Storm on Saint Bernard

Thomas Buchanan Read

O HEAVEN, it is a fearful thing
Beneath the tempest’s beating wing
To struggle, like a stricken hare
When swoops the monarch bird of air;
To breast the loud winds’ fitful spasms,
To brave the cloud and shun the chasms,
Tossed like a fretted shallop-sait
Between the ocean and the gale.
Along the valley, loud and fleet,
The rising tempest leapt and roared,
And scaled the Alp, till from his seat
  The throned Eternity of Snow
His frequent avalanches poured
  In thunder to the storm below.
The laden tempest wildly broke
  O’er roaring chasms and rattling cliffs,
And on the pathway piled the drifts;
  And every gust was like a wolf,—
And there was one at every cloak,—
  That, snarling, dragged toward the gulf.
The staggering mule scarce kept his pace,
  With ears thrown back and shoulders bowed;
The surest guide could barely trace
  The difference ’twixt earth and cloud;
And every form, from foot to face,
  Was in a winding-sheet of snow:
The wind, ’t was like the voice of woe
  That howled above their burial-place!
And now, to crown their fears, a roar
Like ocean battling with the shore,
Or like that sound which night and day
Breaks through Niagara’s veil of spray,
From some great height within the cloud,
  To some unmeasured valley driven,
Swept down, and with a voice so loud
  It seemed as it would shatter heaven!
The bravest quailed; it swept so near,
  It made the ruddiest cheek to blanch,
While look replied to look in fear,
  “The avalanche! The avalanche!”
It forced the foremost to recoil,
  Before its sideward billows thrown,—
Who cried, “O God! Here ends our toil!
  The path is overswept and gone!”
The night came down. The ghostly dark,
  Made ghostlier by its sheet of snow,
  Wailed round them its tempestuous woe,
Like Death’s announcing courier! “Hark!
There, heard you not the Alp-hound’s bark?
And there again! and there! Ah, no,
’T is but the blast that mocks us so!”
Then through the thick and blackening mist
Death glared on them, and breathed so near,
  Some felt his breath grow almost warm,
The while he whispered in their ear
  Of sleep that should outdream the storm.
Then lower drooped their lids,—when, “List!
Now, heard you not the storm-bell ring?
  And there again, and twice and thrice!
Ah, no, ’t is but the thundering
  Of tempests on a crag of ice!”
Death smiled on them, and it seemed good
  On such a mellow bed to lie:
  The storm was like a lullaby,
And drowsy pleasure soothed their blood.
But still the sturdy, practised guide
His unremitting labor plied;
Now this one shook until he woke,
And closer wrapt the other’s cloak,—
Still shouting with his utmost breath,
To startle back the hand of Death,
Brave words of cheer! “But, hark again,—
Between the blasts the sound is plain;
The storm, inhaling, lulls,—and hark!
It is—it is! the alp-dog’s bark!
And on the tempest’s passing swell,—
  The voice of cheer so long debarred,—
There swings the Convent’s guiding-bell,
  The sacred bell of Saint Bernard!”
Then how they gained, though chilled and faint,
  The Convent’s hospitable door,
And breathed their blessing on the saint
  Who guards the traveller as of yore,
Were long to tell: and then the night
And unhoused winter of the height
  Were rude for audience such as mine;
The harp, too, wakes to more delight,
The fingers take a freer flight,
  When warmed between the fire and wine.
The storm around the fount of song
Has blown its blast so chill and long,
What marvel if it freeze or fail,
Or that its spray returns in hail!
Or, rather, round my Muse’s wings
The encumbering snow, though melting, clings
So thickly she can scarce do more
Than flounder where she most would soar.
The hand benumbed, reviving, stings,
And with thick touches only brings
  The harp-tones out by fits and spells,—
You needs must note how all the strings
  Together jar like icicles!
Then heap the hearth and spread the board,
And let the glowing flasks be poured,
While I beside the roaring fire
Melt out the music of my lyre.