O THOU great priest of all the nations, thou
Whose immemorial chanting shakes the sky !
The suns of ages on thy reverend brow
Linger, in glorious life, immortally.
I come again to hear, eternal tone
Of immolated waters, where the leap
Of thy vast splendor makes perpetual moan
And lifts unwearied litanies from the deep.
I find thy priestly waters clad in snow,
And where thy choral rapids used to sweep
Surpliced in hills of frost, like acolytes, they sleep.
All rubrical, in white,
Hills, waves and trees are vestured deep with light
As for high splendors of some solemn feast.
The mighty altar of thy hills, aglow
With ceremonial show,
Twinkles with mimic suns; thy tapers bright
Astound the reverent sight,
And wistful, sedulous clouds of swirling mist
Have never ceased
To hang the shivering trees, by sunbeams kissed,
With wonderful bright robes and baldachins of fleece.
O the vast arc of that white altar, glowing
With crystal columns of thy frozen streams,
Gigantic pillars, halted in their flowing,
Lucent with lightenings of marmoreal gleams,
Their flutings vaster than old Egypt’s glory,
Chiseled to fretted arabesques of frost, —
In the white windings of that splendor hoary
The wildered sunbeams wander and are lost.
Ah, bleak and beautiful, and clear
With more than earthly glitterings of delight,
Thine ice-built altar here
Quivers with marvels of celestial light,
With wild and tremulous mist,
And streaming clouds of glory from its height.
Around, in robes of state,
The reverential forests stand,
With their deep, paradisal fruitings hoar.
Obsequious they wait
While, chanting low, the waters deck them more,
Strewing their crystal splendors on the land,
Weaving the woods with many a strange device
With snowy hands and crackling stays of ice,
Until amazing glories flash and flow
Where the white forests glow,
And all the common world is covered under
With hills of spendor and with vales of wonder !
The vaporous incense of thy restless wave
Is whirled in clouds of glory, freezing far,
On every jutting crag the restless play
Of thy swift, eager water piles away
A heap of gelid foam. The furious war
Of freezing torrents, teased to flinging spray,
Hath left thy stones as lovely as a star.
Where the pale stretches of thine ice fields are,
Hark, the trapped surges impotently rave,
Roar furious, prisoned in their icy cave.
The steadfast waters keep their constant will
On pouring towards the brink of their desire.
The sacrificial torrent whelmed and lost
In wonderful, deep frost,
Leaps onward with its immemorial fire.
With all its ancient joy and all its fear
The liquid litany of the waves I hear,
And echo through the white, impassive walls
The solemn verberations of the falls.
No fetters of imperious cold
This sacrificial surge can stay
From the wild winter’s freezing hold
The eager torrent leaps away,
And through the far-flung ice resistless poured
The ever valiant wave, to win its way,
Shakes the white lightenings of its silver sword!
Source: The Catholic World, vol 110, January 1920, p 496-497
An anthem, ‘like the sound of many waters !’
The prophet heard it, as in wondrous vision
He lay entranced upon the cliffs of PATMOS ;
And wouldst thou hear its emblem, go and listen,
In deep and dread delight, to NIÀGARA !
That everlasting anthem which hath peal’d
Nor paus’d a moment, from the birth of ages !
And, fitting emblem of celestial chorus,
The loud eternity of rushing music
Disturbs not, but subdues and fills, the spirit
With feelings of unutterable stillness,
And infinite tranquillity, excluding
The world with all its dissonance of passions. ‡‡There, too, a cloud of ever-offer’d incense
From nature’s altar,— in the vapoury column
On which bright rainbows beam the smiles of mercy, —
Hath risen well-nigh six thousand years to heaven,
In unison with that astounding chorus
Of multitudinous and white-robed waters,
So glorious in the fury of their rapture
Around their awful and mysterious centre ! ‡‡And oft, stupendous Cataract, as winter
Comes listening to thy choral hallelujahs,
And gazing on thy pomp of rising incense;
With mimic semblance of some mighty temple
He loves to grace thee, and thy shaggy borders
Fantastically silvers o’er with frost-work;
Pranking with icy pinnacles and pillars
The walls of thy magnificent Catherdral :
But ne’er Cathedral owned a crypt so dreadful
As thine, o’er-arch’d with such a thundering deluge. ‡‡And still the thunder of the eternal anthem,
And still the column of ascending incense,
Shall draw remotest pilgrims to they worship,
Shall hold them breathless in thy sovereign presence,
And lost to all that they before had look’d on;
Yea, conjur’d up by strong imagination,
Shall sound in ears that never heard the music,
Shall gleam in eyes that ne’er beheld the vision;
Till the great globe, with all that it inherits,
Shall vanish, — like that cloud of ceaseless incense, —
In thunder, — like that falling world of waters. ‡‡Oh peerless paragon of earthly wonders !
Embodying, in their most intense expression,
Beauty, sublimity, might, music, motion,
To fix and fill at once eye, ear, thought, feeling;
And kindling, into unknown exaltation,
Dread and delight, astonishment and rapture !
Sure GOD said, let there be a NIÀGARA !
And, lo, a NIÀGARA heard His bidding;
And glimmer’d forth a sparkle of His glory,
And whisper’d here the thunder of Omnipotence !
Clifton, April 1839
Source: Barham, William. Descriptions of Niagara; selected From Various Travellers. Gravesend: William Barham, , p176-177
An alien song. Though day by day I listen,
No syllable of that majestic chant
May my adoring passion comprehend.
With many a lucent, evanescent hue
The plunging torrents glisten.
Far-seen, colossal plumes of spray ascend,
Their dazzling white shot through and through
With quivering rainbows, until every plant,
Each hoar, blue-berried cedar loved of bird,
Each fine fern tracery, the cold mists christen
To spirit grace. The frosted branches bend
With sparkle of such jewels as transcend
All fantasy of elfin-craft. Yet who
Interpreteth the great enchantment’s word?
Ye are the primal Sibyls, Sisters twain ;
Far elder than the whispering Cumaean,
Or Delphi’s burning prophetess, ye hold
Your splendid thrones unvisited of Time,
— One robed in rushing waters whose rich gold,
Imperial fold on fold,
Was wrought from sunsets of an earlier aeon,
Of an intenser clime,
Yet tinged by April willows and the rain
Of forest leaves autumnal, powdery drift
The eddies bring as tribute gift
Of Huron and Superior ; and One,
More graciously sublime,
Mantled in raiment spun
From foliage of some strange, supernal spring,
Such pure ethereal green
That Heaven stoops down, her holy azure fain
To blend with it and revel in the sun;
And oftentimes each iris-scarfèd Queen,
As angel-wing reflecteth angel-wing,
Puts on her sister’s sheen.
Mysterious ! if eyes can hardly bear
The glory of your opalescent robes,
Your diamond aureoles and veils empearled,
May the stunned ear divine
Your awful oracle? August, yet wild,
Do your tremendous paeans still prolong
Creation’s old, unhumanized delight,
The laughter of the Titans? Were ye there
With your deep diapason answering
The archangelic, chanting, golden globes,
What time they chorused forth their crystalline,
Exultant welcome to the stranger world?
Or is it, tolling Cataracts, the doom,
The unrevealable, forbidden thing,
Your antiphonic, solemn voices boom?
Or peradventure do your peals proclaim
Some all-triumphal Name
That could it once be won by mortal ear
Would ecstasy the griefs we suffer here
And charter Love to wing
Her radiant flight beyond oblivion ?
Dread Sisters, ye who smite
The senses with intolerable roar,
Is there no meaning in your ceaseless song,
No word of God in all your mighty throng
Of multitudinous thunders evermore?
Source: Katharine Lee Bates. America the Beautiful and Other Poems. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Publishers, 1911