Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Oceanica: Vol. XXXI. 1876–79.

Miscellaneous: The Ocean


By Fitz-James O’Brien (1828–1862)

Died February 16, 1857

ALOFT upon an old basaltic crag,

Which, scalped by keen winds that defend the Pole,

Gazes with dead face on the seas that roll

Around the secret of the mystic zone,

A mighty nation’s star-bespangled flag

Flutters alone,

And underneath, upon the lifeless front

Of that drear cliff a simple name is traced;

Fit type of him who, famishing and gaunt,

But with a rocky purpose in his soul,

Breasted the gathering snows,

Clung to the drifting floes,

By want beleaguered, and by winter chased,

Seeking the brother lost amid that frozen waste.

Not many months ago we greeted him,

Crowned with the icy honors of the North,

Across the land his hard-won fame went forth,

And Maine’s deep woods were shaken limb by limb.

His own mild Keystone State, sedate and prim,

Burst from decorous quiet as he came.

Hot Southern lips, with eloquence aflame,

Sounded his triumph. Texas, wild and grim,

Proffered its horny hand. The large-lunged West,

From out his giant breast,

Yelled its frank welcome. And from main to main,

Jubilant to the sky,

Thundered the mighty cry,

Honor to Kane!

In vain,—in vain beneath his feet we flung

The reddening roses! All in vain we poured

The golden wine, and round the shining board

Sent the toast circling, till the rafters rung

With the thrice-tripled honors of the feast!

Scarce the buds wilted and the voices ceased

Ere the pure light that sparkled in his eyes,

Bright as auroral fires in Southern skies,

Faded and faded! And the brave young heart

That the relentless Arctic winds had robbed

Of all its vital heat, in that long quest

For the lost captain, now within his breast

More and more faintly throbbed.

His was the victory; but as his grasp

Closed on the laurel crown with eager clasp,

Death launched a whistling dart;

And ere the thunders of applause were done

His bright eyes closed forever on the sun!

Too late,—too late the splendid prize he won

In the Olympic race of Science and of Art!

Like to some shattered berg that, pale and lone,

Drifts from the white North to a Tropic zone,

And in the burning day

Wastes peak by peak away,

Till on some rosy even

It dies with sunlight blessing it; so he

Tranquilly floated to a Southern sea,

And melted into heaven!

He needs no tears who lived a noble life!

We will not weep for him who died so well;

But we will gather round the hearth, and tell

The story of his strife:

Such homage suits him well,

Better than funeral pomp or passing bell!

What tale of peril and self-sacrifice!

Prisoned amid the fastnesses of ice,

With hunger howling o’er the wastes of snow!

Night lengthening into months; the ravenous floe

Crunching the massive ships, as the white bear

Crunches his prey. The insufficient share

Of loathsome food;

The lethargy of famine; the despair

Urging to labor, nervelessly pursued;

Toil done with skinny arms, and faces hued

Like pallid masks, while dolefully behind

Glimmered the fading embers of a mind!

That awful hour, when through the prostrate band

Delirium stalked, laying his burning hand

Upon the ghastly foreheads of the crew;

The whispers of rebellion, faint and few

At first, but deepening ever till they grew

Into black thoughts of murder,—such the throng

Of horrors bound the hero. High the song

Should be that hymns the noble part he played!

Sinking himself, yet ministering aid

To all around him. By a mighty will

Living defiant of the wants that kill,

Because his death would seal his comrades’ fate;

Cheering with ceaseless and inventive skill

Those polar waters, dark and desolate.

Equal to every trial, every fate,

He stands, until spring, tardy with relief,

Unlocks the icy gate,

And the pale prisoners thread the world once more

To the steep cliffs of Greenland’s pastoral shore

Bearing their dying chief!

Time was when he should gain his spurs of gold

From royal hands, who wooed the knightly state;

The knell of old formalities is tolled,

And the world’s knights are now self-consecrate.

No grander episode doth chivalry hold

In all its annals, back to Charlemagne,

Than that lone vigil of unceasing pain,

Faithfully kept through hunger and through cold,

By the good Christian knight, Elisha Kane!