Niagara by George Houghton

  houghton niagara   

houghton niagara
A Distant View of the Falls of Niagara. 1835, by Thomas Cole.  Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library.

Formed when the oceans were fashioned, when all the world
‡‡was a workshop;
Loud roared the furnace fires, and tall leapt the smoke
‡‡from volcanoes,
Scooped were round bowls for lakes, and grooves for the
‡‡sliding of rivers,
Whilst, with a cunning hand, the mountains were linked
‡‡together.

Then through the daw-dawn, lurid with cloud, and rent
‡‡by forked lightning,
Striken by earthquake beneath, above by the rattle of
‡‡thunder,
Sudden the clamour was pierced by a voice, deep-lunged
‡‡and portentous —
Thine, O Niagara, crying: “Now is created completed!”

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡II.

Millions of cup-like blossoms, brimming with dew and with
‡‡rain-drops,
Mingle their tributes together to form one slow-trickling
‡‡brooklet;
Thousands of brooklets and rills, leaping down from their
‡‡home in the uplands,
Grow to a smooth, blue river, serene and flowing in
‡‡silence.

Hundreds of smooth, blue rivers, flashing afar o’er the
‡‡prairies,
Darkening ‘neath forests of pine, deep drowning the reeds
‡‡in the marshes,
Cleaving with noiseless sledge the rocks red-crusted with
‡‡copper,
Circle at last to one common goal, the Mighty Sea-Water.

Lo! to the northward outlying, wide glimmers the stretch
‡‡of the Great Lake,
White-capped and sprinkled with foam, that tumbles its
‡‡bellowing breakers
Landward on beaches of sand, and in hiding-holes hollow
‡‡with thunder,
Landward where plovers frequent, with the wolf and the
‡‡westering bison.   

Four such Sea-Waters as this, a chain of green
‡‡land-bounden oceans,
Pour into one their tides, ever yearning to greet
‡‡the Atlantic,
Press to one narrow sluice, and proffering their tribute
‡‡of silver,
Cry as they come: “Receive us, Niagara, Father of Waters!”

Such is the Iroquois god, the symbol of might and of
‡‡plenty,
Shrine of the untutored brave, subdued by an
‡‡unfathomed longing,
Seeking in water and wind, still seeking in star-glow
‡‡and lightning,
Something to kneel to, something to pray to,
‡‡something to worship.

Here, when the world was wreathed with the scarlet
‡‡and gold of October,
Here, from far-scattered camps, came the moccasined
‡‡tribes of the redman,
Left in their tent their bows, forgot their brawls and
‡‡dissensions,
Ringed thee with peaceful fires, and over their calumets
‡‡pondered;

Chose from their fairest virgins the fairest and purest
‡‡among them,
Hollowed a birchen canoe, and fashioned a seat for the
‡‡virgin,
Clothed her in white, and set her adrift to whirl to
‡‡thy bosom,
Saying: “Receive this our vow, Niagara, Father of Waters!”

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡III.  The Pilgrim

Pilgrim I too once came, to tender my token of homage.
I too once stood on thy wooded banks, my heart filled
‡‡with wonder,
I too would render some gift, some tribute of song and
‡‡of harp-strings,
But ‘neath the roll of thy wheels, my shepherd’s flute
‡‡was o’ermastered.

Calling, thou seemest to murmer: “Come, and I will
‡‡instruct thee!”
Willing I ran, like a palmer of old, with his pike-staff
‡‡and wallet,
Willing I lingered long, to go, but to turn on the
‡‡morrow,
Coming again and again,— yet only to doubt thee
‡‡more deeply.

Idol I found thee, unfeeling, challenging man but to
‡‡mock him,
Whispering to one that is weak of voids that are vast
‡‡and almighty,
Hinting of things heaven-high to one not winged like
‡‡an eagle,
Telling of changeless parts to a leaflet that reddens
‡‡to perish;

Ever, as nearer I fared, the mightier, less merciful
‡‡found thee,
Till, after listening long, I faltered, forlorn and
‡‡disheartened;
Wearied of ceaseless strife, and yearned for some
‡‡peaceful seclusion,
Where to the chorusing throng both ear and eye
‡‡might be shuttered;

Hated the turmoil of life, where sounds that are
‡‡sweetest are strangled,
And into discord clash those martial measures,
‡‡that struggling,
Should the din of the dismalest fight, with
‡‡quavering echoes,
Nerve the warrior anew, and fire his soul with
‡‡devotion.

Turning towards far-off fields, I fled, till, stopping
‡‡to listen,
Only dull undertones told that still thou wert calling
‡‡and calling;
Wept, and wished it mid-winter, that, muffled in
‡‡snows of December,
All the world might be smothered in silence utterly
‡‡soundless;

Wished like a Druid to hie to some mountain-top shorn
‡‡and unsheltered,
Where, in their wildest flights, the riotous winds might
‡‡be stifled,
Finding no hollow reed through which to pipe their
‡‡bravuras,
Finding no trembling twig on which to twang their
‡‡lamentings.

Then, as I crost a meadow-land, dight with mallow
‡‡and daisies,
Heard the low bumble of bees, and the delicate footsteps
‡‡of robins
That o’er the crispy leaves of the scrub-oak coverts
‡‡went hopping,
Suddenly — who shall explain it? — faith returned
‡‡to my bosom;
Suddenly hope revived, the fog from the fens was
‡‡uplifted,
Lost was the din of life that stormed and roared in
‡‡the roadways,
Calm were the grassy fields, a lullaby purred
‡‡though the willows.
And overhead the night was illumined with flickering
‡‡beacons.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡IV.

Often, in later years, allured by thy strange fascination,
Often again have I come, with feet that would not
‡‡turn backward;
Often knelt at thy feet, and sought with a lover’s
‡‡persistence,
Whether, beneath thy dolorous fugue, one promise
‡‡was whispered.
Hope there was none for me; august was the
‡‡deep diapason,
But ‘t was the moan of the sea, the growl of the
‡‡forest unfeeling,
Threat of the sulphurous skies that, when they
‡‡are fevered and angry,
Volley the world with flame and curse mankind
‡‡with their laughter.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡V.  The Upper Rapids

Still, with the wonder of boyhood, I follow the race of
‡‡thy Rapids,
Sirens that dance, and allure to destruction — now
‡‡lurking in shadows,
Skirting the level stillness of pools and the
‡‡treacherous shallows,
Smiling and dimple-mouthed, coquetting, — now
‡‡modest, now forward;

Tenderly chanting, and such the thrall of the
‡‡weird incantation,
Thirst it awakes in each listener’s soul, a
‡‡feverish longing,
Thoughts all-absorbent, a torment that stings and
‡‡ever increases,
Burning ambition to push bare-breast to thy
‡‡perilous bosom.

Thus, in some midnight obscure, bent down by the
‡‡storm of temptation
(So hath the wind, in the beechen wood, confided
‡‡the story),
Pine-trees, thrusting their way and trampling down
‡‡one another,
Curious, lean and listen, replying in sobs and in
‡‡whispers;

Till of the secret possessed, which brings sure blight
‡‡to the hearer
(So hath the wind, in the beechen wood, confided
‡‡the story),
Faltering, they stagger brinkward — clutch at the
‡‡roots of the grasses,
Cry — a pitiful cry of remorse — and plunge down
‡‡in the darkness.

Art thou, all-merciless then — a fiend, ever fierce
‡‡for new victims?
Was then the red-man right (as yet it liveth in
‡‡legend),
That, ere each twelvemonth circles, still to thy
‡‡shrine is allotted
Blood of one human heart, as sacrifice due and
‡‡demanded?

Butterflies have I followed, that, leaving the
‡‡red-top and clover,
Thinking the wind-harp thy voice, thy froth the
‡‡fresh whiteness of daisies,
Ventured too close, grew giddy, and catching
‡‡cold drops on their pinions,
Balanced — but vainly — and, falling, their
‡‡scarlet was blotted forever.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡VI.   The Cataract

Still to thy Fall I come near, as unto earth’s
‡‡grandest cathedral,
Forehead uncovered, hands down, with feet
‡‡that falter beneath me;
Hearing afar, o’er the rustling grass and the
‡‡rush of the river,
Chorus triumphant, thy trumpet voice, and
‡‡I tremble with weakness.

Tall above tower and tree looms thy steeple
‡‡builded of sunshine,
Mystical steeple, white like a cloud, upyearning
‡‡toward Heaven,
Till into cloud-land it drifts, uprolling in
‡‡hill-tops and headlands,
Catches the glory of sunset, then pales into
‡‡rose-tint and purple.

Slowly through gothic aisles, I creep to the
‡‡steps of thine altar,
Halfway forgetting thy presence, though still
‡‡with each step I draw nearer,
Halfway forgetting thy voice, so far it sends
‡‡fancy awandering,
Till, with a sudden ascent, full-face thou
‡‡standest before me.

Who, upon tiptoes straining, shall snare the
‡‡fleet course of the comet!
Who, in bright pigments, shall match the
‡‡luminous sun-god at mid-day!
Who shall dare picture in words the turbulent
‡‡wrath of the tempest!
Seeing, I can but stand still, with finger on
‡‡lip, and keep silent.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡VII.

Lo! drifting toward us approaches a curious
‡‡tangle of something!
White and untillered it floats, bewitching the
‡‡sight, and appearing
Like to a birchen canoe, a virgin crouched pallid
‡‡within it,
Hastening with martyr zeal to solve the
‡‡unriddled hereafter!

Slower and smoother her flight, until on the
‡‡precipice pausing,
Just for the space of a breath the dread of the
‡‡change seems to thrill her;
Crossing herself, and seeming to shudder,
‡‡She lifts her eyes to Heaven —
Sudden a mist upwhirls — I see not — but
‡‡know all is over.

Stoop and explore the void where this vision
‡‡of fancy hath vanished!
Torrents of green and blue drench down the
‡‡dizzy escarpment,
Fall into shattered flakes, and merge into fury
‡‡of snow-squalls;
Crisp, like glaciers, they shatter, then smoke in
‡‡the whirl of the vortex.

Stoop and look down! and read, if you can, the
‡‡terrible riddle!
Nay, the secret of death by death’s eyes alone
‡‡can be fathomed;
But o’er the mystery finished is fluttered the
‡‡curtain Most Holy,
And on this curtain is set the sign of redemption —
‡‡a rainbow.

Symbol of hope is this, or merely man’s hopeful
‡‡invention?
Thou hast no answer to that, beyond this dull
‡‡undertone moaning:
“Man, of all animate things the noblest, most
‡‡meanly ignoble,
Smiling only to tempt, and spoiling what-e’er
‡‡he embraces!”

Is then thy bow we clasp’d as pledge of a promise
‡‡unfailing,
Naught but a sun-dog ferocious, that, mouthing
‡‡the mariner’s noonday,
Kisses with lying lips the soft-sleeping clouds of
‡‡midsummer,
Only to taunt him, lulled by the calm, with an
‡‡ambushed tornado?

Faith in thee have I none! I lift spent eyes, and,
‡‡despairing,
Set my teeth in defiance.   Fate, then, the father
‡‡of all things!
I but a victim moth, to be snatched by a merciless
‡‡current,
Dragged by cold eddies down, to be lost and
‡‡forever forgotten!

Why this pilgrimage here?   God knows no
‡‡willful self-seeking
Lent us this restless life; and no faint heart
‡‡or rebellion
Gives us this fear to lie down, and rest in the
‡‡slumberous dreamland! —
Answer, if answer thou hast!   Answer, Niagara!
‡‡answer!

Weary with waiting, we climb to the hill-tops
‡‡nearest to Heaven,
Find only floating fogs, and air too meagre to
‡‡nourish;
Seeking the depths of the sea, we drop our
‡‡plummets and feel them,
Draw them in empty, or yellowed with clay,
‡‡that melts and tells nothing;

Forests we thread, wide prairies unfenced, and
‡‡drenchèd morasses,
Strike, with the fervour of youth, to the heart
‡‡of the tenantless deserts;
Turn every boulder, still hoping to find beneath
‡‡them some prophet —
Find only thistles unsunn’d, green sloth, and
‡‡passionless creatures.

Youth flitted by us, we faint, then sink in the
‡‡ruts of our fathers;
Shift as we may with the old beliefs, and beat on
‡‡our bosoms;
Seek less and hunger less keenly, still sorrow for
‡‡self and for others,
Striving, by travail and tears, life’s deeper meaning
‡‡to strangle;

Drag from sunset to sunset, too fainting to fear for
‡‡the morrow,
Suffer, complain of our loads, but catch at their
‡‡withes as they leave us,
Letting the song-birds escape, perceiving not till
‡‡they’ve fluttered —
Bitterly weeping then, as we watch them die in
‡‡the distance.

Struggling, we snatch at straws, call out, expecting
‡‡no answer;
Pray, but without any faith; grow laggard and
‡‡laugh at our anguish;
Sin, and with wine-cup deadened, scoff at the
‡‡dread of hereafter —
And, because all seems lost, besiege Death’s
‡‡doorway with gladness.

Better we had not been, for what is the goal
‡‡of such striving?
Bubbles that glitter perchance, to burst in thin
‡‡air as they glitter!
Comets that cleave the night, to leave the night
‡‡but the darker!
Smudge that bursts into flame, but only in smoke
‡‡to be smothered!

Out of the gifts of our spring, that only is
‡‡beautiful, counted
With which the day-dawn breaks bud, and dies
‡‡ere the dewdrops have left it;
Smiles there no healthfuller clime, where forms
‡‡that are fair never perish,
But, in a life-giving ether, grow fairer with
‡‡ripening seasons?

Iroquois God, I adore thee, because thou art
‡‡lasting and mighty,
Turn and gaze at thee, going, as on an all-
‡‡marvelous vision,
Dread thee, thou art so serene — but hate thee
‡‡with hatred most bitter,
Taunter of all who dabble thy foam, and think
‡‡to discover.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡VIII.   The Gorge

‘Neath the abyss lies the valley, a valley of
‡‡darkness – a hades,
Where the spent stream, as it strives, seeks only
‡‡an end to its anguish;
Who shall its fastnesses fathom, or tell what
‡‡wrecks they envelop?
Here, ‘neath the tides of time, life’s remnants
‡‡await resurrection.

Deep is the way, and weary the way, while
‡‡lofty above it
Frowns upon either hand, a cliff sheer-shouldered
‡‡or beetling,
Holding in durance forever the course of the
‡‡will-broken exile,
Blighting all hope of return, should it pant for
‡‡the flowering pastures.

But from the brinks lean down a few slender
‡‡birches and cedars,
Dazed by the depth and the gloom of the channel
‡‡resounding beneath them;
Here campanulas, too, which lurk wherever is
‡‡danger,
Stoop with a smile of hope, reflecting the blue of
‡‡the heavens.

Fleeter still flies the flood, up-heaving its scum at
‡‡the centre,
Dragging the tides from the shores to leave them a
‡‡hand-breadth the lower;
While, like a serpent of yellow, the spume crooks
‡‡down to the Whirlpool,
Trails with a zigzagging motion down to the hideous
‡‡Whirlpool.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡IX.   The Whirlpool

Here is the end of all things, of all things
‡‡another beginning,
Here the long valley crooks, and the flight of
‡‡the river is broken;
Round is the cavernous pool, and in at one side
‡‡leaps the river,
Headlong it plunges, despairing, and beats on
‡‡the bars of its prison;

Beats, and runs wildly from wall to wall, then
‡‡strives to recover,
Beats on another still, and around the circle
‡‡is carried,
Jostled from shoulder to shoulder, till losing its
‡‡galloping motion,
Dizzily round it swirls, and is dragged toward the
‡‡hideous Whirlpool.

Lofty the rock-walls loom, the narrow outlet
‡‡concealing,
Loftier still stoop pines, that shut out the pity
‡‡of sunlight;
Whilst above both a shadow, as if from the wings
‡‡of a vulture,
Sheds over all below a pall more spectral than
‡‡midnight.

Up from the seething witch-pot arises a sulphurous
‡‡vapour,
Smoke-clouds slow-winged drift hither and hence,
‡‡revealing, now hiding:
Whilst from the hollow depths, that hiss from some
‡‡under-world fervour,
Bubble, in torrents black, the refuse of wreck and
‡‡corruption.

Round sweeps the horrible maelstrom, and into
‡‡the whirl of its vortex
Circle a broken boat, an oar-blade, things without
‡‡number;
Striving, they shove one another, and seem to hurry,
‡‡impatient
To measure the shadowy will-be, and seek from their
‡‡torment a respite.

Logs that have leapt the Falls and swum unseen
‡‡‘neath the current,
Here are restored again, and weird is their
‡‡resurrection;
Here like straws they are snapt, and grinding like
‡‡millstones together,
Chafing and splintering their mates, they wade in
‡‡their deepening ruins;

Till, without hope, on tiptoe they rise, lips shriveled
‡‡and speechless,
Seeing sure fate before them that tightens its toils
‡‡to ensnare them;
Hollow the hell-hole gapes, and ravenously it receives
‡‡them —
All that is left is a sigh, and the echoes of that are
‡‡soon strangled.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡X. Conclusion

This, then, can this be the end? and death but a
‡‡blotting forever?
Turning, a bird was beside me, and striking a
‡‡delicate measure,
Clearly it whistled — a herald-like strain, that
‡‡challenged a hearer,
Sung — ‘t was a broken song — and stopping, far
‡‡distant, it fluttered.

“Seek within!” was the message, “without is
‡‡only reflection;
Sinless are nature’s forms, and therefore
‡‡utterly soulless;
Sin may debase thee, make thee the servant of
‡‡Fate and of Nature —
But to thy height arise, and thou art of all
‡‡things creator.

“That alone is august which is gazed upon by
‡‡the noble,
That alone is gladsome which eyes full of
‡‡gladness discover;
Night-time is but a name for the darkness man
‡‡nurtures within him,
Storm but a symbol of sin in a soul that is
‡‡stained and unshriven.

“Act but thine own true part, as He who created
‡‡hath purposed,
Then are the waters thine, the winds, all forces
‡‡of nature;
Thine too the seasons, their fruits, which they
‡‡redden but to surrender,
Thine too the years, and thine all time —
‡‡everlasting and fearless.”   houghton niagara

Source: Myron T. Pritchard, comp. Poetry of Niagara.   Boston: Lothrop Publishing Co., 1901.

Originally published in Houghton’s Niagara, and Other Poems.  Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1882

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