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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Switzerland and Austria: Vol. XVI. 1876–79.

Switzerland: St. Bernard, the Mountain

Storm on Saint Bernard

By Thomas Buchanan Read (1822–1872)

O HEAVEN, it is a fearful thing

Beneath the tempest’s beating wing

To struggle, like a stricken hare

When swoops the monarch bird of air;

To breast the loud winds’ fitful spasms,

To brave the cloud and shun the chasms,

Tossed like a fretted shallop-sait

Between the ocean and the gale.

Along the valley, loud and fleet,

The rising tempest leapt and roared,

And scaled the Alp, till from his seat

The throned Eternity of Snow

His frequent avalanches poured

In thunder to the storm below.

The laden tempest wildly broke

O’er roaring chasms and rattling cliffs,

And on the pathway piled the drifts;

And every gust was like a wolf,—

And there was one at every cloak,—

That, snarling, dragged toward the gulf.

The staggering mule scarce kept his pace,

With ears thrown back and shoulders bowed;

The surest guide could barely trace

The difference ’twixt earth and cloud;

And every form, from foot to face,

Was in a winding-sheet of snow:

The wind, ’t was like the voice of woe

That howled above their burial-place!

And now, to crown their fears, a roar

Like ocean battling with the shore,

Or like that sound which night and day

Breaks through Niagara’s veil of spray,

From some great height within the cloud,

To some unmeasured valley driven,

Swept down, and with a voice so loud

It seemed as it would shatter heaven!

The bravest quailed; it swept so near,

It made the ruddiest cheek to blanch,

While look replied to look in fear,

“The avalanche! The avalanche!”

It forced the foremost to recoil,

Before its sideward billows thrown,—

Who cried, “O God! Here ends our toil!

The path is overswept and gone!”

The night came down. The ghostly dark,

Made ghostlier by its sheet of snow,

Wailed round them its tempestuous woe,

Like Death’s announcing courier! “Hark!

There, heard you not the Alp-hound’s bark?

And there again! and there! Ah, no,

’T is but the blast that mocks us so!”

Then through the thick and blackening mist

Death glared on them, and breathed so near,

Some felt his breath grow almost warm,

The while he whispered in their ear

Of sleep that should outdream the storm.

Then lower drooped their lids,—when, “List!

Now, heard you not the storm-bell ring?

And there again, and twice and thrice!

Ah, no, ’t is but the thundering

Of tempests on a crag of ice!”

Death smiled on them, and it seemed good

On such a mellow bed to lie:

The storm was like a lullaby,

And drowsy pleasure soothed their blood.

But still the sturdy, practised guide

His unremitting labor plied;

Now this one shook until he woke,

And closer wrapt the other’s cloak,—

Still shouting with his utmost breath,

To startle back the hand of Death,

Brave words of cheer! “But, hark again,—

Between the blasts the sound is plain;

The storm, inhaling, lulls,—and hark!

It is—it is! the alp-dog’s bark!

And on the tempest’s passing swell,—

The voice of cheer so long debarred,—

There swings the Convent’s guiding-bell,

The sacred bell of Saint Bernard!”

Then how they gained, though chilled and faint,

The Convent’s hospitable door,

And breathed their blessing on the saint

Who guards the traveller as of yore,

Were long to tell: and then the night

And unhoused winter of the height

Were rude for audience such as mine;

The harp, too, wakes to more delight,

The fingers take a freer flight,

When warmed between the fire and wine.

The storm around the fount of song

Has blown its blast so chill and long,

What marvel if it freeze or fail,

Or that its spray returns in hail!

Or, rather, round my Muse’s wings

The encumbering snow, though melting, clings

So thickly she can scarce do more

Than flounder where she most would soar.

The hand benumbed, reviving, stings,

And with thick touches only brings

The harp-tones out by fits and spells,—

You needs must note how all the strings

Together jar like icicles!

Then heap the hearth and spread the board,

And let the glowing flasks be poured,

While I beside the roaring fire

Melt out the music of my lyre.