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The Song of the Surf

WHITE steeds of ocean, that leap with a hollow and wearisome roar

On the bar of ironstone steep, not a fathom's length from the shore,

Is there never a seer nor sophist can interpret your wild refrain,

When speech the harshest and roughest is seldom studied in vain ?

My ears are constantly smitten by that dreary monotone,

In a hieroglyphic 'tis writtenó'tis spoken in a tongue unknown ;

Gathering, growing, and swelling, and surging, and shivering, say !

What is the tale you are telling ? what is the drift of your lay ?

 

You come, and your crests are hoary with the foam of your countless years ;

You break, with a rainbow of glory, through the spray of your glittering tears.

Is your song a song of gladness ? a paean of joyous might ?

Or a wail of discordant sadness for the wrongs you never can right ?

For the empty seat by the ingle ? for children reft of their sire ?

For the bride, sitting sad, and single, and pale, by the flickering fire ?

For your ravenous pools of suction ? for your shattering billow swell ?

For your ceaseless work of destruction ? for your hunger insatiable ?

 

Not far from this very place, on the sand and the shingle dry,

He lay, with his batter'd face upturned to the frowning sky.

When your waters wash'd and swill'd high over his drowning head,

When his nostrils and lungs were filled, when his feet and hands were as lead,

When against the rock he was hurl'd, and suck'd again to the sea,

On the shores of another world, on the brink of eternity,

On the verge of annihilation, did it come to that swimmer strong,

The sudden interpretation of your mystical weird-like song ?

 

'Mortal ! that which thou askest, ask not thou of the waves ;

Fool ! thou foolishly taskest usówe are only slaves ;

Might, more mighty, impels usówe must our lot fulfil,

He who gathers and swells us curbs us, too, at His will.

Think'st thou the wave that shatters questioneth His decree ?

Little to us matters, and naught it matters to thee.

Not thus, murmuring idly, we from our duty would swerve,

Over the world spread widely ever we labour and serve.

 

Published in 'Sea Spray and Smoke Drift' (1867).