The River

Original Text: 
John Masefield, Poems (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1945): 393-405.
1All other waters have their time of peace.
2Calm, or the turn of tide or summer drought;
3But on these bars the tumults never cease,
4In violent death this river passes out.
5Brimming she goes, a bloody-coloured rush
6Hurrying her heaped disorder, rank on rank,
7Bubbleless speed so still that in the hush
8One hears the mined earth dropping from the bank,
9Slipping in little falls whose tingeings drown,
10Sunk by the waves for ever pressing on.
11Till with a stripping crash the tree goes down,
12Its washing branches flounder and are gone.
13Then, roaring out aloud, her water spreads,
14Making a desolation where her waves
15Shriek and give battle, tossing up their heads,
16Tearing the shifting sandbanks into graves,
17Changing the raddled ruin of her course
18So swiftly, that the pilgrim on the shore
19Hears the loud whirlpool laughing like a horse
20Where the scurfed sand was parched an hour before.
21And always underneath that heaving tide
22The changing bottom runs, or piles, or quakes
23Flinging immense heaps up to wallow wide,
24Sucking the surface into whirls like snakes,
25If anything should touch that shifting sand,
26All the blind bottom sucks it till it sinks;
27It takes the clipper ere she comes to land,
28It takes the thirsting tiger as he drinks.
29And on the river pours -- it never tires;
30Blind, hungry, screaming, day and night the same
31Purposeless hurry of a million ires,
32Mad as the wind, as merciless as flame.
     * * * * * * *
33There was a full-rigged ship, the Travancore,
34Towing to port against that river's rage -Żí
35A glittering ship made sparkling for the shore,
36Taut to the pins in all her equipage.
37Clanging, she topped the tide; her sails were furled,
38Her men came loitering downwards from the yards;
39They who had brought her half across the world,
40Trampling so many billows into shards,
41Now looking up, beheld their duty done,
42The ship approaching port, the great masts bare,
43Gaunt as three giants striding in the sun,
44Proud, with the colours tailing out like hair.
45So, having coiled their gear, they left the deck;
46Within the fo'c's'le's gloom of banded steel,
47Mottled like wood with many a painted speck,
48They brought their plates and sat about a meal.
49Then pushing back the tins, they lit their pipes,
50Or slept, or played at cards, or gently spoke,
51Light from the portholes shot in dusty stripes
52Tranquilly moving, sometimes blue with smoke.
53These sunbeams sidled when the vessel rolled,
54Their lazy dust-strips crossed the floor,
55Lighting a man-hole leading to the hold,
56A man-hole leaded down the day before.
57Like gold the solder on the man-hole shone;
58A few flies threading in a drowsy dance
59Slept in their pattern, darted, and were gone.
60The river roared against the ship's advance.
61And quietly sleep came upon the crew,
62Man by man drooped upon his arms and slept;
63Without, the tugboat dragged the vessel through,
64The rigging whined, the yelling water leapt,
65Till blindly a careering wave's collapse
66Rose from beneath her bows and spouted high,
67Spirting the fo'c'sle floor with noisy slaps;
68A sleeper at the table heaved a sigh,
69And lurched, half-drunk with sleep, across the floor,
70Muttering and blinking like a man insane,
71Cursed at the river's tumult, shut the door,
72Blinked, and lurched back and fell asleep again.
73Then there was greater silence in the room,
74Ship's creakings ran along the beams and died,
75The lazy sunbeams loitered up the gloom,
76Stretching and touching till they reached the side.
     * * * * * * *
77Yet something jerking in the vessel's course
78Told that the tug was getting her in hand
79As, at a fence, one steadies down a horse,
80To rush the whirlpool on Magellan Sand;
81And in the uneasy water just below
82Her Mate inquired "if the men should stir
83And come on deck?" Her Captain answered "No,
84Let them alone, the tug can manage her."
85Then, as she settled down and gathered speed,
86Her Mate inquired again "if they should come
87Just to be ready there in case of need,
88Since, on such godless bars, there might be some."
89But "No," the Captain said, "the men have been
90Boxing about since midnight, let them be.
91The pilot's able and the ship's a queen,
92The hands can rest until we come to quay."
93They ceased, they took their stations; right ahead
94The whirlpool heaped and sucked; in tenor tone
95The steady leadsman chanted at the lead,
96The ship crept forward trembling to the bone.
97And just above the worst a passing wave
98Brought to the line such unexpected stress
99That as she tossed her bows her towrope gave,
100Snapped at the collar like a stalk of cress.
101Then, for a ghastly moment, she was loose,
102Blind in the whirlpool, groping for a guide,
103Swinging adrift without a moment's truce,
104She struck the sand and fell upon her side.
105And instantly the sand beneath her gave
106So that she righted and again was flung,
107Grinding the quicksand open for a grave,
108Straining her masts until the steel was sprung.
109The foremast broke; its mighty bulk of steel
110Fell on the fo'c'sle door and jammed it tight;
111The sand-rush heaped her to an even keel,
112She settled down, resigned, she made no fight,
113But, like an overladen beast, she lay
114Dumb in the mud with billows at her lips,
115Broken, where she had fallen in the way,
116Grinding her grave among the bones of ships.
     * * * * * * *
117At the first crashing of the mast, the men
118Sprang from their sleep to hurry to the deck;
119They found that Fate had caught them in a pen,
120The door that opened out was jammed with wreck.
121Then, as, with shoulders down, their gathered strength
122Hove on the door, but could not make it stir,
123They felt the vessel tremble through her length;
124The tug, made fast again, was plucking her.
125Plucking, and causing motion, till it seemed
126That she would get her off; they heard her screw
127Mumble the bubbled rip-rap as she steamed;
128"Please God, the tug will shift her!" said the crew.
129"She's off!" the seamen said; they felt her glide,
130Scraping the bottom with her bilge, until
131Something collapsing clanged along her side;
132The scraping stopped, the tugboat's screw was still.
133"She's holed!" a voice without cried; "holed and jammed -Żí
134Holed on the old Magellan, sunk last June.
135I lose my ticket and the men are damned;
136They'll drown like rats unless we free them soon.
137"My God, they shall not!" and the speaker beat
138Blows with a crow upon the foremast's wreck;
139Minute steel splinters fell about his feet,
140No tremour stirred the ruin on the deck.
141And as their natures bade, the seamen learned
142That they were doomed within that buried door;
143Some cursed, some raved, but one among them turned
144Straight to the manhole leaded in the floor,
145And sitting down astride it, drew his knife,
146And staidly dug to pick away the lead,
147While at the ports his fellows cried for life:
148"Burst in the door, or we shall all be dead!"
149For like a brook the leak below them clucked.
150They felt the vessel settling; they could feel
151How the blind bog beneath her gripped and sucked.
152Their fingers beat their prison walls of steel.
153And then the gurgling stopped -- the ship was still.
154She stayed; she sank no deeper -- an arrest
155Fothered the pouring leak; she ceased to fill.
156She trod the mud, drowned only to the breast.
157And probing at the well, the captain found
158The leak no longer rising, so he cried:
159"She is not sinking -- you will not be drowned;
160The shifting sand has silted up her side.
161"Now there is time. The tug shall put ashore
162And fetch explosives to us from the town;
163I'll burst the house or blow away the door
164(It will not kill you if you all lie down).
165"Be easy in your minds, for you'll be free
166As soon as we've the blast." The seamen heard
167The tug go townwards, butting at the sea;
168Some lit their pipes, the youngest of them cheered.
169But still the digger bent above the lid,
170Gouging the solder from it as at first,
171Pecking the lead, intent on what he did;
172The other seamen mocked at him or cursed.
173And some among them nudged him as he picked.
174He cursed them, grinning, but resumed his game;
175His knife-point sometimes struck the lid and clicked.
176The solder-pellets shone like silver flame.
177And still his knife-blade clicked like ticking time
178Counting the hour till the tug's return,
179And still the ship stood steady on the slime,
180While Fate above her fingered with her urn.
     * * * * * * *
181Then from the tug beside them came the hail:
182"They have none at the stores, nor at the dock,
183Nor at the quarry, so I tried the gaol.
184They thought they had, but it was out of stock.
185"So then I telephoned to town; they say
186They've sent an engine with some to the pier;
187I did not leave till it was on its way,
188A tug is waiting there to bring it here:
189"It can't be here, though, for an hour or more;
190I've lost an hour in trying, as it is.
191For want of thought commend me to the shore.
192You'd think they'd know their river's ways by this."
193"So there is nothing for it but to wait,"
194The Captain answered, fuming. "Until then,
195We'd better go to dinner, Mr. Mate."
196The cook brought dinner forward to the men.
     * * * * * * *
197Another hour of prison loitered by;
198The strips of sunlight stiffened at the port,
199But still the digger made the pellets fly,
200Paying no heed to his companions' sport,
201While they, about him, spooning at their tins,
202Asked if he dug because he found it cold,
203Or whether it was penance for his sins,
204Or hope of treasure in the forward hold.
205He grinned and cursed, but did not cease to pick,
206His sweat dropped from him when he bent his head,
207His knife-blade quarried down, till with a click
208Its grinded thinness snapped against the lead.
209Then, dully rising, brushing back his sweat,
210He asked his fellows for another knife.
211"Never," they said; "man, what d'ye hope to get?"
212"Nothing," he said, "except a chance for life."
213"Havers," they said, and one among them growled,
214"You'll get no knife from any here to break.
215You've dug the manhole since the door was fouled,
216And now your knife's broke, quit, for Jesus' sake."
217But one, who smelt a bargain, changed his tone,
218Offering a sheath-knife for the task in hand
219At twenty times its value, as a loan
220To be repaid him when they reached the land.
221And there was jesting at the lender's greed
222And mockery at the digger's want of sense,
223Closing with such a bargain without need,
224Since in an hour the tug would take them thence.
225But "Right," the digger said. The deal was made
226He took the borrowed knife, and sitting down
227Gouged at the channelled solder with the blade,
228Saying, "Let be, it's better dig than drown."
229And nothing happened for a while; the heat
230Grew in the stuffy room, the sunlight slid,
231Flies buzzed about and jostled at the meat,
232The knife-blade clicked upon the manhole lid:
233And one man said, "She takes a hell of time
234Bringing the blaster," and another snorted;
235One, between pipe-puffs, hummed a smutty rhyme,
236One, who was weaving, thudded with his sword.
237It was as though the ship were in a dream,
238Caught in a magic ocean, calm like death,
239Tranced, till a presence should arise and gleam,
240Making the waters conscious with her breath
241It was so drowsy that the river's cries,
242Roaring aloud their ever-changing tune,
243Came to those sailors like a drone of flies,
244Filling with sleep the summer afternoon.
245So that they slept, or, if they spoke, it was
246Only to worry lest the tug should come:
247Such power upon the body labour has
248That prison seemed a blessed rest to some,
249Till one man leaning at the port-hole, stared,
250Checking his yawning at the widest stretch,
251Then blinked and swallowed, while he muttered, scared,
252"That blasting-cotton takes an age to fetch."
253Then swiftly passing from the port he went
254Up and then down the fo'c'sle till he stayed,
255Fixed at the port-hole with his eyes intent,
256Round-eyed and white, as if he were afraid,
257And muttered as he stared, "My God! she is.
258She's deeper than she was, she's settling down,
259That palm-tree top was steady against this,
260And now I see the quay below the town.
261"Look here at her. She's sinking in her tracks.
262She's going down by inches as she stands;
263The water's darker and it stinks like flax,
264Her going down is churning up the sands."
265And instantly a panic took the crew,
266Even the digger blenched; his knife-blade's haste
267Cutting the solder witnessed that he knew
268Time on the brink with not a breath to waste.
269While far away the tugboat at the quay
270Under her drooping pennon waited still
271For that explosive which would set them free,
272Free, with the world a servant to their will.
273Then from a boat beside them came a blare,
274Urging that tugboat to be quick; and men
275Shouted to stir her from her waiting there,
276"Hurry the blast, and get us out of pen.
277"She's going down. She's going down, man! Quick!"
278The tugboat did not stir, no answer came;
279They saw her tongue-like pennon idly lick
280Clear for an instant, lettered with her name.
281Then droop again. The engine had not come,
282The blast had not arrived. The prisoned hands
283Saw her still waiting though their time had come,
284Their ship was going down among the sands,
285Going so swiftly now, that they could see
286The banks arising as she made her bed;
287Full of sick sound she settled deathward, she
288Gurgled and shook, the digger picked the lead.
289And, as she paused to take a final plunge,
290Prone like a half-tide rock, the men on deck
291Jumped to their boats and left, ere like a sponge
292The river's rotten heart absorbed the wreck;
293And on the perilous instant ere Time struck
294The digger's work was done, the lead was cleared,
295He cast the manhole up; below it muck
296Floated, the hold was full, the water leered.
297All of his labour had but made a hole
298By which to leap to death; he saw black dust
299Float on the bubbles of that brimming bowl,
300He drew a breath and took his life in trust,
301And plunged head foremost into that black pit,
302Where floating cargo bumped against the beams.
303He groped a choking passage blind with grit,
304The roaring in his ears was shot with screams.
305So, with a bursting heart and roaring ears
306He floundered in that sunk ship's inky womb,
307Drowned in deep water for what seemed like years,
308Buried alive and groping through the tomb,
309Till suddenly the beams against his back
310Gave, and the water on his eyes was bright;
311He shot up through a hatchway foul with wrack
312Into clean air and life and dazzling light,
313And striking out, he saw the fo'c'sle gone,
314Vanished, below the water, and the mast
315Standing columnar from the sea; it shone
316Proud, with its colours flying to the last.
317And all about, a many-wrinkled tide
318Smoothed and erased its eddies, wandering chilled,
319Like glutted purpose, trying to decide
320If its achievement had been what it willed.
321And men in boats were there; they helped him in.
322He gulped for breath and watched that patch of smooth,
323Shaped like the vessel, wrinkle into grin,
324Furrow to waves and bare a yellow tooth.
325Then the masts leaned until the shroud-screws gave.
326All disappeared -- her masts, her colours, all.
327He saw the yardarms tilting to the grave;
328He heard the siren of a tugboat call,
329And saw her speeding, foaming at the bow,
330Bringing the blast-charge that had come too late.
331He heard one shout, "It isn't wanted now."
332Time's minute-hand had been the hand of Fate.
333Then the boats turned; they brought him to the shore.
334Men crowded round him, touched him, and were kind;
335The Mate walked with him, silent, to the store.
336He said, "We've left the best of us behind."
337Then, as he wrung his sodden clothes, the Mate
338Gave him a drink of rum, and talked awhile
339Of men and ships and unexpected Fate;
340And darkness came and cloaked the river's guile,
341So that its huddled hurry was not seen,
342Only made louder, till the full moon climbed
343Over the forest, floated, and was queen.
344Within the town a temple-belfry chimed.
345Then, upon silent pads, a tiger crept
346Down to the river-brink, and crouching there
347Watched it intently, till you thought he slept
348But for his ghastly eye and stiffened hair.
349Then, trembling at a lust more fell than his,
350He roared and bounded back to coverts lone,
351Where, among moonlit beauty, slaughter is,
352Filling the marvellous night with myriad groan.
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
Sonnets and Poems (Letchworth, England: Garden City Press, 1916).
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire, assisted by Ana Berdinskikh
RPO Edition: