child that is born," said Baltasar,
"Good people, I pray you, tell us the news;
For we in the East have seen his star,
And have ridden fast, and have ridden far,
To find and worship the King of the Jews."
And the people answered, "You ask in vain;
We know of no King but Herod the Great!"
They thought the Wise Men were men insane,
As they spurred their horses across the plain,
Like riders in haste, who cannot wait.
And when they came to Jerusalem,
Herod the Great, who had heard this thing,
Sent for the Wise Men and questioned them;
And said, "Go down unto Bethlehem,
And bring me tidings of this new king."
So they rode away; and the star stood still,
The only one in the grey of morn;
Yes, it stopped --it stood still of its own free will,
Right over Bethlehem on the hill,
The city of David, where Christ was born.
And the Three Kings rode through the gate and the guard,
Through the silent street, till their horses turned
And neighed as they entered the great inn-yard;
But the windows were closed, and the doors were barred,
And only a light in the stable burned.
And cradled there in the scented hay,
In the air made sweet by the breath of kine,
The little child in the manger lay,
The child, that would be king one day
Of a kingdom not human, but divine.
His mother Mary of Nazareth
Sat watching beside his place of rest,
Watching the even flow of his breath,
For the joy of life and the terror of death
Were mingled together in her breast.
They laid their offerings at his feet:
The gold was their tribute to a King,
The frankincense, with its odour sweet,
Was for the Priest, the Paraclete,
The myrrh for the body's burying.
And the mother wondered and bowed her head,
And sat as still as a statue of stone,
Her heart was troubled yet comforted,
Remembering what the Angel had said
Of an endless reign and of David's throne.
Then the Kings rode out of the city gate,
With a clatter of hoofs in proud array;
But they went not back to Herod the Great,
For they knew his malice and feared his hate,
And returned to their homes by another way.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Since childhood I have loved this account of the story of the three Kings. Of course there is no count of three for the wise men in the Bible and they were undoubtable philosophers or astrologers rather than Kings but the description of them in Longfellow’s poem, with their sumptuous costumes contrasts so effectively with the simple stable setting.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an unusual poet, in that he was incredibly popular in his own lifetime, both in America and overseas. Even Queen Victoria enjoyed his musical lyrical verses and they were translated into Italian, French and German. Born in 1807 in Portland, Maine he studied in Europe before taking up the post of Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard. He was able to speak eight languages and read even more and in 1839 he published his first collection of poems. He was an astute businessman and was able to give up the academic life and live on his earnings as a poet.
In 1831 Longfellow married Mary Potter, whom he had known since childhood. In 1835, when the couple were in Amsterdam, Mary had a miscarriage and died the following day. Henry had her body embalmed and took her home in a lead coffin. Four years later, while in Switzerland, he met Frances Appleton, a young lady from Boston. Back home, he courted Frances for seven years until she finally agreed to marry him in 1843. They had 6 children and a very happy life until Frances had an unfortunate accident in 1861 when her dress caught fire. Longfellow was badly burned trying to save Frances but he was unsuccessful.
Longfellow is probably best known for his poem The Song of Hiawatha but he was not acclaimed by the critics who derided him for his popularity with children and ordinary people. Despite his classical allusions and love of folklore and myth, the accessibility of his poetry undermined any literary credit.
During the 1860s Longfellow supported the abolition of slavery and he espoused reconciliation between the northern and southern states of America. His seventieth birthday in 1877 was greeted with nationwide celebration. When he died in 1882 he was buried next to both his wives at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
For a critique of Longfellow’s poem I heard the bells on Christmas Day please go to http://www.secretvictorianist.com/2014/12/a-victorian-alphabet-x-is-for-xmas.html