Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
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Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
 
Ontwa
By Henry Whiting (1788–1851)
 
FAR 1 up the lengthen’d bay we urge,
To where the triple streams converge
And on its ready head distil
The tribute sent from distant hill—
Now mounting up the sinuous bed        5
Of Wagouche to its marshy head,
We toil against the foamy leaps—
Or wind where still the current sleeps
’Mid seas of grain, the boon of heaven
To sterile climes in bounty given.        10
At last we reach the narrow mound—
The wide diverging waters bound—
Where, almost mingling as they glide
In smooth and counter-current tide,
Two rivers turn in sever’d race,        15
And flow, with still enlarging space,
Till one rolls down beneath the north
And pours its icy torrent forth,
While—glowing as it hurries on—
The other seeks a southern zone.        20
Here, as the heaven dissolves in showers,
The boon on either stream it pours,
And the same sunbeams, as they stray,
On both with light impartial play;
But onward as each current hies,        25
New climes and sunder’d tropics rise,
And, urging, growing, as they run,
Each follows down a varying sun,
Till, o’er her tepid Delta spread,
The Michi-sipi bows her head,—        30
While Lawrence vainly strives to sweep
His gelid surface to the deep.
Scarce did the low and slender neck
The progress of our passage check;
And ere our bark—which, dripping, bore        35
The marks of rival waters o’er—
Had lost in air its humid stain,
’T was launch’d, and floating on again—
’Mid isles in willow’d beauty dress’d
That deck’d Ouisconsin’s yellow breast.        40
The stream ran fast, and soon the scene
Changed into frowns its smiles serene.
Nature arose in troubled mood,
And hills and cliffs, of aspect rude,
Hoary with barrenness, save where        45
The stunted cedar hung in air
Fix’d in the rocks that beetled high,
Darken’d the current rushing by—
Oft choked and broken in its pass
By mighty fragments’ clogging mass,        50
Sever’d, mayhap, by bolt of heaven,
And down the steep in thunder driven.
  Our rapid bark, ere twice the day
Had shone upon its downward way,
Turn’d its light prow, in upward course,        55
To stem the Michi-sipi’s force—
Where her broad wave rolls on amain,
Sever’d by ‘thousand isles’ in twain,
And giant cliffs, with theatening frown,
Conduct her prison’d current down.        60
Full many a stream, on either side,
Through the cleft walls sends forth its tide,
Descending far from distant plains,
Where in its gloom the Prairie reigns,
Seated in grandeur on its throne        65
Amid a desert world alone.
Oft up the steeps, by rugged path
Sloped by the winter torrent’s wrath,
We toil’d, where high the sumach hung,
And tendral vines around it clung,        70
Checking our way with woven bowers,
Or twining over head their flowers;
While higher still, in dizzier break,
The trembling aspen tree would shake—
And oft the wand’ring eye would meet        75
With sparkling crystals ’neath the feet,
Rudely enchased on some dark stone
Shining with lustre not its own.
Hard the ascent, but fair the sight
That spread beneath the lofty height,        80
Where river, isles, and meadows drew
Their varied pictures to the view,—
Or would the downward eye forbear
To dwell on scene so soft and fair,
’T was but to raise a level glance        85
And all was rude and bold at once,
Where the dark Bluffs, half bare, half crown’d,
Arose in gloomy sternness ’round.
For many a day the stream we stemm’d,
Through isles that still its bosom gemm’d,        90
While oft, where back the cliffs retired,
The waving plain, in green attired,
Smiled in the dark and deep recess,
Like guarded spot in wilderness;
(Where Hamadryades might sport,        95
Or fairies hold their dewy court.)
At last our bark, ’mid eddies toss’d
And foam that all the wave emboss’d,
Was warn’d—ere yet the torrent’s roar
Was heard—to turn its keel ashore.        100
Now clambering up the steep ascent,
Our course along the brink was bent,
Where the descending, broken flood,
On rocks that firm its force withstood,
Show’d signs of mightier conflict near        105
Whose rumblings now rose on the ear.
  Why checks my guide on yonder rise,
And bends to earth in mute surprise,
As the Great Spirit of the air
Had burst upon his vision there?        110
’T was the vast Cataract that threw
Its broad effulgence o’er his view,
Like sheet of silver hung on high
And glittering ’neath the northern sky.
Nor think that Pilgrim eyes could dwell        115
On the bright torrent as it fell,
With soul unawed. We look’d above
And saw the waveless channel move,
Fill’d from the fountains of the north
And sent through varied regions forth,        120
Till, deep and broad and placid grown,
It comes in quiet beauty down—
Unconscious of the dizzy steep
O’er which its current soon must sweep.
The eye hung shuddering on the brink,        125
As it had powerless wish to shrink,
Then instant sunk, where ’mid the spray
All the bright sheet in ruin lay.
The tumult swells, and on again
The eddying waters roll amain,        130
Still foaming down in angry pride,
Till mingling rivers smooth its tide.
Nor did the isle, whose promont wedge
Hangs on the torrent’s dizzy edge,
Escape the view; nor sister twin        135
That smiles amid the nether din—
Closed in the raging flood’s embrace,
And free from human footstep’s trace;
Where the proud eagle builds his throne
And rules in majesty alone.        140
Approaching still and more entranced
As still the ling’ring step advanced,
We stood at last in pleased delay
O’erlooking all the bright display,
While the gay tints of western flame        145
That down the day’s obliqueness came,
On hanging sheet and level stream
Darted a soft and slanting beam.
 
Note 1. Whiting, a native of Lancaster, Massachusetts, is now a Major in the army of the United States. He is the author of Ontwa, the Son of the Forest, an Indian tale, published in 1822. It was written in the wilderness, and in the huts of the savages, during the military service of the author on the western frontier. It contains many interesting and spirited descriptions of Indian manners, and fine sketches of local scenery. [back]
 
 
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