The Poetry Corner

The Child And The Mariner

By William Henry Davies

A dear old couple my grandparents were, And kind to all dumb things; they saw in Heaven The lamb that Jesus petted when a child; Their faith was never draped by Doubt: to them Death was a rainbow in Eternity, That promised everlasting brightness soon. An old seafaring man was he; a rough Old man, but kind; and hairy, like the nut Full of sweet milk. All day on shore he watched The winds for sailors' wives, and told what ships Enjoyed fair weather, and what ships had storms; He watched the sky, and he could tell for sure What afternoons would follow stormy morns, If quiet nights would end wild afternoons. He leapt away from scandal with a roar, And if a whisper still possessed his mind, He walked about and cursed it for a plague. He took offence at Heaven when beggars passed, And sternly called them back to give them help. In this old captain's house I lived, and things That house contained were in ships' cabins once; Sea-shells and charts and pebbles, model ships; Green weeds, dried fishes stuffed, and coral stalks; Old wooden trunks with handles of spliced rope, With copper saucers full of monies strange, That seemed the savings of dead men, not touched To keep them warm since their real owners died; Strings of red beads, methought were dipped in blood, And swinging lamps, as though the house might move; An ivory lighthouse built on ivory rocks, The bones of fishes and three bottled ships. And many a thing was there which sailors make In idle hours, when on long voyages, Of marvellous patience, to no lovely end. And on those charts I saw the small black dots That were called islands, and I knew they had Turtles and palms, and pirates' buried gold. There came a stranger to my granddad's house, The old man's nephew, a seafarer too; A big, strong able man who could have walked Twm Barlum's hill all clad in iron mail; So strong he could have made one man his club To knock down others, Henry was his name, No other name was uttered by his kin. And here he was, insooth illclad, but oh, Thought I, what secrets of the sea are his! This man knows coral islands in the sea, And dusky girls heartbroken for white men; This sailor knows of wondrous lands afar, More rich than Spain, when the Phoenicians shipped Silver for common ballast, and they saw Horses at silver mangers eating grain; This man has seen the wind blow up a mermaid's hair Which, like a golden serpent, reared and stretched To feel the air away beyond her head. He begged my pennies, which I gave with joy, He will most certainly return some time A self-made king of some new land, and rich. Alas that he, the hero of my dreams, Should be his people's scorn; for they had rose To proud command of ships, whilst he had toiled Before the mast for years, and well content; Him they despised, and only Death could bring A likeness in his face to show like them. For he drank all his pay, nor went to sea As long as ale was easy got on shore. Now, in his last long voyage he had sailed From Plymouth Sound to where sweet odours fan The Cingalese at work, and then back home, But came not near his kin till pay was spent. He was not old, yet seemed so; for his face Looked like the drowned man's in the morgue, when it Has struck the wooden wharves and keels of ships. And all his flesh was pricked with Indian ink, His body marked as rare and delicate As dead men struck by lightning under trees, And pictured with fine twigs and curled ferns; Chains on his neck and anchors on his arms; Rings on his fingers, bracelets on his wrist; And on his breast the Jane of Appledore Was schooner rigged, and in full sail at sea. He could not whisper with his strong hoarse voice, No more than could a horse creep quietly; He laughed to scorn the men that muffled close For fear of wind, till all their neck was hid, Like Indian corn wrapped up in long green leaves; He knew no flowers but seaweeds brown and green, He knew no birds but those that followed ships. Full well he knew the water-world; he heard A grander music there than we on land, When organ shakes a church; swore he would make The sea his home, though it was always roused By such wild storms as never leave Cape Horn; Happy to hear the tempest grunt and squeal Like pigs heard dying in a slaughterhouse. A true-born mariner, and this his hope, His coffin would be what his cradle was, A boat to drown in and be sunk at sea; To drown at sea and lie a dainty corpse Salted and iced in Neptune's larder deep. This man despised small coasters, fishing-smacks; He scorned those sailors who at night and morn Can see the coast, when in their little boats They go a six days' voyage and are back Home with their wives for every Sabbath day. Much did he talk of tankards of old beer, And bottled stuff he drank in other lands, Which was a liquid fire like Hell to gulp, But Paradise to sip. And so he talked; Nor did those people listen with more awe To Lazarus, whom they had seen stone dead, Than did we urchins to that seaman's voice. He many a tale of wonder told: of where, At Argostoli, Cephalonia's sea Ran over the earth's lip in heavy floods; And then again of how the strange Chinese Conversed much as our homely Blackbirds sing. He told us how he sailed in one old ship Near that volcano Martinique, whose power Shook like dry leaves the whole Carribean seas; And made the sun set in a sea of fire Which only half was his; and dust was thick On deck, and stones were pelted at the mast. So, as we walked along, that seaman dropped Into my greedy ears such words that sleep Stood at my pillow half the night perplexed. He told how isles sprang up and sank again, Between short voyages, to his amaze; How they did come and go, and cheated charts; Told how a crew was cursed when one man killed A bird that perched upon a moving barque; And how the sea's sharp needles, firm and strong, Ripped open the bellies of big, iron ships; Of mighty icebergs in the Northern seas, That haunt the far horizon like white ghosts, He told of waves that lift a ship so high That birds could pass from starboard unto port Under her dripping keel. Oh, it was sweet To hear that seaman tell such wondrous tales: How deep the sea in parts, that drowned men Must go a long way to their graves and sink Day after day, and wander with the tides. He spake of his own deeds; of how he sailed One summer's night along the Bosphorus, And he, who knew no music like the wash Of waves against a ship, or wind in shrouds, Heard then the music on that woody shore Of nightingales, and feared to leave the deck, He thought 'twas sailing into Paradise. To hear these stories all we urchins placed Our pennies in that seaman's ready hand; Until one morn he signed for a long cruise, And sailed away, we never saw him more. Could such a man sink in the sea unknown? Nay, he had found a land with something rich, That kept his eyes turned inland for his life. 'A damn bad sailor and a landshark too, No good in port or out', my granddad said.