The Canterbury Pilgrims by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The summer moon, which shines in so many a tale, was beaming over a
broad extent of uneven country. Some of its brightest rays were flung
into a spring of water, where no traveller, toiling, as the writer
has, up the hilly road beside which it gushes, ever failed to quench
his thirst. The work of neat hands and considerate art was visible
about this blessed fountain. An open cistern, hewn and hollowed out
of solid stone, was placed above the waters, which filled it to the
brim, but, by some invisible outlet, were conveyed away without
dripping down its sides. Though the basin had not room for another
drop, and the continual gush of water made a tremor on the surface,
there was a secret charm that forbade it to overflow. I remember, that
when I had slaked my summer thirst, and sat panting by the cistern, it
was my fanciful theory, that nature could not afford to lavish so
pure a liquid, as she does the waters of all meaner fountains.
While the moon was hanging almost perpendicularly over this spot,
two figures appeared on the summit of the hill, and came with
noiseless footsteps down towards the spring. They were then in the
first freshness of youth; nor is there a wrinkle now on either of
their brows, and yet they wore a strange, old-fashioned garb. One, a
young man with ruddy cheeks, walked beneath the canopy of a
broad-brimmed gray hat; he seemed to have inherited his
great-grandsire's square-skirted coat, and a waistcoat that extended
its immense flaps to his knees; his brown locks, also, hung down
behind, in a mode unknown to our times. By his side was a sweet young
damsel, her fair features sheltered by a prim little bonnet, within
which appeared the vestal muslin of a cap; her close, long-waisted
gown, and indeed her whole attire, might have been worn by some rustic
beauty who had faded half a century before. But, that there was
something too warm and life-like in them, I would here have compared
this couple to the ghosts of two young lovers, who had died long since
in the glow of passion, and now were straying out of their graves, to
renew the old vows, and shadow forth the unforgotten kiss of their
earthly lips, beside the moonlit spring.
"Thee and I will rest here a moment, Miriam," said the young man,
as they drew near the stone cistern, "for there is no fear that the
elders know what we have done; and this may be the last time we shall
ever taste this water."
Thus speaking, with a little sadness in his face, which was also
visible in that of his companion, he made her sit down on a stone, and
was about to place himself very close to her side; she, however,
repelled him, though not unkindly.
"Nay, Josiah," said she, giving him a timid push with her maiden
hand, "thee must sit farther off, on that other stone, with the spring
between us. What would the sisters say, if thee were to sit so close
"But we are of the world's people now, Miriam," answered Josiah.
The girl persisted in her prudery; nor did the youth, in fact, seem
altogether free from a similar sort of shyness; so they sat apart from
each other, gazing up the hill, where the moonlight discovered the
tops of a group of buildings. While their attention was thus occupied,
a party of travellers, who had come wearily up the long ascent, made a
halt to refresh themselves at the spring. There were three men, a
woman, and a little girl and boy Their attire was mean, covered with
the dust of the summer's day, and damp with the night dew; they all
looked woe-begone, as if the cares and sorrows of the world had made
their steps heavier as they climbed the hill; even the two little
children appeared older in evil days, than the young man and maiden
who had first approached the spring.
"Good evening to you, young folks," was the salutation of the
travellers; and "Good evening, friends," replied the youth and damsel.
"Is that white building the Shaker meeting-house?" asked one of the
strangers. "And are those the red roofs of the Shaker village?"
"Friend, it is the Shaker village," answered Josiah, after some
The travellers, who, from the first, had looked suspiciously at the
garb of these young people, now taxed them with an intention, which
all the circumstances, indeed, rendered too obvious to be mistaken.
"It is true, friends," replied the young man, summoning up his
courage. "Miriam and I have a gift to love each other, and we are
going among the world's people to live after their fashion. And ye
know that we do not transgress the law of the land; and neither ye,
nor the elders themselves, have a right to hinder us."
"Yet you think it expedient to depart without leave-taking,"
remarked one of the travellers.
"Yea, ye-a," said Josiah, reluctantly, "because father Job is a
very awful man to speak with, and being aged himself, he has but
little charity for what he calls the iniquities of the flesh."
"Well," said the stranger, "we will neither use force to bring you
back to the village, nor will we betray you to the elders. But sit you
here awhile, and when you have heard what we shall tell you of the
world which we have left, and into which you are going, perhaps you
will turn back with us of your own accord. What say you?" added he,
turning to his companions. "We have travelled thus far without
becoming known to each other. Shall we tell our stories, here by this
pleasant spring, for our own pastime, and the benefit of these
misguided young lovers?"
In accordance with this proposal, the whole party stationed
themselves round the stone cistern: the two children, being very
weary, fell asleep upon the damp earth, and the pretty Shaker girl,
whose feelings were those of a nun or a Turkish lady, crept as close
as possible to the female traveller, and as far as she well could
from the unknown men. The same person who had hitherto been the chief
spokesman, now stood up, waving his hat in his hand, and suffered the
moonlight to fall full upon his front.
"In me," said he, with a certain majesty of utterance, "in me you
behold a poet."
Though a lithographic print of this gentleman is extant, it may be
well to notice that he was now nearly forty, a thin and stooping
figure, in a black coat, out at elbows; notwithstanding the ill
condition of his attire, there were about him several tokens of a
peculiar sort of foppery, unworthy of a mature man, particularly in
the arrangement of his hair, which was so disposed as to give all
possible loftiness and breadth to his forehead. However, he had an
intelligent eye, and on the whole a marked countenance.
"A poet!" repeated the young Shaker, a little puzzled how to
understand such a designation, seldom heard in the utilitarian
community where he had spent his life. "O, ay, Miriam, he means a
varse-maker, thee must know."
This remark jarred upon the susceptible nerves of the poet; nor
could he help wondering what strange fatality had put into this young
man's mouth an epithet, which ill-natured people had affirmed to be
more proper to his merit than the one assumed by himself.
"True, I am a verse-maker," he resumed, "but my verse is no more
than the material body into which I breathe the celestial soul of
thought. Alas! how many a pang has it cost me, this same insensibility
to the ethereal essence of poetry, with which you have here tortured
me again, at the moment when I am to relinquish my profession forever!
O, Fate! why hast thou warred with Nature, turning all her higher and
more perfect gifts to the ruin of me, their possessor? What is the
voice of song, when the world lacks the ear of taste? How can I
rejoice in my strength and delicacy of feeling, when they have but
made great sorrows out of little ones? Have I dreaded scorn like
death, and yearned for fame as others pant for vital air, only to find
myself in a middle state between obscurity and infamy? But I have my
revenge! I could have given existence to a thousand bright creations.
I crush them into my heart, and there let them putrefy! I shake off
the dust of my feet against my countrymen! But posterity, tracing my
footsteps up this weary hill, will cry shame upon the unworthy age
that drove one of the fathers of American song to end his days in a
During this harangue, the speaker gesticulated with great energy;
and, as poetry is the natural language of passion, there appeared
reason to apprehend his final explosion into an ode extempore. The
reader must understand, that for all these bitter words, he was a
kind, gentle, harmless, poor fellow enough, whom Nature, tossing her
ingredients together without looking at her recipe, had sent into the
world with too much of one sort of brain and hardly any of another.
"Friend," said the young Shaker, in some perplexity, "thee seemest
to have met with great troubles, and, doubtless, I should pity them,
if—if I could but understand what they were."
"Happy in your ignorance!" replied the poet, with an air of sublime
superiority. "To your coarser mind, perhaps, I may seem to speak of
more important griefs, when I add, what I had well nigh forgotten,
that I am out at elbows, and almost starved to death. At any rate, you
have the advice and example of one individual to warn you back; for I
am come hither, a disappointed man, flinging aside the fragments of
my hopes, and seeking shelter in the calm retreat which you are so
anxious to leave."
"I thank thee, friend," rejoined the youth; "but I do not mean to
be a poet, nor, Heaven be praised! do I think Miriam ever made a varse
in her life. So we need not fear thy disappointments. But, Miriam,"
he added, with real concern, "thee knowest that the elders admit
nobody that has not a gift to be useful. Now, what under the sun can
they do with this poor varse-maker?"
"Nay, Josiah, do not thee discourage the poor man," said the girl,
in all simplicity and kindness. "Our hymns are very rough, and perhaps
they may trust him to smooth them."
Without noticing this hint of professional employment, the poet
turned away, and gave himself up to a sort of vague reverie, which he
called thought. Sometimes he watched the moon, pouring a silvery
liquid on the clouds through which it slowly melted, till they became
all bright; then he saw the same sweet radiance dancing on the leafy
trees which rustled as if to shake it off, or sleeping on the high
tops of hills, or hovering down in distant valleys, like the material
of unshaped dreams; lastly, he looked into the spring, and there the
light was mingling with the water. In its crystal bosom, too,
beholding all heaven reflected there, he found an emblem of a pure
and tranquil breast. He listened to that most ethereal of all sounds,
the song of crickets, coming in full choir upon the wind, and fancied,
that, if moonlight could be heard, it would sound just like that.
Finally he took a draught at the Shaker spring, and, as if it were
the true Castalia, was forthwith moved to compose a lyric, a Farewell
to his Harp, which he swore should be its closing strain—the last
verse that an ungrateful world should have from him. This effusion,
with two or three other little pieces, subsequently written, he took
the first opportunity to send by one of the Shaker brethren to
Concord, where they were published in the New Hampshire Patriot.
Meantime, another of the Canterbury Pilgrims, one so different from
the poet, that the delicate fancy of the latter could hardly have
conceived of him, began to relate his sad experience. He was a small
man, of quick and unquiet gestures, about fifty years old, with a
narrow forehead, all wrinkled and drawn together. He held in his hand
a pencil, and a card of some commission merchant in foreign parts, on
the back of which—for there was light enough to read or write
by—he seemed ready to figure out a calculation.
"Young man," said he abruptly, "what quantity of land do the
Shakers own here, in Canterbury?"
"That is more than I can tell thee, friend," answered Josiah; "but
it is a very rich establishment, and for a long way by the road-side
thee may guess the land to be ours by the neatness of the fences."
"And what may be the value of the whole," continued the stranger,
"with all the buildings and improvements, pretty nearly, in round
"O, a monstrous sum, more than I can reckon," replied the young
"Well, sir," said the pilgrim, "there was a day, and not very long
ago, neither, when I stood at my counting-room window, and watched the
signal flags of three of my own ships entering the harbor, from the
East Indies, from Liverpool, and from up the Straits; and I would not
have given the invoice of the least of them for the title deeds of
this whole Shaker settlement. You stare. Perhaps, now, you won't
believe that I could have put more value on a little piece of paper,
no bigger than the palm of your hand, than all these solid acres of
grain, grass, and pasture land would sell for?"
"I won't dispute it, friend," answered Josiah, "but I know I had
rather have fifty acres of this good land, than a whole sheet of thy
"You may say so now," said the ruined merchant, bitterly, "for my
name would not be worth the paper I should write it on. Of course, you
must have heard of my failure?"
And the stranger mentioned his name, which, however mighty it might
have been in the commercial world, the young Shaker had never heard of
among the Canterbury hills.
"Not heard of my failure!" exclaimed the merchant, considerably
piqued. "Why, it was spoken of on 'Change in London, and from Boston
to New Orleans men trembled in their shoes. At all events I did fail,
and you see me here on my road to the Shaker village, where,
doubtless, (for the Shakers are a shrewd set,) they will have a due
respect for my experience, and give me the management of the trading
part of the concern, in which case, I think I can pledge myself to
double their capital in four or five years. Turn back with me, young
man, for though you will never meet with my good luck, you can hardly
escape my bad."
"I will not turn back for this," replied Josiah, calmly, "any more
than for the advice of the varse-maker, between whom and thee, friend,
I see a sort of likeness, though I can't justly say where it lies.
But Miriam and I can earn our daily bread among the world's people,
as well as in the Shaker village. And do we want any thing more,
"Nothing more, Josiah," said the girl quietly.
"Yea, Miriam, and daily bread for some other little mouths, if God
send them," observed the simple Shaker lad.
Miriam did not reply, but looked down into the spring, where she
encountered the image of her own pretty face, blushing within the prim
little bonnet. The third pilgrim now took up the conversation. He was
a sunburnt countryman, of tall frame and bony strength, on whose rude
and manly face there appeared a darker, more sullen and obstinate
despondency, than on those of either the poet or the merchant.
"Well now, youngster," he began, "these folks have had their say,
so I'll take my turn. My story will cut but a poor figure by the side
of theirs; for I never supposed that I could have a right to meat and
drink, and great praise besides, only for tagging rhymes together, as
it seems this man does; nor ever tried to get the substance of
hundreds into my own hands, like the trader there. When I was about of
your years, I married me a wife, just such a neat and pretty young
woman as Miriam, if that's her name; and all I asked of Providence was
an ordinary blessing on the sweat of my brow, so that we might be
decent and comfortable, and have daily bread for ourselves, and for
some other little mouths that we soon had to feed. We had no very
great prospects before us; but I never wanted to be idle, and I
thought it a matter of course that the Lord would help me, because I
was willing to help myself."
"And didn't He help thee, friend?" demanded Josiah, with some
"No," said the yeoman, sullenly; "for then you would not have seen
me here. I have labored hard for years; and my means have been growing
narrower, and my living poorer, and my heart colder and heavier, all
the time; till at last I could bear it no longer. I set myself down to
calculate whether I had best go on the Oregon expedition, or come here
to the Shaker village; but I had not hope enough left in me to begin
the world over again; and to make my story short, here I am. And now,
youngster, take my advice, and turn back; or else, some few years
hence, you'll have to climb this hill, with as heavy a heart as mine."
This simple story had a strong effect on the young fugitives. The
misfortunes of the poet and merchant had won little sympathy from
their plain good sense and unworldly feelings—qualities which made
them such unprejudiced and inflexible judges, that few men would have
chosen to take the opinion of this youth and maiden, as to the wisdom
or folly of their pursuits. But here was one whose simple wishes had
resembled their own, and who, after efforts which almost gave him a
right to claim success from fate, had failed in accomplishing them.
"But thy wife, friend?" exclaimed the young man. "What became of
the pretty girl, like Miriam?" "O, I am afraid she is dead!"
"Yea, poor man, she must be dead, she and the children too," sobbed
The female pilgrim had been leaning over the spring, wherein
latterly a tear or two might have been seen to fall, and form its
little circle on the surface of the water. She now looked up,
disclosing features still comely, but which had acquired an expression
of fretfulness, in the same long course of evil fortune that had
thrown a sullen gloom over the temper of the unprosperous yeoman.
"I am his wife," said she, a shade of irritability just perceptible
in the sadness of her tone. "These poor little things, asleep on the
ground, are two of our children. We had two more, but God has provided
better for them than we could, by taking them to himself."
"And what would thee advise Josiah and me to do?" asked Miriam,
this being the first question which she had put to either of the
"'Tis a thing almost against nature for a woman to try to part true
lovers," answered the yeoman's wife, after a pause; "but I'll speak as
truly to you as if these were my dying words. Though my husband told
you some of our troubles, he didn't mention the greatest, and that
which makes all the rest so hard to bear. If you and your sweetheart
marry, you'll be kind and pleasant to each other for a year or two,
and while that's the case, you never will repent; but by-and-by,
he'll grow gloomy, rough, and hard to please, and you'll be peevish,
and full of little angry fits, and apt to be complaining by the
fireside, when he comes to rest himself from his troubles out of
doors; so your love will wear away by little and little, and leave
you miserable at last. It has been so with us; and yet my husband and
I were true lovers once, if ever two young folks were."
As she ceased, the yeoman and his wife exchanged a glance, in which
there was more and warmer affection than they had supposed to have
escaped the frost of a wintry fate, in either of their breasts. At
that moment, when they stood on the utmost verge of married life, one
word fitly spoken, or perhaps one peculiar look, had they had mutual
confidence enough to reciprocate it, might have renewed all their old
feelings, and sent them back, resolved to sustain each other amid the
struggles of the world. But the crisis passed, and never came again.
Just then, also, the children, roused by their mother's voice, looked
up, and added their wailing accents to the testimony borne by all the
Canterbury Pilgrims, against the world from which they fled.
"We are tired and hungry," cried they. "Is it far to the Shaker
The Shaker youth and maiden looked mournfully into each other's
eyes. They had but stepped across the threshold of their homes, when,
lo! the dark array of cares and sorrows that rose up to warn them
back. The varied narratives of the strangers had arranged themselves
into a parable; they seemed not merely instances of woful fate that
had befallen others, but shadowy omens of disappointed hope, and
unavailing toil, domestic grief, and estranged affection, that would
cloud the onward path of these poor fugitives. But after one instant's
hesitation, they opened their arms, and sealed their resolve with as
pure and fond an embrace as ever youthful love had hallowed.
"We will not go back," said they. "The world never can be dark to
us, for we will always love one another."
Then the Canterbury Pilgrims went up the hill, while the poet
chanted a drear and desperate stanza of the Farewell to his
Harp—fitting music for that melancholy band. They sought a home
where all former ties of nature or society would be sundered, and all
old distinctions levelled, and a cold and passionless security be
substituted for moral hope and fear, as in that other refuge of the
world's weary out-casts, the grave. The lovers drank at the Shaker
spring, and then, with chastened hopes, but more confiding
affections, went on to mingle in an untried life.