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The Bell Buoy -- Rudyard Kipling

Guest poem submitted by Benjamin A. Okopnik :
(Poem #1817) The Bell Buoy
 They christened my brother of old --
   And a saintly name he bears --
 They gave him his place to hold
   At the head of the belfry-stairs,
   Where the minister-towers stand
 And the breeding kestrels cry.
   Would I change with my brother a league inland?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!

 In the flush of the hot June prime,
   O'er sleek flood-tides afire,
 I hear him hurry the chime
   To the bidding of checked Desire;
   Till the sweated ringers tire
 And the wild bob-majors die.
   Could I wait for my turn in the godly choir?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!

 When the smoking scud is blown --
   When the greasy wind-rack lowers --
 Apart and at peace and alone,
   He counts the changeless hours.
   He wars with darkling Powers
 (I war with a darkling sea);
   Would he stoop to my work in the gusty mirk?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not he!

 There was never a priest to pray
   There was never a hand to toll,
 When they made me guard of the bay
   And moored me over the shoal.
 I rock, I reel, and I roll --
 My four great hammers ply --
   Could I speak or be still at the Church's will?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!

 The landward marks have failed,
   The fog-bank glides unguessed,
 The seaward lights are veiled,
   The spent deep feigns her rest:
   But my ear is laid to her breast,
 I lift to the swell -- I cry!
   Could I wait in sloth on the Church's oath?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!

 At the careless end of night
   I thrill to the nearing screw;
 I turn in the clearing light
   And I call to the drowsy crew;
   And the mud boils foul and blue
 As the blind bow backs away.
   Will they give me their thanks if they clear the banks?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not they!

 The beach-pools cake and skim,
   The bursting spray-heads freeze,
 I gather on crown and rim
   The grey, grained ice of the seas,
   Where, sheathed from bitt to trees,
 The plunging colliers lie.
   Would I barter my place for the Church's grace?
 (Shoal !   'Ware shoal !)   Not I!

 Through the blur of the whirling snow,
   Or the black of the inky sleet,
 The lanterns gather and grow,
   And I look for the homeward fleet.
   Rattle of block and sheet --
 "Ready about - stand by!"
   Shall I ask them a fee ere they fetch the quay?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!

 I dip and I surge and I swing
   In the rip of the racing tide,
 By the gates of doom I sing,
   On the horns of death I ride.
   A ship-length overside,
 Between the course and the sand,
   Fretted and bound I bide
        Peril whereof I cry.
   Would I change with my brother a league inland?
 (Shoal!   'Ware shoal!)   Not I!
-- Rudyard Kipling

As a seaman and a live-aboard sailor of many years, I find that much of
Kipling's poetry feels like home to me. There are many popular poets and
writers who have scribbled a muckle of lines extolling the virtues of the
"romantic" Ocean, but whose work makes me frown and mutter "stick with what
you know, would you?". In contrast, Kipling's poetry of the sea stands
unassailable in its "saltiness", its power, its clarity of expression, and
most of all, in the meaning of what is real and true in the heart of those
who "go down to the sea in ships".

As I sit here aboard S/V "Ulysses", my dog-eared volume of his "Complete
Verse: Definitive Edition" reposes comfortably on my bookshelf; it has been
with me through several ships and through many years. The virtues of
seamanship, which I've taught along with the practice of it to a number of
people over the years, have often been phrased as quotes from this very
book, or even entire passages to illustrate the point:

 "Let Zeus adjudge your landward kin whose votive meal and sale
 At easy-cheated altars win oblivion for the fault,
 But you the unhoodwinked wave shall test -- the immediate gulf condemn --
 Except ye owe the Fates a jest, be slow to jest with them.

 Ye shall not clear by Greekly speech, nor cozen from your path
 The twinkling shoal, the leeward beach, or Hadria's white-lipped wrath;
 Nor tempt with painted cloth for wood my fraud-avenging hosts;
 Nor make at all, or all make good, your bulwarks and your boasts.

        -- from "Poseidon's Law"

Unlike Joseph Conrad or Richard Henry Dana, Kipling was never a professional
seaman, but his writing shows that he truly understood the very heart of
seamanship. Whatever his other faults, his poetry of the sea is sublime.

Rudyard Kipling's Biography:

Ben Okopnik.

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