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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Mary Ashley Townsend (1836–1901)

From ‘Down the Bayou’

WE drifted down the long lagoon,

My Love, my Summer Love, and I,

Far out of sight of all the town;

The old cathedral sinking down,

With spire and cross, from view, below

The borders of St. John’s Bayou,

As toward the ancient Spanish Fort,

With steady prow and helm a-port,

We drifted down, my Love and I,

Beneath an azure April sky,

My Love and I, my Love and I,

Just at the hour of noon.

We drifted down, and drifted down,

My Love, my Summer Love, and I,

Beyond the Creole part of town,

Its red-tiled roofs, its stucco walls,

Its belfries with their sweet bell-calls;

The Bishop’s Palace, which enshrines

Such memories of the Ursulines;

Past balconies where maidens dreamed

Behind the shelter of cool vines;

Past open doors where parrots screamed;

Past courts where mingled shade and glare

Fell through pomegranate boughs, to where

The turbaned negress, drowsy grown,

Sat nodding in her ample chair;

Beyond the joyance and the stress,

Beyond the greater and the less,

Beyond the tiresome noonday town,

The parish prison’s cupolas,

The bridges with their creaking draws,

And many a convent’s frown,—

We drifted on, my Love and I,

Beneath the semi-tropic sky,

While from the clock-towers in the town

Spake the meridian bells that said—

’Twas morn—’tis noon—

Time flies—and soon

Night follows noon.

Prepare! Beware!

Take care! Take care!

For soon—so soon—

Night follows noon,—

Dark night the noon,—

Noon! noon! noon! noon!…

With scarce the lifting of an oar,

We lightly swept from shore to shore,—

The hither and the thither shore,—

With scarce the lifting of an oar;

While far beyond, in distance wrapped,

The city’s lines lay faintly mapped:

Its antique courts, its levee’s throngs,

Its rattling floats, its boatmen’s songs,

Its lowly and its lofty roofs,

Its tramp of men, its beat of hoofs,

Its scenes of peace, its brief alarms,

Its narrow streets, its old Place d’Armes,

Whose tragic soil of long ago

Now sees the modern roses blow,—

All these in one vast cloud were wound,

Of blurred and fainting sight and sound,

As on we swept, my Love and I,

Beneath the April sky together,

In all the bloomy April weather,—

My Love, my Summer Love, and I,

In all the blue and amber weather.

We passed the marsh where pewits sung,

My Love, my Summer Love, and I;

We passed the reeds and brakes among,

Beneath the smilax vines we swung;

We grasped at lilies whitely drooping

Mid the rank growth of grass and sedge,

Or bending toward the water’s edge,

As for their own reflection stooping.

Then talked we of the legend old

Wherein Narcissus’s fate is told;

And turned from that to grander story

Of heroed past or modern glory,

Till the quaint town of New Orleans,

Its Spanish and its French demesnes,

Like some vague mirage of the mind,

In Memory’s cloudlands lay defined;

And back and backward seemed to creep

Commerce, with all her tangled tongues,

Till Silence smote her lusty lungs,

And Distance lulled Discord to sleep….

Slowly along the old shell road

Some aged negro, ’neath his load

Of gathered moss and latanier,

Went shuffling on his homeward way;

While purple, cool, beneath the blue

Of that hot noontide, bravely smiled,

With bright and iridescent hue,

Whole acres of the blue-flag flower,

The breathy Iris, sweet and wild,

That floral savage unsubdued,

The gipsy April’s gipsy child.

Now from some point of weedy shore

An Indian woman darts before

The light bow of our idle boat,

In which, like figures in a dream,

My Love—my Summer Love—and I

Adown the sluggish bayou float;

While she, in whose still face we see

Traits of a chieftain ancestry,

Paddles her pirogue down the stream

Swiftly, and with the flexile grace

Of some dusk Dian in the chase.

As nears our boat the tangled shore,

Where the wild mango weaves its boughs,

And early willows stoop their hair

To meet the sullen bayou’s kiss;

Where the luxuriant “creeper” throws

Its eager clasp round rough and fair

To climb toward the coming June;

Where the sly serpent’s sudden hiss

Startles sometimes the drowsy noon,—

There the rude hut, banana-thatched,

Stands with its ever open door;

Its yellow gourd hung up beside

The crippled crone who, half asleep,

In garments most grotesquely patched,

Grim watch and ward pretends to keep

Where there is naught to be denied….

Still darkly winding on before,

For half a dozen miles or more,

Past leagues and leagues of lilied marsh,

The murky bayou swerved and slid,

Was lost, and found itself again,

And yet again was quickly hid

Among the grasses of the plain.

As gazed we o’er the sedgy swerves,

The wild and weedy water curves

Toward sheets of shining canvas spread

High o’er the lilies blue and red,

So low the shores on either hand,

The sloops seemed sailing on the land.

Now here, now there, among the sedge,

As drifted on my Love and I,

Were groups of idling negro girls,

Half hid behind the swaying hedge

Of wild rice nodding in the breeze.

Barefooted by the bayou’s edge,

Just where the water swells and swirls,

They watched the passing of our boat.

Some stood like caryatides

With arms upraised to burdened heads;

Some, idly grouped among the weeds,

With arms about their naked knees,

Or full length on the grasses cast,

Grew into pictures as we passed.

Our aimless course they idly noted;

Then out across the lowlands floated

Rude snatches of plantation songs,

In that sweet cadence which belongs

To their full-lipped, full-lungèd race.

We heard the rustle of the grass

They parted wide to see us pass;

Our boat so neared their resting-place,

We heard their murmurs of surprise,

And glanced into their shining eyes;

Then caught the rich, mellifluous strain

That fell and rose, and fell again;

And listened, listened, till the last

Clear note was mingled with the past….

Aloft, on horizontal wing,

We saw the buzzard rock and swing;

That sturdy sailor of the air,

Whose agile pinions have a grace

That prouder plumes might proudly wear,

And claim it for a kinglier race.

From distant oak-groves, sweet and strong,

The voicy mocking-bird gave song,—

That plagiarist whose note is known

As every bird’s, yet all his own.

As shuttles of the Persian looms

Catch all of Nature’s subtlest blooms,

Alike her bounty and her dole,

To weave in one bewildering whole,

So has this subtile singer caught

All sweetest songs, and deftly wrought

Them into one entrancing score

From his rejoicing heart to pour….

The wind was blowing from the south

When we had reached the bayou’s mouth,

My Love—my Summer Love—and I.

It laden came with rare perfumes,—

With spice of bays, and orange blooms,

And mossy odors from the glooms

Of cypress swamps. Now and again,

Upon the fair Lake Pontchartrain,

White sails went nodding to the main;

And round about the painted hulls

Darted the sailing, swooping gulls,

Wailing and shrieking, as they flew

Unrestingly ’twixt blue and blue,

Like ghosts of drownèd mariners

Rising from deep-sea sepulchres,

To warn, with weird and woeful lips,

Who go down to the sea in ships….

And now, whene’er an April sky

Bends o’er me like some vast blue bell;

When piping birds are in the reeds,

And earth is fed on last year’s seeds;

When newly is the live-oak’s tent

With tender green and gray besprent;

When wailing gulls are on the lake,

And woods are fair for April’s sake;

When grassy plains their secrets tell,

And lilies with white wonder look

At other lilies by the brook;

When thrills the wild rice in the wind,

And cries the heron shrill and harsh

Along the lush and lonely marsh;

When in the grove the mocker sings,

And earth seems full of new-made things,

And Nature to all youth is kind,—

Once more, as in a vision, seem

To rise before me lake and stream;

Once more a semi-tropic noon,

A boat upon a long lagoon;

Two figures there, as in a dream,

Come, strangely dear and strangely nigh,

To touch me, and to pass me by;

And as they pass, once more I seem

To see, beneath the April sky,

In all the blue and silver weather,

My Love—my Summer Love—and I

Drift down the long lagoon together!