A Palimpsest of Time and Place
Thomas Cole
Painter, Poet, Prophet

Earth Elegies III




William Cullen Bryant


Catterskill Falls

Midst greens and shades the Catterskill leaps
From cliffs where the wood-flower clings;
All summer he moistens his verdant steeps
With the sweet light spray of the mountain-springs,
And he shakes the woods on the mountain-side,
When they drip with the rains of the aumtumn-tide.

But when, in the forest bare and old,
The blast of December calls,
He builds, in the starlight clear and cold,
A palace of ice where his torrent falls,
With turret, and arch, and fretwork fair,
And pillars blue as the summer air.







Midst greens and shades the Cauterskill leaps,
From cliffs where the wood-flower clings;
All summer he moistens his verdant steps,
With the sweet light spray of the mountain springs;
And he shakes the woods on the mountain side,
When they drip with the rains of autumn tide.

But when in the forest bare and old,
The blast of December calls-
He builds in the starlight, clear and cold,
A palace of ice where his torrent falls;
With turret, and arch, and fretwork fair,
And pillars blue as the summer air.

For whom are those glorious chambers wrought,
In the cold and cloudless night?
Is there neither spirit nor motion of thought,
In forms so lovely and hues so bright?
Hear what the gray-haired woodmen tell
Of this wild stream and its rocky dell.

'Twas here a youth of dreamy mood,
A hundred winters ago
Had wandered over the mighty wood,
Where the panthers track was fresh on the snow;
And keen were the winds that came to stir
The long dark boughs of the hemlock fir.

Too gentle of mien he seemed, and fair,
For a child of those rugged steeps;
His home lay down in the valley where
The kingly Hudson rolls to the deeps;
But he wore the hunter's frock that day,
And a slender gun on his shoulder lay.

And here he paused, and against the trunk
Of a tall gray linden leant;
Where the broad, clear orb of the sun had sunk
From his path in the frosty firmament;
And over the round dark edge of the hill,
A cold green light was quivering still.

And the crescent moon, high over the green,
From a sky of crimson shone;
On that icy palace where towers were seen,
To sparkle as if with stars of their own;
While the water fell with a hollow sound,
'Twixt the glistening pillars ranged around.

Is that a being of life that moves
Where the crystal battlements rise?
A maiden watching the moon she loves,
At the twilight hour with pensive eyes?
Was that a garment which seemed to gleam,
Betwixt the eye and the falling stream?

'Tis only the torrent tumbling o'er,
In the midst of those glassy walls;
Gushing, and plunging, and beating the floor
Of the rocky basin in which it falls;
'Tis only the torrent, but why that start?
Why gazes the youth with a throbbing heart?

He thinks no more of his home afar,
Where his sire and his sister wait;
He heeds no longer how star after star,
Looks forth on the night as the hour grows late
He heeds not the snow-wreath, lifted and cast
From a thousand boughs by the rising blast.

His thoughts are alone of those who dwell
In the halls of frost and snow;
Who pass where the crystal domes upswell,
From the alabaster floors below;
Where the frost-trees bourgeon with leaf and spray,
And frost-gems scatter a silvery day.

And oh! that those glorious haunts were mine!
He speaks, and throughout the glen,
Their shadows swim in the faint moonshine,
And take a ghastly likeness of men;
As if the slain by the wintry storms
Came forth to the air in their earthly forms.

There pass the chasers of seal and whale,
With their weapons quaint and grim ;
And bands of warriors in glittering mail,
And herdsmen and hunters, huge of limb;
There are naked arms with bow and spear,
And furry gauntlets the carbine rear.

There are mothers, and oh! how sadly their eyes,
On their children's white brows rest!
There are youthful lovers -- the maiden lies,
In a seeming sleep, on the chosen breast
There are fair, wan women, with moonstruck air,
And snow-stars flecking their long loose hair.

They eye him not as they pass along,
But his hair stands up with dread ;
When he feels that he moves with that phantom throng,
Till those icy turrets are over his head ;
And the torrent's roar as they enter, seems
Like a drowsy murmur heard in dreams.

The glittering threshold is scarcely passed,
When there gathers and wraps him round,
A thick white twilight, sullen and vast,
In which there is neither form nor sound
The phantoms, the glory, vanish all,
With the dying voice of the waterfall.

Slow passes the darkness of that trance,
And the youth now faintly sees-
Huge shadows, and gushes of light that dance
On a rugged ceiling of unhewn trees;
And walls where the skins of beasts are hung,
And rifles glitter, on antlers strung.

On a couch of shaggy skins he lies,
As he strives to raise his head;
Hard-featured woodmen, with kindly eyes,
Come round him and smoothe his furry bed;
And bid him rest, for the evening star
Is scarcely set, and the day is far.

They had found at eve the dreaming one,
By the base of that icy steep;
When over his stiffening limbs begun
The deadly slumber of frost to creep;
And they cherished the pale and breathless form,
Till the stagnant blood ran free and warm.




To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around—
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—
Comes a still voice—
Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,
The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods—rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glide away, the sons of men,
The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man—
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams


On the Life of Thomas Cole
A funeral oration
National Academy of Design,
New York, May 4, 1848



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