A Story Of The Sea-Shore.

A poem by George MacDonald

TO THEM THAT MOURN.

Let your tears flow; let your sad sighs have scope;
Only take heed they fan, they water Hope.




A STORY OF THE SEA-SHORE.

INTRODUCTION.

I sought the long clear twilights of my home,
Far in the pale-blue skies and slaty seas,
What time the sunset dies not utterly,
But withered to a ghost-like stealthy gleam,
Round the horizon creeps the short-lived night,
And changes into sunrise in a swoon.
I found my home in homeliness unchanged:
The love that made it home, unchangeable,
Received me as a child, and all was well.
My ancient summer-heaven, borne on the hills,
Once more embraced me; and once more the vale,
So often sighed for in the far-off nights,
Rose on my bodily vision, and, behold,
In nothing had the fancy mocked the fact!
The hasting streams went garrulous as of old;
The resting flowers in silence uttered more;
The blue hills rose and dwelt alone in heaven;
Householding Nature from her treasures brought
Things old and new, the same yet not the same,
For all was holier, lovelier than before;
And best of all, once more I paced the fields
With him whose love had made me long for God
So good a father that, needs-must, I sought
A better still, Father of him and me.

Once on a day, my cousin Frank and I
Sat swiftly borne behind the dear white mare
That oft had carried me in bygone days
Along the lonely paths of moorland hills;
But now we sought the coast, where deep waves foam
'Gainst rocks that lift their dark fronts to the north.
And with us went a girl, on whose kind face
I had not looked for many a youthful year,
But the old friendship straightway blossomed new.
The heavens were sunny, and the earth was green;
The large harebells in families stood along
The grassy borders, of a tender blue
Transparent as the sky, haunted with wings
Of many butterflies, as blue as they.
And as we talked and talked without restraint,
Brought near by memories of days that were,
And therefore are for ever; by the joy
Of motion through a warm and shining air;
By the glad sense of freedom and like thoughts;
And by the bond of friendship with the dead,
She told the tale which here I tell again.

I had returned to childish olden time,
And asked her if she knew a castle worn,
Whose masonry, razed utterly above,
Yet faced the sea-cliff up, and met the waves:--
'Twas one of my child-marvels; for, each year,
We turned our backs upon the ripening corn,
And sought some village on the Moray shore;
And nigh this ruin, was that I loved the best.

For oh the riches of that little port!--
Down almost to the beach, where a high wall
Inclosed them, came the gardens of a lord,
Free to the visitor with foot restrained--
His shady walks, his ancient trees of state;
His river--that would not be shut within,
But came abroad, went dreaming o'er the sands,
And lost itself in finding out the sea;
Inside, it bore grave swans, white splendours--crept
Under the fairy leap of a wire bridge,
Vanished in leaves, and came again where lawns
Lay verdurous, and the peacock's plumy heaven
Bore azure suns with green and golden rays.
It was my childish Eden; for the skies
Were loftier in that garden, and the clouds
More summer-gracious, edged with broader white;
And when they rained, it was a golden rain
That sparkled as it fell--an odorous rain.
And then its wonder-heart!--a little room,
Half-hollowed in the side of a steep hill,
Which rose, with columned, windy temple crowned,
A landmark to far seas. The enchanted cell
Was clouded over in the gentle night
Of a luxuriant foliage, and its door,
Half-filled with rainbow hues of coloured glass,
Opened into the bosom of the hill.
Never to sesame of mine that door
Gave up its sanctuary; but through the glass,
Gazing with reverent curiosity,
I saw a little chamber, round and high,
Which but to see was to escape the heat,
And bathe in coolness of the eye and brain;
For all was dusky greenness; on one side,
A window, half-blind with ivy manifold,
Whose leaves, like heads of gazers, climbed to the top,
Gave a joy-saddened light, for all that came
Through the thick veil was green, oh, kindest hue!
But the heart has a heart--this heart had one:
Still in the midst, the ever more of all,
On a low column stood, white, cold, dim-clear,
A marble woman. Who she was I know not--
A Psyche, or a Silence, or an Echo:
Pale, undefined, a silvery shadow, still,
In one lone chamber of my memory,
She is a power upon me as of old.

But, ah, to dream there through hot summer days,
In coolness shrouded and sea-murmurings,
Forgot by all till twilight shades grew dark!
To find half-hidden in the hollowed wall,
A nest of tales, old volumes such as dreams
Hoard up in bookshops dim in tortuous streets!
That wondrous marble woman evermore
Filling the gloom with calm delirium
Of radiated whiteness, as I read!--
The fancied joy, too plenteous for its cup,
O'erflowed, and turned to sadness as it fell.

But the gray ruin on the shattered shore,
Not the green refuge in the bowering hill,
Drew forth our talk that day. For, as I said,
I asked her if she knew it. She replied,
"I know it well. A woman used to live
In one of its low vaults, my mother says."
"I found a hole," I said, "and spiral stair,
Leading from level of the ground above
To a low-vaulted room within the rock,
Whence through a small square window I looked forth
Wide o'er the waters; the dim-sounding waves
Were many feet below, and shrunk in size
To a great ripple." "'Twas not there," she said,
"--Not in that room half up the cliff, but one
Low down, within the margin of spring tides:
When both the tide and northern wind are high,
'Tis more an ocean-cave than castle-vault."
And then she told me all she knew of her.

It was a simple tale, a monotone:
She climbed one sunny hill, gazed once abroad,
Then wandered down, to pace a dreary plain;
Alas! how many such are told by night,
In fisher-cottages along the shore!

Farewell, old summer-day! I turn aside
To tell her story, interwoven with thoughts
Born of its sorrow; for I dare not think
A woman at the mercy of a sea.



THE STORY.

Aye as it listeth blows the listless wind,
Swelling great sails, and bending lordly masts,
Or hurrying shadow-waves o'er fields of corn,
And hunting lazy clouds across the sky:
Now, like a white cloud o'er another sky,
It blows a tall brig from the harbour's mouth,
Away to high-tossed heads of wallowing waves,
'Mid hoverings of long-pinioned arrowy birds.
With clouds and birds and sails and broken crests,
All space is full of spots of fluttering white,
And yet the sailor knows that handkerchief
Waved wet with tears, and heavy in the wind.
Blow, wind! draw out the cord that binds the twain;
Draw, for thou canst not break the lengthening cord.
Blow, wind! yet gently; gently blow, fair wind!
And let love's vision slowly, gently die;
Let the bright sails all solemn-slowly pass,
And linger ghost-like o'er the vanished hull,
With a white farewell to her straining eyes;
For never more in morning's level beams,
Will those sea-shadowing sails, dark-stained and worn,
From the gray-billowed north come dancing in;
Oh, never, gliding home 'neath starry skies,
Over the dusk of the dim-glancing sea,
Will the great ship send forth a herald cry
Of home-come sailors, into sleeping streets!
Blow gently, wind! blow slowly, gentle wind!

Weep not yet, maiden; 'tis not yet thy hour.
Why shouldst thou weep before thy time is come?
Go to thy work; break into song sometimes--
Song dying slow-forgotten, in the lapse
Of dreamy thought, ere natural pause ensue,
Or sudden dropt what time the eager heart
Hurries the ready eye to north and east.
Sing, maiden, while thou canst, ere yet the truth,
Slow darkening, choke the heart-caged singing bird!

The weeks went by. Oft leaving household work,
With bare arms and uncovered head she clomb
The landward slope of the prophetic hill;
From whose green head, as from the verge of time,
Far out on the eternity of blue,
Shading her hope-rapt eyes, seer-like she gazed,
If from the Hades of the nether world,
Slow climbing up the round side of the earth,
Haply her prayers were drawing his tardy sails
Over the threshold of the far sky-sea--
Drawing her sailor home to celebrate,
With holy rites of family and church,
The apotheosis of maidenhood.

Months passed; he came not; and a shadowy fear,
Long haunting the horizon of her soul,
In deeper gloom and sharper form drew nigh;
And growing in bulk, possessed her atmosphere,
And lost all shape, because it filled all space,
And reached beyond the bounds of consciousness--
In sudden incarnations darting swift
From out its infinite a gulfy stare
Of terror blank, of hideous emptiness,
Of widowhood ere ever wedding-day.

On granite ridge, and chalky cliff, and pier,
Far built into the waves along our shores,
Maidens have stood since ever ships went forth;
The same pain at the heart; the same slow mist
Clouding the eye; the same fixed longing look,
As if the soul had gone, and left the door
Wide open--gone to lean, hearken, and peer
Over the awful edge where voidness sinks
Sheer to oblivion--that horizon-line
Over whose edge he vanished--came no more.
O God, why are our souls, waste, helpless seas,
Tortured with such immitigable storm?
What is this love, that now on angel wing
Sweeps us amid the stars in passionate calm;
And now with demon arms fast cincturing,
Drops us, through all gyrations of keen pain,
Down the black vortex, till the giddy whirl
Gives fainting respite to the ghastly brain?
O happy they for whom the Possible
Opens its gates of madness, and becomes
The Real around them!--such to whom henceforth
There is but one to-morrow, the next morn,
Their wedding-day, ever one step removed,
The husband's foot ever upon the verge
Of the day's threshold, in a lasting dream!
Such madness may be but a formless faith--
A chaos which the breath of God will blow
Into an ordered world of seed and fruit.
Shall not the Possible become the Real?
God sleeps not when he makes his daughters dream.
Shall not the morrow dawn at last which leads
The maiden-ghost, confused and half awake,
Into the land whose shadows are our dreams?--
Thus questioning we stand upon the shore,
And gaze across into the Unrevealed.

Upon its visible symbol gazed the girl,
Till earth behind her ceased, and sea was all,
Possessing eyes and brain and shrinking soul--
A universal mouth to swallow up,
And close eternally in one blue smile!
A still monotony of pauseless greed,
Its only voice an endless, dreary song
Of wailing, and of craving from the world!

A low dull dirge that ever rose and died,
Recurring without pause or change or close,
Like one verse chaunted ever in sleepless brain,
Still drew her to the shore. It drew her down,
Like witch's spell, that fearful endless moan;
Somewhere, she thought, in the green abyss below,
His body, at the centre of the moan,
Obeyed the motions whence the moaning grew;
Now, now, in circle slow revolved, and now
Swayed like a wind-swung bell, now swept along
Hither and thither, idly to and fro,
Heedlessly wandering through the heedless sea.
Its fascination drew her onward still--
On to the ridgy rocks that seaward ran,
And out along their furrows and jagged backs,
To the last lonely point where the green mass
Arose and sank, heaved slow and forceful. There
She shuddered and recoiled. Thus, for a time,
Sport-slave of power occult, she came and went,
Betwixt the shore and sea alternating,
Drawn ever to the greedy lapping lip,
Then, terror-stung, driven backward: there it lay,
The heartless, cruel, miserable deep,
Ambushed in horror, with its glittering eye
Still drawing her to its green gulfing maw!

But every ocean hath its isles, each woe
Its scattered comfortings; and this was one
That often came to her--that she, wave-caught,
Must, in the wash of ever-shifting waters,
In some good hour sure-fixed of pitiful fate,
All-conscious still of love, despite the sea,
Float over some stray bone, some particle,
Which far-diffused sense would know as his:
Heart-glad she would sit down, and watch the tide
Slow-growing--till it reached at length her feet,
When, at its first cold touch, up she would spring,
And, ghastful, flee, with white-rimmed sightless eye.

But still, where'er she fled, the sea-voice followed;
Whisperings innumerable of water-drops
Would grow together to a giant cry;
Now hoarse, half-stifled, pleading, warning tones,
Now thunderous peals of billowy, wrathful shouts,
Called after her to come, and make no pause.
From the loose clouds that mingled with the spray,
And from the tossings of the lifted seas,
Where plunged and rose the raving wilderness,
Outreaching arms, pursuing, beckoning hands,
Came shoreward, lengthening, feeling after her.
Then would she fling her own wild arms on high,
Over her head, in tossings like the waves,
Or fix them, with clasped hands of prayer intense,
Forward, appealing to the bitter sea.
Sometimes she sudden from her shoulders tore
Her garments, one by one, and cast them out
Into the roarings of the heedless surge,
In vain oblation to the hungry waves.
As vain was Pity's will to cover her;
Best gifts but bribed the sea, and left her bare.
In her poor heart and brain burned such a fire
That all-unheeded cold winds lapped her round,
And sleet-like spray flashed on her tawny skin.
Her food she seldom ate; her naked arms
Flung it far out to feed the sea; her hair
Streamed after it, like rooted ocean-weed
In headlong current. But, alas, the sea
Took it, and came again--it would have her!
And as the wave importunate, so despair,
Back surging, on her heart rushed ever afresh:
Sickening she moaned--half muttered and half moaned--
"She winna be content; she'll hae mysel!"

But when the night grew thick upon the sea,
Quenching it almost, save its quenchless voice,
Then, half-released until the light, she rose,
And step by step withdrew--as dreaming man,
With an eternity of slowness, drags
His earth-bound, lead-like, irresponsive feet
Back from a sleeping horror, she withdrew.
But when, upon the narrow beach at last,
She turned her back upon her hidden foe,
It blended with her phantom-breeding brain,
And, scared at very fear, she cried and fled--
Fled to the battered base of the old tower,
And round the rock, and through the arched gap
Into the yawning blackness of the vault--
There sank upon the sand, and gasped, and raved.
Close cowering in a nook, she sat all night,
Her face turned to the entrance of the vault,
Through which a pale light shimmered--from the eye
Of the great sleepless ocean--Argus more dread
Than he with hundred lidless watching orbs,
And slept, and dreamed, and dreaming saw the sea.
But in the stormy nights, when all was dark,
And the wild tempest swept with slanting wing
Against her refuge, and the heavy spray
Shot through the doorway serpentine cold arms
To seize the fore-doomed morsel of the sea,
She slept not, evermore stung to new life
By new sea-terrors. Now it was the gull:
His clanging pinions darted through the arch,
And flapped about her head; now 'twas a wave
Grown arrogant: it rushed into her house,
Clasped her waist-high, then out again and away
To swell the devilish laughter in the fog,
And leave her clinging to the rocky wall,
With white face watching. When it came no more,
And the tide ebbed, not yet she slept--sat down,
And sat unmoving, till the low gray dawn
Grew on the misty dance of spouting waves,
That made a picture in the rugged arch;
Then the old fascination woke and drew;
And, rising slowly, forth she went afresh,
To haunt the border of the dawning sea.

Yet all the time there lay within her soul
An inner chamber, quietest place; but she
Turned from its door, and staid out in the storm.
She, entering there, had found a refuge calm
As summer evening, as a mother's arms.
There had she found her lost love, only lost
In that he slept, and she was still awake.
There she had found, waiting for her to come,
The Love that waits and watches evermore.

Thou too hast such a chamber, quietest place,
Where that Love waits for thee. What is it, say,
That will not let thee enter? Is it care
For the provision of the unborn day,
As if thou wert a God that must foresee?
Is it poor hunger for the praise of men?
Is it ambition to outstrip thy fellow
In this world's race? Or is it love of self--
That greed which still to have must still destroy?--
Go mad for some lost love; some voice of old,
Which first thou madest sing, and after sob;
Some heart thou foundest rich, and leftest bare,
Choking its well of faith with thy false deeds--
Unlike thy God, who keeps the better wine
Until the last, and, if he giveth grief,
Giveth it first, and ends the tale with joy:
Such madness clings about the feet of God,
Nor lets them go. Better a thousandfold
Be she than thou! for though thy brain be strong
And clear and workful, hers a withered flower
That never came to seed, her heart is full
Of that in whose live might God made the world;
She is a well, and thou an empty cup.
It was the invisible unbroken cord
Between the twain, her and her sailor-lad,
That drew her ever to the ocean marge.
Better to die for love, to rave for love,
Than not to love at all! but to have loved,
And, loved again, then to have turned away--
Better than that, never to have been born!

But if thy heart be noble, say if thou
Canst ever all forget an hour of pain,
When, maddened with the thought that could not be,
Thou might'st have yielded to the demon wind
That swept in tempest through thy scorching brain,
And rushed into the night, and howled aloud,
And clamoured to the waves, and beat the rocks;
And never found thy way back to the seat
Of conscious self, and power to rule thy pain,
Had not God made thee strong to bear and live!
The tale is now in thee, not thou in it;
But the sad woman, in her wildest mood,
Thou knowest her thy sister! She is fair
No more; her eyes like fierce suns blaze and burn;
Her cheeks are parched and brown; her haggard form
Is wasted by wild storms of soul and sea;
Yet in her very self is that which still
Reminds thee of a story, old, not dead,
Which God has in his keeping--of thyself.

Ah, not forgot are children when they sleep!
The darkness lasts all night, and clears the eyes;
Then comes the morning with the joy of light.
Oh, surely madness hideth not from Him!
Nor doth a soul cease to be beautiful
In his sight, that its beauty is withdrawn,
And hid by pale eclipse from human eyes.
As the chill snow is friendly to the earth,
And pain and loss are friendly to the soul,
Shielding it from the black heart-killing frost;
So madness is but one of God's pale winters;
And when the winter over is and gone,
Then smile the skies, then blooms the earth again,
And the fair time of singing birds is come:
Into the cold wind and the howling night,
God sent for her, and she was carried in
Where there was no more sea.

What messenger
Ran from the door of heaven to bring her home?
The sea, her terror.

In the rocks that stand
Below the cliff, there lies a rounded hollow,
Scooped like a basin, with jagged and pinnacled sides:
Low buried when the wind heaps up the surge,
It lifts in the respiration of the tide
Its broken edges, and, then, deep within
Lies resting water, radiantly clear:
There, on a morn of sunshine, while the wind
Yet blew, and heaved yet the billowy sea
With memories of a night of stormy dreams,
At rest they found her: in the sleep which is
And is not death, she, lying very still,
Absorbed the bliss that follows after pain.
O life of love, conquered at last by fate!
O life raised from the dead by saviour Death!
O love unconquered and invincible!
The enemy sea had cooled her burning brain;
Had laid to rest the heart that could not rest;
Had hid the horror of its own dread face!
'Twas but one desolate cry, and then her fear
Became a blessed fact, and straight she knew
What God knew all the time--that it was well.

O thou whose feet tread ever the wet sands
And howling rocks along the wearing shore,
Roaming the borders of the sea of death!
Strain not thine eyes, bedimmed with longing tears,
No sail comes climbing back across that line.
Turn thee, and to thy work; let God alone,
And wait for him: faint o'er the waves will come
Far-floating whispers from the other shore
To thine averted ears. Do thou thy work,
And thou shalt follow--follow, and find thine own.

And thou who fearest something that may come;
Around whose house the storm of terror breaks
All night; to whose love-sharpened ear, all day,
The Invisible is calling at the door,
To render up a life thou canst not keep,
Or love that will not stay,--open thy door,
And carry out thy dying to the marge
Of the great sea; yea, walk into the flood,
And lay thy dead upon the moaning waves.
Give them to God to bury; float them again,
With sighs and prayers to waft them through the gloom,
Back to the spring of life. Say--"If they die,
Thou, the one life of life, art still alive,
And thou canst make thy dead alive again!"

Ah God, the earth is full of cries and moans,
And dull despair, that neither moans nor cries;
Thousands of hearts are waiting helplessly;
The whole creation groaneth, travaileth
For what it knows not--with a formless hope
Of resurrection or of dreamless death!
Raise thou the dead; restore the Aprils withered
In hearts of maidens; give their manhood back
To old men feebly mournful o'er a life
That scarce hath memory but the mournfulness!
There is no past with thee: bring back once more
The summer eves of lovers, over which
The wintry wind that raveth through the world
Heaps wretched leaves in gusts of ghastly snow;
Bring back the mother-heaven of orphans lone,
The brother's and the sister's faithfulness;--
Bring in the kingdom of the Son of Man.

They troop around me, children wildly crying;
Women with faded eyes, all spent of tears;
Men who have lived for love, yet lived alone;
Yea, some consuming in cold fires of shame!
O God, thou hast a work for all thy strength
In saving these thy hearts with full content--
Except thou give them Lethe's stream to drink,
And that, my God, were all unworthy thee!

Dome up, O heaven, yet higher o'er my head!
Back, back, horizon; widen out my world!
Rush in, O fathomless sea of the Unknown!
For, though he slay me, I will trust in God.

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