Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant
THE FORCE OF CURIOSITY.
How swells my theme! how vain my power I find,
To track the windings of the curious mind;
Let aught be hid, though useless, nothing boots,
Straightway it must be pluck'd up by the roots.Page 141
How oft we lay the volume down to ask
Of him, the victim in the Iron Mask;
The crusted medal rub with painful care,
To spell the legend out—that is not there;
With dubious gaze o'er mossgrown tombstones bend
To find a name—the herald never penned;
Dig through the lava-deluged city's breast,
Learn all we can, and wisely guess the rest:
Ancient or modern, sacred or profane,
All must be known, and all obscure made plain;
If 'twas a pippin tempted Eve to sin,
If glorious Byron drugged his muse with gin;
If Troy e'er stood, if Shakspeare stole a deer,
If Israel's missing tribes found refuge here;
If like a villain Captain Henry lied,
If like a martyr Captain Morgan died.
Its aim oft idle, lovely in its end,
We turn to look, then linger to befriend;
The maid of Egypt thus was led to save
A nation's future leader from the wave:
New things to hear when erst the Gentiles ran,
Truth closed what Curiosity began.
How many a noble art, now widely known,
Owes its young impulse to this power alone:
Even in its slightest working we may trace
A deed that changed the fortunes of a race;
Bruce, banned and hunted on his native soil,
With curious eye surveyed a spider's toil;
Six times the little climber strove and failed;
Six times the chief before his foes had quailed;
"Once more," he cried, "in thine my doom I read,
Once more I dare the fight if thou succeed;"
'Twas done: the insect's fate he made his own:
Once more the battle waged, and gained a throne.
Behold the sick man in his easy chair;
Barred from the busy crowd and bracing air,
How every passing trifle proves its power
To while away the long, dull, lazy hour.
As down the pane the rival rain-drops chase,
Curious he'll watch to see which wins the racePage 142
And let two dogs beneath his window fight,
He'll shut his Bible to enjoy the sight.
So with each newborn nothing rolls the day,
Till some kind neighbour, stumbling in his way,
Draws up his chair, the sufferer to amuse,
And makes him happy while he tells—The News.
The News! our morning, noon, and evening cry;
Day unto day repeats it till we die.
For this the cit, the critic, and the fop,
Dally the hour away in Tonsor's shop;
For this the gossip takes her daily route,
And wears your threshold and your patience out,
For this we leave the parson in the lurch,
And pause to prattle on the way to church;
Even when some coffin'd friend we gather round,
We ask, "What news?" then lay him in the ground;
To this the breakfast owes its sweetest zest,
For this the dinner cools, the bed remains unpress'd.
THE TRAVELLER'S FATE.
UNDRAW yon curtain, look within that room,
Where all is splendour, yet where all is gloom:
Why weeps that mother? why, in pensive mood,
Group noiseless round, that little, lovely brood?
The battledore is still, lain by each book,
And the harp slumbers in its 'custom'd nook.
Who hath done this? what cold, unpitying foe,
Hath made his house the dwelling-place of wo?
'Tis he, the husband, father, lost in care,
O'er that sweet fellow in his cradle there:
The gallant bark that rides by yonder strand,
Bears him to-morrow from his native land.
Why turns he, half unwilling, from his home,
To tempt the ocean and the earth to roam?
Wealth he can boast, a miser's sigh would hush,
And health is laughing in that ruddy blush;Page 143
Friends spring to greet him, and he has no foe—
So honour'd and so bless'd, what bids him go?
His eye must see, his foot each spot must tread,
Where sleeps the dust of earth's recorded dead;
Where rise the monuments of ancient time,
Pillar and pyramid in age sublime:
The pagan's temple and the churchman's tower,
War's bloodiest plain, and Wisdom's greenest bower;
All that his wonder woke in schoolboy themes,
All that his fancy fired in youthful dreams:
Where Socrates once taught he thirsts to stray,
Where Homer poured his everlasting lay;
From Virgil's tomb he longs to pluck one flower.
By Avon's stream to live one moonlight hour;
To pause where England "garners up" her great,
And drop a patriot's tear to Milton's fate;
Fame's living masters, too, he must behold,
Whose deeds shall blazon with the best of old:
Nations compare, their laws and customs scan,
And read, wherever spread, the book of Man;
For these he goes, self-banish'd from his hearth,
And wrings the hearts of all he loves on earth.
Yet say, shall not new joy those hearts inspire,
When grouping round the future winter fire,
To hear the wonders of the world they burn,
And lose his absence in his glad return?
Return? alas! he shall return no more,
To bless his own sweet home, his own proud shore
Look once again: cold in his cabin now,
Death's finger-mark is on his pallid brow;
No wife stood by, her patient watch to keep,
To smile on him, then turn away to weep;
Kind woman's place rough mariners supplied,
And shared the wanderer's blessing when he died.
Wrapp'd in the raiment that it long must wear,
His body to the deck they slowly bear;
Even there the spirit that I sing is true,
The crew look on with sad but curious view;
The setting sun flings round his farewell rays,
O'er the broad ocean not a ripple plays;Page 144
How eloquent, how awful in its power,
The silent lecture of death's sabbath-hour:
One voice that silence breaks—the prayer is said,
And the last rite man pays to man is paid;
The plashing water marks his resting-place,
And fold him round in one long, cold embrace;
Bright bubbles for a moment sparkle o'er,
Then break, to be, like him, beheld no more;
Down, countless fathoms down, he sinks to sleep,
With all the nameless shapes that haunt the deep.
I SEE THEE STILL.
I SEE thee still:
Remembrance, faithful to her trust,
Calls thee in beauty from the dust;
Thou comest in the morning light,
Thou'rt with me through the gloomy night;
In dreams I meet thee as of old;
Then thy soft arms my neck enfold,
And thy sweet voice is in my ear;
In every scene to memory dear,
I see thee still.
I see thee still,
In every hallow'd token round;
This little ring thy finger bound,
This lock of hair thy forehead shaded,
This silken chain by thee was braided,
These flowers, all withered now, like thee,
Sweet sister, thou didst cull for me;Page 145
This book was thine, here didst thou read;
This picture, ah! yes, here, indeed,
I see thee still.
I see thee still:
Here was thy summer noon's retreat,
Here was thy favourite fireside seat;
This was thy chamber—here, each day,
I sat and watch'd thy sad decay;
Here, on this bed, thou last didst lie,
Here, on this pillow, thou didst die:
Dark hour! once more its woes unfold;
As then I saw thee, pale and cold,
I see thee still.
I see thee still:
Thou art not in the grave confined—
Death cannot claim the immortal Mind;
Let Earth close o'er its sacred trust,
But goodness dies not in the dust;
Thee, oh! my sister, 'tis not thee
Beneath the coffin's lid I see;
Thou to a fairer land art gone:
There, let me hope, my journey done,
To see thee still!
THE FAMILY MEETING.
Written on occasion of the accidental meeting of all the surviving members of a family.
WE are all here!
All who hold each other dear.
Each chair is filled—we're all at home:
To-night let no cold stranger come:
It is not often thus around
Our old familiar hearth we're found:Page 146
Bless, then, the meeting and the spot;
For once be every care forgot;
Let gentle Peace assert her power,
And kind Affection rule the hour;
We're all—all here.
We're not all here!
Some are away—the dead ones dear,
Who thronged with us this ancient hearth,
And gave the hour to guiltless mirth.
Fate, with a stern, relentless hand,
Looked in and thinned our little band:
Some like a night-flash passed away,
And some sank, lingering, day by day;
The quiet graveyard—some lie there—
And cruel Ocean has his share—
We're not all here.
We are all here!
Even they—the dead—though dead, so dear;
Fond Memory, to her duty true,
Brings back their faded forms to view.
How life-like, through the mist of years.
Each well-remembered face appears!
We see them as in times long past,
From each to each kind looks are cast;
We hear their words, their smiles behold,
They're round us as they were of old—
We are all here.
We are all here!
You that I love with love so dear.
This may not long of us be said;
Soon must we join the gathered dead;
And by the hearth we now sit round,
Some other circle will be found.
Oh! then, that wisdom may we know,
Which yields a life of peace below;Page 147
So, in the world to follow this,
May each repeat, in words of bliss,
We're all—all here!
THE WINGED WORSHIPPERS.
Two swallows, having flown into church during divine service, were apostrophized in the following stanzas.
GAY, guiltless pair,
What seek ye from the fields of heaven?
Ye have no need of prayer,
Ye have no sins to be forgiven.
Why perch ye here,
Where mortals to their Maker bend?
Can your pure spirits fear
The God ye never could offend?
Ye never knew
The crimes for which we come to weep:
Penance is not for you,
Bless'd wanderers of the upper deep.
To you 'tis given
To wake sweet nature's untaught lays;
Beneath the arch of heaven
To chirp away a life of praise.
Then spread each wing,
Far, far above, o'er lakes and lands,
And join the choirs that sing
In yon blue dome not rear'd with hands.
Or if ye stay
To note the consecrated hour,
Teach me the airy way,
And let me try your envied power.
Above the crowd,
On upward wings could I but fly,
I'd bathe in yon bright cloud,
And seek the stars that gem the sky.