Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
The Backwoodsman
By James K. Paulding (1778–1860)
  ’T WAS sunset’s hallow’d time—and such an eve
Might almost tempt an angel heaven to leave.
Never did brighter glories greet the eye,
Low in the warm and ruddy western sky:
Nor the light clouds at summer eve unfold        5
More varied tints of purple, red, and gold.
Some in the pure, translucent, liquid breast
Of crystal lake, fast anchor’d seem’d to rest,
Like golden islets scatter’d far and wide,
By elfin skill in fancy’s fabled tide,        10
Where, as wild eastern legends idly feign,
Fairy, or genii, hold despotic reign.
Others, like vessels gilt with burnish’d gold,
Their flitting airy way are seen to hold,
All gallantly equipp’d with streamers gay,        15
While hands unseen, or chance directs their way;
Around, athwart, the pure ethereal tide,
With swelling purple sail, they rapid glide,
Gay as the bark, where Egypt’s wanton queen
Reclining on the shaded deck was seen,        20
At which as gazed the uxorious Roman fool,
The subject world slipt from his dotard rule.
Anon, the gorgeous scene begins to fade,
And deeper hues the ruddy skies invade;
The haze of gathering twilight nature shrouds,        25
And pale, and paler, wax the changeful clouds.
Then sunk the breeze into a breathless calm,
The silent dews of evening dropt like balm;
The hungry nighthawk from his lone haunt hies,
To chase the viewless insect through the skies;        30
The bat began his lantern-loving flight,
The lonely whip-poor-will, our bird of night,
Ever unseen, yet ever seeming near,
His shrill note quaver’d in the startled ear;
The buzzing beetle forth did gaily hie,        35
With idle hum, and careless blundering eye;
The little trusty watchman of pale night,
The fire-fly trimm’d anew his lamp so bright,
And took his merry airy circuit round
The sparkling meadow’s green and fragrant bound,        40
Where blossom’d clover, bathed in balmy dew,
In fair luxuriance, sweetly blushing grew.
*      *      *      *      *      *      *
  Now all through Pennsylvania’s pleasant land,
Unheeded pass’d our little roving band,
—For every soul had something here to do,        45
Nor turn’d aside our cavalcade to view—
By Bethlehem, where Moravian exiles ’bide,
In rural paradise, on Lehigh’s side,
And York and Lancaster—whose rival rose
In this good land, no bloody discord knows.        50
Not such their fate!—the ever grateful soil
Rewards the blue-eyed German’s patient toil;
Richer and rounder every year he grows,
Nor other ills his stagnant bosom knows
Than caitiff grub, or cursed Hessian fly,        55
Mildews, and smuts, a dry or humid sky;
Before he sells, the market’s sudden fall,
Or sudden rise, when sold—still worse than all!
Calmly he lives—the tempest of the mind,
That marks its course by many a wreck behind;        60
The purpose high that great ambition feels,
Sometimes perchance upon his vision steals,
But never in his sober waking thought
One stirring, active impulse ever wrought.
Calmly he lives—as free from good as blame,        65
His home, his dress, his equipage the same,
And when he dies, in sooth, ’t is soon forgot
What once he was, or what he once was not—
An honest man, perhaps,—’t is somewhat odd,
That such should be the noblest work of God!        70
  So have I seen in garden rich and gay,
A stately cabbage waxing fat each day;
Unlike the lively foliage of the trees,
Its stubborn leaves ne’er wave in summer breeze,
Nor flower, like those that prank the walks around,        75
Upon its clumsy stem is ever found;
It heeds not noontide heats, or evening’s balm,
And stands unmoved in one eternal calm.
At last, when all the garden’s pride is lost,
It ripens in drear autumn’s killing frost,        80
And in a savory sourkrout finds its end,
From which detested dish, me heaven defend!
*      *      *      *      *      *
  Our Basil beat the lazy sun next day,
And bright and early had been on his way,
But that the world he saw e’en yesternight,        85
Seem’d faded like a vision from his sight.
One endless chaos spread before his eyes,
No vestige left of earth or azure skies,
A boundless nothingness reign’d everywhere,
Hid the green fields, and silent all the air.        90
As look’d the traveller for the world below,
The lively morning breeze began to blow,
The magic curtain roll’d in mists away,
And a gay landscape laugh’d upon the day.
As light the fleeting vapors upward glide,        95
Like sheeted spectres on the mountain side,
New objects open to his wondering view
Of various form, and combinations new.
A rocky precipice, a waving wood,
Deep winding dell, and foaming mountain flood,        100
Each after each, with coy and sweet delay,
Broke on his sight, as at young dawn of day,
Bounded afar by peak aspiring bold,
Like giant capt with helm of burnish’d gold.
So when the wandering grandsire of our race        105
On Ararat had found a resting place,
At first a shoreless ocean met his eye,
Mingling on every side with one blue sky;
But as the waters, every passing day,
Sunk in the earth, or roll’d in mists away,        110
Gradual, the lofty hills, like islands, peep
From the rough bosom of the boundless deep,
Then the round hillocks, and the meadows green,
Each after each, in freshen’d bloom are seen,
Till, at the last, a fair and finish’d whole        115
Combined to win the gazing patriarch’s soul.
Yet oft he look’d, I ween, with anxious eye,
In lingering hope somewhere, perchance, to spy,
Within the silent world, some living thing,
Crawling on earth, or moving on the wing,        120
Or man, or beast—alas! was neither there,
Nothing that breathed of life in earth or air;
’T was a vast silent mansion rich and gay,
Whose occupant was drown’d the other day;
A church-yard, where the gayest flowers oft bloom        125
Amid the melancholy of the tomb;
A charnel house, where all the human race
Had piled their bones in one wide resting place;
Sadly he turn’d from such a sight of wo,
And sadly sought the lifeless world below.        130
  Now down the mountain’s rugged western side,
Descending slow, our lonely travellers hied,
Deep in a narrow glen, within whose breast
The rolling fragments of the mountain rest;
Rocks tumbled on each other, by rude chance,        135
Crown’d with grey fern, and mosses, met the glance,
Through which a brawling river braved its way,
Dashing among the rocks in foamy spray.
Here, ’mid the fragments of a broken world,
In wild and rough confusion, idly hurl’d,        140
Where ne’er was heard the woodman’s echoing stroke,
Rose a huge forest of gigantic oak;
With heads that tower’d half up the mountain’s side.
And arms extending round them far and wide,
They look’d coeval with old mother earth,        145
And seem’d to claim with her an equal birth.
There, by a lofty rock’s moss-mantled base,
Our tired adventurers found a resting place;
Beneath its dark, o’erhanging, sullen brow,
The little bevy nestled snug below,        150
And with right sturdy appetite, and strong,
Devour’d the rustic meal they brought along.
  The squirrel eyed them from his lofty tree,
And chirp’d as wont, with merry morning glee;
The woodcock crow’d as if alone he were,        155
Or heeded not the strange intruders there,
Sure sign they little knew of man’s proud race
In that sequester’d mountain ’biding place;
For wheresoe’er his wandering footsteps tend,
Man never makes the rural train his friend;        160
Acquaintance that brings other beings near,
Produces nothing but distrust or fear:
Beasts flee from man the more his heart they know,
And fears, at last, to fix’d aversion grow,
As thus in blithe serenity they sat,        165
Beguiling resting time with lively chat,
A distant, half heard murmur caught the ear,
Each moment waxing louder, and more near,
A dark obscurity spread all around,
And more than twilight seem’d to veil the ground,        170
While not a leaf e’en of the aspin stirr’d,
And not a sound but that low moan was heard.
There is a moment when the boldest heart
That would not stoop an inch to ’scape death’s dart,
That never shrunk from certain danger here,        175
Will quail and shiver with an anguish fear;
’T is when some unknown mischief hovers nigh,
And heaven itself seems threatening from on high.
  Brave was our Basil, as became a man,
Yet still his blood a little cooler ran,        180
’Twixt fear and wonder, at that murmur drear,
That every moment wax’d more loud and near.
The riddle soon was read—at last it came,
And nature trembled to her inmost frame;
The forest roar’d, the everlasting oak,        185
In writhing agonies the storm bespoke,
The live leaves scatter’d wildly everywhere,
Whirl’d round in maddening circles in the air,
The stoutest limbs were scatter’d all around,
The stoutest trees a stouter master found,        190
Crackling, and crashing, down they thundering go,
And seem to crush the shrinking rocks below:
Then the thick rain in gathering torrents pour’d,
Higher the river rose, and louder roar’d,
And on its dark, quick eddying surface bore        195
The gather’d spoils of earth along its shore,
While trees that not an hour before had stood
The lofty monarchs of the stately wood,
Now whirling round and round with furious force,
Dash ’gainst the rocks that breast the torrent’s force,        200
And shiver like a reed by urchin broke,
Through idle mischief, or with heedless stroke;
A hundred cataracts, unknown before,
Rush down the mountain’s side with fearful roar,
And as with foaming fury down they go,        205
Loose the firm rocks and thunder them below;
Blue lightnings from the dark cloud’s bosom sprung,
Like serpents, menacing with forked tongue,
While many a sturdy oak that stiffly braved
The threatening hurricane that round it raved,        210
Shiver’d beneath its bright resistless flash,
Came tumbling down amain with fearful crash.
Air, earth, and skies, seem’d now to try their power,
And struggle for the mastery of the hour;
Higher the waters rose, and blacker still,        215
And threaten’d soon the narrow vale to fill.

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