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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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46. The Complaint of the Forest
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The Complaint of the Forest

It was a living day, such as makes man
Know that he has a spirit—feel he has a soul
Which is not coop'd up in its mortal clay;
But plays around it like a flame—enjoys
And touches all the visible—communes
And mingles with the elements themselves—
The arch of heaven was darkly deep—no stain
In all that boundless ether sea was seen
And earth sped onward like a sunlit bark
Bound to some distant haven, richly fraught—
The quick fresh air engender'd in those depths
And nurs'd by mountains, held a subtle joy
As though from founts of everlasting health
It gush'd—such vigor giving man's frame
He almost felt himself a god and mov'd along
With an unwonted majesty and power—
It was in early summer when the earth
Was wrapp'd in flowers—floating in music made
By a myriad voices which did sing
One sweet, one universal song—“Rejoice
This is the hour when heav'n descends to earth
Laden with beauty and with love—Rejoice.”
I sat beside a lake serene and still
Earth's off'ring to th' imperial sky,
Which the huge heav'nward mountains aloft held
The purest she possest—Around it rose
Walls of indurate rock, that upward swept
Until they quiver'd mid th' Empyrean
An amphitheatre hugely built it seemed
By giants of the primal world, and though
The flood destroyed the mighty builders—hurled
From dizzy heights the ponderous battlements


And crush'd the massive seats; it yet remained
A ruin more sublime than if a thousand
Roman colloseums had been pil'd in one—
And woods deep dark and tangled, rank o'er rank
Upon the pure and peaceful lake look'd down,
A silent people, through the long long years—
'Tis joy which expression has no voice
To sit, when day is sinking, by that lake
To mark the breeze play on the mountain's top
And toss pine and beechen foilage gray;
And from the pink Azalia's fragrant flowers
And violet white haste with its honeyed breath
To kiss with gentle lips the grassy deep;
Bowing the lily to its brim as in the midst
Of the innumerable wavelets it doth seem
A gallant bark with beauty deeply fraught
Careening gaily o'er the dancing waves—
And then to feel that thou art far away
From man's impure resort—from sordid care—
From turmoil and from dust—free as the wind
To muse fond thoughts from worldliness set free.
And twilight o'er that scene so wildly grand
Spread its empurpled wings; with solemn shade
Sublimer far—more deep—more holy too
Than that within dim temples vast and high
Whose clust'ring shafts cast years of anxious care,
And agony and sweat, wrung from the brows
Of groaning multitudes—to gratify
Imperial pomp and pride—
'Twas that bless'd hour
When angels, hov'ring in the crimson clouds,
Commune with man whose grov'lling instincts low
Have been cast off as robes of earthliness
Beside the fount of nature's solitude—


Over my senses stole a deep repose,
And dreams which are but wakefulness of soul,
A brief exemption from encumb'ring earth—
I heard a sound—'twas wild and strange—a voice
As of ten thousand—musical it was
A gush of richest concord—deep and slow—
A song that fill'd the universal air—
It was the voice of the great Forest that arose
From every valley and dark mountain top
Within the bosom of this mighty land—


Mortal whose love for our umbrageous realms
Exceeds the love of all the race of men;
Whom we have lov'd and for whom have spread
With welcome, our innumerable arms—
Wind fed with fruits of more than earthly taste—
Who from the haunts of men have oftimes fled
To seek consolation in our shades—
Open thine ears! The voice that ne'er before
Was heard by living man—is lifted up
And fills the air—The voice of our complaint—
Thousands of years, yea, they have passed away
As drops of dew upon the sunlit flower;
Or silver vapours on the summer sea—
Thousands of years, like wind-strains on the harp;
Or like forgotten thoughts, have passed away
Unto the bourne of unremembered things—
Thousands of years! when earth first broke
Through Chaos and sprung forth exultingly—
Even then the stars beheld us waving high
Upon the mountains, shining in the vales—
Ere yet the race of man had seen their light.
Before the marble bosom of the earth
Was scarr'd by steel, and granite masses rent


From the precipitous crag, to build a Thebes
Or old Persepolis, whose founders are forgot,
Our arms were clasp'd around the hills, our locks
Shadow'd the streams that lov'd us—our green breasts
Were resting places for the weary clouds—
All then was harmony and peace—but man
Arose—he who now vaunts antiquity—
He the destroyer—amid the shades
Of oriental realms, destruction's work began—
Echoes whose voice had answered to the call
Of thunder or the winds alone; or to the cry
Of cataracts, sound of sylvan habitants,
Or songs of birds—utter'd responses sharp
And dissonant—the axe—the unresting axe
Incessant smote our venerable ranks,
And crashing branches frequent lash'd the ground.
Stupendous trunks the pride of many years,
Roll'd on the groaning earth with all their umbrage.
Stronger than wintry blasts it swept along
That fierce tornado—stayless perpitual,
Increasing as it flew, until the earth
Our ancient mother lay, blasted and bare
Beneath the burning sun—The little streams
That oft had rais'd their voices in the breeze
In joyful unison with ours, did waste
And pin'd away as though in deep despair—
Our trackless shades, our dim ubiquity,
The solemn garb of the primeval world—
Our glory, our magnificence, was rent—
And but in difficult places, shelter'd vales
The remnants of our failing race were found,
Like scatter'd clouds upon the mountain tops—
The vast Hyrcanian fell and Lebanon's
Dark ranks of Cedar were cut down like grass.
And restless man whose poets sung the joys


Of our green tranquil shades; whose sages taught
That Innocence and Peace, the daughters fair
Of solitude, within our precincts dwelt;
Held not his arm until necessity
Stern master even of him, seiz'd it and bound
And from extinction sav'd our scanty tribes—
Seasons there were when man at war with man
Left us to raze huge cities, desolate
Old Empires and to shed his blood on soil
That once was all our own—When Death had made
All silent, all secure—we would return
And twist our roots around the prostrate shafts
And broken capitals, or strike them deep
Into the soil made richer by man's blood—
Such seasons were but brief, so soon the earth
Again made sanctified by shade, and art
Again resolv'd to nature, man came back,
And once more swept our feeble hosts away—
And yet there was one bright virgin continent
Remote, that Roman name had never reached;
Nor ancient dreams in all their universe—
As inaccessible in primal time
Unto man's thought and eye, as far Uranus
In his secret void—For round it swept
Deep dangerous seas—a homeless waste
Of troubled waves whose everlasting roar
Echo'd in every zone of heaven—whose drear expanse
Spread gloomy, trackless as the midnight sky.
And stories dire of whirlpools fierce and vast
Of stagnant oceans—monsters terrible
That shook the mariner's soul o'er that dread sea
Spread horrour and rais'd a barrier far more strong
Than the unresting tides around that land—
The land of beauty and of many climes—
The land of mighty cataracts—where now
Columbia's eagle flaps her chainless wing—


Thus guarded through long centuries untouch'd
By man—save him our native child whose foot
Disdains the sunbeat soil—who lov'd
Our shafted halls, the covert of the deer—
We flourish'd we rejoic'd—from mountain top
To mountain top we gaz'd and saw o'er vales
And glimm'ring plains our banners green
Wide waving—yet untorn—
Gladly the spring
On bright and bloomy wing shed fragrance over us,—
And summer laugh'd beneath our verdant roof—
And autumn sigh'd to leave our golden courts.
And when the crimson leaves were strew'd in showers
Upon the broad lap of Oregon wild
Or mighty Huron's wave of Lazuli,
Winter uprais'd his rude and boreal songs,
And we responded in a chorus wild—
O peace primeval! Would that thou hadst staid!
What mov'd thee to unbar thine azure gates
O mighty oceans when the destroyer came?—
Stray'd then thy blasts around Olympus-Air?
Or were they lull'd to breezes round the brain
Of rich Granada's crafty conqueror,
When with pinion strong they should have crushed
Our enemy—And furious smote as when
The fleet of Xerxes on the Grecian coast
Was cast like foam and weed upon the rocks—
But impotent the voice of our complaint:
He came—Few were his numbers first; but soon
The work of desolation was begun,
Close by the heaving main; then on the banks
Of rivers far inland our strength was shorn;
And fire and steel did all their office well—
No stay was there—no rest—
The tiny cloud
Oft seen in torrid climes, at first sends out
Its puny breezes; but augmenting soon
In darkness and in size—spans the broad sky


With lurid palm and sweeps stupendous o'er
The crashing world—And thus comes rushing on
This human hurricane—which hath no bounds.
E'en this secluded spot our sanctuary,
Which the stern rocks have frowning held aloft
Our enemy has mark'd—These gentle lakes
Shall lose our presence in their limpid flood,
And from the mountains we shall melt away,
Like wreath of mist upon the winds of heaven—
Our doom is near; behold from east to west
The skies are darken'd by ascending smoke,
For every valley is an altar made,
Where unto Mammon and to all the gods
Of man's idolatry, the victims we are.
Missouri's floods are ruffled as by storm,
And Hudson's rugged hills at midnight glow
By light of man-projected meteors—
We feed ten-thousand fires! In one short day
The woodland growth of centuries is consumed,
Our crackling limbs the pond'rous hammer rouse,
With fervent heat—Tormented by our flame
Fierce vapours struggling hiss on every hand—
On Erie's shores—by dusky Arkansaw
Our ranks are falling like the golden grain
In harvest time on Wolga's banks remote—
A few short years these valleys greenly clad,
These slumbering mountains resting in our arms,
Shall naked gleam beneath the scorching sun;
And all their wimpling rivulets be dry—
No more the deer these bosky dells shall haunt
Nor squirrel curious chatter near his store—
A few short years! Our ancient race shall be
Like scatter'd Israel's 'mid the tribes of man—
It ceas'd, that voice,—my answer was in tears.
Catskill 1838