The Garrison Of Cape Ann by John Greenleaf Whittier

FROM the hills of home forth looking, far beneath
the tent-like span
Of the sky, I see the white gleam of the headland
of Cape Ann.
Well I know its coves and beaches to the ebb-tide
glimmering down,
And the white-walled hamlet children of its ancient
fishing town.

Long has passed the summer morning, and its
memory waxes old,
When along yon breezy headlands with a pleasant
friend I strolled.
Ah! the autumn sun is shining, and the ocean
wind blows cool,
And the golden-rod and aster bloom around thy
grave, Rantoul!

With the memory of that morning by the summer
sea I blend
A wild and wondrous story, by the younger Mather
penned,
In that quaint Magnalia Christi, with all strange
and marvellous things,
Heaped up huge and undigested, like the chaos
Ovid sings.

Dear to me these far, faint glimpses of the dual
life of old,
Inward, grand with awe and reverence; outward,
mean and coarse and cold;
Gleams of mystic beauty playing over dull and
vulgar clay,
Golden-threaded fancies weaving in a web of
hodden gray.

The great eventful Present hides the Past; but
through the din
Of its loud life hints and echoes from the life
behind steal in;
And the lore of homeland fireside, and the legendary
rhyme,
Make the task of duty lighter which the true man
owes his time.

So, with something of the feeling which the Covenanter
knew,
When with pious chisel wandering Scotland’s
moorland graveyards through,
From the graves of old traditions I part the black-
berry-vines,
Wipe the moss from off the headstones, and retouch
the faded lines.

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Where the sea-waves back and forward, hoarse
with rolling pebbles, ran,
The garrison-house stood watching on the gray
rocks of Cape Ann;
On its windy site uplifting gabled roof and palisade,
And rough walls of unhewn timber with the moonlight
overlaid.

On his slow round walked the sentry, south and
eastward looking forth
O’er a rude and broken coast-line, white with
breakers stretching north,–
Wood and rock and gleaming sand-drift, jagged
capes, with bush and tree,
Leaning inland from the smiting of the wild and
gusty sea.

Before the deep-mouthed chimney, dimly lit by
dying brands,
Twenty soldiers sat and waited, with their muskets
in their hands;
On the rough-hewn oaken table the venison haunch
was shared,
And the pewter tankard circled slowly round from
beard to beard.

Long they sat and talked together,–talked of
wizards Satan-sold;
Of all ghostly sights and noises,–signs and wonders
manifold;
Of the spectre-ship of Salem, with the dead men
in her shrouds,
Sailing sheer above the water, in the loom of morning
clouds;

Of the marvellous valley hidden in the depths of
Gloucester woods,
Full of plants that love the summer,–blooms of
warmer latitudes;
Where the Arctic birch is braided by the tropic’s
flowery vines,
And the white magnolia-blossoms star the twilight
of the pines!

But their voices sank yet lower, sank to husky
tones of fear,
As they spake of present tokens of the powers of
evil near;
Of a spectral host, defying stroke of steel and aim
of gun;
Never yet was ball to slay them in the mould of
mortals run.

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Thrice, with plumes and flowing scalp-locks, from
the midnight wood they came,–
Thrice around the block-house marching, met, unharmed,
its volleyed flame;
Then, with mocking laugh and gesture, sunk in
earth or lost in air,
All the ghostly wonder vanished, and the moonlit
sands lay bare.

Midnight came; from out the forest moved a
dusky mass that soon
Grew to warriors, plumed and painted, grimly
marching in the moon.
“Ghosts or witches,” said the captain, “thus I foil
the Evil One!”
And he rammed a silver button, from his doublet,
down his gun.

Once again the spectral horror moved the guarded
wall about;
Once again the levelled muskets through the palisades
flashed out,
With that deadly aim the squirrel on his tree-top
might not shun,
Nor the beach-bird seaward flying with his slant
wing to the sun.

Like the idle rain of summer sped the harmless
shower of lead.
With a laugh of fierce derision, once again the
phantoms fled;
Once again, without a shadow on the sands the
moonlight lay,
And the white smoke curling through it drifted
slowly down the bay!

“God preserve us!” said the captain; “never
mortal foes were there;
They have vanished with their leader, Prince and
Power of the air!
Lay aside your useless weapons; skill and prowess
naught avail;
They who do the Devil’s service wear their master’s
coat of mail!”

So the night grew near to cock-crow, when again
a warning call
Roused the score of weary soldiers watching round
the dusky hall
And they looked to flint and priming, and they
longed for break of day;
But the captain closed his Bible: “Let us cease
from man, and pray!”

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To the men who went before us, all the unseen
powers seemed near,
And their steadfast strength of courage struck its
roots in holy fear.
Every hand forsook the musket, every head was
bowed and bare,
Every stout knee pressed the flag-stones, as the
captain led in prayer.

Ceased thereat the mystic marching of the spectres
round the wall,
But a sound abhorred, unearthly, smote the ears
and hearts of all,–
Howls of rage and shrieks of anguish! Never
after mortal man
Saw the ghostly leaguers marching round the
block-house of Cape Ann.

So to us who walk in summer through the cool and
sea-blown town,
From the childhood of its people comes the solemn
legend down.
Not in vain the ancient fiction, in whose moral
lives the youth
And the fitness and the freshness of an undecaying
truth.

Soon or late to all our dwellings come the spectres
of the mind,
Doubts and fears and dread forebodings, in the
darkness undefined;
Round us throng the grim projections of the heart
and of the brain,
And our pride of strength is weakness, and the
cunning hand is vain.

In the dark we cry like children; and no answer
from on high
Breaks the crystal spheres of silence, and no white
wings downward fly;
But the heavenly help we pray for comes to faith,
and not to sight,
And our prayers themselves drive backward all the
spirits of the night!
1857.

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