Those desolate, brute, chilling sublimities,
Unchanging but as the light may chance to fall,
Deserts of snow, forlorn barrens of rock,
What could be more indifferent to man’s life
Than your average Alp, stripped to the blackened bone
Above the tree line, except where the iced rags,
Patches and sheets of winter cling yearlong?
The cowbell’s ludicrous music, the austere
Sobrieties of Calvin, precision watches,
A cheese or two, and that is all the Swiss
Have given the world, unless we were to cite
The questionable morals of their banks.
But how are people to live in dignity
When at two p.m. the first shadows of night,
Formed by the massive shoulder of some slope,
Cast, for the rest of the day, entire valleys—
Their window boxes of geraniums,
Their cobbles, pinecones, banners and coffee-cups—
Into increasing sinks and pools of dark?
And that is but half the story. The opposing slope
Keeps morning from its flaxen charities
Until, on midsummer days, eleven-thirty,
When fresh birdsong and cow dung rinse the air
And all outdoors still glistens with night-dew.
All this serves to promote a state of mind
Cheerless and without prospects. But yesterday
I let myself, in spite of dark misgivings,
Be talked into a strenuous excursion
Along one high ridge promising a view.
And suddenly, at a narrowing of the path,
The whole earth fell away, and dizzily
I beheld the most majestic torrent in Europe,
A pure cascade, over two hundred feet,
Falling straight down—it was like Rapunzel’s hair,
But white, as if ageing and disappointment
Left her bereft of suitors. Down it plunged,
Its great, continuous, unending weight
Toppling from above in a long shaft
Or carven stem that broke up at its base
Into enormous rhododendron blooms
Of spray, a dense array of shaken blossoms.
I teetered perilously, scared and dazed,
And slowly, careful of both hand and foot,
Made my painstaking way back down the trail.
That evening in my bedroom I recalled
The scene’s terror and grandeur, my vertigo
Mixed with a feeling little short of awe.
And I retraced my steps in the secure
Comfort of lamplight on a Baedeker.
That towering waterfall I just had viewed
At what had seemed the peril of my life
Was regarded locally with humorous
Contempt, and designated the Pisse-Vache.