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a framed portrait of Henry W. Longfellow

Henry W. Longfellow

February 27, 1807, Portland, Maine
March 24, 1882, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Poet, Professor

The Youth of Mary Stuart: A Hitherto Unpublished Essay1

There probably is not a name in all history which awakens an interest at once so deep and so universal as that of Mary Stuart. The history of many sovereigns only serves to render the triumphs of oblivion more complete; for not only their deeds and their existence are forgotten, but likewise the very records which were written to perpetuate them. Others have filled the world with their renown, and left a glorious name behind them. But their history is written for the politician and the scholar; it speaks to the intellect and not to the heart; the reader pauses to wonder, perhaps to admire; yet no trait of personal character calls forth the gentler sympathies and affections of his nature.

Not so the melancholy history of Mary Stuart. The lapse of a century and a half has not effaced a single line; every page still awakens those deep, mysterious sympathies which form the silent language of the soul, and as it were unite the present with the past, the living with the deal, and earth with the spirit-land. This mournful history searches the very soul. With those of gentler natures the sign and the unbidden tear bear their indignant testimony to the unmerited sufferings of the lovely and the innocent, and even in sterner hearts of those who sit in judgment and condemn the accused, emotions of compassionate tenderness arise and plead within them, “the unlined advocates for the conduct of the misguided.”

To the traveler who journeys along the valley of the Loire almost every object of note will recall the memory of the beautiful and unfortunate queen. Amid those very scenes some of the brightest and happiest days of her youth glided away, as swiftly and silently as the waters of the Loire, upon whose borders they were passed. Every valley and woodland awakens some pleasant though melancholy association; for it is one of the gentle ministries of Nature to call up the memory of the dead to the thoughts of the living; and thus, the kind almoner of her children, she asks the simple charity of a tear, or a passing recollection, for those whom she has gathered to her maternal bosom. Every old château likewise recalls her image. From yonder tower she looked forth upon groves and vineyards and the sheeted Loire; beneath this crumbling gateway she passed with her courtly train in all the pride of youth and beauty; through the woodlands of this now forsaken and solitary park she hunted the deer with hound and horn.

(In musings such as these the spirit of the past came before me. And as I recalled the eventful history of one upon whom providence bestowed the privileges of high worldly rank and the charms of personal beauty and superior intellect, and yet chastised by a life of sorrow and a death of shame, I could but read therein an illustrious example of the insufficiency of worldly rank or personal beauty or intellectual power to shield us from those trials and afflictions which, being our common and inevitable destiny here, are wisely intended as our education for hereafter.)

Mary Stuart was born at Linlithgow Castle in 1542. Her mother was Marie de Loraine-Guise; and at the time of her birth her father, the gallant and noble-hearted James the Fifth, the king of the poor, the “gude man o’ Ballangeich,” was lying upon his death-bed at the Palace of Falkland, in Fife. When the dying monarch heard of the birth of his daughter, when he heard that a daughter was to inherit the sceptre of the Stuarts, he exclaimed with a mournful voice, “Then farewell; it cam with ane lass, and it will pass with ane lass.” Shortly afterwards he expired. In the language of an old historian, “he turned him upon his back, and looked and beheld all his nobles and lords about him, and giving a little smile of laughter, kissed his hand and offered it to them, and when they had pressed it to their lips for the last time, he tossed up his arms, and yielded his spirit to God.” The last words of the dying monarch were prophetic; they but too truly foretold the mournful fate of his child.

The first two years of Mary’s life were passed at Linlithgow, and a greater part of the three succeeding years at Stirling Castle and at Inchmahome, an island in the lake of Monteith. In her fifth year she was sent into France, and placed, with the king’s daughters, at a convent to complete her elementary education. It is said that she left this retreat of her childhood for the splendors of a gay and fascinating court with tears of regret. Some historians have stated that the calm and peaceful life of the cloister had exercised so strong an influence upon her lively imagination that she wished to take the veil, and thus leave the world forever. If this be indeed true, it would almost seem that some invisible hand withheld her; that some guardian angel whispered within her its sad monitions, and filled the heart of this sweet child with a mournful presentiment of her coming doom.

At court the young princess pursued her studies with renewed ardor under the direction of her uncle, the Cardinal of Lorraine. When only ten years old she was well versed in French, Latin, and Italian; and, according to Brantôme, at the age of thirteen pronounced a Latin discourse before the king and his court, maintaining that females should be instructed in literature and the liberal arts. Her instructor in Latin was George Buchanan; in rhetoric, Claude Fauchet; Etienne Pasquier in history; and Pierre Ronsard in the study of poetry, which was one of her favorite pursuits. Though a part of each day was set aside for study, yet she entered with all the hilarity of a young heart into the gay and chivalrous pastimes of the French court, and took particular delight in the healthy and exhilarating exercise of the chase.

Thus ten happy years of Mary’s life stole rapidly away in the charms of study and the amusements of society. She was now in the fresh, full bloom of youthful beauty. In person she was tall and finely proportioned, with a carriage remarkable for its grace and dignity. Her auburn hair fell in natural ringlets over a high and intellectual forehead; her eyes were of a chestnut color, dark, clear, and expressive; her nose Grecian; her lips full and voluptuous; her chin round and dimpled; and skin of such dazzling whiteness that, in the language of her old historian Brantôme, “it outrivaled the whiteness of her veil.” The same historian speaks of her tuneful voice, her fort doux, mignard, et fort agréeable parler; and says that she sang well to the music of a lute, which she touched prettily with her fair white hand and delicate fingers.

The biographers of Mary have spoken much of her personal beauty, and of its effect upon those around her. (It is said that as she once walked through the streets of Paris a woman in the crowd exclaimed, “Are you not indeed an angel?”) The history of the unfortunate Chastelard is almost too well known to need repetition. He was an accomplished gentleman of Dauphiny, and great-nephew of the celebrated Chevalier Bayard, whom he is said to have resembled in person. He excelled in feats of arms and all athletic exercises, and was endowed by nature with a gallant and chivalrous spirit. He was, moreover, gentle in speech and skillful with the pen, and seems to have been a favorite among the court poets of the day. When the young queen returned to Scotland, he was one of her attendants. Deeply enamored of his mistress, and listening only to the promptings of an unbridled passion, he twice secreted himself in her bedchamber. The first offence was pardoned; the second cost him his life. He died, as his biographers expressed it, “par outrecuydance, et non pour crime.” His last words upon the scaffold were, “Adieu, la plus belle, et la plus cruelle princesse du monde.”

In the spring of 1558, when Mary had entered her sixteenth year, she was married to Francis the Second, then Dauphin of France, and but a year older than herself. The nuptials were celebrated in the church of Notre Dame in Paris; the most costly and sumptuous banquets were prepared in honor of the occasion; and universal rejoicing throughout the kingdom signalized an event, which may be regarded as the first in that disastrous series, whose termination was the bloody tragedy of a death upon the scaffold. Francis had been from his cradle a feeble and sickly child, with a spirit too nearly akin to the weak and enervated body which it animated. As if conscious of his own mental and physical inferiority, he shrunk away from the gaze of the world, and sought seclusion and the peace it gives the aching heart, like a wounded deer that seeks the silent shade, apart from the gallant herd of its fellows. He is spoken of in history as a meek and gentle spirit, and by deep and devoted affection he atoned for the want of that high intellect and noble bearing which should have marked the husband of Mary Stuart. Indeed, his love for her was not that of a prince, but that of a poet; and it was met by the kindred affection of a refined and gentle heart, which seems to have been created as the home and shelter of love; for then is truth in the distich of the old Italian poet,

To gentle hearts Love doth for shelter fly,
As seeks the bird the forest’s leafy shade.

In the following year King Henry the Second received his death-wound, at a tournament, from the spear of Count Montgomery, and shortly afterwards Francis was crowned at Rheims, and ascended the throne of France. By this unexpected event Mary Stuart saw herself suddenly exalted to a dizzy height of power. Queen of two kingdoms and in the bloom and loveliness of youth, she was the cynosure of all eyes. But the glorious and dazzling vision soon departed. The hand of disease weighed more heavily upon the fainting heart of Francis, and the shadow of death stalked gloomily amid the pageantry of a court. His throne was but a stepping-stone to the grave. In one short year the young queen beheld herself an orphan and a widow. The news of her mother’s death reached her at the very moment when her husband was expiring in her arms.

Stricken with this double misfortune, she retired from court to the house of a friend in the pleasant environs Orleans. Here in silence and solitude she wept the loss of those who had been most dear to her on earth. It was doubtless in this retirement that she composed that simple Elegy on her husband’s death, which seems inspired with all the sadness of recent bereavement:

In accents sad and low,

      And tones of soft lament,

I breathe the bitterness of woe,

      O’er this sad chastisement,

With many a mournful sigh

The days of youth steal by.

Was e’er such stern decree

      Of unrelenting fate?

Did merciless adversity

      E’er blight so fair a state,

As mine, whose heart and eye

In bier and coffin lie?

Who in the gentle spring

      And blossom of my years,

Must bear misfortune’s piercing sting,

      Sadness, and grief, and tears;

Thoughts, that alone inspire

Regrets and soft desire.

What once was blithe and gay

      Changed into grief I see;

The glad and glorious light of day

      Is darkness unto me.

The world—the world, has nought

That claims a passing thought.

Deep in my heart and eye

      A form and image shine,

Which shadow forth wan misery

      On this pale cheek of mine,

Tinged with the violet’s blue,

Which is Love’s favorite hue.

Where’er my footsteps stray,

      In mead or wooded vale,

Whether beneath the dawn of day,

      Or evening twilight pale,

Still, still my thoughts ascend,

To my departed friend.

If towards his home above,

      I raise my mournful sight,

I meet his gentle look of love

      In every cloud of white;

But straight the watery cloud

Changes to tomb and shroud.

When midnight hovers near,

      And slumber seals mine eyes,

His voice still whispers in mine ear,

      His form beside me lies.

In labor, in repose,

My heart his presence knows.

The year which followed these mournful events La Reine Blanche, as Mary Stuart was called, from her white mourning robes, returned to her native land—her heart filled with sad regrets and mournful forebodings. As the vessel which bore her away from her beloved France sailed from the port of Calais, an event occurred which tended to deepen in her sensitive and superstitious mind the presentiments of coming ill. A little bark which was gayly entering the harbor was wrecked in broad daylight, and sank with all her crew. The queen beheld the catastrophe from the deck of her galley, and turning to those around her, exclaimed, “Ah, mon Dieu! qual augure de voyage est cecy!”

As the vessel bounded on her course, and the shores of France grew distant and indistinct, the queen stood gazing back upon them with tearful eyes, mournfully exclaiming: “Adieu, France! Adieu, France!” At length the night closed in; and as the last faint vestige of land disappeared in the misty horizon, she exclaimed: “The hour is come, my beloved France, when I must lose you from my sight; for the night is jealous of the pleasure I enjoy in gazing upon you, and drops her dark veil before my eyes to shut out from me so great a blessing. Farewell, then, my beloved France; I shall never see you more.” Having commanded the helmsman to awake her at daybreak, if the land were still visible, she threw herself upon a couch that had been prepared for her on deck. During the night the wind died into a calm, and at daybreak the shore of France was still visible, stretching like a faint blue line in the horizon. The unhappy queen arose and gazed long and wistfully upon it, till it grew fainter and fainter and melted into the sea.

It was during this unwelcome passage that Mary Stuart composed that beautiful farewell to France which has been so often quoted:

Farewell, beloved France, to thee!

      Best native land,

      The cherished strand

That nursed my tender infancy!

Farewell my childhood’s happy day!

The bark, which bears me thus away,

      Bears but the poorer moiety hence,

The nobler half remains with thee,

      I leave it to thy confidence,

But to remind thee still of me!


  1. This essay was written by the poet in 1829, in connection with his duties as professor in Bowdoin College. The Original manuscript was in the possession of connections of the Longfellow family until a short time ago. The present owner is Dr. S. M. Miller, of New York city.