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Short poem

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

Burning Drift-Wood

              1Before my drift-wood fire I sit,
              2  And see, with every waif I burn,
              3Old dreams and fancies coloring it,
              4  And folly's unlaid ghosts return.

              5O ships of mine, whose swift keels cleft
              6  The enchanted sea on which they sailed,
              7Are these poor fragments only left
              8  Of vain desires and hopes that failed?

              9Did I not watch from them the light
            10  Of sunset on my towers in Spain,
            11And see, far off, uploom in sight
            12  The Fortunate Isles I might not gain?

            13Did sudden lift of fog reveal
            14  Arcadia's vales of song and spring,
            15And did I pass, with grazing keel,
            16  The rocks whereon the sirens sing?

            17Have I not drifted hard upon
            18  The unmapped regions lost to man,
            19The cloud-pitched tents of Prester John,
            20  The palace domes of Kubla Khan?

            21Did land winds blow from jasmine flowers,
            22  Where Youth the ageless Fountain fills?
            23Did Love make sign from rose blown bowers,
            24  And gold from Eldorado's hills?

            25Alas! the gallant ships, that sailed
            26  On blind Adventure's errand sent,
            27Howe'er they laid their courses, failed
            28  To reach the haven of Content.

            29And of my ventures, those alone
            30  Which Love had freighted, safely sped,
            31Seeking a good beyond my own,
            32  By clear-eyed Duty piloted.

            33O mariners, hoping still to meet
            34  The luck Arabian voyagers met,
            35And find in Bagdad's moonlit street,
            36  Haroun al Raschid walking yet,

            37Take with you, on your Sea of Dreams,
            38  The fair, fond fancies dear to youth.
            39I turn from all that only seems,
            40  And seek the sober grounds of truth.

            41What matter that it is not May,
            42  That birds have flown, and trees are bare,
            43That darker grows the shortening day,
            44  And colder blows the wintry air!

            45The wrecks of passion and desire,
            46  The castles I no more rebuild,
            47May fitly feed my drift-wood fire,
            48  And warm the hands that age has chilled.

            49Whatever perished with my ships,
            50  I only know the best remains;
            51A song of praise is on my lips
            52  For losses which are now my gains.

            53Heap high my hearth! No worth is lost;
            54  No wisdom with the folly dies.
            55Burn on, poor shreds, your holocaust
            56  Shall be my evening sacrifice!

            57Far more than all I dared to dream,
            58  Unsought before my door I see;
            59On wings of fire and steeds of steam
            60  The world's great wonders come to me,

            61And holier signs, unmarked before,
            62  Of Love to seek and Power to save, --
            63The righting of the wronged and poor,
            64  The man evolving from the slave;

            65And life, no longer chance or fate,
            66  Safe in the gracious Fatherhood.
            67I fold o'er-wearied hands and wait,
            68  In full assurance of the good.

            69And well the waiting time must be,
            70  Though brief or long its granted days,
            71If Faith and Hope and Charity
            72  Sit by my evening hearth-fire's blaze.

            73And with them, friends whom Heaven has spared,
            74  Whose love my heart has comforted,
            75And, sharing all my joys, has shared
            76  My tender memories of the dead, --

            77Dear souls who left us lonely here,
            78  Bound on their last, long voyage, to whom
            79We, day by day, are drawing near,
            80  Where every bark has sailing room.

            81I know the solemn monotone
            82  Of waters calling unto me;
            83I know from whence the airs have blown
            84  That whisper of the Eternal Sea.

            85As low my fires of drift-wood burn,
            86  I hear that sea's deep sounds increase,
            87And, fair in sunset light, discern
            88  Its mirage-lifted Isles of Peace.


2] waif: wood washed up by the sea.

12] Fortunate Isles: the home of the blessed after their death, supposed by the Greeks and Romans to be in the Atlantic, about the Canary Islands.

14] Arcadia: region of classical Greece associated with pastoral poetry and rural delight.

19] Prester John: "priest" John, a legendary far eastern Christian king.

20] Kubla Khan: the potentate whom Samuel T. Coleridge, in the poem of the same name, describes as having built a "stately pleasure dome" in Xanadu.

24] Eldorado: a country of great wealth, supposed by Renaissance explorers to be found in the southern Americas.

36] Haroun al Raschid: caliph of Bagdad (763-809), whose empire stretched from Africa to India and who appears frequently in the Arabian Nights, tales written in Arabic and first translated into English by Edward William Lane as The Thousand and One Nights, 3 vols. (London: Charles Knight, 1839-41; McLean 0 15 Massey College Library).

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: The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, Cambridge edition, ed. H. E. S. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1894): 471-72. PS 3250 E94 1894 Robarts Library.
First publication date: 1890
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1998.
Recent editing: 2:2002/2/20

Rhyme: abab

Other poems by John Greenleaf Whittier