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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). The Poetical Works in Four Volumes. 1892.

Narrative and Legendary Poems

The Swan Song of Parson Avery

  • In Young’s Chronicles of Massachusetts Bay from 1623 to 1636 may be found Anthony Thacher’s Narrative of his Shipwreck. Thacher was Avery’s companion and survived to tell the tale. Mather’s Magnalia, III. 2, gives further Particulars of Parson Avery’s End, and suggests the title of the poem.

  • WHEN the reaper’s task was ended, and the summer wearing late,

    Parson Avery sailed from Newbury, with his wife and children eight,

    Dropping down the river-harbor in the shallop “Watch and Wait.”

    Pleasantly lay the clearings in the mellow summer-morn,

    With the newly planted orchards dropping their fruits first-born,

    And the home-roofs like brown islands amid a sea of corn.

    Broad meadows reached out seaward the tided creeks between,

    And hills rolled wave-like inland, with oaks and walnuts green;—

    A fairer home, a goodlier land, his eyes had never seen.

    Yet away sailed Parson Avery, away where duty led,

    And the voice of God seemed calling, to break the living bread

    To the souls of fishers starving on the rocks of Marblehead.

    All day they sailed: at nightfall the pleasant land-breeze died,

    The blackening sky, at midnight, its starry lights denied,

    And far and low the thunder of tempest prophesied!

    Blotted out were all the coast-lines, gone were rock, and wood, and sand;

    Grimly anxious stood the skipper with the rudder in his hand,

    And questioned of the darkness what was sea and what was land.

    And the preacher heard his dear ones, nestled round him, weeping sore:

    “Never heed, my little children! Christ is walking on before

    To the pleasant land of heaven, where the sea shall be no more.”

    All at once the great cloud parted, like a curtain drawn aside,

    To let down the torch of lightning on the terror far and wide;

    And the thunder and the whirlwind together smote the tide.

    There was wailing in the shallop, woman’s wail and man’s despair,

    A crash of breaking timbers on the rocks so sharp and bare,

    And, through it all, the murmur of Father Avery’s prayer.

    From his struggle in the darkness with the wild waves and the blast,

    On a rock, where every billow broke above him as it passed,

    Alone, of all his household, the man of God was cast.

    There a comrade heard him praying, in the pause of wave and wind:

    “All my own have gone before me, and I linger just behind;

    Not for life I ask, but only for the rest Thy ransomed find!

    “In this night of death I challenge the promise of Thy word!—

    Let me see the great salvation of which mine ears have heard!—

    Let me pass from hence forgiven, through the grace of Christ, our Lord!

    “In the baptism of these waters wash white my every sin,

    And let me follow up to Thee my household and my kin!

    Open the sea-gate of Thy heaven, and let me enter in!”

    When the Christian sings his death-song, all the listening heavens draw near,

    And the angels, leaning over the walls of crystal, hear

    How the notes so faint and broken swell to music in God’s ear.

    The ear of God was open to His servant’s last request;

    As the strong wave swept him downward the sweet hymn upward pressed,

    And the soul of Father Avery went, singing, to its rest.

    There was wailing on the mainland, from the rocks of Marblehead;

    In the stricken church of Newbury the notes of prayer were read;

    And long, by board and hearthstone, the living mourned the dead.

    And still the fishers outbound, or scudding from the squall,

    With grave and reverent faces, the ancient tale recall,

    When they see the white waves breaking on the Rock of Avery’s Fall!