“Dawn in the City,” from Hesperus, and other poems, by Charles de Kay (1880)


Dawn in the City

The city slowly wakes:
Her every chimney makes
Offering of smoke against the cool white skies.
Slowly the morning shakes
The lingering shadowy flakes
Of night from doors and windows, from the city’s eyes.

A breath through heaven goes:
Leaves of the pale sweet rose
Are strewn along the clouds of upper air.
Healer of ancient woes,
The palm of dawn bestows
Peace on the feverish brow, comfort on grim despair.

Now the celestial fire
Fingers the sunken spire.
Crocket by crocket swiftly creepeth down;
Brushes the maze of wire.
Dewy, electric lyre,
And with a silent hymn one moment fills the town.

A sound of pattering hoofs
Above the emergent roofs
And anxious bleatings tell the passing herd;
Scared by the piteous droves,
A shoal of scurrying doves
Veering, around the island of the church has whirred.

Soon through the smoky haze
The park begins to raise
Its outlines clearer into daylit prose;
Ever with fresh amaze
The sleepless fountains praise
Mom that has gilt the city as it gilds the rose.

High in the clearer air
The smoke now builds a stair
Leading to realms no wing of bird has found;
Things are more foul, more fair;
A distant clock somewhere
Strikes, and the dreamer starts at clear reverberant sound.

Farther the tide of dark
Drains from each square and park:
Here is a city fresh and new-create,
Wondrous as though the ark
Should once again disbark
On a remoulded world its safe and joyous freight.

Ebbs all the dark, and now
Life eddies to and fro
By pier and alley, street and avenue:
The myriads stir below,
As hives of coral grow——
Vaulted above, like them, with a fresh sea of blue.

from Hesperus, and other poems, by Charles de Kay
New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1880

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

Like much poetry, particularly from before the World Wars, this suffers from an overly poetic vocabulary, but I appreciate the details that capture a cityscape from the days of coal and wood fires, horses and cattle in the streets, and noises much different from those we would now encounter. “The real background to these formative years, however, was the sound of hooves; the metallic thunder of the big animals drawing the carriages called landaus, the lighter trip-trop of the hansom cabs,” wrote Bryher in her memoir, The Heart to Artemis.

And one detail here sets the time precisely: “Brushes the maze of wire.” This is after the invention of the telephone (1876), after the first proliferation of subscriber lines by Western Electric and other early telephone companies, and before the practices of burying cables and using distribution frames. As more and more people signed up for the novelty service, companies stacked up row upon row of cross-arms, each supporting up to a dozen wire pairs. For a time, people could look up and truly see a maze of wire above their heads.

One thought on ““Dawn in the City,” from Hesperus, and other poems, by Charles de Kay (1880)

  1. Definitely one I want to keep; I like the assonances which leap from verse to verse, and particularly the penultimate verse – that ‘disbark’. Thanks for your notes, and the splendid illustration.

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