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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
England: Vols. I–IV. 1876–79.


The Wives of Brixham

By Menella Bute Smedley (1820–1877)

YOU see the gentle water,

How silently it floats,

How cautiously, how steadily

It moves the sleepy boats;

And all the little loops of pearl

It strews along the sand

Steal out as leisurely as leaves,

When summer is at hand.

But you know it can be angry,

And thunder from its rest,

When the stormy taunts of winter

Are flying at its breast;

And if you like to listen,

And draw your chairs around,

I ’ll tell you what it did one night,

When you were sleeping sound.

The merry boats of Brixham

Go out to search the seas,—

A stanch and sturdy fleet are they,

Who love a swinging breeze;

And before the woods of Devon,

And the silver cliffs of Wales,

You may see when summer evenings fall,

The light upon their sails.

But when the year grows darker,

And gray winds hunt the foam,

They go back to little Brixham,

And ply their toils at home.

And thus it chanced one winter’s day,

When a storm began to roar,

That all the men were out at sea,

And all the wives on shore.

Then as the wind grew fiercer,

The women’s cheeks grew white,—

It was fiercer in the twilight,

And fiercest in the night.

The strong clouds set themselves like ice,

Without a star to melt;

The blackness of the darkness

Was something to be felt.

The storm, like an assassin,

Went on its secret way,

And struck a hundred boats adrift

To reel about the bay.

They meet, they crash,—God keep the men!

God give a moment’s light!

There is nothing but the tumult,

And the tempest and the night.

The men on shore were anxious,—

They grieved for what they knew:

What do you think the women did?

Love taught them what to do!

Outspoke a wife: “We ’ve beds at home,

We ’ll burn them for a light!

Give us the men and the bare ground!

We want no more to-night.”

They took the grandame’s blanket,

Who shivered and bade them go;

They took the baby’s pillow,

Who could not say them no;

And they heaped a great fire on the pier,

And knew not all the while

If they were heaping a bonfire,

Or only a funeral pile.

And, fed with precious food, the flame

Shone bravely on the black,

Till a cry rang through the people,—

“A boat is coming back!”

Staggering dimly through the fog,

They see and then they doubt;

But, when the first prow strikes the pier,

Cannot you hear them shout?

Then all along the breadth of flame

Dark figures shrieked and ran,

With, “Child, here comes your father!”

Or, “Wife, is this your man?”

And faint feet touch the welcome shore,

And stay a little while;

And kisses drop from frozen lips,

Too tired to speak or smile.

So, one by one, they struggled in,

All that the sea would spare:

We will not reckon through our tears

The names that were not there;

But some went home without a bed,

When all the tale was told,

Who were too cold with sorrow

To know the night was cold.

And this is what the men must do,

Who work in wind and foam;

And this is what the women bear,

Who watch for them at home.

So when you see a Brixham boat

Go out to face the gales,

Think of the love that travels

Like light upon her sails.