January 5, 2012

Bryant: a day-dream by the dark blue deep

Though he wrote it in Italy in 1858, William Cullen Bryant did not publish his poem "A Day-Dream" until 1861, when the New York Ledger included it in its issue for January 5. Inspired by a walk through Naples, the poem expresses Bryant's love of Italy and its seashore:

A day-dream by the dark-blue deep;
   Was it a dream, or something more?
I sat where Posilippo's steep,
   With its gray shelves, o'erhung the shore.

On ruined Roman walls around
   The poppy flaunted, for 'twas May;
And at my feet, with gentle sound,
   Broke the light billows of the bay.

I sat and watched the eternal flow
   Of those smooth billows toward the shore,
While quivering lines of light below
   Ran with them on the ocean-floor:

Till, from the deep, there seemed to rise
   White arms upon the waves outspread,
Young faces, lit with soft blue eyes,
   And smooth, round cheeks, just touched with red.

Their long, fair tresses, tinged with gold,
   Lay floating on the ocean-streams,
And such their brows as bards behold—
   Love-stricken bards — in morning dreams.

Then moved their coral lips; a strain
   Low, sweet and sorrowful, I heard,
As if the murmurs of the main
   Were shaped to syllable and word.

"The sight thou dimly dost behold,
   Oh, stranger from a distant sky!
Was often, in the days of old,
   Seen by the clear, believing eye.

"Then danced we on the wrinkled sand,
   Sat in cool caverns by the sea,
Or wandered up the bloomy land,
   To talk with shepherds on the lea.

"To us, in storms, the seaman prayed,
   And where our rustic altars stood,
His little children came and laid
   The fairest flowers of field and wood.

"Oh woe, a long, unending woe!
   For who shall knit the ties again
That linked the sea-nymphs, long ago,
   In kindly fellowship with men?

"Earth rears her flowers for us no more;
   A half-remembered dream are we;
Unseen we haunt the sunny shore,
   And swim, unmarked, the glassy sea.

"And we have none to love or aid,
   But wander, heedless of mankind,
With shadows by the cloud-rack made,
   With moaning wave and sighing wind.

"Yet sometimes, as in elder days,
   We come before the painter's eye,
Or fix the sculptor's eager gaze,
   With no profaner witness nigh.

"And then the words of men grow warm
   With praise and wonder, asking where
The artist saw the perfect form
   He copied forth in lines so fair."

As thus they spoke, with wavering sweep
   Floated the graceful forms away;
Dimmer and dimmer, through the deep,
   I saw the white arms gleam and play.

Fainter and fainter, on mine ear,
   Fell the soft accents of their speech,
Till I, at last, could only hear
   The waves run murmuring up the beach.

At the time of the poem's composition, the newly-bearded Bryant was relieved that his wife had recovered from an illness. He was also happily surrounded by friends (including the sojourning Nathaniel Hawthorne and family). By the time of its publication, the poet was absorbed in the coming conflict that became the Civil War. His poetry soon took a more political turn.

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