Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)
A Channel Crossing
1Forth from Calais, at dawn of night, when sunset summer on autumn shone,
2Fared the steamer alert and loud through seas whence only the sun was gone:
3Soft and sweet as the sky they smiled, and bade man welcome: a dim sweet hour
4Gleamed and whispered in wind and sea, and heaven was fair as a field in flower,
5Stars fulfilled the desire of the darkling world as with music: the star-bright air
6Made the face of the sea, if aught may make the face of the sea, more fair.
7Whence came change? Was the sweet night weary of rest? What anguish awoke in the dark?
8Sudden, sublime, the strong storm spake: we heard the thunders as hounds that bark.
9Lovelier if aught may be lovelier than stars, we saw the lightnings exalt the sky,
10Living and lustrous and rapturous as love that is born but to quicken and lighten and die.
11Heaven's own heart at its highest of delight found utterance in music and semblance in fire:
12Thunder on thunder exulted, rejoicing to live and to satiate the night's desire.
13And the night was alive and anhungered of life as a tiger from toils cast free:
14And a rapture of rage made joyous the spirit and strength of the soul of the sea.
15All the weight of the wind bore down on it, freighted with death for fraught:
16And the keen waves kindled and quickened as things transfigured or things distraught.
17And madness fell on them laughing and leaping; and madness came on the wind:
18And the might and the light and the darkness of storm were as storm in the heart of Ind.
19Such glory, such terror, such passion, as lighten and harrow the far fierce East,
20Rang, shone, spake, shuddered around us: the night was an altar with death for priest.
21The channel that sunders England from shores where never was man born free
22Was clothed with the likeness and thrilled with the strength and the wrath of a tropic sea.
23As a wild steed ramps in rebellion, and rears till it swerves from a backward fall,
24The strong ship struggled and reared, and her deck was upright as a sheer cliff's wall.
25Stern and prow plunged under, alternate: a glimpse, a recoil, a breath,
26And she sprang as the life in a god made man would spring at the throat of death.
27Three glad hours, and it seemed not an hour of supreme and supernal joy,
28Filled full with delight that revives in remembrance a sea-bird's heart in a boy.
29For the central crest of the night was cloud that thundered and flamed, sublime
30As the splendour and song of the soul everlasting that quickens the pulse of time.
31The glory beholden of man in a vision, the music of light overheard,
32The rapture and radiance of battle, the life that abides in the fire of a word,
33In the midmost heaven enkindled, was manifest far on the face of the sea,
34And the rage in the roar of the voice of the waters was heard but when heaven breathed free.
35Far eastward, clear of the covering of cloud, the sky laughed out into light
36From the rims of the storm to the sea's dark edge with flames that were flowerlike and white.
37The leaping and luminous blossoms of live sheet lightning that laugh as they fade
38From the cloud's black base to the black wave's brim rejoiced in the light they made.
39Far westward, throned in a silent sky, where life was in lustrous tune,
40Shone, sweeter and surer than morning or evening, the steadfast smile of the moon.
41The limitless heaven that enshrined them was lovelier than dreams may behold, and deep
42As life or as death, revealed and transfigured, may shine on the soul through sleep.
43All glories of toil and of triumph and passion and pride that it yearns to know
44Bore witness there to the soul of its likeness and kinship, above and below.
45The joys of the lightnings, the songs of the thunders, the strong sea's labour and rage,
46Were tokens and signs of the war that is life and is joy for the soul to wage.
47No thought strikes deeper or higher than the heights and the depths that the night made bare,
48Illimitable, infinite, awful and joyful, alive in the summit of air--
49Air stilled and thrilled by the tempest that thundered between its reign and the sea's,
50Rebellious, rapturous, and transient as faith or as terror that bows men's knees.
51No love sees loftier and fairer the form of its godlike vision in dreams
52Than the world shone then, when the sky and the sea were as love for a breath's length seems--
53One utterly, mingled and mastering and mastered and laughing with love that subsides
54As the glad mad night sank panting and satiate with storm, and released the tides.
55In the dense mid channel the steam-souled ship hung hovering, assailed and withheld
56As a soul born royal, if life or if death be against it, is thwarted and quelled.
57As the glories of myriads of glowworms in lustrous grass on a boundless lawn
58Were the glories of flames phosphoric that made of the water a light like dawn.
59A thousand Phosphors, a thousand Hespers, awoke in the churning sea,
60And the swift soft hiss of them living and dying was clear as a tune could be;
61As a tune that is played by the fingers of death on the keys of life or of sleep,
62Audible alway alive in the storm, too fleet for a dream to keep:
63Too fleet, too sweet for a dream to recover and thought to remember awake:
64Light subtler and swifter than lightning, that whispers and laughs in the live storm's wake,
65In the wild bright wake of the storm, in the dense loud heart of the labouring hour,
66A harvest of stars by the storm's hand reaped, each fair as a star-shaped flower.
67And sudden and soft as the passing of sleep is the passing of tempest seemed
68When the light and the sound of it sank, and the glory was gone as a dream half dreamed.
69The glory, the terror, the passion that made of the midnight a miracle, died,
70Not slain at a stroke, nor in gradual reluctance abated of power and of pride;
71With strong swift subsidence, awful as power that is wearied of power upon earth,
72As a God that were wearied of power upon heaven, and were fain of a new God's birth,
73The might of the night subsided: the tyranny kindled in darkness fell:
74And the sea and the sky put off them the rapture and radiance of heaven and of hell.
75The waters, heaving and hungering at heart, made way, and were wellnigh fain,
76For the ship that had fought them, and wrestled, and revelled in labour, to cease from her pain.
77And an end was made of it: only remembrance endures of the glad loud strife;
78And the sense that a rapture so royal may come not again in the passage of life.
1] Published in 1899. The stormy crossing it describes was made by Swinburne in 1855 on the way back from a trip to Germany.
15] fraught: cargo.
59] Hespers: evening stars (Venuses).
Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department
of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services,
University of Toronto Libraries.
Original text: Swinburne's Collected Poetical Works, 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1924): II, 1117-21. PR 5506 C45 1904 Robarts Library.
First publication date:
Publication date note: A Channel Crossing (William Heinemann, June 1899).
RPO poem editor: P. F. Morgan
RP edition: 3RP 3.403.
Recent editing: 2:2002/5/2
Other poems by Algernon Charles Swinburne