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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Oceanica: Vol. XXXI. 1876–79.

Various Islands: Coral Reefs and Islands

The Coral Insect

By Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791–1865)

TOIL on! toil on! ye ephemeral train,

Who build in the tossing and treacherous main;

Toil on—for the wisdom of man ye mock,

With your sand-based structures and domes of rock;

Your columns the fathomless fountains lave,

And your arches spring up to the crested wave;

Ye ’re a puny race thus to boldly rear

A fabric so vast in a realm so drear.

Ye bind the deep with your secret zone,

The ocean is sealed, and the surge a stone;

Fresh wreaths from the coral pavement spring,

Like the terraced pride of Assyria’s king;

The turf looks green where the breakers rolled;

O’er the whirlpool ripens the rind of gold;

The sea-snatched isle is the home of men,

And mountains exult where the wave hath been.

But why do ye plant ’neath the billows dark

The wrecking reef for the gallant bark?

There are snares enough on the tented field,

Mid the blossomed sweets that the valleys yield:

There are serpents to coil ere the flowers are up;

There ’s a poison-drop in man’s purest cup;

There are foes that watch for his cradle breath,

And why need ye sow the floods with death?

With mouldering bones the deeps are white,

From the ice-clad pole to the tropics bright;

The mermaid hath twisted her fingers cold

With the mesh of the sea-boy’s curls of gold,

And the gods of ocean have frowned to see

The mariner’s bed in their halls of glee;

Hath earth no graves, that ye thus must spread

The boundless sea for the thronging dead?

Ye build—ye build—but ye enter not in,

Like the tribes whom the desert devoured in their sin;

From the land of promise ye fade and die,

Ere its verdure gleams forth on your weary eye;

As the kings of the cloud-crowned pyramid,

Their noteless bones in oblivion hid,

Ye slumber unmarked mid the desolate main,

While the wonder and pride of your works remain.