Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The Past

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

The Past

By William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878)

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

THOU unrelenting Past!

Strong are the barriers round thy dark domain,

And fetters, sure and fast,

Hold all that enter thy unbreathing reign.

Far in thy realm withdrawn

Old empires sit in sullenness and gloom,

And glorious ages gone

Lie deep within the shadow of thy womb.

Childhood, with all its mirth,

Youth, Manhood, Age that draws us to the ground,

And last, Man’s Life on earth,

Glide to thy dim dominions, and are bound.

Thou hast my better years;

Thou hast my earlier friends, the good, the kind,

Yielded to thee with tears—

The venerable form, the exalted mind.

My spirit yearns to bring

The lost ones back—yearns with desire intense,

And struggles hard to wring

Thy bolts apart, and pluck thy captives thence.

In vain; thy gates deny

All passage save to those who hence depart;

Nor to the streaming eye

Thou giv’st them back—nor to the broken heart.

In thy abysses hide

Beauty and excellence unknown; to thee

Earth’s wonder and her pride

Are gathered, as the waters to the sea;

Labors of good to man,

Unpublished charity, unbroken faith,

Love, that midst grief began,

And grew with years, and faltered not in death.

Full many a mighty name

Lurks in thy depths, unuttered, unrevered;

With thee are silent fame,

Forgotten arts, and wisdom disappeared.

Thine for a space are they—

Yet shalt thou yield thy treasures up at last:

Thy gates shall yet give way,

Thy bolts shall fall, inexorable Past!

All that of good and fair

Has gone into thy womb from earliest time,

Shall then come forth to wear

The glory and the beauty of its prime.

They have not perished—no!

Kind words, remembered voices once so sweet,

Smiles, radiant long ago,

And features, the great soul’s apparent seat.

All shall come back; each tie

Of pure affection shall be knit again;

Alone shall Evil die,

And Sorrow dwell a prisoner in thy reign.

And then shall I behold

Him, by whose kind paternal side I sprung,

And her, who, still and cold,

Fills the next grave—the beautiful and young.