ALL day they loitered by the resting ships,
Telling their beauties over, taking stock;
At night the verdict left my messmate’s lips,
“The Wanderer is the finest ship in dock.”
I had not seen her, but a friend, since drowned,
Drew her, with painted ports, low, lovely, lean,
Saying, “The Wanderer, clipper, outward bound,
The loveliest ship my eyes have ever seen–
“Perhaps to-morrow you will see her sail.
She sails at sunrise”: but the morrow showed
No Wanderer setting forth for me to hail;
Far down the stream men pointed where she rode,
Rode the great trackway to the sea, dim, dim,
Already gone before the stars were gone.
I saw her at the sea-line’s smoky rim
Grow swiftly vaguer as they towed her on.
Soon even her masts were hidden in the haze
Beyond the city; she was on her course
To trample billows for a hundred days;
That afternoon the northerner gathered force,
Blowing a small snow from a point of east.
“Oh, fair for her,” we said, “to take her south.”
And in our spirits, as the wind increased,
We saw her there, beyond the river mouth,
Setting her side-lights in the wildering dark,
To glint upon mad water, while the gale
Roared like a battle, snapping like a shark,
And drunken seamen struggled with the sail.
While with sick hearts her mates put out of mind
Their little children, left astern, ashore,
And the gale’s gathering made the darkness’ blind,
Water and air one intermingled roar.
Then we forgot her, for the fiddlers played,
Dancing and singing held our merry crew;
The old ship moaned a little as she swayed.
It blew all night, oh, bitter hard it blew!
So that at midnight I was called on deck
To keep an anchor-watch: I heard the sea
Roar past in white procession filled with wreck;
Intense bright stars burned frosty over me,
And the Greek brig beside us dipped and dipped,
White to the muzzle like a half-tide rock,
Drowned to the mainmast with the seas she shipped;
Her cable-swivels clanged at every shock.
And like a never-dying force, the wind
Roared till we shouted with it, roared until
Its vast virality of wrath was thinned,
Had beat its fury breathless and was still.
By dawn the gale had dwindled into flaw,
A glorious morning followed: with my friend
I climbed the fo’c’s’le-head to see; we saw
The waters hurrying shoreward without end.
Haze blotted out the river’s lowest reach;
Out of the gloom the steamers, passing by,
Called with their sirens, hooting their sea-speech;
Out of the dimness others made reply.
And as we watched, there came a rush of feet
Charging the fo’c’s’le till the hatchway shook.
Men all about us thrust their way, or beat,
Crying, “Wanderer! Down the river! Look!”
I looked with them towards the dimness; there
Gleamed like a spirit striding out of night,
A full-rigged ship unutterably fair,
Her masts like trees in winter, frosty-bright.
Foam trembled at her bows like wisps of wool;
She trembled as she towed. I had not dreamed
That work of man could be so beautiful,
In its own presence and in what it seemed.
“So, she is putting back again,” I said.
“How white with frost her yards are on the fore.”
One of the men about me answer made,
“That is not frost, but all her sails are tore,
“Torn into tatters, youngster, in the gale;
Her best foul-weather suit gone.” It was true,
Her masts were white with rags of tattered sail
Many as gannets when the fish are due.
Beauty in desolation was her pride,
Her crowned array a glory that had been;
She faltered tow’rds us like a swan that died,
But altogether ruined she was still a queen.
“Put back with all her sails gone,” went the word;
Then, from her signals flying, rumor ran,
“The sea that stove her boats in killed her third;
She has been gutted and has lost a man.”
So, as though stepping to a funeral march,
She passed defeated homewards whence she came,
Ragged with tattered canvas white as starch,
A wild bird that misfortune had made tame.
She was refitted soon: another took
The dead man’s office; then the singers hove
Her capstan till the snapping hawsers shook;
Out, with a bubble at her bows, she drove.
Again they towed her seawards, and again
We, watching, praised her beauty, praised her trim,
Saw her fair house-flag flutter at the main,
And slowly saunter seawards, dwindling dim;
And wished her well, and wondered, as she died,
How, when her canvas had been sheeted home,
Her quivering length would sweep into her stride,
Making the greenness milky with her foam.
But when we rose next morning, we discerned
Her beauty once again a shattered thing;
Towing to dock the Wanderer returned,
A wounded sea-bird with a broken wing.
A spar was gone, her rigging’s disarray
Told of a worse disaster than the last;
Like draggled hair dishevelled hung the stay,
Drooping and beating on the broken mast.
Half-mast upon her flagstaff hung her flag;
Word went among us how the broken spar
Had gored her captain like an angry stag,
And killed her mate a half-day from the bar.
She passed to dock along the top of flood.
An old man near me shook his head and swore:
“Like a bad woman, she has tasted blood–
There’ll be no trusting in her any more.”
We thought it truth, and when we saw her there
Lying in dock, beyond, across the stream,
We would forget that we had called her fair,
We thought her murderess and the past a dream.
And when she sailed again, we watched in awe,
Wondering what bloody act her beauty planned,
What evil lurked behind the thing we saw,
What strength there was that thus annulled man’s hand,
How next its triumph would compel man’s will
Into compliance with external fate,
How next the powers would use her to work ill
On suffering men; we had not long to wait.
For soon the outcry of derision rose,
“Here comes the Wanderer!” the expected cry.
Guessing the cause, our mockings joined with those
Yelled from the shipping as they towed her by.
She passed us close, her seamen paid no heed
To what was called: they stood, a sullen group,
Smoking and spitting, careless of her need,
Mocking the orders given from the poop.
Her mates and boys were working her; we stared.
What was the reason of this strange return,
This third annulling of the thing prepared?
No outward evil could our eyes discern.
Only like one who having formed a plan
Beyond the pitch of common minds, she sailed,
Mocked and deserted by the common man,
Made half divine to me for having failed.
We learned the reason soon: below the town
A stay had parted like a snapping reed,
“Warning,” the men thought, “not to take her down.”
They took the omen, they would not proceed.
Days passed before another crew would sign.
The Wanderer lay in dock alone, unmanned,
Feared as a thing possessed by powers malign,
Bound under curses not to leave the land.
But under passing Time fear passes too;
That terror passed, the sailors’ hearts grew bold.
We learned in time that she had found a crew
And was bound out southwards as of old.
And in contempt we thought, “A little while
Will bring her back again, dismantled, spoiled.
It is herself; she cannot change her style;
She has the habit now of being foiled.”
So when a ship appeared among the haze,
We thought, “The Wanderer back again”; but no,
No Wanderer showed for many, many days,
Her passing lights made other waters glow.
But we would oft think and talk of her,
Tell newer hands her story, wondering, then,
Upon what ocean she was Wanderer,
Bound to the cities built by foreign men.
And one by one our little conclave thinned,
Passed into ships and sailed and so away,
To drown in some great roaring of the wind,
Wanderers themselves, unhappy fortune’s prey.
And Time went by me making memory dim,
Yet still I wondered if the Wanderer fared
Still pointing to the unreached ocean’s rim,
Brightening the water where her breast was bared.
And much in ports abroad I eyed the ships,
Hoping to see her well-remembered form
Come with a curl of bubbles at her lips
Bright to her berth, the sovereign of the storm.
I never did, and many years went by,
Then, near a Southern port, one Christmas Eve,
I watched a gale go roaring through the sky,
Making the cauldrons of clouds upheave.
Then the wrack tattered and the stars appeared,
Millions of stars that seemed to speak in fire;
A byre cock cried aloud that morning neared,
The swinging wind-vane flashed upon the spire.
And soon men looked upon a glittering earth,
Intensely sparkling like a world new-born;
Only to look was spiritual birth,
So bright the raindrops ran along the thorn
So bright they were, that one could almost pass
Beyond their twinkling to the source, and know
The glory pushing in the blade of grass,
That hidden soul which makes the flowers grow.
That soul was there apparent, not revealed,
Unearthly meanings covered every tree,
That wet grass grew in an immortal field,
Those waters fed some never-wrinkled sea.
The scarlet berries in the hedge stood out
Like revelations but the tongue unknown;
Even in the brooks a joy was quick: the trout
Rushed in a dumbness dumb to me alone.
All of the valley was loud with brooks;
I walked the morning, breasting up the fells,
Taking again lost childhood from the rooks,
Whose cawing came above the Christmas bells.
I had not walked that glittering world before,
But up the hill a prompting came to me,
“This line of upland runs along the shore:
Beyond the hedgerow I shall see the sea.”
And on the instant from beyond away
The long familiar sound, a ship’s bell, broke
The hush below me in the unseen bay.
Old memories came, that inner prompting spoke.
And bright above the hedge a seagull’s wings
Flashed and were steady upon empty air.
“A Power unseen,” I cried, “prepares these things;
Those are her bells, the Wanderer is there.”
So, hurrying to the hedge and looking down,
I saw a mighty bay’s wind-crinkled blue
Ruffling the image of a tranquill town,
With lapsing waters glimmering as they grew.
And near me in the road the shipping swung,
So stately and so still in such a great peace
That like to drooping crests their colors hung,
Only their shadows trembled without cease.
I did but glance upon these anchored ships.
Even as my thought had told, I saw her plain;
Tense, like a supple athlete with lean hips,
Swiftness at pause, the Wanderer come again–
Come as of old a queen, untouched by Time,
Resting the beauty that no seas could tire,
Sparkling, as though the midnight’s rain were rime,
Like a man’s thought transfigured into fire,
And as I looked, one of her men began
To sing some simple tune of Christmas day;
Among her crew the song spread, man to man,
Until the singing rang across the bay;
And soon in other anchored ships the men
Joined in the singing with clear throats, until
The farm-boy heard it up the windy glen,
Above the noise of sheep-bells on the hill.
Over the water came the lifted song–
Blind pieces in a mighty game we sing;
Life’s battle is a conquest for the strong;
The meaning shows in the defeated thing.