Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
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Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
 
The Desolate City
By James Gates Percival (1795–1856)
 
          I HAD a vision.—
A city before me, desolate,
And yet not all decay’d. A summer sun
Shone on it from a most etherial sky,
And the soft winds threw o’er it such a balm,        5
One would have thought it was a sepulchre,
And this the incense offer’d to the manes
Of the departed.
          In the light it lay
Peacefully, as if all its thousands took        10
Their afternoon’s repose, and soon would wake
To the loud joy of evening. There it lay,
A city of magnificent palaces,
And churches, towering more like things of heaven,
The glorious fabrics, fancy builds in clouds,        15
And shapes on loftiest mountains—bright their domes
Threw back the living ray, and proudly stood
Many a statue, looking like the forms
Of spirits hovering in mid air. Tall trees,
Cypress and plane, waved over many a hill        20
Cumber’d with ancient ruins—broken arches,
And tottering columns—vaults, where never came
The blessed beam of day, but only lamps
Shedding a funeral light, were kindled there,
And gave to the bright frescoes on the walls,        25
And the pale statues in their far recesses,
A dim religious awe. Rudely they lay,
Scarce marking out to the inquisitive eye
Their earliest outline. But as desolate
Slumber’d the newer city, though its walls        30
Were yet unbroken, and its towering domes
Had never stoop’d to ruin. All was still;
Hardly the faintest sound of living thing
Moved through the mighty solitude—and yet
All wore the face of beauty. Not a cloud        35
Hung in the lofty sky, that seem’d to rise
In twofold majesty, so bright and pure,
It seem’d indeed a crystaline sphere—and there
The sun rode onward in his conquering march
Serenely glorious. From the mountain heights        40
Tinged with the blue of heaven, to the wide sea
Glass’d with as pure a blue, one desolate plain
Spread out, and over it the fairest sky
Bent round and bless’d it. Life was teeming there
In all its lower forms, a wilderness        45
Of rank luxuriance; flowers, and purpling vines
Matted with deepest foliage, hid the ruins,
And gave the semblance of a tangled wood
To piles, that once were loudly eloquent
With the glad cry of thousands. There were gardens        50
Round stateliest villas, full of graceful statues,
And temples rear’d to woodland deities;
And they were overcrowded with the excess
Of beauty. All that most is coveted
Beneath a colder sky, grew wantonly        55
And richly there. Myrtles and citrons fill’d
The air with fragrance. From the tufted elm,
Bent with its own too massy foliage, hung
Clusters of sunny grapes in frosted purple,
Drinking in spirit from the glowing air,        60
And dropping generous dews. The very wind
Seem’d there a lover, and his easy wings
Fann’d the gay bowers, as if in fond delay
He bent o’er loveliest things, too beautiful
Ever to know decay. The silent air        65
Floating as softly as a cloud of roses,
Dropp’d from Idalia in a dewy shower,—
The air itself seem’d like the breath of heaven
Filling the groves of Eden. Yet these walls
Are desolate—not a trace of living man        70
Is found amid these glorious works of man,
And nature’s fairer glories. Why should he
Be absent from the festival of life,
The holiday of nature? Why not come
To add to the sweet sounds of winds and waters—        75
Of winds uttering Æolian melodies
To the bright, listening flowers, and waters falling
Most musical from marble fountains wreathed
With clustering ivy, like a poet’s brow—
Why comes he not to add his higher strains,        80
And be the interpreter of lower things,
In intellectual worship, at the throne
Of the Beneficent Power, that gave to them
Their pride and beauty?—“In these palaces,
These awful temples, these religious caves,        85
These hoary ruins, and these twilight groves
Teeming with life and love,—a secret plague
Dwells, and the unwary foot, that ventures here,
Returns not.—Fly! To linger here is death.”
 
 
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