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Missing - Poem by Cicely Fox Smith

I

She was spoken off Saint Vincent, outward bound . . .
Some lumber-laden barque from Puget Sound,
Heaving her sodden deck-load through the foam,
Weary of the sea-ways, climbing the hill for home . . .
Some nine-knot tramp from Melbourne or Bombay,
Wallowing deep-freighted on her homeward way,
Her grimy decks awash, her blistered funnel
Leprous with salt, sea-stained from keel to gunwale,
Rust-streaked, and battered with the Cape Horn gales,
Sighted at grey of dawn her shining sails . . .
White as a woman's breast they gleamed afar, -
Her gilded main-truck flashing like a star, -
And the first shafts of sunrise turned to gold
Her sleek side, heaving upward as she rolled . . .
So passed she by - and those who watched her go
Thought of that road they had good cause to know,
Thought how, when they were sheltered dry and warm,
She would go plunging through some night of storm,
All hands aloft, reefing the steel-hard sails,
Cursing . . . with frozen hands and bleeding nails . . .
Her yards sheeted with ice . . . her leaning deck
A seething flood of men toiled in to the neck . . .
Then thought of winking glasses, warmth and noise -
Good pay to burn - sordid seaport joys -
Saying: 'Who'd change with them chaps now?' - and yet
Still felt a strange half-envy, half-regret,
Such as men may who, ease and wealth attained,
And their full measure of good fortune gained,
From the safe harbour of their middle years
Look back on youth, its burning hopes and fears,
Its unattempted capes and unsailed sea,
Landfalls unguessed, and all things yet to be,
Fond dreams, fantastic loves, and dark despair, -
Know it for ever fled - know it was fair . . .
So passed she by - her tall masts swaying, singing,
Sailors (mere specks) on dizzy foot-ropes swinging,
Whence, looking down, they saw beneath them spread
All her slim length from stern to fo'c'sle head,
The cleft wave streaming from her wedge of bow,
Where the carved warrior with his casqued brow
Leaned always out over the sea's unrest,
With arms laid crosswise on his mailed breast,
And eyes that, all unseeing, seemed to gaze
Out to the ultimate end of all men's ways . . .
Passed . . . till hull down on the horizon's rim,
Her lonely beauty lessened and grew dim …
Passed . . . like a song unfinished, a broken rhyme . . .
And the sea's silence took her for all time.

II

She will not come . . . oh, never, never more
Shall she draw near to any earthly shore;
In storm or calm - in foul weather or fine -
Fast-hurrying wrack or watery pale sunshine -
Frost when the jackstay burns the naked hand -
Odours of forests blowing off the land -
Chill driving mist, or roar of tropic rain -
Dawn, noontide, sunset, dark … never again!
No more at sunrise, all the winds at rest,
The sea rose-dappled like a pigeon's breast,
Shall her black tug - a dwarf leading a queen -
Bring her the lighthouse-guarded strait between . . .
No more, when folks ashore begin to stir,
And wood-smoke hangs on the sharp morning air,
Her sailormen, tramping the capstan round,
Shall wake the sleeping anchorage with sound -
Lifting some wild sea shanty of old time,
Some ancient strain wedded to rough old rhyme -
'Lowlands Away' or 'Rio Grande' - unheard
Each trivial phrase, each vile and worthless word,
Only the strange wild cadences remaining,
Full of the sea's voice and the wind's complaining,
The sad old wistful melody that seems
The stuff of old men's memories, young men's dreams . . .
No more of her along the anchored tiers
Shall all the shipping ripple into cheers
Of welcome or farewell . . . no more again
On any tide her restless cables strain . . .
Nor any landlocked roadstead more behold
Her mirrored pride . . . no harbour see her fold -
After long wanderings come at last to shore -
Her weary wings at sunset any more . . .
Never again to any foul lagoon
Or fetid river in the reek of noon,
Or any lone teredo-fretted quay
Where pine-clothed ranges echo all the day
The crash of falling forests . . . bustling hong,
Or small white Spanish town its palms among . . .
Or where the gleaming Andes hold on high
Their spears in challenge to the sunset sky . . .
To any port of all the ports there be
Shall she come with her beauty from the sea.

III

Aye, all that grace and beauty, strength and speed -
All that she was - are now no more indeed -
Ropes, hard and hairy as a seaman's hand -
Planking, scoured white as bone with stone and sand -
Fife-rails with staunch belaying-pins arow -
And racks of capstan bars - and sails like snow -
Clean smells of tar and paint - and brasses bright
As gold in the sun - and darkly shining teak . . .
That little ordered world, austere and bleak
As some bare chapel of a monkish creed
That asks not pomp nor pride for its soul's need . . .
No more, that strength, that swiftness and that grace,
Than one blown foam-flake on the ocean's face -
No more than one of the millions bubbles
Beneath some proud ship's forefoot, when she troubles
The tumbled whites and blues of tropic seas
A little, and is gone - no more than these,
Less than the least small shell the ocean sweeps
Through the winds and waves and unimagined deeps,
Far from the warmth of blue West Indian seas,
And gaudy parrots screaming through the trees,
Hot tropic smells, and fireflies, and the song
Of Trade winds in the palm-trees all day long,
To the cool greys and blues of temperate skies,
Cold tide-left pools, and the strange sea-birds' cries,
And the pink sea-thrift on the headlands blooming,
And in the hollow caves the Atlantic booming.

IV

Where rests she now? . . . On what Antarctic shore
Where nothing grows but lichens, grey and hoar
As the pale lips of death . . . and nothing moves
On the long beaches, in the deep sea-coves,
But uncouth sea-beasts in their secret, strange
Matings and breedings . . . nothing seems to change
Year by slow year . . . and the fog comes, and the floe,
And the sea thunders, and the great winds blow . . .
And on still wings great birds go sailing by,
Seeking, with slantwise head and watchful eye,
Scraps for the naked nestlings . . . and the time
Comes, and the time goes, and the ocean slime
Coats her with foulness, and the seaweeds green
Clothe her, whom once men tended like a queen . . .

Let be! . . . She is one with all things that have been -
Embers of longing - ashes of desire -
And hope grown cold - passion quenched like fire -
Friendship that death or years or the rough ways
Of chance have sundered . . . all things meet for praise,
Lost yet remembered, that were ours of yore -
Things lovely and beloved, that are no more . . .


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