Poems and Essays

by Joseph Howe




Dark Isle of Mourning—aptly art thou named,
    For thou hast been the cause of many a tear;
For deeds of treacherous strife too justly famed,
    The Atlantic’s charnel—desolate and drear;
A thing none love—though wand’ring thousands fear—
    If for a moment rests the Muse’s wing
Where through the waves thy sandy wastes appear,
    ’Tis that she may one strain of horror sing,
Wild as the dashing waves that tempests o’er thee fling.

The winds have been thy minstrels—the rent shrouds
    Of hapless barks, twanging at dead of night,
Thy fav’rite harp strings—the shriek of crowds
    Clinging around them feebly in their fright, [Page 40]
The song in which thou long hast had delight,
    Dark child of ocean, at thy feasts of blood;
When mangled forms, shown by Heaven’s lurid light,
    Rose to thy lip upon the swelling flood,
While Death, with horrid front, beside thee gloating stood.

As lurks the hungry tiger for his prey,
    Low crouch’d to earth with well dissembled mien,
Peace in his eye—the savage wish to slay
    Rankling around his heart—so thou art seen
Stretch’d harmlessly on ocean’s breast of green,
    When winds are hush’d, and sleeps the placid wave
Beneath the evening ray—whose glittering sheen
    Gilds the soft swells thy arid folds that lave,
Unconscious that they cling around a yawning grave.

The fascination of the Siren’s song,
    The shadow of the fatal Upas tree;
The Serpent’s eye that lures the bird along
    To certain doom—less deadly are than thee
Even in thy hours of calm serenity,
    When on thy sands the lazy seals repose,
And steeds, unbridled, sporting carelessly,
    Crop the rank grass that on thy bosom grows,
While round the timid hare his glance of caution throws.

But when thy aspect changes—when the storm
    Sweeps o’er the wide Atlantic’s heaving breast;
When, hurrying on in many a giant form,
    The broken waters by the winds are prest— [Page 41]
Roaring like fiends of hell which know no rest,
    And guided by the lightning’s fitful flash;
Who dares look on thee then—in terror drest,
    As on thy length’ning beach the billows dash,
Shaking the heavens themselves with one long deaf’ning crash.*

The winds are but thy blood-hounds, that do force
    The prey into thy toils; th’ insidious stream
That steadily pursues its noiseless course,
    Warmed by the glow of many a tropic beam,
To seas where northern blasts more rudely scream 
    Is thy perpetual Almoner, and brings
All that to man doth rich and lovely seem,
    Earth’s glorious gifts,—its fair and holy things,
And round thy dreary shores its spoils profusely flings.

The stateliest stems the Northern forest yields,
    The richest produce of each Southern shore, [Page 42]
The gathered harvests of a thousand fields,
    Earn’d by man’s sweat—or paid for by his gore.
The splendid robes the cavern’d Monsters wore,
    The gold that sparkled in Potosi’s mine,
The perfumed spice the Eastern islands bore,
    The gems whose rays like morning’s sunbeams shine,
All—all—insatiate Isle—these treasures all are thine.

But what are these, compared with the rich spoils
    Of human hearts, with fond affections stored:
Of manly forms, o’ertaken by thy toils—
    Of glorious spirits, ’mid thy sands outpoured.
Thousands who’ve braved War’s desolating sword,
    Who’ve walk’d through earth’s worst perils undismayed,
Now swell the treasures of thy ample hoard;
    Deep in thy vaults their whitening bones are laid,
While many a burning tear is to their mem’ries paid.

And oft—as though you sought to mock man’s eye—
    Thy shifting sands their treasured spoils disclose:
There may we some long-missing wreck descry,
    Some broken mast, that once so proudly rose
Above the peopled deck; some toy, that shows
    The fate of her upon whose breast it hung,
But who now sleeps in undisturbed repose,
    Where by the waves her beauteous form was flung, 
May peace be with her manes—the lovely and the young.
[Page 43] 

Why does the Father, at the dawn of day,
    Fly from his feverish couch and horrid dreams,
And up the mountain side pursue his way,
    And turn to gaze upon the sea, which seems
Blent with the heavens—until the gorgeous beams
    Of the bright sun each cloud and wave reveal?
Whence comes the tear that o’er that pale cheek streams—
    As, tired with gazing, on the earth he kneels,
And pours in prayer to God the anguish that he feels? 
Why does the matron heave that constant sigh?
    Why does she start at every distant sound?
Her cheerful fire is blazing ’neath her eye,
    Her fair and happy children sporting round,
Appealing to her heart at every bound,
    While on her lap one rose-lipped babe reclines,
And looks into her face with joy profound.
    But yet the mother secretly repines,
And through a tearful eye her spirit dimly shines. 

Why does the maiden shun the giddy throng,
    And find no pleasure in the festive hour?
Strange that the mazy dance, and choral song,
    O’er one so young should hold no spell of power.
Why droops her head, as in her fairy bower
    Her lute is only tuned to sorrow’s strain? 
Is there no magic in the perfumed flower,
    To lure her thoughts from off the bounding main?
Oh! when shall joy return to that pure breast again? [Page 44]

Canst thou not read this riddle, gloomy isle?
    Say—when shall that old man behold his boy? 
When shall a son’s glad voice—a son’s bright smile
    Wake in that mother’s heart the throb of joy?
When shall glad thoughts that maiden’s hours employ?
    When shall her lover spring to her embrace?
Ask of the winds accustomed to destroy— 
    Ask of the waves which know their resting-place—
And they in thy deep caves their early graves may trace.

Farewell! dark Isle—the Muse must spread her wing,
    To seek for brighter themes in scenes more fair,
Too happy if the strain she strove to sing, 
    Shall warn the sailor of thy deadly snare;
Oh! would the gods but hear her fervent prayer,
    The fate of famed Atlantis should be thine—
No longer crouching in thy dangerous lair,
    But sunk far down beneath the ’whelming brine, 
Known but to History’s page—or in the poet’s line. [Page 45]  

* Those who have not personally witnessed the effects of a storm upon this place, can form no adequate idea of its horrors. The reverberated thunder of the sea, when it strikes this attenuated line of sand, on a front of thirty miles, is truly appalling, and the vibration of the Island under its mighty pressure, seems to indicate that it will separate and be borne away by the ocean. Haliburton. [back]
There is sufficient reason to believe that the Gulf Stream at 42° 30?, running E.N.E. occasions the waters of the St Lawrence, running S.S.W., to glide to the westward. The strength of this current has never been noticed, and three-fourths of the vessels lost have been supposed to be to the eastward of the Island, when in fact, they were in the longitude of it. Ibid. [back]
After a gale of wind human skeletons are sometimes exposed to view, and timber, and pieces of wood, are disinterred which have been buried for years. Haliburton. [back]