January 2, 2012

Cranch: My mind did swoon

Chrisopher Pearse Cranch — Transcendentalist, painter, and poet — did not publish his first book of poems until 1844. Born in Alexandria, Virginia, he frequently attended public speeches by major politicians of the day (and even claimed to witness the inauguration of John Quincy Adams). He went to Harvard Divinity School and started a long series of travels. It was in Cincinnati, Ohio, that he and James Freeman Clarke founded the Western Messenger as an outlet of Transcendentalism. Cranch's earliest poems were published in that journal as well as The Dial, and usually signed "C.P.C." One of those early poems, "Night and the Soul," was written on January 2, 1839:

I went to bed with Shakespeare's flowing numbers
      Within me chiming,
As I sank slowly to my pleasant slumbers,
      My thoughts with his were rhyming.

Out of the window I saw the moonlight shadows
      Go creeping slow;
The sheeted roofs of snow — the broad white meadows
      Lay silently below.

A few keen stars were kindly winking through
      The frost-dimmed panes,
And dreaming Chanticleer woke up and crew
      Far o'er the desolate plains.

But soon into the void abyss of sleep
      My mind did swoon;
I saw no more the broad house-shadows creep
      Beneath the silent moon.

I woke; the morning sun was mounting slowly
      O'er the live earth: —
Say, fancy, why the shade of melancholy
      Which then in me took birth?

Why does the night give to the spirit wings,
      Which day denies?
Ah, why this tyranny of outward things
      When brightest shine the skies?

My soul is like the flower that blooms by night,
      And droops by day;
Yet may its fruit expand, though in the light
      Night-blossoms drop away.

The visions thus in dreamy stillness cherished,
      Like dreams may fly;
But day's great acts, o'er thoughts that nightly perished,
      may ripen, not to die!

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