To the Matterhorn
by Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928
Hardy is probably better known nowadays as a novelist, and the Wikipedia entry I have linked to in fact says that "critically his poetry is still not considered as highly as his prose." Well, speaking for myself, I never warmed to Hardy's novels, and I think his own estimate of himself as first and foremost a poet is correct.
Hardy's poetry is for the most part gloomy stuff, and it doesn't do to read too much at a sitting; but it is fine gloomy stuff.
The Matterhorn is a spectacular mountain in the European Alps. It was first climbed by Edward Whymper and his party, the summit being attained on July 14, 1865. On the way down, however, four of the seven climbers were killed.
Hardy wrote this sonnet in June-July 1897 to commemorate that first ascent.
"Joshua" — Joshua 10: xii-xiv.
"Caesar" — Suetonius, LXXXI.
"ninth hour" — Mark 15: xxxiii.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
Thirty-two years since, up against the sun,
Seven shapes, thin atomies to lower sight,
Labouringly leapt and gained thy gabled height,
And four lives paid for what the seven had won.
They were the first by whom the deed was done,
And when I look at thee, my mind takes flight
To that day's tragic feat of manly might,
As though, till then, of history thou hadst none.
Yet ages ere men topped thee, late and soon
Thou didst behold the planets lift and lower;
Saw'st, maybe, Joshua's pausing sun and moon,
And the betokening sky when Caesar's power
Approached its bloody end; yea, even that Noon
When darkness filled the earth till the ninth hour.