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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

The Spectre-Horse

By Richard Henry Dana, Sr. (1787–1879)

[The Buccaneer. 1827. From Poems and Prose Writings. Collective Edition. 1850.]

THE REVEL now is high within;

It bursts upon the midnight air.

They little think, in mirth and din,

What spirit waits them there.

As if the sky became a voice, there spread

A sound to appall the living, stir the dead.

The Spirit-Steed sent up the neigh;

It seemed the living trump of hell,

Sounding to call the damned away

To join the host that fell.

It rang along the vaulted sky: the shore

Jarred hard, as when the thronging surges roar.

It rang in ears that knew the sound,

And hot, flushed cheeks are blanched with fear.

Ha! why does Lee look wildly round?

Thinks he the drowned horse near?

He drops his cup,—his lips are stiff with fright.

Nay, sit thee down,—it is thy banquet night.

“I cannot sit;—I needs must go:

The spell is on my spirit now.

I go to dread,—I go to woe!”

O, who so weak as thou,

Strong man! His hoofs upon the door-stone, see,

The Shadow stands! His eyes are on thee, Lee!

Thy hair pricks up!—“O, I must bear

His damp, cold breath! It chills my frame!

His eyes,—their near and dreadful glare

Speaks that I must not name!”

Art mad to mount that Horse!—“A power within,

I must obey, cries, ‘Mount thee, man of sin!’”

He’s now upon the Spectre’s back,

With rein of silk and curb of gold.

’Tis fearful speed!—the rein is slack

Within his senseless hold;

Borne by an unseen power, right on he rides,

Yet touches not the Shadow-Beast he strides.

He goes with speed; he goes with dread!

And now they’re on the hanging steep!

And, now, the living and the dead,

They’ll make the horrid leap!

The Horse stops short,—his feet are on the verge!

He stands, like marble, high above the surge.

And, nigh, the tall ship’s burning on,

With red, hot spars and crackling flame;

From hull to gallant, nothing’s gone;—

She burns, and yet’s the same!

Her hot, red flame is beating, all the night,

On man and Horse, in their cold, phosphor light.

Through that cold light the fearful man

Sits looking on the burning ship.

Wilt ever rail again, or ban?

How fast he moves the lip!

And yet he does not speak, or make a sound!

What see you, Lee? the bodies of the drowned?

“I look, where mortal man may not,—

Down to the chambers of the deep.

I see the dead, long, long forgot;

I see them in their sleep.

A dreadful power is mine, which none can know,

Save he who leagues his soul with death and woe.”

Thou mild, sad mother, silent moon,

Thy last, low, melancholy ray

Shines towards him. Quit him not so soon!

Mother, in mercy, stay!

Despair and death are with him; and canst thou,

With that kind, earthward look, go leave him now?

O, thou wast born for worlds of love;

Making more lovely in thy shine

Whate’er thou look’st on: hosts above,

In that soft light of thine,

Burn softer; earth, in silvery veil, seems heaven.

Thou’rt going down!—hast left him unforgiven!

The far, low west is bright no more.

How still it is! No sound is heard

At sea, or all along the shore,

But cry of passing bird.

Thou living thing,—and dar’st thou come so near

These wild and ghastly shapes of death and fear?

And long that thick, red light has shone

On stern, dark rocks, and deep, still bay,

On man and Horse that seem of stone,

So motionless are they.

But now its lurid fire less fiercely burns:

The night is going,—faint, gray dawn returns.

That Spectre-Steed now slowly pales,

Now changes like the moonlit cloud;

That cold, thin light now slowly fails,

Which wrapt them like a shroud.

Both ship and Horse are fading into air.

Lost, mazed, alone, see, Lee is standing there!

The morning air blows fresh on him;

The waves are dancing in his sight;

The sea-birds call, and wheel, and skim.

O, blessed morning light!

He doth not hear their joyous call; he sees

No beauty in the wave, nor feels the breeze.

For he’s accursed from all that’s good;

He ne’er must know its healing power.

The sinner on his sin shall brood,

And wait, alone, his hour.

A stranger to earth’s beauty, human love,—

No rest below for him, no hope above!