Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > America
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
America: Vols. XXV–XXIX.  1876–79.
 
Middle States: Niagara, the River
Avery
William Dean Howells (1837–1920)
 
1853

I.
ALL night long they heard in the houses beside the shore,
Heard, or seemed to hear, through the multitudinous roar,
Out of the hell of the rapids as ’t were a lost soul’s cries,—
Heard and could not believe; and the morning mocked their eyes,
Showing, where wildest and fiercest the waters leaped up and ran        5
Raving round him and past, the visage of a man
Clinging, or seeming to cling, to the trunk of a tree that, caught
Fast in the rocks below, scarce out of the surges raught.
Was it a life, could it be, to yon slender hope that clung?
Shrill, above all the tumult the answering terror rung.        10
 
II.
Under the weltering rapids a boat from the bridge is drowned,
Over the rocks the lines of another are tangled and wound;
And the long, fateful hours of the morning have wasted soon,
As it had been in some blessed trance, and now it is noon.
Hurry, now with the raft! But O, build it strong and staunch,        15
And to the lines and treacherous rocks look well as you launch!
Over the foamy tops of the waves, and their foam sprent sides,
Over the hidden reefs, and through the embattled tides,
Onward rushes the raft, with many a lurch and leap,—
Lord! if it strike him loose, from the hold he scarce can keep!        20
 
No! through all peril unharmed, it reaches him harmless at last,
And to its proven strength he lashes his weakness fast.
Now, for the shore! But steady, steady, my men, and slow;
Taut, now, the quivering lines; now slack; and so, let her go!
Thronging the shores around stand the pitying multitude;        25
Wan as his own are their looks, and a nightmare seems to brood
Heavy upon them, and heavy the silence hangs on all,
Save for the rapids’ plunge, and the thunder of the fall.
But on a sudden thrills from the people still and pale,
Chorusing his unheard despair, a desperate wail:        30
Caught on a lurking point of rock it sways and swings,
Sport of the pitiless waters, the raft to which he clings.
 
III.
All the long afternoon it idly swings and sways;
And on the shore the crowd lifts up its hands and prays:
Lifts to heaven and wrings the hands so helpless to save,        35
Prays for the mercy of God on him whom the rock and the wave
Battle for, fettered betwixt them, and who, amidst their strife,
Struggles to help his helpers, and fights so hard for his life,—
Tugging at rope and at reef, while men weep and women swoon.
Priceless second by second, so wastes the afternoon,        40
And it is sunset now; and another boat and the last
Down to him from the bridge through the rapids has safely passed.
 
IV.
Wild through the crowd comes flying a man that nothing can stay,
Maddening against the gate that is locked athwart his way.
“No! we keep the bridge for them that can help him. You,        45
Tell us, who are you?” “His brother!” “God help you both! Pass through.”
Wild, with wide arms of imploring he calls aloud to him,
Unto the face of his brother, scarce seen in the distance dim;
But in the roar of the rapids his fluttering words are lost
As in a wind of autumn the leaves of autumn are tossed.        50
And from the bridge he sees his brother sever the rope
Holding him to the raft, and rise secure in his hope;
Sees all as in a dream the terrible pageantry,—
Populous shores, the woods, the sky, the birds flying free;
Sees, then, the form,—that, spent with effort and fasting and fear,        55
Flings itself feebly and fails of the boat that is lying so near,—
Caught in the long-baffled clutch of the rapids, and rolled and hurled
Headlong on to the cataract’s brink, and out of the world.
 
 
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