Frances Anne Kemble
The Wreck Of The Birkenhead, - Poem by Frances Anne Kemble
A BRITISH TRANSPORT VESSEL LOST ON THE COAST OF AFRICA.
As well as I am able, I'll relate how it befell,
And I trust, sirs, you'll excuse me, if I do not speak it well.
I've lived a hard and wandering life, serving our gracious Queen,
And have nigh forgot my schooling since a soldier I have been.
But however in my untaught speech the tale I tell may thrive,
I shall see the scene before me, to the latest day I live;
And sometimes I have scarce the heart to thank God for saving me,
When I think of my poor comrades, who went down in that dreadful sea,
And my brother's drowning eyes and voice, as a monstrous swirling wave
Rolled him right across my arms, 'twas his winding sheet and grave—
God forgive me! but I wish he had been saved instead of me,
He was a better, braver man than ever I shall be.
The night was still and silent, and the stars shone overhead,
And all were sleeping in the ship, who in one hour were dead.
A heavy swell was rolling in upon the treacherous shore,
And the steersman steered off from the coast, four miles, and barely four.
Six hundred sleeping souls relied upon that helmsman's care,
Poor wretch! the sea has saved him from a terrible despair!
For in that still and starlight night, on that smooth and silent sea,
He sent four hundred sleeping men straight to eternity;
He drove the ship upon the rocks that stretch the waves beneath,
It has been called Point Danger—it should be the Reef of Death.
I was dreaming of old Scotland, the home of my boyish years,
And the sound of the village bagpipe was droning in my ears;
And across the purple heath, behind a screen of fir and oak,
I saw from our low chimney curl the silver blue peat smoke;
My foot was on the door-stone, and my hand was on the lock,
And I heard my mother's voice within—when, suddenly, a shock
Went shuddering through the whole ship's frame, and then a grinding sound,
And the cry was heard above, below, 'Back her! she is aground!'
We heard the water rushing, whence or where we did not know,
And every face was darkened with terror and with woe;
But our officers did all that brave gentlemen could do,
And the sailors did their duty,—they were a gallant crew!
And we poor soldiers, too, sirs, I dare think, did all we could,
We had thought to die upon dry land, not choke in the weltering flood,
But steady, as if we had been on our old parading ground,
We stood till she went to pieces,—and the most of us were drowned.
With the first shock the word was given to put the engine back,
For we saw, when the sea was sucked away, where the reef lay, bare and black,
Right underneath the poor ship's prow, huge, hard, and without motion,
Beneath the sweltering, seething surf, of the restless, rolling ocean;
And it was terrible to hear the engine heave and throb,
Like the huge heart of a giant, with a sound like a heavy sob;
And it cast its shining arms aloft, and the wheels began to turn,
And the mad waves flashed, and whirled, and hissed, as they felt the strong ship spurn.
Another stroke, and we were off—but the black reef's stony teeth,
Had bitten through her iron ribs, and the sea rushed in beneath,
And up and up the water rose, fast, faster yet and higher,
And leapt into our ship's warm heart, and danced above the fire,
The shining arms fell motionless, and stopped the mighty breath,
And the mad waves sucked us back again, into the jaws of death.
Like horses plunging on the reef, we could see them through the dark,
The flying of their wild white manes made a long and shining mark,
And beyond where the rolling blackness, ridge upon ridge was tost,
Not four miles off, how near, and yet how distant! was the coast.
And now there came another shock, with a hideous crashing sound,
The ship broke right in half—and whirling madly round and round,
Half was sucked down before our eyes, and the water far and near,
Was strewed with hapless, helpless men, whose cries of pain and fear
Drove us wild with terror and with grief, as we stood upon the wreck,
The shivering, shattered, slippery planks, of that miserable deck.
Our wives and children in the boats had been lowered from the side,
And through the dark we heard them, as their wild farewells they cried;
And many a brave man's heart grew sick, as silently he stood,
And heard those bitter wailings rise and sink with the heaving flood:
But not one foot was stirred, and not one hand was raised to fly,
We were bid to stand there on that deck—and we stood still there to die.
At length word of command was given: 'Save yourselves all who can,'
And then, and not till then, away broke every boy and man,
When a loud voice, like an angel's, rose above the infernal din,
'Don't swamp your wives and children, hold back, if you are men!'
We looked into each other's eyes—the boats put off to shore—
And suddenly above my head I felt the billows pour.
I threw my arms abroad to swim—and found that they were cast
(Lord what a gripe I closed them with!) around our gallant mast:
As up the blessed shaft I clomb, shouting in frenzied glee,
The mad waves' thundering voices seemed to call alone for me;
But along the high main-topsail yard I climbed, and crawled, and clung,
And out into the empty night, over the sea I swung;
And others followed in the dark, that fearful, slippery way,
And there we held, and hung, and prayed, for the dear light of day;
And pray you, sirs, that never you may count such hideous hours,
Or know the agony and dread of those speechless prayers of ours.
All in a heap our limbs were twined, holding by one another,
And one man clutched my right arm fast, alas! 'twas not my brother;
I wound my hands around the spar, tight, tight, with the grip of Death,
And in my mortal fear I seized the wood fast in my teeth;
And as each high wave struck the mast, and shook us to and fro,
We could see the sharks' white bellies turn in the sea below.
Just as the day was breaking, I grew dizzy, faint, and sick,
And I heard the man who held me breathing heavily and quick,
His limbs slid slowly down, while with one hand he still did clasp
My arm, and I felt it yielding in the dead man's fatal grasp,
I flung it loose, still holding by one arm alone, while he,
With a heavy plunge fell fathoms down, into the churning sea—
He was dead, sirs, he was dead, yet my eyes grew glazed and dim
With horror, for I felt as if I just had murdered him,
And with that thought my wits gave way, for 'twas followed by another,
At which I shrieked aloud—that I had cast away my brother.
And this is all that I can tell—for I saw and heard no more
Till life came into me again, as I lay upon the shore;
I and a few poor fellows that a boat had fetched away,
By God's grace, from that direful mast, with the blessed light of day.
Our eyes were full of tears, as we looked towards the fatal reef,
Where above the surf the swinging yard seemed to beckon for relief,
For our comrades who lay rolling all round the sunken mast,—
They were brave fellows, sirs, and did their duty to the last:
And I hope that I may say it without unbecoming pride,
There are gallant soldiers, well I know, in many a land beside,
But I think that none but Englishmen like those men would have died.
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