Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > Scotland
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Scotland: Vols. VI–VIII.  1876–79.
 
Iceland
Iceland
James Montgomery (1771–1854)
 
(From Greenland)

STRANGE Isle! a moment to poetic gaze
Rise in thy majesty of rocks and bays,
Glens, fountains, caves that seem not things of earth,
But the wild shapes of some prodigious birth;
As if the kraken monarch of the sea,        5
Wallowing abroad in his immensity,
By polar storms and lightning shafts assailed,
Wedged with ice-mountains, here had fought and failed;
Perished,—and in the petrifying blast,
His hulk became an island rooted fast;—        10
Rather, from ocean’s dark foundation hurled,
Thou art a type of his mysterious world,
Buoyed on the desolate abyss, to show
What wonders of creation hide below.
 
  Here Hecla’s triple peaks, with meteor lights,        15
Nature’s own beacons, cheer hibernal nights:
But when the orient flames in red array,
Like ghosts the spectral splendors flee the day;
Morn at her feet beholds supinely spread
The carcass of the old Chimera dead,        20
That wont to vomit flames and molten ore,
Now cleft asunder to the inmost core;
In smouldering heaps, wide wrecks and cinders strown,
Lie like the walls of Sodom overthrown
(Ere from the face of blushing Nature swept,        25
And where the city stood the Dead Sea slept);
While inaccessible, tradition feigns,
To human foot the guarded top remains,
Where birds of hideous shape and doleful note,
Fate’s ministers, in livid vapors float.        30
 
  Far off, amidst the placid sunshine, glow
Mountains with hearts of fire and crests of snow,
Whose blackened slopes with deep ravines entrenched,
Their thunders silenced, and their lightnings quenched,
Still the slow heat of spent eruptions breathe,        35
While embryo earthquakes swell their wombs beneath.
 
  Hark! from yon caldron cave, the battle-sound
Of fire and water warring under ground:
Racked on the wheels of an ebullient tide,
Here might some spirit, fallen from bliss, abide,—        40
Such fitful wailings of intense despair,
Such emanating splendors, fill the air.
He comes, he comes; the infuriate Geyser springs
Up to the firmament on vapory wings;
With breathless awe the mounting glory view;        45
White whirling clouds his steep ascent pursue.
But lo! a glimpse;—refulgent to the gale,
He starts all naked through his riven veil;
A fountain-column, terrible and bright,
A living, breathing, moving form of light:        50
From central earth to heaven’s meridian thrown,
The mighty apparition towers alone,
Rising, as though forever he could rise,
Storm and resume his palace in the skies,
All foam and turbulence and wrath below;        55
Around him beams the reconciling bow
(Signal of peace, whose radiant girdle binds,
Till nature’s doom, the waters and the winds);
While mist and spray, condensed to sudden dews,
The air illumine with celestial hues,        60
As if the bounteous sun were raining down
The richest gems of his imperial crown.
In vain the spirit wrestles to break free,
Foot-bound to fathomless captivity;
A power unseen, by sympathetic spell        65
Forever working, to his flinty cell
Recalls him from the ramparts of the spheres:
He yields, collapses, lessens, disappears;
Darkness receives him in her vague abyss,
Around whose verge light froth and bubbles hiss,        70
While the low murmurs of the refluent tide
Far into subterranean silence glide,
The eye still gazing down the dread profound,
When the bent ear hath wholly lost the sound.
But is he slain and sepulchred? Again        75
The deathless giant sallies from his den,
Scales with recruited strength the ethereal walls,
Struggles afresh for liberty,—and falls.
Yes, and for liberty the fight renewed,
By day, by night, undaunted, unsubdued,        80
He shall maintain, till Iceland’s solid base
Fail, and the mountains vanish from its face.
 
  And can these fail? Of Alpine height and mould
Schapta’s unshaken battlements behold;
His throne an hundred hills; his sun-crowned head        85
Resting on clouds; his robe of shadow spread
O’er half the isle; he pours from either hand
An unexhausted river through the land,
On whose fair banks, through valleys warm and green,
Cattle and flocks and homes and spires are seen.        90
Here Nature’s earthquake-pangs were never felt;
Here in repose hath man for ages dwelt:
The everlasting mountain seems to say,
“I am,—and I shall never pass away.”
 
  Yet fifty winters, and, with huge uproar,        95
Thy pride shall perish;—them shalt be no more!
Amidst chaotic ruins on the plain,
Those cliffs, these waters, shall be sought in vain!
Through the dim vista of unfolding years,
A pageant of portentous woe appears.        100
Yon rosy groups, with golden locks, at play,
I see them,—few, decrepit, silent, gray;
Their fathers all at rest beneath the sod,
Whose flowerless verdure marks the House of God,
Home of the living and the dead;—where meet        105
Kindred and strangers, in communion sweet,
When dawns the Sabbath on the block-built pile;
The kiss of peace, the welcome, and the smile
Go round; till comes the priest, a father there,
And the bell knolls his family to prayer:        110
Angels might stoop from thrones in heaven, to be
Co-worshippers in such a family,
Whom from their nooks and dells, where’er they roam,
The Sabbath gathers to their common home.
O, I would stand a keeper at this gate        115
Rather than reign with kings in guilty state;
A day in such serene enjoyment spent
Were worth an age of splendid discontent!
—But whither am I hurried from my theme?
Schapta returns on the prophetic dream.        120
 
  From eve till morn strange meteors streak the pole;
At cloudless noon mysterious thunders roll,
As if below both shore and ocean hurled
From deep convulsions of the nether world:
Anon the river, boiling from its bed,        125
Shall leap its bounds and o’er the lowlands spread,
Then waste in exhalation, leaving void
As its own channel, utterly destroyed,
Fields, gardens, dwellings, churches, and their graves,
All wrecked or disappearing with the waves.        130
The fugitives that ’scape this instant death
Inhale slow pestilence with every breath;
Mephitic steams from Schapta’s mouldering breast
With livid horror shall the air infest;
And day shall glare so foully on the sight,        135
Darkness were refuge from the curse of light.
Lo! far among the glaciers, wrapt in gloom,
The red precursors of approaching doom,
Scattered and solitary founts of fire,
Unlocked by hands invisible, aspire:        140
Erelong, more rapidly than eye can count,
Above, beneath, they multiply, they mount,
Converge, condense,—a crimson phalanx form,
And rage aloft in one unbounded storm;
From heaven’s red roof the fierce reflections throw        145
A sea of fluctuating light below.
Now the whole army of destroyers, fleet
As whirlwinds, terrible as lightnings, meet;
The mountains melt like wax along their course,
When, downward pouring with resistless force        150
Through the void channel where the river rolled,
To ocean’s verge their flaming march they hold;
While blocks of ice, and crags of granite rent,
Half-fluid ore, and rugged minerals blent,
Float on the gulf, till molten or immersed,        155
Or in explosive thunderbolts dispersed.
Thus shall the Schapta, towering on the brink
Of unknown jeopardy, in ruin sink;
And, this wild paroxysm of frenzy past,
At her own work shall Nature stand aghast.        160
 
 
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