Tales Of A Wayside Inn "Ships That Pass In The Night"

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"Ships That Pass In The Night"

Context: Tales of a Wayside Inn is a collection of stories, in verse, related by a group of travelers staying at the Red Lion Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts. The storytellers include the Landlord, the Musician, the Spanish Jew, the Poet, the Sicilian, the Theologian, and the Student. These characters were all close friends of Longfellow, so thinly disguised that they were easily recognizable from his descriptions of them. The Musician, for example, is Ole Bull, famous violinist, who plays his Stradivarius for the assembled company. The stories these people tell are Longfellow's creations; some were published previously; most composed for this work. Part I occurs on a stormy evening in autumn; the storytelling continues to a late hour. In Part II the following day dawns rainy and miserable; so the stories are resumed until late afternoon, when the storm clears. The third and last part of the volume takes place that evening. Stories are told by the Spanish Jew, the Poet, and the Student. The fire is replenished; the clock strikes eight; and the Theologian embarks on his tale of Elizabeth Haddon, a Quaker farm girl. She is chatting with her housemaid, Hannah, remarking that she likes the snow but wonders how they will get to Meeting on First-Day. Joseph, the servant boy, is late returning from town. It would be lonely here, adds Elizabeth, if friends did not stop in often. Hannah chides her for her generosity–these people will eat them out of house and home. Elizabeth replies that she obeys the Lord. She then mentions John Estaugh, a man she saw long ago in London; she has a premonition she will see him again. Joseph now arrives, bringing a stranger who proves to be John Estaugh. After a brief visit during which he and Elizabeth remember each other, he leaves, to return the following May. When he does, Elizabeth tells him that she loves him. He thanks her but replies that the Lord has not yet given him a sign. Confident that he will return to her, she replies that she is content to wait.

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.
Now went on as of old the quiet life of the homestead.
Patient and unrepining Elizabeth labored, in all things
Mindful not of herself, but bearing the burdens of others,
Always thoughtful and kind and untroubled . . .
Meanwhile, John Estaugh departed across the sea, and departing
Carried hid in his heart a secret sacred and precious . . .
O lost days of delight, that are wasted in doubting and waiting!
O lost hours and days in which we might have been happy!
But the light shone at last, and guided his wavering footsteps,
And at last came the voice, imperative, questionless, certain.
Then John Estaugh came back o'er the sea for the gift that was offered,
Better than houses and lands, the gift of a woman's affection.
And on the First-Day that followed, he rose in the Silent Assembly,
Holding in his strong hand a hand that trembled a little,
Promising to be kind and true and faithful in all things.
Such were the marriage rites of John and Elizabeth Estaugh.