Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant
WILLIAM C. BRYANT.
THOU unrelenting Past!
Strong are the barriers round thy dark domain,
And fetters, sure and fast,
Hold all that enter thy unbreathing reign.
Far in thy realm withdrawn
Old empires sit in sullenness and gloom,
And glorious ages gone
Lie deep within the shadow of thy womb.
Childhood, with all its mirth,
Youth, manhood, age, that draws us to the ground,
And last, man's life on earth,
Glide to thy dim dominions, and are bound.
Thou hast my better years,
Thou hast my earlier friends—the good—the kind,
Yielded to thee with tears—
The venerable form—the exalted mind.
My spirit yearns to bring
The lost ones back: yearns with desire intense,
And struggles hard to wring
The bolts apart, and pluck thy captives thence.
In vain: thy gates deny
All passage save to those who hence depart;
Nor to the streaming eye
Thou giv'st them back, nor to the broken heart.
In thy abysses hide
Beauty and excellence unknown: to thee
Earth's wonder and her pride
Are gather'd, as the waters to the sea;
Labours of good to man,
Unpublish'd charity, unbroken faith:
Love, that midst grief began,
And grew with years, and falter'd not in death.
Full many a mighty name
Lurks in thy depths, unutter'd, unrevered;
With thee are silent fame,
Forgotten arts, and wisdom disappear'd.
Thine for a space are they:
Yet shalt thou yield thy treasures up at last;
Thy gates shall yet give way,
Thy bolts shall fall, inexorable Past!
All that of good and fair
Has gone into thy womb from earliest time,
Shall then come forth, to wear
The glory and the beauty of its prime.
They have not perish'd—no!
Kind words, remember'd voices once so sweet,
Smiles, radiant long ago,
And features, the great soul's apparent seat,
All shall come back; each tie
Of pure affection shall be knit again;
Alone shall Evil die,
And Sorrow dwell a prisoner in thy reign.
THESE are the gardens of the desert, these
The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,
For which the speech of England has no name—
The Prairies. I behold them for the first,
And my heart swells, while the dilated sight
Takes in the encircling vastness. Lo! they stretch
In airy undulations, far away,
As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell,
Stood still, with all his rounded billows fix'd,
And motionless for ever. Motionless?
No, they are all unchain'd again. The clouds
Sweep over with their shadows, and, beneath,
The surface rolls and fluctuates to the eye;
Dark hollows seem to glide along, and chase
The sunny ridges. Breezes of the South!
Who toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,
And pass the prairie-hawk, that, poised on high,
Flaps his broad wings, yet moves not—ye have play'd
Among the palms of Mexico and vines
Of Texas, and have crisp'd the limpid brooks
That from the fountains of Sonora glide
Into the calm Pacific—have ye fann'd
A nobler or a lovelier scene than this?
Man hath no part in all this glorious work:
The hand that built the firmament hath heaved
And smooth'd these verdant swells, and sown their slopes
With herbage, planted them with island groves,
And hedged them round with forests. Fitting floor
For this magnificent temple of the sky—Page 207
With flowers whose glory and whose multitude
Rival the constellations! The great heavens
Seem to stoop down upon the scene in love—
A nearer vault, and of a tenderer blue,
Than that which bends above the eastern hills.
As o'er the verdant waste I guide my steed,
Among the high, rank grass that sweeps his sides,
The hollow beating of his footstep seems
A sacrilegious sound. I think of those
Upon whose rest he tramples. Are they here—
The dead of other days? and did the dust
Of these fair solitudes once stir with life
And burn with passion? Let the mighty mounds
That overlook the rivers, or that rise
In the dim forest, crowded with old oaks,
Answer. A race, that long has pass'd away,
Built them; a disciplined and populous race
Heap'd, with long toil, the earth, while yet the Greek
Was hewing the Pentelicus to forms
Of symmetry, and rearing on its rock
The glittering Parthenon. These ample fields
Nourish'd their harvests, here their herds were fed,
When haply by their stalls the bison low'd,
And bow'd his maned shoulder to the yoke.
All day this desert murmur'd with their toils,
Till twilight blush'd, and lovers walk'd, and wooed
In a forgotten language, and old tunes,
From instruments of unremember'd form,
Gave the soft winds a voice. The red man came—
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanish'd from the earth.
The solitude of centuries untold
Has settled where they dwelt. The prairie-wolf
Hunts in their meadows, and his fresh-dug den
Yawns by my path. The gopher mines the ground
Where stood their swarming cities. All is gone—
All—save the piles of earth that hold their bones—
The platforms where they worshipp'd unknown gods—Page 208
The barriers which they builded from the soil
To keep the foe at bay—till o'er the walls
The wild beleaguerers broke, and, one by one,
The strongholds of the plain were forced and heap'd
With corpses. The brown vultures of the wood
Flock'd to those vast uncover'd sepulchres,
And sat, unscared and silent, at their feast.
Haply some solitary fugitive,
Lurking in marsh and forest, till the sense
Of desolation and of fear became
Bitterer than death, yielded himself to die.
Man's better nature triumph'd. Kindly words
Welcomed and sooth'd him; the rude conquerors
Seated the captive with their chiefs; he chose
A bride among their maidens, and at length
Seem'd to forget—yet ne'er forgot—the wife
Of his first love, and her sweet little ones
Butcher'd, amid their shrieks, with all his race.
Thus change the forms of being. Thus arise
Races of living things, glorious in strength,
And perish, as the quickening breath of God
Fills them, or is withdrawn. The red man, too,
Has left the blooming wilds he ranged so long,
And, nearer to the Rocky Mountains, sought
A wider hunting-ground. The beaver builds
No longer by these streams, but far away,
On waters whose blue surface ne'er gave back
The white man's face; among Missouri's springs,
And pools whose issues swell the Oregon,
He rears his little Venice. In these plains
The bison feeds no more. Twice twenty leagues
Beyond remotest smoke of hunter's camp,
Roams the majestic brute, in herds that shake
The earth with thundering steps; yet here I meet
His ancient footprints stamp'd beside the pool.
Still this great solitude is quick with life.
Myriads of insects, gaudy as the flowers
They flutter over, gentle quadrupeds,
And birds that scarce have learn'd the fear of man,Page 209
Are here, and sliding reptiles of the ground,
Startlingly beautiful. The graceful deer
Bounds to the wood at my approach. The bee,
A more adventurous colonist than man,
With whom he came across the eastern deep,
Fills the savannas with his murmurings,
And hides his sweets, as in the golden age,
Within the hollow oak. I listen long
To his domestic hum, and think I hear
The sound of that advancing multitude
Which soon shall fill the deserts. From the ground
Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice
Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn
Of Sabbath worshippers. The low of herds
Blends with the rustling of the heavy grain
Over the dark-brown furrows. All at once
A freshet wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream,
And I am in the wilderness alone.
THIS little rill that, from the springs
Of yonder grove, its current brings,
Plays on the slope a while, and then
Goes prattling into groves again,
Oft to its warbling waters drew
My little feet, when life was new.
When woods in early green were dress'd,
And from the chambers of the west
The warmer breezes, travelling out,
Breathed the new scent of flowers about,
My truant steps from home would stray,
Upon its grassy side to play,
List the brown-thrasher's vernal hymn,
And crop the violet on its brim,
With blooming cheek and open brow,
As young and gay, sweet rill, as thou.
And when the days of boyhood came,
And I had grown in love with fame,
Duly I sought thy banks, and tried
My first rude numbers by thy side.
Words cannot tell how bright and gay
The scenes of life before me lay.
Then glorious hopes, that now to speak.
Would bring the blood into my cheek,
Pass'd o'er me; and I wrote, on high,
A name I deem'd should never die.
Years change thee not. Upon yon hill
The tall old maples, verdant still,
Yet tell, in grandeur of decay,
How swill the years have pass'd away,
Since first, a child, and half afraid,
I wander'd in the forest shade.
Thou, ever joyous rivulet,
Dost dimple, leap, and prattle yet;
And sporting with the sands that pave
The windings of thy silver wave,
And dancing to thy own wild chime,
Thou laughest at the lapse of time.
The same sweet sounds are in my ear
My early childhood loved to hear;
As pure thy limpid waters run,
As bright they sparkle to the sun;
As fresh and thick the bending ranks
Of herbs that line thy oozy banks;
The violet there, in soft May dew,
Comes up, as modest and as blue;
As green amid thy current's stress
Floats the scarce-rooted watercress;
And the brown ground-bird, in thy glen,
Still chirps as merrily as then.
Thou changest not—but I am changed
Since first thy pleasant banks I ranged;
And the grave stranger, come to see
The play-place of his infancy,Page 211
Has scarce a single trace of him
Who sported once upon thy brim.
The visions of my youth are past—
Too bright, too beautiful to last.
I've tried the world: it wears no more
The colouring of romance it wore.
Yet well has Nature kept the truth
She promised to my earliest youth.
The radiant beauty, shed abroad
On all the glorious works of God,
Shows freshly, to my sober'd eye,
Each charm it wore in days gone by.
A few brief years shall pass away,
And I, all trembling, weak, and gray,
Bow'd to the earth, which waits to fold.
My ashes in the embracing mould
(If haply the dark will of fate
Indulge my life so long a date),
May come for the last time to look
Upon my childhood's favourite brook.
Then dimly on my eye shall gleam
The sparkle of thy dancing stream;
And faintly on my ear shall fall
Thy prattling current's merry call;
Yet shalt thou flow as glad and bright
As when thou met'st my infant sight.
And I shall sleep: and on thy side,
As ages after ages glide,
Children their early sports shall try,
And pass to hoary age and die.
But thou, unchanged from year to year,
Gayly shalt play and glitter here;
Amid young flowers and tender grass
Thy endless infancy shalt pass;
And, singing down thy narrow glen,
Shalt mock the fading race of men.
"EARTH'S CHILDREN CLEAVE TO EARTH."
EARTH'S children cleave to earth: her frail,
Decaying children dread decay.
Yon wreath of mist that leaves the vale,
And lessens in the morning ray:
Look, how, by mountain rivulet,
It lingers, as it upward creeps,
And clings to fern and copsewood set
Along the green and dewy steps:
Clings to the fragrant kalmia, clings
To precipices fringed with grass,
Dark maples where the wood-thrush sings,
And bowers of fragrant sassafras.
Yet all in vain: it passes still
From hold to hold; it cannot stay;
And in the very beams that fill
The world with glory, wastes away.
Till, parting from the mountain's brow,
It vanishes from human eye,
And that which sprung of earth is now
A portion of the glorious sky.