The Ferryman

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The ferryman, a green reed 'twixt his teeth,
With hand on oar, against the current strong
Had rowed and rowed so long.

But she, alas! whose voice was hailing him
Across the far waves dim.
Still further o'er the far waves seemed to float,
Still further backwards, 'mid the mists, remote.

The casements with their eyes.
The dial-faces of the towers that rise
Upon the shore,
Watched, as he strove and laboured more and more.
With frantic bending of the back in two,
And start of savage muscles strained anew.

One oar was suddenly riven,
And by the current driven,
With lash of heavy breakers, out to sea.

But she, whose voice that hailed him he could hear
There 'mid the mist and wind, she seemed to wring
Her hands with gestures yet more maddening
Toward him who drew not near.

The ferryman with his surviving oar
Fell harder yet to work, and more and more
He strove, till every joint did crack and start,
And fevered terror shook his very heart.

The rudder broke
Beneath one sharp, rude stroke;
That, too, the current drove relentlessly,
A dreary shred of wreckage, out to sea.

The casements by the pier,
Like eyes immense and feverish open wide,
The dials of the towers--those widows drear
Upstanding straight from mile to mile beside
The banks of rivers--obstinately gaze
Upon this madman, in his headstrong craze
Prolonging his mad voyage 'gainst the tide.

But she, who yonder in the mist-clouds hailed
Him still so desperately, she wailed and wailed,
With head outstretched in fearful, straining haste
Toward the unknown of the outstretched waste.

Steady as one that had in bronze been cast,
Amid the blenched, grey tempest and the blast.
The ferryman his single oar yet plied.
And, spite of all, still lashed and bit the tide.
His old eyes, with hallucinated gaze,
Saw that far distance--an illumined haze--
Whence the voice sounded, coming toward him still.
Beneath the cold skies, lamentable, shrill.

The last oar broke--
And this the current hurried at one stroke,
Like a frail straw, towards the distant sea.

The ferryman, with arms dropped helplessly
Sank on his bench, forlorn.
His loins with vain efforts broken, torn.

Drifting, his barque struck somewhere, as by chance,
He turned a glance
Towards the bank behind him then--and saw
He had not left the shore.

The casements and the dials, one by one.
Their huge eyes gazing in a foolish stare.
Witnessed the ruin of his ardour there;
But still the old, tenacious ferryman
Firm in his teeth--for God knows when, indeed--
Held the green reed.

© Emile Verhaeren