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4.6.3: “The Prairies” (1833)

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    These are the gardens of the Desert, these
    The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,
    For which the speech of England has no name—
    The Prairies. I behold them for the first,
    And my heart swells, while the dilated sight
    Takes in the encircling vastness. Lo! they stretch,
    In airy undulations, far away,
    As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell,
    Stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed,
    And motionless forever.—Motionless?—
    No—they are all unchained again. The clouds
    Sweep over with their shadows, and, beneath,
    The surface rolls and fluctuates to the eye;
    Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase
    The sunny ridges. Breezes of the South!

    Who toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,
    And pass the prairie-hawk that, poised on high,
    Flaps his broad wings, yet moves not—ye have played
    Among the palms of Mexico and vines
    Of Texas, and have crisped the limpid brooks
    That from the fountains of Sonora glide
    Into the calm Pacific—have ye fanned
    A nobler or a lovelier scene than this?
    Man hath no power in all this glorious work:
    The hand that built the firmament hath heaved
    And smoothed these verdant swells, and sown their slopes
    With herbage, planted them with island groves,
    And hedged them round with forests. Fitting floor
    For this magnificent temple of the sky—
    With flowers whose glory and whose multitude
    Rival the constellations! The great heavens
    Seem to stoop down upon the scene in love,—
    A nearer vault, and of a tenderer blue,
    Than that which bends above our eastern hills.

    As o’er the verdant waste I guide my steed,
    Among the high rank grass that sweeps his sides
    The hollow beating of his footsteps seems
    A sacrilegious sound. I think of those
    Upon whose rest he tramples. Are they here—
    The dead of other days?—and did the dust
    Of these fair solitudes once stir with life
    And burn with passion? Let the mighty mounds
    That overlook the rivers, or that rise
    In the dim forest crowded with old oaks,
    Answer. A race, that long has passed away,
    Built them;—a disciplined and populous race
    Heaped, with long toil, the earth, while yet the Greek
    Was hewing the Pentelicus to forms
    Of symmetry, and rearing on its rock
    The glittering Parthenon. These ample fields
    Nourished their harvest, here their herds were fed,
    When haply by their stalls the bison lowed,
    And bowed his maned shoulder to the yoke.
    All day this desert murmured with their toils,
    Till twilight blushed, and lovers walked, and wooed
    In a forgotten language, and old tunes,
    From instruments of unremembered form,
    Gave the soft winds a voice. The red man came—
    The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
    And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.
    The solitude of centuries untold
    Has settled where they dwelt. The prairie-wolf
    Hunts in their meadows, and his fresh-dug den
    Yawns by my path. The gopher mines the ground
    Where stood their swarming cities. All is gone;
    All—save the piles of earth that hold their bones,
    The platforms where they worshipped unknown gods,
    The barriers which they builded from the soil
    To keep the foe at bay—till o’er the walls
    The wild beleaguerers broke, and, one by one,
    The strongholds of the plain were forced, and heaped
    With corpses. The brown vultures of the wood
    Flocked to those vast uncovered sepulchres,
    And sat unscared and silent at their feast.
    Haply some solitary fugitive,
    Lurking in marsh and forest, till the sense
    Of desolation and of fear became
    Bitterer than death, yielded himself to die.
    Man’s better nature triumphed then. Kind words
    Welcomed and soothed him; the rude conquerors
    Seated the captive with their chiefs; he chose
    A bride among their maidens, and at length
    Seemed to forget—yet ne’er forgot—the wife
    Of his first love, and her sweet little ones,
    Butchered, amid their shrieks, with all his race.

    Thus change the forms of being. Thus arise
    Races of living things, glorious in strength,
    And perish, as the quickening breath of God
    Fills them, or is withdrawn. The red man, too,
    Has left the blooming wilds he ranged so long,
    And, nearer to the Rocky Mountains, sought
    A wilder hunting-ground. The beaver builds
    No longer by these streams, but far away,
    On waters whose blue surface ne’er gave back
    The white man’s face—among Missouri’s springs,
    And pools whose issues swell the Oregon—
    He rears his little Venice. In these plains
    The bison feeds no more. Twice twenty leagues
    Beyond remotest smoke of hunter’s camp,
    Roams the majestic brute, in herds that shake
    The earth with thundering steps—yet here I meet
    His ancient footprints stamped beside the pool.

    Still this great solitude is quick with life.
    Myriads of insects, gaudy as the flowers
    They flutter over, gentle quadrupeds,
    And birds, that scarce have learned the fear of man,
    Are here, and sliding reptiles of the ground,
    Startlingly beautiful. The graceful deer
    Bounds to the wood at my approach. The bee,
    A more adventurous colonist than man,
    With whom he came across the eastern deep,
    Fills the savannas with his murmurings,
    And hides his sweets, as in the golden age,
    Within the hollow oak. I listen long
    To his domestic hum, and think I hear
    The sound of that advancing multitude
    Which soon shall fill these deserts. From the ground
    Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice
    Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn
    Of Sabbath worshippers. The low of herds
    Blends with the rustling of the heavy grain
    Over the dark brown furrows. All at once
    A fresher winds sweeps by, and breaks my dream,
    And I am in the wilderness alone.

    4.6.3: “The Prairies” (1833) is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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