(Chicago, 1871)

It was as if God had taken a pen of fire
Into his flaming blue hand
And scrawled a chapter of horrors
Across the city at night,
Burning the world in a day-and-a-half. . . .

It was as if, after 98 days of drought,
The furious oranges and reds
Of the Last Judgment erupted
In a barn on DeKoven Street:
God had burnished the Gem on the prairie.

Fire seethed through the shams and shingles,
Through the parched bodies
Of cottages and sheds, of cow-stables,
Corn-cribs, and pigsties,
All the tinder-dry precincts of Garden City.

The raised sidewalks were piles of kindling-
Sticks under pine and hemlock
Fences, the shanties were logs
Lit by kerosene. The barns
Were giant ovens exploding in a lumbermill.

The heavens blazed and a husky southern wind
Turned into a mass of devils
Whirling through the streets,
Advancing in a column
Of smoke and a wail of flame, a steady torrent

Of sparks and a shuddering wave of lightning
Crackling in the air.
The fire bells clanged and the
Steamers stood by helplessly.
Soon the fire swept across the sluggish river

That flared like gasoline and seemed to boil
In the 3,000 degree heat.
It burned on three sides of the water
At once, eating bridges and ships,
The huge grain elevators stacked along the banks.

First, the Tar Works exploded and then came
The Gas Works and the Armory,
The police station and the fire house,
Conley’s Patch. There were
Explosions of oil, crashes of falling buildings,

And down came the Post Office and the Water Works,
The impregnable Board of Trade,
The Opera House and the Design Academy,
The sturdy Chamber of Commerce.
Down came the banks, the hotels, the churches . . .

The tornado of fire rolled toward the north
And people jammed the streets
With wagons and carts, with
Wheelbarrows of belongings.
They came tumbling out of windows and doorways,

Shrieking in all directions. There were horses
Breathing smoke in dead alleys
And dogs racing like live torches
Toward the burning water.
The noise was calamitous, torrential, deafening,

As the world staggered to a last fiery end.
The firemen might as well
Have tried to arrest the wind itself
Since the wind and the fire
Were a single fury hurtling through the night.

The dogs of Hell bounded over the rooftops
And leaped from tree to tree.
There were no stars and no clouds,
There was nothing else
In the sky but the fierce vengeance of flames

Flattening the world into stones and ashes.
This was the Great Catastrophe
And some responded to the terror
By kneeling down in embers
And crying out for release from the prophecy:

For behold, the Lord will come in fire and
His chariots like the stormwind
To render his anger in fury
and his rebuke with flames
For by fire will the Lord execute judgment . . .

But then the judgment was stayed, the rains
Descended like manna,
Like a fresh pardon from heaven,
And the winds calmed.
The fire devils died in the arms of the lake

And the wrath abated along the open ground
At the edge of Lincoln Park.
The Great Destruction was over
For the city in ruins.
So this was the smouldering end of Time.

And this was the Lightning City after 36 hours—
A muddy black settlement
On the plains, a ditched fort
After a quick massacre.
This was the Garden of Eden reduced into cinders.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 5, on page 42
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