The Lament of the Forest

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In joyous Summer, when the exulting earthFlung fragrance from innumerable flowersThrough the wide wastes of heaven, as on she tookIn solitude her everlasting way,I stood among the mountain heights, alone!The beauteous mountains, which the voyagerOn Hudson's breast far in the purple westMagnificent, beholds; the abutments broadWhence springs the immeasurable dome of heaven.A lake was spread before me, so sereneThat I had deemed it heaven with silver clouds,Had not the drowning butterfly, or wingOf skimming swallow, ever and anonWrinkled its glorious face with spreading rings.It was Earth's offering to the imperial skyThat in their rugged palms the mountains heldAloft. Around it rose precipitous steeps,With rock, and crag, and dell, and cavern dank;Which seemed an amphitheatre hugely builtBy mighty Titans when the world was young;And though the Flood o'erwhelmed the builders, hurledDownward its loftiest battlements, and crushedThe massive seats, columns and arches vast;Silent and desolate, it rears on highA thousand Colosseums heaped in one!Forests of shadowy pine, hemlock and beech,And oak and maple ever beautiful,O'er every rent and boss of ruin spread,Rank above rank arrayed: the topmost pinesQuivered among the clouds, and on the lake,Peaceful and calm, the lower woods looked down,A silent people through the lapsing years.

Beside that lake I lingered long, like oneWho gazes on the face of her he loves,Entranced in thoughts too glad for utterance.I watched the breeze upon the mountain's breastToss the green pine and birchen foliage gray:The clouds, like angels on their heavenward flight,Inhaled the perfume from the azalea's flower,And small white violet, whose honied breathMade the air sweet, and marked the wavelets break,Casting the pollen of the rifled flowersIn mimic rage, like gold-dust, on the shores.The sun descended, and the twilight spreadIts soft empurpled wings; and that blessed hour,When spirits stooping from the crimson cloudsCommune with man, whose grovelling instincts nowAre laid aside as robes of earthlinessBy Nature's pure and solitary fount.

Over my senses stole a sweet repose,And dreams, which are but wakefulness of soul --A brief exemption from encumbering clay.I heard a sound! 'Twas wild and strange; a voiceAs of ten thousand! Musical it was --A gush of richest concord, deep and slow;A song that filled the universal air!It was the voice of the great Forest, sentFrom every valley and dark mountain topWithin the bosom of this mighty land.


"Mortal, whose love for our umbrageous realmsExceeds the love of all the race of man;Whom we have loved; for whom have opened wideWith welcome our innumerable arms;Open thine ears! The voice that ne'er beforeWas heard by living man, is lifted up,And fills the air -- the voice of our complaint.Thousands of years! -- yea, they have passed awayAs drops of dew upon the sunlit rose,Or silver vapors of the summer sea;Thousands of years! like wind-strains on the harp,Or like forgotten thoughts, have passed awayUnto the bourne of unremembered things.Thousands of years! When the fresh earth first brokeThrough chaos, swift in new-born joy even thenThe stars of heaven beheld us waving highUpon the mountains, slumbering in the vales:Or yet the race of man had seen their light,Before the virgin breast of earth was scarredBy steel, or granite masses rent from rocksTo build vast Thebes or old Persepolis,Our arms were clasped around the hills, our locksShaded the streams that loved us, our green topsWere resting places for the weary clouds.Then all was harmony and peace; but MANArose -- he who now vaunts antiquity --He the destroyer -- and in the sacred shadesOf the far East began destruction's work.Echo, whose voice had answered to the callOf thunder or of winds, or to the cryOf cataracts -- sound of sylvan habitantsOr song of birds -- uttered responses sharpAnd dissonant; the axe unresting smoteOur reverend ranks, and crashing branches lashedThe ground, the mighty trunks, the pride of years,Rolled on the groaning earth with all their umbrage.Stronger than wintry blasts, and gathering strength,Swept that tornado, stayless, till the Earth,Our ancient mother, blasted lay and bareBeneath the burning sun. The little streamsThat oft had raised their voices in the breezeIn joyful unison with ours, did wasteAnd pine as if in grief that we were not.Our trackless shades, our dim ubiquity,In solemn garb of the primeval world,Our glory, our magnificence, were gone;And but on difficult places, marsh or steep,The remnants of our failing race were left,Like scattered clouds upon the mountain-top.The vast Hyrcanian wood, and Lebanon'sDark ranks of cedar were cut down like grass;And man, whose poets sang our happy shades,Whose sages taught that Innocence and Peace,Daughters of Solitude, sojourned in us,Held not his arm, until Necessity,Stern master e'en of him, seized it and bound,And from extinction saved our scanty tribes.

"Seasons there were, when man, at war with man,Left us to raze proud cities, desolateOld empires, and pour out his blood on soilThat once was all our own. When death has madeAll silent, all secure, we have returned,Twisted our roots around the prostrate shaftsAnd broken capitals, or struck them deepInto the mould made richer by man's blood.Such seasons were but brief: so soon as earthWas sanctified again by shade and art,Again resolved to nature, man came back,And once more swept our feeble hosts away.

"Yet was there one bright, virgin continentRemote, that Roman name had never reached,Nor ancient dreams, in all their universe;As inaccessible in primal timeTo human eye and thought, as UranusFar in his secret void. For round it rolledA troubled deep, whose everlasting roarEchoed in every zone; whose drear expanseSpread dark and trackless as the midnight sky;And stories of vast whirlpools, stagnant seas,Terrible monsters, that with horror struckThe mariner's soul, these held aloof full longThe roving race of Europe from that land,The land of beauty and of many climes,The land of mighty cataracts, where nowOur own proud eagle flaps his chainless wing.

"Thus guarded through long centuries, untouchedBy man, save him, our native child, whose footDisdained the bleak and sun-beat soil, who lovedOur shafted halls, the covert of the deer,We flourished, we rejoiced. From mountain topTo mountain top we gazed, and over valesAnd glimmering plains we saw our banner greenWide waving yet untorn. Gladly the SpringOn bloomy wing shed fragrance over us;And Summer laughed beneath our verdant roof,And Autumn sighed to leave our golden courts;And when the crimson leaves were strewn in showersUpon the ample lap of Oregon,Or the great Huron's lake of lazuli,Winter upraised his rude and stormy songs,And we in a wild chorus answered him.O peace primeval! would thou hadst remained!What moved thee to unbar thine emerald gates,O mighty Deep! when the destroyer came?Strayed then thy blasts upon Olympus' air,Or were they lulled to breezes round the browOf rich Granada's crafty conqueror,When with strong wing they should have rushed uponOur enemy and smitten him, as whenThe fleet of Xerxes on the Grecian coastWas cast like foam and weed upon the rocks!

"But impotent the voice of our complaint:He came! Few were his numbers first, but soonThe work of desolation was begunClose by the heaving main; then on the banksOf rivers inland far, our strength was shorn,And fire and steel performed their office well.No stay was there -- no rest. The tiny cloudOft seen in torrid climes, at first sends forthA faint light breeze; but gathering, as it moves,Darkness and bulk, it spans the spacious skyWith lurid palm, and sweeps stupendous o'erThe crashing world. And thus comes rushing onThis human hurricane, boundless as swift.Our sanctuary, this secluded spot,Which the stern rocks have guarded until now,Our enemy has marked. This gentle lakeShall lose our presence in its limpid breast,And from the mountains we shall melt away,Like wreaths of mist upon the winds of heaven.Our doom is near: behold from east to westThe skies are darkened by ascending smoke;Each hill and every valley is becomeAn altar unto Mammon, and the godsOf man's idolatry -- the victims we.Missouri's floods are ruffled as by storm,And Hudson's rugged hills at midnight glowBy light of man-projected meteors.We feed ten thousand fires: in our short dayThe woodland growth of centuries is consumed;Our crackling limbs the ponderous hammer rouseWith fervent heat. Tormented by our flame,Fierce vapors struggling hiss on every hand.On Erie's shores, by dusky Arkansas,Our ranks are falling like the heavy grainIn harvest-time on Wolga's distant banks.

"A few short years! -- these valleys, greenly clad,These slumbering mountains, resting in our arms,Shall naked glare beneath the scorching sun,And all their wimpling rivulets be dry.No more the deer shall haunt these bosky glens,Nor the pert squirrel chatter near his store.A few short years! -- our ancient race shall be,Like Israel's, scattered 'mong the tribes of men."

© Cole Thomas