Verse > Anthologies > > Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. > The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse
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Arthur Quiller-Couch, comp.  The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.  1922.
 
Flannan Isle
By Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878–1962)
 
‘THROUGH three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer’d under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night.’
 
A passing ship at dawn had brought        5
The news; and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.
 
The winter day broke blue and bright,
With glancing sun and glancing spray,        10
As o’er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight.
 
But, as we near’d the lonely Isle;
And look’d up at the naked height;
And saw the lighthouse towering white,        15
With blinded lantern, that all night
Had never shot a spark
Of comfort through the dark,
So ghostly in the cold sunlight
It seem’d, that we were struck the while        20
With wonder all too dread for words.
 
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,        25
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.        30
 
And still too mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climb’d the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,        35
So it be far from Flannan Isle:
And still we seem’d to climb, and climb,
As though we’d lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door—        40
The black, sun-blister’d lighthouse-door,
That gaped for us ajar.
 
As, on the threshold, for a spell,
We paused, we seem’d to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,        45
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though ’twere some strange scent of death:
And so, yet wondering, side by side,
We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:
And each with black foreboding eyed        50
The door, ere we should fling it wide,
To leave the sunlight for the gloom:
Till, plucking courage up, at last,
Hard on each other’s heels we pass’d
Into the living-room.        55
 
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But all untouch’d; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,        60
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:
For at the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.        65
 
We listen’d; but we only heard
The feeble cheeping of a bird
That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word,
We set about our hopeless search.        70
We hunted high, we hunted low;
And soon ransack’d the empty house;
Then o’er the Island, to and fro,
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook        75
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But, though we search’d from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door:        80
And stole into the room once more
As frighten’d children steal.
 
Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men’s fate we found no trace        85
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouch’d meal,
And an overtoppled chair.
 
And, as we listen’d in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room—        90
A chill clutch on our breath—
We thought how ill-chance came to all
Who kept the Flannan Light:
And how the rock had been the death
Of many a likely lad:        95
How six had come to a sudden end,
And three had gone stark mad:
And one whom we’d all known as friend
Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:        100
And long we thought
On the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.
 
Like curs, a glance has brought to heel,
We listen’d, flinching there:        105
And look’d, and look’d, on the untouch’d meal,
And the overtoppled chair.
 
We seem’d to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,        110
Who thought, on three men dead.
 
 
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