Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > Americas
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Americas: Vol. XXX.  1876–79.
 
Danish America: Greenland
Greenland
James Montgomery (1771–1854)
 
(Excerpt)

THE MOON is watching in the sky; the stars
Are swiftly wheeling on their golden cars;
Ocean, outstretched with infinite expanse,
Serenely slumbers in a glorious trance;
The tide, o’er which no troubling spirits breathe,        5
Reflects a cloudless firmament beneath;
Where, poised as in the centre of a sphere,
A ship above and ship below appear;
A double image, pictured on the deep,
The vessel o’er its shadow seems to sleep:        10
Yet, like the host of heaven, that never rest,
With evanescent motion to the west
The pageant glides through loneliness and night,
And leaves behind a rippling wake of light.
*        *        *        *        *
  Light-breathing gales awhile their course propel,        15
The billows roll with pleasurable swell,
Till the seventh dawn; when o’er the pure expanse
The sun, like lightning, throws his earliest glance,
“Land! Land!” exclaims the ship-boy from the mast,
“Land! Land!” with one electric shock hath passed        20
From lip to lip, and every eye hath caught
The cheering glimpse so long, so dearly sought:
Yet must imagination half supply
The doubtful streak, dividing sea and sky;
Nor clearly known, till, in sublimer day,        25
From icy cliffs refracted splendors play,
And clouds of sea-fowl high in ether sweep,
Or fall like stars through sunshine on the deep.
’T is Greenland! but so desolately bare,
Amphibious life alone inhabits there;        30
’T is Greenland! yet so beautiful the sight,
The Brethren gaze with undisturbed delight:
In silence (as before the throne) they stand,
And pray, in prospect of that promised land,
That He, who sends them thither, may abide        35
Through the waste howling wilderness their guide;
And the Good Shepherd seek his straying flocks,
Lost on those frozen waves and herbless rocks,
By the still waters of his comforts lead,
And in the pastures of salvation feed.
*        *        *        *        *
        40
  Behold a scene, magnificent and new;
Nor land nor water meets the excursive view;
The round horizon girds one frozen plain,
The mighty tombstone of the buried main,
Where, dark and silent, and unfelt to flow,        45
A dead sea sleeps with all its tribes below.
But heaven is still itself; the deep-blue sky
Comes down with smiles to meet the glancing eye,
Though, if a keener sight its bound would trace,
The arch recedes through everlasting space.        50
The sun, in morning glory, mounts his throne,
Nor shines he here in solitude unknown;
North, south, and west, by dogs or reindeer drawn,
Careering sledges cross the unbroken lawn,
And bring, from bays and forelands round the coast,        55
Youth, beauty, valor, Greenland’s proudest boast,
Who thus, in winter’s long and social reign,
Hold feasts and tournaments upon the main,
When, built of solid floods, his bridge extends
A highway o’er the gulf to meeting friends,        60
Whom rocks impassable, or winds and tide,
Fickle and false, in summer months divide.
 
  The scene runs round with motion, rings with mirth,
—No happier spot upon the peopled earth;
The drifted snow to dust the travellers beat,        65
The uneven ice is flint beneath their feet.
Here tents, a gay encampment, rise around,
Where music, song, and revelry resound;
There the blue smoke upwreathes a hundred spires,
Where humbler groups have lit their pine-wood fires.        70
Erelong they quit the tables; knights and dames
Lead the blithe multitude to boisterous games.
Bears, wolves, and lynxes yonder head the chase;
Here start the harnessed reindeer in the race;
Borne without wheels, a flight of rival cars        75
Track the ice-firmament, like shooting stars,
Right to the goal,—converging as they run,
They dwindle through the distance into one.
Where smoother waves have formed a sea of glass,
With pantomimic change the skaters pass;        80
Now toil like ships ’gainst wind and stream; then wheel
Like flames blown suddenly asunder; reel
Like drunkards; then, dispersed in tangents wide,
Away with speed invisible they glide.
Peace in their hearts, death-weapons in their hands,        85
Fierce in mock-battle meet fraternal bands,
Whom the same chiefs erewhile to conflict led,
When friends by friends, by kindred kindred, bled.
Here youthful rings with pipe and drum advance,
And foot the mazes of the giddy dance;        90
Graybeard spectators, with illumined eye,
Lean on their staves, and talk of days gone by;
Children, who mimic all, from pipe and drum
To chase and battle, dream of years to come.
Those years to come, the young shall ne’er behold;        95
The days gone by no more rejoice the old.
*        *        *        *        *
  Ocean, meanwhile, abroad hath burst the roof
That sepulchred his waves; he bounds aloof.
In boiling cataracts, as volcanoes spout
Their fiery fountains, gush the waters out;        100
The frame of ice with dire explosion rends,
And down the abyss the mingled crowd descends.
Heaven! from this closing horror hide thy light;
Cast thy thick mantle o’er it, gracious Night!
These screams of mothers with their infants lost,        105
These groans of agony from wretches tost
On rocks and whirlpools,—in thy storms be drowned,
The crash of mountain-ice to atoms ground,
And rage of elements!—while winds, that yell
Like demons, peal the universal knell,        110
The shrouding waves around their limbs shall spread,
“And Darkness be the burier of the dead.”
Their pangs are o’er;—at morn the tempests cease,
And the freed ocean rolls himself to peace;
Broad to the sun his heaving breast expands,        115
He holds his mirror to a hundred lands;
While cheering gales pursue the eager chase
Of billows round immeasurable space.
 
  Where are the multitudes of yesterday?
At morn they came; at eve they passed away.        120
Yet some survive;—yon castellated pile
Floats on the surges, like a fairy isle:
Pre-eminent upon its peak, behold,
With walls of amethyst and roofs of gold,
The semblance of a city; towers and spires        125
Glance in the firmament with opal fires:
Prone from those heights pellucid fountains flow
O’er pearly meads, through emerald vales below.
No lovelier pageant moves beneath the sky,
Nor one so mournful to the nearer eye;        130
Here, when the bitterness of death had passed
O’er others, with their sledge and reindeer cast,
Five wretched ones in dumb despondence wait
The lingering issue of a nameless fate;
A bridal party;—mark yon reverend sage        135
In the brown vigor of autumnal age;
His daughter in her prime; the youth, who won
Her love by miracles of prowess done;
With these, two meet companions of their joy,
Her younger sister, and a gallant boy,        140
Who hoped, like him, a gentle heart to gain
By valorous enterprise on land or main.
—These, when the ocean-pavement failed their feet,
Sought on a glacier’s crags a safe retreat;
But in the shock, from its foundation torn,        145
That mass is slowly o’er the waters borne,
An iceberg!—on whose verge all day they stand,
And eye the blank horizon’s ring for land.
All night around a dismal flame they weep;
Their sledge, by piecemeal, lights the hoary deep        150
Morn brings no comfort: at her dawn expire
The latest embers of their latest fire;
For warmth and food the patient reindeer bleeds,
Happier in death than those he warms and feeds.
*        *        *        *        *
  Ages are fled; and Greenland’s hour draws nigh;        155
Sealed is the judgment; all her race must die:
Commerce forsakes the unvoyageable seas,
That year by year with keener rigor freeze;
The embargoed waves in narrower channels roll
To blue Spitzbergen and the utmost pole:        160
A hundred colonies, erewhile that lay
On the green marge of many a sheltered bay,
Lapse to the wilderness; their tenants throng
Where streams in summer, turbulent and strong,
With molten ice from inland Alps supplied,        165
Hold free communion with the breathing tide,
That from the heart of ocean sends the flood
Of living water round the world, like blood:
But Greenland’s pulse shall slow and slower beat,
Till the last spark of genial warmth retreat,        170
And, like a palsied limb of Nature’s frame,
Greenland be nothing but a place and name.
That crisis comes; the wafted fuel fails;
The cattle perish; famine long prevails;
With torpid sloth, intenser seasons bind        175
The strength of muscle and the spring of mind;
Man droops, his spirits waste, his powers decay,
His generation soon shall pass away.
 
  At moonless midnight, on this naked coast,
How beautiful in heaven the starry host!        180
With lambent brilliance o’er these cloister-walls,
Slant from the firmament a meteor falls;
A steadier flame from yonder beacon streams,
To light the vessel, seen in golden dreams
By many a pining wretch, whose slumbers feign        185
The bliss for which he looks at morn in vain.
Two years are gone, and half expired a third
(The nation’s heart is sick with hope deferred),
Since last for Europe sailed a Greenland prow,
Her whole marine,—so shorn is Greenland now,        190
Though once, like clouds in ether unconfined,
Her naval wings were spread to every wind.
The monk who sits, the weary hours to count,
In the lone block-house on the beacon-mount,
Watching the east, beholds the morning star        195
Eclipsed at rising o’er the waves afar,
As if—for so would fond expectance think—
A sail had crossed it on the horizon’s brink.
His fervent soul, in ecstasy outdrawn,
Glows with the shadows kindling through the dawn,        200
Till every bird that flashes through the brine
Appears an armed and gallant brigantine;
And every sound along the air that comes,
The voice of clarions and the roll of drums.
’T is she! ’t is she! the well-known keel at last,        205
With Greenland’s banner streaming at the mast;
The full-swoln sails, the spring-tide, and the breeze
Waft on her way the pilgrim of the seas.
The monks at matins, issuing from their cells,
Spread the glad tidings; while their convent-bells        210
Wake town and country, sea and shore, to bliss
Unknown for years on any morn but this.
Men, women, children, throng the joyous strand,
Whose mob of moving shadows o’er the sand
Lengthen to giants, while the hovering sun        215
Lights up a thousand radiant points from one.
The pilots launch their boats;—a race! a race!
The strife of oars is seen in every face;
Arm against arm puts forth its might to reach,
And guide the welcome stranger to the beach.        220
Shouts from the shore, the cliffs, the boats, arise;
No voice, no signal, from the ship replies;
Nor on the deck, the yards, the bow, the stern,
Can keenest eye a human form discern.
Oh! that those eyes were opened, there to see        225
How, in serene and dreadful majesty,
Sits the destroying Angel at the helm!
He who hath lately marched from realm to realm
And, from the palace to the peasant’s shed,
Made all the living kindred to the dead:        230
Nor man alone,—dumb nature felt his wrath,
Drought, mildew, murrain, strewed his carnage-path;
Harvest and vintage cast their timeless fruit,
Forests before him withered from the root.
To Greenland now, with unexhausted power,        235
He comes commissioned; and in evil hour
Propitious elements prepare his way;
His day of landing is a festal day.
 
  A boat arrives;—to those who scale the deck,
Of life appears but one disastrous wreck!        240
Fallen from the rudder, which he fain had grasped,
But stronger Death his wrestling hold unclasped,
The film of darkness freezing o’er his eyes,
A lukewarm corpse, the brave commander lies;
Survivor sole of all his buried crew,        245
Whom one by one the rife contagion slew,
Just when the cliffs of Greenland cheered his sight,
Even from their pinnacle his soul took flight.
Chilled at the spectacle, the pilots gaze
One on another, lost in blank amaze;        250
But, from approaching boats when rivals throng,
They seize the helm, in silence steer along,
And cast their anchor, midst exulting cries,
That make the rocks the echoes of the skies,
Till the mysterious signs of woes to come,        255
Circled by whispers, strike the uproar dumb.
Rumor affirms, that by some heinous spell
Of Lapland witches crew and captain fell;
None guess the secret of perfidious fate,
Which all shall know too soon,—yet know too late.
*        *        *        *        *
        260
  Comes there no ship again to Greenland’s shore?
There comes another;—there shall come no more;
Nor this shall reach a haven:—What are these
Stupendous monuments upon the seas?
Works of Omnipotence, in wondrous forms,        265
Immovable as mountains in the storms?
Far as Imagination’s eye can roll,
One range of Alpine glaciers to the pole
Flanks the whole eastern coast; and, branching wide,
Arches o’er many a league the indignant tide,        270
That works and frets, with unavailing flow,
To mine a passage to the beach below;
Thence from its neck that winter-yoke to rend.
And down the gulf the crashing fragments send.
There lies a vessel in this realm of frost,        275
Not wrecked, nor stranded, yet forever lost:
Its keel embedded in the solid mass;
Its glistening sails appear expanded glass;
The transverse ropes with pearls enormous strung,
The yards with icicles grotesquely hung,        280
Wrapt in the topmost shrouds there rests a boy,
His old sea-faring father’s only joy:
Sprung from a race of rovers, ocean-born,
Nursed at the helm, he trod dry land with scorn;
Through fourscore years from port to port he veered,        285
Quicksand, nor rock, nor foe, nor tempest feared;
Now cast ashore, though like a hulk he lie,
His son at sea is ever in his eye,
And his prophetic thought, from age to age,
Esteems the waves his offspring’s heritage:        290
He ne’er shall know, in his Norwegian cot,
How brief that son’s career, how strange his lot;
Writhed round the mast, and sepulchred in air,
Him shall no worm devour, no vulture tear;
Congealed to adamant, his frame shall last,        295
Though empires change, till time and tide be past.
 
  On deck, in groups embracing as they died,
Singly, erect, or slumbering side by side,
Behold the crew!—They sailed, with hope elate,
For eastern Greenland; till, ensnared by fate,        300
In toils that mocked their utmost strength and skill
They felt, as by a charm, their ship stand still:
The madness of the wildest gale that blows
Were mercy to that shudder of repose,
When withering horror struck from heart to heart        305
The blunt rebound of Death’s benumbing dart,
And each, a petrifaction at his post,
Looked on yon father, and gave up the ghost:
He, meekly kneeling, with his hands upraised,
His beard of driven snow, eyes fixed and glazed,        310
Alone among the dead shall yet survive,
The imperishable dead, that seem alive;
The immortal dead, whose spirits, breaking free,
Bore his last words into eternity,
While with a seraph’s zeal, a Christian’s love,        315
Till his tongue failed, he spoke of joys above.
Now motionless, amidst the icy air,
He breathes from marble lips unuttered prayer.
The clouds condensed, with dark unbroken hue
Of stormy purple, overhang his view,        320
Save in the west, to which he strains his sight,
One golden streak, that grows intensely bright,
Till thence the emerging sun, with lightning blaze,
Pours the whole quiver of his arrowy rays:
The smitten rocks to instant diamond turn,        325
And round the expiring saint such visions burn
As if the gates of Paradise were thrown
Wide open to receive his soul;—’t is flown:
The glory vanishes, and over all
Cimmerian darkness spreads her funeral pall!        330
 
  Morn shall return, and noon, and eve, and night
Meet here with interchanging shade and light:
But from this bark no timber shall decay,
Of these cold forms no feature pass away;
Perennial ice around the encrusted bow,        335
The peopled deck, and full-rigged masts, shall grow,
Till from the sun himself the whole be hid,
Or spied beneath a crystal pyramid;
As in pure amber, with divergent lines,
A rugged shell embossed with sea-weed shines.        340
 
 
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