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Title: I Heard a Sailor

Date of first publication: 1925

Author: Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)

Date first posted: Apr. 24, 2015

Date last updated: Apr. 24, 2015

Faded Page eBook #20150446

This ebook was produced by: Marcia Brooks, Al Haines, Alex White & the online Distributed Proofreaders Canada team at http://www.pgdpcanada.net
























































The Anniversary
The White Whippet
The New Oilskins
The Sacrifice
The Wreck
The Colt
The Blind-Worm
Ned Nixon and his Maggie
Dead Man’s Brow
The Rose
New Moon—I
New Moon—II
New Moon—III
The Chestnut-Blossom
The Maid and her Mother
At the Pit-head
He and She
Black-Country Night
The Ragged Birk
Sally Black and Geordie Green
The Wishing-Well
The Parrot
The Bat
Annabel Rose and Jeremiah Fairley
The Concertina
The Hand
Girl’s Song
Drowned at Sea
The Promise
The Weazel
Katherine Veitch
Watty Lee and Young Dick
The Master
Why won’t you Stay?
Mother and Maid
Down the Dale
The Raven’s Croak
Young Richard
The Chance-Bairn
The Escape
Rachel Reed
I heard a Sailor
Gallows’ Bank
The Fowler
. . . As Scarlet . . .
The Buried Camp
The Rocket
The Rider of the White Horse
Where neither Moth nor Rust
The Voice
The Wind-Bells
Michael’s Song
To Michael
A Garland for Jocelyn
A Child’s Delight
The Pool
The Boat
The Adder
In the Burrow
The Guillotine
The Pit
In Course of Time
The Purple Orchis
The Sail
All Being Well
In the Wood
Buried Love
The Dark Glen
No Barren Flame
Hewer of Wood
Beauty for Ashes
The Parting
The Disaster
The Moss
Young Man Catchieside and Old Man Jobling
The Little Red Calf
The Bed at the Inn
The Stones
The Quarry
The Pearl
The Toll
Northern Spring
The Undying Fire
Outward Bound



What bring you, sailor, home from the sea

Coffers of gold and of ivory?


When first I went to sea as a lad

A new jack-knife was all I had:


And I’ve sailed for fifty years and three

To the coasts of gold and of ivory:


And now at the end of a lucky life,

Well, still I’ve got my old jack-knife.


The clicking of the latch,

Then the scratch

Of a match

In the darkness and a sudden spurt of flame—


And I saw you standing there

All astare

In the flare,

And I stepped to meet you, crying on your name.


But the match went out, alack,

And the black

Night came back

To my heart, as I recalled with sudden fear


How upon your dying bed

You had said

That the dead

Return to haunt the faithless once a year.


Squatted on their hunkers at the corner of the street

Outside the Pouter Pigeon a knot of pitmen sat

Waiting for the doors to open, cursing the raw sleet,

Or muttering with husky throats dully of this and that:


When suddenly within the ring of the street-lamp’s gusty flame,

Out of the stormy shadows of the black November night,

Like a little slip of moonshine a snow-white whippet came

And stayed one breathless moment before their startled sight.


Speechless they gazed upon her as she stood with lifted paw,

Clean-limbed, with quivering muzzle and jetty eyes agleam,

Nor heard the doors swing open wide as each lad looked with awe

One moment on the vision of his own heart’s secret dream.


And him, in his new oilskins, too!

Was all she said

When up the brae and to her door

We bore her dead.


We laid the corpse the sea had stripped

Upon the bed,

And left the widow to her watch

Beside the dead.


And him, in his new oilskins, too!

Was all she said:

Yet when we sailed again at dawn

The wife was dead.


He slipped aside

The white-hot slide

And gazed upon the bubbling steel:

And stood astare

Until the glare

Had blinded him, and like a wheel

With white-hot felloe sparking red

His brain was turning in his head.


Night after night

He’d watched that white

And bubbling hell-broth seethe and boil:

His wits had fed

The furnace red

Till now, at last released from toil,

He shrivelled up without a whine

Before the fire-god’s glowing shrine.


She broke amidships: as the hull

Parted, the boxes from the hold

Poured crashing out, and she went down

Into a sea of ruddy gold:


And in a twinkling I was dropped

Into the swallow and the strife

Of surf, to battle in a swirl

Of floating oranges for life.


The colt kicked his heels in the air

And rolled in the dew,

As dandy and devil-may-care

I went out to woo.


Hock-deep in the mire and the muck

He stood in the rain,

As dowly and down on my luck

I crept home again.


My heart when I set out to woo

Was a colt in the sun,

But a drookit and draggle-tailed screw

When the wooing was done.


When I stroked his cold dry skin,

His black tongue flickered out and in.


Flicker your black tongue three times three

If my true love is safe at sea.


I stroked him thrice and thrice, and then

I stroked his cold skin twice again:


And each time out the quick tongue came,

And flickered like a wee black flame.


At three times three, my fingers shook:

I shut my eyes, afraid to look;


And when I opened them the snake

Had vanished in the withered brake.


We heaved the body overboard—

The tenth man who had died:

Then gasping side by side

Askance each other eyed.


The sea was glass, the sky was brass—

The boat a white-hot grid

Beneath that brazen lid

As to the thwarts we slid


Each eyeing still the other, each

Knowing the other knew

The one thought of the two—

Who should heave over who?


Which of the twain left out of twelve

On that dead sea accurst

Should first give in and first

Fall to the fiend of thirst?


Which of the twain be left to heave

A corpse of skin and bone

O’erboard to sink like stone;

And then drop back alone


Yet living to the thwarts, alone

On blistering boards to lie

Unburied ’neath that sky

Of brass, eternally


Thirsting for bottomless long draughts

Of home-brewed bitter beer,

Icy and amber-clear . . .

The barmaid holds so near,


So near the lips, then snatches back

Just as you stoop to drink,

And lets fall with a clink

And splash into the sink . . .


When suddenly his eyes burned red:

He rose and with a cry

Plunged overboard, and I,

Who somehow could not die,


Was left—to come once more to port . . .

And in my bed again

Heave over ten dead men

Night after night, and then


Watch jealously again while he

Dives headlong—mad to leap

With him into death’s deep

And everlasting sleep!


Will you come with me, Maggie, to Stagshaw Bank Fair?

Come with you where—come with you where?

Do you fancy a lass has naught better to do

Than to go gallivanting, Ned Nixon, with you?


If you come with me, Maggie, I’ll buy you a ring.

You’ll do no such thing—you’ll do no such thing.

Do you fancy I’d let my lad squander his pence

On tokens and trinkets and such-like nonsense?


Come, Maggie, come, Maggie, we’re only once young!

Now hold your fool’s tongue—now hold your fool’s tongue!

If we’re only young once it behoves us to be

A common-sense couple and act cannily.


Time enough, Maggie, for sense when were old.

Does copper turn gold—does copper turn gold,

Or a guff turn wiseacre at three-score-and-ten?

Anyhow, I’m for taking no chances with men.


Then must I go lonesome to Stagshaw Bank Fair?

What do I care—what do I care?

But if you go lonesome I’d have you to know

It’s lonesome the rest of your life you will go.


As for the first time over Dead Man’s Brow

That snell November day I drove the share

The coulter struck a stone that checked the plough,

Tilting it upright with the hafts in air.


With arms well-nigh out of their sockets jerked

I tried to drag the handles down in vain;

Then, stooping, long with breaking back I worked

To free the coulter, till with thews astrain


At length I lifted a huge slab that lay

Lid-fashion on a kist of up-edged stones,

Uncovering to the light and air of day

A huddled skeleton of ash-grey bones.


With knee-joints drawn up to its jowl, it clasped

Its bony arms about its ribs, and seemed

To shudder from the icy east that rasped

My living cheek; and as the chill light gleamed


Upon its flawless teeth of fleckless white

The girning skull gaped at me with a groan—

Why have you broken in upon the night?

Why can’t you let a buried man alone?


This thousand-year I’ve lain in dreamless rest,

Forgetful of the wind that flicked my blood

And roused the hunting hunger in my breast

To course the fells and ford the brawling flood


Of burns that thundered in a winter spate,

Questing a quarry that for ever fled

Beyond the further fell-top, until fate

Tripped me and tumbled me among the dead;


And I at last knew peace and slept secure

Within my quiet little house of stones.

Must I another doom of life endure?

Why have you waked the hunger in my bones?


I dropped the slab; and took the hafts and turned

My team, and made back homewards with my plough,

Leaving the hunter to the rest he’d earned

Beneath the windy bent of Dead Man’s Brow.


Standing on the hot white quay

With her hands upon her hips,

Gaily she glanced down at me,

A red rose between her lips.


As I looked up from the stern

Suddenly that rose’s red

In my blood began to burn

Till a fire was in my head,


And that hair as black as night

Up against the blazing blue,

And those jet eyes sparking bright

And that red rose slowly drew


All my very heart’s blood out:

And I followed in a spell

When she smiled and turned about—

But I caught the rose’s smell


As my lips to hers drew near:

And I paused . . . and stood again

With my arms round my own dear

By a rosebush in the rain.


Vanished was that hot white quay

In a garden’s rainy gloam

As my heart came back to me

On the rose’s breath of home.



New moon, he said—the first

I’ve ever seen through glass:

Well, let us hope the worst

Won’t come to pass.


A wheen new moons I’ve seen,

For I am ninety-three,

And never aught between

The moon and me.


She’s bonnie still, said he,

Though something sharp and cold.

We’ll see what we shall see

When she is old.



A skirling squeaky piping—

Tweedledee, tweedledee,

And the drubbing of a drum,

Tum . . . tum . . .

And the niggers on the quay

Stole my young heart from the sea;

And I leapt ashore and shuffled with them,

Ruffled with them, scuffled with them,

Prancing to that piping—

Tweedledee, tweedledee,

To the piping sharp and thin

That gets underneath the skin,

And the drubbing of the drum,

Tum . . . tum . . .

That rumbles through the midriff like the roll of kingdom-come—

Tum . . . tum . . . tum . . .


And I couldn’t face my messmates

When they’d seen me foot it there

To the drubbing of the drum—

Tum . . . tum . . .

Galumphing like a bear

Mother-naked to the air

With a lot of fantee stumping niggers,

Clumping belly-thumping niggers—

Lost to England, Home, and Beauty

By the piping sharp and thin

That gets underneath the skin,

And the drubbing of the drum—

Tum . . . tum . . .

That rumbles through the midriff like the roll of kingdom-come—

Tum . . . tum . . . tum . . .



Night without a break

Brooded overhead

As we lay awake

On our bracken-bed.


So I shut my eyes,

Burdened by the weight

Of those starless skies

And our luckless fate.


But as I lay still

She sat up in bed:

Turn your coppers, Bill—

The new moon! she said.


The chestnut-blossom fell

In the dark waters of the well

As, crouching on the coping-stone, he hearkened

To catch the first note of the passing-bell.


The blossom, white and red,

Floats lightly where it falls, he said—

But there are drowning deeps in those dark waters

For him who plunges boldly without dread.


One passing-bell, said he—

One bell shall serve for her and me,

To speed our souls upon their way together

Through the dark portals of eternity.


But, even as he dreamed,

Thicklier the falling blossom streamed

Down the well-shaft and, settling on the water,

Like the white body of his love it seemed:


And, shot with sudden dread

As the first note boomed overhead,

He shrank from plunging through that drift of blossom,

And home, with fingers in his ears, he fled.


Hark to the curlew

Whistling down the syke!


Who ever heard the like!

What bird may it be, then?

Never any bird

Whistled will you walk with me

That ever I heard.


Who can it be, then,

Whistling down the syke?

Some lonely laddie

Behind the stell-dyke.

What shall I answer?

Bless you, my bird,

No lassie ever questioned

That ever I heard.


Black was his face

With the dust of the pit,

But bright as hot coals

His eyes burned in it


The first time I felt

His gaze fixed on me,

And wondering turned

Half-frightened to see


The fire of his heart

That paled the sunshine

Blazing out of the eyes

That looked into mine


Till an answering flame

In my bosom was lit

By those eyes burning out

From the mirk of the pit.


Come, give me your answer:

You know that I love you true.

Pluck me a speedwell,

And happen I’ll answer you.


A speedwell! How should I

Know one from another bloom?

You must wait for your answer,

Then, till the day of doom.


You can’t pick a speedwell,

And yet you’ve a fancy you

Can choose out a maiden?

And wed her and all, I do!


Though happen I mayn’t know

One bloom from another bloom—

It’s now for your answer,

And this be the day of doom.


Suddenly the hiss of steam

In the quiet of the night—

And I wake to watch the gleam

Of the leaping furnace-light.


I have barely dropped asleep,

Barely for a breath forgot

The hot blasts of hate that keep

Anger in my heart still hot,


When that hissing in the dark,

Like the night deriding me,

Blows to blaze the smouldering spark—

To a glare that instantly


Fills the cauldron of my brain;

And I rise to pace the room

Till the labouring day again

Calls me with the buzzer’s boom.


You have come back?—he said.

I have come back.

Tell me, is someone dead,

That you wear black?


Where have you been, my son—

Come, tell me where?

Life’s now but little fun,

Tied to a chair


Brooding the whole day long

On days gone by

When I was young and strong—

I, even I!


Speak, lad, and tell me now

Where you have been?

Over the Dead Man’s Brow

To Birkshaw Green.


Did John go with you, too?

Ay, he was there.

Walking, the two of you,

Taking the air?


Well to be young, my lad,

Tramping the heather—

Can’t I just see you, gad,

Chattering together,


Careless and free and gay,

You and your brother!

Little we found to say,

One to the other.


What, you’ve not quarrelled, Ben?

Quarrelled? Nay, dad!

Where have you left him, then—

Quick, tell me, lad?


Where is my younger son?

Under the birk.

The birk? Ay, the ragged one

Hard by the kirk.


Left him, my little Jack,

There in the night?

And he—does he, too, wear black?

Nay, he wears white.


Oh, where may you be going with your black mare sleeked so shinily,

With her four hoofs newly-varnished and her feathers combed so clean,

With her mane and tail straw-plaited, pranked so gay and smart and nattily

With red and yellow ribbons tied in lovelocks, Geordie Green?

I be going to the Fair

With my mare.


Then won’t you take me with you, for I’ve never been to Stagshaw Bank,

Nor a hiring nor a hopping, though I’m nearly seventeen,

And I’ve never had a fairing, faldalal nor whigmaleerie nor

A red and yellow ribbon for my lovelocks, Geordie Green?

I can’t manage but one mare

At the Fair.


Now what can you be fearing, and I but a young lassie, too,

And you, a lad of twenty? But if so it be you’re mean,

I’ve saved up thirteen pennies, so no need to fear I’ll beggar you

Or be beholden to you for one farthing, Geordie Green.

I’ll be getting to the Fair

With my mare.


Then gan your gait and luck to you at Stagshaw Bank, your mare and you;

But maybe you’ll be rueing when you see me like a queen

In Farmer Dodd’s new dogcart with the shafts and spokes picked out with red

Overtake you on the road there and flash by you, Geordie Green.

Yet I’ll happen reach the Fair

With my mare.


Three whaups rose from the moss

As I came by,

And, whistling, wheeled across

The darkening sky.


Three hoolets from the fern

Flew silently,

And vanished down the burn

In front of me.


And, stumbling through the gloam,

My heart’s adread

For three I left at home

Hapt safe in bed.


Lass, I’ve heard tell

That in this well

The Roman folk would chuck,

When things were going ill with them,

A coin or so for luck.


And their great Wall’s a ruin on the fell,

And naught of their camp living but this well!


Ay, lass, that’s so;

And yet although

Their rampart could not stand,

Who knows but luck meant getting back

Again to their own land?


So, you’ve chucked our last copper in the well?

Well, what luck is or isn’t, who can tell!


Long since I’d ceased to care

Though he should curse and swear

The little while he spent at home with me:

And yet I couldn’t bear

To hear his parrot swear

The day I learned my man was drowned at sea.


He’d taught the silly bird

To jabber word for word

Outlandish oaths that he’d picked up at sea;

And now it seemed I heard

In every wicked word

The dead man from the deep still cursing me.


A flood of easing tears,

Though I’d not wept for years,

Brought back old long-forgotten dreams to me,

The foolish hopes and fears

Of the first half-happy years

Before his soul was stolen by the sea.


She dreamed she lay in frozen fear,

Yet living, in the icy tomb . . .

And wakened in the dark to hear

A bat flit-flitter round her room.


Unseen in the cold pitchy night

It circled swiftly overhead

Unceasingly in frightened flight,

Till, as she quaked upon her bed,


Too overcome with fear to stir,

One icicle from head to feet,

The flit-flit-flitter seemed to her

The flurry of her own heart’s beat—


Her young heart flying round and round

Imprisoned in its own despair—

The stone-cold chamber underground

With no escape to light and air,


No window to the sun, no door

To winds that call the wanderer,

Where she must dwell for evermore

Since life had broken faith with her.


Why did you call me, Jeremiah Fairley—

Why did you call me as I went by?

Never had the blackbird sung more rarely,

Never had the sun shone brighter in the sky

Than when I heard you calling, crying on my name,

And into my young heart the strange trouble came.

Why did you answer me, Annabel Rose?

Goodness gracious only knows!

Annabel Rose, you’re speaking true,

And that is just my answer too.


Why did you marry me, Jeremiah Fairley?

Why did you carry me home to your farm?

Bleak blows the wind and the sun shines rarely,

And little care you now if I should come to harm.

Why did you marry me and give me your name

To bring me to trouble and sorrow and shame?

Why did you come with me, Annabel Rose?

Goodness gracious only knows!

Annabel Rose, you’re speaking true,

And that is just my answer too.


Why must a young lass be such a featherhead

To trip to the beck and nod of any man?

Life’s never been all lying on a featherbed

For any farm-wife since the world began.

Why should a lass, then, unless she is mad,

Give up her freedom to drudge for any lad?

What’s the use of asking, Annabel Rose?

Goodness gracious only knows!

Annabel Rose, you’re speaking true,

And that is just my answer too.


I’ve done with the sea, he said

Each time he came ashore;

But ever before the month was out

With empty pocket Melchisedek Prout

Signed on for one trip more.


And nothing at all he said

When it came to sink or swim:

It warn’t for the likes of an old A.B.

To say that he was done with the sea

Till the sea was done with him.


The twangling of a zither

And the thin

Tinkle of a mandolin

With the plunking of guitars

Underneath the Naples stars

Is a pretty sort of music to while away a night

With delight:

But a concertina playing in a pub at Hartlepool

For a devil-rousing racket can put the lot to school.


If I’d only stayed at Naples


In that café by the shore,

Listening to the pretty tunes

Of Italian pantaloons,

I’d still have hopes of glory and a mansion in the sky


But the devil in his tangles took and tripped me like a fool

When he played a concertina in a pub at Hartlepool.


This hand, Tod said—you see this hand,

Four fingers and a thumb . . .

It’s difficult to understand . . .

And Dan, in kingdom-come!


A hand like any other hand—

The very same that he

Gripped when he came, the first to land

After ten months at sea.


It’s difficult to understand,

Now that Dan’s lying dead,

That it’s still plump and brown, my hand

That should be shrunk and red!


Clip-clopclop, clip-clopclop—

The overstepping mare,

And Farmer Hogg comes here again:

But I—what do I care?


While Dicky sports a spanking cob

That canters light as air,

I’ll never wed a man that drives

An overstepping mare.


I was so happy that I hardly knew it,

Nor ever guessed that life was not all play,

And little dreamt I’d live to see the dawning

Of such a day—

Oh why, why should it be

That suddenly

Life should seem strange and terrible to me?


I’d never cared for lads like other lasses

Nor heeded overmuch what they might say,

And little dreamt I’d live to see the dawning

Of such a day—

Oh why, why should it be

That suddenly

A lad’s word should mean life and death to me?


His fathers sleep in steadfast graves

Under the unadventurous mould;

But him, who for the salt sea sold

His birthright, still the vagrant waves

In endless vagabondage hold.


Not his the kindly sleep of earth

Who ever scorned the soil in life:

Tied to no spot by bairns and wife,

Sea-called and chosen from his birth,

He keeps the way of salty strife:


Far from the quiet fields of home

Where all his folk clod-cumbered lie,

On tossing crests when winds are high

His spirit rides through crashing foam

And whistles to the whistling sky.


Faint as a watch’s tick,

As Kate stood by the sea,

She seemed to hear his pick

Tapping unceasingly

In the dark workings of the pit

To earn the price of brat and bit.


She watched the light wind whisk

The curd from creaming waves

And glancing waters glisk

And glint in hanging caves,

While in her heart she heard the sound

Of Robert hewing underground.


And as she stood adream,

Her young heart keeping beat

With his in that dark seam

Fathoms beneath her feet,

Haze-gazing on the unseen tide,

She felt a new pulse in her side—


The pulse of waking life

That promised he and she

Not merely man and wife

Ever again should be,

Since now into their coil of cares

Came a small heart to beat with theirs.


A streak of red, the weazel shot

Into the Gallows Wood:

I heard a dying rabbit squeal,

And for a moment stood


Uncertain—then, as by some spell,

Drawn in through briar and thorn,

I followed in the weazel’s track,

By clutching brambles torn.


Blindly I followed till I came

To a clearing in the fir;

Then startled suddenly I stopped

As my glance lit on her—


The strapping red-haired tinker-wench

Who stood with hands on hips,

And watched me with defiant eyes

And parted panting lips.


At first I only saw her eyes,

Her lips, her hair’s fierce red:

And then I saw the huddled man

Who at her feet lay dead.


She saw I saw, yet never blenched,

But still looked straight at me

With parted lips and steady eyes,

And muttered quietly—


I’ll go: no need to make a fuss,

Though you’ve come gey and quick:

You must have smelt the blood—and so

The hangman takes the trick!


But what care I, since I am free

Of him and all his lies,

Since I have stopped his dirty tongue

And shut his sneaky eyes.


What matter though I kick my heels

In air for settling Jim?

The vermin’s dead: at least I’ll make

A cleaner end than him.


Before the Tarragona came

I’d never even heard her name,

Nor dreamt what it would mean to me

When she again put out to sea.


Before the Tarragona came

No one might breathe a word of blame

Of me, or look askance at me,

Since I was born beside the sea.


Now day and night the bitter name

Sounds in my ear the word of shame,

And Tarragona means to me

The false heart of the fickle sea.


He fell at Loos: and when she heard

The tidings, though she did not stir,

Some light within her at the word

Was darkened, and it seemed to her

Death sought to snatch her bairn from her—

To snatch her sucking babe from her:


And she forgot that he had grown

A hefty lad to be her pride,

A shepherd for skilled piping known

Throughout the hilly Borderside

Until death took him from her side,

No more to seek his minney’s side.


By day or night she cannot rest—

Stravaging over Auchopecairn

She clutches to her naked breast

An old clout-dolly like a bairn,

And moans—My bairn, my hinney bairn!

Death shall not have my wee bit bairn!


Now where may you be gadding to with such a dandy buttonhole—

If my eyes do not deceive me it’s a sweetheart-picotee,

And in your Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and bowler hat and all?

I’m going to Saint Andrew’s Church, as surely you might see,

Watty Lee.

Ay, maybe!


Though it’s well enough on Sundays for the folk who’ve got naught else to do,

The church on weekday mornings is no place for you or me

Who’ve got our bread and cheese to earn; so what can you be after, Dick?

I’m going to be married there, as surely you might see,

Watty Lee.

Ay, maybe!


Then you don’t know where you’re going, Dick, for all your dandy buttonhole,

No more than any other lad who sports a picotee

And dons his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and bowler hat and all.

You’re surely hard of hearing or your wits are all at sea,

Watty Lee.

Ay, maybe!


Nigh to the window-sill the snow

Had drifted when ’twas time to go,

And, lifted shoulder-high, we bore

The master from Starkacre door.


His wellbeloved fields in snow

Were shrouded when ’twas time to go,

And in the shieling snug and warm

His flock was sheltered from the storm.


Stormbound and blinded by the snow

Nor sheep nor pasture saw him go,

Although his whole heart’s hopes and fears

Had been bound up in them for years.


Indifferent to the driving snow

He went when it was time to go,

And yet it’s hard to think that he

Left flock and field indifferently.


Why won’t you stay at home with me?

How the devil should I know, mother?

I’ve never wanted to go to sea,

And yet, and yet, somehow or other . . .


Why won’t you stay at home with me?

How the devil should I know, lass?

I’ve never wanted to go to sea,

Yet, somehow, when I’ve had a glass . . .


Why won’t you stay at home with me?

How the devil should I know, wife?

I’ve never wanted to go to sea,

Yet, somehow, I’ve signed on for life.


And where be you stravaging to at such an hour of night?

To look on Allen Water in the full moonlight.

Go your wilful ways then; but you will learn too soon

That no good comes to any lass from looking on the moon.


And where be you stravaging to at this unearthly hour?

To hearken to the hoolet that hoots by Staward Tower.

Round the Peel at midnight the brags and horneys prowl,

And no good comes to any lass from listening to the owl.


So don’t say I’ve not warned you whatever may betide.

And what should I be fearing with Robert at my side?

What should you be fearing? Since the world began

No good has come to any lass from walking with a man.


Nannie’s going down the dale

Peter fleered as I went by.

Meaning soon I’d come to lie

In the graveyard by the Swale.


Hearing him I just stopped dead,

Turned and eyed him up and down

From the toecap to the crown,

But no single word I said.


Peter’s years were just three score

Short of mine—a likely lad:

Yet, while I’ve the health I had,

Peter Perkins is no more.


To a scrag of skin and bone

Dwining like a body curst,

Peter reached the dalefoot first,

Overtaking the old crone.


The raven, he croaks on the cairn

A wife had a bairn;

And the bairn was her heart’s delight

From morning till night:

But when he grew up, with a knife

He let out her life;

And they took him and strung him on high

To dance in the sky,

Then cut down the corpse, and a cairn

Built over her bairn—

Ay, buried his mother’s delight

In the dead of the night:

And naught but a rackle of bones

Lies under the stones.


So the old raven croaks on the cairn

As I dandle my bairn.


Slicing the swedes for the steers

At the blink of the light,

Young Richard remembers with tears

The luck of last night—


Last night when he put to the test

His dream of a home,

And poured out the love of his breast

At the fall of the gloam—


To the spurting of milk in the pail

In the dusk of the byre,

Poured into Meg’s ears the whole tale

With bosom afire;


Then waited, with blood running cold,

For a token of grace;

When the lass looked up brazen and bold

And laughed in his face;


And he flinched from the flick of her mirth

As a colt from the lash—

His golden dream crumbled to earth,

A heap of cold ash:


And he wandered the whole night forlorn

By braeside and slack

Till the first chilly glint of the morn

Brought day’s labour back.


And now as he slices the swedes

It seems that the knife

Cuts clean through his heart, and it bleeds

A torrent of life—


A torrent of hot life unstayed;

Yet the quivering flesh

Re-knits, that each fall of the blade

May cleave it afresh.


Of her calf bereft,

All night long she lows:

Of her firstling joy

Born of anguished throes

Naught to her is left.


Six sweet days of bliss

Swelled her heart with pride

While her baby boy

Nuzzled her warm side,

All to end in this—


Hollow echoing night,

One long empty ache

Moaning sleeplessly:

And I lie awake

Praying that the light


Of the morrow’s morn

Bring to her the rest

Still denied to me,

Since from out my breast

My first love was torn.


A bag-of-bones with nodding head

I met at Tavernspite.

You’re old for travelling, I said,

Although you travel light.


I travel light enough, my son,

Though roads be stiff and steep,

Since my twelve children one by one

Have cried themselves to sleep,


And my old woman took to bed

A year come Christmas night.

With neither kith nor kin, he said,

An old man travels light.


In the dead man’s bed I lay

Longing for the break of day—

Light enough for me to rise

And feast the first time eager eyes

On the pastures broad and fair

That had fallen to my share

As my uncle’s only heir.


Last night in the wintry gloam

I had come to Barracomb:

Never in my life before

Had I opened the front door,

Never crossed the threshold-stone—

I who hadn’t even known

The old man who’d lived alone


Reckless of his kin till death

Laid him low and choked his breath,

Forcing him to let his lands

Pass into a stranger’s hands—

Forcing him to leave his home

High on windy Barracomb

For a lodging in the loam.


In the wide and creaky bed

All night long I’d tossed, my head

Filled with plans of all I’d do

Now good fortune had come true,

And the wealth he’d held so fast

In his miser-grip at last

Into better hands had passed:


When, as I lay there wide-eyed,

Someone seemed to quit my side,

Though all night alone I’d lain;

And against the window-pane

Stood a ghostly form and grey

Peering out across the brae

For the first chill glint of day.


Stark with dread I lay astare

Watching that strange shadow there,

Dark against the kindling sky;

And my blood ran cold as I

Wondered if that shape might be

The ghost of old John Heatherly

Or my own fetch awaiting me.


The corbie and the kestrel

Are robbers to all the rest,

But the corbie gives chase to the kestrel

That hovers too near his nest

When fatherhood’s fierce tenderness

Kindles the corbie’s breast.


The corbie and the kestrel

Are robbers to all the rest—

But better for you, my sorrow,

Sucking my bitter breast,

Better for you had you been born

In the fierce corbie’s nest.


Toothless, lanthorn-jawed and bald,

Bent and hobbling on two sticks,

Helpless by his burning ricks

Old Jake Jackson raged and called—

Bawled and called in vain for help:

All his hands were at the fair

Junketing, and none was there

To hear or heed his frantic yelp

As he watched the thirsty flame

Lapping up his golden wheat,

Till at last the glare and heat

His old senses overcame,

And he flung away his sticks—

Nimble as a two-year-old

Leapt into the roaring gold

And perished with his burning ricks.


When they came back from the fair

All in vain for him they called,

Round the steading searched and bawled—

Could not find him anywhere—

Bawled and called for him in vain:

Ricks and man were smouldering ash

Sizzling in the sudden splash

Of a burst of thunder-rain.


Though they raked the ashes through,

Of their master they found naught:

So the coffin he had bought

Second-hand, as good as new,

And beneath his bed had kept,

Was no bargain after all;

And the grave-plot by the wall

Nigh where his forefathers slept,

He’d long rented, wasted too!

Not for him in clammy gloom

To await the crack of doom,

Seeped and sodden through and through

In the sour and wormy mould

Where his outstripped kinsmen lie—

He the first to reach the sky

Charioted in fiery gold!


The forepeak raked the stars

As we drove upon the Scars,

Then dipped into a boiling broth of hell:

With his arms about my neck,

I was sinking with the wreck,

When I drew my little knife and used it well—


In his thrapple to the haft

Sheathed my gully, and I laughed

As I felt his death-grip loosen round my own;

And I struck out for the land,

And was slung upon the strand

By a wave that took and tossed me like a stone.


Stunned and senseless there I lay

Till I roused at blink of day

To feel a leaden burden on my chest;

And as I strove to rise

I looked down into the eyes

Of the dead man’s head that lolled upon my breast.


Stark and staring he lay there,

And the waves had stripped him bare

Ere they’d flung his broken body over me:

And I rose as if in sleep,

Howked a hole, and dark and deep

I buried him beside the Northern sea—


Rolled a rock above his grave

Lest a sudden scouring wave

Should scoop his naked carcase from the sand:

Then I left him—so I thought—

Dead and done with, and I sought

Food and shelter from the people of the land—


Left him buried. . . . But for me

There’s no sleep by land or sea,

For always when I’m dropping off to rest

I am startled wide awake,

And all night I lie and quake

With the deadweight of a corpse upon my chest.


Yet never in this life

Have I used the butcher’s knife,

Never sailed the seas nor left my native shore;

And I know not from what deep

Stirs the doom that breaks my sleep

To keep lykewake with the dead for evermore.


    Dance for your daddy,

    My canny laddie,

    Dance for your mammy,

    My wee lamb. . . .


Daylong beside the smouldering slack

She dodders, crooning with a grin—

Who, one wanchancy seven-night back,

Was hale to work day out day in—


Who’d rise at the first glisk of light,

And take no ease until the sun

Behind Black Belling dipped from sight,

Her long and lonesome day’s darg done.


And as she singled swedes she had

Just one thought ever in her mind—

How one fine night her headstrong lad

That she could neither hold nor bind


Would come again to Callerlea

When he had had his coltish fling

To rest beneath his own rooftree

Dog-weary with calleevering.


Bone-tired she crept to bed that night

And slumbered sound till twelve o’clock,

Then started, listening, bolt-upright,

Awaked by some unearthly shock.


She heard his footstep on the stair:

She heard the clicking of the sneck:

The door swung wide, and he stood there—

A ghostly halter round his neck.


    Dance for your daddy,

    My canny laddie,

    Dance for your mammy,

    My wee lamb. . . .


Three hundred years the Forsters’ flocks had grazed

Stillchesters, by the ploughshare never broken,

Till the wanchancy day the word was spoken

That gave the strangers leave to dig, and raised

The dead to trouble us and drive us crazed.


They told us that Stillchesters once had been

A Roman camp, and that the walls yet lay

Beneath the smooth turf buried from the day.

Would God those broken walls still lay unseen

Beneath the kindly turfs unbroken green!


They took us with their talk of fighting men,

Of Spanish cohorts, altars, and rich treasure,

And so I gave them leave to have their pleasure

With my best pasture, little dreaming then

Stillchesters never should know peace again.


It’s true my poor old mother tried to warn

Her foolish son, and looked at me sore-frightened,

But when I saw how my young wife’s eyes brightened

At their fine words I granted leave. The morn

They cut the turf our only son was born.


Although till then the Forsters had been fair,

And though his mother’s hair was yellow too,

And her bright eyes like mine a Northern blue,

The bairn was sallow-skinned and had dark hair,

And looked at us with big black eyes astare.


His mother loved her headstrong gipsy sore,

But he was aye a changeling from that day,

Until he broke her heart and went away

To be a soldier, ’listing for a war

In foreign lands, and never came back more.


Three hundred years the Forsters’ flocks had grazed

Stillchesters, till a light word rashly said

Unearthed old quarrels of the ancient dead,

And some black Spaniard’s restless spirit raised

To drive the last of all the Forsters crazed—


To drive the last of all the Forsters fey,

Rousing the fighting fever in his blood

Whose sires had all been shepherds since the Flood:

So when my time comes, as it must one day,

Whose flocks shall graze Stillchesters, who can say?


    I heard a sailor talking,

    As he tossed upon his bed

    In hot uneasy slumber,

    And this is what he said:


Why does she shake her head at me

Until her ear-rings tinkle,

Though all the while her merry smile

Keeps her blue eyes atwinkle?


Why does she slyly glance at me

As she pours out the wine,

Then pucker up her pretty lips

And hold them up to mine?


Why does she suddenly draw back

And o’er my shoulder stare?

Why does that silly parrot screech?

Why does the gas-jet flare?


And who’s the lad that’s running round

Upon the heaving floor

With a knife betwixt his shoulder-blades—

And cannot find the door?


Why does the scarlet parrot screech?

Why does the gas flare red?

Why do her tinkling ear-rings dance

A horn-pipe in my head?


Last night, as I was stepping ben

Just as the Abbey clock struck ten,

My heart thrilled to the tramp of men

That climbed the Gallows’ Bank:

And turning to the open door

I watched them trudging, four and four,

Breasting the brae with moonlight hoar,

Rank after ragged rank.


Their arms against their sides were bound:

Their mouths were gagged; and not a sound

Their feet made on the frozen ground

Nor cast a shadow there,

As up the unreturning road

They shuffled, hobbled, limped and strode

With eyes set on the tree that showed

Stark in the snell night air—


The gallows’ tree of stout ash-wood

That handy on the fell-top stood

For folk who come to little good

Against the star-pricked sky.

Horse-copers, tinkers, thieving herds,

And doxies flaunting fakish flerds,

An endless gang of gallows’ birds,

I watched them wamble by—


I watched them hirple up the hill,

Drawn up and up against their will,

Those grey ghosts shadowless and still—

For only in my heart

Had echoed that tramp-tramp of feet,

And nothing but my own heart’s beat

Had drawn me to the haunted street—

When with a sudden start


I saw the whole rapscallion rout

Each man of blood and sleiching lout

Stop all at once and wheel about

And fix their eyes on me:

And as I watched, the starry skies

And moonlit road and heathy rise

Vanished, and naught was there but eyes

That glowered murderously—


Hundreds of eyes that stared in mine,

Of lads and lasses clarty-fine

Who’d perished by the banks of Tyne

When first it topped the fell,

That tree new-tarred with hempen noose,

Straw-coloured, dangling long and loose

For any chance-come traveller’s use

To sling him slick to hell.


And then the eyes of everyone—

The eyes of the whole gairishon,

Each daddy’s daughter, mother’s son,

Who’d danced with heels in air

Since reivers rode the Borderside,

And men had thieved and fought and died,

And wenched and murdered, sneaked and lied—

Shrank to a single stare:


And as from out the heart of night

Those dead eyes searched me wildfire-bright

I looked into their murder-light

And startled, knew, alas,

That I was staring in my own

Scared eyes where, frozen to the bone,

New-risen from sleep I stood alone

Before my looking-glass.



A wild bird filled the morning air

With dewy-hearted song:

I took it in a golden snare

With meshes close and strong.


But where is now the song I heard?

For all my cunning art,

I who would house a singing-bird

Have caged a broken heart.

“. . . AS SCARLET . . .”

Scarlet the toadstools burn

In black mould by the linn,

Yet not more fiery red

Than my soul’s sin.


Sodden as last year’s leaves,

My life seemed cold and dead,

When suddenly the black

Burst into red.


Fall quickly winter snow

To bury all from sight

In drift on drift of death’s

Cold dazzling white.


Fear not: the dead are dead,

And fallen pomp and power

Leave no pale ghosts to prowl

Above their earthly bed:

’Twas no dead Roman but a living owl

That startled us beside the ruined tower.


And yet, that beak, those eyes

That blazed out from the night!

Surely ’twas Cæsar’s soul

That with sharp stabbing cries

Swept by, as through the buried camp we stole,

Spurring dead cohorts on to one last fight.


Into the night

The rocket soars:

Ah, could but I

In flashing flight

O’er the dull lamps

Of earth swing high—

One moment poise

And perish there

In the full blaze

Of kindled air:

What matter though

A charred stick fall

Into the night

That swallows all.


Who travelling through a midnight wood

Tilts up his chin to watch the stars

Will like enough trip over roots

Or bark his shins against the knars:


But who, benighted in blind ways,

Struggles to thrust close boughs apart

Will never win from out the wood

Unless the stars are in his heart.


Climbing the bridge’s slope, a little lad,

I looked up and beheld in bright sunlight,

Against a billowing April cloud, blue-black,

Heavy with threat of hail, a monster white

High-stepping steed with the rider scarlet-clad

Like a flame-robed archangel on its back.


The spark-red nostril and the flashing eye,

The scarlet rider in the sun afire

Against the storm-cloud—shot with thrilling dread

My little heart a-hunger with desire

Of angel visions: then, as they went by,

I knew ’twas old Jake Dodd in hunting-red—


Jake Dodd, the whipper-in, on his white Jill.

The sun was blotted out; the hail threshed down,

Scattering the glory. Jake and his old mare

Have long been dust—yet, on the bridge’s crown,

In the child’s heart within my heart, Jake still

Rides, an archangel burning through the air.


Treasures three

Life’s given me—


Opal-Heart of dawning dreams

Shot with restless fiery gleams:


Crystal-Heart by day and night

Glowing with the living light:


Amber-heart that wells with mirth

Of the sun-enchanted earth.


Every dawn’s a golden key

To unlock my treasury—

Heaven here and now for me!


At sunrise, swimming out to sea,

I heard a clear voice calling me

From the little wood whose branches lean

Over the restless water—

I heard, half-dreaming that I heard

The voice of some enchanted bird;

And glancing back, among the green

I saw my little daughter.


When I must breast the stiller sea

That stretches everlastingly

Beneath the starless unknown night,

The darkness round me falling,

May it be given me to hear

Life calling me as crystal-clear—

To glance back once through failing light

And answer that sweet calling.


On the sea’s edge she dances—

Her glistening body bare

Amid the light foam glances,

Foam-light with tossing hair,

Eager for all that chances

By land or sea or air.


She dances yet undreaming

Of life’s oncoming tide:

Yet when wild water streaming

Surge round her deep and wide

Her soul foam-light and gleaming

Shall every danger ride.


Listening to the glassy tinkle

Of the painted Japanese

Wind-bells swaying in the breeze,

Michael sees

Butterflies of light that twinkle

Round the walls with golden glancing,

Glancing, dancing to the ringing

Of the crystal wind-bells swinging.


As he stands there listening, dreaming,

Fairer even than the flight

Of the butterflies of light

Flit the bright

Fancies in his blue eyes gleaming—

In his happy heart a rarer,

Rarer fairer music singing

Than the wind-bells’ crystal ringing.


Because I set no snare

But leave them flying free,

All the birds of the air

Belong to me.


From the bluetit on the sloe

To the eagle on the height

Uncaged they come and go

For my delight.


And so the sunward way

I soar on the eagle’s wings,

And in my heart all day

The bluetit sings.


Dear Crystal-Heart, I pray that you

May do what I set out to do,

Easily and happily attain

What I have striven for in vain,

All that, for some infirmity

Of soul, life has denied to me.


May you breathe out as some blithe bird

All that my heart awaking heard

And laboured daylong to express

Through cloudy passion and sharp stress

Till gushing from its crystal spring

Your song in all men’s hearts shall sing:


And in that music clear and true

Even I at last attain through you.



Little flame that barely kindled

Flickered low,

Little flame that paled and dwindled

As we watched you, grieving so,

That the life our love had wakened

To the dark again should go.


How we strove and strove to win you

From the night,

Till the baby-spirit in you

Slowly conquered, burning bright,

And the jealous shades were scattered,

And our hearts were filled with light!


When I think of you I see

A flame-winged fritillary

Glancing over daffodils.

When I think of you I hear

Leaping laughing amber-clear

Sun-enchanted rills.


Lively as a trout,

Flashing in and out

The golden mesh of sunlight

That nets the crystal river—


Darting here and there

Through the dewy air

My little lassie frolics

With laughing life a-quiver.


When you dance

Amber-bright the sunbeams glance

In your tossing hair;


So your name

Calls to mind a little flame

Dancing in the air—


Little flame for ever dancing

In the rain-washed air of April,

Amber flame through crystal glancing.


A charm of goldfinches

That flutter and flicker

Over daffodils flashing

Through sunshiny showers—


The light of your laughter

Flashes out of the silence

Though you have been sleeping

In dreamland for hours.


Traps for mice and snares for birds—

But who can take in a net of words

Fancies in their aery flight

To the crystal height

Of a child’s delight?


Now a golden fount of light

Spraying to a rainbow bright,

Then again

Tinkling drops of sunny rain

That turn to flaming butterflies

Ere they reach the earth and rise

In a cloud of changing dyes,

In a cloud that spans the skies

With a fiery flickering bow

Melting into flakes of snow

That falling change to starry flowers—

Flowers that from the earth take flight

Again on wings of singing light—

On and on through endless hours . . .


Traps for mice and snares for birds—

But empty is my net of words.


Her mind’s a shallow bowl

Round which in naked light

The homeless goldfish glance

Like flame in all men’s sight.


Dazzled I watch, then turn

Home-coming to the cool

Star-haunted secrecies

Of the dream-shadowed pool.


Two were at the oars and two,

Trailing hands, lolled in the bow

When the boat stole into sight

Round Emmanuel Head just now.


The sky was one fierce flame of sun,

The sea, a burnished glassy lake:

No creak or plash of oars was there:

The cleaving keel left no white wake.


I blinked a moment, my hot eyes

Bedazzled by the blinding light:

And when I looked about again

The silent boat had sunk from sight.


Then fearfully my heart recalled

How those most dear of all to me—

The four in that phantasmal boat—

Yet sojourned by another sea.


Coiled on a hot white stone

The adder basks

And nothing asks

Save to be let alone.


Yet somewhere in the ling

An enemy

Crawls stealthily

To rouse him up to sting:


So he must lift his head

Once more to fight,

Till in the light

He or his foe lie dead.


O heart, that you might rest,

And naught again

Rouse from their den

The angers of my breast!


On every hand beset

It seems we’re trapped, and yet

Even now it’s not too late

To try and outwit fate.


Who cowers in skulking dread

Of death’s already dead?

While there’s a breath or glisk

Of light let’s take the risk.


Better to bolt and run

And chance the random gun

Than wait in huddled fear

The red-eyed ferret here.


When the cooling tyre contracts

Round the felloe of the wheel,

Do not spokes that once were boughs

In close-knitting fibres feel

A glow in being ironbound

In unity secure and round

For conquest of untravelled ground?


Lowing of cattle as the twilight falls

Over green pastures and still waters deep;

Then not a sound save where a late thrush calls

Good-night to all, and turns to sleep.


Till, as I dreaming watch the moon’s first beam

Silver the river’s smooth and silent flood,

The cheerful Christians in their chapel scream—

There is a fountain filled with blood . . .


Said the raven to the wren:

Why are you afraid of men?

You are nothing but a craven,

Said the raven.

While the raven still was talking,

Came a boy behind him stalking,

Caught him up and clipped his wings.

Still uncaptured Jenny sings.


The pitcher that goes often to the well . . .

And where’s the tragedy in what you tell?

Better go every day for half a year

To fetch your fill of water cool and clear

And, brimmed with living crystal, happen fall

In shards and perish thus once and for all,

Than stand, a dust and fly-trap, on the shelf

For centuries with other useless delf.


Obedient to the will of men

The giant blade descends again,

Slicing the molten steel like cheese

Just as the grimy pigmies please:


And something makes me laugh to see

One mass of metal quietly

Slicing another at the will

Of bow-legged Mike and one-eyed Bill.


Deeply he drank of life, and scorned

The timid soul who sips,

And stumbled out into the night

With laughter on his lips.


Oh, grudge me not the like, O life,

When I too must depart—

A gallant stirrup-cup to warm

The cockles of my heart!


With twinkling watery eyes and wheezily

Old Peter Walker laughed

And gave his chest a thump—

Well, if you’re sick of living, you may easily

Drop down the empty shaft,

And lie in the black sump

In peace till the last trump.


Yet, I’ve a notion, like the rest of us,

You’ll take the cage, my friend,

For going down the pit;

And be as eager as the best of us

For the night-shift to end—

To see the last of it

When you’ve been down a bit.


The sarsen-stone,

Door-post of temple, altar-throne

Of some old god, or monument

Erected by a warrior-host

To mark the fallen chieftain’s tomb,

In course of time has come

To serve the old black sow for scratching-post.


A lad’s light word,

Breathed low and scarcely heard

Or heeded in the babblement

And blare of other tongues, has time

Remembered, and the souls of men

Again and yet again

Take fire at that dead lad’s undying rhyme.


The crowbars loosed the plug of clay,

And bursting from the furnace’ side

The spouting molten metal gushed

In a tumultuous seething tide


That surged into the winter night

With an exultant white-hot flare

And blinded heaven and all its stars

And the cold moon in one fierce glare,


Till in the mould of channelled sand

It cooled to red: then dull and slow

It crawled in grey congealing streams

That gradually ceased to flow:


When clinking crowbars snapped the chilled

And brittle metal short, and soon

In stark cold pigs the iron lay

Rigid beneath the icy moon.


And so the passionate seething tide

Of youth, the fury and the fire

That burned up heaven and earth in one

Exultant outburst of desire,


Grows dull and sluggish; and too soon

Shall my heart’s metal, dead and cold,

Await the crowbar’s snapping stroke

Indifferent in its channelled mould.


Snell moans the East-wind,

Chill drizzles the rain

Round the lone steading

Of Labour-in-vain.


Blind are the windows

With never a pane,

And reekless the chimneys

Of Labour-in-vain.


Byres empty of cattle,

Barns empty of grain,

And naked the rooftree

Of Labour-in-vain.


Yet, gaunt, peaked and sallow

As moons on the wane,

The ghosts of old tenants

Haunt Labour-in-vain.


And shriller than peesweeps

Their voices complain

And greet for the ruin

Of Labour-in-vain—


Though life was one heartbreak

Of trouble and pain,

Would we were still living

At Labour-in-vain.


Though life was a struggle,

The stress and the strain

Knitted our heart-strings

To Labour-in-vain.


We tilled the sour acres

And sowed the scant grain,

And hoped for a harvest

At Labour-in-vain.


And beaten and broken

In body and brain

We breathed our last sadly

At Labour-in-vain.


In death there is nothing

To lose or to gain,

While at least hope was left us

At Labour-in-vain.


Snell moans the East-wind,

Chill drizzles the rain

Round the lone steading

Of Labour-in-vain.


And shriller than peesweeps

Their voices complain

And greet for the ruin

Of Labour-in-vain.


You pluck the bloom to pieces with a smile,

Chattering heedlessly the while,

And I watch you strip the stalk

Of its purple pride of petals as you talk;

And the flower that when you came

Burst to flame

In the sunlight of your eyes

Petal after petal dies,

As you pluck my heart to pieces with a smile,

Chattering heedlessly the while.


A boat in the bay,

You say,

And watch with delight

The sail flash white.


A sail in the blue

For you,

A sail—but for me

My heart at sea.


All being well, I’ll come to you,

Sweetheart, before the year is through;

And we shall find so much to do,

So much to tell.


I read your letter through and through,

And dreamt of all we’d say and do,

Till in my heart the thought of you

Rang like a bell.


Now the bell tolls, my love, for you;

For long before the year is through

You’ve gone where there is naught to do

And naught to tell.


Yet mayn’t I find when life is through

The best is still to say and do,

When I at last may come to you,

All being well?


The day you came upon us in the wood

You said no word but only glanced at me,

And then went on to talk of something else.


How could I tell you you’d misunderstood

When you—you said no word of it to me,

But talked so steadily of something else?


If you had only spoken out I could

Have told you all and you forgiven me,

But you thought best to talk of something else.


Because your heart was troubled you thought good

To say no word about it and spare me:

So we must always talk of something else.


I hear your spade

Delving the soft wet garden-mould,

And listen half-afraid

Lest you should chance dig up again the old

Long-buried golden dream that died

The day you came upon us side by side—


Lest unaware

And only half-remembering

You suddenly lay bare

Your love of me that perished in the Spring,

And only see among the stones

A huddle of unknown time-whitened bones:


And so forget the heart of golden flame

That died the night misunderstanding came.


As we drop downward we shall lose the moon

That in high heaven kept pace with us all night.

What matter? I am wearied, of her light.


Between the crags we shall not see the sun

Kindle the fell-top with his earliest ray.

What matter though we slumber through the day?


What, lose the golden days, the silver nights,

For which so eagerly we climbed the steep?

Love, I am weary, and I long for sleep.


Yet, rapt in slumber, we’ll not even know,

Lost in blind dreams, that we together rest.

I only know sleep comes, and sleep is best.


The poppy’s flame has died,

But sprinkled far and wide

Its seeds abide

Another harvest-tide.


Though passion’s flame sink low,

The seeds of fire we sow

For weal or woe

Through time shall burn and blow.


If the worst comes to the worst

We can die but once, you said;

Then you ventured all and first

Took your place among the dead.


Sound you sleep, while I who dare

Venture naught but quailing stay

On the quag-edge of despair

Die a hundred deaths a day—


Die and live to die again:

Yet it’s much to know that you

Did not venture all in vain,

That the worst you never knew.


The timber I have hewn, stacked high,

Would overtop Saint Mary’s spire

That soars into the windy sky,

Yet it has only served for fuel

To feed one little cottage-fire—


Has only served to keep aglow

One inglenook when winter’s storm

Raked heaven and earth with blinding snow—

A forest felled and life-long labour

To keep a little household warm.


And that small fire that still devours

Fresh timber burns my life away:

The tale of gold and glooming hours

Of tree and man’s the selfsame story—

Green flame, red flame and ashes grey.


You may burn the golden glory of the gorse,

But the roots into the rocky earth run deep,

And the living bush will only glow to rarer fire of beauty

When at last beneath the mould you lie asleep.


Beauty dies not though you blast and lay it waste,

Though you turn the whole earth to a cinder heap,

From the ashes of your factories once again the everliving

Shall awake one April morning out of sleep.


There was no reason why he should not smile,

Bidding good-bye to me,

And go his way light-heartedly—

And yet!


There was no reason why I should not smile

Happily for his sake,

No reason why my heart should break—

And yet!


Against the sunset’s rose

Purple the pit-heap glows—

The mound of slate and slack

That all day long gloomed black:


And the gaunt shaft-wheel seems

Hub to a wheel of dreams,

With flaming spokes that whirl

In a celestial swirl


Of hues beneath whose fire,

With patience naught can tire,

Quiet, with close-shawled head,

Each woman ’waits her dead.


The cold bog-water clucks

At every step across

The black and quaking hags

Of Dead Man’s Moss—


And what’s the hurry, squire,

To reach the house you hate?

Where there’s no welcome none

Can come too late.


Why should you labour now

To lift another foot

When peace lies all about

The rushes’ root?


Your empty house but holds

The dead dream of a fool:

But the end of all things waits

In any pool—


In any still black pool

Oblivion dark and deep

Awaits the heart that would

Forget in sleep.


Old man, old man, whither are you hobbling?

Old man Jobling, whither are you going—

Battered hat and tattered coat and clogs in need of cobbling—

And the snell wind lowing and the mirk lift snowing?


Young man Catchieside, and if I go afairing

Who’s declaring I’m too old for going—

Dressed in Sunday-best and all? And why should I be caring

For the snell wind lowing and the mirk lift snowing?


Ay, but what will ’come of you as drifts get deep and deeper,

Steep roads steeper and your shanks too numb for going?

Happen I shall nap—I was ever a good sleeper

With the snell wind lowing and the mirk lift snowing.


Deep will be your sleep . . . It’s truth you are declaring—

After fairing, whichever way we’re going,

Deep will be the sleep of all; so why should I be caring

For the snell wind lowing and the mirk lift snowing?


The little red calf

For a day and a half

Has blinked in the light—

His blue eyes adaze

In the buttercup-blaze,

He fancies the world is one bright

Fresh field, green and yellow,

A world where a fellow

Whatever betide

May snuggle in safety his mother’s warm side.


Little brother, I too

Once fancied as you

The world was one fair

Fresh meadow of flowers

Until the black hours

Burst on me and stripped the mead bare.

O little red brother,

Keep close to your mother

Whatever betide,

And snuggle as long as you may to her side!


Never, I said,

Shall anything sever

Hearts that are wed

For ever and ever.

And the swinging inn-sign

Took up the refrain,

Creaking and squeaking

Again and again:

For ever and ever—

Ay, so they said,

All the young lovers

Who’ve lain on that bed.

They swore the same vow,

The true or false-hearted,

Yet all of them now

Has life or death parted,

All of them parted

For ever and ever—

And ever new lovers

Brag boldly of ‘Never!’


The plank was covered, so last night

I had to leap the flooded burn;

And as I landed in the fern

I scared an owl to startled flight.


Sharp in my ear it screeched; its cry

Sang through my very marrow-bones,

Curdling my heart’s blood, as the Stones

Loomed gaunt against the starless sky.


As through my being’s black unknown

Caverns that skirl went echoing,

My feet were drawn into the ring

Of huddled shapes of druid-stone:


Victim of some ancestral dread,

My gullet bared to meet the knife,

Hanging upon the edge of life

Over the unseen clutching dead


Crouched in the core of night, the sheer

Primeval horror of the dark,

I cowered—when at my feet a lark

Rose with a twitter sweet and clear:


And as he sang the song he sings

An hour before the break of day,

The spell snapped, and above the brae

My heart too soared on dewy wings.


As the windhover

Drops on the shrew,

Love, O young lover,

Swoops down on you,

Bears your heart heavenward,

Tears it in two;


Swift with his capture

Soars through the light—

Yours the fierce rapture

Of agonized flight,

Talon-torn, terror-winged,

Into blind night.


And is this all

You bring up from the bottom of the sea?

I watched you strip and poise and recklessly

Dive headlong down, as though to wrest the key

From the profundity

Of time’s unfathomable mystery—


Only a pearl,

A little fragile globe of fleckless white,

You bring up, breathless, in your palm clutched tight,

Trinket to make a girl’s eyes kindle bright—

Naught else you bring to light

From the dark chambers of old ocean’s night?


Only a pearl—

All colour fused in one white glow, all sound

In breathless silence blended, all form bound

In the clean compass of the perfect round—

Beauty, in chaos drowned,

Borne to the living light from deeps profound!


Ho, ferry, ho!

The river is in spate:

You cannot cross to-night.

Yet I must go

To-night: I cannot wait

Till morning light.


Come, you too then

Must grasp the guiding-rope

And haul the boat with me—

Grasp as doomed men

Clutching at their last hope.

Ay, willingly!


Before we land

Come, pay your passage, if you’d live

To draw another breath—

Unloose one hand . . .

See, with both hands I give

The full toll—death!


O skein of wild-geese, flying

Through April’s starry blue,

Your harsh and eager crying

Searches through and through

My heart till it takes flight

Arrow-like with you

To pierce the Northern night,

Shedding flakes of light

From wings of flashing white

Through tingling airs a-quiver

On tossing waves that shiver

Crystal berg and floe—

On crashing ghylls and forces of winter’s melting snow.


When down the water-courses

The spate of April dins,

Like hoofs of countless horses

Thunder the threshing linns

As leaping ’twixt the scars

Bright froth spurts and spins

And sprays the leafing spars

Of woods that rake the stars;

And shattering bonds and bars

My spirit pours in thunder

Of torrents, trampling under

Dead winter’s slothful dreams,

Till life’s a singing tumult of April-wakened streams.


What will become of you, flesh and bone,

When I at last must leave you alone?


When you have left us, bird of the breast,

Thankfully, endlessly we shall rest.

Long have you fluttered us, urging us ever

To ventures beyond our utmost endeavour,

Fretting us, driving us on and on

Until, breath failing and strength nigh gone,

We have longed for the day when buried deep

In the passionless earth we shall sink to sleep,

When you shall be free to wander the air

And we shall neither know nor care.


Think you, poor dreamers, you shall find rest

Even in earth’s most secret breast?

Know you not then that life’s desire

Has burned in the earth with a heart of fire

Ever since out of chaos she came

Borne on pinions of singing flame,

And not an atom, but in hot strife

Perishing, flares to a fuller life,

And death that seems a dreamless sleep

Is but life burning more fierce and deep?


The harbour-lights have dwindled

To sparks on a grey shore

Which fades into the sunset

That we shall see no more

Above our own land kindled.


As one by one extinguished

The lights of home go out,

It’s time to face the onset

Of night, to turn about—

All thoughts of ease relinquished—


To face the whirling welter,

And drive before the storm

That knows not dawn nor sunset—

Our wits to keep us warm,

And courage our sole shelter.


Certain of these poems were first printed in The Criterion, Form, The South-West Review, The Adelpbi, The Atlantic Monthly, The Bookman, The Beacon, The Spectator, The New Statesman, The Nation, The Sphere, The Weekly Westminster, and The Observer. The author desires to make the usual acknowledgments.






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[The end of I Heard a Sailor by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson]