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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
America: Vols. XXV–XXIX. 1876–79.

Middle States: Barnegat, N. J.

The Wrecker’s Oath on Barnegat

By Henry Morford (1823–1881)

ONE night mid swarthy forms I lay,

Along a wild southeastern bay,

Within a cabin rude and rough,

Formed out of drift-wood, wrecker’s stuff,

And firelight throwing rosy flame

From up-heaped masses of the same,—

Waiting the turning of the tide

To launch the surf-boats scattered wide,

And try the fisher’s hardy toil

For bass, and other finny spoil.

They lay around me, young and old,

But men of hardy mien and mould,

Whom one had picked some deed to do

Demanding iron hearts and true,

But whom one had not picked, if wise,

For playing tricks to blinded eyes,

Without expecting, at the end,

To learn the odds ’twixt foe and friend!

Some leaned upon their arms, and slept;

But others wakeful vigil kept,

And told short stories,—merry, half,

And some too earnest for a laugh.

And I—I listened, as I might,

With strange and weird and wild delight,

To hear the surfmen, in their haunt,

On deeds and loves and hates descant.

One gray old man, of whom I heard

No more than this descriptive word,

“Old Kennedy,”—he rattled on,

Of men and things long past and gone,

And seemed without one careful thought,—

Till spark to tinder some one brought

By hinting that he launched no more,

Of late, his surf-boat from the shore,

However wind and storm were rife

And stranded vessels perilled life.

“No! by the God who made this tongue!”

And up in angry force he sprung,—

“No!—never, while my head is warm,

However wild beat sea and storm,

Launch I a boat, one life to save,

If half creation finds a grave!”

A fearful oath!—I thought; and so

Thought others, for a murmur low

Ran round the circle, till, at length,

The wondering feeling gathered strength,

And some, who had not known him long,

Declared them words of cruel wrong,

And swore to keep no friendly troth

With one who framed so hard an oath.

“You will not, mates?” the old man said,

His words so earnest, dense, and dread

That something down my back ran cold

As at the ghostly tales of old.

“You will not? Listen, then, a word!

And if, when you have fairly heard,

You say a thoughtless oath I swore,

I never fish beside you more!”

They listened: so did I, be sure,

As Desdemona to her Moor,

Or that poor “wedding-guest” who heard

The Ancient Mariner’s lengthy word.

They listened; and no murmur broke

The full, dead silence, as he spoke.

“You know me, mates,—at least the most,—

From Barnegat, on Jersey coast.

’T is time you listened something more,

That drove me to another shore.

“Twelve years ago, at noon of life,

I had a fond and faithful wife;

Two children, boy and girl; a patch;

A drift-wood cabin roofed with thatch;

And thought myself the happiest man

The coast had known since time began.

“Ships wrecked: they never saw me flinch,

But fight the white surf, inch by inch,

To save the meanest thing had breath,

If danger seemed to threaten death.

Yes,—more! I never once held back,

If through the big storm, rushing black,

Some nabob’s riches I could save

And give them to him from the wave.

“One night a large ship drove ashore,

Not half a mile beyond my door.

I saw the white surf breaking far;

I saw her beating on the bar;

I knew she could not live one hour,

By wood and iron’s strongest power.

“I was alone, except my boy,—

Sixteen,—my wife’s best hope and joy;

And who can doubt, that is not mad,

He was the proudest pride I had!

I let him take the vacant oar;

I took him with me from the shore;

I let him try help save a life:

I drowned him, and it killed my wife!”

The old man paused, and dashed his hand

Against his brow, to gain command;

While all around, a hush like death

Hung on the fisher’s trembling breath.

And pitying eyes began to show

How rough men feel a rough man’s woe.

Then he went on,—a few words more,

That still an added horror bore.

“Somebody stole a cask or bale,—

At least so ran the pleasant tale.

And while my boy was lying dead,

My wife’s last breath as yet unfled,

The city papers reeked with chat

Of ‘pirate bands on Barnegat.’

My name was branded as a thief,

When I was almost mad with grief;

And what d’ ye think they made me feel,

When the last falsehood ground its heel,—

‘I had rowed out, that night, to steal!’

“No! if I ever row again,

To save the lives of perilled men,

Body and soul at once go down,

And Heaven forget me as I drown!”

It was a direful oath, as well

When nothing more remained to tell,

As it had been, when at the first

His wrong and hate the old man nursed;

But I have often thought, since then,

The best of men are only men,

And some of us, at church and school,

Who prattle of the Golden Rule,—

Might find it hard, such weight to bear

Of shame and outrage and despair,

Without forgetting trust and troth

And hurling out as dread an oath.