Mari Magno or Tales on Board1

A poem by Arthur Hugh Clough

A youth was I. An elder friend with me,
’Twas in September o’er the autumnal sea
We went; the wide Atlantic ocean o’er
Two amongst many the strong steamer bore.
Delight it was to feel that wondrous force
That held us steady to our purposed course,
The burning resolute victorious will
’Gainst winds and waves that strive unwavering still.
Delight it was with each returning day.
To learn the ship had won upon her way
Her sum of miles, delight were mornings grey
And gorgeous eves, nor was it less delight,
On each more temperate and favouring night,
Friend with familiar or with new-found friend,
To pace the deck, and o’er the bulwarks bend,
And the night watches in long converse spend;
While still new subjects and new thoughts arise
Amidst the silence of the seas and skies.
Amongst the mingled multitude a few,
Some three or four, towards us early drew;
We proved each other with a day or two;
Night after night some three or four we walked,
And talked, and talked, and infinitely talked.
Of the New England ancient blood was one,
His youthful spurs in letters he had won,
Unspoilt by that, to Europe late had come,
Hope long deferred, and went unspoilt by Europe home.
What racy tales of Yankeeland he had!
Up-country girl, up-country farmer lad;
The regnant clergy of the time of old
In wig and gown; tales not to be retold
By me. I could but spoil were I to tell:
Himself must do it who can do it well.
An English clergyman came spick and span
In black and white a large well-favoured man,
Fifty years old, as near as one could guess.
He looked the dignitary more or less.
A rural dean, I said, he was, at least,
Canon perhaps; at many a good man’s feast
A guest had been, amongst the choicest there.
Manly his voice and manly was his air:
At the first sight you felt he had not known
The things pertaining to his cloth alone.
Chairman of Quarter Sessions had he been?
Serious and calm, ’twas plain he much had seen,
Had miscellaneous large experience had
Of human acts, good, half and half, and bad.
Serious and calm, yet lurked, I know not why,
At times, a softness in his voice and eye.
Some shade of ill a prosperous life had crossed;
Married no doubt: a wife or child had lost?
He never told us why he passed the sea.
My guardian friend was now, at thirty-three,
A rising lawyer ever, at the best,
Slow rises worth in lawyer’s gown compressed;
Succeeding now, yet just, and only just,
His new success he never seemed to trust.
By nature he to gentlest thoughts inclined,
To most severe had disciplined his mind;
He held it duty to be half unkind.
Bitter, they said, who but the exterior knew;
In friendship never was a friend so true:
The unwelcome fact he did not shrink to tell,
The good, if fact, he recognised as well.
Stout to maintain, if not the first to see;
In conversation who so great as he?
Leading but seldom, always sure to guide,
To false or silly, if ’twas borne aside,
His quick correction silent he expressed,
And stopped you short, and forced you to your best.
Often, I think, he suffered from some pain
Of mind, that on the body worked again;
One felt it in his sort of half-disdain,
Impatient not, but acrid in his speech;
The world with him her lesson failed to teach
To take things easily and let them go.
He, for what special fitness I scarce know,
For which good quality, or if for all,
With less of reservation and recall
And speedier favour than I e’er had seen,
Took, as we called him, to the rural dean.
As grew the gourd, as grew the stalk of bean,
So swift it seemed, betwixt these differing two
A stately trunk of confidence up-grew.
Of marriage long one night they held discourse;
Regarding it in different ways, of course.
Marriage is discipline, the wise had said,
A needful human discipline to wed;
Novels of course depict it final bliss,
Say, had it ever really once been this?
Our Yankee friend (whom, ere the night was done,
We called New England or the Pilgrim Son),
A little tired, made bold to interfere;
‘Appeal,’ he said, ‘to me; my sentence hear.
You’ll reason on till night and reason fail;
My judgment is you each shall tell a tale;
And as on marriage you can not agree,
Of love and marriage let the stories be.’
Sentence delivered, as the younger man,
My lawyer friend was called on and began.
‘Infandum jubes! ’tis of long ago,
If tell I must, I tell the tale I know:
Yet the first person using for the freak,
Don’t rashly judge that of myself I speak.’
So to his tale; if of himself or not
I never learnt, we thought so on the spot.
Lightly he told it as a thing of old,
And lightly I repeat it as he told.

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