Verse > Anthologies > > Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. > The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse
Arthur Quiller-Couch, comp.  The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.  1922.
Mother Carey’s Chicken
By Theodore Watts-Dunton (1832–1914)
I CANNOT brook thy gaze, belovèd bird;
  That sorrow is more than human in thine eye;
Too deeply, brother, is my spirit stirr’d
  To see thee here, beneath the landsmen’s sky,
Coop’d in a cage with food thou canst not eat,        5
Thy ‘snow-flake’ soil’d, and soil’d those conquering feet
That walk’d the billows, while thy ‘sweet-sweet-sweet’
        Proclaim’d the tempest nigh.
Bird whom I welcomed while the sailors cursed,
  Friend whom I bless’d wherever keels may roam,        10
Prince of my childish dreams, whom mermaids nursed
  In purple of billows—silver of ocean-foam,
Abash’d I stand before the mighty grief
That quells all other: Sorrow’s King and Chief,
Who rides the wind and holds the sea in fief,        15
        Then finds a cage for home!
From out thy jail thou seest yon heath and woods,
  But canst thou hear the birds or smell the flowers?
Ah, no! those rain-drops twinkling on the buds
  Bring only visions of the salt sea-showers.        20
‘The sea!’ the linnets pipe from hedge and heath;
‘The sea!’ the honeysuckles whisper and breathe,
And tumbling waves, where those wild-roses wreathe,
        Murmur from inland bowers.
These winds so soft to others—how they burn!        25
  The mavis sings with gurgle and ripple and plash,
To thee yon swallow seems a wheeling tern;
  And when the rain recalls the briny lash,
Old Ocean’s kiss we love—oh, when thy sight
Is mocked with Ocean’s horses—manes of white,        30
The long and shadowy flanks, the shoulders bright—
        Bright as the lightning’s flash—
When all these scents of heather and brier and whin,
  All kindly breaths of land-shrub, flower, and vine,
Recall the sea-scents, till thy feather’d skin        35
  Tingles in answer to a dream of brine—
When thou, remembering there thy royal birth,
Dost see between the bars a world of dearth,
Is there a grief—a grief on all the earth—
        So heavy and dark as thine?        40
But I can buy thy freedom—I (thank God!),
  Who loved thee more than albatross or gull—
Loved thee, and loved the waves thy footsteps trod—
  Dream’d of thee when, becalm’d, we lay a-hull—
’Tis I, thy friend, who once, a child of six,        45
To find where Mother Carey fed her chicks,
Climb’d up the boat and then with bramble sticks
        Tried all in vain to scull—
Thy friend who shared thy Paradise of Storm—
  The little dreamer of the cliffs and coves,        50
Who knew thy mother, saw her shadowy form
  Behind the cloudy bastions where she moves,
And heard her call: ‘Come! for the welkin thickens,
And tempests mutter and the lightning quickens!’
Then, starting from his dream, would find the chickens        55
        Were daws or blue rock-doves—
Thy friend who owned another Paradise,
  Of calmer air, a floating isle of fruit,
Where sang the Nereids on a breeze of spice,
  While Triton, from afar, would sound salute:        60
There wast thou winging, though the skies were calm;
For marvellous strains, as of the morning’s shalm,
Were struck by ripples round that isle of palm
        Whose shores were Ocean’s lute.
And now to see thee here, my king, my king,        65
  Far-glittering memories mirror’d in those eyes,
As if there shone within each iris-ring
  An orbèd world—ocean and hills and skies!—
Those black wings ruffled whose triumphant sweep
Conquer’d in sport!—yea, up the glimmering steep        70
Of highest billow, down the deepest deep,
        Sported with victories!—
  To see thee here!—a coil of wilted weeds
    Beneath those feet that danced on diamond spray,
  Rider of sportive Ocean’s reinless steeds—        75
    Winner in Mother Carey’s Sabbath-fray
  When, stung by magic of the Witch’s chant,
    They rise, each foamy-crested combatant—
They rise and fall and leap and foam and gallop and pant
    Till albatross, sea-swallow, and cormorant        80
        Must flee like doves away!
  And shalt thou ride no more where thou hast ridden,
    And feast no more in hyaline halls and caves,
  Master of Mother Carey’s secrets hidden,
    Master and monarch of the wind and waves,        85
  Who never, save in stress of angriest blast,
  Ask’d ship for shelter—never till at last
  The foam-flakes hurled against the sloping mast
        Slash’d thee like whirling glaives?
  Right home to fields no seamew ever kenn’d,        90
    Where scarce the great sea-wanderer fares with thee,
  I come to take thee—nay, ’tis I, thy friend!
    Ah, tremble not—I come to set thee free;
  I come to tear this cage from off this wall,
  And take thee hence to that fierce festival        95
  Where billows march and winds are musical,
        Hymning the Victor-Sea!
*        *        *        *        *
  Yea, lift thine eyes to mine. Dost know me now?
    Thou’rt free! thou’rt free! Ah, surely a bird can smile!
  Dost know me, Petrel? Dost remember how        100
    I fed thee in the wake for many a mile,
  Whilst thou wouldst pat the waves, then, rising, take
  The morsel up and wheel about the wake?
  Thou’rt free, thou’rt free, but for thine own dear sake
        I keep thee caged awhile.        105
  Away to sea! no matter where the coast:
    The road that turns for home turns never wrong;
  Where waves run high my bird will not be lost:
    His home I know: ’tis where the winds are strong—
  Where, on a throne of billows, rolling hoary        110
  And green and blue and splash’d with sunny glory,
  Far, far from shore—from farthest promontory—
Prophetic Nature bares the secret of the story
        That holds the spheres in song!

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