Songs of the Night Watches (complete)

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(Old English Manner.)


Come out and hear the waters shoot, the owlet hoot, the owlet hoot;
  Yon crescent moon, a golden boat, hangs dim behind the tree, O!
The dropping thorn makes white the grass, O sweetest lass, and sweetest
  Come out and smell the ricks of hay adown the croft with me, O!”

“My granny nods before her wheel, and drops her reel, and drops her reel;
  My father with his crony talks as gay as gay can be, O!
But all the milk is yet to skim, ere light wax dim, ere light wax dim;
  How can I step adown the croft, my ’prentice lad, with
thee, O?”

“And must ye bide, yet waiting’s long, and love is strong, and love is
  And O! had I but served the time, that takes so long to flee, O!
And thou, my lass, by morning’s light wast all in white, wast all in
  And parson stood within the rails, a-marrying me and thee, O.”


O, I would tell you more, but I am tired;
  For I have longed, and I have had my will;
I pleaded in my spirit, I desired:
  “Ah! let me only see him, and be still
All my days after.”
  Rock, and rock, and rock,
Over the falling, rising watery world,
  Sail, beautiful ship, along the leaping main;
The chirping land-birds follow flock on flock
  To light on a warmer plain.
White as weaned lambs the little wavelets curled,
  Fall over in harmless play,
  As these do far away;
Sail, bird of doom, along the shimmering sea,
All under thy broad wings that overshadow thee.

  I am so tired,
If I would comfort me, I know not how,
  For I have seen thee, lad, as I desired,
And I have nothing left to long for now.

  Nothing at all.  And did I wait for thee,
  Often and often, while the light grew dim,
  And through the lilac branches I could see,
  Under a saffron sky, the purple rim
O’ the heaving moorland?  Ay.  And then would float
Up from behind as it were a golden boat,
Freighted with fancies, all o’ the wonder of life,
  Love—­such a slender moon, going up and up,
Waxing so fast from night to night,
And swelling like an orange flower-bud, bright,
  Fated, methought, to round as to a golden cup,
And hold to my two lips life’s best of wine.
  Most beautiful crescent moon,
  Ship of the sky!
  Across the unfurrowed reaches sailing high.
  Methought that it would come my way full soon,
Laden with blessings that were all, all mine,—­
  A golden ship, with balm and spiceries rife,
  That ere its day was done should hear thee call me wife.

All over! the celestial sign hath failed;
The orange flower-bud shuts; the ship hath sailed,
  And sunk behind the long low-lying hills.
The love that fed on daily kisses dieth;
The love kept warm by nearness, lieth
  Wounded and wan;
  The love hope nourished bitter tears distils,
  And faints with naught to feed upon.
Only there stirreth very deep below
The hidden beating slow,
And the blind yearning, and the long-drawn breath
Of the love that conquers death.

Had we not loved full long, and lost all fear,
My ever, my only dear?
Yes; and I saw thee start upon thy way,
  So sure that we should meet
  Upon our trysting-day.
  And even absence then to me was sweet,
  Because it brought me time to brood
  Upon thy dearness in the solitude.
  But ah! to stay, and stay,
  And let that moon of April wane itself away,
  And let the lovely May
  Make ready all her buds for June;
  And let the glossy finch forego her tune
  That she brought with her in the spring,
  And never more, I think, to me can sing;
  And then to lead thee home another bride,
  In the sultry summer tide,
  And all forget me save for shame full sore,
That made thee pray me, absent, “See my face no more.”

O hard, most hard!  But while my fretted heart
  Shut out, shut down, and full of pain,
  Sobbed to itself apart,
  Ached to itself in vain,
  One came who loveth me
  As I love thee….
  And let my God remember him for this,
  As I do hope He will forget thy kiss,
  Nor visit on thy stately head
Aught that thy mouth hath sworn, or thy two eyes have said….
He came, and it was dark.  He came, and sighed
Because he knew the sorrow,—­whispering low,
And fast, and thick, as one that speaks by rote:
  “The vessel lieth in the river reach,
  A mile above the beach,
  And she will sail at the turning o’ the tide.”
  He said, “I have a boat,
  And were it good to go,
  And unbeholden in the vessel’s wake
  Look on the man thou lovedst, and forgive,
  As he embarks, a shamefaced fugitive.
  Come, then, with me.”

O, how he sighed!  The little stars did wink,
And it was very dark.  I gave my hand,—­
He led me out across the pasture land,
And through the narrow croft,
Down to the river’s brink.
When thou wast full in spring, thou little sleepy thing,
The yellow flags that broidered thee would stand
Up to their chins in water, and full oft
WE pulled them and the other shining flowers,
That all are gone to-day:
WE two, that had so many things to say,
So many hopes to render clear:
And they are all gone after thee, my dear,—­
Gone after those sweet hours,
That tender light, that balmy rain;
Gone “as a wind that passeth away,
And cometh not again.”

I only saw the stars,—­I could not see
The river,—­and they seemed to lie
As far below as the other stars were high.
I trembled like a thing about to die:
It was so awful ’neath the majesty
Of that great crystal height, that overhung
The blackness at our feet,
Unseen to fleet and fleet
The flocking stars among,
And only hear the dipping of the oar,
And the small wave’s caressing of the darksome shore.

  Less real it was than any dream.
Ah me! to hear the bending willows shiver,
As we shot quickly from the silent river,
  And felt the swaying and the flow
That bore us down the deeper, wider stream,
  Whereto its nameless waters go:
O!  I shall always, when I shut mine eyes,
  See that weird sight again;
  The lights from anchored vessels hung;
  The phantom moon, that sprung
Suddenly up in dim and angry wise,
  From the rim o’ the moaning main,
  And touched with elfin light
  The two long oars whereby we made our flight,
  Along the reaches of the night;
  Then furrowed up a lowering cloud,
  Went in, and left us darker than before,
To feel our way as the midnight watches wore,
And lie in HER lee, with mournful faces bowed,
That should receive and bear with her away
The brightest portion of my sunniest day,—­
The laughter of the land, the sweetness of the shore.

And I beheld thee:  saw the lantern flash
Down on thy face, when thou didst climb the side.
And thou wert pale, pale as the patient bride
  That followed; both a little sad,
Leaving of home and kin.  Thy courage glad,
  That once did bear thee on,
That brow of thine had lost; the fervor rash
Of unforeboding youth thou hadst foregone.
O, what a little moment, what a crumb
Of comfort for a heart to feed upon!
  And that was all its sum;
  A glimpse, and not a meeting,—­
  A drawing near by night,
To sigh to thee an unacknowledged greeting,
And all between the flashing of a light
  And its retreating.

Then after, ere she spread her wafting wings,
The ship,—­and weighed her anchor to depart,
We stole from her dark lee, like guilty things;
  And there was silence in my heart,
And silence in the upper and the nether deep.
  O sleep!  O sleep!
Do not forget me.  Sometimes come and sweep,
Now I have nothing left, thy healing hand
Over the lids that crave thy visits bland,
  Thou kind, thou comforting one:
  For I have seen his face, as I desired,
  And all my story is done.
  O, I am tired!

I woke in the night, and the darkness was heavy and deep:
  I had known it was dark in my sleep,
  And I rose and looked out,
And the fathomless vault was all sparkling, set thick round about
With the ancient inhabiters silent, and wheeling too far
For man’s heart, like a voyaging frigate, to sail, where remote
  In the sheen of their glory they float,
Or man’s soul, like a bird, to fly near, of their beams to partake,
  And dazed in their wake,
  Drink day that is born of a star.
I murmured, “Remoteness and greatness, how deep you are set,
  How afar in the rim of the whole;
You know nothing of me, nor of man, nor of earth, O, nor yet
  Of our light-bearer,—­drawing the marvellous moons as they roll,
  Of our regent, the sun.”
I look on you trembling, and think, in the dark with my soul,
“How small is our place ’mid the kingdoms and nations of God:
  These are greater than we, every one.”
And there falls a great fear, and a dread cometh over, that cries,
  “O my hope!  Is there any mistake?
Did He speak?  Did I hear?  Did I listen aright, if He spake?
Did I answer Him duly?  For surely I now am awake,
  If never I woke until now.”
And a light, baffling wind, that leads nowhither, plays on my brow.
As a sleep, I must think on my day, of my path as untrod,
Or trodden in dreams, in a dreamland whose coasts are a doubt;
Whose countries recede from my thoughts, as they grope round about,
  And vanish, and tell me not how.
Be kind to our darkness, O Fashioner, dwelling in light,
  And feeding the lamps of the sky;
Look down upon this one, and let it be sweet in Thy sight,
  I pray Thee, to-night.
O watch whom Thou madest to dwell on its soil, Thou Most High!
For this is a world full of sorrow (there may be but one);
Keep watch o’er its dust, else Thy children for aye are undone,
  For this is a world where we die.

With that, a still voice in my spirit that moved and that yearned,
  (There fell a great calm while it spake,)
I had heard it erewhile, but the noises of life are so loud,
That sometimes it dies in the cry of the street and the crowd:
To the simple it cometh,—­the child, or asleep, or awake,
And they know not from whence; of its nature the wise never learned
By his wisdom; its secret the worker ne’er earned
By his toil; and the rich among men never bought with his gold;
  Nor the times of its visiting monarchs controlled,
  Nor the jester put down with his jeers
  (For it moves where it will), nor its season the aged discerned
  By thought, in the ripeness of years.

O elder than reason, and stronger than will!
  A voice, when the dark world is still:
Whence cometh it?  Father Immortal, thou knowest! and we,—­
We are sure of that witness, that sense which is sent us of Thee;
For it moves, and it yearns in its fellowship mighty and dread,
And let down to our hearts it is touched by the tears that we shed;
It is more than all meanings, and over all strife;
  On its tongue are the laws of our life,
  And it counts up the times of the dead.

  I will fear you, O stars, never more.
I have felt it!  Go on, while the world is asleep,
  Golden islands, fast moored in God’s infinite deep.
Hark, hark to the words of sweet fashion, the harpings of yore!
How they sang to Him, seer and saint, in the far away lands:
  “The heavens are the work of Thy hands;
  They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure;
  Yea, they all shall wax old,—­
But Thy throne is established, O God, and Thy years are made sure;
  They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure,—­
  They shall pass like a tale that is told.”

  Doth He answer, the Ancient of Days?
  Will He speak in the tongue and the fashion of men?
(Hist! hist! while the heaven-hung multitudes shine in His praise,
His language of old.) Nay, He spoke with them first; it was then
  They lifted their eyes to His throne;
“They shall call on Me, ‘Thou art our Father, our God, Thou alone!’
For I made them, I led them in deserts and desolate ways;
  I have found them a Ransom Divine;
I have loved them with love everlasting, the children of men;
  I swear by Myself, they are Mine.”



The moon is bleached as white as wool,
  And just dropping under;
Every star is gone but three,
  And they hang far asunder,—­
There’s a sea-ghost all in gray,
  A tall shape of wonder!

I am not satisfied with sleep,—­
  The night is not ended.
But look how the sea-ghost comes,
  With wan skirts extended,
Stealing up in this weird hour,
  When light and dark are blended.

A vessel!  To the old pier end
  Her happy course she’s keeping;
I heard them name her yesterday:
  Some were pale with weeping;
Some with their heart-hunger sighed,
  She’s in,—­and they are sleeping.

O! now with fancied greetings blest,
  They comfort their long aching:
The sea of sleep hath borne to them
  What would not come with waking,
And the dreams shall most be true
  In their blissful breaking.

The stars are gone, the rose-bloom comes,—­
  No blush of maid is sweeter;
The red sun, half way out of bed,
  Shall be the first to greet her.
None tell the news, yet sleepers wake,
  And rise, and run to meet her.

Their lost they have, they hold; from pain
  A keener bliss they borrow.
How natural is joy, my heart!
  How easy after sorrow!
For once, the best is come that hope
  Promised them “to-morrow.”

(Old English Manner.)


All the clouds about the sun lay up in golden creases,
(Merry rings the maiden’s voice that sings at dawn of day
Lambkins woke and skipped around to dry their dewy fleeces,
So sweetly as she carolled, all on a morn of May.

Quoth the Sergeant, “Here I’ll halt; here’s wine of joy for drinking;
To my heart she sets her hand, and in the strings doth play;
All among the daffodils, and fairer to my thinking,
And fresh as milk and roses, she sits this morn of May.”

Quoth the Sergeant, “Work is work, but any ye might make me,
If I worked for you, dear lass, I’d count my holiday.
I’m your slave for good and all, an’ if ye will but take me,
So sweetly as ye carol upon this morn of May.”

“Medals count for worth,” quoth she, “and scars are worn for honor;
But a slave an’ if ye be, kind wooer, go your way.”
All the nodding daffodils woke up and laughed upon her.
O! sweetly did she carol, all on that morn of May.

Gladsome leaves upon the bough, they fluttered fast and faster,
Fretting brook, till he would speak, did chide the dull delay:
“Beauty! when I said a slave, I think I meant a master;
So sweetly as ye carol all on this morn of May.

“Lass, I love you!  Love is strong, and some men’s hearts are tender.”
Far she sought o’er wood and wold, but found not aught to say;
Mounting lark nor mantling cloud would any counsel render,
Though sweetly she had carolled upon that morn of May.

Shy, she sought the wooer’s face, and deemed the wooing mended;
Proper man he was, good sooth, and one would have his way:
So the lass was made a wife, and so the song was ended.
O! sweetly she did carol all on that morn of May.

© Jean Ingelow