The River in the Mammoth Cave

George Dennison Prentice

O dark mysterious stream, I sit by thee
In awe profound, as myriad wanderers
Have sat before. I see thy waters move
From out the ghostly glimmerings of my lamp
Into the dark beyond, as noiselessly
As if thou wert a sombre river drawn
Upon a spectral canvas, or the stream
Of dim Oblivion flowing through the lone
And shadowy vale of death. There is no wave
To whisper on thy shore, or breathe a wail,
Wounding its tender bosom on thy sharp
And jagged rocks. Innumerous mingled tones,
The voices of the day and of the night,
Are ever heard through all our outer world,
For Nature there is never dumb; but here
I turn and turn my listening ear, and catch
No mortal sound, save that of my own heart,
That mid the awful stillness throbs aloud.
Like the far sea-surf's low and measured beat
Upon its rocky shore. But when a cry
Or shout or song is raised, how wildly back
Come the weird echoes from a thousand rocks,
As if unnumbered airy sentinels,
The genii of the spot, caught up the voice,
Repeating it in wonder,—a wild maze
Of spirit-tones, a wilderness of sounds,
Earth-born but all unearthly.
            Thou dost seem,
wizard stream, a river of the dead,—
A river of some blasted, perished world,
Wandering forever in the mystic void.
No breeze e'er strays across thy solemn tide;
No bird e'er breaks thy surface with his wing;
No star or sky or bow is ever glassed
Within thy depths; no flower or blade e'er breathes
Its fragrance from thy bleak banks on the air.
True, here are flowers, or semblances of flowers,
Carved by the magic fingers of the drops
That fall upon thy rocky battlements, —
Fair roses, tulips, pinks, and violets, —
All white as cerements of the coffined dead;
But they are flowers of stone, and never drank
The sunshine or the dew. O sombre stream,
Whence comest thou, and whither goest? Far
Above, upon the surface of old Earth,
A hundred rivers o'er thee pass and sweep,
In music and in sunshine, to the sea;
Thou art not born of them. Whence comest thou,
And whither goest? None of earth can know.
No mortal e'er has gazed upon thy source,—
No mortal seen where thy dark waters blend
With the abyss of Ocean. None may guess
The mysteries of thy course. Perchance thou hast
A hundred mighty cataracts, thundering down
Toward Earth's eternal centre; but their sound
Is not for ear of man. All we can know
Is that thy tide rolls out, a spectre stream,
From yon stupendous, frowning wall of rock,
And, moving on a little way, sinks down
Beneath another mass of rock as dark
And frowning, even as life, —our little life, —
Born of one fathomless eternity,
Steals on a moment and then disappears
In an eternity as fathomless.

Mammoth Cave is the world's longest known system of caves. It is a popular tourist attraction. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.