Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > Spain, &c.
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and Holland: Vols. XIV–XV.  1876–79.
 
Holland: Stavoren
The Lady Riberta’s Harvest
Margaret J. Preston (1820–1897)
 
IN the days of eld there was wont to be,
On the jagged coast of the Zuyder-Zee,
A city from whence broad galleons went
To distant island and continent,
To lands that under the tropics lay,        5
Ind and the fabled far Cathay,
To gather from earth and sea and air
All that was beautiful, rich, and rare.
And back they voyaged so laden full
With fairy fabrics from old Stamboul,        10
With pungent woods that breathed out balms,
With broidered stuffs from the realm of palms,
With shawls from the marts of Ispahan,
With marvellous lacquers from strange Japan,
That through this traffic on many a sea        15
So grand did its merchants grow to be,
That even Venetian lords became
Half covetous of the city’s fame.
 
The Lady Riberta’s fleet was great,
  And year by year it had brought such store        20
Of treasures, until in her queenly state
  There scarcely sufficed her room for more.
Her feasts—no prince in the realms around
  Had service so rich or food so fine,
As daily her carven tables crowned;        25
  And proud she was of her luscious cates,
And her rare conserves, and her priceless wine,
  And her golden salvers and golden plates:
For all that the sea or shore could bring
Was hers for the fairest furnishing.        30
 
It fell one day, that a stranger came
  In garb of an Eastern sage arrayed,
Commended by one of noble name:
  He had traversed many a clime, he said,
And, whithersoever he went, had heard        35
  Of the Lady Riberta’s state, that so
In his heart a secret yearning stirred
  To find if the tale were true or no.
At once the Lady Riberta’s pride
  Upsprang, and into her lordly hall        40
She led the stranger, and at her side
  She bade him be seated in sight of all.
 
Silver and gold around him gleamed,
The daintiest dishes before him steamed;
The rarest of fish and flesh and bird,        45
Fruits all flushed with the tropic sun,
Nuts whose names he had never heard,
Were offered: the stranger would have none;
Nor spake he in praise a single word.
“Doth anything lack?” with chafe, at last,        50
The hostess queried, “from the repast?”
Gravely the guest then gave reply:
“Lady, since thou dost question, I,
Daring to speak the truth alway,
Even in such a presence, say        55
Something is wanting: I have sate
Oft at the tables of rich and great,
Nor seen such viands as these; but yet,
I marvel me much thou shouldst forget
The world’s one best thing; for ’t is clear,        60
Whatever beside, it is not here.”
 
“Name it,” the lady flashed, “and naught
Will I grudge of search till the best is brought.”
But never another word the guest
Uttered, as soothly he waived aside        65
Her question, that in the heat of pride,
Mindless of courtesy, still she pressed.
And when from her grand refection hall
They fared from their feasting, one and all,
Again with a heightened tone and air        70
To the guest she turned, but no guest was there.
“I ’ll have it,” she stamped, “whatever it be;
I ’ll scour the land, and I ’ll sweep the sea,
Nor ever the tireless quest resign
Till I know the world’s one best thing mine!”        75
 
Once more were the white-sailed galleons sent
To far-off island and continent,
In search of the most delicious things
That ever had whetted the greed of kings:
But none of the luxuries that they brought,        80
Seemed quite the marvel the Lady sought.
 
At length from his latest voyage back
  Sailed one of her captains: he told her how
Wild weather had driven him from his track,
  And his vessel had sprung aleak, till bow        85
And stern were merged, and a rime of mould
Had mossed the flour within the hold,
And nothing was left but wine and meat,
Through weary weeks, for the crew to eat,
“Then the words of the stranger rose,” he said,        90
“And I felt that the one best thing was bread:
And so, for a cargo, I was fain
Thereafter to load my ships with grain.”
 
The Lady Riberta’s wrath outsprang
Like a sword from its sheath, and her keen voice rang        95
Sharp as a lance-thrust: “Get thee back
To the vessels, and have forth every sack,
And spill in the sea thy curséd store,
Nor ever sail with my galleons more!”
 
The people who hungered for daily bread        100
Prayed that to them in their need, instead,
The grain might be dealt; but she heeded none,
Nor rested until the deed was done.
 
The months passed on, and the harvest sown
In the furrows of deep sea-fields had grown        105
To a forest of slender stalks,—a wide
Strong net to trap whatever the tide
Drew on in its wake,—the drift and wreck
Of many a shattered mast and deck,
And all the tangle of weeds there be        110
Afloat in the trough of the plunging sea.
 
Until, as the years went by, a shoal
Of sand had tided a sunken mole
Across the mouth of the port, that so
The galleys were foundered; and to and fro        115
No longer went forth: and merchants sought
Harbors elsewhere for the stores they brought.
The Lady Riberta’s ships went down
In the offing; the city’s old renown
Faded and fled with its commerce dead,        120
And the Lady Riberta begged for bread.
 
The hungry billows with rage and roar
Have broken the ancient barriers o’er,
And bitten their way into the shore,
And where such traffic was wont to be        125
The voyager now can only see
The spume and fret of the Zuyder-Zee.
 
 
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