Niagara (1825) by José María Heredia. Translated by Dr. Keith Ellis.

Plaque of José María Heredia
Plaque recognizing José María Heredia at the brink of Niagara Falls

Give me, give me my lyre! For I feel
in my aroused and trembling soul
the flame of inspiration! Oh, how much time
has gone by in darkness, my brow deprived
of the gleam of its light…Surging Niagara,
none but your awesome visage can return to me
the divine gift that sorrow with impious hand
cruelly snatched from me.

Oh mighty torrent, be calm and silence
your terrifying thunder: lighten
the mist that shrouds you,
let me ponder your serence face,
fueling thus my fervour.
I am your worthy contemplator: always
disdaining life’s common and petty cares,
I yearned for the extraordinary and the sublime.
The furious hurricane unleashed,
or the thunderbolt booming over my head,
my heart raced with joy. I saw the oceans,
lashed by howling southern winds,
rage against my ship and open
chasms before me, and I loved the danger,
the fury I loved. But all that fierceness
did not move me
as does this your grandeur.

You flow serene, majestic, and then
crashing onto sharp rugged rocks,
violently you dash forward, relentless,
like destiny, irrestistible and blind.
What human voice could describe
the terrifying spectacle
of these roaring rapids? My mind
is lost in vague thoughts,
reflecting on the seething current
that my clouded vision vainly tries
to follow as it sweeps to the wide edge
of so high a cliff. A thousand waves,
moving rapidly like thoughts,
clash in wild fury;
another thousand, and yet another rush to join them,
and amid foam and clamour they disappear.

But still they come…they leap…the horrendous abyss
devours the plunging torrents;
a thousand rainbows criss-cross there,
and the mighty roar resounds in the deafened forests.
Hitting the rocks with terrifying violence
the water breaks, leaping,
and whirling vapour
covers the abyss in swirling clouds; it rises,
circles about, then like a huge pyramid
reaches toward the heavens,
and drifting over the surrounding forests
frightens the solitary hunter.
But, what does my eager gaze
restless, forlorn, search for in you?
Why don’t I see, encircling your immense chasm,
the palm trees, ah! those delicious palm trees,
that on the plains of my beloved Cuba
come to life blessed by the sun’s smile, and flourish;
and in the waft of ocean breezes
sway under a sky of spotless blue?

Ah painful memory…
Oh Niagara, you’ve achieved your fullest destiny,
no crown but the wild pine
more befits your terrible majesty.
Let the palm tree, myrtle and delicate rose
inspire easy pleasures and soft idleness
in giddy gardens; fate held for you
a worthier, loftier end.
Free, generous, strong spirits approach,
observe you, and are amazed;
henceforth they spurn frivolous delights
and feel uplifted at the mention of your name.

Oh God! God of truth! In other climes
I saw detestable monsters
blaspheming your sacrosanct name,
sow error and impious fanaticism,
flood fields with blood and tears,
stir up, despicable fratricidal war,
and in their frenzy desolate the land.
I saw them, and my chest heaved at their sight
in grave indignation. I saw as well
lying philosophers who dared
to question your mysteries, offend you,
and fiendishly drag
miserable men down to lamentable depths.
That’s why my mind, always searching for you
in heightened solitude, is now
in full communion with you. It feels your hand
in this immensity that surrounds me,
and your profound voice touches my heart
in the eternal thunder of these cascading waters.

Amazing torrent!
How the sight of you confounds my spirit,
filling me with terror and wonder!
Where is your beginning? Who has been nourishing
your inexhaustible source as the centuries go by?
What powerful hand
has ordained that on receiving your mighty waters
the ocean does not inundate the land?

The Lord opened his omnipotent hand.
He covered you with restless clouds.
He gave his voice to your tumbling waters,
and adorned with his rainbow your fearsome forehead.
I look at your waters tirelessly flowing
like the long torrent of centuries
rolling along into eternity. Thus mankind’s flowery days
go fleetingly by
and give way to sorrow. Oh! I feel my youth
burnt out, my face withered,
and the profound pain that shakes me
wrinkles with sorrow my clouded brow.

Never have I felt as deeply as now
my wretched isolation, my abandonment,
my anguished lovelessness. How could
a passionate and turbulent soul
be happy without love? Oh! If only a beautiful woman
worthy of me would love me,
and share my wandering thoughts
and my lonely steps
beside this churning abyss.
How I would enjoy seeing a slight paleness
temper her face, more beautiful
in her sweet terror, and see her smile
as I hold her in my loving arms!
Vain ravings!…Oh! I am banished,
without homeland, without love,
with no prospects but tears and sorrow.

Powerful Niagara!
hear my final words! In a few years
a cold tomb will have swallowed up
your feeble singer. May my verses share
your immortal glory! May a kind
traveller on contemplating your face
one day sigh, remembering me.
May I, with the setting sun,
fly joyfully to the Creator’s call,
and on hearing the echoes of my fame,
lift my radiant head above the clouds.

Source: Heredia, José Heredia. Torrente Prodigioso: A Cuban Poet at Niagara Falls. ed. & translated by Keith Ellis. Toronto: Lugus Publications, 1997.

Biography of Dr. Keith Ellis

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