A treasury of war poetry, British and American poems of the world war, 1914-1919/Keeping the Seas
KEEPING THE SEAS
NOW to those who search the deep—
Gleam of Hope and Kindly Light,—
Once, before you turn to sleep,
Breathe a message through the night.
Never doubt that they'll receive it.
Send it, once, and you'll believe it.
Think you these aerial wires
Whisper more than spirits may?
Think you that our strong desires
Touch no distance when we pray?
Think you that no wings are flying
'Twixt the living and the dying?
Inland here, upon your knees,
You shall breathe from urgent lips
Round the ships that guard your seas
Fleet on fleet of angel ships;
Yea, the guarded may so bless them
That no terrors can distress them.
You shall guide the darkling prow,
Kneeling—thus—and far inland;
You shall touch the storm-beat brow
Gently as a spirit-hand.
Even a blindfold prayer may speed them,
And a little child may lead them.
(A Song of the Trawlers)
DARK, dark lay the drifters, against the red west,
As they shot their long meshes of steel overside;
And the oily green waters were rocking to rest
When Kilmeny went out, at the turn of the tide.
And nobody knew where that lassie would roam,
For the magic that called her was tapping unseen.
It was well nigh a week ere Kilmeny came home,
And nobody knew where Kilmeny had been.
She'd a gun at her bow that was Newcastle's best,
And a gun at her stern that was fresh from the Clyde,
And a secret her skipper had never confessed,
Not even at dawn, to his newly-wed bride;
And a wireless that whispered above like a gnome,
The laughter of London, the boasts of Berlin.
O, it may have been mermaids that lured her from home,
But nobody knew where Kilmeny had been.
It was dark when Kilmeny came home from her quest
With her bridge dabbled red where her skipper had died,
But she moved like a bride with a rose at her breast;
And "Well done, Kilmeny!" the admiral cried.
Now at sixty-four fathom a conger may come,
And nose at the bones of a drowned submarine;
But late in the evening Kilmeny came home,
And nobody knew where Kilmeny had been.
There's a wandering shadow that stares at the foam,
Though they sing all the night to old England, their queen,
Late, late in the evening Kilmeny came home,
And nobody knew where Kilmeny had been.
HOW should we praise those lads of the old Vindictive
Who looked Death straight in the eyes,
Till his gaze fell,
In those red gates of hell?
England, in her proud history, proudly enrolls them,
And the deep night in her remembering skies
With purer glory
Shall blazon their grim story.
There were no throngs to applaud that hushed adventure.
They were one to a thousand on that fierce emprise.
The shores they sought
Were armoured, past all thought.
Oh, they knew fear, be assured, as the brave must know it,
With youth and its happiness bidding their last goodbyes;
Till thoughts, more dear
Than life, cast out all fear.
For if, as we think, they remembered the brown-roof homesteads,
And the scent of the hawthorn hedges when daylight dies,
Old happy places,
Young eyes and fading faces;
One dream was dearer that night than the best of their boyhood,
One hope more radiant than any their hearts could prize—
The touch of your hand,
The light of your face, England!
So, age to age shall tell how they sailed through the darkness,
Where, under those high, austere, implacable stars,
Not one in ten
Might look for a dawn again.
They saw the ferryboats, Iris and Daffodil, creeping
Darkly as clouds to the shimmering mine-strewn bars,
Flash into light!
Then thunder reddened the night.
The wild white swords of the searchlights blinded and stabbed them.
The sharp black shadows fought in fantastic wars.
Black waves leapt whitening,
Red decks were washed with lightning.
But, under the twelve-inch guns of the black land-batteries,
The hacked bright hulk, in a glory of crackling spars,
Moved to her goal
Like an immortal soul,
That, while its raw rent flesh in a furnace is tortured,
Reigns by a law no agony ever can shake,
And shines in power
Above all shocks of the hour.
Oh, there, while the decks ran blood and the star-shells lightened,
The shattering ship that the enemy never could break
Swept through the fire
And grappled her heart's desire.
There, on a wreck that blazed with the soul of England,
The lads that died in the dark for England's sake
Knew, as they died,
Nelson was at their side;
Nelson, and all the ghostly fleets of his island,
Fighting beside them there, and the soul of Drake!—
Dreams, as we knew,
Till these lads made them true.
How should we praise you, lads of the old Vindictive,
Who looked Death straight in the eyes,
Till his gaze fell,
In those red gates of hell?
THE CHIVALRY OF THE SEA
(Dedicated to the memory of Charles Fisher, late student of Christ Church, Oxford.)
OVER the warring waters, beneath the wandering skies,
The heart of Britain roameth, the Chivalry of the sea,
Where Spring never bringeth a flower, nor bird singeth in a tree;
Far, afar, O beloved, beyond the sight of our eyes,
Over the warring waters, beneath the stormy skies.
Staunch and valiant-hearted, to whom our toil were play,
Ye man with armour'd patience, the bulwarks night and day,
Or on your iron coursers plough shuddering through the Bay,
Or 'neath the deluge drive the skirmishing sharks of war:
Venturous boys who leapt on the pinnace and row'd from shore,
A mother's tear in the eye, a swift farewell to say,
And a great glory at heart that none can take away.
Seldom is your home-coming; for aye your pennon flies
In unrecorded exploits on the tumultuous wave;
Till, in the storm of battle, fast-thundering upon the foe,
Ye add your kindred names to the heroes of long ago,
And 'mid the blasting wrack, in the glad sudden death o' the brave,
Ye are gone to return no more.—Idly our tears arise;
Too proud for praise as ye lie in your unvisited grave,
The wide-warring water, under the starry skies.
THE BATTLE OF THE BIGHT
HAD I that fabled herb
Which brought to life the dead,
Whom would I dare disturb
In his eternal bed?
Great Grenville would I wake,
And with glad tidings make
The soul of mighty Drake
Upheave a glorying head.
As rose the misty sun,
Our men the North Sea scanned,
And each rejoicing gun
Welcomed a foe at hand,
Eager, with thunderous throat,
To sound, for all afloat,
The world-awakening note
The world can understand.
For ev'n as birds of night,
Hoary and tawny owl,
Do sometimes brave the light,
Like bolder, nobler fowl,
So did the foe that day
Come venturing forth for prey,
Where, on the ocean way,
Our ocean watchdogs prowl.
But brief and plain, 'mid men
Not born to yield or flee,
Our cannon spoke out then
The speech that keeps us free,
And battered, with hoarse boom,
Four warships to their doom,
While one, to a fiercer tomb,
Fled blazing down the sea.
Sleep on, O Drake, sleep well,
In days not wholly dire!
Grenville, whom nought could quell,
Unquenched is still thy fire.
And thou that hadst no peer,
Nelson, thou need'st not fear!
Thy sons and heirs are here,
And shall not shame their sire.
THE SONG OF THE GUNS AT SEA
OH, hear! Oh, hear!
Across the sullen tide
Across the echoing dome horizon-wide
What pulse of fear
Beats with tremendous boom?
What call of instant doom,
With thunderstroke of terror and of pride,
With urgency that may not be denied,
Reverberates upon the heart's own drum
Come! . . . Come! . . . for thou must come!
Come forth, O Soul!
This is thy day of power.
This is the day and this the glorious hour
That was the goal
Of thy self-conquering strife.
The love of child and wife,
The fields of Earth and the wide ways of Thought—
Did not thy purpose count them all as nought
That in this moment thou thyself mayst give
And in thy country's life for ever live?
That in thy passionate prime
Youth's nobler hope disdained the spoils of Time
And thine own choice
Fore-earned for thee this day.
Rejoice! rejoice to obey
In the great hour of life that men call Death
The beat that bids thee draw heroic breath,
Deep-throbbing till thy mortal heart be dumb
Come! . . . Come! . . . the time is come!
THE skippers and the mates, they know!
The men aloft or down below,
They've heard the news and still they go.
The merchant ships still jog along,
By Bay or Cape, an endless throng,
As endless as a seaman's song.
The humbler tramps aloft display
The English flag as on the day
When no one troubled such as they.
The lesser ships—barks, schooners, brigs—
A motley crowd of many rigs,
Go on their way like farmers' gigs.
Where Æolus himself has thrones
The big four-master Glasgow owns
Through Trades and Roaring Forties drones.
The lofty liners in their pride
Stem every current, every tide:
At anchor in all ports they ride.
They signal Gib., which looks and winks;
Grave Malta sees them as she thinks;
They pass old Egypt's ageless Sphinx.
Sokotra knows them; Zanzibar
Mirrors them in its oil; they are
Hove to for pilots near and far.
For them Belle Isle and bright Penmarch
Shine million-candled through the dark,
They're inside Ushant, or by Sark.
Perim and Ormuz and Cochin
Know them and nod: the mingled din
Of cities where strange idols grin.
The wharves of sea-set Singapore,
Batavia and Colombo's shore,
Where over palms the monsoons roar.
The opened parts of shut Japan,
Chemulpo's harbour and Gensan,
Strange places, Chinese, Formosan!
Head-hunters watch them in close seas,
Timor, Gilolo, Celebes,
They sail by the New Hebrides.
Their spars are tried by southern gales,
Great alien stars shine on their sails
Set for the breeze or in the brails.
To carry home their golden rape
A thousand courses still they shape
By the lone Horn or windy Cape.
They've seen the hot seas' dreadful drouth,
The bitter gales of Sixty South,
Disasters fell and greedy mouth:
The menace of the berg and floe,
The blindness of the fog, and snow,
All these the English seamen know.
From Sydney to San Salvador
They know what they are seeking for:
Their gods are not the gods of war.
And still they calmly jog along
By Bay and Cape, an endless throng,
As endless as some dog-watch song.
DESTROYERS OFF JUTLAND
["If lost hounds could speak when they cast up next day after an unchecked night among the wild life of the dark they would talk much as our destroyers do."—Rudyard Kipling.]
THEY had hot scent across the spumy sea,
Gehenna and her sister, swift Shaitan,
That in the pack, with Goblin, Eblis ran
And many a couple more, full cry, foot-free;
The dog-fox and his brood were fain to flee,
But bare of fang and dangerous to the van
That pressed them close. So when the kill began
Some hounds were lamed and some died splendidly.
But from the dusk along the Skagerack,
Until dawn loomed upon the Reef of Horn
And the last fox had slunk back to his earth,
They kept the great traditions of the pack,
Staunch-hearted through the hunt, as they were born,
These hounds that England suckled at the birth.
THE City of God is late become a seaport town
For the clean and bronzed sailors walking up and down
And the bearded Commanders, the Captains so brave,
Bringing there the taste of the sea from the salt sea wave.
There are boys in the City's streets make holiday
And all around are playing-fields and the boys at play;
They dive in clear waters, climb many a high tree,
They look out as they used to do for a ship at sea.
The sailor keeps a clean soul on the seas untrod;
There is room in the great spaces for the Vision of God
Walking on the waters, bidding him not fear;
He has the very cleanest eyes a man can wear.
There's salt wind in Heaven and the salt sea-spray,
And the little midshipmen boys are shouting at their play.
There's a soft sound of waters lapping on the shore,
The sailor he is home from sea to go back no more.
GHOSTLY ships in a ghostly sea,—
Here's to Drake in the Spanish main!—
Hark to the turbines, running free,
Oil-cups full and the orders plain.
Plunging into the misty night,
Surging into the rolling brine,
Never a word, and never a light,—
This for England, that love of mine!
Look! a gleam on the starboard bow,—
Here's to the Fighting Temeraire!
Quartermaster, be ready now,
Two points over, and keep her there.
Ghostly ships—let the foemen grieve.
Yon's the Admiral, tight and trim,
And one more—with an empty sleeve—
Standing a little aft of him!
Slender, young, in a coat of blue,—
Here's to the Agamemnon's pride!—
Out of the mists that long he knew,
Out of the Victory, where he died,
Here, to the battle-front he came.
See, he smiles in his gallant way!
Ghostly ships in a ghostly game,
Roaring guns on a ghostly day!
There in his white silk smalls he stands,—
Here's to Nelson, with three times three!—
Coming out in the misty lands
Far, far over the misty sea.
Now the Foe is a crippled wreck,
Limping out of the deadly fight.
Smiling yond, on the quarterdeck
Stands the Spirit, all silver-bright.
THE AUXILIARY CRUISER
[H.M. Auxiliary Cruiser ——— has been lost at sea with all hands. It is presumed that she struck a mine during the gale on the night of the 12th inst. The relatives have been informed.—Admiralty Official.]
THE day closed in a wrath of cloud. The gale—
Like a fierce beast that shuns the light of day,
Skulking within the jungle till his prey
Steals forth at dusk to water at the well,—
Now leapt upon her, howling. Steep and swift,
The black sea boiled about her sky-flung bows,
And in the shrouds, the winds in mad carouse
Screamed: and in the sky's pall was no rift.
And it was cold. Oh, bitter cold it was,
The wind-whipped spray-drops froze before they fell
And tinkled on the iron decks like hail;
And every rope and block was cased in glass.
And ever wild and wilder grew the night.
Great seas lunged at her, bellowing in wrath,
Contemptuous, to sweep her from their path.
And not in all that waste one friendly light.
Alone, spray-blinded, through the clamorous murk,
By skill and courage besting the hungry sea,
Mocking the tempest's fury, staggered she.
The storm is foiled: now for the Devil's work!
The swinging bows crash down into the trough,
And with a sudden flame the sea is riven,
And a dull roar outroars the tempest even.
Her engine's pulse is stilled. It is enough.
Oh, have you ever seen a foundered horse—
His great heart broken by a task too great
For his endurance, but unbroken yet
His spirit—striving to complete his course?
Falling at last, eyes glazed and nostrils wide,
And have not ached with pity? Pity now
A brave ship shattered by a coward blow
That once had spurned the waters in her pride.
And can you picture—you who dwell secure
In sheltered houses, warm and filled with light,—
The loneliness and terror of that fight
In shrieking darkness? Feel with them (the sure
Foundation of their very world destroyed),
The sluggish lifting of the lifeless hull,
Wallowing ever deeper till, with a dull
Half-sob she plunges and the seas are void.
Yet—Oh be sure, they did not pass alone
Into the darkness all uncomforted;
For round them hovered England's mighty Dead
To greet them: and a pale poop lanthorn shone
Lighting them homeward, and a voice rang clear—
As when he cheered his own devoted band—
"Heaven's as near by sea as by the land,"
Sir Humphrey Gilbert hailed them: "Be of cheer!"
BRITISH MERCHANT SERVICE
OH, down by Millwall Basin as I went the other day,
I met a skipper that I knew, and to him I did say:
"Now what's the cargo, Captain, that brings you up this way?"
"Oh, I've been up and down (said he) and round about also . . .
From Sydney to the Skagerack, and Kiel to Callao . . .
With a leaking steam-pipe all the way to Californ-i-o . . .
"With pots and pans and ivory fans and every kind of thing,
Rails and nails and cotton bales, and sewer pipes and string . . .
But now I'm through with cargoes, and I'm here to serve the King!
"And if it's sweeping mines (to which my fancy somewhat leans)
Or hanging out with booby-traps for the skulking submarines,
I'm here to do my blooming best and give the beggars beans!
"A rough job and a tough job is the best job for me,
And what or where I don't much care, I'll take what it may be,
For a tight place is the right place when it's foul weather at sea!"
* * * * *
There's not a port he doesn't know from Melbourne to New York;
He's as hard as a lump of harness beef, and as salt as pickled pork . . .
And he'll stand by a wreck in a murdering gale and count it part of his work!
He's the terror of the fo'c'sle when he heals its various ills
With turpentine and mustard leaves, and poultices and pills . . .
But he knows the sea like the palm of his hand, as a shepherd knows the hills.
He'll spin you yarns from dawn to dark—and half of 'em are true!
He swears in a score of languages, and maybe talks in two!
And . . . he'll lower a boat in a hurricane to save a drowning crew.
A rough job or a tough job—he's handled two or three—
And what or where he won't much care, nor ask what the risk may be . . .
For a tight place is the right place when it's wild weather at sea!
THE NORTH SEA GROUND
[Reprinted by permission of the Proprietors of Punch.]
OH, Grimsby is a pleasant town as any man may find,
An' Grimsby wives are thrifty wives, an' Grimsby girls are kind,
An' Grimsby lads were never yet the lads to lag behind
When there's men's work doin' on the North Sea ground.
An' it's "Wake up, Johnnie!" for the high tide's flowin',
An' off the misty waters a cold wind blowin';
Skipper's come aboard, an' it's time that we were goin',
An' there's fine fish waitin' on the North Sea ground.
Soles in the Silver Pit—an' there we'll let 'em lie;
Cod on the Dogger—oh, we'll fetch 'em by-an'-by;
War on the water—an' it's time to serve an' die,
For there's wild work doin' on the North Sea ground.
An' it's "Wake up, Johnnie!" they want you at the trawlin'
(With your long sea-boots and your tarry old tarpaulin');
All across the bitter seas duty comes a-callin'
In the Winter's weather off the North Sea ground.
It's well we've learned to laugh at fear—the sea has taught us how;
It's well we've shaken hands with death—we'll not be strangers now,
With death in every climbin' wave before the trawler's bow,
An' the black spawn swimmin' on the North Sea ground.
Good luck to all our fightin' ships that rule the English sea;
Good luck to our brave merchantmen wherever they may be;
The sea it is their highway, an' we've got to sweep it free
For the ships passin' over the North Sea ground.
An' it's "Wake up, Johnnie!" for the sea wind's cryin';
"Time an' time to go where the herrin' gulls are flyin';"
An' down below the stormy seas the dead men lyin',
Oh, the dead lyin' quiet on the North Sea ground!
ON this primeval strip of western land,
With purple bays and tongues of shining sand,
Time, like an echoing tide,
Moves drowsily in idle ebb and flow;
The sunshine slumbers in the tangled grass
And homely folk with simple greeting pass
As to their worship or their work they go.
Man, earth, and sea
Seem linked in elemental harmony
And my insurgent sorrow finds release
In dreams of peace.
But silent, grey,
Out of the curtained haze,
Across the bay
Two fierce destroyers glide with bows afoam
And predatory gaze,
Like cormorants that seek a submerged prey.
An angel of destruction guards the door
And keeps the peace of our ancestral home;
Freedom to dream, to work, and to adore,
These vagrant days, nights of untroubled breath,
Are bought with death.
THERE'S a waterfall I'm leaving
Running down the rocks in foam,
There's a pool for which I'm grieving
Near the water-ouzel's home,
And it's there that I'd be lying
With the heather close at hand
And the curlews faintly crying
'Mid the wastes of Cumberland.
While the midnight watch is winging
Thoughts of other days arise,
I can hear the river singing
Like the saints in Paradise;
I can see the water winking
Like the merry eyes of Pan,
And the slow half-pounder sinking
By the bridge's granite span.
Ah! to win them back and clamber
Braced anew with winds I love,
From the river's stainless amber
To the morning mist above,
See through cloud-rifts rent asunder,
Like a painted scroll unfurled,
Ridge and hollow rolling under
To the fringes of the world.
Now the weary guard are sleeping,
Now the great propellers churn,
Now the harbour lights are creeping
Into emptiness astern,
While the sentry wakes and watches
Plunging triangles of light
Where the water leaps and catches
At our escort in the night.
Great their happiness who seeing
Still with unbenighted eyes
Kin of theirs who gave them being,
Sun and earth that made them wise,
Die and feel their embers quicken
Year by year in summer time,
When the cotton grasses thicken
On the hills they used to climb.
Shall we also be as they be,
Mingled with our mother clay,
Or return no more, it may be?
Who has knowledge, who shall say?
Yet we hope that from the bosom
Of our shaggy father Pan,
When the earth breaks into blossom
Richer from the dust of man,
Though the high gods smite and slay us,
Though we come not whence we go,
As the host of Menelaus
Came there many years ago;
Yet the selfsame wind shall bear us
From the same departing place
Out across the Gulf of Saros
And the peaks of Samothrace:
We shall pass in summer weather,
We shall come at eventide,
Where the fells stand up together
And all quiet things abide;
Mixed with cloud and wind and river,
Sun-distilled in dew and rain,
One with Cumberland for ever
We shall go not forth again.
WATCHMEN OF THE NIGHT
LORDS of the seas' great wilderness
The light-grey warships cut the wind;
The headland dwindles less and less;
The great waves, breaking, drench and blind
The stern-faced watcher on the deck,
While England fades into a speck.
Afar on that horizon grey
The sleepy homesteads one by one
Shine with their cheerful lights as day
Dies in the valley and is gone,
While the new moon comes o'er the hill
And floods the landscape, white and still.
But outward 'mid the homeless waste
The battle-fleet held on its way;
On either side the torn seas raced,
Over the bridge blew up the spray;
The quartermaster at the wheel
Steered through the night his ship of steel.
Once, from a masthead, blinked a light—
The Admiral spoke unto the Fleet;
Swift answers flashed along the night,
The charthouse glimmered through the sleet;
A bell rang from the engine-room,
And, ere it ceased—the great guns' boom!
Then thunder through the silence broke
And rolled along the sullen deep;
A hundred guns flashed fire and spoke,
Which England heard not in her sleep
Nor dreamed of, while her fighting sons
Fed and fired the blazing guns.
Dawn broke in England, sweet and clear;
Birds in the brake, the lark in heaven
Made musical the morning air;
But distant, shattered, scorched and riven,
Gathered the ships—aye, dawn was well
After the night's dark, raging hell.
But some came not with break of light,
Nor looked upon the saffron dawn;
They keep the watch of endless Night,
On the soft breast of ocean borne.
O waking England, rise and pray
For sons who guard thee night and day!
Scapa Flow, May, 1916.
CAPTAINS adventurous, from your ports of quiet,
From the ghostly harbours, where your sea-beat galleons lie,
Say, do your dreams go back across the sea-line
Where cliffs of England rise grey against the sky?
Say, do you dream of the pleasant ports of old-time—
Orchards of old Devon, all afoam with snowy bloom?
Or have the mists that veil the Sea of Shadows
Closed from your eyes all the memories of home?
Feet of the Captains hurry through the stillness,
Ghostly sails of galleons are drifting to and fro,
Voices of mariners sound across the shadows,
Waiting the word that shall bid them up and go.
"Lo, now," they say, "for the grey old Mother calls us,"
(Listening to the thunder of the guns about her shore,)
"Death shall not hold us, nor years that lie between us,
Sail we to England to strike for her once more."
Captains adventurous, rest ye in your havens,
Pipe your ghostly mariners to keep their watch below,
Sons of your sons are here to strike for England,
Heirs of your glory—Beatty, Jellicoe.
Yet shall your names ring on in England's story,
You who were the prophets of the mighty years to be,
Drake, Blake and Nelson, thundering down the ages,
Captains adventurous, the Masters of the Sea.
DAWN on the drab North Sea!—
Colourless, cold, and depressing,
With the sun that we long to see
Refraining from his blessing.
To the westward—sombre as doom:
To the eastward—grey and foreboding:
Comes a low, vibrating boom—
The sound of a mine exploding.
Day on the drear North Sea!—
Wearisome, drab, and relentless.
The low clouds swiftly flee;
Bitter the sky, and relentless.
Nothing at all in sight
Save the mast of a sunken trawler,
Fighting her long, last fight
With the waves that mouth and maul her.
Gale on the bleak North Sea!—
Howling a dirge in the rigging.
Slowly and toilfully
Through the great, grey breakers digging,
Thus we make our way,
Hungry, wet, and weary,
Soaked with the sleet and spray,
Desolate, damp, and dreary.
Fog in the dank North Sea!—
Silent and clammily dripping.
Slowly and mournfully,
Ghostlike, goes the shipping.
Sudden across the swell
Come the fog-horns hoarsely blaring
Or the clang of a warning bell,
To leave us vainly staring.
Night on the black North Sea!—
Black as hell's darkest hollow.
We search for the ships that follow.
One are the sea and sky,
Dim are the figures near us,
With only the sea-bird's cry
And the swish of the waves to cheer us.
Death on the wild North Sea!—
Death from the shell that shatters
(Death we will face with glee,
'Tis the weary wait that matters):—
Death from the guns that roar,
And the splinters weirdly shrieking.
'Tis fight to the death; 'tis war;
And the North Sea is redly reeking!