Mammoth Cave

George Dennison Prentice

All day, as day is reckoned on the earth,
I've wandered in these dim and awful aisle
Shut from the blue and breezy dome of heaven.
While thoughts, wild, drear, and shadowy, have swept
Across my awe-struck soul, like spectres o'er
The wizard's magic glass, or thunder-clouds
O'er the blue waters of the deep. And now
I'll sit me down upon yon broken rock
To muse upon the strange and solemn things
Of this mysterious realm.
            All day my steps
Have been amid the beautiful, the wild,
The gloomy, the terrific. Crystal founts,
Almost invisible in their serene
And pure transparency; high, pillared domes,
With stars and flowers all fretted like the halls
Of Oriental monarchs; rivers dark
And drear and voiceless as Oblivion's stream,
That flows through Death's dim vale of silence; gulfs
All fathomless, down which the loosened rock
Plunges until its far-off echoes come
Fainter and fainter like the dying roll
Of thunders in the distance; Stygian pools
Whose agitated waves give back a sound
Hollow and dismal, like the sullen roar
In the volcano's depths; — these, these have left
Their spell upon me, and their memories
Have passed into my spirit, and are now
Blent with my being till they seem a part
Of my own immortality.
            God's hand,
At the creation, hollowed out this vast
Domain of darkness, where no herb nor flower
Ere sprang amid the sands, nor dews, nor rains,
Nor blessed sunbeams fell with freshening power,
Nor gentle breeze its Eden message told
Amid the dreadful gloom. Six thousand years
Swept o'er the earth ere human footprints marked
This subterranean desert. Centuries
Like shadows came and past, and not a sound
Was in this realm, save when at intervals,
In the long lapse of ages, some huge mass
Of overhanging rock fell thundering down,
Its echoes sounding through these corridors
A moment, and then dying in a hush
Of silence, such as brooded o'er the earth
When earth was chaos. The great mastodon,
The dreaded monster of the elder world,
Passed o'er this mighty cavern, and his tread
Bent the old forest oaks like fragile reeds
And made earth tremble; armies in their pride
Perchance have met above it in the shock
Of war, with sliout and groan, and clarion blast,
And the hoarse echoes of the thunder gun;
The storm, the whirlwind, and the hurricane
Have roared above it, and the bursting cloud
Sent down its red and crashing thunderbolt;
Earthquakes have trampled o'er it in their wrath,
Knocking earth's surface as the storm-wind rocks
The old Atlantic; — yet no sound of these
Ere came down to the everlasting depths
or these dark solitudes.
            How oft we gaze
With awe or admiration on the new
And unfamiliar, but pass coldly by
The lovelier and the mightier! Wonderful
Is this lone world of darkness and of gloom,
But far more wonderful yon outer world
Lit by the glorious sun. These arches swell
Sublime in lone and dim magnificence,
But how sublimer God's blue canopy,
Beleaguered with his burning cherubim
Keeping their watch eternal! Beautiful
Are all the thousand snow-white gems that lie
In these mysterious chambers, gleaming out
Amid the melancholy gloom, and wild
These rocky hills and cliffs and gulfs, but far
More beautiful and wild the things that greet
The wanderer in our world of light: the stars
Floating on high like islands of the blest;
The autumn sunsets glowing like the gate
Of far-off Paradise; the gorgeous clouds
On which the glories of the earth and sky
Meet and commingle; earth's unnumbered flowers
All turning up their gentle eyes to heaven;
The birds, with bright wings glancing in the sun,
Filling the air with rainbow miniatures;
The green old forests surging in the gale;
The everlasting mountains, on whose peaks
The setting sun burns like an altar-flame;
And ocean, like a pure heart rendering back
Heaven's perfect image, or in his wild wrath
Heaving and tossing like the stormy breast
Of a chained giant in his agony.

Mammoth Cave is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the longest known cave system on earth.