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
The Dead Ship of Harpswell
 
WHAT flecks the outer gray beyond
  The sundown’s golden trail?
The white flash of a sea-bird’s wing,
  Or gleam of slanting sail?
Let young eyes watch from Neck and Point,        5
  And sea-worn elders pray,—
The ghost of what was once a ship
  Is sailing up the bay!
 
From gray sea-fog, from icy drift,
  From peril and from pain,        10
The home-bound fisher greets thy lights,
  O hundred-harbored Maine!
But many a keel shall seaward turn,
  And many a sail outstand.
When, tall and white, the Dead Ship looms        15
  Against the dusk of land.
 
She rounds the headland’s bristling pines;
  She threads the isle-set bay;
No spur of breeze can speed her on,
  Nor ebb of tide delay.        20
Old men still walk the Isle of Orr
  Who tell her date and name,
Old shipwrights sit in Freeport yards
  Who hewed her oaken frame.
 
What weary doom of baffled quest,        25
  Thou sad sea-ghost, is thine?
What makes thee in the haunts of home
  A wonder and a sign?
No foot is on thy silent deck,
  Upon thy helm no hand;        30
No ripple hath the soundless wind
  That smites thee from the land!
 
For never comes the ship to port,
  Howe’er the breeze may be;
Just when she nears the waiting shore        35
  She drifts again to sea.
No tack of sail, nor turn of helm,
  Nor sheer of veering side;
Stern-fore she drives to sea and night,
  Against the wind and tide.        40
 
In vain o’er Harpswell Neck the star
  Of evening guides her in;
In vain for her the lamps are lit
  Within thy tower, Seguin!
In vain the harbor-boat shall hail,        45
  In vain the pilot call;
No hand shall reef her spectral sail,
  Or let her anchor fall.
 
Shake, brown old wives, with dreary joy,
  Your gray-head hints of ill;        50
And, over sick-beds whispering low,
  Your prophecies fulfil.
Some home amid yon birchen trees
  Shall drape its door with woe;
And slowly where the Dead Ship sails,        55
  The burial boat shall row!
 
From Wolf Neck and from Flying Point,
  From island and from main,
From sheltered cove and tided creek,
  Shall glide the funeral train.        60
The dead-boat with the bearers four,
  The mourners at her stern,—
And one shall go the silent way
  Who shall no more return!
 
And men shall sigh, and women weep,        65
  Whose dear ones pale and pine,
And sadly over sunset seas
  Await the ghostly sign.
They know not that its sails are filled
  By pity’s tender breath,        70
Nor see the Angel at the helm
  Who steers the Ship of Death!
  1866.
*        *        *        *        *
  “Chill as a down-east breeze should be,”
    The Book-man said. “A ghostly touch
  The legend has. I ’m glad to see        75
    Your flying Yankee beat the Dutch.”
  “Well, here is something of the sort
  Which one midsummer day I caught
In Narragansett Bay, for lack of fish.”
“We wait,” the Traveller said; “serve hot or cold your dish.”        80
 
 
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