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Thomas Cole's poetry

the collected poems of America's foremost painter of the Hudson River School reflecting his feelings for nature and the romantic spirit of the Nineteenth Century

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71. The Voyage of Life


The Voyage of Life

1. Part One

Forth through the ancient shadowy woods as one
Who hath no being but his thought I wended
Instinctively. The deep and solemn tone,
The holy gloom harmoniously blended
With musings grave and fond of Life and Death
And Immortality; which waits our parting breath.
I dreamed not; but before me rose a wall
Of rock stupendous: crag on crag was piled
In a gray mountainous heap and over all
The towering ramparts shadows fell from wild
Portentous clouds that ever restlessly
Hid the far summits from the wondering eye.
And in the bosom of that stoney pile
Which seemed the ruin of a shattered world
Heaped skyward by some Titan's mighty toil
A cavern yawned like death and changeful curled
Across its sombre arches vast and wide
Pale spectral mists; as though its awful depths to hide.
But yet the eye unwilling to be barred
Pierced far within the antre's silent womb,
Arch beyond arch with many a fissure scarred,
Perceived, until impenetrable gloom
Sealed unto human vision, human thought
The secret things with which its depths were fraught.
From the mysterious bosom of that cave
A gentle river took its winding way,
Reflecting freshly in the crystal wave
Rocks, sky and herbage which the glancing ray
Of the uprising sun made rosy light:
A wreath of glory on the dewy verge of night.


Murmuring it left the dim and shadowy gloom
And joyous as a thing of life it flowed
Where flowers in fragrant companies did bloom
Bespangled all with dew and sweetly bowed
Their beauteous faces o'er the placid stream,
Narcissus-like involved in love's delusive dream.
The song of birds uprose on every side
And mingled sweetly in the jocund air
That frolicked free across the dimpling tide
And o'er that paradise of flowers so fair;
And it did seem as though the sky and earth
Sang choral hymns at some blessed Angel's birth.
Gliding out from the deep recess there came
A wondrous Vessel, golden was its bow,
Which flashed across the waters like a flame.
Of wingèd Hours the Bark was wrought—The prow
A laughing form with such like intertwined;
But dark confused and crowded were the shapes behind.
It bore two beings; one an infant child
That laughed and sported on a flowery bed;
The other was a form of aspect mild;
Radiant it stood and o'er its glorious head
A star hung tremulous and brighter did appear
Than Venus when the morn from cloud and mist is clear.
Its azure wings were poised in buoyant rest
As though just ceased from fanning heavenly air;
One hand the Vessel's rudder graceful pressed,
The other stretched with most benignant care
O'er the child. It was a beauteous form and face
Such like doth meet at Heaven's Gate the soul that findeth grace.
“What meaneth this,” with earnest voice I cried,
“The landscape bright, the river's flow serene,
And those two Voyagers—” My soul replied:
“Life hath her pictures of each varied scene
The mortal pilgrim sees, wrought on the heart
In colors clear and strong that never can depart.


“Experience is the artist and she toils
Incessantly with ever painful care;
Whether beneath the sun the landscape smiles
Or storms obscure; the lights and shades are there;
But Reason, Passion, Prejudice and Time
Do give the after-tone discordant or sublime.
“By thee now standing midway on the height
Of contemplation not alone are seen
Pictures of the departing past; but sight
Of future scenes is opened through a screen
Of darkling clouds and mists fantastic lies
Across the tearful vision of thy longing eyes.
“By mortal man that River of dark source
Is named the ‘Stream of Life’; with constant flow
With many a winding on its downward course,
At times it lags along with motion slow,
At times impetuous o'er the rocky steep
It journeyeth onward toward The Eternal Deep.
“There in that vast Profound—that darkest Dread
That Silence—that immeasurable Gloom,
The Breathless—Shoreless—the Un-islanded
Of the great World—of mighty Time the Tomb
It sinks, it vanishes and mortal eye
Perplexed and troubled, trembling turns on high.
“But human thought, thanks be to God, can soar
Triumphant on the wings of light divine
And take its flight above the Shadow hoar;
Where Angels in a land of beauty shine
In living light which is the Light of Light,
The everlasting day, that suffereth not the night.
“Thou wert such infant Voyager, all men
Have been—the thousands yet unborn will be
Cast in such mould and of such origin
Mysterious to themselves and even he
Who bore our sorrows; for us shed his blood
Was launched in that strange Bark and sailed the mystic flood.


“Know! innocence enshrines the infant-heart
Its tears are but as dew drops freshening joy;
For withering sin, as yet, can claim no part
Nor pale remorse bedim the beaming eye.
Children are buds of Heaven 'tis earthly air
That breeds the cankers, guilt and deadening despair.
“They have their Angels. Yonder dazzling shape
That steers the richly freighted bark is one
Of those who ‘minister’ and constant keep
A watch around us, leave us not alone
From infancy to age, whether is clear the sky;
Or robed in thunder-clouds dark demons hover high.
“We see them not with our dull mortal eyes,
Yet as Zephyr bears the thistle's down;
Or summer clouds in the cerulean skies,
About us their immaculate arms are thrown,
And nought but Giant Sin can drag us thence
Who grows and conquers by our disobedience.”
“O Soul!” I cried! “Why linger not the Hours
In that blest clime of innocence? Why flowed
The stream so swiftly through the land of flowers?
Why did we leave Life's highest hill that glowed
'Mid light celestial? Where the breezes blow
Direct from Heaven, and seek these darker vales below?”
“A higher destiny is thine,” replied
My soul “through trial, sorrow, darkness, pain
The road to far sublimer joys does lead
And lasting bliss by suffering we gain
And by the gloomy vale through which we tread
We reach the bliss that makes all earthly joy seem dead.”


2. Part Two

As the broad mountain where the shadows flit
Of clouds dispersing in the summer-breeze;
Or like the eye of one who high does sit
On Taormina's antique height and sees
The fiery Mount afar, the Ruin near at hand,
The flowers, the purple waves that wash the golden strand.
So changed my thought from light to shade;
At times exulting in the glow of hope, at times
In darkness cast by what my soul had said;
'Till sunk in reverie her words seemed chimes
From some far tower, that tell of mystial joy,
Or knell that fills the air as with a lingering sigh.
Again I raised my downcast eyes to look
Upon the scene so beautiful when lo!
The stream no longer from the cavern took
Its gentle way 'tween flowery banks and low
But through a landscape varied, rich and vast
Beneath a sky that dusky cloud had surely never passed.
Wide was the river; with majestic flow
And pomp and power it swept the curving banks
Like some great conqueror whose march is slow
Through tributary lands; while the abasèd ranks,
Shrinking give back on either hand o'erawed
As though they trembling felt the presence of a God.
And like some Wizard's mirror, that displays
The Macrocosm, it did reflect the sky,
Rocks, lawns and mountains with their purple haze,
And living things, the filmy butterfly,
The trembling fawn that drinks, the fluttering dove
And the triumphant eagle soaring far above.
And trees like those which spread their pleasant shade
O'er the green slopes of Eden, and the bowers
Of the once sinless pair, soft, intermingling made
Stood on each shore with branches lifted high
And caught eolian strains that wandered from the sky.


Far, far away the shining river sped
Toward the etherial mountains which did close
Fold beyond fold until they vanished
In the horizon's silver, whence uprose
A structure strangely beautiful and vast
Which every earthly fane Egyptian, Gothic, Greek, surpassed.
It seemed a gorgeous palace in the sky
Such as the glad sun builds above the deep
On summer-eve and lighteth dazzlingly,
Where towering clouds climb up the azure steep
And pinnacles on pinnacles fantastic rise
And ever-changing charm the wondering eyes.
There, rank o'er rank that climbed the crystal air
In horizontal majesty, were crossed
The multitudinous shafts, or ranged afar
Till in the blue perspective they were lost,
And arches linked with arches stretched along
Like to the mystic measures of an antique song.
An antique song whose half-discovered sense
Seems to spring forth from depths, as yet, unknown
And fills the heart with wonder and suspense
Until to thrilling rapture it is grown;
Breathless we listen to each wandering strain
And when the numbers cease, we listen still again.
Above the columned pile sublimely rose
A Dome stupendous; like the moon it shone
When first upon the orient sky she glows
And moves along the Ocean's verge alone;
And yet beyond, above, another sphere
And yet another, vaster, dimly did appear.
As though the blue supernal space were filled
With towers and temples, which the eye intent
Piercing the filmy atmosphere that veiled,
From glorious dome to dome rejoicing went,
And the deep folds of ether were unfurled
To show the splendors of a higher world.


But from the vision of the upper air
My eye descended to the lucid stream;
The wingèd Boat—the Voyagers were there;
But the fair Infant of my earlier dream
Now stood a Youth on manhood's verge, his eye
Flashing with confidence and hot expectancy.
Was lifted toward the sky-encastled scene,
His hand had grasped the helm once gently held
By that Angelic figure so serene,
And eager stretching toward the scene beheld,
His bosom heaved as if with secret powers
Possessed to tread the deep—to outstrip the flying Hours.
With face benignant yet impinged with sorrow,
As oft the sky of eve by melancholy cloud
Which though it doth forbode a stormy morrow
Is not less beautiful, the Angel stood
Upon the bank as from the Boat just freed
And waved her graceful hand and bade the Youth “God Speed.”
As one emerging from some misty vale
Meets the glad splendor of the rising sun;
Or mariner who the wintry sea doth sail
Through opening wrack beholds the harbor won,
So did I gaze upon the charming scene
And in my joy forgot the vision Infantine.
When thus the Voice in plantive accents mild:
“Ah simple mortal Earth has many a show
That passes quickly—thou a credulous child,
All men are children and they thoughtless go
Through life's strange vale lingering by every flower
Forgetful life is labor and its term an hour.
“The scene before thee beautiful and bright
Is but a phantasm of Youth's heated brain
And doomed to fade as day before the night;
Fleeting its glory, transitory, vain;
Save that it teaches the meek humble soul
Earth's grandeur ne'er should be the spirit's Goal.


“Not that the earth foundationless is laid,
An unsubstantial thing, a cloud, a mist;
But 'tis a darkling soil wherein the seed
Of Virtue planted, tended may subsist
And washed by many tears may grow
To more enduring beauty than these gauds below.
“But mark the Youth, how filled his eager eye
With the bright exaltation.—See! he aims
To reach the portal of the palace high
Above whose cloudy arch resplendant flames
The tempting semblance of a conqueror's crown
And wreath to bind the brows of him who wins renown.
“And while he gazes greater glories rise
Higher yet higher; ardent young desire
With telescopic vision fills the skies.
Gay are the banks in verdurous attire
And swift the river floweth toward his hope
The palace stands beyond, reached by a gentle slope.
“Weak and deluded one! Dost thou not know
Thy Bark is hasting down the Stream of Life
And tarries not for any golden show
In pleasure's gardens though with beauty rife!
So doth the comet pass the planets by
Nor rests; but speeds on its appointed destiny.
“Does not thine eye perceive that when yon towers
Are well nigh gained with sudden sweep the stream,
And growing swiftness, shoots away and pours
Impetuous, towards a shadowy ravine deep
Cleft in the mountain's vast and misty side
As though it eager sought its thwarted floods to hide.”
The voice had paused: “And is it thus” I cried,
“That Youth's fond hopes must ever pass away;
As empty dreams, untouched unsatisfied:
Why leaves the Angel on his dangerous way
The Voyager? That hand divine could steer
The willing Boat to where yon glittering domes uprear.


“And lingering by these fresh and verdant shores
E'en youth might live a long long life of joy
And shun perchance the torrent where it pours
Adown yon dread descent.” To which reply
Came quickly, “Shrouded as now thou art in earth
Thou canst not see the end for which came mortal birth.
“In the Almighty mind the secret cause is laid;
This must thou learn, that our brief mortal life
Nor rests nor lingers; nor is checked nor stayed
By human skill or might howe'er so rife;
Nor is it in an Angel's godlike power
To lengthen out its wasting thread one single hour.
“Through feeble Infancy is steered the Bark of Life
By Angel hands; but growing man demands
The helm in confidence and dares the strife
Of the far-sweeping waves. The lurking sands,
The rapids foaming through the channel dim,
The roaring cataract are all unknown to him.
“Wisdom is born of sorrow and of care
And from man's conflicts with the world arise
A sense of weakness and of chilling fear
And driven from earth his hopes ascend the skies.
Thus is he launched upon the stream alone
To chasten pride and give young desire a holier tone.
“He is alone; but still deserted never
The Angel yet shall watch his perilous way;
And though the clouds of earth may seem to sever,
Still through the darkness shines the Angelic ray;
And in the hour of midnight o'er the deep
The Guardian Spirit kind will constant vigil keep.”


3. Part Three

Those closing accents fell upon my ear
Sweetly as dew upon the drooping flower
For in my thoughts were knit suspense and fear
Which grew to hope transmuted by their power,
So the first breeze of Spring upon the hills
With sighs awakes the buds and frees the ice-bound rills.
In gentle reverie my mind reposed
When lo! The vision changed—A dismal vale—
Its sides down stooping into night were bossed
With jagged rocks—above huge crags rose pale
And quivering in thick turbulent air
Like hell-affrighted spectres starting from their lair.
It seemed the Earthquake there had oped his jaws
And fierce Convulsion rent the ribs of Earth;
Darkness and light forgot their ancient laws.
It was a den where demons had their birth
Where voices strange and many a dusky form
Smote the strained ear and did the sky deform.
And down this valley's gulphy depths profound;
Where resting place is none; nor green retreat;
Where fear and death forever hover round,
On every blast their restless pinions beat;
The river of my Vision took its way
And left far, far behind the golden light of day.
Onward it dashed and with a tyrannic force
Swept o'er the fractured rocks and foamed and fell
And reeled from side to side with thunders hoarse:
Though broken off and baffled naught could quell:—
Athwart the steep the streaming floods did pour
And rocky fragments fell, dislodged amid the roar.
On a swift curve, a verge of glossy green,
Such Niagaras where its waters leap
The dizzy precipice, the Boat was seen
Fleet as a meteor thwart the midnight deep.
Like famished wolves when the scared prey is nigh,
The pale demoniac floods roared louder as for joy.


No more youth's sunshine like a halo spread
Around the Voyager's high imperial brow;
But Care's wan shadow settled on his head
As clouds their gloom upon the mountain throw.
His now the middle age when human thought
Ascends her highest tower with rich experience fraught.
So have we seen in some dense city's way
A frantic steed dash through the affrighted crowd
With his pale rider—to and fro they sway
With headlong speed mid shrieks and clamor loud
'Till by a sudden plunge he disappears.—
In dumb suspense we stand and quake with horrid fears.
“What now can save?” I cried. O ever blind
But to the present and the mask of things
Was quick replied: “Doubter! Thou yet mayest find
That what appears the greatest evil brings
Supremest good as blackest storms and rain
Bring freshness, beauty, glory in their passing train.
“Behold the Guardian Angel sitteth yet
Benignant 'mong the stormy clouds aloft
Kindling their blackness; like a Glory set
By God in midnight space—A sun whose soft
Unbroken light illumes some lonely sphere
That travelleth through depths of trackless ether drear.
“She waits with joy the prayer which heavenward now
The Voyager uplifts—Faith's earnest cry:
For rescued by that act the floods below
With all their fury; nor the tempest nigh;
Nor ocean, seen afar have power to harm;
Nor yet yon Demon Shapes terrific cause alarm.
“This is the crisis—this the decisive hour
In life's swift fever—balance Life and Death.
Adversity's cold storm and Sorrow's power
Temptation desperate with changeful breath
Break with unmitigated fury on the Man,
And Pleasure once so fair is sicklied o'er and wan.


“And earthly hopes are wrecked and cherished joy;
And friends estranged; or turned to foes; or gone
Youth's crown of Glory faded and for aye:
O'er Earth o'er Heaven a dusky pall is thrown:
Affection's treasured things are found to fly
Sink in the silent tomb, or vanish witheringly.
“Young Love's delicious river soon ran dry
And wasted in life's wilderness of drought;
Ambition that once filled the ample sky
Was but a dazzling cloud with tempest fraught:
All, perished in the World or lost in Death
As wastes in frosty air the warm and vaporous breath.
“The heart doth suffer violence, racked and riven
By the relentless blasts of earthly ill.
Burthened with sin all vainly hath it striven
Like a huge oak upon a wind-swept hill
As tortured branches lash the Autumnal gale
And struggling yield their umbrage with a lengthened wail.
“But as the Spring, the gentle Spring, draws nigh
To warm its mighty heart and swell its buds
To lift its fragrance and to beautify;
So through the Voyager's breast, amid these floods,
A living warmth shall steal and prayer shall rise
And yon attendant Spirit waft it to the skies.
“The Guardian watches yet the weltering bark
O'er the vexed floods adown the dizzy steep
Through rock-ribbed channels hideous and dark
Safely to guide him toward yon Ocean deep
Whose darkly boundless waves eternal silence keep.”
My Teacher! Guide! Thou who hast kindly read
The meaning of these wondrous scenes to me
Still my heart trembles, like a fragile reed
By the lone shore where stamps the angry sea,
This is a fearful-over-perilous way
To lead but to yon Ocean's misty horror gray.


And must the Voyager, these perils past
Dwell ever on that vast and gloomy main,
And on its lethean bosom dull be cast,
Dreamless, eternally to sleep? Then vain
Would seem his Birth, his Youth, his Manhood prime;
Strange, useless burthens on the drooping Wings of Time.
“Yet! Yet distrustful and forgetful ever
Dull to the voice of wisdom! I have said,
Death's pallid hand the cloudy veil shall sever
And wonder Ocean widely, darkly spread,
Be as a curtain quickly drawn away
And open like the Morn for a surpassing day.”

4. Part Four

Struck by my Mentor's serious reply
In sorrow I had clasped my hoods across
My tearful eyes; yet were my tears half joy;
For the quick sentence of rebuke did close
With breath of kindling hope and promise bright;
As broke upon the blind by Siloam's pool of light.
“Behold!” the voice then said: “The closing scene
Of best humanity.” The winds had ceased
Their raving and the floods their roar—serene
The air yet steeped in gloom as is the East
When Earth's broad shadow o'er itself extends
And far beneath the Main the evening sun descends.
No hills of green, no gentle flowery vales
No breezes fresh from out the crystal deeps
No blithe birds warbling oft repeated tales;
But silence, leaden silence, such as keeps
The tongue fast bound the straining ear awakes
As when the judge's sentence on the prisoner breaks.


There, flowed the river; but with sluggish pace
And met and mingled with the Ocean dun
No more exulting in the headlong race;
But fainting as its destined Goal was won—
Last 'mid the boundless, as the single voice
When crowded multitudes do suffer; or rejoice.
Still the eye caught the dim and shadowy shore,
The last bare headlands of the dark terrene;
Herbless, desolate, glimmering and obscure;
As landscape by the troubled dreamer seen,
Their shattered forms down sinking one by one
Into the deep of many deeps, the fathomless unknown.
Oppressed I gazed: my thick and struggling sighs
Or checked by the silence would have filled the air;
But soon the winged Boat my eager eyes
Discerned—the Man—the Tempest-tossed was there.
O'er the unrippled flood with motion slow
As heavy laden, sinking—sinking moved the prow.
Broken that prow which once glanced o'er the stream;
Its Hours ensculptured all in gold were gone,
And gushed the floods through many a gaping seam:
It stopped,—it settled—like a thing of stone:—
Some ponderous rock that 'cross the plain is sent;
Which labors on and on 'till with its labor spent.
There sat the Voyager, an ancient Man,
Withered and blighted by the frosts of time:
Furrowed his cheek, his forehead bare and wan
As though the tempests of each earthly clime
Had broken o'er him in their fiercest mood
And he with patient soul their fury had withstood.
Then as the fulgent moon o'er ocean comes,
Spreading her wings of light at eventide,
I saw the Guardian's radiant flames
Hush the black midnight wave and swiftly glide
Through the illumined, fast dissolving wrack
And by the Voyager her airy station take.


The Old man saw the Spirit for the earth
Was falling from his soul and from his eyes
The film of blinding clay as falls the swarth
Envelope from the opening bud. Surprise!
O blest! To see, undreaming, spirit forms
Immaculate and free from all that earth deforms.
He saw the blessed Guardian of his way
And knew “his Angel”; ne'er before discerned;
And love and new-born joy broke in like day
Upon his heaven-illumined soul. He turned
To gaze upon the beauteous one, when lo!
As from the clouds strange music 'gan to flow.
Music it was, if thus is named in heaven
Those mingled gushes of Seraphic bliss
Which flowed like sunlight of the Spring-tide given
In beamy gold to wake the wilderness;
Or like the hymning of some circling band
Of joyous stars just sped from their Creator's hand.
Gently swelling, gently falling
Softer, sweeter yet it grows;
As when Summer's breeze is calling
Fragrance from the dewy rose.
Yes far sweeter and more thrilling
Were the soulèd sounds that fell,
All the airy concave filling
And the heart's most secret cell.
Tuneful breathings—voicèd hymning
Joined with harps of golden sound
Fill the spherèd concave brimming—
Shed rich harmony around.
Now the Trumpet's crystal voice
Lifteth up its notes of joy
Calling to the saved “Rejoice!
Enter through Heaven's portal high.”
Back the murky clouds are driven
As the blackness of the sky
By the morning sun is riven


Angels! Angels! Blessed creatures!
Toward the Voyager descend;
Turn on him their holy features
Lit by joy that ne'er can end;
Down the streamy light they sweep
Round him wave their dazzling wings;
Lift him gently from the deep
Whisper to him wondrous things.
Swift he rises—Earth has left him
With its painful load of clay;—
Death or grief and sin hath reft him
And he soars—away!—away!
I turned mine eyes; I could no longer gaze
Upon the Splendour, which intenser grew
And live; To my relief a dimming haze
Dropt like a curtain dark and shut the view;
But 'neath the weight of Glory which had shone
Upon the Earth's low bosom prostrate I was thrown.
There long I lay mingling my sighs and tears
Recalling all the Vision to my mind,
Its varied scenes, its many hopes and fears
Its seasons four mysteriously combined,
How through bright Childhood's vale the river flowed
Youth, Manhood, Age, to reach the mighty flood.
But my soul spoke and roused me—“Rise
Dwell not inactive on the Vision true
Remember that Life's River swiftly hies
Toward the great Deep and thou hast much to do:
The Vision teaches when divined aright
That he must trust in God and strike, who conquers in the fight.”
Catskill June 14, 1844