While waiting in a Baltimore hotel lobby, I thumbed through one of its meant-to-be-seen-and-not-read bookshelves. There among old, leather-bound editions of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, I found the collected works of William Cullen Bryant. A romantic, Bryant is known primarily for his poetic naturalism (see, e.g., “Thanatopsis“) but he was also a prodigious translator, deciding at the age of 77 to translate Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. But as this was my first introduction to the poet, I knew none of this. Skimming the volume, I was not very impressed, but then I came across a poem that I stopped to read three times in a row. Its title: “The Murdered Traveller” (copied below).
First published in January 1825 in the United States Literary Gazette (Boston), “The Murdered Traveller” tells of a skeleton discovered in the woods. Emotionless, its discoverers mark the grave with stones and continue on with their own travels, a scene then juxtaposed with the dead’s homeland. As nature reclaimed the body, back home “long they looked, and feared, and wept, / . . . And dreamed, and started as they slept,/ For joy that he was come.” It closes, “Long, long they looked — but never spied/ His welcome step again,/ Nor knew the fearful death he died/ Far down the narrow glen.”
This poem struck me because it reminded me of a story we hear too often: of missing men, women, and children whose families never lose hope that one day their loved one will return. Of course there is the famous case of Jacob Wetterling, but I also thought of when the IMGUR online community came together to identify the 15-year-old cold case of “The Grateful Doe” (a truly amazing story worth reading about). In the appendix, Bryant recounts his own inspiration for the poem:
Some years since, in the month of May, the remains of a human body, partly devoured by wild animals, were found in a woody ravine, near a solitary road passing between the mountains west of the village of Stockbridge. It was supposed that the person came to his death by violence, but no traces could be discovered of his murderers. It was only recollected that one evening, in the course of the previous winter, a traveller had stopped at an inn in the village of West Stockbridge; what he had inquired the way of Stockbridge; and that in paying the innkeeper for something he had ordered, it appeared he had a considerable sum of money in his possession. Two ill-looking men were present, and went out about the same time that the traveler proceeded on his journey. During the winter, also, two men of shabby appearance, but plentifully supplied with money, had lingered for a while about the village of Stockbridge. Several years afterward, a criminal, about to be executed for a capital offence in Canada, confessed that he had been concerned in murdering a traveller in Stockbridge for the sake of his money. Nothing was ever discovered respecting the name or residence of the person murdered.
I’m so glad I found this poem, which is now one of my favorites. Keep this in mind the next time you’re standing around an old bookshelf. There’s a lot of great work out there waiting to be (re)discovered.
The Murdered Traveller
When Spring, to woods and wastes around,
Brought bloom and joy again,
The murdered traveller’s bones were found,
Far down a narrow glen.
The fragrant birch above him, hung
Her tassels in the sky ;
And many a vernal blossom sprung,
And nodded careless by.
The red-bird warbled, as he wrought
His hanging nest o’erhead,
And fearless, near the fatal spot,
Her young the partridge led.
But there was weeping far away,
And gentle eyes, for him,
With watching many an anxious day,
Were sorrowful and dim.
They little knew, who loved him so,
The fearful death he met,
When shouting o’er the desert snow,
Unarmed, and hard beset ;–
Nor how, when round the frosty pole
The northern dawn was red,
The mountain-wolf and wild-cat stole
To banquet on the dead ;–
Nor how, when strangers found his bones,
They dressed the hasty bier,
And marked his grave with nameless stones,
Unmoistened by a tear.
But long they looked, and feared, and wept,
Within his distant home ;
And dreamed, and started as they slept,
For joy that he was come.
Long, long they looked — but never spied
His welcome step again,
Nor knew the fearful death he died
Far down that narrow glen.