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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Forest Hymn

By William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878)

[From Poetical Works of William Cullen Bryant. Edited by Parke Godwin. 1883.]

THE GROVES were God’s first temples. Ere man learned

To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave,

And spread the roof above them—ere he framed

The lofty vault, to gather and roll back

The sound of anthems; in the darkling wood,

Amid the cool and silence, he knelt down,

And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks

And supplication. For his simple heart

Might not resist the sacred influences

Which, from the stilly twilight of the place,

And from the gray old trunks that high in heaven

Mingled their mossy boughs, and from the sound

Of the invisible breath that swayed at once

All their green tops, stole over him, and bowed

His spirit with the thought of boundless power

And inaccessible majesty. Ah, why

Should we, in the world’s riper years, neglect

God’s ancient sanctuaries, and adore

Only among the crowd, and under roofs

That our frail hands have raised? Let me, at least,

Here, in the shadow of this aged wood,

Offer one hymn—thrice happy, if it find

Acceptance in His ear.

Father, thy hand

Hath reared these venerable columns, thou

Didst weave this verdant roof. Thou didst look down

Upon the naked earth, and, forthwith, rose

All these fair ranks of trees. They, in thy sun,

Budded, and shook their green leaves in thy breeze,

And shot toward heaven. The century-living crow

Whose birth was in their tops, grew old and died

Among their branches, till, at last, they stood,

As now they stand, massy, and tall, and dark,

Fit shrine for humble worshipper to hold

Communion with his Maker. These dim vaults,

These winding aisles, of human pomp or pride

Report not. No fantastic carvings show

The boast of our vain race to change the form

Of thy fair works. But thou art here—thou fill’st

The solitude. Thou art in the soft winds

That run along the summit of these trees

In music; thou art in the cooler breath

That from the inmost darkness of the place

Comes, scarcely felt; the barky trunks, the ground,

The fresh moist ground, are all instinct with thee.

Here is continual worship;—Nature, here,

In the tranquillity that thou dost love,

Enjoys thy presence. Noiselessly, around,

From perch to perch, the solitary bird

Passes; and yon clear spring, that, midst its herbs,

Wells softly forth and wandering steeps the roots

Of half the mighty forest, tells no tale

Of all the good it does. Thou hast not left

Thyself without a witness, in the shades,

Of thy perfections. Grandeur, strength, and grace

Are here to speak of thee. This mighty oak—

By whose immovable stem I stand and seem

Almost annihilated—not a prince,

In all that proud old world beyond the deep,

E’er wore his crown as loftily as he

Wears the green coronal of leaves with which

Thy hand has graced him. Nestled at his root

Is beauty, such as blooms not in the glare

Of the broad sun. That delicate forest flower,

With scented breath and look so like a smile,

Seems, as it issues from the shapeless mould,

An emanation of the indwelling Life,

A visible token of the upholding Love,

That are the soul of this great universe.

My heart is awed within me when I think

Of the great miracle that still goes on,

In silence, round me—the perpetual work

Of thy creation, finished, yet renewed

Forever. Written on thy works I read

The lesson of thy own eternity.

Lo! all grow old and die—but see again,

How on the faltering footsteps of decay

Youth presses—ever gay and beautiful youth

In all its beautiful forms. These lofty trees

Wave not less proudly that their ancestors

Moulder beneath them. Oh, there is not lost

One of earth’s charms: upon her bosom yet,

After the flight of untold centuries,

The freshness of her far beginning lies

And yet shall lie. Life mocks the idle hate

Of his archenemy Death—yea, seats himself

Upon the tyrant’s throne—the sepulchre,

And of the triumphs of his ghastly foe

Makes his own nourishment. For he came forth

From thine own bosom, and shall have no end.

There have been holy men who hid themselves

Deep in the woody wilderness, and gave

Their lives to thought and prayer, till they outlived

The generation born with them, nor seemed

Less aged than the hoary trees and rocks

Around them;—and there have been holy men

Who deemed it were not well to pass life thus.

But let me often to these solitudes

Retire, and in thy presence reassure

My feeble virtue. Here its enemies,

The passions, at thy plainer footsteps shrink

And tremble and are still. O God! when thou

Dost scare the world with tempests, set on fire

The heavens with falling thunder-bolts, or fill,

With all the waters of the firmament,

The swift dark whirlwind that uproots the woods

And drowns the villages; when, at thy call,

Uprises the great deep and throws himself

Upon the continent, and overwhelms

Its cities—who forgets not, at the sight

Of these tremendous tokens of thy power,

His pride, and lays his strifes and follies by?

Oh, from these sterner aspects of thy face

Spare me and mine, nor let us need the wrath

Of the mad unchained elements to teach

Who rules them. Be it ours to meditate,

In these calm shades, thy milder majesty,

And to the beautiful order of thy works

Learn to conform the order of our lives.