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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
America: Vols. XXV–XXIX. 1876–79.

Western States: Ohio, the River

Blennerhasset’s Island

By Thomas Buchanan Read (1822–1872)

(From The New Pastoral)

ONCE came an exile, longing to be free,

Born in the greenest island of the sea;

He sought out this, the fairest blooming isle

That ever gemmed a river; and its smile

Of summer green and freedom on his heart

Fell, like the light of Paradise. Apart

It lay, remote and wild; and in his breast

He fancied this an Island of the Blest;

And here he deemed the world might never mar

The tranquil air with its molesting jar.

Long had his soul, among the strife of men,

Gone out and fought, and, fighting, failed; and then

Withdrew into itself; as when some fount

Finds space within, and will no longer mount,

Content to hear its own secluded waves

Make lonely music in the new-found caves.

And here he brought his household; here his wife,

As happy as her children, round his life

Sang as she were an echo, or a part

Of the deep pleasure springing in his heart,—

A silken string which with the heavier cord

Made music, such as well-strung harps afford.

She was the embodied spirit of the man,

His second self, but on a fairer plan.

And here they came, and here they built their home,

And set the rose and taught the vines to roam,

Until the place became an isle of bowers,

Where odors, mist-like, swam above the flowers.

It was a place where one might lie and dream,

And see the Naiads, from the river-stream,

Stealing among the umbrous, drooping limbs;

Where Zephyr, mid the willows, tuned her hymns

Round rippling shores. Here would the first birds throng

In early spring-time, and their latest song

Was given in autumn; when all else had fled,

They half forgot to go; such beauty here was spread.

It was, in sooth, a fair enchanted isle,

Round which the unbroken forest, many a mile,

Reached the horizon like a boundless sea;—

A sea whose waves, at last, were forced to flee

On either hand, before the westward host,

To meet no more upon its ancient coast.

But all things fair, save truth, are frail and doomed;

And brightest beauty is the first consumed

By envious Time; as if he crowned the brow

With loveliest flowers, before he gave the blow

Which laid the victim on the hungry shrine;—

Such was the dreamer’s fate, and such, bright isle, was thine.

There came the stranger, heralded by fame,

Whose eloquent soul was like a tongue of flame,

Which brightened and despoiled whate’er it touched.

A violet, by an iron gauntlet clutched,

Were not more doomed than whosoe’er he won

To list his plans, with glowing words o’errun:

And Blennerhasset hearkened as he planned.

Far in the South there was a glorious land,

Crowned with perpetual flowers, and where repute

Pictured the gold more plenteous than the fruit,—

The Persia of the West. There would he steer

His conquering course; and o’er the bright land rear

His far-usurping banner, till his home

Should rest beneath a wide, imperial dome,

Where License, round his thronèd feet, should whirl

Her dizzy mazes like an orient girl.

His followers should be lords; their ladies each

Wear wreaths of gems beyond the old world’s reach;

And emperors, gazing at that land of bloom,

With impotent fire of envy should consume.

Such was the gorgeous vision which he drew.

The listener saw; and, dazzled by the view,—

As one in some enchanter’s misty room,

His senses poisoned by the strange perfume,

Beholds with fierce desire the picture fair,

And grasps at nothing in the painted air,—

Gave acquiescence, in a fatal hour,

And wealth and hope and peace were in the tempter’s power.

The isle became a rendezvous; and then

Came in the noisy rule of lawless men.

Domestic calm, affrighted, fled afar,

And Riot revelled ’neath the midnight star.

Continuous music rustled through the trees,

Where banners danced responsive on the breeze;

Or in festoons, above the astonished bowers,

With flaming colors shamed the modest flowers.

There clanged the mimic combat of the sword,

Like daily glasses round the festive board;

Here lounged the chiefs, there marched the plumèd file,

And martial splendor overrun the isle.

Already, the shrewd leader of the sport

The shadowy sceptre grasped, and swayed his court.

In dreams or waking, revelling or alone,

Before him swam the visionary throne;

Until a voice, as if the insulted woods

Had risen to claim their ancient solitudes,

Broke on his spirit, like a trumpet rude,

Shattering his dream to nothing where he stood!

The revellers vanished, and the banners fell,

Like the red leaves beneath November’s spell.

Full of great hopes, sustained by mighty will,

Urged by ambition, confident of skill,

As fearless to perform as to devise,

Aflush, but now he saw the glittering prize

Flame like a cloud in day’s descending track;

But, lo, the sun went down, and left it black!

Alone, despised, defiance in his eye,

He heard the shout, and “Treason!” was the cry;

And that harsh word, with its unpitying blight,

Swept o’er the island like an arctic night.

Cold grew the hearthstone, withered fell the flowers,

And desolation walked among the bowers.

This was the mansion. Through the ruined hall

The loud winds sweep, with gusty rise and fall,

Or glide, like phantoms, through the open doors;

And winter drifts his snow along the floors,

Blown through the yawning rafters, where the stars

And moon look in as through dull prison bars.

On yonder gable, through the nightly dark,

The owl replies unto the dreary bark

Of lonely fox, beside the grass-grown sill;

And here, on summer eves, the whippoorwill

Exalts her voice, and to the traveller’s ear

Proclaims how Ruin rules with full contentment here.