The Phantom Fleet

A poem by Alfred Noyes

(1904)


The sunset lingered in the pale green West:
In rosy wastes the low soft evening star
Woke; while the last white sea-mew sought for rest;
And tawny sails came stealing o'er the bar.

But, in the hillside cottage, through the panes
The light streamed like a thin far trumpet-call,
And quickened, as with quivering battle-stains,
The printed ships that decked the parlour wall.

From oaken frames old admirals looked down:
They saw the lonely slumberer at their feet:
They saw the paper, headed Talk from Town;
Our rusting trident, and our phantom fleet:

And from a neighbouring tavern surged a song
Of England laughing in the face of war,
With eyes unconquerably proud and strong,
And lips triumphant from her Trafalgar.

But he, the slumberer in that glimmering room,
Saw distant waters glide and heave and gleam;
Around him in the softly coloured gloom
The pictures clustered slowly to a dream.

He saw how England, resting on her past,
Among the faded garlands of her dead,
Woke; for a whisper reached her heart at last,
And once again she raised her steel-clad head.

Her eyes were filled with sudden strange alarms;
She heard the westering waters change and chime;
She heard the distant tumult of her arms
Defeated, not by courage, but by Time.

Knowledge had made a deadlier pact with death,
Nor strength nor steel availed against that bond:
Slowly approached--and Britain held her breath--
The battle booming from the deeps beyond.

O, then what darkness rolled upon the wind,
Threatening the torch that Britain held on high?
Where all her navies, baffled, broken, blind,
Slunk backward, snarling in their agony!
Who guards the gates of Freedom now? The cry
Stabbed heaven! England, the shattered ramparts fall!
Then, like a trumpet shivering through the sky
O, like white lightning rending the black pall
Of heaven, an answer pealed: Her dead shall hear that call.

Then came a distant light of great waves breaking
That brought the sunset on each crumbling crest,
A rumour as of buried ages waking,
And mighty spirits rising from their rest;
Then ghostly clouds arose, with billowing breast,
White clouds that turned to sails upon their way,
Red clouds that burned like flags against the West,
Till even the conquering fleet in silence lay
Dazed with that strange old light, and night grew bright as day.

We come to fight for Freedom! The great East
Heard, and was rent asunder like a veil.
Host upon host out of the night increased
Its towering clouds and crowded zones of sail:
England, our England, canst thou faint or fail?
We come to fight for Freedom yet once more!
This, this is ours at least! Count the great tale
Of all these dead that rise to guard thy shore
By right of the red life they never feared to pour.

We come to fight for Freedom! On they came,
One cloud of beauty sweeping the wild sea;
And there, through all their thousands, flashed like flame
That star-born signal of the Victory:
Duty, that deathless lantern of the free;
Duty, that makes a god of every man.
And there was Nelson, watching silently
As through the phantom fleet the message ran;
And his tall frigate rushed before the stormy van.

Nelson, our Nelson, frail and maimed and blind,
Stretched out his dead cold face against the foe:
And England's Raleigh followed hard behind,
With all his eager fighting heart aglow;
Glad, glad for England's sake once more to know
The old joy of battle and contempt of pain;
Glad, glad to die, if England willed it so,
The traitor's and the coward's death again;
But hurl the world back now as once he hurled back Spain.

And there were all those others, Drake and Blake,
Rodney and Howard, Byron, Collingwood;
With deathless eyes aflame for England's sake,
As on their ancient decks they proudly stood,--
Decks washed of old with England's purplest blood;
And there, once more, each rushing oaken side
Bared its dark-throated, thirsty, gleaming brood
Of cannon, watched by laughing lads who died
Long, long ago for England and her ancient pride.

We come to fight for England! The great sea
In a wild light of song began to break
Round that tall phantom of the Victory
And all the foam was music in her wake:
Ship after phantom ship, with guns a-rake
And shot-rent flags a-stream from every mast
Moved in a deepening splendour, not to make
A shield for England of her own dead past;
But, with a living dream to arm her soul at last.

We come to die for England: through the hush
Of gathered nations rose that regal cry,
From naked oaken walls one word could crush
If those vast armoured throats dared to reply:
But there the most implacable enemy
Felt his eyes fill with gladder, prouder tears,
As Nelson's calm eternal face went by,
Gazing beyond all perishable fears
To some diviner goal above the waste of years.

Through the hushed fleets the vision streamed away,
Then slowly turned once more to that deep West,
While voices cried, O, England, the new day
Is dawning, but thy soul can take no rest.

Thy freedom and thy peace are only thine
By right of toil on every land and sea
And by that crimson sacrificial wine
Of thine own heart and thine own agony.

Peace is not slumber. Peace, in every hour,
Throbs like the heart of music. This alone
Can save thy heritage and confirm that power
Whereof the past is but the cushioned throne.

Look to the fleet! Again and yet again,
Hear us who storm thy heart with this one cry.
Hear us, who cannot help, though fair and fain,
To hold thy seas before thee, and to die.

Look to the fleet! Thy fleet, the first, last line:
The sword of Liberty, her strength, her shield,
Her food, her life-blood! Britain, it is thine,
Here, now, to hold that birth-right, or to yield.

So, through the dark, those phantom ships of old
Faded, it seemed, through mists of blood and tears.
Sails turned to clouds, and slowly westward rolled
The sad returning pageant of the years.
On tides of light, where all our tumults cease,
Through that rich West, the Victory returned;
And all the waves around her whispered "peace,"
And from her mast no battle-message burned.

Like clouds, like fragments of those fading skies,
The pageant passed, with all its misty spars,
While the hushed nations raised their dreaming eyes
To that great light which brings the end of wars.

Ship after ship, in some strange glory drowned,
Cloud after cloud, was lost in that deep light
Each with a sovran stillness haloed round.
Then--that high fleet of stars led on the night.

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