A Word for the Nation

A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne

A word across the water
Against our ears is borne,
Of threatenings and of slaughter,
Of rage and spite and scorn:
We have not, alack, an ally to befriend us,
And the season is ripe to extirpate and end us:
Let the German touch hands with the Gaul,
And the fortress of England must fall;
And the sea shall be swept of her seamen,
And the waters they ruled be their graves,
And Dutchmen and Frenchmen be free men,
And Englishmen slaves.

Our time once more is over,
Once more our end is near:
A bull without a drover,
The Briton reels to rear,
And the van of the nations is held by his betters,
And the seas of the world shall be loosed from his fetters,
And his glory shall pass as a breath,
And the life that is in him be death;
And the sepulchre sealed on his glory
For a sign to the nations shall be
As of Tyre and of Carthage in story,
Once lords of the sea.

The lips are wise and loyal,
The hearts are brave and true,
Imperial thoughts and royal
Make strong the clamorous crew,
Whence louder and prouder the noise of defiance
Rings rage from the grave of a trustless alliance,
And bids us beware and be warned,
As abhorred of all nations and scorned,
As a swordless and spiritless nation,
A wreck on the waste of the waves.
So foams the released indignation
Of masterless slaves.

Brute throats that miss the collar,
Bowed backs that ask the whip,
Stretched hands that lack the dollar,
And many a lie-seared lip,
Forefeel and foreshow for us signs as funereal
As the signs that were regal of yore and imperial;
We shall pass as the princes they served,
We shall reap what our fathers deserved,
And the place that was England’s be taken
By one that is worthier than she,
And the yoke of her empire be shaken
Like spray from the sea.

French hounds, whose necks are aching
Still from the chain they crave,
In dog-day madness breaking
The dog-leash, thus may rave:
But the seas that for ages have fostered and fenced her
Laugh, echoing the yell of their kennel against her
And their moan if destruction draw near them
And the roar of her laughter to hear them;
For she knows that if Englishmen be men
Their England has all that she craves;
All love and all honour from free men,
All hatred from slaves.

All love that rests upon her
Like sunshine and sweet air,
All light of perfect honour
And praise that ends in prayer,
She wins not more surely, she wears not more proudly,
Than the token of tribute that clatters thus loudly,
The tribute of foes when they meet
That rattles and rings at her feet,
The tribute of rage and of rancour,
The tribute of slaves to the free,
To the people whose hope hath its anchor
Made fast in the sea.

No fool that bows the back he
Feels fit for scourge or brand,
No scurril scribes that lackey
The lords of Lackeyland,
No penman that yearns, as he turns on his pallet,
For the place or the pence of a peer or a valet,
No whelp of as currish a pack
As the litter whose yelp it gives back,
Though he answer the cry of his brother
As echoes might answer from caves,
Shall be witness as though for a mother
Whose children were slaves.

But those found fit to love her,
Whose love has root in faith,
Who hear, though darkness cover
Time’s face, what memory saith,
Who seek not the service of great men or small men
But the weal that is common for comfort of all men,
Those yet that in trust have beholden
Truth’s dawn over England grow golden
And quicken the darkness that stagnates
And scatter the shadows that flee,
Shall reply for her meanest as magnates
And masters by sea.

And all shall mark her station,
Her message all shall hear,
When, equal-eyed, the nation
Bids all her sons draw near,
And freedom be more than tradition or faction,
And thought be no swifter to serve her than action,
And justice alone be above her,
That love may be prouder to love her,
And time on the crest of her story
Inscribe, as remembrance engraves,
The sign that subdues with its glory
Kings, princes, and slaves.

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