Verse > Anthologies > Samuel Kettell, ed. > Specimens of American Poetry
Samuel Kettell, ed.  Specimens of American Poetry.  1829.
The Ages
By William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878)
  WHEN, to the common rest that crowns our days,
  Call’d in the noon of life, the good man goes,
  Or full of years, and ripe in wisdom, lays
  His silver temples in their last repose;
  When, o’er the buds of youth, the death-wind blows,        5
  And blights the fairest; when our bitterest tears
  Stream, as the eyes of those that love us close,
  We think on what they were, with many fears
Lest Goodness die with them, and leave the coming years.
  And therefore, to our hearts, the days gone by,—        10
  When lived the honor’d sage whose death we wept,
  And the soft virtues beam’d from many an eye,
  And beat in many a heart that long has slept,—
  Like spots of earth where angel-feet have stept—
  Are holy; and high-dreaming bards have told        15
  Of times when worth was crown’d, and faith was kept,
  Ere friendship grew a snare, or love wax’d cold—
Those pure and happy times—the golden days of old.
  Peace to the just man’s memory,—let it grow
  Greener with years, and blossom through the flight        20
  Of ages; let the mimic canvas show
  His calm benevolent features; let the light
  Stream on his deeds of love, that shunn’d the sight
  Of all but heaven, and, in the book of fame,
  The glorious record of his virtues write,        25
  And hold it up to men, and bid them claim
A palm like his, and catch from him the hallow’d flame.
  But oh, despair not of their fate who rise
  To dwell upon the earth when we withdraw;
  Lo! the same shaft, by which the righteous dies,        30
  Strikes through the wretch that scoff’d at mercy’s law,
  And trode his brethren down, and felt no awe
  Of him who will avenge them. Stainless worth,
  Such as the sternest age of virtue saw,
  Ripens, meanwhile, till time shall call it forth        35
From the low modest shade, to light and bless the earth.
  Has Nature, in her calm majestic march,
  Falter’d with age at last? does the bright sun
  Grow dim in heaven? or, in their far blue arch,
  Sparkle the crowd of stars, when day is done,        40
  Less brightly? when the dew-lipp’d spring comes on,
  Breathes she with airs less soft, or scents the sky
  With flowers less fair than when her reign begun?
  Does prodigal autumn, to our age, deny
The plenty that once swell’d beneath his sober eye?        45
  Look on this beautiful world, and read the truth
  In her fair page; see, every season brings
  New change, to her, of everlasting youth;
  Still the green soil, with joyous living things,
  Swarms, the wide air is full of joyous wings,        50
  And myriads, still, are happy in the sleep
  Of ocean’s azure gulfs, and where he flings
  The restless surge. Eternal love doth keep
In his complacent arms, the earth, the air, the deep.
  Will then the merciful One, who stamp’d our race        55
  With his own image, and who gave them sway
  O’er earth, and the glad dwellers on her face,
  Now that our flourishing nations far away
  Are spread, where’er the moist earth drinks the day,
  Forget the ancient care that taught and nursed        60
  His latest offspring? will he quench the ray
  Infused by his own forming smile at first,
And leave a work so fair all blighted and accursed?
  Oh no! a thousand cheerful omens give
  Hope of yet happier days whose dawn is nigh        65
  He, who has tamed the elements, shall not live
  The slave of his own passions; he whose eye
  Unwinds the eternal dances of the sky,
  And in the abyss of brightness dares to span
  The sun’s broad circle, rising yet more high,        70
  In God’s magnificent works his will shall scan—
And love and peace shall make their paradise with man.
  Sit at the feet of history—through the night
  Of years the steps of virtue she shall trace,
  And show the earlier ages, where her sight        75
  Can pierce the eternal shadows o’er their face;—
  When, from the genial cradle of our race,
  Went forth the tribes of men, their pleasant lot
  To choose, where palm-groves cool’d their dwelling place,
  Or freshening rivers ran; and there forgot        80
The truth of heaven, and kneel’d to gods that heard them not.
  Then waited not the murderer for the night,
  But smote his brother down in the bright day,
  And he who felt the wrong, and had the might,
  His own avenger, girt himself to slay;        85
  Beside the path the unburied carcass lay;
  The shepherd, by the fountains of the glen,
  Fled, while the robber swept his flock away,
  And slew his babes. The sick, untended then,
Languish’d in the damp shade, and died afar from men.        90
  But misery brought in love—in passion’s strife
  Man gave his heart to mercy pleading long,
  And sought out gentle deeds to gladden life;
  The weak, against the sons of spoil and wrong,
  Banded, and watch’d their hamlets, and grew strong.        95
  States rose, and, in the shadow of their might,
  The timid rested. To the reverent throng,
  Grave and time-wrinkled men, with locks all white,
Gave laws, and judged their strifes, and taught the way of right.
  Till bolder spirits seized the rule, and nail’d        100
  On men the yoke that man should never bear,
  And drove them forth to battle: Lo! unveil’d
  The scene of those stern ages! What is there?
  A boundless sea of blood, and the wild air
  Moans with the crimson surges that in tomb        105
  Cities and banner’d armies; forms that wear
  The kingly circlet, rise, amid the gloom,
O’er the dark wave, and straight are swallow’d in its womb.
  Those ages have no memory—but they left
  A record in the desert—columns strown        110
  On the waste sands, and statues fall’n and cleft,
  Heap’d like a host in battle overthrown;
  Vast ruins, where the mountain’s ribs of stone
  Were hewn into a city; streets that spread
  In the dark earth, where never breath has blown        115
  Of heaven’s sweet air, nor foot of man dares tread
The long and perilous ways—the cities of the dead;
  And tombs of monarchs to the clouds up-piled—
  They perish’d—but the eternal tombs remain—
  And the black precipice, abrupt and wild,        120
  Pierced by long toil and hollow’d to a fane;—
  Huge piers and frowning forms of gods sustain
  The everlasting arches, dark and wide,
  Like the night heaven when clouds are black with rain.
  But idly skill was task’d, and strength was plied,        125
All was the work of slaves, to swell a despot’s pride.
  And virtue cannot dwell with slaves, nor reign
  O’er those who cower to take a tyrant’s yoke;
  She left the down-trod nations in disdain,
  And flew to Greece, when liberty awoke,        130
  New-born, amid those beautiful vales, and broke
  Sceptre and chain with her fair youthful hands,
  As the rock shivers in the thunder stroke.
  And lo! in full-grown strength, an empire stands
Of leagued and rival states, the wonder of the lands.        135
  Oh Greece! thy flourishing cities were a spoil
  Unto each other; thy hard hand oppress’d
  And crush’d the helpless; thou didst make thy soil
  Drunk with the blood of those that loved thee best;
  And thou didst drive, from thy unnatural breast,        140
  Thy just and brave to die in distant climes;
  Earth shudder’d at thy deeds, and sigh’d for rest
  From thine abominations; after times
That yet shall read thy tale, will tremble at thy crimes.
  Yet there was that within thee which has saved        145
  Thy glory, and redeem’d thy blotted name;
  The story of thy better deeds, engraved
  On fame’s unmouldering pillar, puts to shame
  Our chiller virtue; the high art to tame
  The whirlwind of thy passions was thine own;        150
  And the pure ray, that from thy bosom came,
  Far over many a land and age has shone,
And mingles with the light that beams from God’s own throne.
  And Rome, thy sterner, younger sister, she
  Who awed the world with her imperial frown,        155
  Drew the deep spirit of her race from thee,—
  The rival of thy shame and thy renown.
  Yet her degenerate children sold the crown
  Of earth’s wide kingdoms to a line of slaves;
  Guilt reign’d, and wo with guilt, and plagues came down,        160
  Till the North broke its flood gates, and the waves
Whelm’d the degraded race, and welter’d o’er their graves.
  Vainly that ray of brightness from above,
  That shone around the Galilean lake,
  The light of hope, the leading star of love,        165
  Struggled, the darkness of that day to break;
  Even its own faithless guardians strove to slake,
  In fogs of earth, the pure immortal flame;
  And priestly hands, for Jesus’ blessed sake,
  Were red with blood, and charity became.        170
In that stern war of forms, a mockery and a name.
  They triumph’d, and less bloody rites were kept
  Within the quiet of the convent cell;
  The well-fed inmates patter’d prayer, and slept,
  And sinn’d, and liked their easy penance well.        175
  Where pleasant was the spot for men to dwell,
  Amid its fair broad lands the abbey lay,
  Sheltering dark orgies that were shame to tell
  And cowl’d and barefoot beggars swarm’d the way,
All in their convent weeds, of black, and white, and gray.        180
  Oh, sweetly the returning muses’ strain
  Swell’d over that famed stream, whose gentle tide
  In their bright lap the Etrurian vales detain,
  Sweet, as when winter storms have ceased to chide,
  And all the new leaved woods, resounding wide,        185
  Send out wild hymns upon the scented air.
  Lo! to the smiling Arno’s classic side
  The emulous nations of the west repair,
And kindle their quench’d urns, and drink fresh spirit there.
  Still, heaven deferr’d the hour ordain’d to rend        190
  From saintly rottenness the sacred stole;
  And cowl and worshipp’d shrine could still defend
  The wretch with felon stains upon his soul;
  And crimes were set to sale, and hard his dole
  Who could not bribe a passage to the skies;        195
  And vice beneath the mitre’s kind control,
  Sinn’d gaily on, and grew to giant size,
Shielded by priestly power, and watch’d by priestly eyes.
  At last the earthquake came—the shock, that hurl’d
  To earth, in many fragments dash’d and strown,        200
  The throne, whose roots were in another world,
  And whose far stretching shadow awed our own.
  From many a proud monastic pile, o’erthrown,
  Fear-struck, the hooded inmates rush’d and fled;
  The web, that for a thousand years had grown        205
  O’er prostrate Europe, in that day of dread
Crumbled and fell, as fire dissolves the flaxen thread.
  The spirit of that day is still awake,
  And spreads himself, and shall not sleep again;
  But through the idle mesh of power shall break,        210
  Like billows o’er the Asian monarch’s chain;
  Till men are fill’d with him, and feel how vain,
  Instead of the pure heart and innocent hands,
  Are all the proud and pompous modes to gain
  The smile of heaven;—till a new age expands        215
Its white and holy wings above the peaceful lands.
  For look again on the past years;—behold,
  Flown, like the night-mare’s fearful dreams, away
  Full many a horrible worship, that, of old,
  Subdued the shuddering realms to its dark sway;        220
  And crimes that fear’d not once the eye of day,
  Rooted from men, without a name or place;
  And nations blotted out from earth, to pay
  The forfeit of deep guilt;—with glad embrace
The fair disburden’d lands welcome a nobler race.        225
  Thus error’s monstrous shapes from earth are driven;
  They fade, they fly—but truth survives their flight;
  Earth has no shades to quench that beam of heaven;
  Each ray, that shone, in early time, to light
  The faltering footsteps in the path of right,        230
  The broader glow of brightness, shed to aid
  In man’s maturer day his bolder sight,
  All blended, like the rainbow’s radiant braid,
Pour yet, and still shall pour, the blaze that cannot fade.
  Late, from this western shore, that morning chased        235
  The deep and ancient night, that threw its shroud
  O’er the green land of groves, the beautiful waste,
  Nurse of full streams, and lifter up of proud
  Sky-mingling mountains that o’erlook the cloud.
  Erewhile, where yon gay spires their brightness rear,        240
  Trees waved, and the brown hunter’s shouts were loud
  Amid the forest; and the bounding deer
Fled at the glancing plume, and the gaunt wolf yell’d near.
  And where his willing waves yon bright blue bay
  Sends up, to kiss his decorated brim,        245
  And cradles, in his soft embrace, the gay
  Young group of grassy islands born of him,
  And, crowding nigh, or in the distance dim,
  Lifts the white throng of sails, that bear or bring
  The commerce of the world;—with tawny limb,        250
  And belt and beads in sunlight glistening,
The savage urged his skiff like wild bird on the wing.
  Then, all his youthful paradise around,
  And all the broad and boundless mainland, lay
  Cool’d by the interminable wood, that frown’d        255
  O’er mound and vale, where never summer ray
  Glanced, till the strong tornado broke his way
  Through the grey giants of the sylvan wild;
  Yet many a shelter’d glade, with blossoms gay,
  Beneath the showery sky and sunshine mild,        260
Within the shaggy arms of that dark forest smiled.
  There stood the Indian hamlet, there the lake
  Spread its blue sheet that flash’d with many an oar,
  Where the brown otter plunged him from the brake,
  And the deer drank—as the light gale flew o’er,        265
  The twinkling maize-field rustled on the shore;
  And while that spot, so wild and lone and fair,
  A look of glad and innocent beauty wore,
  And peace was on the earth and in the air,
The warrior lit the pile, and bound his captive there:        270
  Not unavenged—the foeman, from the wood,
  Beheld the deed, and when the midnight shade
  Was stillest, gorged his battle-axe with blood;
  All died—the wailing babe—the shrieking maid—
  And in the flood of fire that scathed the glade,        275
  The roofs went down; but deep the silence grew,
  When on the dewy woods the day-beam play’d;
  No more the cabin smokes rose wreath’d and blue,
And ever, by their lake, lay moor’d the light canoe.
  Look now abroad—another race has fill’d        280
  These populous borders—wide the wood recedes,
  And towns shoot up, and fertile realms are till’d;
  The land is full of harvests and green meads;
  Streams numberless, that many a fountain feeds,
  Shine, disembower’d, and give to sun and breeze        285
  Their virgin waters; the full region leads
  New colonies forth, that toward the western seas
Spread, like a rapid flame among the autumnal trees.
  Here the free spirit of mankind at length
  Throws its last fetters off; and who shall place        290
  A limit to the giant’s unchain’d strength,
  Or curb his swiftness in the forward race.
  Far, like the comet’s way through infinite space,
  Stretches the long untravell’d path of light
  Into the depths of ages: we may trace,        295
  Afar, the brightening glory of its flight,
Till the receding rays are lost to human sight.
  Europe is given a prey to sterner fates,
  And writhes in shackles; strong the arms that chain
  To earth her struggling multitude of states;        300
  She too is strong, and might not chafe in vain
  Against them, but shake off the vampyre train
  That batten on her blood, and break their net.
  Yes, she shall look on brighter days, and gain
  The meed of worthier deeds; the moment set        305
To rescue and raise up, draws near—but is not yet.
  But thou, my country, thou shalt never fall,
  But with thy children—thy maternal care,
  Thy lavish love, thy blessings shower’d on all—
  These are thy fetters—seas and stormy air        310
  Are the wide barrier of thy borders, where
  Among thy gallant sons that guard thee well,
  Thou laugh’st at enemies: who shall then declare
  The date of thy deep-founded strength, or tell
How happy, in thy lap, the sons of men shall dwell.        315

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