Norembega by John Greenleaf Whittier
Norembega, or Norimbegue, is the name given by early French fishermen and explorers to a fabulous country south of Cape Breton, first discovered by Verrazzani in 1524. It was supposed to have a magnificent city of the same name on a great river, probably the Penobscot. The site of this barbaric city is laid down on a map published at Antwerp in 1570. In 1604 Champlain sailed in search of the Northern Eldorado, twenty-two leagues up the Penobscot from the Isle Haute. He supposed the river to be that of Norembega, but wisely came to the conclusion that those travellers who told of the great city had never seen it. He saw no evidences of anything like civilization, but mentions the finding of a cross, very old and mossy, in the woods.
THE winding way the serpent takes
The mystic water took,
From where, to count its beaded lakes,
The forest sped its brook.
A narrow space ‘twixt shore and shore,
For sun or stars to fall,
While evermore, behind, before,
Closed in the forest wall.
The dim wood hiding underneath
Wan flowers without a name;
Life tangled with decay and death,
League after league the same.
Unbroken over swamp and hill
The rounding shadow lay,
Save where the river cut at will
A pathway to the day.
Beside that track of air and light,
Weak as a child unweaned,
At shut of day a Christian knight
Upon his henchman leaned.
The embers of the sunset’s fires
Along the clouds burned down;
“I see,” he said, “the domes and spires
Of Norembega town.”
“Alack! the domes, O master mine,
Are golden clouds on high;
Yon spire is but the branchless pine
That cuts the evening sky.”
“Oh, hush and hark! What sounds are these
But chants and holy hymns?”
“Thou hear’st the breeze that stirs the trees
Though all their leafy limbs.”
“Is it a chapel bell that fills
The air with its low tone?”
“Thou hear’st the tinkle of the rills,
The insect’s vesper drone.”
“The Christ be praised!–He sets for me
A blessed cross in sight!”
“Now, nay, ‘t is but yon blasted tree
With two gaunt arms outright!”
“Be it wind so sad or tree so stark,
It mattereth not, my knave;
Methinks to funeral hymns I hark,
The cross is for my grave!
“My life is sped; I shall not see
My home-set sails again;
The sweetest eyes of Normandie
Shall watch for me in vain.
“Yet onward still to ear and eye
The baffling marvel calls;
I fain would look before I die
On Norembega’s walls.
“So, haply, it shall be thy part
At Christian feet to lay
The mystery of the desert’s heart
My dead hand plucked away.
“Leave me an hour of rest; go thou
And look from yonder heights;
Perchance the valley even now
Is starred with city lights.”
The henchman climbed the nearest hill,
He saw nor tower nor town,
But, through the drear woods, lone and still,
The river rolling down.
He heard the stealthy feet of things
Whose shapes he could not see,
A flutter as of evil wings,
The fall of a dead tree.
The pines stood black against the moon,
A sword of fire beyond;
He heard the wolf howl, and the loon
Laugh from his reedy pond.
He turned him back: “O master dear,
We are but men misled;
And thou hast sought a city here
To find a grave instead.”
“As God shall will! what matters where
A true man’s cross may stand,
So Heaven be o’er it here as there
In pleasant Norman land?
“These woods, perchance, no secret hide
Of lordly tower and hall;
Yon river in its wanderings wide
Has washed no city wall;
“Yet mirrored in the sullen stream
The holy stars are given
Is Norembega, then, a dream
Whose waking is in Heaven?
“No builded wonder of these lands
My weary eyes shall see;
A city never made with hands
Alone awaiteth me–
“‘Urbs Syon mystica;’ I see
Its mansions passing fair,
‘Condita caelo;’ let me be,
Dear Lord, a dweller there!”
Above the dying exile hung
The vision of the bard,
As faltered on his failing tongue
The song of good Bernard.
The henchman dug at dawn a grave
Beneath the hemlocks brown,
And to the desert’s keeping gave
The lord of fief and town.
Years after, when the Sieur Champlain
Sailed up the unknown stream,
And Norembega proved again
A shadow and a dream,
He found the Norman’s nameless grave
Within the hemlock’s shade,
And, stretching wide its arms to save,
The sign that God had made,
The cross-boughed tree that marked the spot
And made it holy ground
He needs the earthly city not
Who hath the heavenly found.