Ada Cambridge (21 November 1844 – 19 July 1926 / St Gemans, Norfolk)
No sight to me like sight of ships.
No wine to me like salt- spray thrown
By morning breezes on my lips;
No music sweeter than the moan
Of solemn surges landward blown.
O world unconquered! O great sea,
Tamed by celestial winds alone!
My spirit is at home with thee,
Panting with thy wild waves for space and liberty.
The land is captive, sold, and bought;
The streets are filled with traffic base;
And I am choked with narrow thought —
The dusty customs that disgrace
Mart, chamber, church, and judgment- place.
But when, upon this lonely shore,
I hear thy voice and see thy face,
I seem to pass a prison door,
And breathe, a free- born man, my native air once more.
The urgent tyrannies of life
Relax their grasp when I am here;
I rise above the fretful strife,
The timid doubt, the trembling fear,
The petty woes that crowd so near;
And, with brain cleansed and pulses stilled,
Stand in the spacious atmosphere,
My inmost being rapt and thrilled,
With unimagined peace and wordless worship filled.
O mystery that no thought can reach!
O language that no tongue can tell!
The whispering surf upon the beach —
The murmuring of the mid- sea swell —
The long boom, like a tolling bell,
That shakes the earth beneath my feet —
The solitude ineffable!
O what new strength, divine and sweet,
Breathes in the mighty gales that round these headlands beat!
Thou, friend, in those wild arms caressed,
My comrade, that hast house and home
On that illimitable breast,
Thy spirit in the wind and foam
Meets mine beneath this starlit dome.
I have no compass and no chart;
I know not where thy bark may roam;
I know not, brother, where thou art;
But I can feel thy courage lifting up my heart.
The shadow of the splendid night
Blots out sea- blue and sunset red.
The glimmering canvas, wide and white,
By sweeping rush of trade- wind spread,
Like sea- birds wings above thy head —
Tall mast, slim spar and cobweb shroud,
And slant deck echoing to thy tread —
The great ship, stately, strong, and proud,
Fades on the darkening deep like some dispersing cloud.
But thou art there, amid the stars
That watch me with those steadfast eyes.
Thy soul, escaped from bolts and bars,
Conventioned fetters and disguise,
As open as these arching skies,
Untrammelled as this boundless sea,
Calm in the awful darkness lies,
Like babe upon its mother's knee,
Humble, but unafraid, as honest soul should be.
Thinking of thee — so small a speck
Amid these myriad worlds around,
But king upon thy quarter- deck —
More king than monarch throned and crowned
That e'er on subject smiled or frowned —
Of what depends upon thy skill,
And thee, by conscience only bound —
I think how nobly we may fill
Our part that looks so hard and hopeless, if we will.
Poor, puny mortals that we are,
Clinging to reeds, and ropes of sand,
'Twere better done, 'twere braver far,
Unsheltered and upright to stand,
The free soul at its own command;
In Him- whate'er He be — to trust
Who holds us in His mighty hand,
And guides each star and grain of dust —
Or to renounce all hope and comfort, if we must.
When mercury sinks and winds are foul,
When mists are thick and skies are black,
And hurricanes that shriek and howl,
And wild seas, leaping like a pack
Of hungry wolves upon thy track,
Smother the deck with spume and spray —
Thou, quiet in the dreadful wrack,
Keeping thy watch, dost stand at bay,
Unshaken by one thought of danger or dismay.
Then why, in life's disastrous hours,
Shall we not face the storm and stress
Of those dark destinies and powers,
Those strong fates, that so hardly press
Upon our lonely littleness?
With timbers sound and thou to guide,
Thy ship will live through her distress.
Shall we not also safely ride,
If hearts be stout and true, whatever may betide?
Or if, indeed, we have to meet
The worst that e'er stout heart befell —
If we must suffer sore defeat,
O'erwhelming, irresistible —
Shall we not bear that test as well?
Shall we not die without disgrace?
No force of anguish can compel
Brave men to turn to mean and base,
And all that fate can bring brave men should dare to face.
If, suddenly, some dire mischance —
Collision, cyclone, fire — should mock
Thy keen and sleepless vigilance;
If there should come, unwarned, the shock
Of shattering hull on sunken rock —
If death, in fog, or flood, or flame,
Upon thy cabin door should knock —
Thy native righteousness would shame
The men who boast most loudly of the Christian name.
“The women first!” thy voice would cry
Above the roar of wind and wave;
And thou, the last, would'st calmly die,
Intrepid, resolute, and brave,
All them that trusted thee to save.
If thou could'st see rewards in store —
A martyr's crown beyond the grave —
If all heaven beckoned thee before,
Or fear of hell-fire drove thee — thou could'st do no more.
Art thou, in thy lone- handed fight,
That fails to serve thee, but succeeds
In victory for the true and right,
Beneath the soul that only heeds
The cry of its own lower needs? —
That shelters, trembling, from the fray
In privilege of pleasant creeds,
That are but systems of a day,
From age to age new- made, outworn, and cast away?
Are we not strong enough to take
The course by conscience marked so plain? —
Faithful till death, for manhood's sake,
Unspurred by coward fear of pain,
Unbribed by hope of selfish gain.
Must soaring progress sink and fall?
And is all history writ in vain?
Is life a thing so poor and small?
And is the great design a muddle after all?
Standing in this tremendous space
Of starlit sky and whispering sea,
With my great Maker face to face,
His countless worlds surrounding me,
Eternity — Infinity —
Humble, but confident, I dare
To let these bitter questions be.
We, too, are creatures of His care.
The voice that called us forth forbids us to despair.
Comments about this poem (At Liberty by Ada Cambridge )
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