From the Sublime to the Ridiculous by Evan MacColl

Evan MacColl
from the frontispiece

Lines suggested by a glance at the visitor’s Album, kept at the Museum, Niagara Falls.

Give up, ye would-be bards, your rhymes to tag here so,
In vain you rack your brains to paint Niagara.
A theme which even Milton’s muse might beggar, you
Had better let alone when at Niagara.
About Lodore right well could Southey swagger, tho’
‘Twould take ten thousand such to match Niagara.
To all who can stand boasting fit to stagger me,
I’d recommend a visit to Niagara.
Hear yon sleek slaver—not a bit in waggery—
Toasting the “Flag of Freedom” at Niagara!
“You Canucks,” quoth he, “need the starry flag o’er you
To make you worth your salt benorth Niagara!
You can’t too quickly have that British rag o’er you
To disappear entirely from Niagara!
He calculates some day to blast a crag or two
And drain Lake Erie all up from Niagara.
He speculates, just as myself I drag away,
How Ætna’s throat would like to gulp Niagara!
Oh, cousins, cousins! what a set for brag are you!
When will you learn mere froth is not Niagara?
But I must cease, lest they should lynch or dagger me;
Already they have fleeced me at Niagara.

Source: Evan MacColl.  The English Poetical Works of Evan MacColl.  2nd Canadian edition.  Toronto: Hunter, Rose & Co., 1885

Click here to see a biography of Evan MacColl

Life at Niagara: An Epistle From the Falls By James Thomas Fields

James Thomas Fields

Dear N.
: While the rainbows are spanning the Falls,
And a lusty Scotch infant next door raises squalls, —
While the frantic young mother shouts madly for milk,
In tones not so soft, quite, as satin or silk, —
Your friend, grown poetic, has snatched up his pen,
To dash off a line to “the best of young men.”

You’ve been at the Falls, and they can’t be described,
Though Coleridge himself from the tomb should be bribed ;
Pile mountains of paper, and flood them with ink,
And Niagara is dry, though the reader should sink.
But there’s life here, my friend, — closely packed to be sure, —
For fashion condenses what man must endure :
Not a bed to be had, not a chair, or a block,
And the only spare table is old Table Rock.
How glorious a visit, were taverns and gongs
But banished a week to where Fashion belongs,
To tramp through the forest, with no charge of fares,
In a pair of brogans, such as Audubon wears;
To meet a lithe Indian, all stately and stark,
And “put up” a few days in his wigwam of bark; —
Gods! a walk through the woods, by the light of the stars,
Would outweigh all the lamps, and the Lewiston cars!

But here’s life at the Falls — from a year to fourscore —
(And I think by the sound there’s a day at next door ; )
Here are members of Congress, away from their seats,
Though sure to be there when the dinner-gong beats ;
Here are waiters, so eager your viands to snatch,
That they leap down the stairs like a multiplied Patch ;
To the sound of sweet music they nimbly appear,
And whisk off your corn while they tickle your ear.
Here are pensive young preachers, dressed quite comme il faut,
In coats black as night, and cravats pure as snow ;
Rich East India governors, heavy as gold,
Hanging round like weak sun-flowers, yellow and old ;
Artistical talent, with sketch-book displayed,
Drawing very bad water in very poor shade ;
Fat cockneys from Charing-Cross ; belles from Madrid,
Whose long jewelled fingers outrival Jamschid ;
Superb English maidens, with swan-swimming gait,
Who float round the Rapids like Junos in state ; —
But the brightest-eyed daughters, the best string of pearls,
Represent in their beauty our own Yankee Girls.

Here cluster the fair, and the plain, and the prim,
Round the gallant and gay, whiskered up to the brim ;
Here’s a biped in boots, a most exquisite ass,
Who looks at the Falls through a golden-rimmed glass ;
And to-day such a waist, N., I saw on the Rock,
That to furnish the brains seemed a slight waste of stock.
Here’s a lively old lady, all feathers and fans,
Who trots about peddling her Susans and Anns ;
And a drab-colored Quaker, I’ve seen more than twice
Take a sly glass of something in water and ice.
But brief let me be, while the dull curfew tolls ;
Niagara still lives! still it rushes, and rolls ; —
There is no spot on earth where I’d sooner meet you,
And the friends we both love, N., the choice and the true,
Though a Downeastern editor published the lie
That this glorious old cataract’s “all in my eye!”

Source:  James Thomas Fields. Poems by James T. Fields.  Boston: William D. Ticknor & Company, 1849

Read about Fields here

A Shropshire Lad by John Betjeman


Matthew Webb Killed in the Whirlpool Rapids July 24 1883. Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

The gas was on in the Institute,
The flare was up in the gym,
A man was running a mineral line,
A lass was singing a hymn,
When Captain Webb the Dawley man,
Captain Webb from Dawley,
Came swimming along the old canal
That carried the bricks to Lawley.
Swimming along –
Swimming along –
Swimming along from Severn,
And paying a call at Dawley Bank while swimming along to Heaven.

The sun shone low on the railway line
And over the bricks and stacks
And in at the upstairs windows
Of the Dawley houses’ backs
When we saw the ghost of Captain Webb,
Webb in a water sheeting,
Come dripping along in a bathing dress
To the Saturday evening meeting.
Dripping along –
Dripping along –
To the Congregational Hall;
Dripping and still he rose over the sill and faded away in a wall.

There wasn’t a man in Oakengates
That hadn’t got hold of the tale,
And over the valley in Ironbridge,
And round by Coalbrookdale,
How Captain Webb the Dawley man,
Captain Webb from Dawley,
Rose rigid and dead from the old canal
That carries the bricks to Lawley.
Rigid and dead –
Rigid and dead –
To the Saturday congregation,
Paying a call at Dawley Bank on the way to his destination.

Source: Betjeman’s Banana Blush: Sir John Betjeman the Poet Laureate Reads His Verse.  Charisma Records, 1973.

Read about Sir John Betjeman

Captain Matthew Webb was a world-renowned swimmer who attempted to swim the Whirlpool Rapids at Niagara Falls on July 24, 1883. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Niagara Falls, New York. Read about Captain Webb here.

Click here for another story about Webb’s ghost

Ah There! Niagara ! by E.G. Fowler

The Falls of Niagara From Goat Island, 1853, by George Wallis. Showing the Terrapin Tower and Terrapin Point. Image courtesy of Library of Congress


Ah there ! Niagara !  Again I’m here,
I, Fowler, the tuneful tenor-poet
Of Port Jervis, who just a year
Ago did visit thee and afterward let
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡all the wide world know it !
Niagara ! Thou art a Jim-dandy !
Niagara ! Thou art a Jim-daisy !
Thou enthusest me like brandy
Saturated with macerated rock candy.
(Which, when traveling, always comes in
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡mighty toothsome and palatesome and
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡stomachsome as well as hygenically
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡handy !)
Thou drives me nearly crazy
With gruesome delight.
Hail, hilarious sight !
What a grand dynamic,
Emerald frolic,
Thou art !
Great Scott !
This glorious spot
Fills my heart
With dithyrambic,
Trochaic, iambic
And sesquipedalian treasures
Of poeticalized pleasures
That would knock the ancient poets limp and cold,
But emotions like mine in ordinary language can never be satisfactorily told!
Ah there ! Niagara !
Thou art a staggerer !
Thou sluggest all other earthly scenes, maudlin and silly !
Thou makest a man a poet, willy-nilly !
Thou despumatory
Cam a man, who only dust is,
Do thee justice ?
Thou fallest. bawlest, squallest, callest
To me with a willowy whoop of roars,
And thy misty beard on the breeze to the zenith soars!
I am an emphatic
Niagaratic !
Like the wingful, flysome gull o’er thy curling crest I’d soar,
But not with the cranks in a cask down thy Horseshoe plunge I’d pour !
O no !
I’m not built THAT way !
I do my raving on terra firmay !
Quite so !
Ah there ! Terrapin Point I see,
So named because right there thee terror pins the tourist’s trembling knee!
August Niagara ! The pun excuse !
But surely, thou dost me so enthuse
That scarce I know
If, sitting down, I stand, or standing still as
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Stock or stone I swiftly onward, roundward go !
But now, Niagara, my time is up, my pass is
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡out, the walking’s bad twixt here and
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡P. J., my credit’s poor among these
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Canucks who glower on me, and these
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡Fierce heesmen who look, wise laws,
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡like sat-down-upon criminals, and I
‡‡‡‡‡‡‡must say more adieu ! Adieu ! Adieu !
Next year I’ll try again to come and visit yieu !

Source: Tri-States Union, December 29, 1887

Click to see the accompanying newspaper article about the visit Fowler made to Niagara Falls.


A Legend of Niagara by Florio

Upper Niagara River and Goat Island. Photograph by Andrew Porteus, 2004

An Indian, in the days of yore —
Of “fish and fur’s” abounding store —
Would cross Niagara’s stream —
Just where the river, smooth and wide,
Pours toward the gulf its treacherous tide,
Like some deceitful dream.

Near by, a bear was crossing, too :
Whose head no sooner rose to view,
Than straight the “Brave” urged his canoe
To grasp an easy prey ;
But Bruin fled not — glad to greet
A resting-place for weary feet,
He turned and swam his foe to meet,
Upon the watery way.

They met — the paddle’s blow was dealt ;
With paw received, or scarcely felt
By fur-protected bear.
Who, reaching up as for a bough,
Climbed gracefully into the prow
And sat serenely there.
The astonished “Brave” sought in his turn
The “ultima thule” of the stern,
And then sat down to stare.

And thus in armed neutrality
They sat in thoughtful “vis-à-vis,”
While the bark drifted silently
To meet the breakers white ;

But when the Indian seized an oar,
To stay his course, or seek the shore,
Admonished by an ominous roar,
He dropped it in affright :

For in those cavernous jaws he sees
Molars, incisors, cuspidés —
Enough a hero’s heart to freeze
Or dentist to delight.

More dreadful still, the angry Fall,
Like some huge monster seemed to call,
Impatient for its prey ;
And shows its breakers’ flashing teeth,
To welcome him to depths beneath ; —
And breathes its breath of spray.

Visions of fire and frying pan
Encompassed that bewildered man
(Tho’ watery fears oppressed)
And Shakspeare’s thought his bosom fills
“Better to bear our present ills
Than fly” — you know the rest.

Whether the Brave proved dainty fare,
And then the Fall devoured the bear,
Though unto them the “loss was sair”
To us is less ado :
But still, arrayed in fancy’s gleam,
Have floated down Tradition’s stream
The twain in that canoe —
And furnished to the faces pale,
The matter to “adorn a tale,”
And “point a moral,” too.

We float upon life’s lapsing tide
While toward some gulf the waters glide
With unremitting might ;
And some black bear holds us in awe,
Like the “black Care” which Horace saw
Behind the Roman knight.

We fain would seize an oar to reach
Some sylvan shore, some silvery beach ;
But still the moment miss —
For Pride, or Ease, or Care, or Fear,
Sits with o’erwhelming presence near ;
The saving hand we dare not lift,
And gently thus we drift, drift, drift,
Into the dread abyss.

Our land, which boasts that it prepares
Its morel and material wares,
Should make its legends, too :
And mixing one of native clay,
Let’s drop “a lion’s in the way,”
And in its stead hereafter say —
A bear’s in the canoe.”

Source: The Crayon, vol. 8, no. 7, July 1861.

Florio is possibly a pseudonym used by Clement Clarke Moore.  Two poems published in the New York Evening Post under the name of Florio later appeared in Moore’s 1844 book Poems, as outlined in the blog post Two Poems by Clement C. Moore, as First Published in the New York Evening Post