Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
History of a Ray of Light
By Samuel Gilman (1791–1858)
“LET 1 there be light!” creation’s Author spoke,
And quick from chaos floods of splendor broke—
On that magnificent, primeval morn,
Myself, an humble ray of light was born.
  Vain were the task to guess my native place;        5
Rushing, careering, furiously through space,
Plunged amid kindred rays and mingling beams,
These are my first of recollection’s gleams.
Oh! with what joy we rioted along!
Darting afar, in young existence strong,        10
Onward we poured the unaccustomed day
Through tracts, the length of many a milky way.
(For know, we rays of light are living things,
Each with ten thousand pair of brilliant wings;
No wonder then, when all those wings are stirr’d,        15
We flit it so much faster than a bird.)
At last, when youthful years and sports were done,
Choice, chance, or duty brought me to your sun;
And, while my brother pencils fled afar,
To swell the glories of some viewless star,        20
’T was mine to fly about this work of heav’n,
Where one huge orb gave light and heat to seven,
Although short visits now and then I make,
To distant spheres, for recreation’s sake.
  Ah! ne’er shall I forget th’ eventful day        25
When to this planet first I sped my way:
To many a twinkling throb my heart gave birth,
As near and nearer I approach’d the earth.
What was to be my fate? for ever lost
In some dark bog? or was I to be tost        30
In wild reflection, round some narrow spot,
Then sink absorb’d, inglorious and forgot?
No, reader, no—far different the career
Which fate designed me to accomplish here:
Millions of splendid scenes ’t was mine to grace,        35
Though my first act brought ruin to your race.
Trembling, I reach’d the serpent’s glistening eye,
Then glanced, and struck the apple, hanging by,
Then, to your mother Eve reflected, flew,
And thus, at one exploit, a world o’erthrew!        40
Oh scene of wo! the mischief I had wrought,
Those quick successive shocks, that stunn’d my thought,
The poisonous magic from that sire of lies,
The worse contagion in that woman’s eyes,
All were too much for one poor ray of light,        45
New to his task, and meaning only right.
Distrest in heart, at once myself I hurl’d
Far to the outside of this injured world,
Wishing to wear my wretched life away,
’Mid scenes, where solitude and chaos lay.        50
At length, while wandering o’er these realms of wo,
I heard a small, sweet voice that whisper’d low
In tones of soothing—’t was a brother ray
Sent from the hand that first created day—
“No longer mourn,” the darting angel said,        55
“The hopes of man are not for ever fled
From his own race a Saviour shall arise,
To lead him back to his forbidden skies;
And hark! when Bethl’em’s beauteous star shall shine,
Its first and freshest radiance shall be thine!”        60
  Cheer’d by these words, I long’d to gain once more
This lovely world, and try my fortune o’er.
Just then a globe, new struck from chaos out,
Met me, and turn’d my headlong path about;
Back to the sun with breathless speed I flew,        65
And thence rush’d down, where bright to Noah’s view
The glorious rainbow shone—a lingering stop
I made within a small pellucid drop,
Touch’d its internal surface, and outright
Darted through air to glad the patriarch’s sight.        70
Glancing from thence away, I sported on
Where’er by pleasure or by duty drawn;—
Now tipping some bright drop of pearly dew,
Now plunging into heaven through tracks of blue,
Now aiding to light up the glorious morn,        75
Or twilight’s softer mantle to adorn,
Now darting through the depths of ocean clear,
To paint a pearl—then to the atmosphere
Again reflected, shooting to the skies
Away, away, where thought can never rise;        80
Then trav’ling down to tinge some valley flower,
Or point some beauty’s eye with mightier power,
Or to some monarch’s gem new lustre bring,
Or light with fire some prouder insect’s wing,
Or lend to health’s red cheek a brighter dye,        85
Or flash delusive from consumption’s eye,
Or sparkle round a vessel’s form by night,
Or give the glow-worm its phosphoric light,
Or clothe with terror threatening anger’s glance,
Or from beneath the lids of love to dance,        90
Or place those little silver points on tears,
Or light devotion’s eye, while mercy hears;
In short, to aid with my poor transient flings,
All scenes, all passions, all created things.
  Few rays of light have been where I have been,        95
Honor’d like me, or seen what I have seen:
I glow’d amid the bush, which Moses saw,
I lit the mount, when he proclaim’d his law:
I to that blazing pillar brought my mite,
Which glared along old Israel’s path by night.        100
I lent a glory to Elijah’s car,
And took my promised flight from Bethl’em’s star.
  But not to holy ground was I confined,
In classic haunts my duties were assign’d.
I primed the bolts Olympian Jove would throw,        105
And Pluto sought me for his fires below:
Over and over gallant Phœbus swore,
I was the finest dart his quiver bore:
Oft was I sent a peeping, anxious ray
From Dian, hastening where Endymion lay:        110
When Iris shot from heaven, all swift and bright,
Thither I rush’d, companion of her flight:
From Vulcan’s anvil I was made to glare,
I lent a horror to the Gorgon’s stare,
I too have beam’d upon Achilles’ shield,        115
And dropp’d from Helen’s eye when Paris kneel’d;
Faithful Achates, every school-boy knows,
Struck from a flint my whole long year’s repose:
Ten wretched days I pass’d in sobs and sighs,
Because I could not dance on Homer’s eyes:        120
I once was decomposed from that pure oil,
Which cheer’d the Athenian sage’s midnight toil:
I from the brazen focus led the van,
When Archimedes tried his frightful plan;
’T was I, from Cleopatra’s orb that hurl’d        125
The fatal glance, which lost her slave the world:
I struck the sweetest notes on Memnon’s lyre,
And quiver’d on the phœnix’ funeral pyre.
  Nor ancient scenes alone engross’d my pranks,
The moderns likewise owe me many thanks.        130
Straight in at Raphael’s skylight once I broke,
And led his pencil to its happiest stroke;
I sparkled on the cross Belinda wore,
And tipp’d the Peri’s wing of Thomas Moore;
To Fontenelle I glided from above,        135
When whispering soft astronomy and love;
And know, where’er the finest bards have sung
The moon’s sweet praises with bewitching tongue,
Or that blue evening star of mellow light,
’T was always after I had touch’d their sight.        140
  Nor yet have poetry and painting shared
My sole regards—for science I have cared.
When Galileo raised his glass on high,
Me first it brought to his astonish’d eye;
When Newton’s prism loosed the solar beams,        145
I help’d to realize his heaven-taught dreams;
When Herschel his dim namesake first descried,
I was just shooting from that planet’s side.
At all eclipses and conjunctions nigh,
Of sun, or satellite, or primary,        150
Oft have I serv’d the longitude to fix—
And heavens! in June of eighteen hundred six,
How all New England smiled to see me burst,
Out from behind her darken’d sun the first!
I form’d a spangle on the modest robes        155
Of Doctor Olbers’ new-discover’d globes;
I from the comet’s path was downward sent,
When Bowditch seized me for an element:
Once trav’ling from a fourth-rate star to earth,
I gave the hint of abberration birth.        160
I led th’ electric flash to Priestley’s sight,
And play’d my sports round Franklin’s daring kite;
Absorb’d in copper once I long had lain,
When lo! Galvani gave me life again.
I taught the Swede that after sunny days,        165
Lilies and marigolds will dart forth rays;
And when polarity made Savans stare
For the first time, be sure that I was there.
When iron first in oxygen was burnt,
When Davy his metallic basis learnt,        170
When Brewster shaped his toy for peeping eyes,
And Humboldt counted stars in southern skies,
’T was I that moved, while bursting on their sigh
The flush of wonder, triumph, and delight.
  Nor scarce does history boast one splendid scene        175
Or deep-mark’d era, where I have not been.
The sky-hung cross of Constantine, which turn’d
All Rome to truth, by my assistance burn’d;
When the great charter England’s rights restored,
I scared her monarch from a baron’s sword;        180
When pious Europe led the far crusade,
Did I not flash from Godfrey’s wielded blade?
Did chivalry one tournament display
Of dazzling pomp, from which I kept away?
Was I not present at that gorgeous scene,        185
Where Leicester entertained old England’s queen?
Did I not sparkle on the iron crown
Which the triumphant Corsican took down?
Did I not revel where those splendors shone,
When the fourth George assumed Britannia’s throne?        190
And last, not least, could I refuse to hear,
The summons of th’ Atlantic Souvenir?
No, gentlest reader, trust your humble ray,
’T is here at length I would for ever stay,
If to and fro I could descend and rise        195
’Twixt these bright pages and your brighter eyes;
Absorb’d, reflected, radiated, bent,
With force emitted, or for ages pent,
Through the wide world so long and often toss’d;
Th’ excursive passion of my youth I ’ve lost.        200
I wish no more in my six thousandth year,
Than just to take my peaceful mansion here,
To deck these limnings with my happiest art,
And ’mid these leaves to play my brightest part.
Note 1. Mr Gilman is a native of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and was graduated at Harvard University in 1811. He has been for several years, settled as a clergyman in Charleston, S. C. He is understood to be the author of Memoirs of a New-England Village Choir, a prose work of great merit. [back]

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