Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant
JAMES A. HILLHOUSE.
DESCENT OF THE JUDGE AND HIS ANGELS.
METHOUGHT I journeyed o'er a boundless plain
Unbroke by hill or vale, on all sides stretched,
Like circling ocean to the low-browed sky;
Save in the midst a verdant mount, whose sides
Flowers of all hues and fragrant breath adorned
Lightly I trod, as on some joyous quest,Page 40
Beneath the azure vault and early sun;
But while my pleased eyes ranged the circuit green,
New light shone round; a murmur came confused,
Like many voices and the rush of wings.
Upward I gazed, and mid the glittering skies,
Begirt by flying myriads, saw a throne,
Whose thousand splendours blazed upon the earth,
Refulgent as another sun. Through clouds
They came, and vapours coloured by Aurora,
Mingling in swell sublime, voices and harps,
And sounding wings and hallelujahs sweet.
Sudden a Seraph, that before them flew,
Pausing upon his wide-unfolded plumes,
Put to his mouth the likeness of a trump,
And towards the four winds four times fiercely breathed.
Doubling along the arch, the mighty peal
To Heaven resounded, Hell returned a groan,
And shuddering Earth a moment reeled, confounded
From her fixed pathway, as the staggering ship,
Stunned by some mountain billow, reels. The isles
With heaving ocean, rocked: the mountains shook
Their ancient coronets: the avalanche
Thundered: silence succeeded through the nations.
Earth never listened to a sound like this.
It struck the general pulse of nature still,
And broke for ever the dull sleep of death.
Now o'er the mount the radiant legions hung,
Like plumy travellers from climes remote
On some sequestered isle about to stoop.
Gently its flowery head received the throne;
Cherubs and Seraphs, by ten thousands, round
Skirted it far and wide, like a bright sea;
Fair forms and faces, crowns, and coronets,
And glistering wings furled white and numberless.
About their Lord were those Seven glorious Spirits
Who in the Almighty's presence stand. Four leaned
On golden wands, with folded wings, and eyes
Fixed on the throne: one bore the dreadful Books,Page 41
The arbiters of life: another waved
The blazing ensign terrible, of yore,
To rebel angels in the wars of Heaven:
What seemed a trump the other Spirit grasped,
Of wondrous size, wreathed multiform and strange.
Illustrious stood the Seven, above the rest
Towering, and like a constellation glowing,
What time the sphere-instructed huntsman, taught
By Atlas, his star-studded belt displays
Aloft, bright-glittering, in the winter sky
ADAM, CÆSAR, AND ABRAHAM AT THE RESURRECTION.
NEAREST the mount, of that mixed phalanx first,
Our general Parent stood; not as he looked
Wandering at eve amid the shady bowers
And odorous groves of that delicious garden,
Or flowery banks of some soft rolling stream,
Pausing to list its lulling murmur, hand
In hand with peerless Eve, the rose too sweet,
Fatal to Paradise. Fled from his cheek
The bloom of Eden; his hyacinthine locks
Were turned to gray; with years and sorrows bowed
He seemed, but through his ruined form still shone
The majesty of his Creator: round
Upon his sons a grieved and pitying look
He cast, and in his vesture hid his face.
Close at his side appeared a martial form
Of port majestic, clad in massive arms,
Cowering above whose helm, with outspread wings,
The Roman eagle flew; around its brim
Was charactered the name at which Earth's Queen
Bowed from her sevenfold throne and owned her lord.
In his dilated eye amazement stood;
Terror, surprise, and blank astonishment
Blanched his firm cheek, as when of old, close hemmed
Within the Capitol, amid the crowdPage 42
Of traitors, fearless else, he caught the gleam
Of Brutus' steel. Daunted, yet on the pomp
Of towering seraphim, their wings, their crowns,
Their dazzling faces, and upon the Lord,
He fixed a steadfast look of anxious note,
Like that Pharsalia's hurtling squadrons drew
When all his fortunes hung upon the hour.
Near him, for wisdom famous through the East
Abraham rested on his staff; in guise
A Chaldee shepherd, simple in his raiment
As when at Mamre in his tent he sat,
The host of angels. Snow-white were his locks
And silvery beard that to his girdle rolled.
Fondly his meek eye dwelt upon his Lord,
Like one that, after long and troubled dreams,
A night of sorrows, dreary, wild, and sad,
Beholds, at last, the dawn of promised joys.
LAST SETTING OF THE SUN.
By this the sun his westering car drove low;
Round his broad wheels full many a lucid cloud
Floated, like happy isles in seas of gold:
Along the horizon castled shapes were piled,
Turrets and towers, whose fronts embattled gleamed
With yellow light: smit by the slanting ray,
A ruddy beam the canopy reflected;
With deeper light the ruby blushed; and thick
Upon the Seraphs' wings the glowing spots
Seemed drops of fire. Uncoiling from its staff,
With fainter wave, the gorgeous ensign hung,
Or, swelling with the swelling breeze, by fits
Cast off, upon the dewy air, huge flakes
Of golden lustre. Over all the hill,
The heavenly legions, the assembled world,
Evening her crimson tint for ever drew.
But while at gaze, in solemn silence, men
And angels stood, and many a quaking heartPage 43
With expectation throbbed; about the throne
And glittering hill-top slowly wreathed the clouds,
Erewhile like curtains for adornment hung,
Involving Shiloh and the Seraphim
Beneath a snowy tent. The bands around
Eying the gonfalon that through the smoke
Tower'd into air, resembled hosts who watch
The king's pavilion where, ere battle hour,
A council sits. What their consult might be,
Those seven dread Spirits and their Lord, I mused,
I marvelled. Was it grace and peace? or death?
Was it of man? Did pity for the Lost
His gentle nature wring, who knew, who felt
How frail is this poor tenement of clay?
Arose there from the misty tabernacle
A cry like that upon Gethsemane?
What passed in Jesus' bosom none may know,
But close the cloudy dome invested him;
And, weary with conjecture, round I gazed
Where in the purple west, no more to dawn,
Faded the glories of the dying day.
Mild-twinkling through a crimson-skirted cloud
The solitary star of evening shone.
While gazing wistful on that peerless light
Thereafter to be seen no more (as oft
In dreams strange images will mix), sad thoughts
Passed o'er my soul. Sorrowing I cried, "Farewell,
Pale, beauteous planet, that displayest so soft,
Amid yon glowing streak, thy transient beam,
A long, a last farewell! Seasons have changed,
Ages and empires rolled, like smoke, away,
But thou, unaltered, beam'st as silver fair
As on thy birthnight! Bright and watchful eyes,
From palaces and bowers, have hailed thy gem
With secret transport! Natal star of love,
And souls that love the shadowy hour of fancy,
How much I owe thee, how I bless thy ray!
How oft thy rising o'er the hamlet green,
Signal of rest, and social converse sweet,Page 44
Beneath some patriarchal tree, has cheered
The peasant's heart, and drawn his benison!
Pride of the West! beneath thy placid light
The tender tale shall never more be told,
Man's soul shall never wake to joy again:
Thou set'st for ever—lovely orb, farewell!"
SCENE FROM HADAD.
The terraced roof of ABSALOM'S house by night; adorned with vases of flowers and fragrant shrubs; an awning over part of it. TAMAR and HADAD.
Well, my love, thou know'st
I've been a traveller in various climes;
Trod Ethiopia's scorching sands, and scaled
The snow-clad mountains; trusted to the deep;
Traversed the fragrant islands of the sea,
And with the wise conversed of many nations.
Of all mine eyes have seen,
The greatest, wisest, and most wonderful
Is that dread sage, the Ancient of the Mountain.
None knows his lineage, age, or name: his locks
Are like the snows of Caucasus; his eyes
Beam with the wisdom of collected ages.
In green unbroken years he sees, 'tis said,
The generations pass, like autumn fruits,
Garner'd, consumed, and springing fresh to life.
Again to perish, while he views the sun,
The seasons roll, in rapt serenity,
And high communion with celestial powers.
Some say 'tis Shem, our father, some say Enoch,
And some Melchizedek.
I have proved it.
Through perils dire, dangers most imminent,
Seven days and nights mid rocks and wildernesses,
And boreal snows, and never-thawing ice,
Where not a bird, a beast, a living thing,
Save the far-soaring vulture, comes, I dared
My desperate way, resolved to know or perish.
On the highest peak
Of stormy Caucasus there blooms a spot
On which perpetual sunbeams play, where flowers
And verdure never die; and there he dwells.
Never did I view
Such awful majesty: his reverend locks
Hung like a silver mantle to his feet,
His raiment glistered saintly white, his brow
Rose like the gate of Paradise, his mouth
Was musical as its bright guardians' songs.
Whether he possess
The Tetragrammaton—the powerful name
Inscribed on Moses' rod, by which he wrought
Unheard-of wonders, which constrains the heavens
To shower down blessings, shakes the earth, and rules
The strongest spirits; or if God hath given
A delegated power, I cannot tell.
But 'twas from him I learned their fate, their fall,
Who erewhile wore resplendent crowns in Heaven;
Now scattered through the earth, the air, the sea.
Them he compels to answer, and from them
Has drawn what Moses, nor no mortal ear,
Has ever heard.
Due only to his Maker! awful crime!
But what their doom? their place of punishment?
Above, about, beneath; earth, sea, and air;
Their habitations various as their minds,
Employments, and desires.
You wrong them. They are bright intelligences,
Robbed of some native splendour, and east down,
'Tis true, from Heaven; but not deformed, and foul,Page 47
Revengeful, malice-working fiends, as fools
Suppose They dwell, like princes, in the clouds;
Sun their bright pinions in the middle sky;
Or arch their palaces beneath the hills,
With stones inestimable studded so,
That sun or stars were useless there.
He bade me look on rugged Caucasus,
Crag piled on crag beyond the utmost ken,
Naked and wild, as if creation's ruins
Were heaped in one immeasurable chain
Of barren mountains, beaten by the storms
Of everlasting winter. But within
Are glorious palaces and domes of light,
Irradiate halls and crystal colonnades,
Vaults set with gems the purchase of a crown,
Blazing with lustre past the noontide beam,
Or, with a milder beauty, mimicking
The mystic signs of changeful Mazzaroth.
There they dwell, and muse,
And wander; beings beautiful, immortal.
Minds vast as heaven, capacious as the sky,
Whose thoughts connect past, present, and to come,
And glow with light intense, imperishable.
Thus, in the sparry chambers of the sea
And air-pavilions, rainbow tabernacles,
They study Nature's secrets, and enjoy
No poor dominion.
Man's feeble heart cannot conceive it. When
The sage described them, fiery eloquence
Flowed from his lips, his bosom heaved, his eyes
Grew bright and mystical; moved by the theme,
Like one who feels a deity within.
Attracts them with her gentler virtues, soft,
And beautiful, and heavenly, like themselves.
They have been known to love her with a passion
Stronger than human.
Sometimes 'tis spiritual, signified
By beatific dreams, or more distinct
And glorious apparition. They have stooped
To animate a human form, and love
Frightful to be so beloved!
Who could endure the horrid thought! What makes
Thy cold hand tremble? or is't mine
That feels so deathy?
Why dost thou speak so sadly now? And lo!
Thine eyes are fixed again upon Arcturus.
Thus ever, when thy drooping spirits ebb,
Thou gazest on that star. Hath it the power
To cause or cure thy melancholy mood?
[He appears lost in thought.
Tell me, ascrib'st thou influence to the stars?
Like palace lamps! Thou echoest well thy grandsire.
Woman! the stars are living, glorious,
Speak not so wildly.
I know them numberless, resplendent, set
As symbols of the countless, countless years
That make eternity.
Oh! mighty, glorious, miserable thought!
Had ye endured like those great sufferers,
Like them, seen ages, myriad ages roll;
Could ye but look into the void abyss
With eyes experienced, unobscured by torments,
Then mightst thou name it, name it feelingly.
Thy cheek is wet with tears—Nay, let us part—
'Tis late—I cannot, must not linger.
[Breaks from him, and exit.
Loved and abhorred! Still, still accursed!
[He paces twice or thrice up and down with passionate gestures; then turns his face to the sky, and stands a moment in silence.]
In the illimitable space, in what
Profound of untried misery, when all
His worlds, his rolling orbs of light, that fill
With life and beauty yonder infinite,
Their radiant journey run, for ever set,
Where, where, in what abyss shall I be groaning?