Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant

SLEEP OF PAPANTZIN.

'TWAS then, one eve, when o'er the imperial lake
And all its cities, glittering in their pomp,
The lord of glory threw his parting smiles,
In Tlatelolco's palace, in her bower,
Papantzin lay reclined; sister of him
At whose name monarchs trembled. Yielding there
To musings various, o'er her senses crept
Or sleep or kindred death.
It seemed she stood
In an illimitable plain, that stretched
Its desert continuity around,
Upon the o'erwearied sight; in contrast strange
With that rich vale, where only she had dwelt,
Whose everlasting mountains, girdling it,
As in a chalice held a kingdom's wealth;
Their summits freezing, where the eagle tired,
But found no resting-place. Papantzin looked
On endless barrenness, and walked perplexed
Through the dull haze, along the boundless heath,
Page  31
Like some lone ghost in Mictlan's cheerless gloom
Debarred from light and glory.
Wandering thus,
She came where a great sullen river poured
Its turbid waters with a rushing sound
Of painful moans; as if the inky waves
Were hastening still on their complaining course
To escape the horrid solitudes. Beyond
What seemed a highway ran, with branching paths
Innumerous. This to gain, she sought to plunge
Straight in the troubled stream. For well she knew
To shun with agile limbs the current's force,
Nor feared the noise of waters. She had played
From infancy in her fair native lake,
Amid the gay plumed creatures floating round,
Wheeling for diving, with their changeful hues,
As fearless and as innocent as they.
A vision stayed her purpose. By her side
Stood a bright youth; and startling, as she gazed
On his effulgence, every sense was bound
In pleasing awe and in fond reverence.
For not Tezcatlipoca, as he shone
Upon her priest-led fancy, when from heaven
By filmy thread sustained he came to earth,
In his resplendent mail reflecting all
Its images, with dazzling portraiture,
Was, in his radiance and immortal youth,
A peer to this new god. His stature was
Like that of men; but matched with his, the port
Of kings tall dreaded was the crouching mien
Of suppliants at their feet. Serene the light
That floated round him, as the lineaments
It cased with its mild glory. Gravely sweet
The impression of his features, which to scan
Their lofty loveliness forbade: his eyes
She felt, but saw not: only, on his brow—
From over which, encircled by what seemed
Page  32
A ring of liquid diamond, in pure light
Revolving ever, backward flowed his locks
In buoyant, waving clusters—on his brow
She marked a CROSS described; and lowly bent,
She knew not wherefore, to the sacred sign.
From either shoulder mantled o'er his front
Wings dropping feathery silver; and his robe
Snow-white in the still air was motionless,
As that of chiselled god, or the pale shroud
Of some fear-conjured ghost.
Her hand he took,
And led her passive o'er the naked banks
Of that black stream, still murmuring angrily.
But, as he spoke, she heard its moans no more;
His voice seemed sweeter than the hymnings raised
By brave and gentle souls in Paradise,
To celebrate the outgoing of the sun
On his majestic progress over heaven.
"Stay, princess," thus he spoke, "thou mayst not yet
O'erpass these waters. Though thou knowest it not
Nor Him, God loves thee." So he led her on,
Unfainting, amid hideous sights and sounds;
For now, o'er scattered sculls and grisly bones
They walked; while underneath, before, behind,
Rise dolorous wails and groans protracted long,
Sobs of deep anguish, screams of agony,
And melancholy sighs, and the fierce yell
Of hopeless and intolerable pain.
Shuddering, as, in the gloomy whirlwind's pause
Through the malign, distempered atmosphere,
The second circle's purple blackness, passed
The pitying Florentine, who saw the shades
Of poor Francesca and her paramour;
The princess o'er the ghastly relics stepped,
Listening the frightful clamour; till a gleam,
Whose sickly and phosphoric lustre seemed
Kindled from these decaying bones, lit up
Page  33
The sable river. Then a pageant came
Over its obscure tides, of stately barks,
Gigantic, with their prows of quaint device,
Tall masts, and ghostly canvass, huge and high,
Hung in the unnatural light and lifeless air.
Grim bearded men, with stern and angry looks,
Strange robes, and uncouth armour, stood behind
Their galleries and bulwarks. One ship bore
A broad sheet pendant, where, inwrought with gold,
She marked the symbol that adorned the brow
Of her mysterious guide. Down the dark stream
Swept on the spectral fleet, in the false light
Flickering and fading. Louder then uprose
The roar of voices from the accursed strand.