The Building of the Ship

The Building of the Ship

Original Text
The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Bibliographical and Critical Notes, Riverside Edition (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1890), I, 215-57. PS 2250 E90 Robarts Library.
2Stanch and strong, a goodly vessel,
3That shall laugh at all disaster,
4And with wave and whirlwind wrestle!"
5The merchant's word
6Delighted the Master heard;
7For his heart was in his work, and the heart
8Giveth grace unto every Art.
9A quiet smile played round his lips,
10As the eddies and dimples of the tide
11Play round the bows of ships,
12That steadily at anchor ride.
13And with a voice that was full of glee,
14He answered, "Erelong we will launch
15A vessel as goodly, and strong, and stanch,
16As ever weathered a wintry sea!"
17And first with nicest skill and art,
18Perfect and finished in every part,
19A little model the Master wrought,
20Which should be to the larger plan
21What the child is to the man,
22Its counterpart in miniature;
23That with a hand more swift and sure
24The greater labor might be brought
25To answer to his inward thought.
26And as he labored, his mind ran o'er
27The various ships that were built of yore,
28And above them all, and strangest of all
30Whose picture was hanging on the wall,
31With bows and stern raised high in air,
32And balconies hanging here and there,
33And signal lanterns and flags afloat,
34And eight round towers, like those that frown
35From some old castle, looking down
36Upon the drawbridge and the moat.
37And he said with a smile, "Our ship, I wis,
38Shall be of another form than this!"
39It was of another form, indeed;
40Built for freight, and yet for speed,
41A beautiful and gallant craft;
42Broad in the beam, that the stress of the blast,
43Pressing down upon sail and mast,
44Might not the sharp bows overwhelm;
45Broad in the beam, but sloping aft
46With graceful curve and slow degrees,
47That she might be docile to the helm,
48And that the currents of parted seas,
49Closing behind, with mighty force,
50Might aid and not impede her course.
51In the ship-yard stood the Master,
52With the model of the vessel,
53That should laugh at all disaster,
54And with wave and whirlwind wrestle!
56Lay the timber piled around;
57Timber of chestnut, and elm, and oak,
58And scattered here and there, with these,
59The knarred and crooked cedar knees;
60Brought from regions far away,
62And the banks of the roaring Roanoke!
63Ah! what a wondrous thing it is
64To note how many wheels of toil
65One thought, one word, can set in motion!
66There 's not a ship that sails the ocean,
67But every climate, every soil,
68Must bring its tribute, great or small,
69And help to build the wooden wall!
70The sun was rising o'er the sea,
71And long the level shadows lay,
72As if they, too, the beams would be
73Of some great, airy argosy,
74Framed and launched in a single day.
75That silent architect, the sun,
76Had hewn and laid them every one,
77Ere the work of man was yet begun.
78Beside the Master, when he spoke,
79A youth, against an anchor leaning,
80Listened, to catch his slightest meaning.
81Only the long waves, as they broke
82In ripples on the pebbly beach,
83Interrupted the old man's speech.
84Beautiful they were, in sooth,
85The old man and the fiery youth!
86The old man, in whose busy brain
87Many a ship that sailed the main
88Was modelled o'er and o'er again; --
89The fiery youth, who was to be
90The heir of his dexterity,
91The heir of his house, and his daughter's hand,
92When he had built and launched from land
93What the elder head had planned.
94"Thus," said he, "will we build this ship!
95Lay square the blocks upon the slip,
96And follow well this plan of mine.
97Choose the timbers with greatest care;
98Of all that is unsound beware;
99For only what is sound and strong
100To this vessel shall belong.
101Cedar of Maine and Georgia pine
102Here together shall combine.
103A goodly frame, and a goodly fame,
104And the Union be her name!
105For the day that gives her to the sea
106Shall give my daughter unto thee!"
107The Master's word
108Enraptured the young man heard;
109And as he turned his face aside,
110With a look of joy and a thrill of pride
111Standing before
112Her father's door,
113He saw the form of his promised bride.
114The sun shone on her golden hair,
115And her cheek was glowing fresh and fair,
116With the breath of morn and the soft sea air.
117Like a beauteous barge was she,
118Still at rest on the sandy beach,
119Just beyond the billow's reach;
120But he
121Was the restless, seething, stormy sea!
122Ah, how skilful grows the hand
123That obeyeth Love's command!
124It is the heart, and not the brain,
125That to the highest doth attain,
126And he who followeth Love's behest
127Far excelleth all the rest!
128Thus with the rising of the sun
129Was the noble task begun,
130And soon throughout the ship-yard's bounds
131Were heard the intermingled sounds
132Of axes and of mallets, plied
133With vigorous arms on every side;
134Plied so deftly and so well,
135That, ere the shadows of evening fell,
136The keel of oak for a noble ship,
138Was lying ready, and stretched along
139The blocks, well placed upon the slip.
140Happy, thrice happy, every one
141Who sees his labor well begun,
142And not perplexed and multiplied,
143By idly waiting for time and tide!
144And when the hot, long day was o'er,
145The young man at the Master's door
146Sat with the maiden calm and still,
147And within the porch, a little more
148Removed beyond the evening chill,
149The father sat, and told them tales
150Of wrecks in the great September gales,
151Of pirates coasting the Spanish Main,
152And ships that never came back again,
153The chance and change of a sailor's life,
154Want and plenty, rest and strife,
155His roving fancy, like the wind,
156That nothing can stay and nothing can bind,
157And the magic charm of foreign lands,
158With shadows of palms, and shining sands,
159Where the tumbling surf,
161Washes the feet of the swarthy Lascar,
162As he lies alone and asleep on the turf.
163And the trembling maiden held her breath
164At the tales of that awful, pitiless sea,
165With all its terror and mystery,
166The dim, dark sea, so like unto Death,
167That divides and yet unites mankind!
168And whenever the old man paused, a gleam
169From the bowl of his pipe would awhile illume
170The silent group in the twilight gloom,
171And thoughtful faces, as in a dream;
172And for a moment one might mark
173What had been hidden by the dark,
174That the head of the maiden lay at rest,
175Tenderly, on the young man's breast!
176Day by day the vessel grew,
177With timbers fashioned strong and true,
179Till, framed with perfect symmetry,
180A skeleton ship rose up to view!
181And around the bows and along the side
182The heavy hammers and mallets plied,
183Till after many a week, at length,
184Wonderful for form and strength,
185Sublime in its enormous bulk,
186Loomed aloft the shadowy hulk!
187And around it columns of smoke, upwreathing,
188Rose from the boiling, bubbling, seething
189Caldron, that glowed,
190And overflowed
191With the black tar, heated for the sheathing.
192And amid the clamors
193Of clattering hammers,
194He who listened heard now and then
195The song of the Master and his men: --
196"Build me straight, O worthy Master,
197    Staunch and strong, a goodly vessel,
198That shall laugh at all disaster,
199    And with wave and whirlwind wrestle!"
200With oaken brace and copper band,
201Lay the rudder on the sand,
202That, like a thought, should have control
203Over the movement of the whole;
204And near it the anchor, whose giant hand
205Would reach down and grapple with the land,
206And immovable and fast
207Hold the great ship against the bellowing blast!
208And at the bows an image stood,
209By a cunning artist carved in wood,
210With robes of white, that far behind
211Seemed to be fluttering in the wind.
212It was not shaped in a classic mould,
213Not like a Nymph or Goddess of old,
215But modelled from the Master's daughter!
216On many a dreary and misty night,
217'T will be seen by the rays of the signal light,
218Speeding along through the rain and the dark,
220The pilot of some phantom bark,
221Guiding the vessel, in its flight,
222By a path none other knows aright!
223Behold, at last,
224Each tall and tapering mast
225Is swung into its place;
226Shrouds and stays
227Holding it firm and fast!
228Long ago,
229In the deer-haunted forests of Maine,
230When upon mountain and plain
231Lay the snow,
232They fell, -- those lordly pines!
233Those grand, majestic pines!
234'Mid shouts and cheers
235The jaded steers,
236Panting beneath the goad,
237Dragged down the weary, winding road
238Those captive kings so straight and tall,
239To be shorn of their streaming hair,
240And naked and bare,
241To feel the stress and the strain
242Of the wind and the reeling main,
243Whose roar
244Would remind them forevermore
245Of their native forests they should not see again.
246And everywhere
247The slender, graceful spars
248Poise aloft in the air,
249And at the mast-head,
250White, blue, and red,
251A flag unrolls the stripes and stars.
253In foreign harbors shall behold
254That flag unrolled,
255'T will be as a friendly hand
256Stretched out from his native land,
257Filling his heart with memories sweet and endless!
258All is finished! and at length
259Has come the bridal day
260Of beauty and of strength.
261To-day the vessel shall be launched!
262With fleecy clouds the sky is blanched,
263And o'er the bay,
265The great sun rises to behold the sight.
266The ocean old,
267Centuries old,
268Strong as youth, and as uncontrolled,
269Paces restless to and fro,
270Up and down the sands of gold.
271His beating heart is not at rest;
272And far and wide,
273With ceaseless flow,
274His beard of snow
275Heaves with the heaving of his breast.
276He waits impatient for his bride.
277There she stands,
278With her foot upon the sands,
279Decked with flags and streamers gay,
280In honor of her marriage day,
281Her snow-white signals fluttering, blending,
282Round her like a veil descending,
283Ready to be
284The bride of the gray old sea.
285On the deck another bride
286Is standing by her lover's side.
287Shadows from the flags and shrouds,
288Like the shadows cast by clouds,
289Broken by many a sunny fleck,
290Fall around them on the deck.
291The prayer is said,
292The service read,
293The joyous bridegroom bows his head;
294And in tears the good old Master
295Shakes the brown hand of his son,
296Kisses his daughter's glowing cheek
297In silence, for he cannot speak,
298And ever faster
299Down his own the tears begin to run.
300The worthy pastor --
301The shepherd of that wandering flock,
302That has the ocean for its wold,
303That has the vessel for its fold,
304Leaping ever from rock to rock --
305Spake, with accents mild and clear,
306Words of warning, words of cheer,
307But tedious to the bridegroom's ear.
308He knew the chart
309Of the sailor's heart,
310All its pleasures and its griefs,
311All its shallows and rocky reefs,
312All those secret currents, that flow
313With such resistless undertow,
314And lift and drift, with terrible force,
315The will from its moorings and its course.
316Therefore he spake, and thus said he: --
317"Like unto ships far off at sea,
318Outward or homeward bound, are we.
319Before, behind, and all around,
320Floats and swings the horizon's bound,
321Seems at its distant rim to rise
322And climb the crystal wall of the skies,
323And then again to turn and sink,
324As if we could slide from its outer brink.
325Ah! it is not the sea,
326It is not the sea that sinks and shelves,
327But ourselves
328That rock and rise
329With endless and uneasy motion,
330Now touching the very skies,
331Now sinking into the depths of ocean.
332Ah! if our souls but poise and swing
333Like the compass in its brazen ring,
334Ever level and ever true
335To the toil and the task we have to do,
336We shall sail securely, and safely reach
338The sights we see, and the sounds we hear,
339Will be those of joy and not of fear!"
340Then the Master,
341With a gesture of command,
342Waved his hand;
343And at the word,
344Loud and sudden there was heard,
345All around them and below,
346The sound of hammers, blow on blow,
348And see! she stirs!
349She starts, -- she moves, -- she seems to feel
350The thrill of life along her keel,
351And, spurning with her foot the ground,
352With one exulting, joyous bound,
353She leaps into the ocean's arms!
354And lo! from the assembled crowd
355There rose a shout, prolonged and loud,
356That to the ocean seemed to say,
357"Take her, O bridegroom, old and gray,
358Take her to thy protecting arms,
359With all her youth and all her charms!"
360How beautiful she is! How fair
361She lies within those arms, that press
362Her form with many a soft caress
363Of tenderness and watchful care!
364Sail forth into the sea, O ship!
365Through wind and wave, right onward steer!
366The moistened eye, the trembling lip,
367Are not the signs of doubt or fear.
368Sail forth into the sea of life,
369O gentle, loving, trusting wife,
370And safe from all adversity
371Upon the bosom of that sea
372Thy comings and thy goings be!
373For gentleness and love and trust
374Prevail o'er angry wave and gust;
375And in the wreck of noble lives
376Something immortal still survives!
377Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
378Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
379Humanity with all its fears,
380With all the hopes of future years,
381Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
382We know what Master laid thy keel,
383What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
384Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
385What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
386In what a forge and what a heat
387Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
388Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
389'T is of the wave and not the rock;
390'T is but the flapping of the sail,
391And not a rent made by the gale!
392In spite of rock and tempest's roar,
393In spite of false lights on the shore,
394Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
395Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee,
396Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
397Our faith triumphant o'er our fears,
398Are all with thee, -- are all with thee!


1] Longfellow began the poem "June 18, 1849. Work upon it, however, was interrupted by the illness and death of his father, which took him to Portland and detained him there, but not unlikely his stay in the city by the sea gave him opportunity for brooding over the poem. It may be added that besides his early association with the seaboard, his summers were now spent at Nahant. `I prefer the sea-side to the country,' he once said; 'the idea of liberty is stronger there.' At any rate, in September he was again engaged upon the poem, and on the 20th notes: 'The Building of the Ship goes on. It will be rather long. Will it be good?' On the 22d he finished the poem, and in the latter part of November The Seaside and the Fireside was published, with The Building of the Ship as the leading piece.

The form of the poem was clearly suggested by Schiller's Song of the Bell, which has more than once served as a model to poets. Schiller may be said to have introduced a new artistic form, and Mr. Longfellow, in adopting the general scheme, showed his apprehension of its capacity by the skill with which he moved from one passage to another, using the short lines to express the quicker, more sudden, or hurried action, the longer to indicate lingering, moderate action or reflection. The oratorial character of the poem, so to speak, has always caught the ear, and it is interesting to read in the poet's diary shortly after the publication of the book, this entry:--

February 12, 1850. In the evening Mrs. [Fanny] Kemble read before the Mercantile Library Association, to an audience of more than three thousand, portions of As You Like It; then The Building of the Ship, standing out upon the platform, book in hand, trembling, palpitating and weeping, and giving every word its true weight and emphasis. She prefaced the recital by a few words, to this effect; that when she first saw the poem, she desired to read it before a Boston audience; and she hoped she would be able to make every word audible to that great multitude.
By this graceful action Mrs. Kemble may well have thrown into concrete form the lines with which Mr. Longfellow closed the sonnet commemorating her readings,
O happy Poet! ...
How must thy listening spirit now rejoice
To be interpreted by such a voice.
But it is to be suspected that the vast multitude was stirred to its depths not so much by the artistic completeness of the rendition, as by the impassioned burst with which the poem closes, and which fell upon no listless ears in the deep agitation of the eventful year 1850. Mr. Noah Brooks in his paper on Lincoln's Imagination (Scribner's Monthly, August, 1879) mentions that he found the President one day attracted by these stanzas, quoted in a political speech. `Knowing the whole poem,' he adds, `as one of my early exercises in recitation, I began, at his request, with the description of the launch of the ship, and repeated it to the end. As he listened to the last lines, his eyes filled with tears, and his cheeks were wet. He did not speak for some minutes, but finally said, with simplicity: "It is a wonderful gift to be able to stir men like that."'" (Editor,pp. 240-42.) Back to Line
29] Great Harry: a ship in 1488 named after Henry VII, who reunited the English nobility after the disastrous wars of the roses. Back to Line
55] rood: about 7-8 yards. Back to Line
61] Pascagoula's sunny bay: mouth of the Pascagoula river on the Mississippi gulf coast.
Roanoke: river flowing from south Virginia and North Carolina into Albemarle Sound. Back to Line
137] Scarfed: a carpentry joint made by notching or chamfering two pieces so that they fit together and can be bolted. Back to Line
160] Madagascar: island in the Indian ocean off southeast Africa.
Lascar: East Indian sailor. Back to Line
178] Stemson and keelson and sternson-knee: the stemson is a curved timber-piece near a ship's bow, attached to the keelson, a lengthy piece strengthening and running above and along the keel to the stern, where it (the keelson) ends in the sternson-knee, which attaches to the sternpost. Back to Line
214] Naiad: water-nymph. Back to Line
219] sark: suit, shroud. Back to Line
252] "I wish to anticipate a criticism on this passage, by stating that sometimes, though not usually, vessels are launched fully sparred and rigged. I have availed myself of the exception as better suited to my purposes than the general rule; but the reader will see that it is neither a blunder nor a poetic license. On this subject a friend in Portland, Maine, writes me thus:--
In this State, and also, I am told, in New York, ships are sometimes rigged upon the stocks, in order to save time, or to make a show. There was a fine, large ship launched last summer at Ellsworth, fully sparred and rigged. Some years ago a ship was launched here, with her rigging, spars, sails, and carg aboard. She sailed the next day and--was never heard of again! I hope this will not be the fate of your poem!"
(Longfellow, p. 329, from the first edition notes; p. 329 here.) Back to Line
264] dight: arrayed. Back to Line
337] The Fortunate Isles: mythical islands, supposed to be west sometimes of the pillars of Hercules in the Atlantic and sometimes identified as the Canary Islands, where the Greeks and Romans thought the blessed went to dwell after death. See Virgil's Aeneid. VI, 639. Back to Line
347] shores and spurs: props keeping the ship upright on the harbour ground. Back to Line
Publication Start Year
Publication Notes
The Seaside and the Fireside (Nov. 1849)
RPO poem Editors
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition
RPO 1998.