THE BURNING CITY

 


 

I

Go to — describe the indescribable,

And draw what never can be represented —

Some subjects mock the painter’s, poet’s skill,

Feeble if written — feebler still if painted:

Portray the course of wild Euroclydon, 5
Or any tempest-wind you think upon;
Describe the lightning’s glare, the thunder’s roar,
And that which never was described before:

 

II

Then take thy plastic pencil, or thy quill,

And aid me, man of genius genuine,

10
In something which I fear transcends my skill,

And yields at least sufficient work for thine:

A THOMSON’S almost all-descriptive powr’s
Might powerless fall before this theme of ours; —
No more of this — I have “a tale t’ unfold,” 15
Therefore proceed to tell what can be told.
 

III

’Twas night — ’twas nine — ’twas freezing — and the moon  

Serenely sailing through a starry sky,

Unclouded in her majesty — the noon

Of a keen brumal night was drawing nigh —

20

The air-gauge down at zero, or below,
And the doom’d City was a field of snow;
The citizens on various business bent,
Each on his several purposes intent. (1)

IV

But few, perhaps, were slumb’ring: How the cry   25

Of “Fire!” by various voices breaks upon

The startled ear, at night! — high and more high

That fear-fraught sound is rais’d — men hurrying on

To the devoted spot — th’ alarm-bell tolls

Its summons shrill — the rattling engine rolls —

30

Firemen, equipp’d, in universal motion,
Each crowded street an animated ocean.

 

V

An hour before how different was the scene  

Presented to the nightly passenger

Through the ill-fated streets, no longer seen

35

Save in their smouldering ruins! The brisk stir

Of business closing for the week — the talk
Of fellow travellers on their homeward walk —
The thoughtless laugh of festive jollity —

I do not say of riot-revelry.

40
 

VI

The scene is changed — “and such a change! O night,”  

And flame and terror, “ye are wondrous strong,”

And heart-appalling! see yon lurid light

Emitted from the burning piles among:

A beacon of distress — no longer now 45

The cry of “where’s the fire?” — the glaring glow

Points out the way to the remotest ken

Of each alarm’d alarming citizen.

 

VII

“And then and there was hurrying to and fro,”  

And thick’ning crowds, and signals of distress,

50

And aching hearts which but an hour ago

Were wrapp’d in what the world calls happiness,

That transient something which mankind enjoy —

That airy nothing, ne’er without alloy;

That mockery of life, that fragile flow’r

55

Which buds, blooms, withers, dies, in one short hour.

 

VIII

To check the spreading flames attempts are made  

Mysteriously in vain! The engine throws

Some ineffectual sprinkling — other aid

As fruitless is at hand; — hook, bucket, hose

60
Powerless alike are dropp’d — not long the fight

’Twixt fire and water; early in the night

That contest ceased — the mighty mastery

Was gain’d — supported — kept, to victory.

 

IX

A mandate from on high, what earthly pow’r   65

Can frustrate? Thitherward these flames shall run

And there shall cease their influence to devour

And there shall finish the dread work begun.

All hope to stay their progress ended here —

When sounds discordant burst upon the ear,

70

“Stand clear, come on, haste, stop, come here, go there,

“Help, help, avast, stand here, run! — everywhere.”

 

X

And wild and high those mingled sounds were flying

CONFUSION sat upon his Babel-throne;

Men hoarsely bawling’ — children, females, crying —

75
Some doing something — others (quite undone)
Were gazing with a frantic idiot stare
Upon the dazzling, overpow’ring glare
Of the triumphant element. How wild

Fire! Fire! will make a woman, or a child:

80
 

XI

And certainly ’tis startling — when you know  

A little time may bring the flames to bear

On your own mansion, ten doors off or so,

At greater distance or perhaps more near,

Just as it happens — surely ’tis appalling 85
When torch-like brands upon your roof are falling;
When fire, as thick as snow flakes, falls around one,

’Tis quite enough, I take it, to confound one.

 

XII

Forth from their gloomy vaults roll pipes of wine,

With puncheons, their comates in durance vile

90
Their prison-house no longer can enshrine

These rare deposits — men in rank and file

Are rolling from the fury that’s approaching
What some, perhaps, imagin’d worth the broaching;

Barrels, and all the hoop-bound brotherhood

95

Were mix’d pell mell, the worthless with the good.

 

XIII

Did you not hear — (or rather who did not?)

That crackling crash of falling beams of fire?

Some massive roof precipitately brought

Down from its tottering height — up bursting higher

100

The fresh-fed flames voluminously ride

The passing wind — and rolling far and wide
Break through the brittle barriers that would check
(Reeds before whirlwinds) the resistless wreck.
 

XIV

Now spring the active, and lay hold the strong — 105

(Already many a mansion is no more;)

While fear pervades the half-distracted throng;

A simultaneous rushing from each door,

And showers of sparkles dancing through the sky,
Proclaim the fearful ruin to be nigh: 110
The rising winds, too, with the flames conspire,
And drive, with lightning speed, the flood of fire.
 

XV

Loud clamours and shrill clangors now arise

Of headlong, headstrong, hurrying disorder;

With sound of bugle, mix’d with the down’d cries 115

Of fall in here, — (fruitless attempt at order) —

Th’ ARTILLERY, and the gallant INFANTRY,
Onward in crowds to posts of danger flee;
Each means to save unceasingly essaying,
The flaming fire-brands in their faces playing. (2) 120
 

XVI

Now mark the ne plus ultra of wild freaks

Which thoughtless man in mad confusion plays —

What frangibles industriously he breaks

In a variety of frantic ways:

Mirrors and other brittle things are thrown 125
Down from on high, and — smash’d upon a stone:

The costly cabinet in haste o’erturning,

With care he spoils, to save it from the burning.

 

XVII

What rich profusion now of merchandize  

Hath left the shelves of the deserted store:

130

Exposed, (but not for sale, forsooth,) to eyes

Which ill can brook temptation — but no more

Just now, of that — I’ll give it by and by;

(The farce you know succeeds the tragedy —)

Satan was there — not a mere looker-on, —

135

As much on the alert as any one. (3)

 

XVIII

Bales, boxes, bundles, beautiful displays

Of human skill to deck the beauteous fair;

(Sorts without number in these modish days)

With piles of coarser and more ponderous ware,

140
Obstruct the way — books, bonnets, mantles, muffs,
Bandboxes, butter, hetergeneous stuffs —
With fancy ornaments of gilt and glitter,

Magnificently mingled in a litter.

 

XIX

’Tis midnight — and whole streets now smouldering lie,   145

In their own ashes, levell’d to the dust — (4)

Sad spectacles of the uncertainty

Of man’s terrene possessions — though to trust

In stone and wood and perishable things

(Baubles of earth which take to them swift wings

150

And soon are seen no more,) suits blind mortality

Perhaps by some invincible fatality.

 

XX

The fire is at its height — the firmament  

Is glowing, glaring, with a lurid light;

The well-cemented, massive walls are rent

155

Asunder instantaneously, despite

Of their iron bonds and inlaid fastenings,

Braces and bolts and other feeble things;

The subtile fire divides the very earth,

As if it long’d to see some young volcano’s birth. (5)

160
 

XXI

Defend, defend the fortunes of the press! —  

Types, tympans, cases, chases, and so on —

(The Printer’s indispensables — unless

Supplied with these, his occupation’s gone) —

Are now in jeopardy; — the flames are nearing, 165
And busy hands those implements are clearing

From out their seat of danger, with success

Defend, defend the fortunes of the press.
 

XXII

One office is in flames — anon one more

Shares in the spreading ruin — but success

170
Crowns the attempt to rescue (as before)

The ponderous press and its appendages;

Another, and another now prepare

The fate just hinted at above to share;

The flames are check’d in their wild wantonness, —

175

And Heaven defends the fortunes of the Press! (6)

 

XXIII

    Now to another point direct the eye, —  

Where greedy fires are flying to devour;

By turns a pitchy cloud is roll’d on high,

By turns hot embers from the ruins pour:

180

The flame, so fierce at first, fresh fury gains

And Vulcan rides at large with loosen’d reins;

Huge piles, at his approach, aside are thrown,

And shiver’d by the force come tumbling down.

 

XXIV

Behold yon wharf — and wonder as you gaze;   185

Moscow in miniature! it mocks the skill

Of pencil or of pen; fat vapours raise

A nauseous odour — storms of sparkles fill

The heated sky: — a sudden blaze, by fits,
Forth issues as the plague the timbers eats; 190
Nor engine-stream, nor strength of mortal hand

Could e’er such mighty mastery withstand.

 

XXV

The ponderous anchor then and there is bent,

Half eaten by the fire’s intensity —

The sated foe, his fury well nigh spent, 195

Enjoys the ruinous catastrophe:

And prodigies of fiery feats performs,
While falling fabrics his high hand deforms;
With breath of lightning, and a voice of thunder,
He seems to cleave the very earth asunder. 200
 

XXVI

Here, too, a stream of liquid glass is flowing —  

Vessels of iron are melted down like lead;

And massive metal of all forms is glowing;

So fierce the fury of its fiery bed: —

Down to the earth, and upward to the sky 205
The flaming, flickering, lambent volumes fly;
To all combustibles their wrath extending,
They still prevail, ascending and descending.
 

XXVII

As melts the snow beneath a fervent sun, 

As flits the gossamer before the gale, —

210
As flies the nimble hare when coursers run, —

Before the wind as well-trimm’d vessels sail, —

So speeds the flame; and so the lengthen’d tier
Of lofty buildings sinks — so disappear
Before each wonder-struck spectator’s eyes 215
Those rich receptacles of merchandize.
 

XXVIII

See too, the flames have reach’d those masts hard by;

And spirally around their summits play,

Down creeping to their bases rapidly;

“Stand by” — (the passing order) — “cut away” —

220
The flame-clad spars down tumbling o’er the side,
Lay quench’d and floating in the ambient tide;

Or mast and hull had haply gone together,

The one a prime conductor to the other. (7)
 

XXIX

The sun is up — the enemy hath seiz’d 225

His final victim — see that edifice,

(Like some tall monarch of the forest, razed

By sudden tempest blast) — how soon it lies

A heap of blazing beams! the flaming storm
Of the whole range hath scathed the noble form; 230
Those towering fabrics which we gazed upon
Last eve, have vanish’d — are forever gone.
 

XXX

’Tis now the Sabbath morn — this morning’s sun  

Looks down upon a sad, a sickening scene;

So fair a portion of our City gone!

235

Undreamt of at his going down, I ween;

In ashes our commercial vineyard lies,

Nor can it quickly from its ruins rise;

Nor soon those giant fabrics tow’r again

Along that smoking desolated plain.

240
 

XXXI

The besom hath pass’d o’er it — the red pest  

Hath executed its dread purposes;

Obedient to th’ Omnipotent behest —

But the same hand which brings to nothingness,

Uplifts the prostrate — moves his counsels on, 245
In a mysterious way, to man unknown;
Performs His will — too oft misunderstood,

From seeming ill educing real good.

 

XXXII

As the fictitious Phoenix from the fire

Endow’d with youthful strength is feign’d to rise;

250
So shall our City’s walls again aspire

In fairer form before our gladden’d eyes —

Soon shall the work, the grateful work, begin,
With sound of hammer and the busy din
Of active artizan, who cheerly cries, 255

“Thrice happy ye, whose walls already rise” — (8)

 

XXXIII

But can we pass this portion of our page,

Nor upward raise a thought? Behold the care

Of Heaven for wayward mortals! though the rage

Of elements in uncontroll’d career

260
Those fabrics razed, no mortal tenement
Was crush’d beneath them; — though the scourge was sent,
No victim perish’d on the blazing pile,
It raged — but Mercy hover’d o’er the while.
 

XXXIV

But whence its origin? what caused the Fire? 265

Are now the passing interrogatories —

Men seek to know, but fruitlessly inquire —

And I shall not just now record their stories;

An over-heated stove-pipe might have lighted
The well-fed flames — perhaps a cask ignited 270
By careless hand, of rum inflammable,
First fired the Town, — but that I cannot tell.
 

XXXV

In stanza seventeen I think I hinted

That thieves their work were plying — a dark tale —

Too loathsome to be spoken, much less printed — 275

To what extent man’s vices will prevail!

Th’ archfiend that night commission’d his elect
To help th’ endanger’d, and their goods protect;
A monstrous herd, half mortal and half devil,
Whose virtue’s vice, whose greatest good is evil. 280
 

XXXVI

How well they execute their master’s will!

Most faithful of all servants — with what zeal

They empty houses and their pockets fill,

And vehicles — so sweet the task to steal:

The sled, the sleigh, the boat, too, and the dray, 285
Fly o’er the snow, or cut their watery way;
Freighted with spoils from ramsack’d houses brought;
But Satan foils himself — the thieves were caught, — (9)
 

XXXVII

Or some of them — may Conscience catch the rest,

And pierce them with its most envenom’d stings!

290

They pilfer’d from the ruin’d, the distrest —

Kings were made beggars, beggars were made kings —

(T’ indulge a little in hyperbole

Allowable, you know, in Poetry) —

But still ’tis said that pilfering was the order

295

Of that dread night of burning and disorder.

 

XXXVIII

Severe the loss of many, though the fire  

Scathed not their dwellings — the destructive hand

Of blind impetuous hurry — the desire

To save from burning, and the plundering band

300

All coalesced to lessen the sum total

Of their — et cetera — ’tis hard to quote all —

But moveables quite numerous they say

Thus took unto them wings and flew away. (10)

 

XXXIX

No more — a theme less loathsome claims attention;   305

A subject which involves the common good —

I mean some method to prevent th’ extension

Of kindling burnings — (hard to be subdued

When raging at their height) — a means at hand

A wisely organized and well-train’d band 310
Of Firemen, might hereafter stay the rage
Of — that which is the subject of my page.
 

XL

The labours of the good were passing praise,

Through that eventful, memorable night; —

Merit, which no encomium can raise, 315

Nor poet paint, nor eulogy require:

Still there’s a secret pleasure in recording
Acts of humanity above rewarding;
While acts like those encourage the distrest,
“Man’s inhumanity” — you know the rest, 320
 

XLI

If not, read Burns — but first read what’s before you —

Be patient, you are verging to the end;

If you should feel no int’rest, I deplore you,

My most deplorable unfeeling friend;

You don’t like poetry” — now such a one

325

Is fit for “spoils and treasons,” and so on;

But you like truth — nor much dislike to know

That you’ve escaped what others have pass’d through.

 

XLII

You’ll find some prose at th’ end — some memoranda  

Explanatory of these burning Dramas —

330
Quite handy if you should not understand a

Flight of the wand’ring Muse: ’twill be the same as

An index, an explicit glossary
Of things obscure as ’twere — a sort of Key
You’ve found some indispensable obscurity 335
No doubt, — or else no poetry in purity.
 

XLIII

    But hark! — the larum-bell again proclaims  

The hour of danger — ere I close my lays

Another lofty fabric, wrapp’d in flames, (11)

Becomes a ruin’d shell: — not twice ten days

340
Have pass’d between the burnings. — Here I end
With fire, what first on mightier fires was penn’d; —

    Go — faulty sheets — seek to be understood, —

By some deem’d nonsense, and by others good.  

 


 

Notes to the Burning City

 

  1. When the alarm was sounded, it was ascertained that a Store on Peters' Wharf, occupied by Messrs. Robertson & Hatton, was in flames: and so rapid was the fire in its progress, that not even the books and papers of the Firm were saved.

  2. Now, although it cannot be supposed that the Military could be actuated by feelings exactly similar to those entertained by the Citizens, who were so particularly, so personally interested;—they nevertheless vied with the latter in the most unremitted exertions, and their services demanded and gained the tribute of grateful acknowledgement.

  3. As is too common in cases of this sort, thefts were numerous: and the villainous miscreant was robbing the unfortunate in all directions—like the vulture on the field of carnage preying upon the afflictions of suffering humanity.

  4. The scene at this time was terrifically awful, and awfully grand!  The City in flames—the atmosphere brilliantly illuminated; and masses of fire darting with meteoric velocity through the air.

  5. After the flames became so extensive, the people were paralyzed in their endeavours to arrest them; and their efforts were thenceforward directed solely to the saving of property.

  6. Two Printing Offices were totally destroyed, but the office materials were fortunately saved.  The contents of other Printing establishments were also removed in consequence of the contiguity of the fire, which providentially however, did not reach them.

  7. The loss in shipping would doubtless have been great, had not the rising tide favoured the removal of several large vessels, which were towed off as soon as the water permitted.

  8. The City's motto: "O Fortunati! quorum jam m