Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel

(1834-1894 / England)

The Negro - Poem by Roden Berkeley Wriothesley Noel

I cannot loathe nor scorn the colour'd man;
Nor deem him far below my Master's love.
I know about the sutures of his skill;
But I have proved him verily my brother.
And I have heard of Toussaint L'Ouverture!
(Perchance I am not so fastidious
As those who have great genius for words;
Yet we dumb doers crave some standing room,
O ye, so deft and dazzling with the tongue!)

Well I remember, after all my toil,
When within grasp of a momentous prize,
Earth seem'd to glide from under; all was failing,
Even as now! my very faithful friends -
Who had plunged in drowning floods to rescue me;
Who had interposed their bodies to avert
The deadly javelin aim'd against my life;
Who, pressing princely favours on my need,
With more than counsel, with material aid,
Further'd my humanising pilgrimage;
When Christian Levites would have pass'd me by,
Jimgled their gold, and sneer'd 'Utopia!' -
My well-tried Makololo,
desert me!
Shrinking at last from more long sacrifice,
Bitter and boundless, it may be unavailing -
I shall not reach those Lusian settlements
Upon the long'd-for coast! all urge return.
. . . . . Return I will not!
then, my people! I will go
Alone, if so indeed it needs must be!'
With heavy tread, with heavier heart, I enter,
Weary and fever-stricken, my small tent
Under a tamarind; and I lean my head
Upon my hand to offer up a prayer.
Silence is all around me in the noon -
Yet only for a little - then I hear
Footsteps approaching; timidly one peers,
And sees me by the tent-pole; first the one,
Then more, have push'd the canvas fold aside;
Falling upon me like repentant children,
Sobbing, with tears they pray to be forgiven:
'We never meant it! We will never leave thee!
Our own kind Father! be of better cheer!
Where'er thou leadest, we will follow thee!'

And that poor African, who when I sail'd
For England supplicated to be taken!
It was with bleeding heart I said him nay.
I told him he would perish of the cold
In my bleak country, but he sobb'd with tears:
'O let me come, and perish at your feet!'
Sebweku had a stronger claim than he.
Alas! Sebweku!
The sea was rolling mountains high, when all
Embark'd at Kilimane in a boat.
Ascending gliding turbid mountain-slopes,
Their toppling hissing foamy summits broke
Drenching upon us, and submerged our bark;
Giddily slid we deep into the trough,
Whose seething waterwalls hid all the masts
Of that great vessel which awaited us:
We struck the massy bottom with a shock,
That made our stout planks quiver; slanting up
Another beetling journeying watercliff,
Second of three great billows lightning-crown'd.
Poor Sebweku, so valiant on land,
So wise and skill'd in dealing with the many
Tribes of his continent, strove strenuously
To be as brave in my fierce water world,
Ghostly, unknown, terrific unto him:
Yet as that awful play of leaping foam
Struck us, and nearly swept us all from life,
He clutch'd my knees, crying with face of fear,
Faintly illumined by a poor phantom smile,
Like a wet timid gleam among wan clouds,
'Is this the way you go? is this the way?'
But when we had made a perilous ascent
Into the British war-brig anchor'd near,
His fresh fantastic marvelling child-soul,
So little tutor'd, ponder'd evermore
On all he saw within the war vessel;
Cannon, great coils of cable, ponderous chain,
Hammocks, and kitchen of the floating town,
Her sailors, and well-order'd soldiery;
On the interminable water world,
Strewn with dark swimming snakes, and plants; where roll
Dolphins and whales; where azure fishes fly,
And birds gleam in a momentary ray
Out of dull storm that raves among the shrouds.
Reeling to starboard and to larboard, he,
By swaying lamplight, in the midnight hour,
Lies wakeful, hearing labouring timbers groan,
Or shouted orders, piercing all the roar;
And clear struck bells, dividing hour from hour.
He, creeping up lone glimmering hatchway stairs,
Beholds a gleam from that mysterious shrine
Where, under lighted crystal, a slim needle
Trembles for ever toward the hidden pole;
Notes a bronzed mariner's strong vigilance
Revolving with both arms the straining wheel,
Beyond wet decks, wash'd over by fierce seas;
Beholds tall masts, more tall than forest kings,
Robed in broad shadowy windy sails and booms,
Circling among wan stars in rifts of cloud.

All made him welcome, and they liked him well;
But the new wonder-world inflamed his brain;
Kept his mind whirling ever night and day;
Until, when we approach'd Mauritius,
A steamer steam'd from forth the harbour mouth -
Wonder of wonders to poor Sebweku!
Fiery smoke outbursting from her funnel,
She churns the water with a rushing wheel;
Slanting and swiftly swims upon the wave:
He cries: 'It is some fiend of the wild sea!'
Alas! my friend. . . .
. . . . When we are calmly moor'd,
In a mad frenzy plunges - and is drown'd!

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Poem Submitted: Thursday, April 22, 2010

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