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Saturday, October 22, 2011

William Cullen Bryant praises Rhode Island, especially its anthracite (1826) 

From The New-York Review, and Atheneum Magazine 2 (April 1826): 386-8, and see for the context -- one of Bryant's closest friends was a hopeful (and, as it turned out, unlucky) investor in Rhode Island anthracite mines, which some people believed to have much better prospects than those of Pennsylvania, mostly because of their proximity to water transportation.  They seemed to have a great future, as fuel sources for coastal New England in particular.  Misplaced optimism on this score would recur throughout the 19th and into the 20th century.  What's most interesting about this poem is that it comes from a time when people still had not learned how to burn anthracite properly, and Bryant is trying to overcome this consumer resistance with his vision of a literally glowing future.

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Decolor obscurus, vilis, non ille tepexam
Cesariem regum, non candida virginis ornat
Colin, nec insigni splendet per cingula morsu.
Sed, nova si nigri videas miracula saxi,
Tunc superat pulchros cultus, et quicquid Eois
Indus litonbus rubra scrutalur in alga.

I Sat beside the glowing grate, fresh heaped
With Newport coal, and as the flame grew bright—
The many-coloured flame—and played and leaped,
I thought of rainbows and the northern light,
Moore's Lalla Rookh, the Treasury Report,
And other brilliant matters of the sort.

And last I thought of that fair isle which sent
The mineral fuel.
On a summer day
I saw it once, with heat and travel spent,
And scratched by dwarf oaks in the hollow way;
Now uragged through sand, now jolted over stone—
A rugged road through rugged Tiverton.

And hotter grew the air, and hollower grew
The deep-worn path, and honor-struck, I thought,
Where will this dreary passage lead me to ?—
This long, dull road, so narrow, deep, and hot ?
I looked to see it dive in earth outright;
I looked—but saw a far more welcome sight.

[p. 387] 

Like a soft mist upon the evening shore,
At once a lovely isle before me lay;
Smooth, and with tender verdure covered o'er,
As if just risen from its calm inland bay;
Sloped each way gently to the grassy edge,
And the small waves that dallied with the sedge.

The barley was just reaped—its heavy sheaves
Lay on the stubble field—the tall maize stood
Dark in its summer growth, and shook its leaves—
And bright the sunlight played on the young wood—
For fifty years ago, the old men say,
The Briton hewed their ancient groves away.

I saw where fountains freshened the green land,
And where the pleasant road, from door to door,
With rows of cherry trees on either hand,
Went wandering all that fertile region o'er—
Rogue's Island once—but, when the rogues were dead.
Rhode Island was the name it took instead.

Beautiful island! then it only seemed
A lovely stranger—it has grown a friend.
I gazed on its smooth slopes, but never dreamed
How soon that bright beneficent isle would send
The treasures of its womb across the sea,
To warm a poet's room and boil his tea.

Dark anthracite! that reddenest on my hearth.
Thou in those island mines didst slumber long, 

But now thou art come forth to move the earth,
And put to shame the men that mean thee wrong ; 
Thou shalt be coals of fire to those that hate thee, 
And warm the shins of all that under-rate thee.

Yea, they did wrong thee foully—they who mocked 

Thy honest face, and said thou wouldst not burn;
Of hewing thee to chimney-pieces talked,
And grew profane—and swore, in bitter scorn,
That men might to thy inner caves retire,
And there, unsinged, abide the day of fire.

Yet is thy greatness nigh. I pause to state,
That I too have,seen greatness—even I—
Shook hands with Adams—stared at La Fayette,
When, barehead in the hot noon of July.

[p. 388]

He would not let the umbrella be held o'er him,
For which three cheers burst from the mob before him.

And I have seen—not many months ago —
An eastern governor, in chapeau bras
And military coat, a glorious show !
Ride forth to visit the reviews, and ah,
How oft he smiled and bowed to Jonathan!
How many hands were shook, and votes were won !

'Twas a great governor—thou too shalt be
Great in thy turn—and wide shall spread thy fame,
And swiftly—farthest Maine shall hear of thee,
And cold New-Brunswick gladden at thy name,
And, faintly through its sleets, the weeping isle
That sends the Boston folks their cod, shall smile.

For thou shalt forge vast rail-ways, and shalt heat
The hissing rivers into steam, and drive
Huge masses from thy mines, on iron feet,
Walking their steady way, as if alive,
Northward, till everlasting ice besets thee,
And south as far as the grim Spaniard lets thee.

Thou shalt make mighty engines swim the sea,
Like its own monsters—boats that for a guinea
Will take a man to Havre—and shalt be
The moving soul of many a spinning jenny,
And ply thy shuttles, till a bard can wear
As good a suit of broadcloth as the mayor.

Then we will laugh at winter when we hear
The grim old churl about our dwellings rave:
Thou from that " ruler of the inverted year,"
Shalt pluck the knotty sceptre Cowper gave,
And pull him from his sledge, and drag him in,
And melt the icicles from off his chin.

Heat will be cheap—a small consideration ,
Will put one in a way to raise his punch,
Set lemon-trees, and have a cane plantation—
'Twill be a pretty saving to the Lunch.
Then the West India negroes may go play
The banjo, and keep endless holiday.