Wednesday, January 30, 2019

To the Keowee

You would not know that the place had been a busy little town – the county seat.  The only remaining building is a sturdy brick church.  Nearby, a cemetery overlooks a nuclear power plant…and what used to be a river.

Old Pickens Presbyterian Church

The town of Pickens Court House (SC) came into being in 1828, its location chosen in part because of its view of the beautiful Keowee River.   Construction of lakes to serve the Oconee Nuclear Station brought the end of that river.  It is just one of the many ghosts that linger for anyone who appreciates the history of a place.

Artist's rendering of Oconee Nuclear Station in the Keowee Valley

I have a peculiar practice of finding obscure 19th century poems about places in the Southern Appalachians and reciting those poems aloud whenever I visit the locations that inspired the verse.

Keowee River, ca. 1936

My last time at Old Pickens I was sure to bring the following poem.  Standing near the spot where the Keowee Courier first published the piece in 1857, I looked toward what used to be a river and read:

To the Keowee*

Oh, River! thou hast won my heart
    With the sweet music of thy tide;
And though too soon I must depart
    From haunts where thy cool waters glide –
A fond remembrance I shall bear,
Of thee, and all thy beauty rare.

Down in thy crystal depths are seen
    The pebble and the pearly shell,
Or rock with velvet robe of green –
    Whose shade the bright trout loves so well,
When in the suns unclouded beam –
Like silver glistens all thy stream.

Upon thy marge the violet blows,
    The lily bends its snow-white head;
And high the lofty chestnut grows,
    And flings its shadow o’er thy bed;
While laurels to thy ripples bend
And to the air their fragrance lend.

Thy banks along of brightest green,
    (When summer-skies above thee glow,)
The wild deer, in his pride, is seen,
    His image in the wave below:
And there he sips thy crystal tide,
Nor dreams of danger by thy side!

Oh lovely stream! Each towering hill
    That sentinels thy peaceful flow,
My spirit with emotions fill –
    That none save Nature’s votaries know;
A strange emotion of delight,
And visions of the Infinite!

I have been where the tides roll by,
    Of mighty rivers deep and wide,
On every wave an argosy –
    And cities builded on each side:
Where the low din of commerce fills
The ear with strife that never stills.

Yet not to me have scenes like these,
    Such charms as thine, oh peerless stream!
Not cities proud my eye can please –
    Not argosies so rich I deem –
As thy cloud-vested hills that rise –
And forests, looming to the skies!

Thy virgin waves have never fled
    The rude embrace of monster dark,
By flashing oar or sail unsped –
    A fire and vapor breathing bar;
Nor have they yielded to the prow
Of white winged ship – when soft winds blow.

The light canoe – a dancing shell,
    Alone may kiss thy glowing lips –
When the young hunter, swift and well,
    His paddle in thy silver dips,
And its quick plashes make a chime,
That to his whistled strain keeps time.

Would that my life’s brief course might flow,
    Calm and secluded as thy stream;
Nor Passion’s rocks and tempests know,
    For fierce ambition’s burning dream!
From youth to age, I’d onward glide,
With Peace and Pleasure at my side.

Oh, River! nameless though thou art –
    Save to a few who love thee well,
Thy beauty hath enthralled my heart,
    And charmed me with a lasting spell:
And were the bard’s high numbers mine,
Thy praise would vex the boasted Rhine!


*A beautiful stream in the upper part of South Carolina.

   Published in Keowee Courier (Pickens Court House, S.C.), June 06, 1857

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