Monday 30 January 2012

The Cuban Poet - Jose Maria Heredia - Ode to Niagara

There is a plaque of a Cuban poet on the railing of Niagara Falls.  Why had I never noticed him before?

Sheathed in a ghostly mask, created by the Breath of the Falls, Jose’s Maria Heredia’s frozen face in disguise like The Phantom of the Opera and so I spotted him. 
The icy inscription, along with his poem was impossible to read, except for his name and so I was able to Google later. 

In December, the Fall’s mist molded and paralyzed the landscape into a dream of an alien planet, a weird and eerie winter wonderland.  Blades of grass were now mounds of iced marbles and trees were transformed into artistic sculptures.


We walked through crystallized gardens with statues of petrified past politicians (a suitable place for some MPs) and icicles hanging like Jack Frost’s daggers from touristy buildings.

Later, I learned that Jose wrote the poem, Niagara when he was only 20 years old, while seated on a rock near the edge of the falls; there was no railing back then.  A political exile from his homeland, homesick, disillusioned and anguished by a lost love, he dreams of Cuban warm seas and Palm trees swaying in sunshine.  His visit to Niagara Falls must have struck a romantic rush of regret and wonderment of nature, for his poem is both agonizing and beautiful.  He compares his experience of the fury of the sea to emotions felt upon viewing the grandeur of waves disappearing in thunder and foam, and at so young an age, he speaks of lying philosophers, blaspheming men and his withered youth.  So sad, we can only imagine the sort of terrible traumas that lead him into such despair.….but the bit that moved me the most and made me wish I was with him when he was twenty (and me, 20 too of course!) was the part where he wishes that a beloved would share his lonely walk, fearful of falling over as she clutches his side.  And in her fright, he imagines her all the more beautiful.  This to me suggests a melancholic madness and he definitely needed lots and lots of hugs.    
His trip to Niagara Falls took place in the summer of 1824 and I read that his poem may have disappeared into oblivion had it not been for the editor of a well-know literary journal who claimed the poem to be the best written to date about the Falls and he included an English translation. Jose did indeed write other poems, but as yet I cannot find any that have been translated into English, but I’ll keep searching. 
Not everyone loves poetry and if that’s the case, I recommend you read the last two verses only.  It is also sad to note that Jose only lived to be thirty three years old.
Below is the poem that touched my heart strings and many others, long ago.

Ode to Niagara
My Iyre! give me my Iyre! My bosom feels
The glow of inspiration. O how long
Have I been left in darkness since this light
Last visited my brow, Niagara!
Thou with thy rushing waters dost restore
The heavenly gift that sorrow took away.
Tremendous torrent! for an instant hush
The terrors of thy voice and cast aside
Those wide involving shadows, that my eyes
May see the fearful beauty of thy face!
I am not all unworthy of thy sight,
For from my very boyhood have I loved,
Shunning the meaner track of common minds,
To look on nature in her loftier moods.

At the fierce rushing of the hurricane,
At the near bursting of the thunderbolt,
I have been touched with joy; and when the sea
Lashed by the wind, hath rocked my bark and showed
Its yawning caves beneath me, I have loved
Its dangers and the wrath of elements.
But never yet the madness of the sea
Hath moved me as thy grandeur moves me now.

Thou flowest on in quiet, till thy waves
Grow broken 'midst the rocks; thy current then
Shoots onward like the irresistable course
Of destiny. Ah, terribly they rage –
The hoarse and rapid whirIpools there!
My brain grows wild, my senses wander, as I gaze
Upon the hurrying waters, and my sight
Vainly would follow, as toward the verge
Sweeps the wide torrent – waves innumerable
Meet there and madden – waves innumerable
Urge on and overtake the waves before,
And disappear in thunder and foam.

They reach–they leap the barrier–the abyss.
Swallows insatiable the sinking waves.      
A thousand rainbows arch them, and woods      
Are deafened with the roar. The violent shock      
Shatters to vapor the descending sheets
A cloudy whirlwind fills the gulf, and heaves      
The mighty pyramid of circling mist      
To heaven. The solitary hunter near      
Pauses with terror in the forest shades.      
What seeks thy restless eye? Why are not here,
About the jaws of this abyss the palms      
Ah, the delicious palms-that on the plains      
of my own native Cuba spring and spread      
Their thickly foliaged summits to the sun,      
And, in the breathings of the ocean air,
Wave soft beneath the heaven's unspotted blue?      

But no, Niagara,–thy forest pines
Are fitter coronal for thee. The palm,      
The effeminate myrtle and frail rose may grow      
In gardens, arid give out their fragrance there,      
Unmanning him who breathes it. Thine it is
To do a nobler office. Generous minds      
Behold thee, and are moved, and learn to rise      
Above earth's frivolous pleasures; they partake      
Thy grandeur, at the utterance of thy name.      
God of all truth! in other lands I've seen
Lying philosophers, blaspheming Men,      
Questioners of thy mysteries, that draw      
Their fellows deep into impiety;      
And therefore doth my spirit seek thy face      
In earth's majestic solitudes. Even here
My heart doth open all itself to thee.      
In this immensity of loneliness      
I feel thy hand upon me. To my ear      
The eternal thunder of the cataract brings      
They voice, and I am humbled as I hear.

Dread torrent! that with wonder and with fear.
Dost overwhelm the soul of him that looks      
Upon thee, and dost bear it from itself,      
Whence hast though thy beginning? Who supplies,      
Age after age, thy unexhausted springs?
What power hath ordered, that, when all thy weight      
Descends into the deep, the swollen waves      
Rise not, and roll to overwhelm the earth?      
The Lord hath opened his omnipotent hand,      
Covered thy face with clouds, and given his voice
To thy down-rushing waters; he hath girt      
Thy terrible forehead with his radiant bow.      
I see thy never-resting waters run      
And I bethink me how the tide of time      
Sweeps to eternity. So pass of man–
, like a noon-day dream–the blossoming days,      
And he awakes to sorrow. I, alas!      
Feel that my youth is withered, and my brow      
Plowed early with the lines of grief and care.      

Never have I so deeply felt as now 
The hopeless solitude, the abandonment,      
The anguish of a loveless life. Alas!      
How can the impassioned, the unfrozen heart      
Be happy without love? I would that one 
Beautiful,–worthy to be loved and joined      
In love with me,–now shared my lonely walk      
On this tremendous brink. 'Twere sweet to see      
Her sweet face touched with paleness, and become      
More beautiful from fear, and overspread
With a faint smile, while clinging to my side!      
Dreams–dreams! I am an exile, and for me      
There is no country and there is no love.      

Hear, dread Niagara, my latest voice!
Yet a few years, and the cold earth shall close      
Over the bones of him who sings thee now      
Thus feelingly. Would that this, my humble verse,      
Might be like thee, immortal! I, meanwhile, 
Cheerfully passing to the appointed rest,      
Might raise my radiant forehead in the clouds      
To listen to the echoes of my fame.      


  1. Looking for Heredia after reading Reinaldo Arenas' 'Hallucinations' where the final section has Fray Servando and Heredia together in Mexico. Lovely web site--thank you.

  2. I am a direct descendant of Jose Maria Heredia. Like my ancestor exiled after a revolution, I have also been exiled after the Castro revolution dislodged my family. Like my ancestor I have taken to writing, though instead of poems, my writing has been in music, as well as screenplays and a novel I am writing.

  3. A few years ago I wrote a prose-poem piece about my vist to Niagara. It has some similarities to this poem, but I never knew about this poem until now. Here's a link to my piece (it's called "Falling with the Falls" and it's the second story in the article):

  4. Hello Ms. Fitz,
    I want to thank you for your kind comments about my cousin. I'll send a link to this posting to my 5th cousin. J.M. Heredia y Heredia was her g-g-g-grandfather.
    You might find interesting our other cousin's poetry, Jose Maria Heredia y Girar, the French poet or his daughter, Maria de Heredia Regnier (see "Curiosa", a French production about her,

    Feliz Navidad.