Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. V. Nature
Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume V. Nature.  1904.
VII. The Sea
The Coral Reef
James Montgomery (1771–1854)
From “The Pelican Island”

                            EVERY one,
By instinct taught, performed its little task,—
To build its dwelling and its sepulchre,
From its own essence exquisitely modelled;
There breed, and die, and leave a progeny,        5
Still multiplied beyond the reach of numbers,
To frame new cells and tombs; then breed and die
As all their ancestors had done,—and rest,
Hermetically sealed, each in its shrine,
A statue in this temple of oblivion!        10
Millions of millions thus, from age to age,
With simplest skill and toil unweariable,
No moment and no movement unimproved,
Laid line on line, on terrace terrace spread,
To swell the heightening, brightening, gradual mound,        15
By marvellous structure climbing towards the day.
*        *        *        *        *
                    A point at first
It peered above those waves; a point so small
I just perceived it, fixed where all was floating;
And when a bubble crossed it, the blue film        20
Expanded like a sky above the speck;
That speck became a hand-breadth; day and night
It spread, accumulated, and erelong
Presented to my view a dazzling plain,
White as the moon amid the sapphire sea;        25
Bare at low water, and as still as death,
But when the tide came gurgling o’er the surface
’T was like a resurrection of the dead:
From graves innumerable, punctures fine
In the close coral, capillary swarms        30
Of reptiles, horrent as Medusa’s snakes,
Covered the bald-pate reef;
*        *        *        *        *
Erelong the reef o’ertopt the spring-flood’s height,
And mocked the billows when they leapt upon it,
Unable to maintain their slippery hold,        35
And falling down in foam-wreaths round its verge.
Steep were the flanks, with precipices sharp,
Descending to their base in ocean gloom.
Chasms few and narrow and irregular
Formed harbors, safe at once and perilous,—        40
Safe for defence, but perilous to enter.
A sea-lake shone amidst the fossil isle,
Reflecting in a ring its cliffs and caverns,
With heaven itself seen like a lake below.

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