Les Casquets

A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne

From the depths of the waters that lighten and darken
With change everlasting of life and of death,
Where hardly by noon if the lulled ear hearken
It hears the sea’s as a tired child’s breath,
Where hardly by night if an eye dare scan it
The storm lets shipwreck be seen or heard,
As the reefs to the waves and the foam to the granite
Respond one merciless word,
Sheer seen and far, in the sea’s live heaven,
A seamew’s flight from the wild sweet land,
White-plumed with foam if the wind wake, seven
Black helms as of warriors that stir not stand.
From the depths that abide and the waves that environ
Seven rocks rear heads that the midnight masks,
And the strokes of the swords of the storm are as iron
On the steel of the wave-worn casques.
Be night’s dark word as the word of a wizard,
Be the word of dawn as a god’s glad word,
Like heads of the spirits of darkness visored
That see not for ever, nor ever have heard,
These basnets, plumed as for fight or plumeless,
Crowned of the storm and by storm discrowned,
Keep ward of the lists where the dead lie tombless
And the tale of them is not found.
Nor eye may number nor hand may reckon
The tithes that are taken of life by the dark,
Or the ways of the path, if doom’s hand beckon,
For the soul to fare as a helmless bark
Fare forth on a way that no sign showeth,
Nor aught of its goal or of aught between,
A path for her flight which no fowl knoweth,
Which the vulture’s eye hath not seen.
Here still, though the wave and the wind seem lovers
Lulled half asleep by their own soft words,
A dream as of death in the sun’s light hovers,
And a sign in the motions and cries of the birds.
Dark auguries and keen from the sweet sea-swallows
Strike noon with a sense as of midnight’s breath,
And the wing that flees and the wing that follows
Are as types of the wings of death.
For here, when the night roars round, and under
The white sea lightens and leaps like fire,
Acclaimed of storm and applauded in thunder,
Sits death on the throne of his crowned desire.
Yea, hardly the hand of the god might fashion
A seat more strong for his strength to take,
For the might of his heart and the pride of his passion
To rejoice in the wars they make.
When the heart in him brightens with blitheness of battle
And the depth of its thirst is fulfilled with strife,
And his ear with the ravage of bolts that rattle,
And the soul of death with the pride of life,
Till the darkness is loud with his dark thanksgiving
And wind and cloud are as chords of his hymn,
There is nought save death in the deep night living
And the whole night worships him.
Heaven’s height bows down to him, signed with his token,
And the sea’s depth, moved as a heart that yearns,
Heaves up to him, strong as a heart half broken,
A heart that breaks in a prayer that burns
Of cloud is the shrine of his worship moulded,
But the altar therein is of sea-shaped stone,
Whereon, with the strength of his wide wings folded,
Sits death in the dark, alone.
He hears the word of his servant spoken,
The word that the wind his servant saith,
Storm writes on the front of the night his token,
That the skies may seem to bow down to death
But the clouds that stoop and the storms that minister
Serve but as thralls that fulfil their tasks;
And his seal is not set save here on the sinister
Crests reared of the crownless casques.
Nor flame nor plume of the storm that crowned them
Gilds or quickens their stark black strength.
Life lightens and murmurs and laughs right round them,
At peace with the noon’s whole breadth and length,
At one with the heart of the soft-souled heaven,
At one with the life of the kind wild land:
But its touch may unbrace not the strengths of the seven
Casques hewn of the storm-wind’s hand.
No touch may loosen the black braced helmlets
For the wild elves’ heads of the wild waves wrought.
As flowers on the sea are her small green realmlets,
Like heavens made out of a child’s heart’s thought;

But these as thorns of her desolate places,
Strong fangs that fasten and hold lives fast:
And the vizors are framed as for formless faces
That a dark dream sees go past.
Of fear and of fate are the frontlets fashioned,
And the heads behind them are dire and dumb.
When the heart of the darkness is scarce impassioned,
Thrilled scarce with sense of the wrath to come,
They bear the sign from of old engraven,
Though peace be round them and strife seem far,
That here is none but the night-wind’s haven,
With death for the harbour bar.
Of the iron of doom are the casquets carven,
That never the rivets thereof should burst.
When the heart of the darkness is hunger-starven,
And the throats of the gulfs are agape for thirst,
And stars are as flowers that the wind bids wither,
And dawn is as hope struck dead by fear,
The rage of the ravenous night sets hither,
And the crown of her work is here.
All shores about and afar lie lonely,
But lonelier are these than the heart of grief,
These loose-linked rivets of rock, whence only
Strange life scarce gleams from the sheer main reef,
With a blind wan face in the wild wan morning,
With a live lit flame on its brows by night,
That the lost may lose not its word’s mute warning
And the blind by its grace have sight.
Here, walled in with the wide waste water,
Grew the grace of a girl’s lone life,
The sea’s and the sea-wind’s foster-daughter,
And peace was hers in the main mid strife.
For her were the rocks clothed round with thunder,
And the crests of them carved by the storm-smith’s craft:
For her was the mid storm rent in sunder
As with passion that wailed and laughed.
For her the sunrise kindled and scattered
The red rose-leaflets of countless cloud:
For her the blasts of the springtide shattered
The strengths reluctant of waves back-bowed.
For her would winds in the mid sky levy
Bright wars that hardly the night bade cease
At noon, when sleep on the sea lies heavy,
For her would the sun make peace.
Peace rose crowned with the dawn on golden
Lit leagues of triumph that flamed and smiled:
Peace lay lulled in the moon-beholden
Warm darkness making the world’s heart mild
For all the wide waves’ troubles and treasons,
One word only her soul’s ear heard
Speak from stormless and storm-rent seasons,
And nought save peace was the word.
All her life waxed large with the light of it,
All her heart fed full on the sound:
Spirit and sense were exalted in sight of it,
Compassed and girdled and clothed with it round.
Sense was none but a strong still rapture,
Spirit was none but a joy sublime,
Of strength to curb and of craft to capture
The craft and the strength of Time.
Time lay bound as in painless prison
There, closed in with a strait small space.
Never thereon as a strange light risen
Change had unveiled for her grief’s far face
Three white walls flung out from the basement
Girt the width of the world whereon
Gazing at night from her flame-lit casement
She saw where the dark sea shone.
Hardly the breadth of a few brief paces,
Hardly the length of a strong man’s stride,
The small court flower lit with children’s faces
Scarce held scope for a bud to hide.
Yet here was a man’s brood reared and hidden
Between the rocks and the towers and the foam,
Where peril and pity and peace were bidden
As guests to the same sure home.
Here would pity keep watch for peril,
And surety comfort his heart with peace.
No flower save one, where the reefs lie sterile,
Gave of the seed of its heart’s increase.
Pity and surety and peace most lowly
Were the root and the stem and the bloom of the flower:
And the light and the breath of the buds kept holy
That maid’s else blossomless bower.
With never a leaf but the seaweed’s tangle,
Never a bird’s but the seamew’s note,
It heard all round it the strong storms wrangle,
Watched far past it the waste wrecks float.
But her soul was stilled by the sky’s endurance,
And her heart made glad with the sea’s content;
And her faith waxed more in the sun’s assurance
For the winds that came and went.
Sweetness was brought for her forth of the bitter
Sea’s strength, and light of the deep sea’s dark,
From where green lawns on Alderney glitter
To the bastioned crags of the steeps of Sark.
These she knew from afar beholden,
And marvelled haply what life would be
On moors that sunset and dawn leave golden,
In dells that smile on the sea.
And forth she fared as a stout-souled rover,
For a brief blithe raid on the bounding brine:
And light winds ferried her light bark over
To the lone soft island of fair-limbed kine.
But the league-long length of its wild green border,
And the small bright streets of serene St. Anne,
Perplexed her sense with a strange disorder
At sight of the works of man.
The world was here, and the world’s confusion,
And the dust of the wheels of revolving life,
Pain, labour, change, and the fierce illusion
Of strife more vain than the sea’s old strife.
And her heart within her was vexed, and dizzy
The sense of her soul as a wheel that whirled:
She might not endure for a space that busy
Loud coil of the troublous world.
Too full, she said, was the world of trouble,
Too dense with noise of contentious things,
And shews less bright than the blithe foam’s bubble
As home she fared on the smooth wind’s wings.
For joy grows loftier in air more lonely,
Where only the sea’s brood fain would be;
Where only the heart may receive in it only
The love of the heart of the sea.

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