The Swimmers

by George Sterling (1869–1926)
 

We were eight fishers of the western sea,
    Who sailed our craft beside a barren land,
    Where harsh with pines the herdless mountains
            stand
                And lonely beaches be.

There no man dwells, and ships go seldom past;
    Yet sometimes there we lift our keels ashore,
    To rest in safety ’mid the broken roar
                And mist of surges vast.

One strand we know, remote from all the rest,
    Far north and south the cliffs are high and steep,
    Whose naked leagues of rock repel the deep,
                Insurgent from the west.

Tawny it lies, untrodden e’er by man,
    Save when from storm we sought its narrow rift
    To beach our craft and light a fire of drift
                And sleep till day began.

Along its sands no flower nor bird has home.
    Abrupt its breast, girt by no splendor save
    The whorled and curving emerald of the wave
                And scarves of rustling foam—

A place of solemn beauty; yet we swore,
    By all the ocean stars’ unhasting flight,
    To seek no refuge for another night
                Upon that haunted shore.

That year a sombre autumn held the earth.
    At dawn we sailed from out our village bay;
    We sang; a taut wind leapt along the day;
                The sea-birds mocked our mirth.

Southwest we drave, like arrows to a mark;
    Ere set of sun the coast was far to lee,
    Where thundered over by the white-hooved sea
                The reefs lie gaunt and dark.

But when we would have cast our hooks, the main
    Grew wroth a-sudden, and our captains said:
    “Seek we a shelter.”  And the west was red;
                God gave his winds the rein.

And eastward lay the sands of which I told;
    Thither we fled, and on the narrow beach
    Drew up our keels beyond the lessening reach
                Of waters green and cold.

Then set the wounded sun.  The wind blew clean
    The skies.  A wincing star came forth at last.
    We heard like mighty tollings on the blast
                The shock of waves unseen.

The wide-winged Eagle hovered overhead;
    The Scorpion crept slowly in the south
    To pits below the horizon; in its mouth
                Lay a young moon that bled.

And from our fire the ravished flame swept back,
    Like yellow hair of one who flies apace,
    Compelled in lands barbarian to race
                With lions on her track.

Then from the maelstroms of the surf arose
    Wild laughter, mystical, and up the sands
    Came Two that walked with intertwining hands
                Amid those ocean snows.

Ghostly they shone before the lofty spray—
    Fairer than gods and naked as the moon,
    The foamy fillets at their ankles strewn
                Less marble-white than they.

Laughing they stood, then to our beacon’s glare
    Drew nearer, as we watched in mad surprise
    The scarlet-flashing lips, the sea-green eyes,
                The red and tangled hair.

Then spoke the god (goddess and god they seemed),
    In harplike accents of a tongue unknown—
    About his brows the dripping locks were blown;
                Like wannest gold he gleamed.

Staring we sat; again the Vision spoke.
    Beyond his form we saw the billows rave,—
    The leap of those white leopards in the wave,—
                The spume of seas that broke.

Yet sat we mute, for then a human word
    Seemed folly’s worst.  And scorn began to trace
    Its presence on the wild, imperious face;
                Again the red lips stirred,

But spoke not.  In an instant we were free
    From that enchantment:  fleet as deer they turned
    And sudden amber leapt the sands they spurned.
                We saw them meet the sea.

We heard the seven-chorded surf, unquelled,
    Call in one thunder to the granite walls;
    But over all, like broken clarion-calls,
                Disdainful laughter welled.

Then silence, save for cloven wave and wind.
    Our fire had faltered on its little dune.
    Far out a fog-wall reared, and hid the moon.
                The night lay vast and blind.

Silent, we waited the assuring morn,
    Which rose on angered waters.  But we set
    Our hooded prows to sea, and, tempest-wet,
                Beat up the coast forlorn.

And no man scorned our tale, for well they knew
    Had mystery befallen:  in our eyes
    Were alien terrors and unknown surmise.
                Men saw the tale was true.

And no man seeks a refuge on that shore,
    Tho tempests gather in impelling skies;
    Unseen, unsolved, unhazarded it lies,
                Forsaken evermore.

For on those sands immaculate and lone
    Perchance They list the sea’s immeasured lyre,
    When sunset casts an evanescent fire
                Thro billows thunder-sown.


Sterling, George.  The House of Orchids and Other Poems.  (San Francisco:  A. M. Robertson, 1911).



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