THE shore-boat lies in the morning light,
By the good ship ready for sailing ;
The skies are clear, and the dawn is bright,
Tho’ the bar of the bay is fleck’d with white,
And the wind is fitfully wailing ;
Near the tiller stands the priest, and the knight
Leans over the quarter-railing.
‘There is time while the vessel tarries still,
There is time while her shrouds are slack,
There is time ere her sails to the west-wind fill,
Ere her tall masts vanish from town and from hill,
Ere cleaves to her keel the track ;
There is time for confession to those who will,
To those who may never come back.’
‘Sir priest, you can shrive these men of mine,
And, I pray you, shrive them fast,
And shrive those hardy sons of the brine,
Captain and mates of the Eglantine,
And sailors before the mast ;
Then pledge me a cup of the Cyprus wine,
For I fain would bury the past.’
‘And hast thou naught to repent, my son ?
Dost thou scorn confession and shrift ?
Ere thy sands from the glass of time shall run
Is there naught undone that thou should’st have done,
Naught done that thou should’st have left ?
The guiltiest soul may from guilt be won,
And the stoniest heart may be cleft.’
‘Have my ears been closed to the prayer of the poor,
Or deaf to the cry of distress ?
Have I given little, and taken more ?
Have I brought a curse to the widow’s door ?
Have I wrong’d the fatherless ?
Have I steep’d my fingers in guiltless gore,
That I must perforce confess ?’
‘Have thy steps been guided by purity
Through the paths with wickedness rife ?
Hast thou never smitten thine enemy ?
Hast thou yielded naught to the lust of the eye,
And naught to the pride of life ?
Hast thou pass’d all snares of pleasure by ?
Hast thou shunn’d all wrath and strife ?’
‘Nay, certes ! a sinful life I’ve led,
Yet I’ve suffer’d, and lived in hope ;
I may suffer still, but my hope has fled,—
I’ve nothing now to hope or to dread,
And with fate I can fairly cope ;
Were the waters closing over my head,
I should scarcely catch at a rope.’
‘Dost suffer ? thy pain may be fraught with grace,
Since never by works alone
We are saved ;—the penitent thief may trace
The wealth of love in the Saviour’s face
To the Pharisee rarely shown ;
And the Magdalene’s arms may yet embrace
The foot of the jasper throne.’
‘Sir priest, a heavier doom I dree,
For I feel no quickening pain,
But a dull dumb weight, when I bow my knee,
And (not with the words of the Pharisee)
My hard eyes heavenward strain,
Where my dead darling prayeth for me !
Now, I wot, she prayeth in vain !
‘Still I hear it over the battle’s din,
And over the festive cheer,—
So she pray’d with clasp’d hands, white and thin,—
The prayer of a soul absolved from sin,
For a soul that is dark and drear,
For the light of repentance bursting in,
And the flood of the blinding tear.
‘Say, priest ! when the saint must vainly plead,
Oh ! how shall the sinner fare ?
I hold your comfort a broken reed ;
Let the wither’d branch for itself take heed,
While the green shoots wait your care ;
I’ve striven, though feebly, to grasp your creed,
And I’ve grappled my own despair.’
‘By the little within thee, good and brave,
Not wholly shattered, though shaken ;
By the soul that crieth beyond the grave,
The love that He once in His mercy gave,
In His mercy since retaken,
I conjure thee, oh sinner ! pardon crave !
I implore thee, oh sleeper, waken !’
‘Go to ! shall I lay my black soul bare
To a vain, self-righteous man ?
In my sin, in my sorrow, you may not share,
And yet, could I meet with one who must bear
The load of an equal ban,
With him I might strive to blend one prayer,
The wail of the Publican.’
‘My son, I too am a withered bough,
My place is to others given ;
Thou hast sinn’d, thou sayest ; I ask not how,
For I too have sinn’d, even as thou,
And I too have feebly striven,
And with thee I must bow, crying, "Shrive us now !
Our Father which art in heaven !" ‘
Published in ‘Sea Spray and Smoke Drift’ (1867).