The Launch of the Griffin by Thomas D’Arcy McGee


Building of the Griffin, Canada, ca. 1690. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Within Cayuga’s forest shade
The stocks were set—the keel was laid—
Wet with the nightly forest dew,
The frame of that first vessel grew.
Strange was the sight upon the brim
Of the swift river, even to him
 ‡‡The builder of the bark;
To see its artificial lines
Festoon’d with summer’s sudden vines,
 ‡‡Another New World’s ark.


As rounds to ripeness manhood’s schemes
Out of youth’s fond, disjointed dreams,
So ripen’d in her kindred wood
That traveller of the untried flood.
And often as the evening sun
Gleam’d on the group, their labor done—
 ‡‡The Indian prowling out of sight
 ‡‡Of corded friar and belted knight—
And smiled upon them as they smiled,
The builders on the bark—their child!


The hour has come: upon the stocks
The masted hull already rocks—
The mallet in the master’s hand
Is poised to launch her from the land.
Beside him, partner of his quest
For the great river of the West,
Stands the adventurous Recollet
Whose page records that anxions day.
To him the master would defer
The final act—he will not bear
That any else than him who plann’d,
Should launch “the Griffin” from the land.
In courteous conflict they contend,
The knight and priest, as friend with friend—
 ‡‡In that strange savage scene
The swift blue river glides before,
And still Niagara’s awful roar
 ‡‡Booms through the vistas green.


And now the mallet falls, stroke—stroke—
On prop of pine and wedge of oak
 ‡‡The vessel feels her way;
The quick mechanics leap aside
As, rushing downward to the tide,
 ‡‡She dashes them with spray.
The ready, warp arrests her course,
And holds her for a while perforce,
While on her deck the merry crew
Man every rope, loose every clew,
 ‡‡And spread her canvas free.
Away! ’tis done! the Griffin floats,
First of Lake Erie’s winged boats—
 ‡‡Her flag, the Fleur-de-lis.


Gun after gun proclaims the hour,
As nature yields to human power;
And now upon the deeper calm
The Indian hears the holy psalm—
Laudamus to the Lord of Hosts!
Whose name unknown on all their coasts,
The inmost wilderness shall know,
Wafted upon yon wings of snow
That, sinking in the waters blue,
Seem but some lake-bird lost to view.


In old romance and fairy lays
Its wondrous part the Griffin plays—
Grimly it guards the gloomy gate
Seal’d by the strong behest of Fate—
Or, spreading its portentous wings,
Wafts Virgil to the Court of Kings;
And unto scenes as wondrous shall
Thy Griffin bear thee, brave La Salle!
Thy winged steed shall stall where grows
On Michigan the sweet wild rose;
Lost in the mazes of St. Clair,
Shall give thee hope amid despair,
And bear thee past those isles of dread
The Huron peoples with the dead,
Where foot of savage never trod
Within the precinct of his god;
And it may be thy lot to trace
The footprints of the unknown race
‘Graved on Superior’s iron shore,
Which knows their very name no more
Through scenes so vast and wondrous shall
Thy Griffin bear thee, brave La Salle—
True Wizard of the Wild! whose art,
An eye of power, a knightly heart,
A patient purpose silence-nursed,
A high, enduring, saintly trust—
Are mighty spells—we honor these,
Columbus of the inland seas!

Source: Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The Poems of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. London: D. & J. Sadlier, 1870

Note: The Griffin was originally known as Le Griffon. It was built at Cayuga Creek, just south of Niagara Falls, New York.

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