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The Ladies' repository: a monthly periodical, devoted to literature, arts, and religion. / Volume 23, Issue 11, Nov 1863, pp.669-671 (via MOA at University of Michigan)

by B. F. De Costa.

"How dizzy 't is to cast one's eyes so low!
The crows and choughs, that wing the midway air,
Show scarce so gross as beetles;
The fishlermen that walk upon the beech
Appear like mice, and yon tall, anchoring bark
Diminished to her cock—her cock a buoy
Almost too small for sight."

    At the Highlands of Truro, perched upon the summit of the precipitous cliff, stands the light-house. This is the ultima thule of Massachusetts. Here the mariner, shaping his course for the Old World, bids farewell to the New, while the friendly beacon, brighter than ancient Pharos, hurls over the sea its broad beam of light, to illuminate his departure, and again, when homeward bound, to welcome his return. The cliffs are not so high as in the eleventh century, when the little bark of that adventurous Northman, Thowald Ericson, tossed within their shade, nor when, six centuries later, they rose to Gosnold's view a "mighty headland;" yet they are still lofty enough to inspire the vertigo.
    But ascend the spiral staircase of the lighthouse, and climb into the lantern, which is nothing less than a little crystal palace, full of optical  illusions and bursting with prismatic splendor, and from this lofty outlook survey the surround ing prospect. To-day the sea is enjoying a brief respite from its customary hydrophobia. The  waves roll gently up the beach, and sink down upon the sand, as if weary with their long march across the Atlantic. In the offing is a large fleet of fishing schooners standing slowly away toward Cape Ann; and the tall and stately ship goes idling on her way to India, careless of time and the rich lading. Landward the same quiet prevails. Far and wide the landscape wears a gray and somber aspect. Nature is lost in a brown study. A narrow strip of Massachusetts Bay stretches along the inner side of the Cape like a blue ribbon, which combines with the incipient greenness of a few patches of cultivated pines to relieve the monotone, while the white sand-hills toward the north file solemnly away in ghostly procession, till lost in the distance. Six miles westward, beyond Cape Harbor, may be seen the quaint old town of Provincetown, whose prosperity, Venice-like, has come from the sea. In the middle distance, and almost hid from view in a valley scooped out by Pre-Adamite floods, lies Pond Village. The tower of its little semi-Gothic church, in which the Methodist itinerant essays to break the Bread of Life, may be discerned peeping out above the hillocks. Along the margin of the road are located half a dozen ancient dwellings, which contain the immediate society of the "Light;" and in the neighboring pastures, now vainly struggling to appear green, a few hungry cows roam about, clipping their scanty subsistence. Hard by, upon a knoll, stands the drowsy windmill, populous with pigeons, and down at our feet are the cottages of the keeper and his men. In the little gardens may usually be found a few flowers, and, oddly enough, a dwarfed apple-tree or two, loaded with fruit and propped up with broom-sticks. The seven lamps of architecture never shed their radiance upon this community, and hence the primitive style characterizes the dwellings. On many of the barns and out-buildings may be seen escutcheons and billet-heads of ships that went to pieces on the neighboring beach. These are the grim but favorite decorations of the fisherman's homestead. But what is this we see as we look out on the ocean again? There we behold well-known dwellings, whose foundations rest, not upon the shifting sand, but upon the unsteady waves, and ships whose counterpart may be seen in Provincetown Harbor, six miles away. It is only a freak of the magic-lantern, which, at certain hours of the day, gathers up in its mighty focal grasp the image of every object on the landward side and in the bay, and sets them down again upon the surface of the ocean in exactly the opposite direction.
    The prospect here is always pleasant, though somber. It often appears to great advantage in the Autumn. Sometimes of a hazy afternoon, when the sun grows red in his face in the struggle to burst through the surrounding vapor, a rich, mellow light is shed over the commons and hill-sides, and the whole scene is transfigured. Then the haycocks out in the fields glow with gold, the miniature pine-forests assume a soft, emerald hue, the ripe leafage of the whortle berry flames out afresh, while the blue waters of the bay seem to rise and blend with the sky.
    A short distance from the light-house is a break in the cliff, and the sure-footed may here venture down by a zigzag path. At the ebb tide there is always a broad passage in front, where you may walk in safety, and view the face of the beetling, cavernous cliff, which looks as if it meant to tumble down upon us one of these days. This is not a rock-bound coast, and there are no granite bastions springing out from the shore to meet the waves and batter them in pieces; but the compact clay upon which the cliff rests serves to retard the work of destruction and prolong the unequal contest. High up in the shining sand, just under the brow of the cliff, may be seen the inaccessible habitations of the swallows, now bustling about the doors of their domiciles, and dodging in and out, and twittering all the while with a peculiar emphasis, which indicates that some remarkable event has transpired in the colony. In the shelving places carved out by the storms are piles of driftwood, fragments of wrecks, and deals swept from the deck of a coaster in the last storm. Wood here is precious; but how shall we get it up the cliff? Hoc opus est! 'T would put trained Sysiphus on his muscle. Here, too, is a ship's spar thrown out high and dry. And what was the fate of the ship? What port did she sail from? What forest gave the tree so straight and fair, even as the cedar of Lebanon? Perhaps it was
"Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast
Of some great admiral."
This is the most dangerous spot upon the coast of Massachusetts, and the beach is seldom destitute of some sad memorial that tells of disaster and shipwreck.
    Here, also, is the telegraph station, established with especial reference to the interests of the commercial marine. The little building used by the operator as an office stands upon a commanding situation near the light-house, and is furnished with the code of marine signals, Lloyd's Gazetteer, telescopes, and flags. Here the operator sits all day long, both Summer and Winter, and from his lofty perch surveys the ocean with the aid of his telescope. The observations made here are frequently the means of saving many valuable lives, and allaying the anxiety of the merchant. His ship has, perhaps, long been expected home from the Indies, and months have already been consumed in waiting. Day after day he sits in his counting-room, hoping every hour to hear some tidings of his rich argosy, which is freighted with the bulk of his fortune. But still time drags on, and no intelligence reaches him, and he becomes alarmed, and falls into a feverish state of mind, like that pictured by Salarino, when he said:
"My wind, cooling my broth,
Would blow me to an ague, when I thought
What harm a wind too great might do at sea.
I should not see the sandy hour-glass run,
But I should think of shallows and of flats,
And see my wealthy Andrew docked in sand,
Vailing her high top lower than her ribs,
To kiss her burial."
But now his anxiety is suddenly ended. The look-out at Highland Light detects a well-known signal flying from the main of a portly ship in the offing, and at once flashes the news over the wires; and when the merchant rises to close the window of his counting-room to keep out the breeze, so full of uncomfortable suggestions, he, by chance, looks up, and beholds the private signal of his own "wealthy Andrew" flying over that building on State-street where his fellow merchants "most do congregate." At night he goes home to his suburban villa a happy man. Volumes might be filled with the annals of this barren coast, which, notwithstanding every possible precaution, still continues to dock many a noble ship in its treacherous sands. And then what a helpless thing is the stanchest "Liverpool liner" when once nipped among the breakers out on the bar! The little fishing-smack may pound her way through the foaming surge, and land among the beach-grass; but the unwieldy ship, crammed with the wealth of the Indies, and held fast in the maw of the quicksands, struggles like some monster of the deep till the ribs of oak and iron give way, when comes the general wreck and the scattering of the fragments, together with the rich Oriental lading, for miles along the sandy shore. Today, however, the sea has forgotten all its former violence, and seems innocent of all evil intentions, though, as we walk along the strand, the air is tremulous with the jar of the surf, which combs, and breaks, and rushes, dancing and gurgling up to our feet.
    But while we have delayed here talking of the sea and shore, the afternoon has fled, and now the evening shadows are settling down among the cavities in the cliffs. Let us, therefore, turn homeward. Quarter of a mile toward the north there is an opening in the cliff where we regain the uplands, and strike the cart-track leading through the beach-grass.
    As the sun goes down the moon rises from the bed of the ocean, and prepares to take her nightly journey through the skies, and when we gain the uplands the cold rays of Luna burst out above the cliff, and fly across the fields and down the smooth meadows, which stretch toward Provincetown, chasing away the purple haze, and leaving instead a vail of damp sea-fog. Across the "commons" come two or three crazy wains heaped aloft with the saline spoils of the meadows, which will be spread out to-morrow to dry on the moss-covered fields. On the road we meet the cows coming from the pasture, crowding and hooking each other most unamiably, each anxious to be first in at the watering-trough; and further on may be seen the neighbors, bustling about their premises, making every thing snug for the night. And there, in a duck-pond behind the barn, is a little boy, improving the few remaining minutes of twilight to sail his miniature ship, and take his first lessons in navigation; for he already means to be a sailor, like his father and grandfather—ay, and to be drowned, too, perchance, and with them suffer hydriotaphia in the deep blue sea. But look again! the beacon yonder is opening its bright eye!
    We began with the light-house; let us end here, and, with the old whaleman who tends the constant flame, say:
"Sail on! sail on! ye stately ships!
    And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse,
    Be yours to bring man nearer unto man."

The Ladies' repository: a monthly periodical, devoted to literature, arts, and religion. / Volume 24, Issue 1, Jan 1864, p.63
Editor's Table

—Our ascription of this poem to Whittier in our November number was upon the authority of the Living Age, and there was such strong internal evidence of its being his that we never stopped to call in question the statement. The following note from D. Williams, Esq., City Clerk of Charlestown, claims its paternity for another, whose excellent prose article on Highland Light in the same number of the Repository will be remembered by our readers. We give the note of Mr. Williams:
In perusing the November number of your magazine, I observed a little poem entitled "Highland Light," which you ascribe to that noble poet, John G. Whittier, though omitted from his published works. In ascribing it to Mr. Whittier, however, you were in error. The author of the poem in question is Rev. B. F. De Costa, an Episcopal clergyman, formerly a resident of this city, but now of Boston. It was originally published in one of the local papers of this city; namely, "The City Advertiser." I have the pleasure of an intimate acquaintance with the author, and he submitted the poem to my perusal while it was yet only in manuscript. No higher compliment could be paid to the poem than was done by you in ascribing to it so noble a parentage. Mr. De Costa is a lover of Cape Cod and its associations and characteristics; and I believe his pen has furnished articles relating thereto which have been widely read, copied, and admired.

[Apparently the poem referred to is the one below]

The Living Age... / Volume 77, issue 96, page 146
April 25, 1863 (from MOA at Cornell University)


O’er the shifting sand
Of the sparkling strand
The jutting cliff uprears its head;
Bastioned with gray
Alluvial clay,
And stained with dingy red.

A storm-sculptured steep,
Whence the Swallows peep
From their ports beneath its crest;
And where far away
From the cold, salt spray
They build their sheltering nest.

‘Tis the seabird’s haunt,
Where the deep sea chaunt
Swells up forevermore;
And the surf’s hoarse chime
Keeps measured time
As it breaks along the shore.

In a sheltered reach
Of the oozy beach
Lies a shattered, grass-grown beam;
Some brave ship’s mast,
That the Typhoon’s blast
Laid low in the warm Gulf Stream.

Here the driftwood pile
From many an isle
‘Twixt Roque and Sable’s sandy verge,
Heaped on the shore
Shall drift no more,
Nor roll in the tumbling surge.

When the sunlight fades
The dusky shades
Of Evening seeks its hollowed side
And inward creep,
Where they sink to sleep,
Till Dawn rolls in on the seething tide.

Then the gloomy hosts,
Like belated ghosts,
Upstart and fly in haste away;
And the old cliff gleams
With the golden beams
Of Phœbus, god of the Day.
—Charlestown Advertiser.