Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and the theme of this year's event is . . . water. The website for NPD includes lots of watery poems, and several island-related works too. These include Jetsam by Michael Symmons Roberts and 2pm: Summer Crossing, Iona by Marianne Burton.
However, to celebrate the occasion, we're featuring the first Canto of Lord Byron's poem, The Island. The complete work can be found here.
The Island: Canto I.
The morning watch was come; the vessel lay
Her course, and gently made her liquid way;
The cloven billow flashed from off her prow
In furrows formed by that majestic plough;
The waters with their world were all before;
Behind, the South Sea’s many an islet shore.
The quiet night, now dappling, ‘gan to wane,
Dividing darkness from the dawning main;
The dolphins, not unconscious of the day,
Swam high, as eager of the coming ray;
The stars from broader beams began to creep,
And lift their shining eyelids from the deep;
The sail resumed its lately shadowed white,
And the wind fluttered with a freshening flight;
The purpling Ocean owns the coming Sun,
But ere he break- a deed is to be done.
The gallant Chief within his cabin slept,
Secure in those by whom the watch was kept:
His dreams were of Old England’s welcome shore,
Of toils rewarded, and of dangers o’er;
His name was added to the glorious roll
Of those who search the storm-surrounded Pole.
The worst was over, and the rest seemed sure,
And why should not his slumber be secure?
Alas! his deck was trod by unwilling feet,
And wilder hands would hold the vessel’s sheet;
Young hearts, which languished for some sunny isle,
Where summer years and summer women smile;
Men without country, who, too long estranged,
Had found no native home, or found it changed,
And, half uncivilised, preferred the cave
Of some soft savage to the uncertain wave-
The gushing fruits that nature gave untilled;
The wood without a path- but where they willed;
The field o’er which promiscuous Plenty poured
Her horn; the equal land without a lord;
The wish- which ages have not yet subdued
In man- to have no master save his mood
The earth, whose mine was on its face, unsold,
The glowing sun and produce all its gold;
The Freedom which can call each grot a home;
The general garden, where all steps may roam,
Where Nature owns a nation as her child,
Exulting in the enjoyment of the wild
Their shells, their fruits, the only wealth they know,
Their unexploring navy, the canoe
Their sport, the dashing breakers and the chase;
Their strangest sight, an European face
Such was the country which these strangers yearned
To see again- a sight they dearly earned.
Awake, bold Bligh! the foe is at the gate!
Awake! awake!- Alas! it is too late!
Fiercely beside thy cot the mutineer
Stands, and proclaims the reign of rage and fear.
Thy limbs are bound, the bayonet at thy breast;
The hands, which trembled at thy voice, arrest;
Dragged o’er the deck, no more at thy command
The obedient helm shall veer, the sail expand;
That savage Spirit, which would lull by wrath
Its desperate escape from Duty’s path,
Glares round thee, in the scarce believing eyes
Of those who fear the Chief they sacrifice:
For ne’er can Man his conscience all assuage,
Unless he drain the wine of Passion- Rage.
In vain, not silenced by the eye of Death,
Thou call’st the loyal with thy menaced breath
They come not; they are few, and, overawed,
Must acquiesce, while sterner hearts applaud.
In vain thou dost demand the cause: a curse
Is all the answer, with the threat of worse.
Full in thine eyes is waved the glittering blade,
Close to thy throat the pointed bayonet laid.
The levelled muskets circle round thy breast
In hands as steeled to do the deadly rest.
Thou dar’st them to their worst, exclaiming- ‘Fire!’
But they who pitied not could yet admire;
Some lurking remnant of their former awe
Restrained them longer than their broken law;
They would not dip their souls at once in blood,
But left thee to the mercies of the flood.
‘Hoist out the boat!’ was now the leader’s cry;
And who dare answer ‘No!’ to Mutiny,
In the first dawning of the drunken hour,
The Saturnalia of unhoped-for power?
The boat is lowered with all the haste of hate,
With its slight plank between thee and thy fate;
Her only cargo such a scant supply
As promises the death their hands deny;
And just enough of water and of bread
To keep, some days, the dying from the dead:
Some cordage, canvass, sails, and lines, and twine,
But treasures all to hermits of the brine,
Were added after, to the earnest prayer
Of those who saw no hope, save sea and air;
And last, that trembling vassal of the Pole-
The feeling compass- Navigation’s soul.
And now the self-elected Chief finds time
To stun the first sensation of his crime,
And raise it in his followers- ‘ Ho! the bowl!’
Lest passion should return to reason’s shoal.
‘Brandy for heroes!’ Burke could once exclaim-
No doubt a liquid path to Epic fame;
And such the new-born heroes found it here,
And drained the draught with an applauding cheer,
‘Huzza! for Otaheite!’ was the cry.
How strange such shouts from sons of Mutiny!
The gentle island, and the genial soil,
The friendly hearts, the feasts without a toil,
The courteous manners but from nature caught,
The wealth unhoarded, and the love unbought; sic
Could these have charms for rudest sea-boys, driven
Before the mast by every wind of heaven?
And now, even now prepared with others’ woes
To earn mild Virtue’s vain desire, repose?
Alas! such is our nature! all but aim
At the same end by pathways not the same;
Our means- our birth- our nation, and our name,
Our fortune- temper- even our outward frame,
Are far more potent o’er our yielding clay
Than aught we know beyond our little day.
Yet still there whispers the small voice within,
Heard through Gain’s silence, and o’er Glory’s din:
Whatever creed be taught, or land be trod,
Man’s conscience is the Oracle of God.
The launch is crowded with the faithful few
Who wait their Chief, a melancholy crew:
But some remained reluctant on the deck
Of that proud vessel- now a moral wreck-
And viewed their Captain’s fate with piteous eyes;
While others scoffed his augured miseries,
Sneered at the prospect of his pigmy sail,
And the slight bark so laden and so frail.
The tender nautilus, who steers his prow,
The sea-born sailor of his shell canoe,
The ocean Mab, the fairy of the sea,
Seems far less fragile, and, alas! more free.
He, when the lightning-winged Tornados sweep
The surge, is safe- his port is in the deep-
And triumphs o’er the armadas of Mankind,
Which shake the World, yet crumble in the wind.
When all was now prepared, the vessel clear
Which hailed her master in the mutineer,
A seaman, less obdurate than his mates,
Showed the vain pity which but irritates;
Watched his late Chieftain with exploring eye,
And told, in signs, repentant sympathy;
Held the moist shaddock to his parchéd mouth,
Which felt Exhaustion’s deep and bitter drouth.
But soon observed, this guardian was withdrawn,
Nor further Mercy clouds Rebellion’s dawn.
Then forward stepped the bold and froward boy
His Chief had cherished only to destroy,
And, pointing to the helpless prow beneath,
Exclaimed, ‘Depart at once! delay is death!’
Yet then, even then, his feelings ceased not all:
In that last moment could a word recall
Remorse for the black deed as yet half done,
And what he hid from many showed to one:
When Bligh in stern reproach demanded where
Was now his grateful sense of former care?
Where all his hopes to see his name aspire,
And blazon Britain’s thousand glories higher?
His feverish lips thus broke their gloomy spell,
”Tis that! ‘Tis that! I am in hell! in hell!’
No more he said; but urging to the bark
His Chief, commits him to his fragile ark;
These the sole accents from his tongue that fell,
But volumes lurked below his fierce farewell.
The arctic Sun rose broad above the wave;
The breeze now sank, now whispered from his cave;
As on the Aeolian harp, his fitful wings
Now swelled, now fluttered o’er his Ocean strings.
With slow, despairing oar, the abandoned skiff
Ploughs its drear progress to the scarce seen cliff,
Which lifts its peak a cloud above the main:
That boat and ship shall never meet again!
But ’tis not mine to tell their tale of grief,
Their constant peril, and their scant relief;
Their days of danger, and their nights of pain;
Their manly courage even when deemed in vain;
The sapping famine, rendering scarce a son
Known to his mother in the skeleton;
The ills that lessened still their little store,
And starved even Hunger till he wrung no more;
The varying frowns and favours of the deep,
That now almost ingulfs, then leaves to creep
With crazy oar and shattered strength along
The tide that yields reluctant to the strong;
The incessant fever of that arid thirst
Which welcomes, as a well, the clouds that burst
Above their naked bones, and feels delight
In the cold drenching of the stormy night,
And from the outspread canvass gladly wrings
A drop to moisten Life’s all-gasping springs;
The savage foe escaped, to seek again
More hospitable shelter from the main;
The ghastly Spectres which were doomed at last
To tell as true a tale of dangers past,
As ever the dark annals of the deep
Disclosed for man to dread or woman weep.
We leave them to their fate, but not unknown
Nor unredressed. Revenge may have her own:
Roused Discipline aloud proclaims their cause,
And injured Navies urge their broken laws.
Pursue we on his track the mutineer,
Whom distant vengeance had not taught to fear.
Wide o’er the wave-away! away! away!
Once more his eyes shall hail the welcome bay;
Once more the happy shores without a law
Receive the outlaws whom they lately saw;
Nature, and Nature’s goddess-Woman-woos
To lands where, save their conscience, none accuse;
Where all partake the earth without dispute,
And bread itself is gathered as a fruit;
Where none contest the fields, the woods, the streams
The goldless Age, where Gold disturbs no dreams,
Inhabits or inhabited the shore,
Till Europe taught them better than before;
Bestowed her customs, and amended theirs,
But left her vices also to their heirs.
Away with this! behold them as they were,
Do good with Nature, or with Nature err.
‘Huzza! for Otaheite!’ was the cry,
As stately swept the gallant vessel by.
The breeze springs up; the lately flapping sail
Extends its arch before the growing gale;
In swifter ripples stream aside the seas,
Which her bold bow flings off with dashing ease.
Thus Argo ploughed the Euxine’s virgin foam,
But those she wafted still looked back to home;
These spurn their country with their rebel bark,
And fly her as the raven fled the Ark;
And yet they seek to nestle with the dove,
And tame their fiery spirits down to Love.