Verse > Anthologies > Harriet Monroe, ed. > Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 1912–22
Harriet Monroe, ed. (1860–1936).  Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  1912–22.
The Farewell
By Witter Bynner, trans.
From the French of Charles Vildrac

WHEN in a plunge of water the great ship
Had sunk to the sea’s depth,
Its blind body dragging after it
Halyards and dripping masts,
When toward the four quarters of the night        5
Its boats had all perished,
Each beyond sight of the others,
Each with a high wave
Covering its final cries,
When the furious water had wiped        10
From its surface all signs,
There was still in the sea
A man alive and swimming.
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
He knew that the land was far off
And that before he could feel, with a cry of joy,        15
Becoming real to the reach of his feet
The shore of the tide of wreckage,
There would have to be day after day,
Turn after turn, exhaustion and sleeping and eating.
He acknowledged his appointed end,        20
But he thought himself strong and he wished
To use calmly the moments of this strength,
To use for slow and holy profit
The last warmth of his body,
The last illumination of his mind.        25
He let himself be borne by the fury of the water,
Which heaved him high on the edge of its surge,
Then plunged him dizzily
To the foot of its deep and moving walls.
Huge waves came,        30
Charging him like rams,
Tossing his body
On their lowered horns.
Dykes burst before him,
Mountains shattered over him,        35
Hail beat across him,
Tigers played with his head.
The water enwound him,
Trying to dissolve him,
And for an eternity        40
The vast liquid tumult
Was at his very core.
Then for an instant about him
Calm came,
And the sea took respite,        45
And there was the seething of broken foam,
And his senses found the air again like another world.
So it went until dawn.
And to live longer he ceased swimming,
Rather with his limbs forcing        50
The water to uphold him.
So it was until dawn,
And then the cold sheathed him;
And only then fell
The blind hope from his body—        55
That proud thing which gives to men
The custom of their victories
And the subjection of the earth;
Only then closed in on him
The awful certainty.        60
There was at the heart of this man
A life unknown to himself,
A life simple and still full
Of child-like faith,
Which never would have believed        65
That for its most favored guest,
Its most loving son,
Nature can be at times
An iron stranger, deaf
And absolute and pitiless.        70
And suddenly into the heart of this man
Came the shock and the wound of exile.
The sea, its sound, its motion,
Its power, its volume,
Overwhelmed him with horror.        75
He hunted out of his head the noise of the water
And he closed his eyes to escape it far away….
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
He saw a town
Touched softly by the sun.
Fine new shoes        80
Went brightly creaking
Over the clean pavements.
Along the row of shops,
Behind the shutters,
All the clocks        85
Could be heard
Striking noon.
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
And then by the glimmer of a night-lamp,
He saw a closed room
Where a family lay asleep.        90
He heard the sound of their breathing,
The crossing and confusing of rhythms.
He leaned over the beds,
Heavy and humid with sleep.
In one lay two children together;        95
Their bodies were uncovered,
And huddled in a hollow
Like kittens.
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
He saw again a young girl
Watering flowers in a garden.        100
One of her hands caught up her dress,
The other was balancing as far as she could reach
The heavy watering-can,
To distribute a curving shower
Without wetting the tips of her shoes held tight together.        105
The little clustering leaves
Whispered content;
And even their wet fragrance came to him,
And the very sound on the path
Of footsteps crunching the pebbles.        110
He saw also streets cluttered with chairs,
Where one sits to drink and to watch the crowd.
And he saw soldiers gambling and wrestling
In the barracks-yard at dusk.
He saw deep lanes, he saw wheat-fields,        115
He saw also the straight roads
Where you say good-day to the people you pass.
And last he saw again the great realm
Where thoughts touch and exchange,
Where all is intimately blent from all the earth.        120
He saw again the land of lands
Where all prolongs itself in one embrace.
It was then he wished to utter words,
To give thanks for his whole heritage.
And he wished to speak them aloud,        125
In order that he might hear with his ears
Once more the genius of words,
The sound of a voice.
And so he spoke as if he were praying—
He pronounced, in the middle of the sea,        130
The words that serve for love
And for praise.
He sought them all out and repeated them,
As one dying of thirst sucks at the juice of a fruit.
And when there were no more of them in his head        135
He must sing
To satiate his farewell,
Sing without words….
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
He must sing:
It was the loveliest song—        140
Of the pang of love and sadness;
It was the most poignant song of man
That a man ever had sung.
And though it routed in his head
The tenacious voices of the sea,        145
Though it was more august in his head
Than great organs,
No one here heard it.
And no one here can be surprised
By suddenly recalling it,        150
By humming it to himself,
Believing it sprung from his memory;
It was dissolved in the wind
Like snow in a stream….
His teeth were chattering as he sang it        155
And water burned his eyes;
But it was not the water of the sea.

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