by Robert Laurence Binyon
What ails John Winter, that so oft
Silent he sits apart?
The neighbours cast their looks on him;
But deep he hides his heart.
In Deptford streets the houses small
Huddle forlorn together.
Whether the wind blow or be still,
'Tis soiled and sorry weather.
But over these dim roofs arise
Tall masts of ocean ships,
Whenever John Winter looked on them
The salt blew on his lips.
He cannot pace the street about,
But they stand before his eyes!
The more he shuns them, the more proud
And beautiful they rise.
He turns his head, but in his ear
The steady Trade--winds run,
And in his eye the endless waves
Ride on into the sun.
His little boy at evening said,
Now tell us, Dad, a tale
Of naked men that shoot with bows,
Tell of the spouting whale!
He told old tales, his eyes were bright,
His wife looked up to see
And smiled on him: but in the midst
He ended suddenly.
He bade them each good--night, and kissed
And held them to his breast.
They wondered and were still, to feel
Their lips so fondly pressed.
He sat absorbed in silent gloom.
His wife lifted her head
From sewing, and stole up to him.
What ails you, John? she said.
He spoke no word. A silent tear
Fell softly down her cheek.
She knelt beside him, and his hand
Was on her forehead meek.
But even as his tender touch
Her dumb distress consoled,
The mighty waves danced in his eyes
And through the silence rolled.
There fell a soft November night,
Restless with gusts that shook
The chimneys, and beat wildly down
The flames in the chimney nook.
John Winter lay beside his wife.
'Twas past the mid of night.
Softly he rose, and in dead hush
Stood stealthily upright.
Softly he came where slept his boys,
And kissed them in their bed.
One stretched his arms out in his sleep:
At that he turned his head.
And now he bent above his wife.
She slept a sleep serene.
Her patient soul was in the peace
Of breathing slumber seen.
At last he kissed one aching kiss,
Then shrank again in dread,
And from his own home guiltily
And like a thief he fled.
But now with darkness and the wind
He breathes a breath more free,
And walks with calmer step like one
Who goes with destiny.
And see, before him the great masts
Tower with all their spars
Black on the dimness, soaring bold
Among the mazy stars.
In stormy rushings through the air
Wild scents the darkness filled,
And with a fierce forgetfulness
His drinking nostril thrilled.
He hasted with quick feet, he hugged
The wildness to his breast,
As one who goes the only way
To set his heart at rest.
When morning glimmered, a great ship
Dropt gliding down the shore.
John Winter coiled the anchor ropes
Among his mates once more.
Last updated January 14, 2019