Jean Ingelow

(17 March 1820 - 20 July 1897 / Boston, Lincolnshire)

The Mariner's Cave - Poem by Jean Ingelow

Once on a time there walked a mariner,
That had been shipwrecked;—on a lonely shore,
And the green water made a restless stir,
And a great flock of mews sped on before.
He had nor food nor shelter, for the tide
Rose on the one, and cliffs on the other side.

Brown cliffs they were; they seemed to pierce the sky,
That was an awful deep of empty blue,
Save that the wind was in it, and on high
A wavering skein of wild-fowl tracked it through.
He marked them not, but went with movement slow,
Because his thoughts were sad, his courage low.

His heart was numb, he neither wept nor sighed,
But wearifully lingered by the wave;
Until at length it chanced that he espied,
Far up, an opening in the cliff, a cave,
A shelter where to sleep in his distress,
And lose his sorrow in forgetfulness.

With that he clambered up the rugged face
Of that steep cliff that all in shadow lay,
And, lo, there was a dry and homelike place,
Comforting refuge for the castaway;
And he laid down his weary, weary head,
And took his fill of sleep till dawn waxed red.

When he awoke, warm stirring from the south
Of delicate summer air did sough and flow;
He rose, and, wending to the cavern's mouth,
He cast his eyes a little way below
Where on the narrow ledges, sharp and rude,
Preening their wings the blue rock-pigeons cooed.

Then he looked lower and saw the lavender
And sea-thrift blooming in long crevices,
And the brown wallflower—April's messenger,
The wallflower marshalled in her companies.
Then lower yet he looked adown the steep,
And sheer beneath him lapped the lovely deep.

The laughing deep;—and it was pacified
As if it had not raged that other day.
And it went murmuring in the morningtide
Innumerable flatteries on its way,
Kissing the cliffs and whispering at their feet
With exquisite advancement, and retreat.

This when the mariner beheld he sighed,
And thought on his companions lying low.
But while he gazed with eyes unsatisfied
On the fair reaches of their overthow,
Thinking it strange he only lived of all,
But not returning thanks, he heard a call!

A soft sweet call, a voice of tender ruth,
He thought it came from out the cave. And, lo,
It whispered, 'Man, look up!' But he, forsooth,
Answered, 'I cannot, for the long waves flow
Across my gallant ship where sunk she lies
With all my riches and my merchandise.

'Moreover, I am heavy for the fate
Of these my mariners drowned in the deep;
I must lament me for their sad estate
Now they are gathered in their last long sleep.
O! the unpitying heavens upon me frown,
Then how should I look up?—I must look down.'

And he stood yet watching the fair green sea
Till hunger reached him; then he made a fire,
A driftwood fire, and wandered listlessly
And gathered many eggs at his desire,
And dressed them for his meal, and then he lay
And slept, and woke upon the second day.

Whenas he said, 'The cave shall be my home;
None will molest me, for the brown cliffs rise
Like castles of defence behind,—the foam
Of the remorseless sea beneath me lies;
'Tis easy from the cliff my food to win—
The nations of the rock-dove breed therein.

'For fuel, at the ebb yon fair expanse
Is strewed with driftwood by the breaking wave,
And in the sea is fish for sustenance.
I will build up the entrance of the cave,
And leave therein a window and a door,
And here will dwell and leave it nevermore.'

Then even so he did: and when his task,
Many long days being over, was complete,
When he had eaten, as he sat to bask
In the red firelight glowing at his feet,
He was right glad of shelter, and he said,
'Now for my comrades am I comforted.'

Then did the voice awake and speak again;
It murmured, 'Man, look up!' But he replied,
'I cannot. O, mine eyes, mine eyes are fain
Down on the red wood-ashes to abide
Because they warm me.' Then the voice was still,
And left the lonely mariner to his will.

And soon it came to pass that he got gain.
He had great flocks of pigeons which he fed,
And drew great store of fish from out the main,
And down from eiderducks; and then he said,
'It is not good that I should lead my life
In silence, I will take to me a wife.'

He took a wife, and brought her home to him;
And he was good to her and cherished her
So that she loved him; then when light waxed dim
Gloom came no more; and she would minister
To all his wants; while he, being well content,
Counted her company right excellent.

But once as on the lintel of the door
She leaned to watch him while he put to sea,
This happy wife, down-gazing at the shore,
Said sweetly, 'It is better now with me
Than it was lately when I used to spin
In my old father's house beside the lin.'

And then the soft voice of the cave awoke—
The soft voice which had haunted it erewhile—
And gently to the wife it also spoke,
'Woman, look up!' But she, with tender guile,
Gave it denial, answering, 'Nay, not so,
For all that I should look on lieth below.

'The great sky overhead is not so good
For my two eyes as yonder stainless sea,
The source and yielder of our livelihood,
Where rocks his little boat that loveth me.'
This when the wife had said she moved away,
And looked no higher than the wave all day.

Now when the year ran out a child she bore,
And there was such rejoicing in the cave
As surely never had there been before
Since God first made it. Then full, sweet, and grave,
The voice, 'God's utmost blessing brims thy cup,
O, father of this child, look up, look up!'

'Speak to my wife,' the mariner replied.
'I have much work—right welcome work 'tis true—
Another mouth to feed.' And then it sighed,
'Woman, look up!' She said, 'Make no ado,
For I must needs look down, on anywise,
My heaven is in the blue of these dear eyes.'

The seasons of the year did swiftly whirl,
They measured time by one small life alone;
On such a day the pretty pushing pearl,
That mouth they loved to kiss had sweetly shown,
That smiling mouth, and it had made essay
To give them names on such another day.

And afterward his infant history,
Whether he played with baubles on the floor,
Or crept to pat the rock-doves pecking nigh,
And feeding on the threshold of the door,
They loved to mark, and all his marvellings dim,
The mysteries that beguiled and baffled him.

He was so sweet, that oft his mother said,
'O, child, how was it that I dwelt content
Before thou camest? Blessings on thy head,
Thy pretty talk it is so innocent,
That oft for all my joy, though it be deep,
When thou art prattling, I am like to weep.'

Summer and winter spent themselves again,
The rock-doves in their season bred, the cliff
Grew sweet, for every cleft would entertain
Its tuft of blossom, and the mariner's skiff,
Early and late, would linger in the bay,
Because the sea was calm and winds away.

The little child about that rocky height,
Led by her loving hand who gave him birth,
Might wander in the clear unclouded light,
And take his pastime in the beauteous earth;
Smell the fair flowers in stony cradles swung,
And see God's happy creatures feed their young.

And once it came to pass, at eventide,
His mother set him in the cavern door,
And filled his lap with grain, and stood aside
To watch the circling rock-doves soar, and soar,
Then dip, alight, and run in circling bands,
To take the barley from his open hands.

And even while she stood and gazed at him,
And his grave father's eyes upon him dwelt,
They heard the tender voice, and it was dim,
And seemed full softly in the air to melt;
'Father,' it murmured, 'Mother,' dying away,
'Look up, while yet the hours are called to-day.'

'I will,' the father answered, 'but not now;'
The mother said, 'Sweet voice, O speak to me
At a convenient season.' And the brow
Of the cliff began to quake right fearfully,
There was a rending crash, and there did leap
A riven rock and plunge into the deep.

They said, 'A storm is coming;' but they slept
That night in peace, and thought the storm had passed,
For there was not a cloud to intercept
The sacred moonlight on the cradle cast;
And to his rocking boat at dawn of day,
With joy of heart the mariner took his way.

But when he mounted up the path at night,
Foreboding not of trouble or mischance,
His wife came out into the fading light,
And met him with a serious countenance;
And she broke out in tears and sobbings thick,
'The child is sick, my little child is sick.'

They knelt beside him in the sultry dark,
And when the moon looked in his face was pale,
And when the red sun, like a burning barque,
Rose in a fog at sea, his tender wail
Sank deep into their hearts, and piteously
They fell to chiding of their destiny.

The doves unheeded cooed that livelong day,
Their pretty playmate cared for them no more;
The sea-thrift nodded, wet with glistening spray,
None gathered it; the long wave washed the shore;
He did not know, nor lift his eyes to trace,
The new fallen shadow in his dwelling-place.

The sultry sun beat on the cliffs all day,
And hot calm airs slept on the polished sea,
The mournful mother wore her time away,
Bemoaning of her helpless misery,
Pleading and plaining, till the day was done,
'O look on me, my love, my little one.

'What aileth thee, that thou dost lie and moan?
Ah would that I might bear it in thy stead!'
The father made not his forebodings known,
But gazed, and in his secret soul he said,
'I may have sinned, on sin waits punishment,
But as for him, sweet blameless innocent,

'What has he done that he is stricken down?
O it is hard to see him sink and fade,
When I, that counted him my dear life's crown,
So willingly have worked while he has played;
That he might sleep, have risen, come storm, come heat,
And thankfully would fast that he might eat.'

My God, how short our happy days appear!
How long the sorrowful! They thought it long,
The sultry morn that brought such evil cheer,
And sat, and wished, and sighed for evensong;
It came, and cooling wafts about him stirred,
Yet when they spoke he answered not a word.

'Take heart,' they cried, but their sad hearts sank low
When he would moan and turn his restless head,
And wearily the lagging morns would go,
And nights, while they sat watching by his bed,
Until a storm came up with wind and rain,
And lightning ran along the troubled main.

Over their heads the mighty thunders brake,
Leaping and tumbling down from rock to rock,
Then burst anew and made the cliffs to quake
As they were living things and felt the shock;
The waiting sea to sob as if in pain,
And all the midnight vault to ring again.

A lamp was burning in the mariner's cave,
But the blue lightning flashes made it dim;
And when the mother heard those thunders rave,
She took her little child to cherish him;
She took him in her arms, and on her breast
Full wearily she courted him to rest,

And soothed him long until the storm was spent,
And the last thunder peal had died away,
And stars were out in all the firmament.
Then did he cease to moan, and slumbering lay,
While in the welcome silence, pure and deep,
The care-worn parents sweetly fell asleep.

And in a dream, enwrought with fancies thick,
The mother thought she heard the rock-doves coo
(She had forgotten that her child was sick),
And she went forth their morning meal to strew;
Then over all the cliff with earnest care
She sought her child, and lo, he was not there!

But she was not afraid, though long she sought
And climbed the cliff, and set her feet in grass,
Then reached a river, broad and full, she thought,
And at its brink he sat. Alas! alas!
For one stood near him, fair and undefiled,
An innocent, a marvellous man-child.

In garments white as wool, and O, most fair,
A rainbow covered him with mystic light;
Upon the warm?grass his feet were bare,
And as he breathed, the rainbow in her sight
In passions of clear crimson trembling lay,
With gold and violet mist made fair the day.

Her little life! she thought, his little hands
Were full of flowers that he did play withal;
But when he saw the boy o' the golden lands,
And looked him in the face, he let them fall,
Held through a rapturous pause in wistful wise
To the sweet strangeness of those keen child-eyes.

'Ah, dear and awful God, who chastenest me,
How shall my soul to this be reconciled!
It is the Saviour of the world,' quoth she,
'And to my child He cometh as a child.'
Then on her knees she fell by that vast stream—
Oh, it was sorrowful, this woman's dream!

For lo, that Elder Child drew nearer now,
Fair as the light, and purer than the sun.
The calms of heaven were brooding on his brow,
And in his arms He took her little one,
Her child, that knew her, but with sweet demur
Drew back, nor held his hands to come to her.

With that in mother misery sore she wept—
'O Lamb of God, I love my child so MUCH!
He stole away to Thee while we two slept,
But give him back, for Thou hast many such;
And as for me I have but one. O deign,
Dear Pity of God, to give him me again.'

His feet were on the river. Oh, his feet
Had touched the river now, and it was great;
And yet He hearkened when she did entreat,
And turned in quietness as He would wait—
Wait till she looked upon Him, and behold,
There lay a long way off a city of gold.

Like to a jasper and a sardine stone,
Whelmed in the rainbow stood that fair man-child,
Mighty and innocent, that held her own,
And as might be his manner at home he smiled,
Then while she looked and looked, the vision brake,
And all amazed she started up awake.

And lo, her little child was gone indeed!
The sleep that knows no waking he had slept,
Folded to heaven's own heart; in rainbow brede
Clothed and made glad, while they two mourned and wept,
But in the drinking of their bitter cup
The sweet voice spoke once more, and sighed, 'Look up!'

They heard, and straightway answered, 'Even so:
For what abides that we should look on here?
The heavens are better than this earth below,
They are of more account and far more dear.
We will look up, for all most sweet and fair,
Most pure, most excellent, is garnered there.'


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Poem Submitted: Monday, May 14, 2012



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