Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
Battle of Niagara
By John Neal (1793–1876)
The Soldier’s Visit to His Family.

AND there the stranger stays: beneath that oak.
Whose shatter’d majesty hath felt the stroke
Of heaven’s own thunder—yet it proudly heaves
A giant sceptre wreathed with blasted leaves—
As though it dared the elements, and stood        5
The guardian of that cot—the monarch of that wood.
  Beneath its venerable vault he stands:
And one might think, who saw his outstretch’d hands,
That something more than soldiers e’er may feel,
Had touch’d him with its holy, calm appeal:        10
That yonder wave—the heaven—the earth—the air
Had call’d upon his spirit for her prayer.
His eye goes dimly o’er the midnight scene:
The oak—the cot—the wood—the faded green—
The moon—the sky—the distant moving light—        15
All! all are gathering on his dampen’d sight.
His warrior-helm and plume, his fresh-dyed blade
Beneath a window, on the turf are laid;
The panes are ruddy through the clambering vines
And blushing leaves, that Summer intertwines        20
In warmer tints than e’er luxuriant Spring,
O’er flower-embosom’d roof led wandering.
His pulses quicken—for a rude old door
Is open’d by the wind: he sees the floor
Strew’d with white sand, on which he used to trace        25
His boyhood’s battles—and assign a place
To charging hosts—and give the Indian yell—
And shout to hear his hoary grandsire tell,
How he had fought with savages, whose breath
He felt upon his cheek like mildew till his death.        30
  Hark!—that sweet song!—how full of tenderness!
O, who would breathe in this voluptuous press
Of lulling thoughts!—so soothing and so low;
Like singing fountains in their faintest flow—
It is as if some holy—lovely thing,        35
Within our very hearts were murmuring.
The soldier listens, and his arms are prest
In thankfulness, and trembling on his breast:
Now—on the very window where he stands
Are seen a clambering infant’s rosy hands:        40
And now—ah heaven!—blessings on that smile!—
Stay, soldier stay—O, linger yet awhile!
An airy vision now appears, with eyes—
As tender as the blue of weeping skies:
Yet sunny in their radiance, as that blue        45
When sunset glitters on its falling dew:
With form—all joy and dance—as bright and free
As youthful nymph of mountain Liberty:
Or naked angels dreamt by poesy:
A blooming infant to her heart is prest;        50
And ah—a mother’s song is lulling it to rest!
  A youthful mother! God of heaven!
A thing beneath the skies, so holy or so fair!
  A single bound! our chief is standing by
Trembling from head to foot with ecstacy—        55
“Bless thee!” at length he murmur’d—“bless thee, love!
“My wife!—my boy:”—Their eyes are raised above.
His soldier’s tread of sounding strength is gone:
A choking transport drowns his manly tone.
He sees the closing of that mild, blue eye,        60
His bosom echoes to a faint low cry:
His glorious boy springs freshly from his sleep;
Shakes his thin sun-curls, while his eye-beams leap
As half in fear, along the stranger’s dress,
Then, half advancing, yields to his caress:—        65
Then, peers beneath his locks, and seeks his eye
With the clear look of radiant infancy,
The cherub smile of love, the azure of the sky.
  The stranger now is kneeling by the side
Of that young mother,—watching for the tide        70
Of her returning life:—it comes—a glow
Goes—faintly—slowly—o’er her cheek and brow:
A rising of the gauze that lightly shrouds
A snowy breast—like twilight’s melting clouds—
In nature’s pure, still eloquence, betrays        75
The feelings of the heart that reels beneath his gaze.
  She lives! she lives—see how her feelings speak,
Through what transparency of eye and cheek!
Her color comes and goes, like that faint ray,
That flits o’er lilies at the close of day.        80
O, nature, how omnipotent!—that sigh—
That youthful mother in her ecstacy,
Feels but the wandering of a husband’s eye.
Her lip now ripens, and her heaving breast
Throbs wildly in its light, and now subsides to rest.
*      *      *      *
  ’T is dark abroad. The majesty of night
Bows down superbly from her utmost height:
Stretches her starless plumes across the world;
And all the banners of the wind are furl’d.
How heavily we breathe amid such gloom!        90
As if we slumber’d in creation’s tomb.
It is the noon of that tremendous hour,
When life is helpless, and the dead have power:
When solitudes are peopled: when the sky
Is swept by shady wings that, sailing by,        95
Proclaim their watch is set; when hidden rills
Are chirping on their course; and all the hills
Are bright with armor:—when the starry vests
And glittering plumes, and fiery twinkling crests
Of moon-light sentinels, are sparkling round,        100
And all the air is one rich floating sound:
When countless voices, in the day unheard,
Are piping from their haunts: and every bird
That loves the leafy wood, and blooming bower,
And echoing cave, is singing to her flower:        105
When every lovely—every lonely place,
Is ringing to the light and sandal’d pace
Of twinkling feet; and all about, the flow
Of new-born fountains murmuring as they go:
When watery tunes are richest—and the call        110
Of wandering streamlets, as they part and fall
In foaming melody, is all around:
Like fairy harps beneath enchanted ground,
Sweet drowsy distant music! like the breath
Of airy flutes that blow before an infant’s death.        115
  It is that hour when listening ones will weep
And know not why: when we would gladly sleep
Our last—last sleep; and feel no touch of fear,—
  Unconscious where we are—or what is near,
Till we are startled by a falling tear,        120
That unexpected gather’d in our eye,
While we were panting for yon blessed sky:
That hour of gratitude—of whispering prayer,
When we can hear a worship in the air:
When we are lifted from the earth, and feel        125
Light fanning wings around us faintly wheel,
And o’er our lids and brow a blessing steal:
And then—as if our sins were all forgiven—
And all our tears were wiped—and we in heaven
It is that hour of quiet ecstacy,        130
When every ruffling wind, that passes by
The sleeping leaf, makes busiest minstrelsy;
When all at once! amid the quivering shade,
Millions of diamond sparklers are betray’d!
When dry leaves rustle, and the whistling song        135
Of keen-tuned grass, comes piercingly along:
When windy pipes are heard—and many a lute
Is touch’d amid the skies, and then is mute:
When even the foliage on the glittering steep,
Of feathery bloom—is whispering in its sleep:        140
When all the garlands of the precipice,
Shedding their blossoms, in their moonlight bliss,
Are floating loosely on the eddying air,
And breathing out their fragrant spirits there:
And all their braided tresses fluttering—bright,        145
Are sighing faintly to the shadowy light:
When every cave and grot—and bower and lake,
And drooping floweret-bell, are all awake:
When starry eyes are burning on the cliff
Of many a crouching tyrant too, as if        150
Such melodies were grateful even to him:
When life is loveliest—and the blue skies swim
In lustre, warm as sunshine—but more dim:
When all the holy sentinels of night
Step forth to watch in turn, and worship by their light.        155
  Such is the hour!—the holy, breathless hour,
When such sweet minstrelsy hath mightiest power;
When sights are seen, that all the blaze of day
Can never rival, in its fierce display:
Such is the hour—yet not a sound is heard;        160
No sights are seen—no melancholy bird
Sings tenderly and sweet; but all the air
Is thick and motionless—as if it were
A prelude to some dreadful tragedy;
Some midnight drama of an opening sky!        165
  The genius of the mountain, and the wood;
The stormy eagle, and her rushing brood;
The fire-eyed tenant of the desert cave;
The gallant spirit of the roaring wave;
The star-crown’d messengers that ride the air;        170
The meteor watch-light, with its streamy hair,
Threatening and sweeping redly from the hill;
The shaking cascade—and the merry rill
Are hush’d to slumber now—and heaven and earth are still.
  And now the day-light comes:—slowly it rides,        175
In ridgy lustre o’er the cloudy tides,
Like the soft foam upon the billow’s breast;
Or feathery light upon a shadowy crest;
The morning breezes from their slumbers wake,
And o’er the distant hill-tops cheerly shake        180
Their dewy locks, and plume themselves, and poise
Their rosy wings, and listen to the noise
Of echoes wandering from the world below:
The distant lake, rejoicing in its flow:
The bugle’s ready cry: the laboring drum:        185
The neigh of steeds—and the incessant hum
That the bright tenants of the forest send:
The sunrise gun: the heave—the wave—and bend
Of everlasting trees, whose busy leaves
Rustle their song of praise, while ruin weaves        190
A robe of verdure for their yielding bark;
While mossy garlands—rich, and full, and dark,
Creep slowly round them. Monarchs of the wood!
Whose mighty spectres sway the mountain brood!
Whose aged bosoms, in their last decay,        195
Shelter the wing’d idolators of day;
Who, ’mid the desert wild, sublimely stand,
And grapple with the storm-god hand to hand!
Then drop like weary pyramids away;
Stupendous monuments of calm decay!        200
As yet the warring thunders have not rent
The swimming clouds, the brightening firmament,
The lovely mists that float around the sky—
Ruddy and rich with fresh and glorious dye,
Like hovering seraph wings—or robe of poesy!        205
  Now comes the sun forth! not in blaze of fire:
With rainbow-harness’d coursers, that respire
An atmosphere of flame. No chariot whirls
O’er reddening clouds. No sunny flag unfurls
O’er rushing smoke. No chargers in array        210
Scatter through heaven and earth their fiery spray.
No shouting charioteer, in transport flings
Ten thousand anthems, from tumultuous strings:
And round and round, no fresh-plumed echoes dance:
No airy minstrels in the flush light glance:        215
No rushing melody comes strong and deep:
And far away no fading winglets sweep:
No boundless hymning o’er the blue sky rings,
In hallelujahs to the King of kings:
No youthful hours are seen. No riband lash,        220
Flings its gay stripings like a rainbow flash,
While starry crowns, and constellations fade
Before the glories of that cavalcade,
Whose trappings are the jewelry of heaven,
Embroider’d thickly on the clouds of even.        225
  No!—no!—he comes not thus in pomp, and light!
A new creation bursting out of night!
But he comes darkly forth! in storm array’d—
Like the red tempest marshall’d in her shade,
When mountains rock; and thunders travelling round,        230
Hold counsel in the sky—and midnight trumps resound.

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