The Wreck

A poem by Alfred Tennyson

Hide me, Mother! my Fathers belong’d to the church of old,
I am driven by storm and sin and death to the ancient fold,
I cling to the Catholic Cross once more, to the Faith that saves,
My brain is full of the crash of wrecks, and the roar of waves,
My life itself is a wreck, I have sullied a noble name,
I am flung from the rushing tide of the world as a waif of shame,
I am roused by the wail of a child, and awake to a livid light,
And a ghastlier face than ever has haunted a grave by night,
I would hide from the storm without, I would flee from the storm within,
I would make my life one prayer for a soul that died in his sin,
I was the tempter, Mother, and mine was the deeper fall;
I will sit at your feet, I will hide my face, I will tell you all.

He that they gave me to, Mother, a heedless and innocent bride—
I never have wrong’d his heart, I have only wounded his pride—
Spain in his blood and the Jew——dark visaged, stately and tall—
A princelier looking man never stept thro’ a Prince’s hall.
And who, when his anger was kindled, would venture to give him the nay?
And a man men fear is a man to be loved by the women they say.
And I could have loved him too, if the blossom can doat on the blight,
Or the young green leaf rejoice in the frost that sears it at night;
He would open the books that I prized, and toss them away with a yawn,
Repell’d by the magnet of Art to the which my nature was drawn,
The word of the Poet by whom the deeps of the world are stirr’d,
The music that robes it in language beneath and beyond the word!
My Shelley would fall from my hands when he cast a contemptuous glance
From where he was poring over his Tables of Trade and Finance;
My hands, when I heard him coming would drop from the chords or the keys,
But ever I fail’d to please him, however I strove to please—
All day long far-off in the cloud of the city, and there
Lost, head and heart, in the chances of dividend, consol, and share—
And at home if I sought for a kindly caress, being woman and weak,
His formal kiss fell chill as a flake of snow on the cheek:
And so, when I bore him a girl, when I held it aloft in my joy,
He look’d at it coldly, and said to me ‘Pity it isn’t a boy.’
The one thing given me, to love and to live for, glanced at in scorn!
The child that I felt I could die for—as if she were basely born!
I had lived a wild-flower life, I was planted now in a tomb;
The daisy will shut to the shadow, I closed my heart to the gloom;
I threw myself all abroad—I would play my part with the young
By the low foot-lights of the world—and I caught the wreath that was flung.

Mother, I have not—however their tongues may have babbled of me—
Sinn’d thro’ an animal vileness, for all but a dwarf was he,
And all but a hunchback too; and I look’d at him, first, askance,
With pity—not he the knight for an amorous girl’s romance!
Tho’ wealthy enough to have bask’d in the light of a dowerless smile,
Having lands at home and abroad in a rich West-Indian isle;
But I came on him once at a ball, the heart of a listening crowd—
Why, what a brow was there! he was seated—speaking aloud
To women, the flower of the time, and men at the helm of state—
Flowing with easy greatness and touching on all things great,
Science, philosophy, song—till I felt myself ready to weep
For I knew not what, when I heard that voice,—as mellow and deep
As a psalm by a mighty master and peal’d from an organ,—roll
Rising and falling—for, Mother, the voice was the voice of the soul;
And the sun of the soul made day in the dark of his wonderful eyes.
Here was the hand that would help me, would heal me—the heart that was wise!
And he, poor man, when he learnt that I hated the ring I wore,
He helpt me with death, and he heal’d me with sorrow for evermore.

For I broke the bond. That day my nurse had brought me the child.
The small sweet face was flush’d, but it coo’d to the Mother and smiled.
‘Anything ailing,’ I ask’d her, ‘with baby?’ She shook her head,
And the Motherless Mother kiss’d it, and turn’d in her haste and fled.

Low warm winds had gently breathed us away from the land—
Ten long sweet summer days upon deck, sitting hand in hand—
When he clothed a naked mind with the wisdom and wealth of his own,
And I bow’d myself down as a slave to his intellectual throne,
When he coin’d into English gold some treasure of classical song,
When he flouted a statesman’s error, or flamed at a public wrong,
When he rose as it were on the wings of an eagle beyond me, and past
Over the range and the change of the world from the first to the last,
When lie spoke of his tropical home in the canes by the purple tide,
And the high star-crowns of his palms on the deep-wooded mountain-side,
And cliffs all robed in lianas that dropt to the brink of his bay,
And trees like the towers of a minster, the sons of a winterless day.
‘Paradise there!’ so he said, but I seem’d in Paradise then
With the first great love I had felt for the first and greatest of men;
Ten long days of summer and sin—if it must be so—
But days of a larger light than I ever again shall know—
Days that will glimmer, I fear, thro’ life to my latest breath;
‘No frost there,’ so he said, ‘as in truest Love no Death.’

Mother, one morning a bird with a warble plaintively sweet
Perch’d on the shrouds, and then fell fluttering down at my feet;
I took it, he made it a cage, we fondled it, Stephen and I,
But it died, and I thought of the child for a moment, I scarce know why.

But if sin be sin, not inherited fate, as many will say,
My sin to my desolate little one found me at sea on a day,
When her orphan wail came borne in the shriek of a growing wind,
And a voice rang out in the thunders of Ocean and Heaven ‘Thou hast sinn’d.’
And down in the cabin were we, for the towering crest of the tides
Plunged on the vessel and swept in a cataract off from her sides,
And ever the great storm grew with a howl and a hoot of the blast
In the rigging, voices of hell—then came the crash of the mast.
‘The wages of sin is death,’ and there I began to weep,
‘I am the Jonah, the crew should cast me into the deep,
For ah God, what a heart was mine to forsake her even for you.’
‘Never the heart among women,’ he said, ‘more tender and true.’
‘The heart! not a mother’s heart, when I left my darling alone.’
‘Comfort yourself, for the heart of the father will care for his own.’
‘The heart of the father will spurn her,’ I cried, ‘for the sin of the wife,
The cloud of the mother’s shame will enfold her and darken her life.’
Then his pale face twitch’d; ‘O Stephen, I love you, I love you, and yet’—
As I lean’d away from his arms—‘would God, we had never met!’
And he spoke not—only the storm; till after a little, I yearn’d
For his voice again, and he call’d to me ‘Kiss me!’ and there—as I turn’d—
‘The heart, the heart!’ I kiss’d him, I clung to the sinking form,
And the storm went roaring above us, and he—was out of the storm.

And then, then, Mother, the ship stagger’d under a thunderous shock,
That shook us asunder, as if she had struck and crash’d on a rock;
For a huge sea smote every soul from the decks of The Falcon but one;
All of them, all but the man that was lash’d to the helm had gone;
And I fell—and the storm and the days went by, but I knew no more—
Lost myself—lay like the dead by the dead on the cabin floor,
Dead to the death beside me, and lost to the loss that was mine,
With a dim dream, now and then, of a hand giving bread and wine,
Till I woke from the trance, and the ship stood still, and the skies were blue,
But the face I had known, O Mother, was not the face that I knew.

The strange misfeaturing mask that I saw so amazed me, that I
Stumbled on deck, half mad. I would fling myself over and die!
But one—he was waving a flag—the one man left on the wreck—
‘Woman’—he graspt at my arm—‘stay there’—I crouch’d upon deck—
‘We are sinking, and yet there’s hope look yonder,’ he cried, ‘a sail’
In a tone so rough that I broke into passionate tears, and the wail
Of a beaten babe, till I saw that a boat was nearing us—then
All on a sudden I thought, I shall look on the child again.

They lower’d me down the side, and there in the boat I lay
With sad eyes fixt on the lost sea-home, as we glided away,
And I sigh’d, as the low dark hull dipt under the smiling main,
‘Had I stay’d with him, I had now—with him—been out of my pain.’

They took us aboard: the crew were gentle, the captain kind;
But I was the lonely slave of an often-wandering mind;
For whenever a rougher gust might tumble a stormier wave,
‘O Stephen,’ I moan’d, ‘I am coming to thee in thine Ocean-grave.’
And again, when a balmier breeze curl’d over a peacefuller sea,
I found myself moaning again ‘O child, I am coming to thee.’

The broad white brow of the Isle—that bay with the colour’d sand—
Rich was the rose of sunset there, as we drew to the land;
All so quiet the ripple would hardly blanch into spray
At the feet of the cliff; and I pray’d—‘my child’—for I still could pray—
‘May her life be as blissfully calm, be never gloom’d by the curse
Of a sin, not hers!’
Was it well with the child?
I wrote to the nurse
Who had borne my flower on her hireling heart; and an answer came
Not from the nurse—nor yet to the wife—to her maiden name!
I shook as I open’d the letter—I knew that hand too well—
And from it a scrap, clipt out of the ‘deaths’ in a paper, fell.
‘Ten long sweet summer days’ of fever, and want of care!
And gone—that day of the storm—O Mother, she came to me there.

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