Poems and Essays

by Joseph Howe




         Record of War, behold yon little Isle,*
Whose brow is crown’d by many a mouldering pile,
Where groups of buildings sinking to decay
Throw their dark shadows o’er the narrow bay,
Which, with a mirror’s smoothness, brightly shines,
While the last ray of summer’s sun reclines
Upon its placid breast—where the blue sky,
And blended rocks, and groves, reflected lie.
As round the winding path we onward stroll
Beyond the Isle the Arm’s clear waters roll,
Along whose eastern margin spots of green
And rural cottages fill up the scene.
No sound disturbs the cove where echo sleeps,
Unless some fish through the calm surface leaps;
Perchance a gull, while high in air he soars, [Page 49]
His wild and startling note of discord pours;
Or the scared partridge, as she upward springs,
Breaks the deep silence with her noisy wings.

         The Guard House there, with fissures well supplied
To point the ready gun on every side—
Where walked the wakeful sentry day and night,
Lest some might strive to make a desperate flight—
Where once the cup, the laugh, the jest, went round,
Is still and drear, unconscious of a sound—
And the small spots which used to glow with flowers,
The soldier’s pastime, in his leisure hours,
Redeem’d from rocks, with cultivation smiled,
And look’d the lovelier bosom’d in the wild,
With stubble, briars and brambles overgrown,
Nature may now reclaim them as her own.

         We cross the bridge, where erst the cannon stood,
To guard the narrow passage o’er the flood.
Here Time, as with light wing he onward flew,
Has left his footprint upon all we view.
How changed—how different everything appears—
How all unlike the scenes of other years.
Each door which once was watch’d with jealous care,
Unhing’d, admits the balmy evening air.
The large red building which appeared alive
Some twelve years since, a perfect human hive,
Crowded and busy, where the eye might see
All save the calm contentment of the bee,
Now with its dreariness the heart appals,
So still and lifeless are the silent walls; [Page 50]
Each narrow window, and each iron bar,
Speak to the soul of all the ills of war.

         The bugle note may elevate the soul,
The heart beat high while round the thunders roll,
The shout of triumph and the hard won field,
A glorious rapture to the warrior yield.
The is war’s brightest side—and still will charm
The youthful heart, while youthful hearts are warm.
But, the last groan of him who fights and falls,
And on his God to feed his orphans calls—
The widow’s anguish and the mother’s sigh,
The shrieking maniac’s wild and bitter cry,
And the lone prison, on the mind will urge
The truth, that War, in detail, is a scourge.

         While o’er the spirit Mem’rys spell is cast,
We leave the present, to recall the past.
To the mind’s eye how vividly appear
The busy crowds, which used to mingle here,
Doom’d to one common fate, to be confined,
And teach their manly souls to be resigned.
Although a prison, yet the little Isle,
Was not a common gaol for culprits vile—
No felon’s foot its genial soil impressed,
No frightful dream here broke the murderer’s rest—
Their only crime who round its confines moved,
Was nobly daring in the cause they loved.

         Here the grey vet’ran, marked with many a scar,
Deplored the sad vicissitudes of war; [Page 51]
He loved the cannon’s glorious voice to hear,
The cry of “Board!” was music to his ear;
If on his soul a ray of rapture beam’d,
’Twas when his cutlass o’er his foeman gleamed;
Shipwreck’d he oft had been, but yet the sea
He fear’d not—on its bosom he was free.
Unbending, and impatient of restraint,
How shall the Muse his manly anguish paint?
When no spectator of his grief was near,
Down his brown cheek oft rolled the burning tear,
And his dark eye, which up to Heaven was turned,
Displayed the spirit that within him burned.
But, if some straggler should, by chance, intrude
Upon his restless, joyless, solitude,
He quickly dashed the tear-drop from his eye,
None saw him weep, or ever heard him sigh.
In the calm hours which Nature claimed for sleep,
E’en then, in dreams, his soul was on the deep,
The deck resounding to his measured tread,
His country’s banner floating o’er his head,
His good ship scudding under easy sail,
While all around the laugh, the jest prevail;
Or, if the God of dreams should strew a train
Of darker, bolder shadows o’er his brain,
His brow is knit—his nervous, powerful, hand,
In fancied triumph grasps a well-known brand,
While locked with his, o’ertaken in the chase,
Some frigate lies, in deadly close embrace;
Guns roar, swords flash, the dying and the dead,
Mangled and bleeding, o’er the deck are spread—
While the fierce shout, and faint and feeble wail [Page 52]
Together mingled, float upon the gale;
With nimble foot athwart the yard he runs,
Descends, and drives the foemen from their guns;
’Midst blood and death their flag he downward tears,
And, in its place, his own loved banner rears.
His shouts of victory through the prison ring,
His startled comrades round his hammock bring,
While drops of sweat his manly temples lave,
His broad chest heaving like the troubled wave,
He starts—he wakes—“Oh! God, and can it be,
Am I a captive? am I not at sea?”

         Here the fond Father, from his home exiled,
In fancy fondled o’er his darling child,
Folded the little prattler in his arms,
And saw, as fathers do, unnumbered charms,
And made confinement’s tedious moments less,
Tasting the bliss of sweet forgetfulness.

          Behold yon youth, whose brilliant, speaking, eye,
Is mildly, calmly, fixed on vacancy.
In vain Sol’s loveliest beams around him play,
In vain the linnet pours her sweetest lay,
In vain his cheerful comrades, wandering near,
With mirth and gladness strive his soul to cheer,
He sees them not, nor hears their idle jests,
Fix’d as the rock on which his elbow rests,
And, while his head reclines upon his hand,
The boy is thinking of his own bright land;
In fancy wandering round that happy home
He loved so much, ere honor bade him roam, [Page 53]
Where, while his eye with youthful ardour glowed,
A Father’s hand a Father’s sword bestowed,
And, as he gave it to the stripling, said:
“Behold, my boy, no spot is on the blade,
“Take it, and use it for thy country’s weal,
“This arm, though feeble now, has proved the steel;
“And when in peace you bring it home again,
“See that the blade wears no unworthy stain.”

          And well the youth obeyed the warrior’s words.
Where flashed Britannia’s best and brightest swords,
There his was wav’d—and when Old England’s sons
Drove Gallia’s seamen from their silent guns—
When British Tars, whom Valor could not check,
Forc’d ev’ry foeman from the quarter-deck—
E’en when his chief, to stay the deadly strife
And save an useless waste of human life,
Resigned his ship and sabre to the foes,
The Boy’s red arm was dealing desperate blows,
His bright eye flashing with unearthly fire,
He thought of home, and of his gray-hair’d sire,
And when commanded to give up his brand,
He grasped it closer in his bloody hand,
Glanced o’er it once, nor stayed to look again,
But flung it wildly to the watery main,
And proudly uttered “only to the wave,
“Will I resign the sword a Father gave.”

          A Prisoner now, while stretched at length he lays,
And ponders o’er the themes of other days,
Perhaps the blessing which his mother gave [Page 54]
Ere he embark’d upon the mountain wave,
Is faintly, fondly, breathed into his ear,
And dims his hazel eye with many a tear;
While thought on thought, at Mem’ry’s bidding, springs,
Around his neck an only sister clings.
Those who have felt, alone can truly trace
A parting sister’s lingering, fond, embrace,
While all the joys that guileless childhood knew,
By Mem’rys magic start upon the view;
And the faint, feverish, tremulous “good bye!”
The heaving bosom, and the broken sigh,
The streaming tear—the blanch’d and bloodless cheek,
Plainer than words a Sister’s love bespeak;
While hurried prayers to God’s high throne ascend,
And call on Him to guide, protect, defend;
While round each neck their youthful arms are cast,
And each fond look is destined for the last:
’Twas thus they parted, and when far from France,
Toss’d on the wave, that Sister’s parting glance
Was with him still, and on the little Isle,
Would oft, from all around, his thoughts beguile.

          At length the bland and halcyon smile of Peace
Shone forth, and caused the trump of War to cease.
As Spring’s mild ray, while Earth’s glad breast it warms,
Expels stern Winter, with his robe of storms.
What heartfelt rapture did that beauteous smile
Shed o’er reach bosom upon Melville Isle.
“’Tis Peace! ’tis Peace,” around the Island rings,
And blissful visions to each fancy brings.
The thoughts of home, of friends, of children, roll [Page 55]
A tide of heavenly rapture round the soul.
Each trod the earth with firmer, manlier, tread,
No narrow bound before his footsteps spread;
Each gave the little Isle a blithe good bye,
Joy in his heart, and freedom in his eye,
And, when to home and friends restored again,
Forgot Captivity, and all its pain.

          How pure the bliss, how balmy the repose
Which, after all his toils and all his woes,
The weary traveler, doom’d no more to roam,
Tastes in the hallowed precincts of his home.
If of the joys the righteous share in Heaven,
One foretaste sweet to earthly man is given,
’Tis when his Cot—his ark of hopes and fears,
After long absence to his view appears;
’Tis when that form, the dearest and the best,
Springs to his arms and swoons upon his breast;
When Woman’s lip—warm, passionate, and pure,
Is press’d to his—as if its balm could cure
His wounded soul, if wound should there remain,
And charm it back to joy and peace again. [Page 56]

* Melville Island was used as a prison during the war of 1812-15. [back]