The Shipbuilders

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!

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