Sable Island

Original Text: 
The Hon. Joseph Howe, Poems and Essays (Montreal: John Lovell, 1874): 40-45.
2    For thou hast been the cause of many a tear;
3For deeds of treacherous strife too justly famed,
5A thing none love--though wand'ring thousands fear--
6    If for a moment rests the Muse's wing
7Where through the waves thy sandy wastes appear,
8    'Tis that she may one strain of horror sing,
9Wild as the dashing waves that tempests o'er thee fling.
10The winds have been thy minstrels--the rent shrouds
11    Of hapless barks, twanging at dead of night,
12Thy fav'rite harp strings--the shriek of crowds
13    Clinging around them feebly in their fright,
14The song in which thou long hast had delight,
15    Dark child of ocean, at thy feasts of blood;
16When mangled forms, shown by Heaven's lurid light,
17    Rose to thy lip upon the swelling flood,
18While Death, with horrid front, beside thee gloating stood.
19As lurks the hungry tiger for his prey,
21Peace in his eye--the savage wish to slay
22    Rankling around his heart--so thou art seen
23Stretch'd harmlessly on ocean's breast of green,
24    When winds are hush'd, and sleeps the placid wave
25Beneath the evening ray--whose glittering sheen
27Unconscious that they cling around a yawning grave.
28The fascination of the Siren's song,
30The Serpent's eye that lures the bird along
31    To certain doom--less deadly are than thee
32Even in thy hours of calm serenity,
33    When on thy sands the lazy seals repose,
35    Crop the rank grass that on thy bosom grows,
36While round the timid hare his glance of caution throws.
37But when thy aspect changes--when the storm
38    Sweeps o'er the wide Atlantic's heaving breast;
39When, hurrying on in many a giant form,
40    The broken waters by the winds are prest--
41Roaring like fiends of hell which know no rest,
42    And guided by the lightning's fitful flash;
43Who dares look on thee then--in terror drest,
44    As on thy length'ning beach the billows dash,
46The winds are but thy blood-hounds, that do force
48That steadily pursues its noiseless course,
49    Warmed by the glow of many a tropic beam,
50To seas where northern blasts more rudely scream
52All that to man doth rich and lovely seem,
53    Earth's glorious gifts,--its fair and holy things,
54And round thy dreary shores its spoils profusely flings.
55The stateliest stems the Northern forest yields,
56    The richest produce of each Southern shore,
57The gathered harvests of a thousand fields,
58    Earn'd by man's sweat--or paid for by his gore.
59The splendid robes the cavern'd Monsters wore,
61The perfumed spice the Eastern islands bore,
62    The gems whose rays like morning's sunbeams shine,
63All--all--insatiate Isle--these treasures all are thine.
64But what are these, compared with the rich spoils
65    Of human hearts, with fond affections stored:
66Of manly forms, o'ertaken by thy toils--
67    Of glorious spirits, 'mid thy sands outpoured.
68Thousands who've braved War's desolating sword,
69    Who've walk'd through earth's worst perils undismayed,
70Now swell the treasures of thy ample hoard;
71    Deep in thy vaults their whitening bones are laid,
72While many a burning tear is to their mem'ries paid.
73And oft--as though you sought to mock man's eye--
75There may we some long-missing wreck descry,
76    Some broken mast, that once so proudly rose
77Above the peopled deck; some toy, that shows
78    The fate of her upon whose breast it hung,
79But who now sleeps in undisturbed repose,
80    Where by the waves her beauteous form was flung,
81May peace be with her manes--the lovely and the young.
82Why does the Father, at the dawn of day,
83    Fly from his feverish couch and horrid dreams,
84And up the mountain side pursue his way,
85    And turn to gaze upon the sea, which seems
87    Of the bright sun each cloud and wave reveal?
88Whence comes the tear that o'er that pale cheek streams--
89    As, tired with gazing, on the earth he kneels,
90And pours in prayer to God the anguish that he feels?
91Why does the matron heave that constant sigh?
92    Why does she start at every distant sound?
93Her cheerful fire is blazing 'neath her eye,
94    Her fair and happy children sporting round,
95Appealing to her heart at every bound,
96    While on her lap one rose-lipped babe reclines,
97And looks into her face with joy profound.
99And through a tearful eye her spirit dimly shines.
100Why does the maiden shun the giddy throng,
101    And find no pleasure in the festive hour?
102Strange that the mazy dance, and choral song,
103    O'er one so young should hold no spell of power.
104Why droops her head, as in her fairy bower
105    Her lute is only tuned to sorrow's strain?
106Is there no magic in the perfumed flower,
107    To lure her thoughts from off the bounding main?
108Oh! when shall joy return to that pure breast again?
109Canst thou not read this riddle, gloomy isle?
110    Say--when shall that old man behold his boy?
111When shall a son's glad voice--a son's bright smile
112    Wake in that mother's heart the throb of joy?
113When shall glad thoughts that maiden's hours employ?
114    When shall her lover spring to her embrace?
115Ask of the winds accustomed to destroy--
116    Ask of the waves which know their resting-place--
117And they in thy deep caves their early graves may trace.
118Farewell! dark Isle--the Muse must spread her wing,
119    To seek for brighter themes in scenes more fair,
120Too happy if the strain she strove to sing,
121    Shall warn the sailor of thy deadly snare;
122Oh! would the gods but hear her fervent prayer,
123    The fate of famed Atlantis should be thine--
124No longer crouching in thy dangerous lair,
125    But sunk far down beneath the 'whelming brine,
126Known but to History's page--or in the poet's line.


1] About 38 kilometres long by 1.5 kilometres wide, this Nova Scotia island rises from the outer continental shelf about 300 kilometres east-south-east of Halifax, Howe's home. "The island's name derives from its sandy composition" (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2nd edn. [Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988]: III, 1906). Back to Line
4] charnel: structure in which the remains of the dead are stored. Back to Line
20] mien: manner Back to Line
26] thy arid folds that lave: that wash thy dry undulations Back to Line
29] Upas tree: Asiatic tree that yields a poisonous juice used in envenoming arrows. Back to Line
34] steeds, unbridled: introduced to Sable Island in the 18th century by a Boston merchant who intended to settle the island and later abandoned (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2nd edn. [Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988]: III, 1906-07). Back to Line
45] "Those who have not personally witnessed the effects of a storm upon this place, can form no adequate idea of its horrors. The reverberated thunder of the sea, when it strikes this attenuated line of sand, on a front a thirty miles, is truly appalling, and the vibration of the Island under its mighty pressure, seems to indicate that it will separate and be borne away by the ocean. Haliburton." (note in original edn.). Back to Line
47] "There is sufficient reason to believe that the Gulf Stream at 42° 30´, running E. N. E. occasions the waters of the St. Lawrence, running S. S. W., to glide to the westward. The strength of this current has never been noticed, and three-fourths of the vessels lost have been supposed to be to the eastward of this Island, when in fact, they were in the longitude of it. Ibid." (note in original edn.). Back to Line
51] Almoner: priest responsible for dispensing alms or charity to strangers arriving at a noble or ecclesiastical house. Back to Line
60] Potosi's mine: the Bolivian city of Potosi, on the side of the Cerro Gordo de Potosi, mined the mountain for silver from the mid-16th century. The mines were regarded for centuries as the world's richest deposit of silver. Back to Line
74] "After a gale of wind human skeletons are sometimes exposed to view, and timber, and pieces of wood, are disinterred which have been buried for years. Haliburton. (note in original edn.). Back to Line
86] Blent: blinded Back to Line
98] repines: mourns Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1997.