Along by the river and along by the quay,
Where fresh from the ocean comes a wind blowing free,
The old men, the seamen, sit huddled up and wan,
A-thinking and a-dreaming of the days long gone.
A-thinking and a-dreaming of the old black ships,
Their whiskers a-wagging and the salt on their lips,
With eyes that are rheumy and sticks going tap,
Where the tarred ropes grumble and the grey waves lap.
And ay! but they're back again as they've been before,
Their feet in the damp of a dark fo'c's'le floor,
Tacking up to nor'ard in the fury of a gale,
With a wrenched hull leaking and a snugged down sail.
Only the quay is there, the wide river mouth.
But, ho! they are beating up again from the south,
The wind in the shrouds and the foam at the keel,
Soaring up aloft or straining at the wheel.
Now they're round the Horn with white sails spread,
Tracking up to China or glimpsing Java Head.
They're fast at their moorings by the wee, white towns;
They're lying off the Lizard or anchored in the Downs.
Drifting on the Dogger Bank great sails in the moon,
The wind and the wash and the rigging all a-tune;
Rolling up to Rio on the arms of the sea,
Or down from the Hoogli with a hold full of tea.
With red lights and green lights getting under way,
With sea-boots and oilers that are glistening with spray.
Sheeting home the top-sails, hauling down the jibs,
They're swaying to the tremble of the taut, live ribs.
Rosy in the morning they swing with the tide,
Over from Belfast to the mast-thronged Clyde;
Blaring through the fog with the wind abaft the beam,
Where the white gulls are wheeling in a world of dream.
Whaling-ships front Hudson's Bay and windjammers full,
Coal-hulks and steamers and clippers stowed with wool,
Slim fore-and-afters, barquentines and brigs
And creeping tub, from Persia with brown date, and figs.
But now all the old men are sitting side by side,
Hearing vanished voices in the surge of the tide.
God! There's little left of hearty life to be,
For their lives are behind them in the long, lone sea!
Away past the bar steal the great grey ships;
They are watching them sail with their hearts on their lips.
Oh, they can never go till the full tides are run,
Till the eight bells ring for their long watch done!
First published in The Bulletin, 12 June 1924