The Captain (Tennyson)

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The Captain
by Alfred Tennyson


A Legend of the Navy

He that only rules by terror
    Doeth grievous wrong.
Deep as hell I count his error.
    Let him hear my song.
Brave the Captain was; the seamen
    Made a gallant crew,
Gallant sons of English freemen,
    Sailors bold and true.
But they hated his oppression;
    Stern he was and rash,
So for every light transgression
    Doom’d them to the lash.
Day by day more hard and cruel
    Seem’d the Captain’s mood.
Secret wrath like smother’d fuel
    Burnt in each man’s blood.
Yet he hoped to purchase glory,
    Hoped to make the name
Of his vessel great in story,
    Wheresoe’er he came.
So they past by capes and islands,
    Many a harbour-mouth,
Sailing under palmy highlands
    Far within the South.
On a day when they were going
    O’er the lone expanse,
In the north, her canvas flowing,
    Rose a ship of France.
Then the Captain’s colour heighten’d,
    Joyful came his speech;
But the cloudy gladness lighten’d
    In the eyes of each.
‘Chase,’ he said; the ship flew forward,
    And the wind did blow;
Stately, lightly went she northward,
    Till she near’d the foe.
Then they look’d at him they hated,
    Had what they desired;
Mute with folded arms they waited –
    Not a gun was fired.
But they heard the foeman’s thunder
    Roaring out their doom;
All the air was turn in sunder,
    Crashing went the boom.
Spars were splinter’d, decks were shatter’d,
    Bullets fell like rain;
Over mast and deck were scatter’d
    Blood and brains of men.
Spars were splinter’d; decks were broken;
    Every mother’s son –
Down they dropt – nor word were spoken –
    Each behind his gun.
On the decks as they were lying,
    Were their faces grim;
In their blood, as they lay dying,
    Did they smile on him.
Those in whom he had reliance
    For his noble name
With one smile of still defiance
    Sold him into shame.
Shame and wrath his heart confounded,
    Pale he turn’d and red,
Till himself was deadly wounded
    Falling on the dead.
Dismal error! fearful slaughter!
    Years have wander’d by;
Side by side beneath the water
    Crew and Captain lie;
There the sunlit ocean tosses
    O’er them the mouldering,
And the lonely seabird crosses
    With one waft of the wing.

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.