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

Western States: Mammoth Cave, Ky.

Mammoth Cave

By George Dennison Prentice (1802–1870)

ALL day, as day is reckoned on the earth,

I ’ve wandered in these dim and awful aisles,

Shut from the blue and breezy dome of heaven,

While thoughts, wild, drear, and shadowy, have swept

Across my awe-struck soul, like spectres o’er

The wizard’s magic glass, or thunder-clouds

O’er the blue waters of the deep. And now

I ’ll sit me down upon yon broken rock

To muse upon the strange and solemn things

Of this mysterious realm.
All day my steps

Have been amid the beautiful, the wild,

The gloomy, the terrific. Crystal founts,

Almost invisible in their serene

And pure transparency; high, pillared domes,

With stars and flowers all fretted like the halls

Of Oriental monarchs; rivers dark

And drear and voiceless as Oblivion’s stream,

That flows through Death’s dim vale of silence; gulfs

All fathomless, down which the loosened rock

Plunges until its far-off echoes come

Fainter and fainter like the dying roll

Of thunders in the distance; Stygian pools

Whose agitated waves give back a sound

Hollow and dismal, like the sullen roar

In the volcano’s depths;—these, these have left

Their spell upon me, and their memories

Have passed into my spirit, and are now

Blent with my being till they seem a part

Of my own immortality.
God’s hand,

At the creation, hollowed out this vast

Domain of darkness, where no herb nor flower

Ere sprang amid the sands, nor dews, nor rains,

Nor blessed sunbeams fell with freshening power,

Nor gentle breeze its Eden message told

Amid the dreadful gloom. Six thousand years

Swept o’er the earth ere human footprints marked

This subterranean desert. Centuries

Like shadows came and past, and not a sound

Was in this realm, save when at intervals,

In the long lapse of ages, some huge mass

Of overhanging rock fell thundering down,

Its echoes sounding through these corridors

A moment, and then dying in a hush

Of silence, such as brooded o’er the earth

When earth was chaos. The great mastodon,

The dreaded monster of the elder world,

Passed o’er this mighty cavern, and his tread

Bent the old forest oaks like fragile reeds

And made earth tremble; armies in their pride

Perchance have met above it in the shock

Of war, with shout and groan, and clarion blast,

And the hoarse echoes of the thunder gun;

The storm, the whirlwind, and the hurricane

Have roared above it, and the bursting cloud

Sent down its red and crashing thunderbolt;

Earthquakes have trampled o’er it in their wrath,

Rocking earth’s surface as the storm-wind rocks

The old Atlantic;—yet no sound of these

Ere came down to the everlasting depths

Of these dark solitudes.
How oft we gaze

With awe or admiration on the new

And unfamiliar, but pass coldly by

The lovelier and the mightier! Wonderful

Is this lone world of darkness and of gloom,

But far more wonderful yon outer world

Lit by the glorious sun. These arches swell

Sublime in lone and dim magnificence,

But how sublimer God’s blue canopy,

Beleaguered with his burning cherubim

Keeping their watch eternal! Beautiful

Are all the thousand snow-white gems that lie

In these mysterious chambers, gleaming out

Amid the melancholy gloom, and wild

These rocky hills and cliffs and gulfs, but far

More beautiful and wild the things that greet

The wanderer in our world of light: the stars

Floating on high like islands of the blest;

The autumn sunsets glowing like the gate

Of far-off Paradise; the gorgeous clouds

On which the glories of the earth and sky

Meet and commingle; earth’s unnumbered flowers

All turning up their gentle eyes to heaven;

The birds, with bright wings glancing in the sun,

Filling the air with rainbow miniatures;

The green old forests surging in the gale;

The everlasting mountains, on whose peaks

The setting sun burns like an altar-flame;

And ocean, like a pure heart rendering back

Heaven’s perfect image, or in his wild wrath

Heaving and tossing like the stormy breast

Of a chained giant in his agony.