East and West Poems

A Greyport Legend


Bret Harte

THEY RAN through the streets of the seaport town,
They peered from the decks of the ships that lay;
The cold sea-fog that came whitening down
Was never as cold or white as they.
    “Ho, Starbuck and Pinckney and Tenterden!
    Run for your shallops, gather your men,
        Scatter your boats on the lower bay.”

Good cause for fear!    In the thick mid-day
The hulk that lay by the rotting pier,
Filled with the children in happy play,
Parted its moorings and drifted clear,—
    Drifted clear beyond reach or call,—
    Thirteen children they were in all,—
        All adrift in the lower bay!

Said a hard-faced skipper, “God help us all!
She will not float till the turning tide!”
Said his wife, “My darling will hear my call,
Whether in sea or heaven she bide;”
    And she lifted a quavering voice and high,
    Wild and strange as a sea-bird’s cry,
        Till they shuddered and wondered at her side.

The fog drove down on each laboring crew,
Veiled each from each and the sky and shore:
There was not a sound but the breath they drew,
And the lap of water and creak of oar;
    And they felt the breath of the downs, fresh blown
    O’er leagues of clover and cold gray stone,
        But not from the lips that had gone before.

They came no more.    But they tell the tale
That, when fogs are thick on the harbor reef,
The mackerel fishers shorten sail—
For the signal they know will bring relief;
    For the voices of children, still at play
    In a phantom hulk that drifts alway
        Through channels whose waters never fail.

It is but a foolish shipman’s tale,
A theme for a poet’s idle page;
But still, when the mists of Doubt prevail,
And we lie becalmed by the shores of Age,
    We hear from the misty troubled shore
    The voice of the children gone before,
        Drawing the soul to its anchorage.

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