June 10, 1843.
Since you are to share with me such
foot-notes as may be made on the pages of my life
during this summer’s wanderings, I should not
be quite silent as to this magnificent prologue to
the, as yet, unknown drama. Yet I, like others,
have little to say where the spectacle is, for once,
great enough to fill the whole life, and supersede
thought, giving us only its own presence. “It
is good to be here,” is the best as the simplest
expression that occurs to the mind.
We have been here eight days, and
I am quite willing to go away. So great a sight
soon satisfies, making us content with itself, and
with what is less than itself. Our desires, once
realized, haunt us again less readily. Having
“lived one day” we would depart, and become
worthy to live another.
We have not been fortunate in weather,
for there cannot be too much, or too warm sunlight
for this scene, and the skies have been lowering, with
cold, unkind winds. My nerves, too much braced
up by such an atmosphere, do not well bear the continual
stress of sight and sound. For here there is
no escape from the weight of a perpetual creation;
all other forms and motions come and go, the tide
rises and recedes, the wind, at its mightiest, moves
in gales and gusts, but here is really an incessant,
an indefatigable motion. Awake or asleep, there
is no escape, still this rushing round you and through
you. It is in this way I have most felt the grandeur somewhat
eternal, if not infinite.
At times a secondary music rises;
the cataract seems to seize its own rhythm and sing
it over again, so that the ear and soul are roused
by a double vibration. This is some effect of
the wind, causing echoes to the thundering anthem.
It is very sublime, giving the effect of a spiritual
repetition through all the spheres.
When I first came I felt nothing but
a quiet satisfaction. I found that drawings,
the panorama, &c. had given me a clear notion of the
position and proportions of all objects here; I knew
where to look for everything, and everything looked
as I thought it would.
Long ago, I was looking from a hill-side
with a friend at one of the finest sunsets that ever
enriched this world. A little cow-boy, trudging
along, wondered what we could be gazing at. After
spying about some time, he found it could only be
the sunset, and looking, too, a moment, he said approvingly
“that sun looks well enough;” a speech
worthy of Shakspeare’s Cloten, or the infant
Mercury, up to everything from the cradle, as you
please to take it.
Even such a familiarity, worthy of
Jonathan, our national hero, in a prince’s palace,
or “stumping” as he boasts to have done,
“up the Vatican stairs, into the Pope’s
presence, in my old boots,” I felt here; it
looks really well enough, I felt, and was inclined,
as you suggested, to give my approbation as to the
one object in the world that would not disappoint.
But all great expression, which, on
a superficial survey, seems so easy as well as so
simple, furnishes, after a while, to the faithful observer
its own standard by which to appreciate it. Daily
these proportions widened and towered more and more
upon my sight, and I got, at last, a proper foreground
for these sublime distances. Before coming away,
I think I really saw the full wonder of the scene.
After awhile it so drew me into itself as to inspire
an undefined dread, such as I never knew before, such
as may be felt when death is about to usher us into
a new existence. The perpetual trampling of the
waters seized my senses. I felt that no other
sound, however near, could be heard, and would start
and look behind me for a foe. I realized the identity
of that mood of nature in which these waters were
poured down with such absorbing force, with that in
which the Indian was shaped on the same soil.
For continually upon my mind came, unsought and unwelcome,
images, such as never haunted it before, of naked
savages stealing behind me with uplifted tomahawks;
again and again this illusion recurred, and even after
I had thought it over, and tried to shake it off, I
could not help starting and looking behind me.
As picture, the Falls can only be
seen from the British side. There they are seen
in their veils, and at sufficient distance to appreciate
the magical effects of these, and the light and shade.
From the boat, as you cross, the effects and contrasts
are more melodramatic. On the road back from
the whirlpool, we saw them as a reduced picture with
delight. But what I liked best was to sit on
Table Rock, close to the great fall. There all
power of observing details, all separate consciousness,
was quite lost.
Once, just as I had seated myself
there, a man came to take his first look. He
walked close up to the fall, and, after looking at
it a moment, with an air as if thinking how he could
best appropriate it to his own use, he spat into it.
This trait seemed wholly worthy of
an age whose love of utility is such that the
Prince Puckler Muskau suggests the probability of men
coming to put the bodies of their dead parents in the
fields to fertilize them, and of a country such as
Dickens has described; but these will not, I hope,
be seen on the historic page to be truly the age or
truly the America. A little leaven is leavening
the whole mass for other bread.
The whirlpool I like very much.
It is seen to advantage after the great falls; it
is so sternly solemn. The river cannot look more
imperturbable, almost sullen in its marble green, than
it does just below the great fall; but the slight
circles that mark the hidden vortex, seem to whisper
mysteries the thundering voice above could not proclaim, a
meaning as untold as ever.
It is fearful, too, to know, as you
look, that whatever has been swallowed by the cataract,
is like to rise suddenly to light here, whether uprooted
tree, or body of man or bird.
The rapids enchanted me far beyond
what I expected; they are so swift that they cease
to seem so; you can think only of their beauty.
The fountain beyond the Moss Islands, I discovered
for myself, and thought it for some time an accidental
beauty which it would not do to leave, lest I might
never see it again. After I found it permanent,
I returned many times to watch the play of its crest.
In the little waterfall beyond, nature seems, as she
often does, to have made a study for some larger design.
She delights in this, a sketch within a
sketch, a dream within a dream. Wherever we see
it, the lines of the great buttress in the fragment
of stone, the hues of the waterfall, copied in the
flowers that star its bordering mosses, we are delighted;
for all the linéaments become fluent, and we
mould the scene in congenial thought with its genius.
People complain of the buildings at
Niagara, and fear to see it further deformed.
I cannot sympathize with such an apprehension:
the spectacle is capable to swallow up all such objects;
they are not seen in the great whole, more than an
earthworm in a wide field.
The beautiful wood on Goat Island
is full of flowers; many of the fairest love to do
homage here. The Wake Robin and May Apple are
in bloom now; the former, white, pink, green, purple,
copying the rainbow of the fall, and fit to make a
garland for its presiding deity when he walks the
land, for they are of imperial size, and shaped like
stones for a diadem. Of the May Apple, I did
not raise one green tent without finding a flower
And now farewell, Niagara. I
have seen thee, and I think all who come here must
in some sort see thee; thou art not to be got rid of
as easily as the stars. I will be here again
beneath some flooding July moon and sun. Owing
to the absence of light, I have seen the rainbow only
two or three times by day; the lunar bow not at all.
However, the imperial presence needs not its crown,
though illustrated by it.
General Porter and Jack Downing were
not unsuitable figures here. The former heroically
planted the bridges by which we cross to Goat Island,
and the Wake-Robin-crowned genius has punished his
temerity with deafness, which must, I think, have
come upon him when he sank the first stone in the
rapids. Jack seemed an acute and entertaining
representative of Jonathan, come to look at his great
water-privilege. He told us all about the Americanisms
of the spectacle; that is to say, the battles that
have been fought here. It seems strange that men
could fight in such a place; but no temple can still
the personal griefs and strifes in the breasts of
No less strange is the fact that,
in this neighborhood, an eagle should be chained for
a plaything. When a child, I used often to stand
at a window from which I could see an eagle chained
in the balcony of a museum. The people used to
poke at it with sticks, and my childish heart would
swell with indignation as I saw their insults, and
the mien with which they were borne by the monarch-bird.
Its eye was dull, and its plumage soiled and shabby,
yet, in its form and attitude, all the king was visible,
though sorrowful and dethroned. I never saw another
of the family till, when passing through the Notch
of the White Mountains, at that moment striding before
us in all the panoply of sunset, the driver shouted,
“Look there!” and following with our eyes
his upward-pointing finger, we saw, soaring slow in
majestic poise above the highest summit, the bird
of Jove. It was a glorious sight, yet I know not
that I felt more on seeing the bird in all its natural
freedom and royalty, than when, imprisoned and insulted,
he had filled my early thoughts with the Byronic “silent
rages” of misanthropy.
Now, again, I saw him a captive, and
addressed by the vulgar with the language they seem
to find most appropriate to such occasions that
of thrusts and blows. Silently, his head averted,
he ignored their existence, as Plotinus or Sophocles
might that of a modern reviewer. Probably, he
listened to the voice of the cataract, and felt that
congenial powers flowed free, and was consoled, though
his own wing was broken.
The story of the Recluse of Niagara
interested me a little. It is wonderful that
men do not oftener attach their lives to localities
of great beauty that, when once deeply
penetrated, they will let themselves so easily be
borne away by the general stream of things, to live
any where and any how. But there is something
ludicrous in being the hermit of a show-place, unlike
St. Francis in his mountain-bed, where none but the
stars and rising sun ever saw him.
There is also a “guide to the
falls,” who wears his title labeled on his hat;
otherwise, indeed, one might as soon think of asking
for a gentleman usher to point out the moon.
Yet why should we wonder at such, either, when we
have Commentaries on Shakspeare, and Harmonics of the
And now you have the little all I
have to write. Can it interest you? To one
who has enjoyed the full life of any scene, of any
hour, what thoughts can be recorded about it, seem
like the commas and semicolons in the paragraph, mere
stops. Yet I suppose it is not so to the absent.
At least, I have read things written about Niagara,
music, and the like, that interested me.
Once I was moved by Mr. Greenwood’s remark, that
he could not realize this marvel till, opening his
eyes the next morning after he had seen it, his doubt
as to the possibility of its being still there, taught
him what he had experienced. I remember this now
with pleasure, though, or because, it is exactly the
opposite to what I myself felt. For all greatness
affects different minds, each in “its own particular
kind,” and the variations of testimony mark the
truth of feeling.
I will add a brief narrative of the
experience of another here, as being much better than
anything I could write, because more simple and individual.
“Now that I have left this ‘Earth-wonder,’
and the emotions it excited are past, it seems not
so much like profanation to analyze my feelings, to
recall minutely and accurately the effect of this manifestation
of the Eternal. But one should go to such a scene
prepared to yield entirely to its influences, to forget
one’s little self and one’s little mind.
To see a miserable worm creep to the brink of this
falling world of waters, and watch the trembling of
its own petty bosom, and fancy that this is made alone,
to act upon him excites derision? No, pity.”
As I rode up to the neighborhood of
the falls, a solemn awe imperceptibly stole over me,
and the deep sound of the ever-hurrying rapids prepared
my mind for the lofty emotions to be experienced.
When I reached the hotel, I felt a strange indifference
about seeing the aspiration of my life’s hopes.
I lounged about the rooms, read the stage bills upon
the walls, looked over the register, and, finding the
name of an acquaintance, sent to see if he was still
there. What this hesitation arose from, I know
not; perhaps it was a feeling of my unworthiness to
enter this temple which nature has erected to its God.
At last, slowly and thoughtfully I
walked down to the bridge leading to Goat Island,
and when I stood upon this frail support, and saw a
quarter of a mile of tumbling, rushing rapids, and
heard their everlasting roar, my emotions overpowered
me, a choaking sensation rose to my throat, a thrill
rushed through my veins, “my blood ran rippling
to my finger’s ends.” This was the
climax of the effect which the falls produced upon
me neither the American nor the British
fall moved me as did these rapids. For the magnificence,
the sublimity of the latter I was prepared by descriptions
and by paintings. When I arrived in sight of them
I merely felt, “ah, yes, here is the fall, just
as I have seen it in picture.” When I arrived
at the terrapin bridge, I expected to be overwhelmed,
to retire trembling from this giddy eminence, and gaze
with unlimited wonder and awe upon the immense mass
rolling on and on, but, somehow or other, I thought
only of comparing the effect on my mind with what
I had read and heard. I looked for a short time,
and then with almost a feeling of disappointment,
turned to go to the other points of view to see if
I was not mistaken in not feeling any surpassing emotion
at this sight. But from the foot of Biddle’s
stairs, and the middle of the river, and from below
the table rock, it was still “barren, barren
all.” And, provoked with my stupidity in
feeling most moved in the wrong place, I turned away
to the hotel, determined to set off for Buffalo that
afternoon. But the stage did not go, and, after
nightfall, as there was a splendid moon, I went down
to the bridge, and leaned over the parapet, where
the boiling rapids came down in their might. It
was grand, and it was also gorgeous; the yellow rays
of the moon made the broken waves appear like auburn
tresses twining around the black rocks. But they
did not inspire me as before. I felt a foreboding
of a mightier emotion to rise up and swallow all others,
and I passed on to the terrapin bridge. Everything
was changed, the misty apparition had taken off its
many-colored crown which it had worn by day, and a
bow of silvery white spanned its summit. The
moonlight gave a poetical indefiniteness to the distant
parts of the waters, and while the rapids were glancing
in her beams, the river below the falls was black as
night, save where the reflection of the sky gave it
the appearance of a shield of blued steel. No
gaping tourists loitered, eyeing with their glasses,
or sketching on cards the hoary locks of the ancient
river god. All tended to harmonize with the natural
grandeur of the scene. I gazed long. I saw
how here mutability and unchangeableness were united.
I surveyed the conspiring waters rushing against the
rocky ledge to overthrow it at one mad plunge, till,
like toppling ambition, o’erleaping themselves,
they fall on t’other side, expanding into foam
ere they reach the deep channel where they creep submissively
Then arose in my breast a genuine
admiration, and a humble adoration of the Being who
was the architect of this and of all. Happy were
the first discoverers of Niagara, those who could
come unawares upon this view and upon that, whose
feelings were entirely their own. With what gusto
does Father Hennepin describe “this great downfall
of water,” “this vast and prodigious cadence
of water, which falls down after a surprising and
astonishing manner, insomuch that the universe does
not afford its parallel. ’Tis true Italy
and Swedeland boast of some such things, but we may
well say that they be sorry patterns when compared
with this of which we do now speak.”