Lines on the Death of Captain Webb by James Gay

Captain Matthew Webb who lost his life attempting to swim the Whirlpool Rapids July 24 1883. Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

These verses composed on one of the brightest of men,
Can never return on earth again.
No man like him before ever swam from shore to shore:
This was done by him as hundreds have seen
From Dover in Kent to Calais Green.
He left his wife and children dear,
His lot was cast this proves so clear.

Could see no danger before his eyes,
Death took him quickly by surprise.
No doubt he thought himself clever,
Could never have thought to breathe his last in Niagara river—
Where no man on earth could ever swim
Across this whirlpool, never, never.
This brave young man, he caused no strife,
Cut down in the prime of life, left behind him a widowed wife.

‘Tis not for man to frown or brawl,
His lot was cast in Niagara Falls.
I saw his likeness in Marshall’s place,
Plain to be seen without disgrace.

Those men in his company that day were clever,
Could not see his danger in Niagara river.
It was not to be, the young and fast,
This was laid out for him to breathe his last.
As I have often said, and say again,
I am sorry to hear of an untimely end.

‘Tis time for us all to prepare for fear of this dreadful snare;
As this roaring lion is around every day,
Our precious souls for to betray.
Let us cast all our fears on Christ, and on his word rely—
We can all live happy while on this earth,
And in heaven when we die.

Composed by
James Gay,
The Master of all Poets this day.

Royal City of Guelph, East Market Square.
N.B.—Your poet is about to visit these falls,
Where Captain Webb received his death call.

Source: James Gay. Canada’s Poet. London: Field & Tuer, [1884]

James Gay was the self-styled Poet Laureate of Canada and Master of All Poets

Read about James Gay in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Read about Captain Webb here

Crawford Kilian rated James Gay as #1 in the article Canada’s Five Worst Poets: Are You Number Six? in The Tyee.

Blondin by Walter de la Mare

Mons. Blondin’s walk across the cataract. Charles Magnus publisher. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

With clinging dainty catlike tread,
His pole in balance, hand to hand,
And, softly smiling, into space
He ventures on that threadlike strand.

Above him is the enormous sky,
Beneath, a frenzied torrent roars,
Surging where massed Niagara
Its snow-foamed arc of water pours:

But he, with eye serene as his
Who sits in daydream by the fire,
His every sinew, bone and nerve
Obedient to his least desire,

Treads softly on, with light-drawn breath,
Each inch-long toe, precisely pat,
In inward trust, past wit to probe—
This death-defying acrobat! …

Like some old Saint on his old rope-bridge,
Between another world and this,
Dead-calm ‘mid inward vortices,
Where little else but danger is.

Source: De la Mare, Walter. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 1979

Blondin was first published in De la Mare, Walter. Inward Companion. London: Faber and Faber, 1950.

Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 1859 and 1860.

Read more about Blondin here

Niagara by Duncan Forbes

Blondin Crossing Niagara Falls on a Tightrope by Joseph Silveira, ca. 1859-1860. Courtesy of the New York Historical Society.

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.

©Duncan Forbes

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.

Visit Duncan Forbes’ website

For more information on Blondin, visit Niagara Falls Thunder Alley

A Monody Made on the Late Mr. Samuel Patch, By an Admirer of the Bathos by Robert Charles Sands

By water shall he die, and take his end. — Shakespeare.

Sam Patch’s Leap. From Peter Porter: Official guide, Niagara Falls, River, Frontier: scenic, botanic, electric, historic, geologic, hydraulic. 1901

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—

Robert C. Sands

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

The Bridge Builder by Maxine Kumin

June 17, 1848. Charles Ellet, Jr., the civil engineer who designed the suspension bridge soon to be built over Niagara Falls, today tested the service span to be used in its construction by driving his horse across the planking.  – Brooklyn Eagle

Kite Flying Contest Held To Get The First Line Across [The Gorge] For The Suspension Bridge. Based on an unsigned sketch by Donna Marie Campbell, Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

I, Charles Ellet, Jr., licensed engineer
son of a provident Quaker farmer
now stand at the gorge where Niagara Falls

offers a prospect so sublime no rival
as yet is known on this great globe of ours.
Let men deride me as actor, rainmaker;

let it be said of me that I have loved
all carriageways and catwalks, all defiles
wide gaps and narrow verges to be bridged

am fond of women and horses equally
although the latter’s sensibility
is plainer far to read. However much

respect I hold for Nature’s rash downrush
her virginal ebullience, I itch
to take it in the compass of my fingers.

One does not “break” a horse, but wins its trust.
With towers and cables, not brute trusses;
with tact, not tug; suspension, not piled piers

I mean to overarch this wild splendor.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡*  *  *

Let them think me odd who see as if
asleep my silent self reflecting how
to span the rapids boiling at my feet

two hundred forty feet below the cliff
to be exact. An arrow from a bow?
A bird or a balloon? Why not a kite?

A kite could soar across the open rift!
The public loves such deeds. I’ll offer a prize,
a decent sort of prize, say five gold dollars

to the first man or boy who sends his string
to Canada.** The placard up three days
a local gap-toothed lad steps forth to win —

a widow’s son, shy skinny Homan Walsh.
He’s going to outlive me. Will he grow
up bold, race Thoroughbreds, get rich

performing acts of wild derring-do?
I don’t at this point know, nor know that
I’m to die a colonel in the Civil War

a hero slain leading a charge of rams
— warships rigged to ram opponents’ hulls —
on The Big Muddy to rout the Confederates.

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡*  *  *

Backward looks are licensed. To look for-
ward isn’t done; is not acceptable.
But give me leave to leap beyond the date

of my flamboyance, 1848,
and introduce High-Jumping Sam: Sam Patch
clad all in white, who dives from the cliff into

the rainbowed pool at the foot of the cataract
and not content with one dive, makes it two.
Reprises at Genesee and straightway drowns.

Or Blondin in ’59 adored by thousands
who cheer his tightrope walk across the chasm.
He’ll have a score of successors, circus clowns

who mock the danger, simulate cold fear
half-fall, recover and go blithely on
some piggyback, some skipping rope, afire

with the same lust for fame and fortune
as those who dare chute down the drop in barrels.
The first a cooper proving his staves would hold

then scores of imitators taking the falls
by barrel, boat and cork, a steady parade
of madmen. And always the suicides . . .

Dramatic death! Love also knows no season.
Though bliss be brief that attends unbridled passion
romantic couples will hasten by canal

or rail to flaunt their ecstatic portion
fulfill the fleeting period of joy
that one wag titles “honey-lunacy.”

Some say the falls gently distract the lovers’
overweening focus on one another.
Some say the tumult of the cataract

conceals the newlyweds’ embarrassment
caught, as it were, in the rapturous nuptial act.
Others aver the falls’ ceaseless descent

evokes a rich manly response. Some brides
claim happy negative ions are produced
by falling water. You may take your choice

of savants, sages and hypotheses
but thus Niagara will come to boast
hotels and curio shops and carriage-rides

to vistas for photos of the just-now wived.
Skeptic I am, unmarried by design.
Still, might not the spectacle conjoin

male and female qualities into one?

‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡*  *  *

Now let us turn back from this clairvoyant
glimpse to the day that Homan’s kite string held.
I tie it to a somewhat stouter cord

and next, a heavier one of finespun wire
and ever-mightier cables to support stout
wooden planks until from shore to shore,

just wide enough to let a phaeton pass,
a catwalk spans the gorge. The boards are spaced
to let rainwater through. Side rails? None.

I test it harshly across and back, first at
a walk, then jog, then crow-hop up and down
assured that it will hold. Once I trust it

I harness up my mare, to show she will.
A chestnut Morgan, foaled in my own barn
and trained to voice commands the way a skilled

driving horse need be, to keep from harm.
Vixen by name but not by temperament,
spirited, willing and confident.

Do not mistake submission, the highest
accolade man can bestow on a horse,
with truckling subservience. The mare must trust

the steady justice of the driver’s hand.
Fingers that speak, not snatch; a voice
that soothes and urges but withholds choice.

Vixen and I prepare to take our stand.
I stand up in the cart as in a chariot
the better she may sense we are allied

and ask her to move off at a rapid trot.
She never casts a glance to either side.
The crowd is aghast. Several women swoon.

The catwalk sways most fearfully but holds
beneath the mare and horseman in the sky
and that is how we cross, Vixen, my bold

partner, and I, Charles Ellet, Jr.,
bridge builder, licensed engineer.

**The kites were actually flown from Canada to the United States using the prevailing westerly winds. 

Source: Kumin, Maxine. “The Bridge Builder.” TriQuarterly, Winter 1995, p. 162-166.
Also published in her 11th book of poems, Connecting the Dots, Norton, 1996
Maxine Kumin (June 6, 1925 – February 6, 2014) was an American author and poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1973. She was the Library of Congress Poet Laureate for 1981-1982