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The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 17/Number 99/Castles in the Air

< The Atlantic Monthly‎ | Volume 17‎ | Number 99
 

CASTLES IN THE AIR.

FROM AN UNPUBLISHED POEM.

“BUT there is yet a region of the clouds
Unseen from the low earth. Beyond the veil
Of these dark volumes rolling through the sky,
Its mountain summits glisten in the sun,—
The realm of Castles in the Air. The foot
Of man hath never trod those shining streets;
But there his spirit, leaving the dull load
Of bodily organs, wanders with delight,
And builds its structures of the impalpable mist,
Glorious beyond the dream of architect,
And populous with forms of nobler mould
Than ever walked the earth." So said my guide,
And led me, wondering, to a headland height
That overlooked a fair broad vale shut in
By the great hills of Cloudland. "Now behold
The Castle-builders!" Then I looked; and, lo!
The vale was filled with shadowy forms, that bore
Each a white wand, with which they touched the banks
Of mist beside them, and at once arose,
Obedient to their wish, the walls and domes
Of stately palaces, Gothic or Greek,
Or such as in the land of Mahomet
Uplift the crescent, or, in forms more strange,
Border the ancient Indus, or behold
Their gilded friezes mirrored in the lakes
Of China,—yet of ampler majesty,
And gorgeously adorned. Tall porticos
Sprang from the ground; the eye pursued afar
Their colonnades, that lessened to a point
In the faint distance. Portals that swung back
On musical hinges showed the eye within
Vast halls with golden floors, and bright alcoves,
And walls of pearl, and sapphire vault besprent
With silver stars. Within the spacious rooms
Were banquets spread; and menials, beautiful
As wood-nymphs or as stripling Mercuries,
Ran to and fro, and laid the chalices,
And brought the brimming wine-jars. Enters now
The happy architect, and wanders on
From room to room, and glories in his work.

Not long his glorying: for a chill north wind
Breathes through the structure, and the massive walls
Are folded up; the proud domes roll away
In mist-wreaths; pinnacle and turret lean
Forward, like birds prepared for flight, and stream,
In trains of vapor, through the empty air.
Meantime the astonished builder, dispossessed,
Stands 'mid the drifting rack. A brief despair
Seizes him; but the wand is in his hand,
And soon he turns him to his task again.
"Behold," said the fair being at my side,
"How one has made himself a diadem
Out of the bright skirts of a cloud that lay
Steeped in the golden sunshine, and has bound
The bauble on his forehead! See, again,
How from these vapors he calls up a host
With arms and banners! A great multitude
Gather and bow before him with bare heads.
To the four winds his messengers go forth,
And bring him back earth's homage. From the ground
Another calls a wingèd image, such
As poets give to Fame, who, to her mouth
Putting a silver trumpet, blows abroad
A loud, harmonious summons to the world,
And all the listening nations shout his name.
Another yet, apart from all the rest,
Casting a fearful glance from side to side,
Touches the ground by stealth. Beneath his wand
A glittering pile grows up, ingots and bars
Of massive gold, and coins on which earth's kings
Have stamped their symbols." As these words were said,
The north wind blew again across the vale,
And, lo! the beamy crown flew off in mist;
The host of armèd men became a scud
Torn by the angry blast; the form of Fame
Tossed its long arms in air, and rode the wind,
A jagged cloud; the glittering pile of gold
Grew pale and flowed in a gray reek away.
Then there were sobs and tears from those whose work
The wind had scattered: some had flung themselves
Upon the ground in grief; and some stood fixed
In blank bewilderment; and some looked on
Unmoved, as at a pageant of the stage
Suddenly hidden by the curtain's fall.

"Take thou this wand," my bright companion said.
I took it from her hand, and with it touched
The knolls of snow-white mist, and they grew green
With soft, thick herbage. At another touch,
A brook leaped forth, and dashed and sparkled by;
And shady walks through shrubberies cool and close
Wandered; and where, upon the open grounds,
The peaceful sunshine lay, a vineyard nursed
Its pouting clusters; and from boughs that drooped
Beneath their load an orchard shed its fruit;
And gardens, set with many a pleasant herb
And many a glorious flower, made sweet the air.

I looked, and I exulted; yet I longed
For Nature's grander aspects, and I plied
The slender rod again; and then arose
Woods tall and wide, of odorous pine and fir,
And every noble tree that casts the leaf
In autumn. Paths that wound between their stems
Led through the solemn shade to twilight glens,
To thundering torrents and white waterfalls,
And edge of lonely lakes, and chasms between
The mountain-cliffs. Above the trees were seen
Gray pinnacles and walls of splintered rock.

But near the forest margin, in the vale,
Nestled a dwelling half embowered by trees,
Where, through the open window, shelves were seen
Filled with old volumes, and a glimpse was given
Of canvas, here and there along the walls,
On which the hands of mighty men of art
Had flung their fancies. On the portico
Old friends, with smiling faces and frank eyes,
Talked with each other: some had passed from life
Long since, yet dearly were remembered still.
My heart yearned toward them, and the quick, warm tears
Stood in my eyes. Forward I sprang to grasp
The hands that once so kindly met my own,—
I sprang, but met them not: the withering wind
Was there before me. Dwelling, field, and brook,
Dark wood, and flowery garden, and blue lake,
And beetling cliff, and noble human forms,
All, all had melted into that pale sea
Of billowy vapor rolling round my feet.

 

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.