MORNING ON THE WISSAHICCON by Edgar Allen Poe


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1850
MORNING ON THE WISSAHICCON
by Edgar Allen Poe

THE NATURAL scenery of America has often been contrasted, in its
general features as well as in detail, with the landscape of the Old
World- more especially of Europe- and not deeper has been the
enthusiasm, than wide the dissension, of the supporters of each
region. The discussion is one not likely to be soon closed, for,
although much has been said on both sides, a word more yet remains
to be said.
The most conspicuous of the British tourists who have attempted a
comparison, seem to regard our northern and eastern seaboard,
comparatively speaking, as all of America, at least, as all of the
United States, worthy consideration. They say little, because they
have seen less, of the gorgeous interior scenery of some of our
western and southern districts- of the vast valley of Louisiana, for
example,- a realization of the wildest dreams of paradise. For the
most part, these travellers content themselves with a hasty inspection
of the natural lions of the land- the Hudson, Niagara, the
Catskills, Harper’s Ferry, the lakes of New York, the Ohio, the
prairies, and the Mississippi. These, indeed, are objects well
worthy the contemplation even of him who has just clambered by the
castellated Rhine, or roamed

By the blue rushing of the arrowy Rhone;

but these are not all of which we can boast; and, indeed, I will be so
hardy as to assert that there are innumerable quiet, obscure, and
scarcely explored nooks, within the limits of the United States, that,
by the true artist, or cultivated lover of the grand and beautiful
amid the works of God, will be preferred to each and to all of the
chronicled and better accredited scenes to which I have referred.
In fact, the real Edens of the land lie far away from the track of
our own most deliberate tourists- how very far, then, beyond the reach
of the foreigner, who, having made with his publisher at home
arrangements for a certain amount of comment upon America, to be
furnished in a stipulated period, can hope to fulfil his agreement
in no other manner than by steaming it, memorandum- book in hand,
through only the most beaten thoroughfares of the country!
I mentioned, just above, the valley of Louisiana. Of all extensive
areas of natural loveliness, this is perhaps the most lovely. No
fiction has approached it. The most gorgeous imagination might
derive suggestions from its exuberant beauty. And beauty is, indeed,
its sole character. It has little, or rather nothing, of the
sublime. Gentle undulations of soil, interwreathed with fantastic
crystallic streams, banked by flowery slopes, and backed by a forest
vegetation, gigantic, glossy, multicoloured, sparkling with gay
birds and burthened with perfume- these features make up, in the
vale of Louisiana, the most voluptuous natural scenery upon earth.
But, even of this delicious region, the sweeter portions are reached
only by the bypaths. Indeed, in America generally, the traveller who
would behold the finest landscapes, must seek them not by the
railroad, nor by the steamboat, not by the stage-coach, nor in his
private carriage, not yet even on horseback- but on foot. He must
walk, he must leap ravines, he must risk his neck among precipices, or
he must leave unseen the truest, the richest, and most unspeakable
glories of the land.
Now in the greater portion of Europe no such necessity exists. In
England it exists not at all. The merest dandy of a tourist may
there visit every nook worth visiting without detriment to his silk
stockings; so thoroughly known are all points of interest, and so
well-arranged are the means of attaining them. This consideration
has never been allowed its due weight, in comparisons of the natural
scenery of the Old and New Worlds. The entire loveliness of the former
is collated with only the most noted, and with by no means the most
eminent items in the general loveliness of the latter.
River scenery has, unquestionably, within itself, all the main
elements of beauty, and, time out of mind, has been the favourite
theme of the poet. But much of this fame is attributable to the
predominance of travel in fluvial over that in mountainous
districts. In the same way, large rivers, because usually highways,
have, in all countries, absorbed an undue share of admiration. They
are more observed, and, consequently, made more the subject of
discourse, than less important, but often more interesting streams.
A singular exemplification of my remarks upon this head may be found
in the Wissahiccon, a brook, (for more it can scarcely be called,)
which empties itself into the Schuylkill, about six miles westward
of Philadelphia. Now the Wissahiccon is of so remarkable a
loveliness that, were it flowing in England, it would be the theme
of every bard, and the common topic of every tongue, if, indeed, its
banks were not parcelled off in lots, at an exorbitant price, as
building-sites for the villas of the opulent. Yet it is only within
a very few years that any one has more than heard of the
Wissahiccon, while the broader and more navigable water into which
it flows, has been long celebrated as one of the finest specimens of
American river scenery. The Schuylkill, whose beauties have been
much exaggerated, and whose banks, at least in the neighborhood of
Philadelphia, are marshy like those of the Delaware, is not at all
comparable, as an object of picturesque interest, with the more humble
and less notorious rivulet of which we speak.
It was not until Fanny Kemble, in her droll book about the United
States, pointed out to the Philadelphians the rare loveliness of a
stream which lay at their own doors, that this loveliness was more
than suspected by a few adventurous pedestrians of the vicinity.
But, the “Journal” having opened all eyes, the Wissahiccon, to a
certain extent, rolled at once into notoriety. I say “to a certain
extent,” for, in fact, the true beauty of the stream lies far above
the route of the Philadelphian picturesque-hunters, who rarely proceed
farther than a mile or two above the mouth of the rivulet- for the
very excellent reason that here the carriage-road stops. I would
advise the adventurer who would behold its finest points to take the
Ridge Road, running westwardly from the city, and, having reached
the second lane beyond the sixth mile-stone, to follow this lane to
its termination. He will thus strike the Wissahiccon, at one of its
best reaches, and, in a skiff, or by clambering along its banks, he
can go up or down the stream, as best suits his fancy, and in either
direction will meet his reward.
I have already said, or should have said, that the brook is
narrow. Its banks are generally, indeed almost universally,
precipitous, and consist of high hills, clothed with noble shrubbery
near the water, and crowned at a greater elevation, with some of the
most magnificent forest trees of America, among which stands
conspicuous the liriodendron tulipiferum. The immediate shores,
however, are of granite, sharply defined or moss-covered, against
which the pellucid water lolls in its gentle flow, as the blue waves
of the Mediterranean upon the steps of her palaces of marble.
Occasionally in front of the cliffs, extends a small definite
plateau of richly herbaged land, affording the most picturesque
position for a cottage and garden which the richest imagination
could conceive. The windings of the stream are many and abrupt, as
is usually the case where banks are precipitous, and thus the
impression conveyed to the voyager’s eye, as he proceeds, is that of
an endless succession of infinitely varied small lakes, or, more
properly speaking, tarns. The Wissahiccon, however, should be visited,
not like “fair Melrose,” by moonlight, or even in cloudy weather,
but amid the brightest glare of a noonday sun; for the narrowness of
the gorge through which it flows, the height of the hills on either
hand, and the density of the foliage, conspire to produce a
gloominess, if not an absolute dreariness of effect, which, unless
relieved by a bright general light, detracts from the mere beauty of
the scene.
Not long ago I visited the stream by the route described, and
spent the better part of a sultry day in floating in a skiff upon
its bosom. The heat gradually overcame me, and, resigning myself to
the influence of the scenes and of the weather, and of the gentle
moving current, I sank into a half slumber, during which my
imagination revelled in visions of the Wissahiccon of ancient days- of
the “good old days” when the Demon of the Engine was not, when picnics
were undreamed of, when “water privileges” were neither bought nor
sold, and when the red man trod alone, with the elk, upon the ridges
that now towered above. And, while gradually these conceits took
possession of my mind, the lazy brook had borne me, inch by inch,
around one promontory and within full view of another that bounded the
prospect at the distance of forty or fifty yards. It was a steep rocky
cliff, abutting far into the stream, and presenting much more of the
Salvator character than any portion of the shore hitherto passed. What
I saw upon this cliff, although surely an object of very extraordinary
nature, the place and season considered, at first neither startled nor
amazed me- so thoroughly and appropriately did it chime in with the
half-slumberous fancies that enwrapped me. I saw, or dreamed that I
saw, standing upon the extreme verge of the precipice, with neck
outstretched, with ears erect, and the whole attitude indicative of
profound and melancholy inquisitiveness, one of the oldest and boldest
of those identical elks which had been coupled with the red men of
my vision.
I say that, for a few moments, this apparition neither startled
nor amazed me. During this interval my whole soul was bound up in
intense sympathy alone. I fancied the elk repining, not less than
wondering, at the manifest alterations for the worse, wrought upon the
brook and its vicinage, even within the last few years, by the stern
hand of the utilitarian. But a slight movement of the animal’s head at
once dispelled the dreaminess which invested me, and aroused me to a
full sense of novelty of the adventure. I arose upon one knee within
the skiff, and, while I hesitated whether to stop my career, or let
myself float nearer to the object of my wonder, I heard the words
“hist!” “hist!” ejaculated quickly but cautiously, from the
shrubbery overhead. In an instant afterwards, a negro emerged from the
thicket, putting aside the bushes with care, and treading
stealthily. He bore in one hand a quantity of salt, and, holding it
towards the elk, gently yet steadily approached. The noble animal,
although a little fluttered, made no attempt at escape. The negro
advanced; offered the salt; and spoke a few words of encouragement
or conciliation. Presently, the elk bowed and stamped, and then lay
quietly down and was secured with a halter.
Thus ended my romance of the elk. It was a pet of great age and very
domestic habits, and belonged to an English family occupying a villa
in the vicinity.
THE END

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