The Shipbuilders

A poem by John Greenleaf Whittier

The sky is ruddy in the east,
The earth is gray below,
And, spectral in the river-mist,
The ship’s white timbers show.
Then let the sounds of measured stroke
And grating saw begin;
The broad-axe to the gnarlèd oak,
The mallet to the pin!

Hark! roars the bellows, blast on blast,
The sooty smithy jars,
And fire-sparks, rising far and fast,
Are fading with the stars.
All day for us the smith shall stand
Beside that flashing forge;
All day for us his heavy hand
The groaning anvil scourge.

From far-off hills, the panting team
For us is toiling near;
For us the raftsmen down the stream
Their island barges steer.
Rings out for us the axe-man’s stroke
In forests old and still,
For us the century-circled oak
Falls crashing down his hill.

Up! up! in nobler toil than ours
No craftsmen bear a part:
We make of Nature’s giant powers
The slaves of human Art.
Lay rib to rib and beam to beam,
And drive the treenails free;
Nor faithless joint nor yawning seam
Shall tempt the searching sea!

Where’er the keel of our good ship
The sea’s rough field shall plough,
Where’er her tossing spars shall drip
With salt-spray caught below;
That ship must heed her master’s beck,
Her helm obey his hand,
And seamen tread her reeling deck
As if they trod the land.

Her oaken ribs the vulture-beak
Of Northern ice may peel;
The sunken rock and coral peak
May grate along her keel;
And know we well the painted shell
We give to wind and wave,
Must float, the sailor’s citadel,
Or sink, the sailor’s grave!

Ho! strike away the bars and blocks,
And set the good ship free!
Why lingers on these dusty rocks
The young bride of the sea?
Look! how she moves adown the grooves,
In graceful beauty now!
How lowly on the breast she loves
Sinks down her virgin prow!

God bless-her! wheresoe’er the breeze
Her snowy wing shall fan,
Aside the frozen Hebrides,
Or sultry Hindostan!
Where’er, in mart or on the main,
With peaceful flag unfurled,
She helps to wind the silken chain
Of commerce round the world!

Speed on the ship! But let her bear
No merchandise of sin,
No groaning cargo of despair
Her roomy hold within;
No Lethean drug for Eastern lands,
For poison-draught for ours;
But honest fruits of toiling hands
And Nature’s sun and showers.

Be hers the Prairie’s golden grain,
The Desert’s golden sand,
The clustered fruits of sunny Spain,
The spice of Morning-land!
Her pathway on the open main
May blessings follow free,
And glad hearts welcome back again
Her white sails from the sea!

Reader Comments

Tell us what you think of 'The Shipbuilders' by John Greenleaf Whittier

comments powered by Disqus