It can scarcely be necessary to name as the two companions whom I reckoned with myself in this poetical picnic, Fields the lettered magnate, and Taylor the free cosmopolite. The long line of sandy beach which defines almost the whole of the New Hampshire sea-coast is especially marked near its southern extremity, by the salt-meadows of Hampton. The Hampton River winds through these meadows, and the reader may, if he choose, imagine my tent pitched near its mouth, where also was the scene of the Wreck of Rivermouth. The green bluff to the northward is Great Boar’s Head; southward is the Merrimac, with Newburyport lifting its steeples above brown roofs and green trees on banks.
I would not sin, in this half-playful strain,–
Too light perhaps for serious years, though born
Of the enforced leisure of slow pain,–
Against the pure ideal which has drawn
My feet to follow its far-shining gleam.
A simple plot is mine: legends and runes
Of credulous days, old fancies that have lain
Silent, from boyhood taking voice again,
Warmed into life once more, even as the tunes
That, frozen in the fabled hunting-horn,
Thawed into sound:–a winter fireside dream
Of dawns and-sunsets by the summer sea,
Whose sands are traversed by a silent throng
Of voyagers from that vaster mystery
Of which it is an emblem;–and the dear
Memory of one who might have tuned my song
To sweeter music by her delicate ear.
When heats as of a tropic clime
Burned all our inland valleys through,
Three friends, the guests of summer time,
Pitched their white tent where sea-winds blew.
Behind them, marshes, seamed and crossed
With narrow creeks, and flower-embossed,
Stretched to the dark oak wood, whose leafy arms
Screened from the stormy East the pleasant inland farms.
At full of tide their bolder shore
Of sun-bleached sand the waters beat;
At ebb, a smooth and glistening floor
They touched with light, receding feet.
Northward a ‘green bluff broke the chain
Of sand-hills; southward stretched a plain
Of salt grass, with a river winding down,
Sail-whitened, and beyond the steeples of the town,
Whence sometimes, when the wind was light
And dull the thunder of the beach,
They heard the bells of morn and night
Swing, miles away, their silver speech.
Above low scarp and turf-grown wall
They saw the fort-flag rise and fall;
And, the first star to signal twilight’s hour,
The lamp-fire glimmer down from the tall light-house tower.
They rested there, escaped awhile
From cares that wear the life away,
To eat the lotus of the Nile
And drink the poppies of Cathay,–
To fling their loads of custom down,
Like drift-weed, on the sand-slopes brown,
And in the sea waves drown the restless pack
Of duties, claims, and needs that barked upon their track.
One, with his beard scarce silvered, bore
A ready credence in his looks,
A lettered magnate, lording o’er
An ever-widening realm of books.
In him brain-currents, near and far,
Converged as in a Leyden jar;
The old, dead authors thronged him round about,
And Elzevir’s gray ghosts from leathern graves looked out.
He knew each living pundit well,
Could weigh the gifts of him or her,
And well the market value tell
Of poet and philosopher.
But if he lost, the scenes behind,
Somewhat of reverence vague and blind,
Finding the actors human at the best,
No readier lips than his the good he saw confessed.
His boyhood fancies not outgrown,
He loved himself the singer’s art;
Tenderly, gently, by his own
He knew and judged an author’s heart.
No Rhadamanthine brow of doom
Bowed the dazed pedant from his room;
And bards, whose name is legion, if denied,
Bore off alike intact their verses and their pride.