Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  Charles River Marshes

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

New England: Charles, the River, Mass.

Charles River Marshes

By James Russell Lowell (1819–1891)

(From An Indian-Summer Reverie)

BELOW, the Charles—a stripe of nether sky,

Now hid by rounded apple-trees between,

Whose gaps the misplaced sail sweeps bellying by,

Now flickering golden through a woodland screen,

Then spreading out, at his next turn beyond,

A silver circle like an inland pond—

Slips seaward silently through marshes purple and green.

Dear marshes! vain to him the gift of sight

Who cannot in their various incomes share,

From every season drawn, of shade and light,

Who sees in them but levels brown and bare;

Each change of storm or sunshine scatters free

On them its largess of variety,

For Nature with cheap means still works her wonders rare.

In Spring they lie one broad expanse of green,

O’er which the light winds run with glimmering feet:

Here, yellower stripes track out the creek unseen,

There, darker growths o’er hidden ditches meet;

And purpler stains show where the blossoms crowd,

As if the silent shadow of a cloud

Hung there becalmed, with the next breath to fleet.

All round, upon the river’s slippery edge,

Witching to deeper calm the drowsy tide,

Whispers and leans the breeze-entangling sedge;

Through emerald glooms the lingering waters slide,

Or, sometimes wavering, throw back the sun,

And the stiff banks in eddies melt and run

Of dimpling light, and with the current seem to glide.

In Summer ’t is a blithesome sight to see,

As, step by step, with measured swing, they pass,

The wide-ranked mowers wading to the knee,

Their sharp scythes panting through the thick-set grass;

Then, stretched beneath a rick’s shade in a ring,

Their nooning take, while one begins to sing

A stave that droops and dies ’neath the close sky of brass.

Meanwhile that devil-may-care, the bobolink,

Remembering duty, in mid quaver stops

Just ere he sweeps o’er rapture’s tremulous brink,

And ’twixt the windrows most demurely drops,

A decorous bird of business, who provides

For his brown mate and fledglings six besides,

And looks from right to left, a farmer mid his crops.

Another change subdues them in the Fall,

But saddens not; they still show merrier tints,

Though sober russet seems to cover all;

When the first sunshine through their dew-drops glints,

Look how the yellow clearness, streamed across,

Redeems with rarer hues the season’s loss,

As Dawn’s feet there had touched and left their rosy prints.

Or come when sunset gives its freshened zest,

Lean o’er the bridge and let the ruddy thrill,

While the shorn sun swells down the hazy west,

Glow opposite;—the marshes drink their fill

And swoon with purple veins, then slowly fade

Through pink to brown, as eastward moves the shade,

Lengthening with stealthy creep, of Simond’s darkening hill.

Later, and yet ere Winter wholly shuts,

Ere through the first dry snow the runner grates,

And the loath cart-wheel screams in slippery ruts,

While firmer ice the eager boy awaits,

Trying each buckle and strap beside the fire,

And until bedtime plays with his desire,

Twenty times putting on and off his new-bought skates;—

Then, every morn, the river’s banks shine bright

With smooth plate-armor, treacherous and frail,

By the frost’s clinking hammers forged at night,

’Gainst which the lances of the sun prevail,

Giving a pretty emblem of the day

When guiltier arms in light shall melt away,

And states shall move free-limbed, loosed from war’s cramping mail.

And now those waterfalls the ebbing river

Twice every day creates on either side

Tinkle, as through their fresh-sparred grots they shiver

In grass-arched channels to the sun denied;

High flaps in sparkling blue the far-heard crow,

The silvered flats gleam frostily below,

Suddenly drops the gull and breaks the glassy tide.

But crowned in turn by vying seasons three,

Their winter halo hath a fuller ring;

This glory seems to rest immovably,—

The others were too fleet and vanishing;

When the hid tide is at its highest flow,

O’er marsh and stream one breathless trance of snow

With brooding fulness awes and hushes everything.

The sunshine seems blown off by the bleak wind,

As pale as formal candles lit by day;

Gropes to the sea the river dumb and blind;

The brown ricks, snow-thatched by the storm in play,

Show pearly breakers combing o’er their lee,

White crests as of some just enchanted sea,

Checked in their maddest leap and hanging poised midway.

But when the eastern blow, with rain aslant,

From mid-sea’s prairies green and rolling plains

Drives in his wallowing herds of billows gaunt,

And the roused Charles remembers in his veins

Old Ocean’s blood and snaps his gyves of frost,

That tyrannous silence on the shores is tost

In dreary wreck, and crumbling desolation reigns.