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

Western States: Mammoth Cave, Ky.

The River in the Mammoth Cave

By George Dennison Prentice (1802–1870)

O DARK mysterious stream, I sit by thee

In awe profound, as myriad wanderers

Have sat before. I see thy waters move

From out the ghostly glimmerings of my lamp

Into the dark beyond, as noiselessly

As if thou wert a sombre river drawn

Upon a spectral canvas, or the stream

Of dim Oblivion flowing through the lone

And shadowy vale of death. There is no wave

To whisper on thy shore, or breathe a wail,

Wounding its tender bosom on thy sharp

And jagged rocks. Innumerous mingled tones,

The voices of the day and of the night,

Are ever heard through all our outer world,

For Nature there is never dumb; but here

I turn and turn my listening ear, and catch

No mortal sound, save that of my own heart,

That mid the awful stillness throbs aloud,

Like the far sea-surfs low and measured beat

Upon its rocky shore. But when a cry

Or shout or song is raised, how wildly back

Come the weird echoes from a thousand rocks,

As if unnumbered airy sentinels,

The genii of the spot, caught up the voice,

Repeating it in wonder,—a wild maze

Of spirit-tones, a wilderness of sounds,

Earth-born but all unearthly.
Thou dost seem,

O wizard stream, a river of the dead,—

A river of some blasted, perished world,

Wandering forever in the mystic void.

No breeze e’er strays across thy solemn tide;

No bird e’er breaks thy surface with his wing;

No star or sky or bow is ever glassed

Within thy depths; no flower or blade e’er breathes

Its fragrance from thy bleak banks on the air.

True, here are flowers, or semblances of flowers,

Carved by the magic fingers of the drops

That fall upon thy rocky battlements,—

Fair roses, tulips, pinks, and violets,—

All white as cerements of the coffined dead;

But they are flowers of stone, and never drank

The sunshine or the dew. O sombre stream,

Whence comest thou, and whither goest? Far

Above, upon the surface of old Earth,

A hundred rivers o’er thee pass and sweep,

In music and in sunshine, to the sea;

Thou art not born of them. Whence comest thou,

And whither goest? None of earth can know.

No mortal e’er has gazed upon thy source,—

No mortal seen where thy dark waters blend

With the abyss of Ocean. None may guess

The mysteries of thy course. Perchance thou hast

A hundred mighty cataracts, thundering down

Toward Earth’s eternal centre; but their sound

Is not for ear of man. All we can know

Is that thy tide rolls out, a spectre stream,

From yon stupendous, frowning wall of rock,

And, moving on a little way, sinks down

Beneath another mass of rock as dark

And frowning, even as life,—our little life,—

Born of one fathomless eternity,

Steals on a moment and then disappears

In an eternity as fathomless.