Rolling down NC 151 toward Candler this morning I saw something I didn’t expect to see: a hot air balloon floating overhead. When I rounded a curve, I saw another one that had just taken off. It was a colorful sight on a colorful morning. Lots of other drivers had pulled over to the side of the road to enjoy the scene.
I know that people have flown these things since the 1700s. “Surely,” I thought, “the Romantic poets must have mentioned the hot air balloon.”
In a bit of a coincidence, I found that in 1812, Percy Shelley wrote “Sonnet: To a Balloon Laden With Knowledge.” I’ll post the Shelley poem in its entirety. However, he gave the balloon a more metaphorical rather than literal treatment.
Digging a little deeper, I found another Romantic inspired by the graceful aircraft. Mary Alcock wrote “The Air Balloon” in 1784, and it was the only poem she published during her lifetime. It begins:
No more of Phaeton let poets tell, I care not where he drove nor where he fell; No more I'll wish for fam'd Aurora's car, To drive me forth, high as the morning star; In Air Balloon to distant realms I go, " And leave the gazing multitude below.”
No more I'll hear of Venus and her doves, Nor Cupid flying with the little loves; Nor would I now in Juno's chariot ride In princely pomp, with peacock by my side; In higher state, in Air Balloon I go, I'd have the gods and goddesses to know.
Alcock continues in this vein for quite a few stanzas. I must say that I appreciate her defiant tone at the end of the poem:
No more of judge or jury will I hear, The laws of land extend not to the air; Nor bailiff now my spirits can affright, For up I mount, and soon am out of sight; Thus, screen'd from justice, In Balloon I go, And leave th' insolvent multitude below.
How few the worldly evils now I dread, No more confin'd this narrow earth to tread: Should fire, or water, spread destruction drear, Or earthquake shake this sublunary sphere, In Air Balloon to distant realms I fly, And leave the creeping world to sink and die.
Though I don’t think he measures up to Mary Alcock when it comes to poetry of the hot air balloon, here’s Shelley’s sonnet:
To a Balloon, Laden with Knowledge
BRIGHT ball of flame that thro the gloom of even Silently takest thine ethereal way, And with surpassing glory dimm'st each ray Twinkling amid the dark blue depths of Heaven, Unlike the Fire thou bearest, soon shalt thou Fade like a meteor in surrounding gloom, Whilst that, unquenchable, is doomed to glow A watch-light by the patriots lonely tomb; A ray of courage to the opprest and poor; A spark, though gleaming on the hovel's hearth, Which through the tyrant's guilded domes shall roar; A beacon in the darkness of the Earth; A sun which, o'er the renovated scene, Shall dart like Truth where Falsehood yet has been.