I salute you, O Frenchman, fellow-republican,
Crosser of chasms, traverser of rivers,
Walking on a rope of hempen fiber
Above the roaring thunder of mighty Niagara.
A human miracle over a natural wonder,
You walk step by step on the tautened rope
Above the spume, the spray, the ever-rising vapor
Of the cataract’s incessantly tumbling torrent.
On a filament, balanced between America and Canada,
You perform mid-crossing an impudent somersault
Over a cumulus cloud of spray-water rising.
Small man with balancing-pole, in circus costume,
You wear a blindfold and saunter over the abyss
In the watery smells of the misty air.
You cannot hear the shouts and cheers of the thousands
Watching your nimble footwork over precipitous vistas,
As we applaud the magnitude of your achievements
Above the magnificent drop of the roaring waters.
O Blondin, bridger of chasms,
I extol your unique intrepidity
As I salute Niagara afresh in this song.
The torrent unabashed, unabated, rushes headlong to crash
Into the tumult of the diluvian waterfall,
A half-drowned rainbow spectral in all that spray.
Above it you walk on a tightrope and all the while
Blue Erie moves towards Ontario
Over mighty Niagara falling, night and day.
First published in his collection Voice Mail, 2002
This poem was inspired by the painting by Silveira at the top of the page.
Poet Duncan Forbes is the author of seven collections, the most recent of which is Human Time (2020) His poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies and have been published by Faber, Secker and Enitharmon who brought out a Selected Poems in 2009.
Born and educated in Oxford, he has taught English Language and Literature for many years and – apart from writing poetry – is also interested in painting and the visual arts. Duncan has written essays and articles on a variety of subjects.
By water shall he die, and take his end. — Shakespeare.
Toll for Sam Patch! Sam Patch, who jumps no more, ‡‡This or the world to come. Sam Patch is dead!
The vulgar pathway to the unknown shore ‡‡Of dark futurity, he would not tread. ‡‡No friends stood sorrowing round his dying bed;
Nor with decorous wo, sedately stepp’d ‡‡Behind his corpse, and tears by retail shed;—
The mighty river, as it onward swept,
In one great wholesale sob, his body drowned and kept.
Toll for Sam Patch! he scorned the common way ‡‡That leads to fame, up heights of rough ascent,
And having heard Pope and Longinus say, ‡‡That some great men had risen to falls, he went ‡‡And jumped, where wild Passaic’s waves had rent
The antique rocks; — the air free passage gave,— ‡‡And graciously the liquid element
Upbore him, like some sea-god on its wave;
And all the people said that Sam was very brave.
Fame, the clear spirit that doth to heaven upraise ‡‡Led Sam to dive into what Byron calls
The hell of waters. For the sake of praise, ‡‡He wooed the bathos down great water-falls; ‡‡The dizzy precipice, which the eye appals
Of travellers for pleasure, Samuel found ‡‡Pleasant, as are to women lighted halls,
Crammed full of fools and fiddles; to the sound
Of the eternal roar, he timed his desperate bound.
Sam was a fool. But the large world of such, ‡‡Has thousands — better taught, alike absurd,
And less sublime. Of fame he soon got much, ‡‡Where distant cataracts spout, of him men heard, ‡‡Alas for Sam! Had he aright preferred
The kindly element, to which he gave ‡‡Himself so fearlessly, we had not heard
That it was now his winding-sheet and grave,
Nor sung, ‘twixt tears and smiles, our requiem for the brave.
He soon got drunk, with rum and with renown, ‡‡As many others in high places do;—
Whose fall is like Sam’s last — for down and down ‡‡By one mad impulse driven, they flounder through ‡‡The gulf that keeps the future from our view,
And then are found not. May they rest in peace! ‡‡We heave the sigh to human frailty due—
And shall not Sam have his? The muse shall cease
To keep the heroic roll, which she began in Greece—
With demigods, who went to the Black Sea ‡‡For wool (and if the best accounts be straight,
Came back, in negro phraseology, ‡‡With the same wool each upon his pate), ‡‡In which she chronicled the deathless fate
Of him who jumped into the perilous ditch ‡‡Left by Rome’s street commissioners, in a state
Which made it dangerous, and by jumping which
He made himself renowned, and the contractors rich—
I say, the muse shall quite forget to sound ‡‡The chord whose music is undying, if
She do not strike it when Sam Patch is drowned. ‡‡Leander dived for love. Leucadia’s cliff ‡‡The Lesbian Sappho leapt from in a miff,
To punish Phaon; Icarus went dead, ‡‡Because the wax did not continue stiff;
And, had he minded what his father said,
He had not given a name unto his watery bed.
And Helle’s case was all an accident, ‡‡As everybody knows. Why sing of these?
Nor would I rank with Sam that man who went ‡‡Down into Aetna’s womb — Empedocles, ‡‡I think he called himself. Themselves to please,
Or else unwillingly, they made their springs; ‡‡For glory in the abstract, Sam made his,
To prove to all men, commons, lords, and kings,
That “some things may be done, as well as other things.”
I will not be fatigued, by citing more ‡‡Who jump’d of old, by hazard or design,
Nor plague the weary ghosts of boyish lore, ‡‡Vulcan, Apollo, Phaeton — in fine ‡‡All Tooke’s Pantheon. Yet they grew divine
By their long tumbles; and if we can match ‡‡Their hierarchy, shall we not entwine
One wreath? Who ever came “up to the scratch,”
And for so little, jumped so bravely as Sam Patch?
To long conclusions many men have jumped ‡‡In logic, and the safer course they took;
By any other, they would have been stumped, ‡‡Unable to argue, or to quote a book, ‡‡And quite dumb-founded, which they cannot brook;
They break no bones, and suffer no contusion, ‡‡Hiding their woful fall, by hook and crook,
In slang and gibberish, sputtering and confusion;
But that was not the way Sam came to his conclusion.
He jumped in person. Death or Victory ‡‡Was his device, “and there was no mistake,”
Except his last; and then he did but die, ‡‡A blunder which the wisest men will make. ‡‡Aloft, where mighty floods the mountains break,
To stand, the target of ten thousand eyes, ‡‡And down into the coil and water-quake,
To leap, like Maia’s offspring, from the skies—
For this all vulgar flights he ventured to despise.
And while Niagara prolongs its thunder, ‡‡Though still the rock primaeval disappears,
And nations change their bounds — the theme of wonder ‡‡Shall Sam go down the cataract of long years; ‡‡And if there be sublimity in tears,
Those shall be precious which the adventurer shed ‡‡When his frail star gave way, and waked his fears
Lest, by the ungenerous crowd it might be said,
That he was all a hoax, or that his pluck had fled.
Who would compare the maudlin Alexander, ‡‡Blubbering, because he had no job in hand,
Acting the hypocrite, or else the gander, ‡‡With Sam, whose grief we all can understand? ‡‡His crying was not womanish, nor plann’d
For exhibition; but his heart o’erswelled ‡‡With its own agony, when he the grand
Natural arrangements for a jump beheld,
And measuring the cascade, found not his courage quelled.
His last great failure set the final seal ‡‡Unto the record Time shall never tear,
While bravery has its honour, — while men feel ‡‡The holy natural sympathies which are ‡‡First, last, and mightiest in the bosom. Where
The tortured tides of Genessee descend, ‡‡He came — his only intimate a bear,—
(We know not that he had another friend),
The martyr of renown, his wayward course to end.
The fiend that from the infernal rivers stole ‡‡Hell-draughts for man, too much tormented him,
With nerves unstrung, but steadfast in his soul, ‡‡He stood upon the salient current’s brim; ‡‡His head was giddy, and his sight was dim;
And then he knew this leap would be his last,— ‡‡Saw air, and earth, and water wildly swim,
With eyes of many multitudes, dense and vast,
That stared in mockery; none a look of kindness cast.
Beat down, in the huge amphitheatre ‡‡“I see before me the gladiator lie,”
And tier on tier, the myriads waiting there ‡‡The bow of grace, without one pitying eye— ‡‡He was a slave — a captive hired to die,— Sam was born free as Caesar; and he might ‡‡The hopeless issue have refused to try;
No! with true leap, but soon with faltering flight,—
“Deep in the roaring gulf, he plunged to endless night.”
But, ere he leapt, he begged of those who made ‡‡Money by his dread venture, that if he
Should perish, such collection should be paid ‡‡As might be picked up from the “company” ‡‡To his Mother. This, his last request, shall be,—
Tho’ she who bore him ne’er his fate should know,— ‡‡An iris, glittering o’er his memory—
When all the streams have worn their barriers low,
And, by the sea drunk up, for ever cease to flow.
On him who chooses to jump down cataracts, ‡‡Why should the sternest moralist be severe?
Judge not the dead by prejudice — but facts, ‡‡Such as in strictest evidence appear. ‡‡Else were the laurels of all ages sere.
Give to the brave, who have pass’d the final goal,— ‡‡The gates that ope not back, — the generous tear;
And let the muse’s clerk upon her scroll,
In coarse, but honest verse, make up the judgment roll.
Therefore it is considered, that Sam Patch ‡‡Shall never be forgot in prose or rhyme;
His name shall be a portion in the batch ‡‡Of the heroic dough, which baking Time ‡‡Kneads for consuming ages — and the chime
Of Fame’s old bells, long as they truly ring, ‡‡Shall tell of him; he dived for the sublime,
And found it. Thou, who with the eagle’s wing
Being a goose, would’st fly, — dream not of such a thing!
Source: Robert Charles Sands. The Writings of Robert C. Sands: In Prose and Verse, Volume 2. Harper, 1834
Sam Patch jumped from a ladder at the base of Goat Island twice in the fall of 1829, and was killed later that year jumping at the Genessee Falls when he was drunk. Read more about Sam Patch here
he set out on the cable—walking over Niagara Falls as though balanced on a thread in his electric-orange raiment like a brilliant spider on a silk a lovely incandescent Marbled Orbweaver this Wallenda a third-generation daredevil slowing over the plumb weights then quick as an arachnid in a rush from suddenly seeing itself being seen in a busy garden confident and striding until he entered the complex crosswinds where vapours plumed and swirled in a wet smoulder it was then he felt the breath and push of unanticipated weather it was then he began to pray to the God of sparrows the God of gulls and wind-hovering hawks as he felt the nudge and mischief that does not love defiance and the ineluctable perils that blur the burning thorax of the wirewalker
his heart and the drum-echo of its pulse blooming at the wrist with the flesh stung blue the image of ancestors the long drop of their dying into the damp tear-gather of ghosts the grey sorrow of rain pooling in the long veins of an upcurled leaf the thirsting lifeline of a widow’s palm what morbid wishfulness hushes in us all though we’re carried by his brave motion we also long in the deep plunge of a common faith to go roaring over the emerald edge as we fall beyond knowing
Source: The author. “The Wirewalker” was previously published in my book The Full Measure (Black Moss Press, 2017) and then in my book Beautiful Stupid: poems selected and new (Black Moss Press, 2018)
John B. Lee is the Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity and Poet Laureate of Norfolk County for life.
The first he knew of danger, he recorded it
all on video. You could see the rush of river
as the barrel bobbed the lip of the gorge.
But during the fall—all you saw
was white, as if the camera was flying
for a moment—then, a black screen. And maybe
that’s what brought him back. The lack of color
did not capture what he heard: a string of viola
at its highest pitch, the tender impossible cry
of a newborn crow. The first I knew of danger,
I ice skated on a pond and found fat goldfish
curling in long, slow patterns Just under
my boot. I knew the ice was thin, but
I continued anyway, the way I did
with several men that year. Each one
was a poor replacement for the one I lost
but each gave me a small gift: a bruised lip,
a cup of Dutch coffee, a tap of ash
on my windowsill. If there was a video
of me that year it would have opened
in a bank of snow, widened to reveal
the pond, the woman skating by herself
in circles. Perhaps there’d be a cardinal, just
a small slash of red on the screen. Everything
else would be white, white, and what
is the color of ice—blue, or is it more white?