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

Middle States: Delaware, the River

The Freshet

By Alfred Billings Street (1811–1881)

A Legend of the Delaware

MARCH hath unlocked stern winter’s chain;

Nature is wrapped in misty shrouds,

And ceaselessly the drenching rain

Drips from the gray, sky-mantling clouds;

The deep snows melt, and swelling rills

Pour through each hollow of the hills;

The river from its rest hath risen,

And bounded from its shattered prison;

The huge ice-fragments onward dash,

With grinding roar and splintering crash;

Swift leap the floods upon their way,

Like war-steeds thundering on their path,

With hoofs of waves and manes of spray,

Restrainless in their mighty wrath.

Wild mountains stretch in towering pride

Along the river’s either side;

Leaving between it and their walls

Narrow and level intervals.

When summer glows, how sweet and bright

The landscape smiles upon the sight!

Here, the bright golden wheat-fields vie

With the rich tawny of the rye;

The buckwheat’s snowy mantles, there,

Shed honeyed fragrance on the air;

In long straight ranks the corn uprears

Its silken plumes and pennoned spears;

The yellow melon underneath

Plump ripens, in its viny wreath;

Here, the piled rows of new-mown grass;

There, the potato-plant’s green mass;

All framed by woods,—each limit shown

By zigzag rail, or wall of stone;

Contrasting, here, within the shade,

The axe a space hath open laid,

Cumbered with trees hurled blended down,

Their verdure changed to withered brown;

There, the soil, ashes-strewed and black,

Shows the red flame’s devouring track;

Slim fire-weeds shooting thick where stood

The leafy monarchs of the wood:

A landscape frequent in the land,

Which Freedom, with her gifts to bless,

Grasping the axe when sheathing brand,

Hewed from the boundless wilderness.

The rains have ceased: the struggling glare

Of sunset lights the misty air;

The fierce winds sweep the myriad throng

Of broken ragged clouds along;

From the rough saw-mill, where hath rung,

Through all the hours, its grating tongue,

The raftman sallies, as the gray

Of evening tells the flight of day,

And slowly seeks, with loitering stride,

His cabin by the river side.

As twilight darkens into night,

Still dash the waters in their flight,

Still the ice-fragments, thick and fast,

Shoot like the clouds before the blast.

Beyond,—the sinuous channel wends

Through a deep, narrow gorge, and bends

With curve so sharp, the drifting ice,

Hurled by the flood’s tremendous might,

Piles the opposing precipice,

And every fragment swells the height;

Hour after hour uprears the wall,

Until a barrier huge and tall

Breasts the wild waves that vain upswell

To overwhelm the obstacle:

They bathe the alder on the verge,

The leaning hemlock now they merge,

The stately elm is dwindling low

Within the deep ingulfing flow,

Till, curbed thus in its headlong flight,

With its accumulated might,

The river, turning on its track,

Rolls its broad-spreading volumes back.

The raftman slumbers; through his dream

Distorted visions wildly stream;

Now in the wood his axe he swings,

And now his saw-mill’s jarring rings;

Now his huge raft is shooting swift

Cochecton’s wild, tumultuous rift,

Now floats it on the ebon lap

Of the grim shadowed Water Gap,

And now ’t is tossing on the swells

Fierce dashing down the slope of Wells.

The rapids crash upon his ear,

The deep sounds roll more loud and near,

They fill his dream,—he starts,—he wakes!

The moonlight through the casement falls,

Ha! the wild sight that on him breaks,—

The floods sweep round his cabin-walls.

Beneath their bounding, thundering shocks

The frail log fabric groans and rocks;

Crash, crash! the ice-bolts round it shiver;

The walls like blast-swept branches quiver;

His wife is clinging to his breast,

The child within his arm is prest;

He staggers through the chilly flood

That numbs his limbs, and checks his blood.

On, on he strives: the waters lave

Higher his form with every wave;

They steep his breast, on each side dash

The splintered ice with thundering crash;

A fragment strikes him; ha! he reels;

That shock in every nerve he feels;

Faster, bold raftman, speed thy way,

The waves roar round thee for their prey;

The cabin totters,—sinks,—the flood

Rolls its mad surges where it stood:

Before thy straining sight, the hill

Sleeps in the moonlight, bright and still.

Falter not, falter not, struggle on,

That goal of safety may be won;

Heavily droops thy wife with fear,

Thy boy’s shrill shriekings fill thine ear;

Urge, urge thy strength to where outfling

Yon cedar-branches for thy cling.

Joy, raftman, joy! thy need is past,

The wished-for goal is won at last.

Joy, raftman, joy! thy quick foot now

Is resting on the upland’s brow.

Praise to high Heaven! each knee is bent,

And every heart in prayer of grateful love is blent.