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The White Ship Henry I. Of England.—25th November 1120

Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828 (London) – 1882 (Birchington-on-Sea)

By none but me can the tale be told,
The butcher of Rouen, poor Berold.
(Lands are swayed by a King on a throne.)
'Twas a royal train put forth to sea,
Yet the tale can be told by none but me.
(The sea hath no King but God alone.)
King Henry held it as life's whole gain
That after his death his son should reign.
`Twas so in my youth I heard men say,
And my old age calls it back to-day.
King Henry of England's realm was he,
And Henry Duke of Normandy.
The times had changed when on either coast
“Clerkly Harry” was all his boast.
Of ruthless strokes full many an one
He had struck to crown himself and his son;
And his elder brother's eyes were gone.
And when to the chase his court would crowd,
The poor flung ploughshares on his road,
And shrieked: “Our cry is from King to God!”
But all the chiefs of the English land
Had knelt and kissed the Prince's hand.
And next with his son he sailed to France
To claim the Norman allegiance:
And every baron in Normandy
Had taken the oath of fealty.
'Twas sworn and sealed, and the day had come
When the King and the Prince might journey home:
For Christmas cheer is to home hearts dear,
And Christmas now was drawing near.
Stout Fitz-Stephen came to the King,—
A pilot famous in seafaring;
And he held to the King, in all men's sight,
A mark of gold for his tribute's right.
“Liege Lord! my father guided the ship
From whose boat your father's foot did slip
When he caught the English soil in his grip,
“And cried: ‘By this clasp I claim command
O'er every rood of English land!’
“He was borne to the realm you rule o'er now
In that ship with the archer carved at her prow:
“And thither I'll bear, an it be my due,
Your father's son and his grandson too.
“The famed White Ship is mine in the bay;
From Harfleur's harbour she sails to-day,
“With masts fair-pennoned as Norman spears
And with fifty well-tried mariners.”
Quoth the King: “My ships are chosen each one,
But I'll not say nay to Stephen's son.
“My son and daughter and fellowship
Shall cross the water in the White Ship.”
The King set sail with the eve's south wind,
And soon he left that coast behind.
The Prince and all his, a princely show,
Remained in the good White Ship to go.
With noble knights and with ladies fair,
With courtiers and sailors gathered there,
Three hundred living souls we were:
And I Berold was the meanest hind
In all that train to the Prince assign'd.
The Prince was a lawless shameless youth;
From his father's loins he sprang without ruth:
Eighteen years till then he had seen,
And the devil's dues in him were eighteen.
And now he cried: “Bring wine from below;
Let the sailors revel ere yet they row:
“Our speed shall o'ertake my father's flight
Though we sail from the harbour at midnight.”
The rowers made good cheer without check;
The lords and ladies obeyed his beck;
The night was light, and they danced on the deck.
But at midnight's stroke they cleared the bay,
And the White Ship furrowed the water-way.
The sails were set, and the oars kept tune
To the double flight of the ship and the moon:
Swifter and swifter the White Ship sped
Till she flew as the spirit flies from the dead:
As white as a lily glimmered she
Like a ship's fair ghost upon the sea.
And the Prince cried, “Friends, 'tis the hour to sing!
Is a songbird's course so swift on the wing?”
And under the winter stars' still throng,
From brown throats, white throats, merry and strong,
The knights and the ladies raised a song.
A song,—nay, a shriek that rent the sky,
That leaped o'er the deep!—the grievous cry
Of three hundred living that now must die.
An instant shriek that sprang to the shock
As the ship's keel felt the sunken rock.
'Tis said that afar—a shrill strange sigh—
The King's ships heard it and knew not why.
Pale Fitz-Stephen stood by the helm
'Mid all those folk that the waves must whelm.
A great King's heir for the waves to whelm,
And the helpless pilot pale at the helm!
The ship was eager and sucked athirst,
By the stealthy stab of the sharp reef pierc'd:
And like the moil round a sinking cup
The waters against her crowded up.
A moment the pilot's senses spin,—
The next he snatched the Prince 'mid the din,
Cut the boat loose, and the youth leaped in.
A few friends leaped with him, standing near.
“Row! the sea's smooth and the night is clear!”
“What! none to be saved but these and I?”
“Row, row as you'd live! All here must die!”
Out of the churn of the choking ship,
Which the gulf grapples and the waves strip,
The
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Submitted on May 13, 2011

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was an English poet, illustrator, painter and translator. more…

All Dante Gabriel Rossetti poems | Dante Gabriel Rossetti Books

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