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

Western States: Prairies, The

The Prairies

By William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878)

THESE are the Gardens of the Desert, these

The unshorn fields, boundless and beautiful,

For which the speech of England has no name,—

The Prairies. I behold them for the first,

And my heart swells, while the dilated sight

Takes in the encircling vastness. Lo! they stretch

In airy undulations, far away,

As if the ocean, in his gentlest swell,

Stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed,

And motionless forever.—Motionless?

No,—they are all unchained again. The clouds

Sweep over with their shadows, and, beneath,

The surface rolls and fluctuates to the eye;

Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase

The sunny ridges. Breezes of the South!

Who toss the golden and the flame-like flowers,

And pass the prairie-hawk that, poised on high,

Flaps his broad wings, yet moves not,—ye have played

Among the palms of Mexico and vines

Of Texas, and have crisped the limpid brooks

That from the fountains of Sonora glide

Into the calm Pacific,—have ye fanned

A nobler or a lovelier scene than this?

Man hath no part in all this glorious work:

The hand that built the firmament hath heaved

And smoothed these verdant swells, and sown their slopes

With herbage, planted them with island groves,

And hedged them round with forests. Fitting floor

For this magnificent temple of the sky,

With flowers whose glory and whose multitude

Rival the constellations! The great heavens

Seem to stoop down upon the scene in love,—

A nearer vault, and of a tenderer blue,

Than that which bends above the eastern hills.

As o’er the verdant waste I guide my steed,

Among the high rank grass that sweeps his sides,

The hollow beating of his footstep seems

A sacrilegious sound. I think of those

Upon whose rest he tramples. Are they here,—

The dead of other days?—and did the dust

Of these fair solitudes once stir with life

And burn with passion? Let the mighty mounds

That overlook the rivers, or that rise

In the dim forest crowded with old oaks,

Answer. A race, that long has passed away,

Built them; a disciplined and populous race

Heaped, with long toil, the earth, while yet the Greek

Was hewing the Pentelicus to forms

Of symmetry, and rearing on its rock

The glittering Parthenon. These ample fields

Nourished their harvests, here their herds were fed,

When haply by their stalls the bison lowed,

And bowed his manèd shoulder to the yoke.

All day this desert murmured with their toils,

Till twilight blushed, and lovers walked, and wooed

In a forgotten language, and old tunes,

From instruments of unremembered form,

Gave the soft winds a voice. The red man came,—

The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,

And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.

The solitude of centuries untold

Has settled where they dwelt. The prairie wolf

Hunts in their meadows, and his fresh-dug den

Yawns by my path. The gopher mines the ground

Where stood their swarming cities. All is gone,—

All, save the piles of earth that hold their bones,

The platforms where they worshipped unknown gods,

The barriers which they builded from the soil

To keep the foe at bay, till o’er the walls

The wild beleaguerers broke, and, one by one,

The strongholds of the plain were forced, and heaped

With corpses. The brown vultures of the wood

Flocked to those vast uncovered sepulchres,

And sat, unscared and silent, at their feast.

Haply some solitary fugitive,

Lurking in marsh and forest, till the sense

Of desolation and of fear became

Bitterer than death, yielded himself to die.

Man’s better nature triumphed. Kindly words

Welcomed and soothed him; the rude conquerors

Seated the captive with their chiefs; he chose

A bride among their maidens, and at length

Seemed to forget—yet ne’er forgot—the wife

Of his first love, and her sweet little ones

Butchered, amid their shrieks, with all his race.

Thus change the forms of being. Thus arise

Races of living things, glorious in strength,

And perish, as the quickening breath of God

Fills them, or is withdrawn. The red man, too,

Has left the blooming wilds he ranged so long,

And, nearer to the Rocky Mountains, sought

A wider hunting-ground. The beaver builds

No longer by these streams, but far away,

On waters whose blue surface ne’er gave back

The white man’s face,—among Missouri’s springs,

And pools whose issues swell the Oregon,

He rears his little Venice. In these plains

The bison feeds no more. Twice twenty leagues

Beyond remotest smoke of hunter’s camp

Roams the majestic brute, in herds that shake

The earth with thundering steps,—yet here I meet

His ancient footprints stamped beside the pool.

Still this great solitude is quick with life.

Myriads of insects, gaudy as the flowers

They flutter over, gentle quadrupeds,

And birds, that scarce have learned the fear of man,

Are here, and sliding reptiles of the ground,

Startlingly beautiful. The graceful deer

Bounds to the wood at my approach. The bee,

A more adventurous colonist than man,

With whom he came across the eastern deep,

Fills the savannas with his murmurings,

And hides his sweets, as in the golden age,

Within the hollow oak. I listen long

To his domestic hum, and think I hear

The sound of that advancing multitude

Which soon shall fill these deserts. From the ground

Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice

Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn

Of Sabbath worshippers. The low of herds

Blends with the rustling of the heavy grain

Over the dark-brown furrows. All at once

A fresher wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream,

And I am in the wilderness alone.