Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant



WITH what a stately and majestic step
That glorious constellation of the north
Treads its eternal circle! going forth
Its princely way among the stars in slow
And silent brightness. Mighty one, all hail!
I joy to see thee on thy glowing path
Walk, like some stout and girded giant; stern,
Unwearied, resolute, whose toiling foot
Disdains to loiter on its destined way.
The other tribes forsake their midnight track,
Page  259
And rest their weary orbs beneath the wave;
But thou dost never close thy burning eye,
Nor stay thy steadfast step. But on, still on,
While systems change, and suns retire, and worlds
Slumber and wake, thy ceaseless march proceeds.
The near horizon tempts to rest in vain.
Thou, faithful sentinel, dost never quit
Thy long appointed watch; but, sleepless still,
Dost guard the fix'd light of the universe,
And bid the north for ever know its place.
Ages have witness'd thy devoted trust,
Unchanged, unchanging. When the sons of God
Sent forth that shout of joy which rang through heaven,
And echoed from the outer spheres that bound
The illimitable universe, thy voice
Join'd the high chorus; from thy radiant orbs
The glad cry sounded, swelling to His praise,
Who thus had cast another sparkling gem,
Little, but beautiful, amid the crowd
Of splendours that enrich his firmament.
As thou art now, so wast thou then the same.
Ages have roll'd their course, and time grown gray;
The earth has gather'd to her womb again,
And, yet again, the myriads that were born
Of her uncounted, unremember'd tribes.
The seas have changed their beds; the eternal hills
Have stoop'd with age; the solid continents
Have left their banks; and man's imperial works—
The toil, pride, strength of kingdoms, which had flung
Their haughty honours in the face of Heaven,
As if immortal—have been swept away;
Shatter'd and mouldering, buried and forgot.
But time has shed no dimness on thy front,
Nor touch'd the firmness of thy tread; youth, strength,
And beauty still are thine; as clear, as bright,
As when the Almighty Former sent thee forth,
Beautiful offspring of his curious skill,
Page  260
To watch earth's northern beacon, and proclaim
The eternal chorus of eternal Love.
I wonder as I gaze. That stream of light,
Undimm'd, unquench'd—just as I see it now—
Has issued from those dazzling points through years
That go back far into eternity.
Exhaustless flood! for ever spent, renew'd
For ever! Yea, and those refulgent drops,
Which now descend upon my lifted eye,
Left their far fountain twice three years ago.
While those winged particles, whose speed outstrips
The flight of thought, were on their way, the earth
Compass'd its tedious circuit round and round,
And, in the extremes of annual change, beheld
Six autumns fade, six springs renew their bloom.
So far from earth those mighty orbs revolve!
So vast the void through which their beams descend!
Yes, glorious lamp of God! He may have quench'd
Your ancient flames, and bid eternal night
Rest on your spheres; and yet no tidings reach
This distant planet. Messengers still come
Laden with your far fire, and we may seem
To see your lights still burning; while their blaze
But hides the black wreck of extinguish'd realms,
Where anarchy and darkness long have reign'd.
Yet what is this, which to the astonish'd mind
Seems measureless, and which the baffled thought
Confounds? A span, a point, in those domains
Which the keen eye can traverse. Seven stars
Dwell in that brilliant cluster, and the sight
Embraces all at once; yet each from each
Recedes as far as each of them from earth.
And every star from every other burns
No less remote. From the profound of heaven,
Untravell'd even in thought, keen, piercing rays
Dart through the void, revealing to the sense
Systems and worlds unnumber'd. Take the glass
And search the skies. The opening skies pour down
Upon your gaze thick showers of sparkling fire;
Page  261
Stars, crowded, throng'd, in regions so remote,
That their swift beams—the swiftest things that be—
Have travell'd centuries on their flight to earth.
Earth, sun, and nearer constellations! what
Are ye amid this infinite extent
And multitude of God's most infinite works!
And these are suns! vast, central, living fires,
Lords of dependant systems, kings of worlds
That wait as satellites upon their power,
And flourish in their smile. Awake, my soul,
And meditate the wonder! Countless suns
Blaze round thee, leading forth their countless worlds!
Worlds in whose bosoms living things rejoice,
And drink the bliss of being from the fount
Of all-pervading Love. What mind can know,
What tongue can utter, all their multitudes!
Thus numberless in numberless abodes!
Known but to thee, bless'd Father! Thine they are,
Thy children, and thy care; and none o'erlook'd
Of thee! No, not the humblest soul that dwells
Upon the humblest globe, which wheels its course
Amid the giant glories of the sky,
Like the mean mote that dances in the beam
Among the mirror'd lamps, which fling
Their wasteful splendour from the palace wall,
None, none escape the kindness of thy care;
All compass'd underneath thy spacious wing,
Each fed and guided by thy powerful hand.
Tell me, ye splendid orbs! as from your throne
Ye mark the rolling provinces that own
Your sway, what beings fill those bright abodes?
How form'd, how gifted? what their powers, their state,
Their happiness, their wisdom? Do they bear
The stamp of human nature? Or has God
Peopled those purer realms with lovelier forms
And more celestial minds? Does Innocence
Still wear her native and untainted bloom?
Or has Sin breathed his deadly blight abroad,
Page  262
And sow'd corruption in those fairy bowers?
Has War trod o'er them with his foot of fire?
And Slavery forged his chains; and Wrath, and Hate,
And sordid Selfishness, and cruel Lust,
Leagued their base bands to tread out light and truth,
And scatter'd wo where Heaven had planted joy?
Or are they yet all paradise, unfallen
And uncorrupt; existence one long joy,
Without disease upon the frame, or sin
Upon the heart, or weariness of life;
Hope never quench'd, and age unknown,
And death unfear'd; while fresh and fadeless youth
Glows in the light from God's near throne of love?
Open your lips, ye wonderful and fair!
Speak, speak! the mysteries of those living worlds
Unfold! No language? Everlasting light
And everlasting silence? Yet the eye
May read and understand. The hand of God
Has written legibly what man may know,
THE GLORY OF THE MAKER. There it shines,
Ineffable, unchangeable; and man,
Bound to the surface of this pigmy globe,
May know and ask no more. In other days,
When death shall give the encumber'd spirit wings,
Its range shall be extended; it shall roam,
Perchance, among those vast mysterious spheres,
Shall pass from orb to orb, and dwell in each,
Familiar with its children; learn their laws,
And share their state, and study and adore
The infinite varieties of bliss
And beauty, by the hand of Power divine
Lavish'd on all its works. Eternity
Shall thus roll on with ever fresh delight;
No pause of pleasure or improvement; world
On world still opening to the instructed mind
An unexhausted universe, and time
But adding to its glories. While the soul,
Advancing ever to the Source of light
And all perfection, lives, adores, and reigns
In cloudless knowledge, purity, and bliss
Page  263


THE evening heavens were calm and bright;
No dimness rested on the glittering light,
That sparkled from that wilderness of worlds on high;
Those distant suns burn'd on in quiet ray;
The placid planets held their modest way;
And silence reign'd profound o'er earth, and sea, and sky.
Oh what an hour for lofty thought!
My spirit burn'd within; I caught
A holy inspiration from the hour.
Around me man and nature slept;
Alone my solemn watch I kept,
Till morning dawn'd, and sleep resumed her power.
A vision pass'd upon my soul.
I still was gazing up to heaven,
As in the early hours of even;
I still beheld the planets roll,
And all those countless sons of light
Flame from the broad blue arch, and guide the moonless night.
When lo, upon the plain,
Just where it skirts the swelling main,
A massive castle, far and high,
In towering grandeur broke upon my eye.
Proud in its strength and years, the pond'rous pile
Flung up its time-defying towers;
Its lofty gates seem'd scornfully to smile
At vain assault of human powers,
And threats and arms deride.
Its gorgeous carvings of heraldic pride
In giant masses graced the walls above,
And dungeons yawn'd below.
Yet ivy there and moss their garlands wove,
Grave, silent chroniclers of time's protracted flow.
Bursting on my steadfast gaze,
See, within, a sudden blaze!
Page  264
So small at first, the zephyr's slightest swell,
That scarcely stirs the pine-tree top,
Nor makes the wither'd leaf to drop,
The feeble fluttering of that flame would quell.
But soon it spread—
Waving, rushing, fierce, and red—
From wall to wall, from tower to tower,
Raging with resistless power;
Till every fervent pillar glow'd,
And every stone seem'd burning coal,
Instinct with living heat, that flow'd
Like streaming radiance from the kindled pole.
Beautiful, fearful, grand,
Silent as death, I saw the fabric stand.
At length a crackling sound began;
From side to side, throughout the pile it ran;
And louder yet and louder grew,
Till now in rattling thunder-peals it grew;
Huge shiver'd fragments from the pillars broke,
Like fiery sparkles from the anvil's stroke
The shatter'd walls were rent and riven,
And piecemeal driven
Like blazing comets through the troubled sky.
'Tis done; what centuries had rear'd,
In quick explosion disappear'd,
Nor even its ruins met my wondering eye.
But in their place—
Bright with more than human grace,
Robed in more than mortal seeming,
Radiant glory in her face,
And eyes with heaven's own brightness beaming—
Rose a fair majestic form,
As the mild rainbow from the storm.
I mark'd her smile, I knew her eye;
And when, with gesture of command,
She waved aloft the cap-crown'd wand,
My slumbers fled mid shouts of "Liberty!"
Page  265
Read ye the dream? and know ye not
How truly it unlock'd the world of fate?
Went not the flame from this illustrious spot,
And spreads it not, and burns in every state?
And when their old and cumbrous walls,
Fill'd with this spirit, glow intense,
Vainly they rear'd their impotent defence:
The fabric falls!
That fervent energy must spread,
Till despotism's towers be overthrown;
And in their stead,
Liberty stands alone!
Hasten the day, just Heaven!
Accomplish thy design;
And let the blessings thou hast freely given,
Freely on all men shine;
Till equal rights be equally enjoy'd,
And human power for human good employ'd;
Till law, not, the sovereign rule sustain,
And peace and virtue undisputed reign.