Oscar Fay Adams Poems >>
The Burning Of Conrad's Choir, A.D. 1174

Gervase, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, speaks:

Ninety long years have I dwelt here, and much have I seen in that space.
I was the least of the monks when first I came to this place.
Now is there none in the convent that numbers more years than I;
An' God wills I may call them a hundred before my time comes to die.
I can remember the building of Conrad's great, glorious choir;
Conrad, the wonderful mason, and, after Ernulphus, our prior.

Month after month wrought the workmen, and year after year rang the blows
Of hammer and trowel on stonework till all that fair building arose.
When they had end King Henry, and David king of the Scots,
Came hither with bishops in train each bringing from holiest spots
Some priceless relic to lay in that mighty cathedral of ours.
Never since Solomon hallowed the Temple to Heavenly Powers
Did mortal behold such a sight as I saw on that far distant day
As twice round the walls with loud chanting passed the gorgeous and endless array.

Forty years after I watched all one night with the rest in this place,
While beside us tall candles threw flickers of light on a murdered man's face.
Becket, our bishop, it was, by those knights so wickedly slain
Just as the bell rang for vespers and we had assembled again.
From behind Saint Benedict's altar I saw the foul murder begun,
And there, with his half-severed arm, fled Grim when the murder was done.
Never thought I a far woefuller sight than this to behold
Only a few years after, ere the summer had quite waxen old.
Feeble indeed is our wisdom and we know not what shall betide.
While above and beneath and around us the hosts of Almighty abide.

Midnight had come and the prior had bidden me watch till the day,
After our habit at Christ Church, where the bones of the great Dunstan lay.
So through the cloister I went at the hour my watch should begin
Till I came to where Becket was slain by those terrible minions of sin.
There, as I stayed for a moment, to say a short prayer for the dead,
I saw a red glow 'mid the arches, and on through the transept I sped
And up the long steps to the choir: ah, woe for the terrible sight!
From the steps to the shrine of Saint Dunstan the choir was ruddy with light,
For flames had curled round the stalls and stretched themselves up to the roof,
And, e'en as I gazed, caught the rafters and roared as the sea up aloof.
They leaped from one beam to another, and the carven work melted like snow;
They surged up around the shrine pillars that bent like a tightly stretched bow;
And onward they rolled in vast billows; the place was a horror of fire:
The holiest spot in all England, our Conrad's glorious choir.
Anon came the prior and the brothers: the people streamed in through the nave
And they looked at the fiery tempest, and a horrible cry they gave
That rang through the great nave arches, and rose o'er the dull roar of flame,
As they called on the Lord in their madness and cursed his most reverend name.
Still the surges of fire whirled upward till the choir roof crashed to the floor,
And the flames mounted up to the heavens while the people blasphemed yet the more.
They tore out their hair in their frenzy; they beat at the walls with their hands,
And they caught at the stones in the pavement as the wild waves clutch at the sands;
They dashed their heads 'gainst the pillars till blood was sprent over the space;
And they burst into terrible singing, as demons had stood in their place.

"Now a curse on Saint Wilfred of Ripon, and a curse on Saint Blasius of Rome!
And curse upon curse light on Dunstan; the deep pit of hell be his home.
May Saint Ouen lie with him in torment; Saint Swithun be doomed to despair;
And the rest who are snugly enshrined here be torn by the fiends of the air.
For they sleep, and the glory of Conrad is past in a moment of time:
They sleep, and the enemy cometh and despoileth the altar sublime.

"And a curse upon God in His heaven, who suffers such evils to be;
And curses, too, on His Son, who refuseth our anguish to see;
And a curse on the Holy Spirit, that to save lifts never an arm;
And a thrice bitter curse upon Mary, who will not defend from such harm
The temple that Conrad hath builded in honour of Jesus, her Son;
And curses, too, on the angels; away with them, every one!
For the glory of Conrad is passing; our God is as stubble or stone;
Let us turn from His worship forever, and bow us to Satan alone!"

And now through the open choir roof a wind from the seaward there drave
That lashed the flames into fury and swept them forth to the nave;
And the people fled before them as chaff when a whirlwind is blown,
Or as leaves in the front of a tempest hurried on betwixt high cliffs of stone.
And hushed was the voice of blaspheming while high rose the roar of the flames
Where the people had stood in their madness reviling the thrice holy names.

When the fearsome night past and the morning shone down on our convent once more,
"Ichabod," murmured our prior, "the glory of Conrad is o'er;
He smiteth, and we are sore humbled; He scourgeth our pride with His fire;
He sendeth His wrath out amongst us and abaseth our glorious choir.
O, who can fathom His purpose, or who can read straightway His plan?
The Lord's ways are never as our ways, and foolish before Him is man!"