A Story Of The Sea-Shore by George MacDonald


I sought the long clear twilights of the North,
When, from its nest of trees, my father’s house
Sees the Aurora deepen into dawn
Far northward in the East, o’er the hill-top;
And fronts the splendours of the northern West,
Where sunset dies into that ghostly gleam
That round the horizon creepeth all the night
Back to the jubilance of gracious morn.
I found my home in homeliness unchanged;
For love that maketh home, unchangeable,
Received me to the rights of sonship still.
O vaulted summer-heaven, borne on the hills!
Once more thou didst embrace me, whom, a child,
Thy drooping fulness nourished into joy.
Once more the valley, pictured forth with sighs,
Rose on my present vision, and, behold!
In nothing had the dream bemocked the truth:
The waters ran as garrulous as before;
The wild flowers crowded round my welcome feet;
The hills arose and dwelt alone in heaven;
And all had learned new tales against I came.
Once more I trod the well-known fields with him
Whose fatherhood had made me search for God’s;
And it was old and new like the wild flowers,
The waters, and the hills, but dearer far.

Once on a day, my cousin Frank and I,
Drove on a seaward road the dear white mare
Which oft had borne me to the lonely hills.
Beside me sat a maiden, on whose face
I had not looked since we were boy and girl;
But the old friendship straightway bloomed anew.
The heavens were sunny, and the earth was green;
The harebells large, and oh! so plentiful;
While butterflies, as blue as they, danced on,
Borne purposeless on pulses of clear joy,
In sportive time to their Aeolian clang.
That day as we talked on without restraint,
Brought near by memories of days that were,
And therefore are for ever–by the joy
Of motion through a warm and shining air,
By the glad sense of freedom and like thoughts,
And by the bond of friendship with the dead,
She told the tale which I would mould anew
To a more lasting form of utterance.

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For I had wandered back to childish years;
And asked her if she knew a ruin old,
Whose masonry, descending to the waves,
Faced up the sea-cliff at whose rocky feet
The billows fell and died along the coast.
‘Twas one of my child marvels. For, each year,
We turned our backs upon the ripening corn,
And sought the borders of the desert sea.
O joy of waters! mingled with the fear
Of a blind force that knew not what to do,
But spent its strength of waves in lashing aye
The rocks which laughed them into foam and flight.

But oh, the varied riches of that port!
For almost to the beach, but that a wall
Inclosed them, reached the gardens of a lord,
His shady walks, his ancient trees of state;
His river, which, with course indefinite,
Wandered across the sands without the wall,
And lost itself in finding out the sea:
Within, it floated swans, white splendours; lay
Beneath the fairy leap of a wire bridge;
Vanished and reappeared amid the shades,
And led you where the peacock’s plumy heaven
Bore azure suns with green and golden rays.
Ah! here the skies showed higher, and the clouds
More summer-gracious, filled with stranger shapes;
And when they rained, it was a golden rain
That sparkled as it fell, an odorous rain.

But there was one dream-spot–my tale must wait
Until I tell the wonder of that spot.
It was a little room, built somehow–how
I do not know–against a steep hill-side,
Whose top was with a circular temple crowned,
Seen from far waves when winds were off the shore–
So that, beclouded, ever in the night
Of a luxuriant ivy, its low door,
Half-filled with rainbow hues of deep-stained glass,
Appeared to open right into the hill.
Never to sesame of mine that door
Yielded that room; but through one undyed pane,
Gazing with reverent curiosity,
I saw a little chamber, round and high,
Which but to see, was to escape the heat,
And bathe in coolness of the eye and brain;
For it was dark and green. Upon one side
A window, unperceived from without,
Blocked up by ivy manifold, whose leaves,
Like crowded heads of gazers, row on row,
Climbed to the top; and all the light that came
Through the thick veil was green, oh, kindest hue!
But in the midst, the wonder of the place,
Against the back-ground of the ivy bossed,
On a low column stood, white, pure, and still,
A woman-form in marble, cold and clear.
I know not what it was; it may have been
A Silence, or an Echo fainter still;
But that form yet, if form it can be called,
So undefined and pale, gleams vision-like
In the lone treasure-chamber of my soul,
Surrounded with its mystic temple dark.

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Then came the thought, too joyous to keep joy,
Turning to very sadness for relief:
To sit and dream through long hot summer days,
Shrouded in coolness and sea-murmurings,
Forgot by all till twilight shades grew dark;
And read and read in the Arabian Nights,
Till all the beautiful grew possible;
And then when I had read them every one,
To find behind the door, against the wall,
Old volumes, full of tales, such as in dreams
One finds in bookshops strange, in tortuous streets;
Beside me, over me, soul of the place,
Filling the gloom with calm delirium,
That wondrous woman-statue evermore,
White, radiant; fading, as the darkness grew,
Into a ghostly pallour, that put on,
To staring eyes, a vague and shifting form.

But the old castle on the shattered shore–
Not the green refuge from the summer heat–
Drew forth our talk that day. For, as I said,
I asked her if she knew it. She replied,
“I know it well;” and added instantly:
“A woman used to live, my mother tells,
In one of its low vaults, so near the sea,
That in high tides and northern winds it was
No more a castle-vault, but a sea-cave!”
“I found there,” I replied, “a turret stair
Leading from level of the ground above
Down to a vault, whence, through an opening square,
Half window and half loophole, you look forth
Wide o’er the sea; but the dim-sounding waves
Are many feet beneath, and shrunk in size
To a great ripple. I could tell you now
A tale I made about a little girl,
Dark-eyed and pale, with long seaweed-like hair,
Who haunts that room, and, gazing o’er the deep,
Calls it her mother, with a childish glee,
Because she knew no other.” “This,” said she,
“Was not a child, but woman almost old,
Whose coal-black hair had partly turned to grey,
With sorrow and with madness; and she dwelt,
Not in that room high on the cliff, but down,
Low down within the margin of spring tides.”
And then she told me all she knew of her,
As we drove onward through the sunny day.
It was a simple tale, with few, few facts;
A life that clomb one mountain and looked forth;
Then sudden sank to a low dreary plain,
And wandered ever in the sound of waves,
Till fear and fascination overcame,
And led her trembling into life and joy.
Alas! how many such are told by night,
In fisher-cottages along the shore!

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Farewell, old summer-day; I lay you by,
To tell my story, and the thoughts that rise
Within a heart that never dared believe
A life was at the mercy of a sea.

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