Grace Darling

A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Take, O star of all our seas, from not an alien hand,
Homage paid of song bowed down before thy glory's face,
Thou the living light of all our lovely stormy strand,
Thou the brave north-country's very glory of glories, Grace.
Loud and dark about the lighthouse rings and glares the night;
Glares with foam-lit gloom and darkling fire of storm and spray,
Rings with roar of winds in chase and rage of waves in flight,
Howls and hisses as with mouths of snakes and wolves at bay.
Scarce the cliffs of the islets, scarce the walls of Joyous Gard,
Flash to sight between the deadlier lightnings of the sea:
Storm is lord and master of a midnight evil-starred,
Nor may sight or fear discern what evil stars may be.
Dark as death and white as snow the sea-swell scowls and shines,
Heaves and yearns and pants for prey, from ravening lip to lip,
Strong in rage of rapturous anguish, lines on hurtling lines,
Ranks on charging ranks, that break and rend the battling ship.
All the night is mad and murderous: who shall front the night?
Not the prow that labours, helpless as a storm-blown leaf,
Where the rocks and waters, darkling depth and beetling height,
Rage with wave on shattering wave and thundering reef on reef.
Death is fallen upon the prisoners there of darkness, bound
Like as thralls with links of iron fast in bonds of doom;
How shall any way to break the bands of death be found,
Any hand avail to pluck them from that raging tomb?
All the night is great with child of death: no stars above
Show them hope in heaven, no lights from shores ward help on earth.
Is there help or hope to seaward, is there help in love,
Hope in pity, where the ravening hounds of storm make mirth?
Where the light but shows the naked eyeless face of Death
Nearer, laughing dumb and grim across the loud live storm?
Not in human heart or hand or speech of human breath,
Surely, nor in saviours found of mortal face or form.
Yet below the light, between the reefs, a skiff shot out
Seems a sea-bird fain to breast and brave the strait fierce pass
Whence the channelled roar of waters driven in raging rout,
Pent and pressed and maddened, speaks their monstrous might and mass.
Thunder heaves and howls about them, lightning leaps and flashes,
Hard at hand, not high in heaven, but close between the walls
Heaped and hollowed of the storms of old, whence reels and crashes
All the rage of all the unbaffled wave that breaks and falls.
Who shall thwart the madness and the gladness of it, laden
Full with heavy fate, and joyous as the birds that whirl?
Nought in heaven or earth, if not one mortal-moulded maiden,
Nought if not the soul that glorifies a northland girl.
Not the rocks that break may baffle, not the reefs that thwart
Stay the ravenous rapture of the waves that crowd and leap;
Scarce their flashing laughter shows the hunger of their heart,
Scarce their lion-throated roar the wrath at heart they keep.
Child and man and woman in the grasp of death clenched fast
Tremble, clothed with darkness round about, and scarce draw breath,
Scarce lift eyes up toward the light that saves not, scarce may cast
Thought or prayer up, caught and trammelled in the snare of death.
Not as sea-mews cling and laugh or sun their plumes and sleep
Cling and cower the wild night's waifs of shipwreck, blind with fear,
Where the fierce reef scarce yields foothold that a bird might keep,
And the clamorous darkness deadens eye and deafens ear.
Yet beyond their helpless hearing, out of hopeless sight,
Saviours, armed and girt upon with strength of heart, fare forth,
Sire and daughter, hand on oar and face against the night,
Maid and man whose names are beacons ever to the North.
Nearer now; but all the madness of the storming surf
Hounds and roars them back; but roars and hounds them back in vain:
As a pleasure-skiff may graze the lake-embanking turf,
So the boat that bears them grates the rock where-toward they strain.
Dawn as fierce and haggard as the face of night scarce guides
Toward the cries that rent and clove the darkness, crying for aid,
Hours on hours, across the engorged reluctance of the tides,
Sire and daughter, high-souled man and mightier-hearted maid.
Not the bravest land that ever breasted war's grim sea,
Hurled her foes back harried on the lowlands whence they came,
Held her own and smote her smiters down, while such durst be,
Shining northward, shining southward, as the aurorean flame,
Not our mother, not Northumberland, brought ever forth,
Though no southern shore may match the sons that kiss her mouth,
Children worthier all the birthright given of the ardent north
Where the fire of hearts outburns the suns that fire the south.
Even such fire was this that lit them, not from lowering skies
Where the darkling dawn flagged, stricken in the sun's own shrine,
Down the gulf of storm subsiding, till their earnest eyes
Find the relics of the ravening night that spared but nine.
Life by life the man redeems them, head by storm-worn head,
While the girl's hand stays the boat whereof the waves are fain:
Ah, but woe for one, the mother clasping fast her dead!
Happier, had the surges slain her with her children slain.
Back they bear, and bring between them safe the woful nine,
Where above the ravenous Hawkers fixed at watch for prey
Storm and calm behold the Longstone's towering signal shine
Now as when that labouring night brought forth a shuddering day.
Now as then, though like the hounds of storm against her snarling
All the clamorous years between us storm down many a fame,
As our sires beheld before us we behold Grace Darling
Crowned and throned our queen, and as they hailed we hail her name.
Nay, not ours alone, her kinsfolk born, though chiefliest ours,
East and west and south acclaim her queen of England's maids,
Star more sweet than all their stars and flower than all their flowers,
Higher in heaven and earth than star that sets or flower that fades.
How should land or sea that nurtured her forget, or love
Hold not fast her fame for us while aught is borne in mind?
Land and sea beneath us, sun and moon and stars above,
Bear the bright soul witness, seen of all but souls born blind.
Stars and moon and sun may wax and wane, subside and rise,
Age on age as flake on flake of showering snows be shed:
Not till earth be sunless, not till death strike blind the skies,
May the deathless love that waits on deathless deeds be dead.
Years on years have withered since beside the hearth once thine
I, too young to have seen thee, touched thy father's hallowed hand:
Thee and him shall all men see for ever, stars that shine
While the sea that spared thee girds and glorifies the land.

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