Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant

WAKING OF PAPANTZIN IN THE SEPULCHRE.

She woke in darkness and in solitude.
Slow passed her lethargy away, and long
To her half-dreaming eye that brilliant sign
Distinct appeared. Then damp and close she felt
The air around, and knew the poignant smell
Of spicy herbs collected and confined.
As those awakening from some troubled trance
Are wont, she would have learned by touch if yet
The spirit to the body was allied.
Strange hindrances prevented. O'er her face
A mask thick-plated lay—and round her swathed
Was many a costly and encumbering robe,
Such as she wore on some high festival,
O'erspread with precious gems, rayless and cold,
That now pressed hard and sharp against her touch.
The cumbrous collar round her slender neck,
Of gold thick studded with each valued stone
Earth and the sea-depths yield for human pride—
The bracelets and the many-twisted rings
That girt her taper limbs, coil upon coil—
What were they in this dungeon's solitude?
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The plumy coronal that would have sprung
Light from her fillet in the purer air,
Waving in mockery of the rainbow tints,
Now drooping low, and steeped in clogging dews,
Oppressive hung. Groping in dubious search,
She found the household goods, the spindle, broom,
Gicalli quaintly sculptured, and the jar
That held the useless beverage for the dead.
By these, and by the jewel to her lip
Attached, the emerald symbol of the soul,
In its green life immortal, soon she knew
Her dwelling was a sepulchre.
She loosed
The mask, and from her feathery bier uprose,
Casting away the robe, which like long alb
Wrapped her; and with it many an aloe leaf,
Inscribed with Azteck characters and signs,
To guide the spirit where the serpent hissed,
Hills towered, and deserts spread, and keen winds blew,
And many a "flower of death;" though their frail leaves
Were yet unwithered. For the living warmth
Which in her dwelt, their freshness had preserved;
Else, if corruption had begun its work,
The emblems of quick change would have survived
Her beauty's semblance. What is beauty worth,
If the cropp'd flower retains its tender bloom
When foul decay has stolen the latest lines
Of loveliness in death? Yet even now
Papantzin knew that her exuberant locks—
Which, unconfined, had round her flowed to earth,
Like a stream rushing down some rocky steep,
Threaded ten thousand channels—had been shorn
Of half their waving length, and liked it not.
But through a crevice soon she marked a gleam
Of rays uncertain; and, with staggering steps,
But strong in reckless dreaminess, while still
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Presided o'er the chaos of her thoughts
The revelation that upon her soul
Dwelt with its power, she gained the cavern's throat,
And pushed the quarried stone aside, and stood
In the free air, and in her own domain.
But now obscurely o'er her vision swam
The beauteous landscape, with its thousand tints
And changeful views; long alleys of bright trees
Bending beneath their fruits; espaliers gay
With tropic flowers and shrubs that filled the breeze
With odorous incense, basins vast, where birds
With shining plumage sported, smooth canals
Leading the glassy wave, or towering grove
Of forest veterans. On a rising bank,
Her seat accustomed, near a well hewn out
From ancient rocks into which waters gushed
From living springs, where she was wont to bathe,
She threw herself to muse. Dim on her sight
The imperial city and its causeways rose,
With the broad lake and all its floating isles
And glancing shallops, and the gilded pomp
Of princely barges, canopied with plumes
Spread fanlike, or with tufted pageantry
Waving magnificent. Unmarked around
The frequent huitzilin, with murmuring hum
Of ever-restless wing, and shrill sweet note,
Shot twinkling, with the ruby star that glowed
Over his tiny bosom, and all hues
That loveliest seem in heaven, with ceaseless change,
Flashing from his fine films. And all in vain
Untiring, from the rustling branches near,
Poured the Centzontli all his hundred strains
Of imitative melody. Not now
She heeded them. Yet pleasant was the shade
Of palms and cedars; and through twining boughs
And fluttering leaves, the subtle god of air,
The serpent armed with plumes, most welcome crept,
And fanned her cheek with kindest ministry.
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A dull and dismal sound came booming on;
A solemn, wild, and melancholy noise,
Shaking the tranquil air; and afterward
A clash and jangling, barbarously prolonged,
Torturing the unwilling car, rang dissonant.
Again the unnatural thunder rolled along,
Again the crash and clamour followed it.
Shuddering she heard, who knew that every peal
From the dread gong, announced a victim's heart
Torn from his breast, and each triumphant clang,
A mangled corse down the great temple's stairs
Hurled headlong; and she knew, as lately taught,
How vengeance was ordained for cruelty;
How pride would end; and uncouth soldiers tread
Through bloody furrows o'er her pleasant groves
And gardens; and would make themselves a road
Over the dead, choking the silver lake,
And cast the battered idols down the steps
That climbed their execrable towers, and raze
Sheer from the ground Ahuitzol's mighty pile.