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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 Island

By James Montgomery (1771–1854)

(From The Pelican Island)

I SAW the living pile ascend,

The mausoleum of its architects,

Still dying upwards as their labors closed:

Slime the material, but the slime was turned

To adamant by their petrific touch;

Frail were their frames, ephemeral their lives,

Their masonry imperishable. All

Life’s needful functions, food, exertion, rest,

By nice economy of Providence

Were overruled to carry on the process

Which out of water brought forth solid rock.

Atom by atom thus the burden grew,

Even like an infant in the womb, till Time

Delivered Ocean of that monstrous birth,—

A coral island, stretching east and west,

In God’s own language to its parent saying,

“Thus far, nor farther, shalt thou go; and here

Shall thy proud waves be stayed.” A point at first,

It peered above those waves; a point so small

I just perceived it, fixed where all was floating;

And when a bubble crossed it, the blue film

Expanded, like a sky above the speck.

That speck became a hand-breadth; day and night

It spread, accumulated, and erelong

Presented to my view a dazzling plain,

White as the moon amid the sapphire sea;

Bare at low water, and as still as death;

But when the tide came gurgling o’er the surface,

’T was like a resurrection of the dead:

From graves innumerable, punctures fine

In the close coral, capillary swarms

Of reptiles, horrent as Medusa’s snakes,

Covered the bald-pate reef; then all was life

And indefatigable industry;

The artisans were twisting to and fro

In idle-seeming convolutions, yet

They never vanished with the ebbing surge,

Till pellicle on pellicle, and layer

On layer, was added to the growing mass.

Erelong the reef o’ertopt the spring-flood’s height,

And mocked the billows when they leaped upon it,

Unable to maintain their slippery hold,

And falling down in foam-wreaths round its verge.

Steep were the flanks, with precipices sharp,

Descending to their base in ocean-gloom.

Chasms, few and narrow and irregular,

Formed harbors safe at once and perilous,—

Safe for defence, but perilous to enter.

A sea-lake shone amidst the fossil isle,

Reflecting in a ring its cliffs and caverns,

With heaven itself seen like a lake below.

Compared with this amazing edifice,

Raised by the weakest creatures in existence,

What are the works of intellectual man?

Towers, temples, palaces, and sepulchres;

Ideal images in sculptured forms,

Thoughts hewn in columns or in domes expanded,

Fancies through every maze of beauty shown;

Pride, gratitude, affection, turned to marble

In honor of the living or the dead,—

What are they? fine-wrought miniatures of art,

Too exquisite to bear the weight of dew,

Which every morn lets fall in pearls upon them,

Till all their pomp sinks down in mouldering relics,

Yet in their ruin lovelier than their prime!

Dust in the balance, atoms in the gale,

Compared with these achievements in the deep,

Were all the monuments of olden time,

In days when there were giants on the earth:

Babel’s stupendous folly, though it aimed

To scale heaven’s battlements, was but a toy,

The plaything of the world in infancy;

The ramparts, towers, and gates of Babylon,

Built for eternity, though, where they stood,

Ruin itself stands still for lack of work,

And Desolation keeps unbroken sabbath,—

Great Babylon, in its full moon of empire,

Even when its “head of gold” was smitten off,

And from a monarch changed into a brute,—

Great Babylon was like a wreath of sand,

Left by one tide and cancelled by the next;—

Egypt’s dread wonders, still defying Time,

Where cities have been crumbled into sand,

Scattered by winds beyond the Libyan desert,

Or melted down into the mud of Nile,

And cast in tillage o’er the corn-sown fields,

Where Memphis flourished, and the Pharaohs reigned,—

Egypt’s gray piles of hieroglyphic grandeur,

That have survived the language which they speak,

Preserving its dead emblems to the eye,

Yet hiding from the mind what these reveal;

Her pyramids would be mere pinnacles,

Her giant statues, wrought from rocks of granite,

But puny ornaments, for such a pile

As this stupendous mound of catacombs,

Filled with dry mummies of the builder-worms.


Nine times the age of man that coral reef

Had bleached beneath the torrid noon, and borne

The thunder of a thousand hurricanes,

Raised by the jealous ocean to repel

That strange encroachment on his old domain.

His rage was impotent; his wrath fulfilled

The counsels of eternal Providence,

And ’stablished what he strove to overturn;

For every tempest threw fresh wrecks upon it;

Sand from the shoals, exuviæ from the deep,

Fragments of shells, dead sloughs, sea-monsters’ bones,

Whales stranded in the shallows, hideous weeds

Hurled out of darkness by the uprooting surges;

These, with unutterable relics more,

Heaped the rough surface, till the various mass,

By Nature’s chemistry combined and purged,

Had buried the bare rock in crumbling mould,

Not unproductive, but from time to time

Impregnated with seeds of plants, and rife

With embryo animals, or torpid forms

Of reptiles, shrouded in the clefts of trees

From distant lands, with branches, foliage, fruit,

Plucked up and wafted hither by the flood.

Death’s spoils and life’s hid treasures thus enriched

And colonized the soil; no particle

Of meanest substance but in course was turned

To solid use or noble ornament.

All seasons were propitious; every wind,

From the hot Siroc to the wet Monsoon,

Tempered the crude materials; while heaven’s dew

Fell on the sterile wilderness as sweetly

As though it were a garden of the Lord:

Nor fell in vain; each drop had its commission,

And did its duty, known to him who sent it.

Such time had passed, such changes had transfigured

The aspect of that solitary isle,

When I again, in spirit as before,

Assumed mute watch above it. Slender blades

Of grass were shooting through the dark-brown earth,

Like rays of light, transparent in the sun,

Or after showers with liquid gems illumined;

Fountains through filtering sluices sallied forth,

And led fertility where’er they turned;

Green herbage graced their banks, resplendent flowers

Unlocked their treasures, and let flow their fragrance.

Then insect legions, pranked with gaudiest hues,

Pearl, gold, and purple, swarmed into existence;

Minute and marvellous creations these!

Infinite multitudes on every leaf,

In every drop, by me discerned at pleasure,—

Were yet too fine for unenlightened eye,

Like stars, whose beams have never reached our world,

Though science meets them midway in the heaven

With prying optics, weighs them in her scale,

Measures their orbs, and calculates their courses;—

Some barely visible, some proudly shone,

Like living jewels; some grotesque, uncouth,

And hideous,—giants of a race of pygmies;

These burrowed in the ground, and fed on garbage;

Those lived deliciously on honey-dews,

And dwelt in palaces of blossomed bells;

Millions on millions, winged, and plumed in front,

And armed with stings for vengeance or assault,

Filled the dim atmosphere with hum and hurry;

Children of light and air and fire they seemed,

Their lives all ecstasy and quick cross-motion.

Thus throve this embryo universe, where all

That was to be was unbegun, or now

Beginning; every day, hour, instant, brought

Its novelty, though how or whence I knew not;

Less than omniscience could not comprehend

The causes of effects that seemed spontaneous,

And sprang in infinite succession, linked

With kindred issues infinite as they,

For which Almighty skill had laid the train

Even in the elements of chaos,—whence

The unravelling clew not for a moment lost

Hold of the silent hand that drew it out.


Amphibious monsters haunted the lagoon:

The hippopotamus, amidst the flood

Flexile and active as the smallest swimmer;

But on the bank, ill-balanced and infirm,

He grazed the herbage, with huge head declined,

Or leaned to rest against some ancient tree:

The crocodile, the dragon of the waters,

In iron panoply, fell as the plague,

And merciless as famine, craunched his prey,

While from his jaws, with dreadful fangs all serried.

The life-blood dyed the waves with deadly streams:

The seal and the sea-lion from the gulf

Came forth, and, crouching with their little ones,

Slept on the shelving rocks that girt the shore,

Securing prompt retreat from sudden danger:

The pregnant turtle, stealing out at eve,

With anxious eye and trembling heart, explored

The loneliest coves, and in the loose, warm sand

Deposited her eggs, which the sun hatched;

Hence the young brood, that never knew a parent,

Unburrowed, and by instinct sought the sea;

Nature herself, with her own gentle hand,

Dropping them one by one into the flood,

And laughing to behold their antic joy

When launched in their maternal element.


High on the cliffs, down on the shelly reef,

Or gliding like a silver-shaded cloud

Through the blue heaven, the mighty albatross

Inhaled the breezes, sought his humble food,

Or, where his kindred like a flock reposed,

Without a shepherd, on the grassy downs,

Smoothed his white fleece, and slumbered in their midst.

Wading through marshes, where the rank sea-weed

With spongy moss and flaccid lichens strove,

Flamingoes, in their crimson tunics, stalked

On stately legs, with far-exploring eye;

Or fed and slept, in regimental lines,

Watched by their sentinels, whose clarion-screams

All in an instant woke the startled troop,

That mounted like a glorious exhalation,

And vanished through the welkin far away,—

Nor paused, till, on some lonely coast alighting,

Again their gorgeous cohort took the field.