The Ages

Author: William Cullen Bryant  | Date: 1821

THE AGES

I When to the common rest that crowns our days,

Called in the noon of life, the good man goes,

Or full of years, and ripe in wisdom, lays

His silver temples in their last repose;

When, o’er the buds of youth, the death-wind blows

And blights the fairest; when our bitter tears

Stream, as the eyes of those that love us close,

We think on what they were, with many fears

Lest goodness die with them; and leave the coming years.

II And therefore, to our hearts, the days gone by,

When lived the honored sage whose death we wept,

And the soft virtues beamed from many an eye,

And beat in many a heart that long has slept-

Like spots of earth where angel-feet have stepped,

Are holy; and high-dreaming bards have told

Of times when worth was crowned, and faith was kept

Ere friendship grew a snare, or love waxed cold-

Those pure and happy times- the golden days of old.

III Peace to the just man’s memory; let it grow

Greener with years, and blossom through the flight

Of ages; let the mimic canvas show

His calm benevolent features; let the light

Stream on his deeds of love, that shunned the sight

Of all but heaven, and in the book of fame

The glorious record of his virtues write

And hold it up to men, and bid them claim

A palm like his, and catch from him the hallowed flame.

IV But oh, despair not of their fate who rise

To dwell upon the earth when we withdraw!

Lo! the same shaft by which the righteous dies,

Strikes through the wretch that scoffed at mercy’s law

And trode his brethren down, and felt no awe

Of Him who will avenge them. Stainless worth,

Such as the sternest age of virtue saw,

Ripens, meanwhile, till time shall call it forth

From the low modest shade, to light and bless the earth.

V Has Nature, in her calm, majestic march,

Faltered with age at last? does the bright sun

Grow dim in heaven? or, in their far blue arch,

Sparkle the crowd of stars, when day is done,

Less brightly? when the dew-lipped Spring comes on,

Breathes she with airs less soft, or scents the sky

With flowers less fair than when her reign begun?

Does prodigal Autumn, to our age, deny

The plenty that once swelled beneath his sober eye?

VI Look on this beautiful world, and read the truth

In her fair page; see, every season brings

New change, to her, of everlasting youth;

Still the green soil, with joyous living things,

Swarms, the wide air is full of joyous wings,

And myriads, still, are happy in the sleep

Of ocean’s azure gulfs, and where he flings

The restless surge. Eternal Love doth keep,

In his complacent arms, the earth, the air, the deep.

VII Will then the merciful One, who stamped our race

With his own image, and who gave them sway

O’er earth, and the glad dwellers on her face,

Now that our swarming nations far away

Are spread, where’er the moist earth drinks the day,

Forget the ancient care that taught and nursed

His latest offspring? will he quench the ray

Infused by his own forming smile at first,

And leave a work so fair all blighted and accursed?

VIII Oh, no! a thousand cheerful omens give

Hope of yet happier days, whose dawn is nigh.

He who has tamed the elements, shall not live

The slave of his own passions; he whose eye

Unwinds the eternal dances of the sky,

And in the abyss of brightness dares to span

The sun’s broad circle, rising yet more high,

In God’s magnificent works his will shall scan-

And love and peace shall make their paradise with man.

IX Sit at the feet of History- through the night

Of years the steps of virtue she shall trace,

And show the earlier ages, where her sight

Can pierce the eternal shadows o’er their face;-

When, from the genial cradle of our race,

Went forth the tribes of men, their pleasant lot

To choose, where palm-groves cooled their dwelling-place,

Or freshening rivers ran; and there forgot

The truth of heaven, and kneeled to gods that heard them not.

X Then waited not the murderer for the night,

But smote his brother down in the bright day,

And he who felt the wrong, and had the might,

His own avenger, girt himself to slay;

Beside the path the unburied carcass lay;

The shepherd, by the fountains of the glen,

Fled, while the robber swept his flock away,

And slew his babes. The sick, untended then,

Languished in the damp shade, and died afar from men.

XI But misery brought in love; in passion’s strife

Man gave his heart to mercy, pleading long,

And sought out gentle deeds to gladden life;

The weak, against the sons of spoil and wrong,

Banded, and watched their hamlets, and grew strong;

States rose, and, in the shadow of their might,

The timid rested. To the reverent throng,

Grave and time-wrinkled men, with locks all white,

Gave laws, and judged their strifes, and taught the way of

right;

XII Till bolder spirits seized the rule, and nailed

On men the yoke that man should never bear,

And drave them forth to battle. Lo! unveiled

The scene of those stern ages! What is there?

A boundless sea of blood, and the wild air

Moans with the crimsoned surges that entomb

Cities and bannered armies; forms that wear

The kingly circlet rise, amid the gloom,

O’er the dark wave, and straight are swallowed in its womb.

XIII Those ages have no memory, but they left

A record in the desert- columns strown

On the waste sands, and statues fallen and cleft,

Heaped like a host in battle overthrown;

Vast ruins, where the mountain’s ribs of stone

Were hewn into a city; streets that spread

In the dark earth, where never breath has blown

Of heaven’s sweet air, nor foot of man dares tread

The long and perilous ways- the Cities of the Dead!

XIV And tombs of monarchs to the clouds up-piled-

They perished, but the eternal tombs remain-

And the black precipice, abrupt and wild,

Pierced by long toil and hollowed to a fane;-

Huge piers and frowning forms of gods sustain

The everlasting arches, dark and wide,

Like the night-heaven, when clouds are black with rain.

But idly skill was tasked, and strength was plied,

All was the work of slaves to swell a despot’s pride.

XV And Virtue cannot dwell with slaves, nor reign

O’er those who cower to take a tyrant’s yoke;

She left the down-trod nations in disdain,

And flew to Greece, when Liberty awoke,

New-born, amid those glorious vales, and broke

Sceptre and chain with her fair youthful hands:

As rocks are shivered in the thunder-stroke.

And lo! in full-grown strength, an empire stands

Of leagued and rival states, the wonder of the lands.

XVI Oh, Greece! thy flourishing cities were a spoil

Unto each other; thy hard hand oppressed

And crushed the helpless; thou didst make thy soil

Drunk with the blood of those that loved thee best;

And thou didst drive, from thy unnatural breast,

Thy just and brave to die in distant climes;

Earth shuddered at thy deeds, and sighed for rest

From thine abominations; after-times,

That yet shall read thy tale, will tremble at thy crimes!

XVII Yet there was that within thee which has saved

Thy glory, and redeemed thy blotted name;

The story of thy better deeds, engraved

On fame’s unmouldering pillar, puts to shame

Our chiller virtue; the high art to tame

The whirlwind of the passions was thy own;

And the pure ray, that from thy bosom came,

Far over many a land and age has shone,

And mingles with the light that beams from God’s own throne.

XVIII And Rome- thy sterner, younger sister, she

Who awed the world with her imperial frown-

Rome drew the spirit of her race from thee,

The rival of thy shame and thy renown.

Yet her degenerate children sold the crown

Of earth’s wide kingdoms to a line of slaves;

Guilt reigned, and woe with guilt, and plagues came down,

Till the North broke its floodgates, and the waves

Whelmed the degraded race, and weltered o’er their graves.

XIX Vainly that ray of brightness from above,

That shone around the Galilean lake,

The light of hope, the leading star of love,

Struggled, the darkness of that day to break;

Even its own faithless guardians strove to slake,

In fogs of earth, the pure ethereal flame;

And priestly hands, for Jesus’ blessed sake,

Were red with blood, and charity became,

In that stern war of forms, a mockery and a name.

XX They triumphed, and less bloody rites were kept

Within the quiet of the convent-cell;

The well-fed inmates pattered prayer, and slept,

And sinned, and liked their easy penance well,

Where pleasant was the spot for men to dwell,

Amid its fair broad lands the abbey lay,

Sheltering dark orgies that were shame to tell,

And cowled and barefoot beggars swarmed the way,

All in their convent weeds, of black, and white, and grey.

XXI Oh, sweetly the returning muses’ strain

Swelled over that famed stream, whose gentle tide

In their bright lap the Etrurian vales detain,

Sweet, as when winter storms have ceased to chide,

And all the new-leaved woods, resounding wide,

Send out wild hymns upon the scented air.

Lo! to the smiling Arno’s classic side

The emulous nations of the West repair,

And kindle their quenched urns, and drink fresh spirit there.

XXII Still, Heaven deferred the hour ordained to rend

From saintly rottenness the sacred stole;

And cowl and worshipped shrine could still defend

The wretch with felon stains upon his soul;

And crimes were set to sale, and hard his dole

Who could not bribe a passage to the skies;

And vice, beneath the mitre’s kind control,

Sinned gayly on, and grew to giant size,

Shielded by priestly power, and watched by priestly eyes.

XXIII At last the earthquake came- the shock, that hurled

To dust, in many fragments dashed and strown,

The throne, whose roots were in another world,

And whose far-stretching shadow awed our own.

From many a proud monastic pile, o’erthrown,

Fear-struck, the hooded inmates rushed and fled;

The web, that for a thousand years had grown

O’er prostrate Europe, in that day of dread

Crumbled and fell, as fire dissolves the flaxen thread.

XXIV The spirit of that day is still awake,

And spreads himself, and shall not sleep again;

But through the idle mesh of power shall break

Like billows o’er the Asian monarch’s chain;

Till men are filled with him, and feel how vain,

Instead of the pure heart and innocent hands,

Are all the proud and pompous modes to gain

The smile of Heaven;- till a new age expands

Its white and holy wings above the peaceful lands.

XXV For look again on the past years;- behold,

How like the nightmare’s dreams have flown away

Horrible forms of worship, that, of old,

Held, o’er the shuddering realms, unquestioned sway:

See crimes, that feared not once the eye of day,

Rooted from men, without a name or place:

See nations blotted out from earth, to pay

The forfeit of deep guilt;- with glad embrace

The fair disburdened lands welcome a nobler race.

XXVI Thus error’s monstrous shapes from earth are driven;

They fade, they fly- but Truth survives their flight;

Earth has no shades to quench that beam of heaven;

Each ray that shone, in early time, to light

The faltering footstep in the path of right,

Each gleam of clearer brightness shed to aid

In man’s maturer day his bolder sight,

All blended, like the rainbow’s radiant braid,

Pour yet, and still shall pour, the blaze that cannot fade.

XXVII Late, from this Western shore, that morning chased

The deep and ancient night, which threw its shroud

O’er the green land of groves, the beautiful waste,

Nurse of full streams, and lifter-up of proud

Sky-mingling mountains that o’erlook the cloud.

Erewhile, where yon gay spires their brightness rear,

Trees waved, and the brown hunter’s shouts were loud

Amid the forest; and the bounding deer

Fled at the glancing plume, and the gaunt wolf yelled near.

XXVIII And where his willing waves yon bright blue bay

Sends up, to kiss his decorated brim,

And cradles, in his soft embrace, the gay

Young group of grassy islands born of him,

And crowding nigh, or in the distance dim,

Lifts the white throng of sails, that bear or bring

The commerce of the world;- with tawny limb,

And belt and beads in sunlight glistening,

The savage urged his skiff like wild bird on the wing.

XXIX Then all this youthful paradise around,

And all the broad and boundless mainland, lay

Cooled by the interminable wood, that frowned

O’er mount and vale, where never summer ray

Glanced, till the strong tornado broke his way

Through the gray giants of the sylvan wild;

Yet many a sheltered glade, with blossoms gay

Beneath the showery sky and sunshine mild,

Within the shaggy arms of that dark forest smiled.

XXX There stood the Indian hamlet, there the lake

Spread its blue sheet that flashed with many an oar,

Where the brown otter plunged him from the brake,

And the deer drank: as the light gale flew o’er,

The twinkling maize-field rustled on the shore;

And while that spot, so wild, and lone, and fair,

A look of glad and guiltless beauty wore,

And peace was on the earth and in the air,

The warrior lit the pile, and bound his captive there.

XXXI Not unavenged- the foeman, from the wood,

Beheld the deed, and, when the midnight shade

Was stillest, gorged his battle-axe with blood;

All died- the wailing babe- the shrinking maid-

And in the flood of fire that scathed the glade,

The roofs went down; but deep the silence grew,

When on the dewy woods the day-beam played;

No more the cabin-smokes rose wreathed and blue,

And ever, by their lake, lay moored the bark canoe.

XXXII Look now abroad- another race has filled

These populous borders- wide the wood recedes,

And towns shoot up, and fertile realms are tilled;

The land is full of harvests and green meads;

Streams numberless, that many a fountain feeds,

Shine, disembowered, and give to sun and breeze

Their virgin waters; the full region leads

New colonies forth, that toward the western seas

Spread, like a rapid flame among the autumnal trees.

XXXIII Here the free spirit of mankind, at length,

Throws its last fetters off; and who shall place

A limit to the giant’s unchained strength,

Or curb his swiftness in the forward race?

On, like the comet’s way through infinite space,

Stretches the long untravelled path of light,

Into the depths of ages; we may trace,

Afar, the brightening glory of its flight,

Till the receding rays are lost to human sight.

XXXIV Europe is given a prey to sterner fates,

And writhes in shackles; strong the arms that chain

To earth her struggling multitude of states;

She too is strong, and might not chafe in vain

Against them, but might cast to earth the train

That trample her, and break their iron net.

Yes, she shall look on brighter days and gain

The meed of worthier deeds; the moment set

To rescue and raise up, draws near- but is not yet

XXXV But thou, my country, thou shalt never fall,

Save with thy children- thy maternal care,

Thy lavish love, thy blessings showered on all-

These are thy fetters--seas and stormy air

Are the wide barrier of thy borders, where,

Among thy gallant sons who guard thee well,

Thou laugh’st at enemies: who shall then declare

The date of thy deep-founded strength, or tell

How happy, in thy lap, the sons of men shall dwell?

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Chicago: William Cullen Bryant, The Ages Original Sources, accessed August 4, 2020, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=INLCFYNY9DKBBXU.

MLA: Bryant, William Cullen. The Ages, Original Sources. 4 Aug. 2020. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=INLCFYNY9DKBBXU.

Harvard: Bryant, WC, The Ages. Original Sources, retrieved 4 August 2020, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=INLCFYNY9DKBBXU.