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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Glory of Niagara

By Henry James (1843–1916)

[Portraits of Places. 1884.]

THOUGH hereabouts so much is great, distances are small, and a ramble of two or three hours enables you to gaze hither and thither from a dozen standpoints. The one you are likely to choose first is that on the Canada cliff, a little way above the suspension bridge. The great fall faces you, enshrined in its own surging incense. The common feeling just here, I believe, is one of disappointment at its want of height; the whole thing appears to many people somewhat smaller than its fame. My own sense, I confess, was absolutely gratified from the first; and, indeed, I was not struck with anything being tall or short, but with everything being perfect. You are, moreover, at some distance, and you feel that with the lessening interval you will not be cheated of your chance to be dizzied with mere dimensions. Already you see the world-famous green, baffling painters, baffling poets, shining on the lip of the precipice; the more so, of course, for the clouds of silver and snow into which it speedily resolves itself. The whole picture before you is admirably simple. The Horseshoe glares and boils and smokes from the centre to the right, drumming itself into powder and thunder; in the centre the dark pedestal of Goat Island divides the double flood; to the left booms in vaporous dimness the minor battery of the American Fall; while on a level with the eye, above the still crest of either cataract, appear the white faces of the hithermost rapids. The circle of weltering froth at the base of the Horseshoe, emerging from the dead-white vapors—absolute white, as moonless midnight is absolute black—which muffle impenetrably the crash of the river upon the lower bed, melts slowly into the darker shades of green. It seems in itself a drama of thrilling interest, this blanched survival and recovery of the stream. It stretches away like a tired swimmer, struggling from the snowy scum and the silver drift, and passing slowly from an eddying foam-sheet, touched with green lights, to a cold, verd-antique, streaked and marbled with trails and wild arabesques of foam. This is the beginning of that air of recent distress which marks the river as you meet it at the lake. It shifts along, tremendously conscious, relieved, disengaged, knowing the worst is over, with its dignity injured but its volume undiminished, the most stately, the least turbid of torrents. Its movement, its sweep and stride, are as admirable as its color, but as little as its color to be made a matter of words. These things are but part of a spectacle in which nothing is imperfect. As you draw nearer and nearer, on the Canada cliff, to the right arm of the Horseshoe, the mass begins in all conscience to be large enough. You are able at last to stand on the very verge of the shelf from which the leap is taken, bathing your boot-toes, if you like, in the side-ooze of the glassy curve. I may say, in parenthesis, that the importunities one suffers here, amid the central din of the cataract, from hackmen and photographers and vendors of gimcracks, are simply hideous and infamous. The road is lined with little drinking-shops and warehouses, and from these retreats their occupants dart forth upon the hapless traveller with their competitive attractions. You purchase release at last by the fury of your indifference, and stand there gazing your fill at the most beautiful object in the world.

The perfect taste of it is the great characteristic. It is not in the least monstrous; it is thoroughly artistic and, as the phrase is, thought out. In the matter of line it beats Michael Angelo. One may seem at first to say the least, but the careful observer will admit that one says the most, in saying that it pleases—pleases even a spectator who was not ashamed to write the other day that he didn’t care for cataracts. There are, however, so many more things to say about it—its multitudinous features crowd so upon the vision as one looks—that it seems absurd to begin to analyze. The main feature, perhaps, is the incomparable loveliness of the immense line of the shelf and its lateral abutments. It neither falters, nor breaks, nor stiffens, but maintains from wing to wing the lightness of its semicircle. This perfect curve melts into the sheet that seems at once to drop from it and sustain it. The famous green loses nothing, as you may imagine, on a nearer view. A green more vividly cool and pure it is impossible to conceive. It is to the vulgar greens of earth what the blue of a summer sky is to artificial dyes, and is, in fact, as sacred, as remote, as impalpable as that. You can fancy it the parent-green, the head-spring of color to all the verdant water-caves and all the clear, sub-fluvial haunts and bowers of naiads and mermen in all the streams of the earth. The lower half of the watery wall is shrouded in the steam of the boiling gulf—a veil never rent nor lifted. At its heart this eternal cloud seems fixed and still with excess of motion—still and intensely white; but, as it rolls and climbs against its lucent cliff, it tosses little whiffs and fumes and pants of snowy smoke, which betray the convulsions we never behold. In the middle of the curve, the depth of the recess, the converging walls are ground into a dust of foam, which rises in a tall column, and fills the upper air with its hovering drift. Its summit far overtops the crest of the cataract, and, as you look down along the rapids above, you see it hanging over the averted gulf like some far-flowing signal of danger. Of these things some vulgar verbal hint may be attempted; but what words can render the rarest charm of all—the clear-cut brow of the Fall, the very act and figure of the leap, the rounded passage of the horizontal to the perpendicular! To say it is simple is to make a phrase about it. Nothing was ever more successfully executed. It is carved as sharp as an emerald, as one must say and say again. It arrives, it pauses, it plunges; it comes and goes forever; it melts and shifts and changes, all with the sound as of millions of bass voices; and yet its outline never varies, never moves with a different pulse. It is as gentle as the pouring of wine from a flagon—of melody from the lip of a singer. From the little grove beside the American Fall you catch this extraordinary profile better than you are able to do at the Horseshoe. If the line of beauty had vanished from the earth elsewhere, it would survive on the brow of Niagara. It is impossible to insist too strongly on the grace of the thing, as seen from the Canada cliff. The genius who invented it was certainly the first author of the idea that order, proportion, and symmetry are the conditions of perfect beauty. He applied his faith among the watching and listening forests, long before the Greeks proclaimed theirs in the measurements of the Parthenon. Even the roll of the white batteries at the base seems fixed and poised and ordered, and in the vague middle zone of difference between the flood as it falls and the mist as it rises you imagine a mystical meaning—the passage of body to soul, of matter to spirit, of human to divine.