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Poems
The North Sea -- Second Cycle
(13 December 1797 – 17 February 1856 / Dusseldorf)

The North Sea -- Second Cycle

I

Greeting to the Sea

Thalatta! Thalatta!
I hail thee, O Sea, thou Ancient of Days!
I hail thee, O Sea, ten thousand times
With jubilant heart,
Of yore as once hailed thee
Those Grecian hearts ten thousand,
Homestead-desiring, calamity-mastering,
World-renowned bold Grecian hearts.

The billows were heaving,
Were heaving and roaring,
The sun shed briskly from heaven
His quivering rosy sparklets,
In sudden scare the tribes of sea-birds
Rose on the wing, loud-shrieking;
O'er stamping of war-steeds and clang of shields smitten,
Far-pealed that shout, like a victor's cry:
'Thalatta I Thalatta!
'
I hail thee, O Sea, thou Ancient of Days!
Like speech of my homestead murmurs thy water,
Like dreams of my childhood shimmer before me
The heaving leagues of thy billowy realm,
As Memory, the grey-beard, remurmurs his stories
Of all those dear magnificent playthings,
Of all those glittering Christmas-presents,
Of all those branchy red trees of coral,
Gold-fishes, pearls, and shimmering sea-shells,
Which thou mysteriously dost guard
Down there in thy lucid crystal house.

Oh, how long have I languished in lonely exile!
Like a poor fading flow'ret
Shut in a botanist's tin for collecting
Drooped the sick heart in my breast.
Meseems I've sat the livelong winter,
A sick man alone in his gloomy sick-room,
And now have suddenly left it;
And blindingly flashes upon me
The emerald spring by the sun awakened,
And the trees are a-whisper with snowy blossom,
And the fair young flowers gaze in my face,
Their bright eyes brimming with sweetness;
All's odour and hum, and laughter and breeze,
And in heaven's blue deep the birds are all singing-
Thalatta! Thalatta!

Thou valiant homing heart,
How oft, how bitter oft,
The northern she-barbarians have beset thee!
From great eyes, roving for conquest,
Shooting their fiery arrows;
With words ground crooked like sabres,
Threatening still to cleave my bosom;
With letters like clubs they battered to bits-,-
My feeble and stupefied brain—
In vain I braced my buckler against them,'
The shafts flew hissing, the blows fell crashing,
And by the northern she-barbarians
Down was I driven to the sea—
And, breathing freely, I hail thee, O Sea,
Thou kindly, rescuing Sea,
Thalatta! Thalatta!

II

Thunderstorm

Dull tempest lies prone on the ocean,
And through the lurid wall of cloud
Darts the lightning with zigzags flare,
Swift-illuming, and swiftly vanished,
As a gleek from the brain of Kronion.
Over the waste of weltering water
Far the thunders go rolling,
And lustily leap the white sea-horses
That Boreas once in his might
Sired on the alluring mares of Erichthon;
And the sea-fowl anxiously o'er them hover,
Like shades that flit by the Styx,
Whom Charon repels from the night-coloured barge.
Woeful pinnace of pleasure,
Which there goes dancing the direst dance!
Aeolus sends her the briskest of partners,
Who strike up madly a rollicking round-dance,
And one doth pipe, and one doth blow,
A third on double-bass keeps brumming,
And the tottering steersman grips the tiller,
And with fixed eye looks down on his compass,
The shuddering soul of the vessel,
Then lifts his hands imploring to heaven:
'Oh, succour me. Castor, Tamer of Steeds,
And thou, valiant with fists, Polydeuces!'

III

Shipwreck

Hope gone, and Love gone! All dashed to pieces!
And myself—most like a drowned body
That grumblingly the sea hath cast up,
Lie on the strand here,
The bald and desolate strand.
There heaves before me the waste of waters,
Nothing behind me but trouble and sorrow,
And over my head hurry the rain-clouds;
The grey and formless daughters of air,
Who from the sea, in cloudy pitchers,
Draw up the water,
And with labour lift it, and lift it,
But to pour it again in the sea,
A dull and most wearisome task,
And useless as my own vain life is.

The waves are murmuring, the sea-gulls crying,
Wafts of old memories over me steal,
Old dreams long forgotten, old visions long vanished,
Sweet and torturing, rise from the deep..

A woman dwells in the Norland,
A fairest woman, royally fair.
The amorous white folds of her gown
Clasp close her slender cypress-like form;
The dark wealth of her tresses
Falls, like a night of bliss,
From her head, with its garland of plaits, downflowing
To curl itself dreamily sweet
Round a face sweet in its paleness;
And from that face, sweet in its paleness,
Large and intense her dark eye flashes,
Like a black sun from heaven.

O thou swarthy sun, how oft,
Witchingly oft, I drank from thee ,;; ,.., ;
The flames of a madness ecstatic, .,•„-»>,..•..•- ;'
And stood and reeled, as one drunk with fire—
Then hovered a smile of dovelike mildness
O'er the proud lips, ripe in their haughty curving,
And the proud lips, ripe in their haughty curving,
Sighed forth words more sweet than moonlight,
And tender as breath of roses—
And then my soul shook its pinions,
And soared, like an eagle, aloft into heaven!

Hush! ye billows and sea-fowl!
For all is over, hope and good-fortune,
Hope gone and Love gone! On earth I lie lonely,
A desolate shipwrecked man,
And bury my burning face here
In the wet sea-sand.

IV

Sunset

The sun in glory
Has paced serenely into the sea,
The wavering waters are softly tinged
With the gloom of night;
Yet still the afterglow
Strews them over with golden spangles;
And the might of the murmuring tide
Shoreward urges the white-capt billows,
That gambol as briskly and blithely *
As woolly white flocks of lambkins,
At even, when, singing, the herd-boy drives them
From pasture home.

'How glorious the sun is!'
So said, long silence breaking, the friend
With whom o'er the strand I was wandering;
And half in jest, half in sad earnest,
Assured me he held the sun to be
A beautiful woman the hoary sea-god
Had married for mere convenience;
The livelong day she wanders in gladness
The heights of heaven, her purple robe
Ablaze with diamonds flashing,
Of all admired, of all beloved—
All the wide world's fair creatures,
And gladdening all the world's fair creatures
With her bright face's warmth and radiance;
But in the evening, desolate, helpless,
Back must she come, like a slave,
To the damp sea-hall, and barren embraces,
Of her hoary spouse.

'Trust me'—further my friend went on,
And laughed and sighed, and again laughed dryly—
'They live down below there in tenderest wedlock!
For either they sleep, or wrangle so savagely
The sea above them foams with the strife,
And 'mid roaring of billows the sailor hears
How the greybeard miscalls his dame:
'All creation's bold strumpet!
Wanton of radiance!
The livelong day for others thou glowest,
At night for me thou art frosty and jaded!'
And after such curtain-lectures,
What wonder? into passionate weeping
The proud sun breaks, and bewails her fortune,
And wails so bitterly long, the sea-god
Springs from his couch there in sheer desperation,
And swiftly swims up to the sea's broad surface,
His wits and his wind to recover.
'I saw him myself, 'twas only last night,
Peering, breast-high, above the billows.
A jacket of yellow flannel he wore,
And on his head a lily-white nightcap,
And wrinkled and sere was his face.'

V

The Song of the Oceanids

Pallor of evening blanches the sea,
And lonely there, with his soul so lonely,
Sits a man on the bald sea-strand,
And stares with death-cold gaze aloft
At the far-off death-cold vault of heaven;
And stares o'er the waste of weltering sea—
Airy sailors, his sighs go soaring,
And back to him come in sorrow,
For barred to their entrance the heart they have found
Wherein they fain had anchored.
Then so loud he groans that the white-wing'd sea-gulls,
Scared from their sandy nesting-places,
In flocks around him circle,
And he speaks these words to them, strangely laughing:

'Poor, black-legged sea-fowl!
On snowy pinions ocean o'erhovering,
With crooked beaks the sea-water sipping,
And train-oily seal-blubber gobbling,
Your life is bitter as is your diet!
But I, happy mortal, I taste but of dainties!
I feed on the sweetest breath of roses,
The brides of the nightingale, fed by the moon;
I feed on yet sweeter confectioner's cates,
Filled full of rich cream thickly-clotted;
And the sweetest sweet I have tasted,
Love, sweet love, sweet being-beloved.

'She loves me! she loves me! the sweetest maiden!
This morning at home, from her balcony leaning,
She looks through the gloaming away down the high road,
And listens, longing for me—yes, really!
In vain she peers all around her, then sighs she,
And sighing down she goes to the garden,
And wanders in balm and moonlight,
And speaks to the flowers, and fain must tell them
How I, her Beloved, am oh, so dear!
And so worth her loving—yes, really!
In bed thereafter, asleep, in her dreams,
Her innocence plays with my image dear;
Next morning, even, at breakfast,
In her glistening bread and butter
Spies she my countenance smiling,
And she eats it up for love—yes, really!'

E'en so boasts he, and boasts he,
And ever the sea-gulls' wild screaming
Seems cold and ironical tittering.
The mists of gloaming rise from the sea;
From opalescent grey cloud looks weirdly,
Peering forth, the wan yellow moon!
Up surge, moaning, the ocean billows,
And deep from the surging and moaning sea,
As mournful as whispering breezes,
Sounds the Song of the Oceanids,
The beautiful, pitiful water-wives,
And loveliest the voice, o'er the others outringing,
Of Peleus' consort, the silver-footed,
And they sing to him, sighing:

'O fool, thou fool, thou hectoring fool!
Thou tortured of sorrow!
Thy hopes behind thee lie slaughtered most wretchedly,
Poor babes of the heart fondly dandled,
And ah! thy heart, like Niobe,
Grows marble through grief!
Black night sinks down o'er thy brain,
And there flash through the gloom the lightnings of madness,
In thy grief-wrung boasting!
O fool, thou fool, thou hectoring tool!
Stiff-necked art thou, like thy forbear,
The Titan so haughty who stole from Jove's children
The heavenly fire, and gave it to men,
And plagued by the vulture, nailed to the rock-wall,
Defied Olympus, defying and groaning
Till we could hear in our green sea-deeps,
And came to him with comforting song,
O fool, thou fool, thou hectoring fool!
Thou art in sooth yet feebler than he,
And 'twere mere common sense that the gods thou shouldst honour,
And patiently bear thy misery's burden,
Ay, patiently bear it for ages and ages,
Till Atlas' self shall his patience lose,
And the heavy world shall pitch from his shoulders
Into endless night.'

So sounded the song of the Oceanids,
The beautiful, pitiful water-wives,
Till waves growing louder quite over-roared it—
Into the clouds went plunging the moon,
Night over me yawned,
And I sat long, long, in the darkness weeping.

VI

The Gods of Greece

O moon in full bloom! in thy soft light
The sea is a-shine like flowing gold;
With noonday clearness, yet glamour of gloaming,
It rests in peace on the strand's broad bosom;
Through the starless azure of heaven,
Huge the white clouds go sailing,
Like forms of gods colossal, moulded
In glimmering marble.

Nay, in good sooth, no clouds are those yonder I
These are themselves, the gods of old Hellas,
Who once in gladness the world o'erlorded;
But now, defunct and supplanted,
Like monstrous ghosts make spectral procession
Through midnight spaces of heaven.

Awed, and mysteriously dazzled, I gaze on
The airy Pantheon,
Dumb-moving, majestic, dreadfully moving,
Giants in stature.
He there is Kronion, the King of Heaven,
Snow-white gleam the curls on his brow,
Those curls so renowned that made tremble Olympus;
And cold in his hand are his thunders extinct,
And in his visage dwell sorrow and care,
Though there sits ever his ancient pride.
Those times were better, far better, O Zeus,
When thou divinely didst gloat on
Fair boys, and fair nymphs, and hecatombs also!
But e'en the gods may not lord it for ever,
The younger still drive out the elder,
As thou thyself o'er thy hoary father,
And over thy Titan uncles usurpedst,
Jupiter Parricida!
Thee too I know, thee too, proud Juno!
In spite of thine anguish of jealous care,
Another the sceptre has won from thy keeping,
And thou art no more the Queen of Heaven,
And thy great ox-eyes have grown dull,
And power from thy lily-white arms has vanished,
And never more thy wrath shall swoop on
The virgin filled with the godhead,
And the wonder-working strong son of Zeus.
Thee too, I know thee, Pallas Athena!
With shield and wisdom hadst thou no skill
To turn from the gods this destruction?
Thee too I know, even thee. Aphrodite!
Once the golden, and now the silvern!
But certes the zone of desire still decks thee,
Though creeps my spirit before thy beauty;
And me wouldst thou bless with thy body so fair,
Like other heroes, of dread I should die—
As pale corpse-goddess thou seem'st to me,
Venus Libitina!
No more with love upon thee there
Gazes thy terrible Ares.
How mournfully looks Phoebus Apollo,
The youthful! Dumb is his lyre
That gladdened the gods at Olympian feasts.
Yet mournfuller looks Hephaistos,
And truly the Limper shall never more
Play the Hebe in heaven,
And serve with zeal to the gods assembled
The genial nectar.—And long is extinguished
The gods' inextinguishable laughter.
Ye gods of Greece, I have never loved you!
For Greeks I hold in distinct aversion,
And even Romans I frankly hate;
Yet sacred compassion and shuddering pity
O'erflow my heart,
When thus I see you there above me,
Ye gods long forsaken,
Dead, night-wandering phantoms,
Weak as clouds that the wind scares by!
And when I bethink me what quaking wind-bags
Are these new gods who have overcome you,
These new sad gods who are now the fashion,
The malice cloaked in the sheepskin of meekness—
Oh, my heart swells with gloomiest rage,
And I would batter the modern temples,
And battle for you, ye gods of Hellas,
For you and your genial ambrosial right,
And before your altars majestic,
Rebuilded once more, and a-smoke with sacrifice,
I myself would kneel to you, praying,
And lift to you arms beseeching—

For always, ye old gods of Hellas,
Have ye of old in the battle of mortals
Stood by the side of the conqueror stoutly;
But man is magnanimous rather than ye,
And I stand here now in the battle of gods
Firm on your side, ye old gods, though vanquished

Thus I spake, and above me visibly
Blushed those pallid and cloudy spectres,
And gazed at me even as the dying,
Transfigured by pain—and suddenly vanished.
The moon just then had hidden
Under the clouds, which drove on her darkly;
Loudly murmured the sea,
And bright paced forth, victorious in heaven,
The stars eternal.

VII

Questions

At night by the sea, the desolate sea,
Doth a young man stand,
His head full of doubt, his heart full of anguish,
And with livid lips he questions the billows:

'The Riddle of Life, oh, read me,
That world-old tormenting riddle,
O'er which have been addled heads without number,
Heads in strange hieroglyphic bonnets,
Heads in turbans, and barret-caps black,
Heads in perukes, and a thousand other
Plagued and perspiring heads of mortals—
Tell me now the meaning of man!
Whence comes he coming ? Where goes he gone ?
Who dwells up there in the golden starfields?'

The billows but murmur their murmur eternal,
Still blows the wind, the clouds still go sailing,
The stars go on twinkling, indifferent and cold,
And a fool waits for the answer.

VIII

The Phoenix

There comes a bird flown out of the west,
And eastward flies he,
To his home in an eastern garden,
Where groves of spice are breathing and growing,
And palm-trees whisper, and cool springs bubble—
And flying sings the bird of wonder:

'She loves him! she loves him!
In her little heart she enshrines his picture,
And keeps it sweetly, secretly hidden,
And knows not 'tis there!
But in her dreams he stands before her,
She weeps and implores, and his hand she kisses,
And his name she utters,
And uttering it wakens, and lies affrighted,
And rubs in her wonder her beautiful eyes—
She loves him! she loves him!'

At the foot of the mast I was leaning on deck,
Where as I stood I could hear the bird's song.
Like dusky green coursers with manes of bright silver,
Tossing their foam-crests, bounded the billows;
Like swans in flight sailed over the ocean,
With glimmering canvas, the Heligolanders,
The nomads bold of the North Sea!
Over me, in the eternal blue,
Hovered the white-winged clouds,
And sparkled the sun eternal,
The rose of the heavens, that blooms so fierily,
And laughed on the ocean that mirrored him;—
And heaven, and sea, and my own swelling heart
Resounded in echo:
'She loves him! she loves him!'

IX

Sea-sickness

The afternoon clouds droop downward,
Greyly they sag o'er the breast of the sea,
Which heaves to meet them in sullen gloom,
And the ship scuds fast between;

Sea-sick, ever I sit by the mainmast,
And there on myself make reflections full many,
Primeval ashen-grey reflections,
That Father Lot made long ago,
When pleasant things he 'd enjoyed too freely,
And found himself after in evil case.
I think, too, sometimes of other old stories:
How pilgrims marked with the cross in the old-time
Devoutly would kiss, in their stormy sea-faring,
The Blessed Virgin's comfortful picture;
How sea-sick knights, in as dire sea-trouble,
Each one the cherished glove of his lady
Would press to his lips, and straight gat comfort—
But here I 'm sitting and chewing morosely
An old red-herring, that salty consoler
When you 're sick as a cat, and down as a dog.

All the while the good ship fights
With the wild and buffeting tide;
Like a war-horse uprearing poises she now
On her shuddering stern, till the rudder creaks,
Then downward she plunges, heels over head,
Into the bellowing water-gulf;
Anon, as one reckless, faint with love,
Fain would she gently nestle
On the gloomy breast of the giant billow,
That, mightily roaring,
Comes tumbling aboard her, a sea-waterfall,
And drenches myself with foam.

Oh, this heaving, and swaying, and rocking
Is past all bearing!
In vain my eyes go peering to seek
The German coastline. Alas! but water!
For ever but water, unstable water!

As the winter traveller at evening will yearn
For a warm, heart-comforting cup of tea,
So yearns my heart even now for thee,
My German Fatherland!
Though evermore thy pleasant soil be encumbered
With madness, hussars, and wretched verses,
And pamphlets weak and small-beery;
Though evermore thy zebras
On roses go browsing instead of thistles;
Though for evermore thy noble monkeys
So lazily strut in superior splendour,
And think themselves better than all their brothers,
The vulgar herd of dull plodding cattle;
Though evermore thy worthy Snail-Council
May deem itself immortal,
It creeps along at such a snail-pace,
And day by day will vote on the question:
'Does the cheese to the tribe of the cheesemites belong ?'
And consumes long years in profound debate
On modes of improving Egyptian hoggets,
And making their fleeces grow longer,
That the shepherd may shear them just like the others,
No favour shown—
Though for ever injustice and folly
May flourish, Germany, o'er thee,
For thee my bowels are yearning now:
For thou art at least still good firm dry land.

X

In Haven

Happy the man who has come to his haven,
And left the sea with its tempests behind him,
And cosy now and quiet sits
In the pleasant town-cellar at Bremen.

How kindly looks the world, and how cheery
Reflected in this brimming rummer,
And how the billowing microcosmos
Sunnily fathoms the thirst of my heart!
All things I see in the glass,
Ancient and modern histories of nations,
Turks and Greeks, and Hegel and Gans,
Groves of lemons, and guards parading,
Berlin and Gotham, and Tunis, and Hamburg;
But fore all else my belov'd one's image,
That angel's head on its Rhine-wine gold-ground.

Oh, how fair! how fair art thou, Beloved!
Fair as a rose thou seemest!
Not like the Rose of Shiraz,
The Bride of the Nightingale, Hafiz-besung;
Not like the Rose of Sharon,
Whose holy crimson the Prophets have glorified;—
Thy peer is ' The Rose' in the Cellar of Bremen I
That is the Rose of Roses.
The older she grows the lovelier she blushes,
And her heavenly breath has made me thrice blessed,
Her breath has inspired me, and made me so drunk,
That gripped he not fast the hair of my head,
Mine host of the Cellar of Bremen,
I'd turn topsy-turvy!

The honest man! We sat there together,
And drank like two brothers,
Discoursing on high mysterious matters,
We-sighed and sank on each other's bosoms, '.:
And his convert am I to the True Faith,—Charity—
I drank to the health of my bitterest foes, And all bad poets forgave as freely
As I myself would fain be forgiven.
I wept most devoutly, whereafter
The Gates of Salvation opened to me,
Where the 'Twelve Apostles,' the holy big wine-casks,
Preach in silence, yet well comprehended
Of all the nations I

These are heroes!
Uncomely outside in their wooden jackets,
They are within more bright and beautiful
Than all the haughty Priests of the Temple,
And all King Herod's guardsmen and sycophants,
Beprankt with gold, and in purple raiment—
Well, I have always declared
That not among quite common people,
Nay, but the best society going,
Lived for ever the King of Heaven(

Hallelujah! how pleasantly breathe on me
The palm-trees of Beth-El!
How sweetly the myrrh breathes from Hebron I
How rushes Jordan and reels in his gladness'.—
And I reel with him now, and reeling
Lugs me from stair unto stair to daylight
Mine excellent host of the Cellar of Bremen.

Mine excellent host of the Cellar of Bremen!
Behold, on the roofs of the houses sitting,
The angels, gloriously drunk, and singing;
Yon sun, all aglow up above them,
Is only the jolly red nose of a toper,
The World-Spirit's nose 'tis;
And round the World-Spirit's big red nose there
Circles, reeling, the drunken world.

XI

Epilogue

As in the cornfields the golden wheat-ears,
So wax and so wave in the spirit of man
Thoughts in thousands.
Ay, but ever the love-thoughts tender
Spring between them like happy corn-flowers,
Blue and scarlet flowers.

Blue and scarlet flowers!
The churl of a reaper rejects you as useless,
Clowns in dull scorn but thresh you to pieces,
And even the neediest vagrant,
Whom the sight of you comforts and cheers,
Shakes his wise pate,
And pretty weeds will call you.
But the fair maid of the village,
Her garland weaving,
Respects you and plucks you,
To twine with you her beauteous tresses;
And decked with you thus, she hastes to the dance-floor,
Where fiddles and flutes are merrily sounding,
Or to the silent beech-tree,
Where the voice of her lover sounds sweeter by far
Than flutes do or fiddles.

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Comments (1)

Homeric in scope, it would be good to listen to Heinrich read and emotively explain this poem.