Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant


Scene changes to the Ship—LEON reclining on a cushion—to him, enter ISABEL.
What wraps you thus, sweet brother? why so sad,
When thus, so trimly, speeds our swan-like bark
Upon the placid waters? You are sick,
And in your eye a dim abstraction lies,
Lacking all sense; and, as it were, at search
For airy speculations in the deep.
Why, thou art right: a speculation true,
For I behold naught that may speak for it,
And tell me whence it comes.
What is't thou say'st?
Stay but a moment! as I live, I heard it
Steal by me, like the whispers of a lute
From thy own lattice, Isabel.
Heard what?
What is it that thou speak'st of?
A sound—a strain,
Even as the softest music, heard afar,
At twilight, o'er our Andalusian hills,
From melancholy maiden, by me crept,
But now, upon the waters. They were tones
Slight as a spirit's whisperings; and, as far
As met my sense, they had a gentle voice,
Tremulous as an echo faintly made,
The replication of an infant's cry,
Thrown back from some rude mountain.
Thou dreamest.
Whence should such music come?
Ay, where or whence,
But from some green-haired maiden of the sea?
If thou believ'st me, Isabel, 'tis true;
I heard it even now, and syllabled
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Into familiar sounds, that conjured up
My boyhood's earliest dreams: of isles, that lie
In farthest depths of ocean; girt with all
Of natural wealth and splendour—jewell'd isles—
Boundless in unimaginable spoils,
That earth is stranger to.
Thou dreamest still:
Thy boyhood's legends carry thee away,
Till thou forgett'st the mighty difference
'Twixt those two worlds—the one, where nature toils,
The other she but dreams of.
I dream not:
I heard it visibly to the sense, and hark!
It comes again: dost thou not hear it now?
List now, dear Isabel.
I hear naught.
Surely I marked it then; I could not dream:
'Twas like the winds among a bed of reeds,
And spoke a deep, heart-melancholy sound,
That made me sigh when I heard it.
No more!
Thou art too led away by idle thoughts,
Dear Leon; and, I fear me, thou dost take
Too much the colour of the passing cloud,
Filling thy heart with shadowings, that mislead
Thy roving thoughts, already too much prone
To empty speculation.
I said not wrong:
My spirit trick'd me not: my sense was true.
I hear it now again. Far, far off, fine—
So delicate, as if some spirit form
Were for the first time murmuring into life,
And this its first complaining. Hearken now—
Nay, Isabel! thou dost not longer doubt—
Thy ears are traitors if they did not feel
The music as it came by us but now.
I heard a murmur truly, but so slight,
A breath of the wind might make it, or a sail
Drawn suddenly.
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Now, now, thou hast it there:
Thou dost not longer question. It is there
Spirit sings.
O'er the wide world of ocean
My home is afar,
Beyond its commotion,
I laugh at its war;
Yet by destiny bidden,
I cannot deny,
All night I have ridden
From my home in the sky.
In the billow before thee
My form is conceal'd,
In the breath that comes o'er thee
My thought is reveal'd;
Strown thickly beneath me
The coral rocks grow,
And the waves that enwreath me
Are working thee wo.
Did'st hear the strain it utter'd, Isabel?
All, all! It spoke, methought, of peril near,
From rocks and wiles of the ocean: did it not?
It did, but idly! Here can lurk no rocks;
For, by the chart which now before me lies,
Thy own unpractised eye may well discern
The wide extent of the ocean—shoreless all.
The land, for many a league, to th' eastward hangs,
And not a point beside it.
Wherefore, then,
Should come this voice of warning?
From the deep:
It hath its demons as the earth and air,
All tributaries to the master-fiend
That sets their springs in motion. This is one,
That, doubting to mislead us, plants this wile,
So to divert our course, that we may strike
The very rocks he fain would warn us from.
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A subtle sprite: and, now I think of it,
Dost thou remember the old story told
By Diaz Ortis, the lame mariner,
Of an adventure in the Indian Seas,
Where he made one with John of Portugal,
Touching a woman of the ocean wave,
That swam beside the barque, and sang strange songs
Of riches in the waters; with a speech
So winning on the senses, that the crew
Grew all infected with the melody;
And, but for a good father of the church,
Who made the sign of the cross, and offer'd up
Befitting pray'rs, which drove the fiend away,
They had been tempted by her cunning voice
To leap into the ocean.
I do, I do!
And, at the time, I do remember me,
I made much mirth of the extravagant tale,
As a deceit of the reason: the old man
Being in his second childhood, and at fits
Wild, as you know, on other themes than this.
I never more shall mock at marvellous things,
Such strange conceits hath after-time found true,
That once were themes for jest. I shall not smile
At the most monstrous legend.
Nor will I:
To any tale of mighty wonderment
I shall bestow my ear, nor wonder more;
And every fancy that my childhood bred,
In vagrant dreams of frolic, I shall look
To have, without rebuke, my sense approve.
Thus, like a little island in the sea,
Girt in by perilous waters, and unknown
To all adventure, may be yon same cloud,
Specking, with fleecy bosom, the blue sky,
Lit by the rising moon. There we may dream,
And find no censure in an after day—
Throng the assembled fairies, perch'd on beams,
And riding on their way triumphantly.
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There gather the coy spirits. Many a fay,
Roving the silver sands of that same isle,
Floating in azure ether, plumes her wing
Of ever-frolicsome fancy, and pursues—
While myriads, like herself, do watch the chase—
Some truant sylph, through the infinitude
Of their uncircumscribed and rich domain.
There sport they through the night, with mimicry
Of strife and battle; striking their tiny shields
And gathering into combat; meeting fierce,
With lip compress'd and spear aloft, and eye
Glaring with fight and desperate circumstance;
Then sudden—in a moment all their wrath,
Mellow'd to friendly terms of courtesy—
Throwing aside the dread army, and linked,
Each, in his foe's embrace. Then comes the dance
The grateful route, the wild and musical pomp,
The long procession o'er fantastic realms
Of cloud and moonbeam, through th' enamoured night,
Making it all one revel. Thus the eye,
Breathed on by fancy, with enlarged scope,
Through the protracted and deep hush of night
May note the fairies, coursing the lazy hours.
In various changes and without fatigue.
A fickle race, who tell their time by flow'rs,
And live on zephyrs, and have stars for lamps,
And night-dews for ambrosia; perch'd on beams,
Speeding through space, even with the scattering light
On which they feed and frolic.
A sweet dream:
And yet, since this same tale we laughed at once,
The story of old Ortis, is made sooth—
Perchance not all a dream. I will not doubt.
And yet there may be, dress'd in subtle guise
Of unsuspected art, some gay deceit
Of human conjuration mix'd with this.
Some cunning seaman having natural skill—
As, from the books, we learn may yet be done—
Hath 'yond our vessel's figure pitched his voice,
Leading us wantonly.
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It is not so,
Or does my sense deceive? Look there: the wave
A perch beyond our barque. What dost thou see?
A marvellous shape, that with the billow curls,
In gambols of the deep, and yet is not
Its wonted burden; for beneath the waves
I mark a gracious form, though nothing clear
Of visage I discern. Again it speaks.