Central California Poetry Journal

Volume 96 Number 1

The Poetry of Central California Page 6103

The Poetry of Bret Harte

Table of Contents

A Brief Biography of Bret Harte

Comments on The Selected Poems

Selected Poems by Bret Harte

Links to Other Central California Poetry Journal Pages

A Brief Biography of Bret Harte

Francis Bret Harte was born in Albany New York on August 25, 1839. In 1854, his mother, a widow, moved him to California. In California Harte worked as a miner, school teacher, express messenger, printer, and journalist. While in San Francisco writing for The Californian he worked with Mark Twain, Charles Warren Stoddard, Prentice Mulford and the editor, Henry Webb. He contributed many poems and prose pieces to the paper. Bret Harte was appointed Secretary of the United States Branch Mint at San Francisco. He held that office until 1870.

Harte became the first editor of the Overland Monthly. "The Luck of Roaring Camp" published in the Overland Monthly brought him instant and wide fame. He was thereafter requested to contribute poems and articles to a number of publications. His stories of the American West were much in demand in the eastern United States. In 1871 he moved to New York. He later moved to Boston. Harte continued to write poetry and prose, and enjoyed wide popularity.

In 1878 Bret Harte was appointed United States Consul at Crefeld, Germany. Harte was transferred to Glasgow, Scotland in 1880. Thereafter he resided in London.

He died in Camberely, England on May 6, 1902.

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Comments On The Selected Poems

Although Bret Harte spent the later part of his life on the East Coast of the United States and in Europe, his writing never lost the exuberance and vitality of early California. The poems selected for publication in the Central California Poetry Journal originally appeared in THE POETICAL WORKS OF BRET HARTE published in 1870. The poems describe a number of locations in Central California. They reflect the poet's appreciation of nature. The Poem "The Old Camp-Fire, " in particular reflects a deep appreciation for the California Redwood forest, and a concern for the destruction of the forests. It conveys a strong environmental message.

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Selected Poems

by Bret Harte


O BELLS that rang, O bells that sang
Above the martyrs' wilderness,
Till from that reddened coast-line sprang
The Gospel seed to cheer and bless,
What are your garnered sheaves to-day ?
O Mission bells ! Eleison bells !
O Mission bells of Monterey !

O bells that crash, O bells that clash
Above the chimney-crowded plain,
On wall and tower your voices dash,
But never with the old refrain;
In mart and temple gone astray !
Ye dangle bells ! Ye jangle bells !
Ye wrangle bells of Monterey !

O bells that die, so far, so nigh,
Come back once more across the sea;
Not with the zealot's furious cry,
Not with the creed's austerity;
Come with His love alone to stay,
O Mission bells ! Eleison bells !
O Mission bells of Monterey !

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Now shift the blanket pad before your saddle back you fling,
And draw your cinch up tighter till the sweat drops from the ring:
We've a dozen miles to cover ere we reach the next divide.
Our limbs are stiffer now than when we first set out to ride,
And worse, the horses know it, and feel the leg-grip tire,
Since in the days when, long ago, we sought the old camp-fire.

Yes, twenty years! Lord! how we 'd scent its incense down the trail,
Through balm of bay and spice of spruce, when eye and ear would fail,
And worn and faint from useless quest we crept, like this, to rest,
Or, Rushed with luck and youthful hope, we rode, like this, abreast.
Ay! straighten up, old friend, and let the mustang think he 's nigher,
Through looser rein and stirrup strain, the welcome old camp-fire.

You know the shout that would ring out before us down the glade,
And start the blue jays like a fight of arrows through the shade,
And sift the thin pine needles down like slanting, shining rain,
And send the squirrels scampering back to their holes again,
Until we saw, blue-veiled and dim, or leaping like desire,
That flame of twenty years ago, which lit the old camp-fire.

And then that rest on Nature's breast, when talk had dropped, and slow
The night wind went from tree to tree with challenge soft and low!
We lay on lazy elbows propped, or stood to stir the flame,
Till up the soaring redwood's shaft our shadows danced and came,
As if to draw us with the sparks, high o'er its unseen spire,
To the five stars that kept their ward above the old camp-fire,--

Those picket stars whose tranquil watch half soothed, half shamed our sleep.
What recked we then what beasts or men around might
lurk or creep ?
We lay and heard with listless ears the far-off panther's cry,
The near coyote's snarling snap, the grizzly's deep-drawn sigh,
The brown bear's blundering human tread, the gray wolves' yelping choir
Beyond the magic circle drawn around the old camp-fire.

And then that morn! Was ever morn so filled with all things new?
The light that fell through long brown aisles from out the kindling blue,
The creak and yawn of stretching boughs, the jay-bird's early call,
The rat-tat-tat of woodpecker that waked the woodland hall,
The fainter stir of lower life in fern and brake and brier,
Till flashing leaped the torch of Day from last night's old camp-fire!

Well, well! we'll see it once again; we should be near it now;
It 's scarce a mile to where the trail strikes off to skirt the slough,
And then the dip to Indian Spring, the wooded rise, and--strange!
Yet here should stand the blasted pine that marked our farther range;
And here-what 's this? A ragged swale of ruts and stumps and mire!
Sure this is not the sacred grove that hid the old camp-fire!

Yet here's the " blaze " I cut myself, and there's the stumbling ledge,
With quartz " outcrop " that lay atop, now leveled to its edge,
And mounds of moss-grown stumps beside the woodman's rotting chips,
And gashes in the hillside, that gape with dumb red lips.
And yet above the shattered wreck and ruin, curling higher-
Ah yes!--still lifts the smoke that marked the welcome
old camp-fire!

Perhaps some friend of twenty years still lingers there to raise
To weary hearts and tired eyes that beacon of old days.
Perhaps-but stay; 't is gone! and yet once more it lifts as though
To meet our tardy blundering steps, and seems to move, and lo!
Whirls by us in a rush of sound,--the vanished funeral pyre
Of hopes and fears that twenty years burned in the old camp-fire!

For see, beyond the prospect spreads, with chimney, spire, and roof,--
Two iron bands across the trail clank to our mustang's hoof;
Above them leap two blackened threads from limb-lopped tree to tree,
To where the whitewashed station speeds its message to the sea.
Rein in! Rein in! The quest is o'er. The goal of our desire
Is but the train whose track has lain across the old camp-fire !

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(Rattlesnake Bar, Sierras)

No life in earth, or air, or sky;
The sunbeams, broken silently,
On the bared rocks around me lie,--

Cold rocks with half-warmed lichens scarred
And scales of moss; and scarce a yard
Away, one long strip, yellow-barred.

Lost in a cleft! 'T is but a stride
To reach it, thrust its roots aside,
And lift it on thy stick astride!

Yet stay! That moment is thy grace!
For round thee, thrilling air and space,
A chattering terror fills the place!

A sound as of dry bones that stir
In the Dead Valley! By yon fir
The locust stops its noonday whir!

The wild bird hears; smote with the sound,
As if by bullet brought to ground,
On broken wing, dips, wheeling round!

The hare, transfixed, with trembling lip,
Halts, breathless, on pulsating hip,
And palsied tread, and heels that slip.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Enough, old friend !--'t is thou. Forget
My heedless foot, nor longer fret
The peace with thy grim castanet !

I know thee ! Yes ! Thou mayst forego
That lifted crest; the measured blow
Beyond which thy pride scorns to go,

Or yet retract ! For me no spell
Lights those slit orbs, where, some think, dwell
Machicolated fires of hell!

I only know thee humble, bold,
Haughty, with miseries untold,
And the old Curse that left thee cold,

And drove thee ever to the sun,
On blistering rocks; nor made thee shun
Our cabin's hearth, when day was done,

And the spent ashes warmed thee best;
We knew thee,--silent, joyless guest
Of our rude ingle. E'en thy quest

Of the rare milk-bowl seemed to be
Naught but a brother's poverty,
And Spartan taste that kept thee free

From lust and rapine.
Thou! whose fame Searchest the grass with tongue of flame,
Making all creatures seem thy game;

When the whole woods before thee run,
Asked but--when all was said and done--
To lie, untrodden, in the sun !

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BY scattered rocks and turbid waters shifting,
By furrowed glade and dell,
To feverish men thy calm, sweet face uplifting,
Thou stayest them to tell

The delicate thought that cannot find expression,
For ruder speech too fair,
That, like thy petals, trembles in possession,
And scatters on the air.

The miner pauses in his rugged labor,
And, leaning on his spade,
Laughingly calls unto his comrade-neighbor
To see thy charms displayed.

But in his eyes a mist unwonted rises,
And for a moment clear
Some sweet home face his foolish thought surprises,
And passes in a tear,--

Some boyish vision of his Eastern village,
Of uneventful toil,
Where golden harvests followed quiet tillage
Above a peaceful soil.

One moment only; for the pick, uplifting,
Through root and fibre cleaves,
And on the muddy current slowly drifting
Are swept by bruised leaves.

And yet, O poet, in thy homely fashion,
Thy work thou dost fulfill,
For on the turbid current of his passion
Thy face is shining still!

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(From The Sea)

SERENE, indifferent of Fate,
Thou sittest at the Western Gate;

Upon thy height, so lately won,
Still slant the banners of the sun;

Thou seest the white seas strike their tents,
O Warder of two continents!

And, scornful of the peace that flies
Thy angry winds and sullen skies,

Thou drawest all things, small or great,
To thee, beside the Western Gate.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . .

O lion's whelp, that hidest fast
In jungle growth of spire and mast!

I know thy cunning and thy greed,
Thy hard high lust and willful deed,

And all thy glory loves to tell
Of specious gifts material.

Drop down, O Fleecy Fog, and hide
Her skeptic sneer and all her pride!

Wrap her, O Fog, in gown and hood
Of her Franciscan Brotherhood.

Hide me her faults, her sin and blame;
With thy gray mantle cloak her shame!

So shall she, cowled, sit and pray
Till morning bears her sins away.

Then rise O Fleecy Fog, and raise
The glory of her coming days;

Be as the cloud that flecks the seas
Above her smoky argosies;

When forms familiar shall give place
To stranger speech and newer face;

When all her throes and anxious fears
Lie hushed in the repose of years;

When Art shall raise and vulture lift
The sensual joys and meaner thrift,

And all fulfilled the vision we
Who watch and wait shall never see;

Who, in the morning of her race,
Toiled fair or meanly in our place,

But, yielding to the common lot,
Lie unrecorded and forgot.

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COWARD--of heroic size,
In whose lazy muscles lies
Strength we fear and yet despise;
Savage,--whose relentless tusks
Are content with acorn husks;
Robber,--whose exploits ne'er soared
O'er the bee's or squirrel's hoard;
Whiskered chin and feeble nose,
Claws of steel on baby toes,--
Here, in solitude and shade,
Shambling, shuffling plantigrade,
Be thy courses undismayed!

Here, where Nature makes thy bed,
Let thy rude, half-hurnan tread
Point to hidden Indian springs,
Lost in ferns and fragrant grasses,
Hovered o'er by timid wings,
Where the wood-duck lightly passes,
Where the wild bee holds her sweets,--
Epicurean retreats,
Fit for thee, and better than
Fearful spoils of dangerous man.
In thy fat-jowled deviltry
Friar Tuck shall live in thee;
Thou mayst levy tithe and dole;
Thou shalt spread the woodland cheer,
From the pilgrim taking toll;
Match thy cunning with his fear;
Eat and drink and have thy fill;
Yet remain an outlaw still!

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CAPTAIN of the Western wood,
Thou that apest Robin Hood !
Green above thy scarlet hose,
How thy velvet mantle shows !
Never tree like thee arrayed,
O thou gallant of the glade!

When the fervid August sun
Scorches all it looks upon,
And the balsam of the pine
Drips from stem to needle fine,
Round thy compact shade arranged,
Not a leaf of thee is changed!

When the yellow autumn sun
Saddens all it looks upon,
Spreads its sackcloth on the hills,
Strews its ashes in the rills,
Thou thy scarlet hose dost doff,
And in limbs of purest buff
Challengest the sombre glade
For a sylvan masquerade.

Where, oh, where, shall he begin
Who would paint thee, Harlequin ?
With thy waxen burnished leaf,
With thy branches' red relief,
With thy polytinted fruit,--
In thy spring or autumn suit,--
Where begin, and oh, where end,
Thou whose charms all art transcend?

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BLOWN out of the prairie in twilight and dew,
Half bold and half timid, yet lazy all through;
Loath ever to leave, and yet fearful to stay,
He limps in the clearing, an outcast in gray

A shade on the stubble, a ghost by the wall,
Now leaping, now limping, now risking a fall,
Lop-eared and large-jointed, but ever alway
A thoroughly vagabond outcast in gray.

Here, Carlo, old fellow,--he 's one of your kind,--
Go, seek him, and bring him in out of the wind.
What! snarling, my Carlo! So even dogs may
Deny their own kin in the outcast in gray

Well, take what you will--though it be on the sly,
Marauding or begging,--
I shall not ask why,
But will call it a dole, just to help on his way
A four-footed friar in orders of gray!

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(SANTA CRUZ, 1869)

SAUNTERING hither on listless wings,
Careless vagabond of the sea,
Little thou heedest the surf that sings,
The bar that thunders, the shale that rings,--
Give me to keep thy company.

Little thou hast, old friend, that 's new;
Storms and wrecks are old things to thee;
Sick am I of these changes, too;
Little to care for, little to rue,--
I on the shore, and thou on the sea.

All of thy wanderings, far and near,
Bring thee at last to shore and me;
All of my journeyings end them here:
This our tether must be our cheer,--
I on the shore, and thou on the sea.

Lazily rocking on ocean's breast,
Something in common, old friend, have we:
Thou on the shingle seek'st thy nest,
I to the waters look for rest,--
I on the shore, and thou on the sea.

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The Central California Poetry Journal is copyrighted © by Scott Galloway 1996

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