"Mount Shasta," the second poem in our September blog series marking the paperback release of Changing Is Not Vanishing: A Collection of American Indian Poetry to 1930, was written by John Rollin Ridge. Ridge often published as Yellow Bird, the English translation of his Cherokee name, Chees-quat-a-law-ny. Born in 1827 to an influential family of farmers and slaveholders in Georgia, he received an excellent education. His father and grandfather were assassinated by an opposing faction of the Cherokee Nation who viewed them as traitors for signing the 1835 Treaty of New Echota and agreeing to give up their land to the United States government. By 1850, John Rollin Ridge had settled in California, where he became a newspaper editor and political leader.
"In 1854 he published the first-known novel by an American Indian (and the first novel written in California), The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit," writes Robert Dale Parker, editor of Changing Is Not Vanishing. "As a poet, Ridge was a remarkable lyric talent, arguably at least among the several most powerful American poets before Whitman. He seems to have seen the Shelleyan 'Mount Shasta' as standing out from the rest of his poems. He included it in The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, and it appeared as the first poem in his book of poems, which his wife published posthumously in 1868, titling it simply Poems."
Behold the dread Mt. Shasta, where it stands
Imperial midst the lesser heights, and, like
Some mighty unimpassioned mind, companionless
And cold. The storms of Heaven may beat in wrath
Against it, but it stands in unpolluted
Grandeur still; and from the rolling mists upheaves
Its tower of pride e’en purer than before.
The wintry showers and white-winged tempests leave
Their frozen tributes on its brow, and it
Doth make of them an everlasting crown.
Thus doth it, day by day and age by age,
Defy each stroke of time: still rising highest
Aspiring to the eagle’s cloudless height,
No human foot has stained its snowy side;
No human breath has dimmed the icy mirror which
It holds unto the moon and stars and sov’reign sun.
We may not grow familiar with the secrets
Of its hoary top, whereon the Genius
Of that mountain builds his glorious throne!
Far lifted in the boundless blue, he doth
Encircle, with his gaze supreme, the broad
Dominions of the West, which lie beneath
His feet, in pictures of sublime repose
No artist ever drew. He sees the tall
Gigantic hills arise in silentness
And peace, and in the long review of distance
Range themselves in order grand. He sees the sunlight
Play upon the golden streams which through the valleys
Glide. He hears the music of the great and solemn sea,
And overlooks the huge old western wall
To view the birth-place of undying Melody!
Itself all light, save when some loftiest cloud
Doth for a while embrace its cold forbidding
Form, that monarch mountain casts its mighty
Shadow down upon the crownless peaks below,
That, like inferior minds to some great
Spirit, stand in strong contrasted littleness!
All through the long and Summery months of our
Most tranquil year, it points its icy shaft
On high, to catch the dazzling beams that fall
In showers of splendor round that crystal cone,
And roll in floods of far magnificence
Away from that lone, vast Reflector in
The dome of Heaven.
Still watchful of the fertile
Vale and undulating plains below, the grass
Grows greener in its shade, and sweeter bloom
The flowers. Strong purifier! From its snowy
Side the breezes cool are wafted to the “peaceful
Homes of men,” who shelter at its feet, and love
To gaze upon its honored form, aye standing
There the guarantee of health and happiness.
Well might it win communities so blest
To loftier feelings and to nobler thoughts—
The great material symbol of eternal
Things! And well I ween, in after years, how
In the middle of his furrowed track the plowman
In some sultry hour will pause, and wiping
From his brow the dusty sweat, with reverence
Gaze upon that hoary peak. The herdsman
Oft will rein his charger in the plain, and drink
Into his inmost soul the calm sublimity;
And little children, playing on the green, shall
Cease their sport, and, turning to that mountain
Old, shall of their mother ask: “Who made it?”
And she shall answer,—“GOD!”
And well this Golden State shall thrive, if like
Its own Mt. Shasta, Sovereign Law shall lift
Itself in purer atmosphere—so high
That human feeling, human passion at its base
Shall lie subdued; e’en pity’s tears shall on
Its summit freeze; to warm it e’en the sunlight
Of deep sympathy shall fail:
Its pure administration shall be like
The snow immaculate upon that mountain’s brow!