Cicely Fox Smith
Nitrates - Poem by Cicely Fox Smith
All alone I went a-walking by the London Docks one day,
For to see the ships discharging in the basins where they lay,
And the cargoes that I saw there, they were every sort of kind,
Every blessed brand of merchandise a man could bring to mind;
There were things in crates and boxes, there was stuff in bags and bales,
There were tea-chests wrapped in matting, there were Eastern-looking frails,
There were balks of teak and greenheart, there were stacks of spruce and pine,
There was cork, and frozen carcasses, and casks of Spanish wine,
There was rice and spice and coco-nuts, and rum enough was there
For to warm all London's innards up and leave a drop to spare.
But of all the freights I found there gathered in from far and wide,
All the smells both nice and nasty from the Pool to Barkingside,
All the harvest of the harbours from Bombay to Montreal,
There was one that took my fancy first and foremost of them all.
It was neither choice nor costly, it was neither rich nor rare,
And in most ways you can think of it was neither here nor there,
It was nothing over beautiful to smell nor yet to see,
Only bags of stuffy nitrates . . . but it meant a lot to me!
I forgot the swarming stevedores - I forgot the dust and din,
And the rattle of the winches hoisting cargo out and in,
And the rusty tramp before me with her hatches open wide,
And the grinding of her derricks as the sacks went overside;
I forgot the murk of London and the dull November sky;
I was far, ay, far from England in a day that's long gone by!
I forgot the thousand changes years have brought to ships and men,
And the knots on Time's old log-line that have reeled away since then,
And I saw a fast full-rigger with her swelling canvas spread,
And the steady Trade wind droning in her royals overhead,
Fleecy Trade clouds on the sky-line - high above the tropic blue -
And the curved arch of the foresail, and the ocean gleaming through;
I recalled the Cape Stiff weather, when your soul-case seemed to freeze,
And the trampling, cursing watches, and the pouring, pooping seas,
And the ice on spar and jackstay, and the cracking, volleying sail,
And the tatters of our voices blowing down the roaring gale.
I recalled those West Coast harbours just as plain as yesteryear, -
Nitrate ports all dry and dusty, where they sell fresh water dear,
Little cities white and wicked on a bleak and barren shore,
With an anchor on the cliff-side for to show you where to moor,
And the sour red wine we tasted, and the foolish songs we sung,
And the girls we had our fun with in the days that we were young,
And the dancing in the evening down at Dago Bill's saloon,
And the stars above the mountains, and the sea's eternal tune.
Only bags of stuffy nitrate from a far Pacific shore
And a dreary West Coast harbour that I'll surely fetch no more, -
Only bags of stuffy nitrate, with its faint familiar smell
Bringing back the ships and shipmates that I used to know so well . . .
Half a lifetime lies between us, and a thousand leagues of sea,
But it called the days departed and my boyhood back to me.
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