Niagara (1825) by José María Heredia. Translation attributed to William Cullen Bryant

Portrait of José María Heredia
José María Heredia

      My lyre! give me my lyre! My bosom feels
The glow of inspiration. O how long
Have I been left in darkness since this light
Last visited my brow, Niagara!
Thou with thy rushing waters dost restore
The heavenly gift that sorrow took away.

      Tremendous torrent! For an instant hush
The terrors of thy voice and cast aside
Those wide involving shadows, that my eyes
May see the fearful beauty of thy face!
I am not all unworthy of thy sight,
For from my very boyhood have I loved,
Shunning the meaner track of common minds,
To look on nature in her loftier moods.

      At the fierce rushing of the hurricane,
At the near bursting of the thunderbolt
I have been touched with joy; and when the sea,
Lashed by the wind, hath rocked my bark and showed
Its yawning caves beneath me, I have loved
Its dangers and the wrath of elements.
But never yet the madness of the sea
Hath moved me as thy grandeur moves me now.

      Thou flowest on in quiet, till thy waves
Grow broken ‘midst the rocks; thy current then
Shoots onward like the irresistibel course
Of destiny. Ah, terribly they rage ―
The hoarse and rapid whirlpools there!
My brain grows wild, my senses wander, as I gaze
Upon the hurrying waters, and my sight
Vainly would follow, as toward the verge
Sweeps the wide torrent — waves innumerable
Meet there and madden — waves innumerable
Urge on the overtake the waves before,
And disappear in thunder and in foam.

      They reach — they leap the barrier — the abyss
Swallows insatiable the sinking waves.
A thousand rainbows arch them, and woods
Are deafened with the roar. The violent shock
Shatters to vapor the descending sheets —
A cloudy whirlwind fills the gulf, and heaves
The mighty pyramid of circling mist
To heaven. The solitary hunter near
Pauses with terror in the forest shades.

      What seeks my restless eye? Why are not here,
About the jaws of this abyss, the palms —
Ah — the delicious palms, that on the plains
Of my own native Cuba, spring and spread
Their thickly foliaged summits to the sun,
And, in the breathings of the ocean air,
Wave soft beneath the heaven’s unspotted blue?

      But no, Niagara, — thy forest pines
Are fitter coronal for thee. The palm,
The effeminate myrtle, and frail rose may grow
In gardens, and give out their fragrance there,
Unmanning him who breathes it. Thine it is
To do a nobler office. Generous minds
Behold thee, and are moved, and learn to rise
Above earth’s frivolous pleasures; they partake
Thy grandeur, at the utterance of thy name.

      God of all truth! in other lands I’ve seen
Lying philosophers, blaspheming men,
Questioners of thy mysteries, that draw
Their fellows deep into impiety,
And therefore doth my spirit seek thy face
In earth’s majestic solitudes. Even here
My heart doth open all itself to thee.
In this immensity of loneliness
I feel thy hand upon me. To my ear
The eternal thunder of the cataract brings
Thy voice, and I am humbled as I hear.

      Dread torrent! that with wonder and with fear
Dost overwhelm the soul of him that looks
Upon thee, and dost bear it from itself,
Whence hast thou thy beginning? Who supplies,
Age after age, thy unexhausted springs?
What power hath ordered, that, when all thy weight
Descends into the deep, the swollen waves
Rise not, and roll to overwhlem the earth?

      The Lord hath opened his omnipotent hand,
Covered thy face with clouds, and given his voice
To thy down-rushing waters; he hath girt
Thy terrible forehead with his radiant bow.
I see thy never-resting waters run,
And I bethink me how the tide of time
Sweeps to eternity. So pass of man —
Pass, like a noon-day dream — the blossoming days,
And he awakes to sorrow. I alas!
Feel that my youth is withered, and my brow
Ploughed early with the lines of grief and care.

      Never have I so deeply felt as now
The hopeless solitude, the abandonment,
The anguish of a loveless life. Alas!
How can the impassioned, the unfrozen heart
Be happy without love? I would that one
Beautiful, — worthy to be loved and joined
In love with me, — now shared my lonely walk
On this tremendous brink. ‘T were sweet to see
Her dear face touched with paleness, and become
More beautiful from fear, and overspread
With a faint smile while clinging to my side!
Dreams — dreams. I am an exile, and for me
There is no country and there is no love.

      Hear, dread Niagara, my latest voice!
Yet a few years and the cold earth shall close
Over the bones of him who sings thee now
Thus feelingly. Would that this, my humble verse,
Might be like thee, immortal. I, meanwhile,
Cheerfully passing to the appointed rest,
Might raise my radiant forehead in the clouds
To listen to the echoes of my fame.

Source: Hills, Elijah Clarence (ed). The Odes of Bello, Olmedo and Heredia. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920.

Did Bryant Translate Heredia’s Ode to Niagara? E. C. Hills, Modern Language Notes
Vol. 34, No. 8 (Dec., 1919), pp. 503-505

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