Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE PEQUODE.
AH me! while up the long, long vale of time,
Reflection wanders towards th' eternal vast,
How starts the eye at many a change sublime,
Unbosom'd dimly by the ages pass'd!
What Mausoleums crowd the mournful waste!
The tombs of empires fallen! and nations gone!
Each, once inscribed in gold with "AYE TO LAST,"
Sate as a queen; proclaim'd the world her own,
And proudly cried, "By me no sorrows shall be known."
Soon fleets the sunbright form by man adored.
Soon fell the head of gold, to Time a prey;
The arms, the trunk, his cankering tooth devour'd,
And whirlwinds blew the iron dust away.
Where dwelt imperial Timur? far astray,
Some lonely-musing pilgrim now inquires:
And, rack'd by storms, and hastening to decay,
Mohammed's mosque foresees its final fires,
And Rome's more lordly temple day by day expires.
As o'er proud Asian realms the traveller winds,
His manly spirit, hush'd by terror, falls;
When some deceased town's lost site he finds,
Where ruin wild his pondering eye appals;
Where silence swims along the moulder'd walls,
And broods upon departed Grandeur's tomb.
Through the lone, hollow aisles sad Echo calls
At each slow step; deep sighs the breathing gloom,
And weeping fields around bewail their empress' doom.
Where o'er a hundred realms the throne uprose,
The screech-owl nests, the panther builds his home;
Sleep the dull newts, the lazy adders doze,
Where pomp and luxury danced the golden room.
Low lies in dust the sky-resembled dome;
Tall grass around the broken column waves;
And brambles climb, and lonely thistles bloom:
The moulder'd arch the weedy streamlet laves,
And low resound, beneath, unnumber'd sunken graves.
Soon fleets the sunbright form by man adored,
And soon man's demon chiefs from memory fade.
In musty volume now must be explored,
Where dwelt imperial nations, long decay'd.
The brightest meteors angry clouds invade;
And where the wonders glitter'd, none explain.
Where Carthage, with proud hand, the trident sway'd,
Now mud-wall'd cots sit sullen on the plain,
And wandering, fierce and wild, sequester'd Arabs reign.
In thee, oh Albion! queen of nations, live
Whatever splendours earth's wide realms have known;
In thee proud Persia sees her pomp-revive,
And Greece her arts, and Rome her lordly throne:
By every wind thy Tyrian fleets are blown;
Supreme, on Fame's dread roll, thy heroes stand;
All ocean's realms thy naval sceptre own;
Of bards, of sages, how august thy band!
And one rich Eden blooms around thy garden'd land.
But oh, how vast thy crimes! Through Heaven's great year,
When few centurial suns have traced their way;
When Southern Europe, worn by feuds severe,
Weak, doting, fallen, has bow'd to Russian sway,
And setting Glory beam'd her farewell ray,
To wastes, perchance, thy brilliant fields shall turn;
In dust thy temples, towers, and towns decay;Page 54
The forest howl, where London's turrets burn,
And all thy garlands deck thy sad, funereal urn.
Some land, scarce glimmering in the light of fame,
Scepter'd with arts and arms (if I divine),
Some unknown wild, some shore without a name,
In all thy pomp shall then majestic shine.
As silver-headed Time's slow years decline,
Not ruins only meet th' inquiring eye:
Where round yon mouldering oak vain brambles twine,
The filial stem, already towering high,
Ere long shall stretch his arms, and nod in yonder sky.
Where late resounded the wild woodland roar,
Now heaves the palace, now the temple smiles;
Where frown'd the rude rock and the desert shore,
Now' pleasure sports, and business want beguiles,
And Commerce wings her flight to thousand isles;
Culture walks forth; gay laugh the loaded fields:
And jocund Labour plays his harmless wiles;
Glad Science brightens; Art her mansion builds;
And Peace uplifts her wand, and HEAVEN his blessing yields.
O'er these sweet fields, so lovely now and gay,
Where modest Nature finds each want supplied,
Where homeborn Happiness delights to play,
And counts her little flock with household pride,
Long frown'd, from age to age, a forest wide:
Here hung the slumbering bat; the serpent dire
Nested his brood, and drank th' impoison'd tide;
Wolves peal'd the dark, drear night in hideous choir,
Nor shrunk th' unmeasured howl from Sol's terrific fire.
No charming cot imbank'd the pebbly stream;
No mansion tower'd, nor garden teem'd with good,
No lawn expanded to the April beam,
Nor mellow harvest hung its bending lead;
Nor science dawn'd, nor life with beauty glow'd,Page 55
Nor temple whiten'd in th' enchanting dell;
In clusters wild the sluggish wigwam stood;
And, borne in snaky paths, the Indian fell.
Now aim'd the death unseen, now screamed the tiger-yell.
Even now, perhaps, on human dust I tread,
Pondering with solemn pause the wrecks of time;
Here sleeps, perchance, among the vulgar dead,
Some chief, the lofty theme of Indian rhyme,
Who loved Ambition's cloudy steep to climb,
And smiled, deaths, dangers, rivals to engage;
Who roused his followers' souls to deeds sublime,
Kindling to furnace heat vindictive rage,
And soar'd Cæsarean heights, the Phœnix of his age.
In yon small field that dimly steals from sight
(From yon small field these meditations grow),
Turning the sluggish soil from morn to night,
The plodding hind, laborious, drives his plough,
Nor dreams a nation sleeps his foot below.
There, undisturbed by the roaring wave,
Released from war, and far from deadly foe,
Lies down in endless rest a nation brave,
And trains in tempests born there find a quiet grave
Oft have I heard the tale, when matron sere
Sung to my infant ear the song of wo;
Of maiden meek consumed with pining care,
Around whose tomb the wild-rose loved to blow:
Or told, with swimming eyes, how, long ago,
Remorseless Indians, all in midnight dire,
The little sleeping village did o'erthrow,
Bidding the cruel flames to heaven aspire,
And scalp'd the hoary head, and burn'd the babe with fire.
Then, fancy-fired, her memory wing'd its flight
To long-forgotten wars and dread alarms,
To chiefs obscure, but terrible in fight,
Who mock'd each foe, and laugh'd at deadliest harms,
Sidneys in zeal, and Washingtons in arms.Page 56
By instinct tender to the woes of man,
My heart bewildering with sweet pity's charms,
Through solemn scenes, with Nature's step she ran,
And hushed her audience small, and thus the tale began.
"Through verdant banks, where Thames's branches glide,
Long held the Pequods an extensive sway;
Bold, savage, fierce, of arms the glorious pride,
And bidding all the circling realms obey.
Jealous, they saw the tribes beyond the sea
Plant in their climes; and towns and cities rise;
Ascending castles foreign flags display;
Mysterious art new scenes of life devise;
And steeds insult the plains, and cannon rend the skies.
"They saw, and soon the strangers' fate decreed,
And soon of war disclosed the crimson sign;
First, hapless Stone! they bade thy bosom bleed,
A guiltless offering at th' infernal shrine:
Then, gallant Norton! the hard fate was thine,
By ruffians butcher'd, and denied a grave:
Thee, generous Oldham! next the doom malign
Arrested; nor could all thy courage save;
Forsaken, plunder'd, cleft, and buried in the wave
"Soon the sad tidings reach'd the general ear,
And prudence, pity, vengeance, all inspire:
Invasive war their gallant friends prepare;
And soon a noble band, with purpose dire,
And threatening arms, the murderous fiends require:
Small was the band, but never taught to yield;
Breasts faced with steel, and souls instinct with fire:
Such souls from Sparta Persia's world repell'd,
When nations paved the ground, and Xerxes flew the field.
"The rising clouds the savage chief descried,
And round the forest bade his heroes arm;
To arms the painted warriors proudly hied,
And through surrounding nations rung th' alarm.Page 57
The nations heard; but smiled to see the storm,
With ruin fraught, o'er Pequod mountains driven;
And felt infernal joy the bosom warm,
To see their light hang o'er the skirts of even,
And other suns arise, to gild a kinder heaven.
"Swift to the Pequod fortress Mason sped,
Far in the wildering wood's impervious gloom;
A lonely castle, brown with twilight dread,
Where oft th' embowell'd captive met his doom,
And frequent heaved around the hollow tomb;
Scalps hung in rows, and whitening bones were strew'd;
Where, round the broiling babe, fresh from the womb,
With howls the Powaw fill'd the dark abode,
And screams and midnight prayers invoked the evil god.
"There too, with awful rites, the hoary priest,
Without, beside the moss-grown altar stood,
His sable form in magic cincture dress'd,
And heap'd the mingled offering to his god,
What time, with golden light, calm evening glow'd
The mystic dust, the flower of silver bloom,
And spicy herb, his hand in order strew'd;
Bright rose the curling flame; and rich perfume
On smoky wings upflew, or settled round the tomb.
"Then o'er the circus danced the maddening throng,
As erst the Thyas roam'd dread Nysa round,
And struck to forest notes th' ecstatic song,
While slow beneath them heaved the wavy ground.
With a low, lingering groan of dying sound,
The woodland rumbled; murmur'd deep each stream;
Shrill sung the leaves; all ether sigh'd profound;
Pale tufts of purple topped the silver flame,
And many-colour'd forms on evening breezes came.
"Thin, twilight forms, attired in changing sheen
Of plumes high-tinctured in the western ray;
Bending, they peep'd the fleecy folds between,
Their wings light-rustling in the breath of May.Page 58
Soft-hovering round the fire, in mystic play,
They snuff'd the incense waved in clouds afar,
Then, silent, floated towards the setting day:
Eve redden'd each fine form, each misty car,
And through them faintly gleam'd, at times, the western star.
"Then (so tradition sings) the train behind,
In plumy zones of rainbow'd beauty dress'd,
Rode the Great Spirit in th' obedient wind,
In yellow clouds slow-sailing from the west.
With dawning smiles the God his votaries bless'd,
And taught where deer retired to ivy dell;
What chosen chief with proud command t' invest;
Where crept th' approaching foe, with purpose fell,
And where to wind the scout, and war's dark storm dispel.
"There, on her lover's tomb, in silence laid,
While still and sorrowing shower'd the moon's pale beam,
At times expectant, slept the widow'd maid,
Her soul far-wandering on the sylph-wing'd dream.
Wafted from evening skies on sunny stream,
Her darling youth with silver pinions shone;
With voice of music, tuned to sweetest theme,
He told of shell-bright bowers beyond the sun,
Where years of endless joy o'er Indian lovers run.
"But now nor awful rites nor potent spell
To silence charm'd the peals of coming war;
Or told the dread recesses of the dell,
Where glowing Mason led his bands from far:
No spirit, buoyant on his airy car,
Controll'd the whirlwind of invading fight:
Deep died in blood, dun evening's falling star
Sent sad o'er western hills its parting light,
And no returning morn dispersed the long dark night
"On the drear walls a sudden splendour glow'd,
There Mason shone, and there his veterans pour'd.Page 59
Anew the hero claim'd the fiends of blood,
While answering storms of arrows round him shower'd,
And the war-scream the ear with anguish gored.
Alone he burst the gate: the forest round
Re-echoed death; the peal of onset roar'd;
In rush'd the squadrons; earth in blood was drown'd;
And gloomy spirits fled, and corses hid the ground
"Not long in dubious fight the host had striven,
When, kindled by the musket's potent flame,
In clouds and fire the castle rose to heaven,
And gloom'd the world with melancholy beam.
Then hoarser groans with deeper anguish came,
And fiercer fight the keen assault repell'd:
Nor even these ills the savage breast could tame;
Like hell's deep caves the hideous region yell'd,
'Till death and sweeping fire laid waste the hostile field.
"Soon the sad tale their friends surviving heard,
And Mason, Mason, rung in every wind:
Quick from their rugged wilds they disappear'd,
Howl'd down the hills, and left the blast behind.
Their fastening foes by generous Stoughton join'd,
Hung o'er the rear, and every brake explored;
But such dire terror seized the savage mind,
So swift and black a storm behind them lower'd,
On wings of raging fear, through spacious realms they scoured.
* * * * * * * *
"Amid a circling marsh expanded wide,
To a lone hill the Pequods wound their way;
And none but Heaven the mansion had descried,
Close-tangled, wild, impervious to the day;
But one poor wanderer, loitering long astray,
Wilder'd in labyrinths of pathless wood,
In a tail tree imbower'd, obscurely lay:
Straight summon'd down, the trembling suppliant show'd
Where lurk'd his vanish'd friends within their drear abode.
"To death the murderers were anew required,
A pardon proffer'd, and a peace assured;
And, though with vengeful heat their foes were fired,
Their lives, their freedom, and their lands secured.
Some yielding heard. In fastness strong immured,
The rest the terms refused with brave disdain;
Near and more near the peaceful herald lured,
Then bade a shower of arrows round him rain,
And wing'd him swift from danger to the distant plain.
"Through the sole, narrow way, to vengeance led,
To final fight our generous heroes drew;
And Stoughton now had pass'd the moor's black shade,
When hell's terrific region scream'd anew.
Undaunted on their foes they fiercely flew;
As fierce, the dusky warriors crowd the fight;
Despair inspires; to combat's face they glue;
With groans and shouts they rage, unknowing flight,
And close their sullen eyes in shades of endless night."
Indulge, my native land! indulge the tear,
That steals impassion'd o'er a nation's doom:
To me each twig from Adam's stock is near,
And sorrows fall upon an Indian's tomb.
And oh, ye chiefs! in yonder starry home,
Accept the humble tribute of this rhyme.
Your gallant deeds in Greece or haughty Rome,
By Maro sung or Homer's harp sublime,
Had charm'd the world's wide round, and triumph'd over time.