Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant
FAIR Ellen was long the delight of the young,
No damsel could with her compare;
Her charms were the theme of the heart and the tongue,
And bards without number in ecstasies sung,
The beauties of Ellen the fair.
Yet cold was the maid; and though legions advanced,
All drill'd by Ovidean art,
And languish'd and ogled, protested and danced,
Like shadows they came, and like shadows they glanced
From the hard-polish'd ice of her heart.
Yet still did the heart of fair Ellen implore
A something that could not be found;
Like a sailor she seem'd on a desolate shore,
With nor house, nor a tree, nor a sound but the roar
Of breakers high dashing around.
From object to object still, still would she veer,
Though nothing, alas! could she find;
Like the moon, without atmosphere, brilliant and clear,
Yet doom'd, like the moon, with no being to cheer
The bright barren waste of her mind.
But rather than sit like a statue so still
When the rain made her mansion a pound,
Up and down would she go, like the sails of a mill,
And pat every stair, like a woodpecker's bill,
From the tiles of the roof to the ground.
One morn, as the maid from her casement inclined,
Pass'd a youth with a frame in his hand.
The casement she closed—not the eye of her mind;
For, do all she could, no, she could not be blind;
Still before her she saw the youth stand.
"Ah, what can he do," said the languishing maid,
"Ah, what with that frame can he do?"
And she knelt to the goddess of Secrets and pray'd,
When the youth pass'd again, and again he display'd
The frame and a picture to view.
"Oh, beautiful picture!" the fair Ellen cried,
"I must see thee again or I die."
Then under her white chin her bonnet she tied,
And after the youth and the picture she hied,
When the youth, looking back, met her eye.
"Fair damsel," said he (and he chuckled the while),
"This picture I see you admire:
Then take it, I pray you, perhaps 'twill beguile
Some moments of sorrow (nay, pardon my smile);
Or at least keep you home by the fire."
Then Ellen the gift with delight and surprise
From the cunning young stripling received.
But she knew not the poison that enter'd her eyes,
When, sparkling with rapture, they gazed on her prize—
Thus, alas, are fair maidens deceived!
'Twas a youth o'er the form of a statue inclined,
And the sculptor he seem'd of the stone;
Yet he languish'd as though for its beauty he pined,
And gazed as the eyes of the statue so blind
Reflected the beams of his own.
'Twas the tale of the sculptor Pygmalion of old;
Fair Ellen remember'd and sigh'd;
"Ah, couldst thou but lift from that marble so cold,
Thine eyes too imploring, thy arms should enfold,
And press me this day as thy bride."
She said: when, behold, from the canvass arose
The youth, and he stepp'd from the frame:
With a furious transport his arms did enclose
The love-plighted Ellen: and, clasping, he froze
The blood of the maid with his flame!
She turn'd and beheld on each shoulder a wing.
"Oh, heaven?" cried she, "who art thou?"
From the roof to the ground did his fierce answer ring,
As, frowning, he thunder'd "I am the PAINT-KING!
And mine, lovely maid, thou art now!"
Then high from the ground did the grim monster lift
The loud-screaming maid like a blast;
And he sped through the air like a meteor swift,
While the clouds, wand'ring by him, did fearfully drift
To the right and the left as he pass'd.
Now suddenly sloping his hurricane flight,
With an eddying whirl he descends;
The air all below him becomes black as night,
And the ground where he treads, as if moved with affright,
Like the surge of the Caspian bends.
"I am here!" said the fiend, and he thundering knock'd
At the gates of a mountainous cave;
The gates open flew, as by magic unlock'd,
While the peaks of the mount, reeling to and fro, rock'd
Like an island of ice on the wave.
"Oh, mercy!" cried Ellen, and swoon'd in his arms,
But the PAINT-KING he scoff'd at her pain.
"Prithee, love," said the monster, "what mean these alarms?"
She hears not, she sees not the terrible charms,
That work her to horror again.
She opens her lids, but no longer her eyes
Behold the fair youth she would woo;
Now appears the PAINT-KING in his natural guise;
His face, like a palette of villanous dyes,
Black and white, red and yellow, and blue.
On the scull of a Titan, that Heaven defied,
Sat the fiend, like the grim giant Gog,
While aloft to his mouth a huge pipe he applied,
Twice as big as the Eddystone lighthouse, descried
As it looms through an easterly fog.
And anon, as he puff'd the vast volumes, were seen,
In horrid festoons on the wall,
Legs and arms, heads and bodies emerging between,
Like the drawing-room grim of the Scotch Sawney Beane,
By the devil dress'd out for a ball.
"Ah me!" cried the damsel, and fell at his feet.
"Must I hang on these walls to be dried?"
"Oh, no!" said the fiend, while he sprung from his seat,
"A far nobler fortune thy person shall meet;
Into paint will I grind thee, my bride!"
Then seizing the maid by her dark auburn hair,
An oil jug he plunged her within.
Seven days, seven nights, with the shrieks of despair,
Did Ellen in torment convulse the dun air,
All covered with oil to the chin.
On the morn of the eighth, on a huge sable stone,
Then Ellen, all reeking, he laid;
With a rock for his muller he crush'd every bone,
But, though ground to jelly, still, still did she groan,
For life had forsook not the maid.
Now reaching his palette, with masterly care
Each tint on its surface he spread;
The blue of her eyes, and the brown of her hair,
And the pearl and the white of her forehead so fair,
And her lips' and her cheeks' rosy red.
Then, stamping his foot, did the monster exclaim,
"Now I brave, cruel Fairy, thy scorn!"
When lo! from a chasm wide-yawning there came
A light tiny chariot of rose-colour'd flame,
By a team of ten glow-worms upborne.
Enthroned in the midst on an emerald bright,
Fair Geraldine sat without peer;
Her robe was a gleam of the first blush of light,
And her mantle the fleece of a noon-cloud white,
And a beam of the moon was her spear.
In an accent that stole on the still charmed air
Like the first gentle language of Eve,
Thus spake from her chariot the fairy so fair:
"I come at thy call, but, oh Paint-King, beware,
Beware if again you deceive."
"'Tis true," said the monster, "thou queen of my heart,
Thy portrait I oft have essay'd;
Yet ne'er to the canvass could I with my art
The least of thy wonderful beauties impart;
And my failure with scorn you repaid.
"Now I swear by the light of the Comet-King's tail!"
And he tower'd with pride as he spoke,
"If again with these magical colours I fail,
The crater of Etna shall hence be my jail,
And my ford shall be sulphur and smoke.
"But if I succeed, then, oh, fair Geraldine!
Thy promise with justice I claim,
And thou, queen of fairies, shalt ever be mine,
The bride of my bed; and thy portrait divine
Shall fill all the earth with my fame."
He spake; when, behold, the fair Geraldine's form
On the canvass enchantingly glow'd;
His touches—they flew like the leaves in a storm;
And the pure pearly white and the carnation warm
Contending in harmony flow'd.
And now did the portrait a twin-sister seem
To the figure of Geraldine fair:
With the same sweet expression did faithfully teem
Each muscle, each feature; in short, not a gleam
Was lost of her beautiful hair.
'Twas the fairy herself! but alas! her blue eyes
Still a pupil did ruefully lack;
And who shall describe the terrific surprise
That seized the PAINT-KING when, behold, he descries
Not a speck on his palette of black!
"I am lost!" said the fiend, and he shook like a leaf;
When, casting his eyes to the ground,
He saw the lost pupils of Ellen with grief
In the jaws of a mouse, and the sly little thief
Whisk away from his sight with a bound.
"I am lost!" said the fiend, and he fell like a stone;
Then rising, the fairy, in ire,
With a touch of her finger she loosen'd her zone
(While the limbs on the wall gave a terrible groan),
And she swelled to a column of fire.
Her spear now a thunder-bolt flash'd in the air,
And sulphur the vault fill'd around:
She smote the grim monster; and now by the hair,
High-lifting, she hurl'd him in speechless despair
Down the depths of the chasm profound.