Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant
FROM THE RUINS OF ATHENS.
THE daylight fades o'er old Cyllene's hill,
And broad and dun the mountain shadows fall;
The stars are up and sparkling, as if still
Smiling upon their altars; but the tall
Dark cypress, gently, as a mourner, bends—
Wet with the drops of evening as with tears—
Alike o'er shrine and worshipper, and blends,
All dim and lonely, with the wrecks of years,
As of a world gone by no coming morning cheers
There sits the queen of temples—gray and lone.
She, like the last of an imperial line,
Has seen her sister structures, one by one,
To time their gods and worshippers resign;
And the stars twinkle through the weeds that twine
Their roofless capitals; and, through the night,
Heard the hoarse drum and the exploding mine,
The clash of arms and hymns of uncouth rite,
From their dismantled shrines, the guardian powers affright.
Go! thou from whose forsaken heart are reft
The ties of home; and, where a dwelling-place
Not Jove himself the elements have left,
The grass-grown, undefined arena pace!
Look on its rent, though tower-like shafts, and hear
The loud winds thunder in their aged face;
Then slowly turn thine eye, where moulders near
A Cæsar's Arch, and the blue depth of space
Vaults like a sepulchre the wrecks of a past race.
Is it not better with the Eremite,
Where the weeds rustle o'er his airy cave,
Perch'd on their summit, through the long still night
To sit and watch their shadows slowly wave—
While oft some fragment, sapp'd by dull decay,
In thunder breaks the silence, and the fowl
Of Ruin hoots—and turn in scorn away
Of all man builds, time levels, and the cowl
Awards her moping sage in common with the owl?
Or, where the palm, at twilight's holy hour,
By Theseus' Fane her lonely vigil keeps:
Gone are her sisters of the leaf and flower,
With them the living crop earth sows and reaps.
But these revive not: the weed with them sleeps,
But clothes herself in beauty from their clay,
And leaves them to their slumber; o'er them weeps.
Vainly the Spring her quickening dews away,
And Love as vainly mourns, and mourns, alas! for aye.
Or, more remote, on Nature's haunts intrude,
Where, since creation, she has slept on flowers,
Wet with the noonday forest-dew, and wooed
By untamed choristers in unpruned bowers:
By pathless thicket, rock that time-worn towers
O'er dells untrodden by the hunter, piled
Ere by its shadow measured were the hours
To human eye, the rampart of the wild,
Whose banner is the cloud, by carnage undefiled.
The weary spirit that forsaken plods
The world's wide wilderness, a home may find
Here, mid the dwellings of long banish'd gods
And thoughts they bring, the mourners of the mind;Page 184
The spectres that no spell has power to bind,
The loved, but lost, whose soul's life is in ours,
As incense in sepulchral urns, enshrined,
The sense of blighted or of wasted powers,
The hopes whose promised fruits have perish'd with their flowers.
There is a small low cape—there, where the moor
Breaks o'er the shatter'd and now shapeless stone
The waters, as a rude but fitting boon,
Weeds and small shells have, like a garland, thrown
Upon it, and the wind's and wave's low moan,
And sighing grass, and cricket's plaint, are heard
To steal upon the stillness, like a tone
Remember'd. Here, by human foot unstirr'd,
Its seed the thistle sheds, and builds the ocean-bird.
Lurks the foul toad, the lizard basks secure
Within the sepulchre of him whose name
Had scatter'd navies like the whirlwind. Sure,
If aught ambition's fiery wing may tame,
'Tis here; the web the spider reaves where Fame
Planted her proud but sunken shaft, should be
To it a fetter, still it springs the same.
Glory's fool-worshipper! here bend thy knee!
The tomb thine altar-stone, thine idol Mockery:
A small gray elf, all sprinkled o'er with dust
Of crumbling catacomb, and mouldering shred
Of banner and embroider'd pall, and rust
Of arms, time-eaten monuments, that shed
A canker'd gleam on dim escutcheons, where
The groping antiquary pores to spy—
A what? a name—perchance ne'er graven there;
At whom the urchin with his mimic eye
Sits peering through a scull, and laughs continually.