Verse > John Greenleaf Whittier > The Poetical Works in Four Volumes
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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892).  The Poetical Works in Four Volumes.  1892.
 
The Tent on the Beach
 
  WHEN heats as of a tropic clime
    Burned all our inland valleys through,
  Three friends, the guests of summer time,
    Pitched their white tent where sea-winds blew.
  Behind them, marshes, seamed and crossed        5
  With narrow creeks, and flower-embossed,
Stretched to the dark oak wood, whose leafy arms
Screened from the stormy East the pleasant inland farms.
 
  At full of tide their bolder shore
    Of sun-bleached sand the waters beat;        10
  At ebb, a smooth and glistening floor
    They touched with light, receding feet.
  Northward a green bluff broke the chain
  Of sand-hills; southward stretched a plain
Of salt grass, with a river winding down,        15
Sail-whitened, and beyond the steeples of the town,
 
  Whence sometimes, when the wind was light
    And dull the thunder of the beach,
  They heard the bells of morn and night
    Swing, miles away, their silver speech.        20
  Above low scarp and turf-grown wall
  They saw the fort-flag rise and fall;
And, the first star to signal twilight’s hour,
The lamp-fire glimmer down from the tall light-house tower.
 
  They rested there, escaped awhile        25
    From cares that wear the life away,
  To eat the lotus of the Nile
    And drink the poppies of Cathay,—
  To fling their loads of custom down,
  Like drift-weed, on the sand-slopes brown,        30
And in the sea waves drown the restless pack
Of duties, claims, and needs that barked upon their track.
 
  One, with his beard scarce silvered, bore
    A ready credence in his looks,
  A lettered magnate, lording o’er        35
    An ever-widening realm of books.
  In him brain-currents, near and far,
  Converged as in a Leyden jar;
The old, dead authors thronged him round about,
And Elzevir’s gray ghosts from leathern graves looked out.        40
 
  He knew each living pundit well,
    Could weigh the gifts of him or her,
  And well the market value tell
    Of poet and philosopher.
  But if he lost, the scenes behind,        45
  Somewhat of reverence vague and blind,
Finding the actors human at the best,
No readier lips than his the good he saw confessed.
 
  His boyhood fancies not outgrown,
    He loved himself the singer’s art;        50
  Tenderly, gently, by his own
    He knew and judged an author’s heart.
  No Rhadamanthine brow of doom
  Bowed the dazed pedant from his room;
And bards, whose name is legion, if denied,        55
Bore off alike intact their verses and their pride.
 
  Pleasant it was to roam about
    The lettered world as he had done,
  And see the lords of song without
    Their singing robes and garlands on.        60
  With Wordsworth paddle Rydal mere,
  Taste rugged Elliott’s home-brewed beer,
And with the ears of Rogers, at fourscore,
Hear Garrick’s buskined tread and Walpole’s wit once more.
 
  And one there was, a dreamer born,        65
    Who, with a mission to fulfil,
  Had left the Muses’ haunts to turn
    The crank of an opinion-mill,
  Making his rustic reed of song
  A weapon in the war with wrong,        70
Yoking his fancy to the breaking-plough
That beam-deep turned the soil for truth to spring and grow.
 
  Too quiet seemed the man to ride
    The wingëd Hippogriff Reform;
  Was his a voice from side to side        75
    To pierce the tumult of the storm?
  A silent, shy, peace-loving man,
  He seemed no fiery partisan
To hold his way against the public frown,
The ban of Church and State, the fierce mob’s hounding down.        80
 
  For while he wrought with strenuous will
    The work his hands had found to do,
  He heard the fitful music still
    Of winds that out of dream-land blew.
  The din about him could not drown        85
  What the strange voices whispered down;
Along his task-field weird processions swept,
The visionary pomp of stately phantoms stepped.
 
  The common air was thick with dreams,—
    He told them to the toiling crowd;        90
  Such music as the woods and streams
    Sang in his ear he sang aloud;
  In still, shut bays, on windy capes,
  He heard the call of beckoning shapes,
And, as the gray old shadows prompted him,        95
To homely moulds of rhyme he shaped their legends grim.
 
  He rested now his weary hands,
    And lightly moralized and laughed,
  As, tracing on the shifting sands
    A burlesque of his paper-craft,        100
  He saw the careless waves o’errun
  His words, as time before had done,
Each day’s tide-water washing clean away,
Like letters from the sand, the work of yesterday.
 
  And one, whose Arab face was tanned        105
    By tropic sun and boreal frost,
  So travelled there was scarce a land
    Or people left him to exhaust,
  In idling mood had from him hurled
  The poor squeezed orange of the world,        110
And in the tent-shade, as beneath a palm,
Smoked, cross-legged like a Turk, in Oriental calm.
 
  The very waves that washed the sand
    Below him, he had seen before
  Whitening the Scandinavian strand        115
    And sultry Mauritanian shore.
  From ice-rimmed isles, from summer seas
  Palm-fringed, they bore him messages;
He heard the plaintive Nubian songs again,
And mule-bells tinkling down the mountain-paths of Spain.        120
 
  His memory round the ransacked earth
    On Puck’s long girdle slid at ease;
  And, instant, to the valley’s girth
    Of mountains, spice isles of the seas,
  Faith flowered in minster stones, Art’s guess        125
  At truth and beauty, found access;
Yet loved the while, that free cosmopolite,
Old friends, old ways, and kept his boyhood’s dreams in sight.
 
  Untouched as yet by wealth and pride,
    That virgin innocence of beach:        130
  No shingly monster, hundred-eyed,
    Stared its gray sand-birds out of reach;
  Unhoused, save where, at intervals,
  The white tents showed their canvas walls,
Where brief sojourners, in the cool, soft air,        135
Forgot their inland heats, hard toil, and year-long care.
 
  Sometimes along the wheel-deep sand
    A one-horse wagon slowly crawled,
  Deep laden with a youthful band,
    Whose look some homestead old recalled;        140
  Brother perchance, and sisters twain,
  And one whose blue eyes told, more plain
Than the free language of her rosy lip,
Of the still dearer claim of love’s relationship.
 
  With cheeks of russet-orchard tint,        145
    The light laugh of their native rills,
  The perfume of their garden’s mint,
    The breezy freedom of the hills,
  They bore, in unrestrained delight,
  The motto of the Garter’s knight,        150
Careless as if from every gazing thing
Hid by their innocence, as Gyges by his ring.
 
  The clanging sea-fowl came and went,
    The hunter’s gun in the marshes rang;
  At nightfall from a neighboring tent        155
    A flute-voiced woman sweetly sang.
  Loose-haired, barefooted, hand-in-hand,
  Young girls went tripping down the sand;
And youths and maidens, sitting in the moon,
Dreamed o’er the old fond dream from which we wake too soon.        160
 
  At times their fishing-lines they plied,
    With an old Triton at the oar,
  Salt as the sea-wind, tough and dried
    As a lean cusk from Labrador.
  Strange tales he told of wreck and storm,—        165
  Had seen the sea-snake’s awful form,
And heard the ghosts on Haley’s Isle complain,
Speak him off shore, and beg a passage to old Spain!
 
  And there, on breezy morns, they saw
    The fishing-schooners outward run,        170
  Their low-bent sails in tack and flaw
    Turned white or dark to shade and sun.
  Sometimes, in calms of closing day,
  They watched the spectral mirage play,
Saw low, far islands looming tall and nigh,        175
And ships, with upturned keels, sail like a sea the sky.
 
  Sometimes a cloud, with thunder black,
    Stooped low upon the darkening main,
  Piercing the waves along its track
    With the slant javelins of rain.        180
  And when west-wind and sunshine warm
  Chased out to sea its wrecks of storm,
They saw the prismy hues in thin spray showers
Where the green buds of waves burst into white froth flowers.
 
  And when along the line of shore        185
    The mists crept upward chill and damp,
  Stretched, careless, on their sandy floor
    Beneath the flaring lantern lamp,
  They talked of all things old and new,
  Read, slept, and dreamed as idlers do;        190
And in the unquestioned freedom of the tent,
Body and o’er-taxed mind to healthful ease unbent.
 
  Once, when the sunset splendors died,
    And, trampling up the sloping sand,
  In lines outreaching far and wide,        195
    The white-maned billows swept to land,
  Dim seen across the gathering shade,
  A vast and ghostly cavalcade,
They sat around their lighted kerosene,
Hearing the deep bass roar their every pause between.        200
 
  Then, urged thereto, the Editor
    Within his full portfolio dipped,
  Feigning excuse while searching for
    (With secret pride) his manuscript.
  His pale face flushed from eye to beard,        205
  With nervous cough his throat he cleared,
And, in a voice so tremulous it betrayed
The anxious fondness of an author’s heart, he read:

  1867.
 
 
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