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

Various Islands: Coral Reefs and Islands

The Coral Islands

By Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834–1894)


DOWN in the Tropic sea,

Where the water is warm and deep,

There are gardens fairer than any bee

Ever saw in its honeyed sleep.

Flowers of crimson bright,

And green and purple and blue,

In the waters deep which the golden light

Of the sun sinks softly through.

And many a proud ship sails,

And many a sea-bird flies,

And fishes swim with silvery scales,

Above where that garden lies.


You have seen the bright red stem

Of the wondrous coral tree;

But its living flowers,—you saw not them,—

They died beneath the sea.

You have seen the coral white,

The ghastly skeleton;

But the living flowers were a fairer sight

That used to grow thereon.


When the lovely flowers are dead,

And their substance wastes away,

Their skeletons lie on the ocean’s bed

Like wrecks in slow decay.

And over their delicate bones,

The streams of the lower deep

Lay sand and shell and polished stones

In many a little heap.


And this goes on and on,

And the creatures bloom and grow,

Till the mass of death they rest upon

Comes upward from below.

And reefs of barren rocks,

In blue unfathomed seas,

Give rest to the feet of emigrant flocks,

But have no grass nor trees.

But still the breakers break,

And white along the shore

The surf leaps high, and the waters make

Strong barrows as before.

Like barrows made of old

For ancient British chiefs,

Wherein they lie with torques of gold,

Are those long coral reefs.

For many a hundred miles

Those barren reefs extend,

Connecting distant groups of isles

With paths from end to end.


And a thousand conscious flowers

Open their fleshy leaves

To the ocean spray, whose snowy showers

The thankful mouth receives.

Like the golden mouths that gape

In the thrush’s happy nest,

Open those flowers of starry shape,

When the sea disturbs their rest.

But when the reef has grown

Above the highest tide,

It is a city of lifeless stone,

Whose citizens have died.

For they cannot bear to be

Where the waters never rise,

And each one, lifted from the sea

To the parching sunshine, dies.

And bird or wave or wind

Brings other seeds to sow;

And on the rock new tenants find

A soil whereon to grow.

And they have other wants

Than the flowers the ocean fed;

The hot sun nurses the living plants,

And withers up the dead.

And then on the deepening mould

Of many a hundred years,

When the coral rock is green and old,

A stunted shrub appears;

And grasses tall and rank,

And herbs that thickly teem

Out of the soil on a lake’s green bank,

Or the margin of a stream.

Long ages pass,—those isles

Have grown maturely fair;

Green forests wave, and summer smiles,

And human homes are there.