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The Chamber over the Gate

August 23, 2016

By Henry Longfellow

One of Mrs Thatcher’s attractive features was her unpretentious love of poetry. She hardly ever quoted a line or title correctly, as she would if briefed to do so, but mangled it slightly, suggesting genuine mis-recollection. Philip Larkin was famously pleased that she mis-remembered the line “Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives”, calling Deceptions, the one in which that girl’s ‘mind was full of knives’. Here’s another occasion.

In the first volume of his official life (p 191) Charles Moore mentions a speech to the North Finchley Bible Society in 1966. Referring to the recent Aberfan disaster, and the horror of losing a child, she said that David’s lament for his dead son Absalom was a favourite Bible passage. But there isn’t much lament for Absalom in the Bible; just the single verse 2 Samuel 18, v 33.

“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Nor was she thinking of his lament over Saul and Jonathan, the one that ends “How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” Neither Saul nor Jonathan were David’s children. I bet she had this poem in mind.  The title refers to the the place where David went to grieve after the rebellious Absalom had been killed by the King’s own forces.

The Chamber over the Gate

Is it so far from thee
Thou canst no longer see
In the Chamber over the Gate
That old man desolate,
Weeping, and wailing sore
For his son, who is no more?
O Absalom, my son!

Is it so long ago
That cry of human woe
From the walled city came,
Calling on his dear name,
That it has died away
In the distance of to-day?
O Absalom, my son!

There is no far nor near,
There is neither there nor here,
There is neither soon nor late,
In that Chamber over the Gate,
Nor any long ago
To that cry of human woe,
O Absalom, my son!

From the ages that are past
The voice comes like a blast,
Over seas that wreck and drown,
Over tumult of traffic and town;
And from ages yet to be
Come the echoes back to me,
O Absalom, my son!

Somewhere at every hour
The watchman on the tower
Looks forth, and sees the fleet
Approach of the hurrying feet
Of messengers, that bear
The tidings of despair.
O Absalom, my son!

He goes forth from the door,
Who shall return no more.
With him our joy departs;
The light goes out in our hearts;
In the Chamber over the Gate
We sit disconsolate.
O Absalom, my son!

That ‘t is a common grief
Bringeth but slight relief;
Ours is the bitterest loss,
Ours is the heaviest cross;
And forever the cry will be
“Would God I had died for thee,
O Absalom, my son!

Henry Longfellow

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