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Short poem

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)

A Swimmer's Dream

NOVEMBER 4, 1889

Somno mollior unda

              1Dawn is dim on the dark soft water,
              2    Soft and passionate, dark and sweet.
              3Love's own self was the deep sea's daughter,
              4    Fair and flawless from face to feet,
              5Hailed of all when the world was golden,
              6Loved of lovers whose names beholden
              7Thrill men's eyes as with light of olden
              8    Days more glad than their flight was fleet.

              9So they sang: but for men that love her,
            10    Souls that hear not her word in vain,
            11Earth beside her and heaven above her
            12    Seem but shadows that wax and wane.
            13Softer than sleep's are the sea's caresses,
            14Kinder than love's that betrays and blesses,
            15Blither than spring's when her flowerful tresses
            16    Shake forth sunlight and shine with rain.

            17All the strength of the waves that perish
            18    Swells beneath me and laughs and sighs,
            19Sighs for love of the life they cherish,
            20    Laughs to know that it lives and dies,
            21Dies for joy of its life, and lives
            22Thrilled with joy that its brief death gives --
            23Death whose laugh or whose breath forgives
            24    Change that bids it subside and rise.

            25Hard and heavy, remote but nearing,
            26    Sunless hangs the severe sky's weight,
            27Cloud on cloud, though the wind be veering
            28    Heaped on high to the sundawn's gate.
            29Dawn and even and noon are one,
            30Veiled with vapour and void of sun;
            31Nought in sight or in fancied hearing
            32    Now less mighty than time or fate.

            33The grey sky gleams and the grey seas glimmer,
            34    Pale and sweet as a dream's delight,
            35As a dream's where darkness and light seem dimmer,
            36    Touched by dawn or subdued by night.
            37The dark wind, stern and sublime and sad,
            38Swings the rollers to westward, clad
            39With lustrous shadow that lures the swimmer,
            40    Lures and lulls him with dreams of light.

            41Light, and sleep, and delight, and wonder,
            42    Change, and rest, and a charm of cloud,
            43Fill the world of the skies whereunder
            44    Heaves and quivers and pants aloud
            45All the world of the waters, hoary
            46Now, but clothed with its own live glory,
            47That mates the lightning and mocks the thunder
            48    With light more living and word more proud.

            49Far off westward, whither sets the sounding strife,
            50    Strife more sweet than peace, of shoreless waves whose glee
            51    Scorns the shore and loves the wind that leaves them free,
            52Strange as sleep and pale as death and fair as life,
            53    Shifts the moonlight-coloured sunshine on the sea.

            54Toward the sunset's goal the sunless waters crowd,
            55    Fast as autumn days toward winter: yet it seems
            56    Here that autumn wanes not, here that woods and streams
            57Lose not heart and change not likeness, chilled and bowed,
            58    Warped and wrinkled: here the days are fair as dreams.

            59O russet-robed November,
            60    What ails thee so to smile?
            61Chill August, pale September,
            62    Endured a woful while,
            63And fell as falls an ember
            64    From forth a flameless pile:
            65But golden-girt November
            66    Bids all she looks on smile.

            67The lustrous foliage, waning
            68    As wanes the morning moon,
            69Here falling, here refraining,
            70    Outbraves the pride of June
            71With statelier semblance, feigning
            72    No fear lest death be soon:
            73As though the woods thus waning
            74    Should wax to meet the moon.

            75As though, when fields lie stricken
            76    By grey December's breath,
            77These lordlier growths that sicken
            78    And die for fear of death
            79Should feel the sense requicken
            80    That hears what springtide saith
            81And thrills for love, spring-stricken
            82    And pierced with April's breath.

            83The keen white-winged north-easter
            84    That stings and spurs thy sea
            85Doth yet but feed and feast her
            86    With glowing sense of glee:
            87Calm chained her, storm released her,
            88    And storm's glad voice was he:
            89South-wester or north-easter,
            90    Thy winds rejoice the sea.

            91A dream, a dream is it all -- the season,
            92    The sky, the water, the wind, the shore?
            93A day-born dream of divine unreason,
            94    A marvel moulded of sleep -- no more?
            95For the cloudlike wave that my limbs while cleaving
            96Feel as in slumber beneath them heaving
            97Soothes the sense as to slumber, leaving
            98    Sense of nought that was known of yore.

            99A purer passion, a lordlier leisure,
          100    A peace more happy than lives on land,
          101Fulfils with pulse of diviner pleasure
          102    The dreaming head and the steering hand.
          103I lean my cheek to the cold grey pillow,
          104The deep soft swell of the full broad billow,
          105And close mine eyes for delight past measure,
          106    And wish the wheel of the world would stand.

          107The wild-winged hour that we fain would capture
          108    Falls as from heaven that its light feet clomb,
          109So brief, so soft, and so full the rapture
          110    Was felt that soothed me with sense of home.
          111To sleep, to swim, and to dream, for ever --
          112Such joy the vision of man saw never;
          113For here too soon will a dark day sever
          114    The sea-bird's wing from the sea-wave's foam.

          115A dream, and more than a dream, and dimmer
          116    At once and brighter than dreams that flee,
          117The moment's joy of the seaward swimmer
          118    Abides, remembered as truth may be.
          119Not all the joy and not all the glory
          120Must fade as leaves when the woods wax hoary;
          121For there the downs and the sea-banks glimmer,
          122    And here to south of them swells the sea.


1] In a letter to Edwin Harrison on February 5, 1890, Swinburne said: "... the poem was really begun in my head a little way off shore, out of pure delight in the sense of the sea" (The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise [London: William Heinemann, 1926]: V, 282).

3] the deep sea's daughter: Venus.

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, 997-1001.
First publication date: January 1890
Publication date note: The New Review (January 1890): 1-5; then Astrophel and Other Poems (London: Chatto and Windus, 1894): 61-68.
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO (1999).
Recent editing: 2:2002/5/2

Rhyme: ababcccb

Other poems by Algernon Charles Swinburne