Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > America
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
America: Vols. XXV–XXIX.  1876–79.
 
Southern States: Wilmington, N. C.
Running the Blockade
Will Wallace Harney (1832–1912)
 
A Chase in Soundings
(Excerpt)

HOVE in the stays, she lay,
In the blockading grounds
Of the North Carolina sounds,
Beleaguered half a day,
The good ship Heir of Lynn:        5
The still air shut her in
The very focus of light;
Where the sea grows hot and white,
As if it had turned to salt
Or solid rock, with a fault        10
That clipped the horizon’s edge
In a long, irregular ledge.
 
In the summer of sixty-three,
As still as they could be
The sea and air; and every        15
Spar lost in a reverie
Over its shadow, under
The sea, in curious wonder.
Not a cat’s-paw turned the streamer,
To spell at it letter by letter;        20
And for fifty leagues and better,
You could see the smoke of a steamer
Drifting down in the offing.
 
You could hear the sullen coughing,
Over sixty miles away,        25
At Wilmington harbor and bay,—
The pounding of cannon and mortar,
And the groan of torpedoes under
The sea, that came over her quarter,
Like the bellow of smothered thunder.        30
 
Uneasily looked the master
Now at the sea, and then
Off in a dream again
Of home, as the boa’s’in cast her
Dipsy 1 lead in the shallow,        35
To a sort of nasal tune,
Larded with talk and tallow,
In the bight of the afternoon;
Drawling from sea-worn topics,
To sudden squalls in the tropics;        40
And lee shores whose hot lips
Had opened and swallowed ships,—
Till the slow talk seemed to pool
In the old Annapolis school;
And the master was “Joe” again,        45
With his messmate, Geordie of Maine,
Who loved, with loves like his own,
Sweethearts they never had won,—
Like the small blue flowers that live but a day,
Sweet things, in the inlets of Chesapeake bay.        50
 
The skies got bluer and bluer,
Till the far-off gunboat knew her,
And came up, hand over hand,
With a rushing, like falling sand,
Of the coils of her screw propeller,        55
Like the rifles that twist out her shell, or
The leverage fold and grapple
Of the sinewy boa-constrictor,
While her stem peeled the scum as an apple,
And the plunge of her steam beat the drums of a victor.        60
 
But, like omens in viscera,
Old Romans sought for;
As the stars fought with Sisera,—
Faster and faster,
And over and past her,        65
Swirled the cone of the cyclone and fought her.
 
It touched the sails of the schooner,
The turn of a sandglass sooner;
And, breaking in sudden bloom,—
From her foretop studding-sail,        70
Aft to her spanker-boom,
Down to her channel rail,
Fore to her flying jibs;—
Like a lily when it buds
She flowers out of her ribs,        75
White as the salt-sea seeds;
Bobbing about, like a cup.
Then a shout, and the hunt is up.
*        *        *        *        *
“A lee shore and a squall!
There ’s but one of them all,”        80
As he steamed within hail,
Said the gunboat commander,
“Of all that I know,
That would dare carry sail
To beach her and land her,—        85
Annapolis Joe.”
 
As swivels of hail
Beat tattoo on the sail,
And he looked on the sea,
Where tempests unchain        90
Reefs hid in white rain;
“You ’ll want boots to follow me
All night,” said the master,
“With your wrought-iron roster,
Old Geordie of Maine.”        95
 
Ship ahoy! Heave to!
The wind seemed to wrestle
With steam in the vessel,
Elastic and pliant,
And wrench the propeller        100
With the strength of a giant,
As if to compel her
To shrink from the danger,
Her keel timbers ran on:
But grimly defiant,        105
And louder and louder,
In the bursting of powder,
Spoke the lips of her cannon.
*        *        *        *        *
“It ’s Joe, to be sure,”
Said the naval commander,        110
“And he ’s got a king’s ransom of stores in his keel;
I ’ll sink her, or land her
Rawbones on a lee shore,
To feed the Sound fishes on his powder and steel.”
 
A reef rose between,        115
Where the keel of the sea seemed to jib and careen,
And pitch on its beam ends,
About which the water ran smooth with vehemence,
Like the gates of a lock when its hinges are swung,
And the bore of the current shoots out in a tongue.        120
But, taut and close-lasted,
From keelson to masthead;
Spanker vangs to spritsail-yards,
And flying jib-boom,
As true to her halyards        125
As belle of the room
When her feet, to the click of the castanets clipping,
Make rhymes to the music’s adagios tripping,—
As dangerously quick as Herodias’ daughter,—
While the wind kissed her lacings and whipped round her quarter,        130
And pitch-piped its bagpipes as shrill as a demon,
The sloop felt her tiller;
Double banked her propeller;
And rushed at the sluice with a full head of steam on.
*        *        *        *        *
But the fugitive ship,        135
Like a wild thing at bay,
That will double and slip
From corner to panel,
Like a fox, stole away.
The nips of the channel,        140
In shoulder and knee,
Seemed to rise and bend over her;
The bellowing sea,
To open and cover her;
And where the surf plunges        145
Through coral and sponges
In slings of the wind as light as a feather,
To rove the blue phosphorous frost in her shrouds,
The burst of the clouds,
Mixed the sea and the sand and the sky altogether,        150
And the welkin cracked open with terrible brightening,
Till the bed of the sea seemed to bristle with lightning;
And over, and under
The clamor of waves, pealed the toll of the thunder.
*        *        *        *        *
So, all through the night, in the darkness they grope.        155
In the wash of the water, and swish of the spray,
Clung the sloop to the chase, as if towed by a rope,
Till the morning gun slipped it, at breaking of day.
Tira la, sang the bugles,—a fox stole away!
Stole away; stole away: stole away; stole away:        160
Tira la sang the bugles,—a fox stole away.
 
In Wilmington town there ’s a ringing of bells
As the people go down, to see her come in,
With her flag at the forepeak, as every one tells
Of the old ballad luck of the ship Heir of Lynn.        165
 
If you ever meet Josey, or Geordie of Maine,
You will run the chase over in soundings again.
 
Note 1. Deep sea. [back]
 
 
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