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

Introductory to America

First Voyage of Columbus

By Joanna Baillie (1762–1851)

(From The Legend of Christopher Columbus)

WHAT did the ocean’s waste supply

To soothe the mind or please the eye?

The rising morn through dim mist breaking,

The flickered east with purple streaking;

The midday cloud through thin air flying,

With deeper blue the blue sea dyeing;

Long ridgy waves their white manes rearing,

And in the broad gleam disappearing;

The broadened, blazing sun declining,

And western waves like fire-floods shining;

The sky’s vast dome to darkness given,

And all the glorious host of heaven!

Full oft upon the deck, while others slept,

To mark the bearing of each well-known star

That shone aloft or on the horizon far,

The anxious chief his lonely vigil kept.

The mournful wind, the hoarse wave breaking near,

The breathing groans of sleep, the plunging lead,

The steersman’s call, and his own stilly tread,

Are all the sounds of night that reach his ear.

But soon his dauntless soul, which naught could bend,—

Nor hope delayed nor adverse fate subdue,—

With a more threatening danger must contend

Than storm or wave,—a fierce and angry crew!

“Dearly,” say they, “may we those visions rue

Which lured us from our native land,

A wretched, lost, devoted band,

Led on by hope’s delusive gleam,

The victim of a madman’s dream!

Nor gold shall e’er be ours, nor fame;

Not even the remnant of a name

On some rude lettered stone to tell

On what strange coast our week befell.

For us no requiem shall be sung,

Nor prayer be said, nor passing knell

In holy church be rung.”

To thoughts like these all forms give way

Of duty to a leader’s sway;

And, as he moves,—ah! wretched cheer!—

Their muttered curses reach his ear.

But all undaunted, firm, and sage,

He scorns their threats, yet thus he soothes their rage:

“That to some nearing coast we bear,

How many cheering signs declare!

Wayfaring birds the blue air ranging,

Their shadowy line to blue air changing,

Pass o’er our heads in frequent flocks;

While seaweed from the parent rocks,

With fibry roots, but newly torn,

In wreaths are on the clear wave borne.

Nay, has not e’en the drifting current brought

Things of rude art, by human cunning wrought?

Be yet two days your patience tried,

And if no shore is then descried,

E’en turn your dastard prows again,

And cast your leader to the main.”

And thus awhile, with steady hand,

He kept in check a wayward band,

Who but with half-expressed disdain

Their rebel spirit could restrain.

So passed the day, the night, the second day,

With its red setting sun’s extinguished ray.

Dark, solemn midnight coped the ocean wide,

When from his watchful stand Columbus cried,

“A light, a light!”—blest sounds that rang

In every ear. At once they sprang

With haste aloft, and, peering bright,

Descried afar the blesséd sight.

“It moves! it slowly moves like ray

Of torch that guides some wanderer’s way!

Lo! other lights, more distant, seeming

As if from town or hamlet streaming!

’T is land, ’t is peopled land! man dwelleth there,

And thou, O God of heaven, hast heard thy servant’s prayer!”

Returning day gave to their view

The distant shore and headlands blue

Of long-sought land. Then rose on air

Loud shouts of joy, mixed wildly strange

With voice of weeping and of prayer,

Expressive of their blessed change

From death to life, from fierce to kind,

From all that sinks to all that elevates the mind.

Those who, by faithless fear ensnared,

Had their brave chief so rudely dared,

Now, with keen self-upbraiding stung,

With every manly feeling wrung,

Repentant tears, looks that entreat,

Are kneeling humbly at his feet:

“Pardon our blinded, stubborn guilt!

O, henceforth make us what thou wilt!

Our hands, our hearts, our lives, are thine,

Thou wondrous man, led on by power divine!”

Columbus led them to the shore

Which ship had never touched before;

And there he knelt upon the strand

To thank the God of sea and land;

And there, with mien and look elate,

Gave welcome to each toil-worn mate.

And lured with courteous signs of cheer

The dusky natives gathering near,

Who on them gazed with wondering eyes,

As missioned spirits from the skies.

And there did he possession claim

In royal Isabella’s name.