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"The Voyage of Magellan"

Robert Williams Buchanan

from The Earthquake (1885), in The Complete Poetical Works (1901), vol. II

Buchanan recounts Magellan's voyage, and likens "War, Superstition, Anarchy, Disease, / Monsters that Man has fashion'd" to Frankenstein.
The Voyage of Magellan


Send no shaven monks to shrive me, close the doors against their cries;
Liars all! ay, rogues and liars, like the Father of all lies;
Nay, but open wide the casement, once more let me feast my gaze
On the glittering signs of Heaven, on the mighty Ocean-ways!

Who's that knocking? Fra Ramiro? Left his wine-cup and arm-chair,
Come again with book and ointment, to anoint me and prepare?
Sacramento! -- send him packing, with his comrades shaven-crown'd:
Liars all! and prince of liars is their Pope! The world is round!

See, the Ocean! like quicksilver, throbbing in the starry light!
See the stars and constellations, strangely, mystically bright!
Ah, but there, beyond our vision, other stars look brightly down,
Other stars, and high among them, great Magellan's starry crown!

O Magellan! lord and master! -- mighty soul no Pope could tame!
On the seas and on the heavens you have left your radiant name;
Brightly shall it burn for ever, o'er the waters without bound,
Proving Pope and Priests still liars, while the sun-kist world is round.

Let the cowls at Salamanca cluster thick as rook and daw!
Let the Pope, with right hand palsied, clutch his thunderbolts of straw!
Heaven and Ocean, here and yonder, put their feeble dreams to shame;
Earth is round, and high above it shines Magellan's starry name!

Have you vanish'd, O my Master? O my Captain, King of men,
Shall I never more behold you standing at the mast again,
Eagle-eyed, and stern and silent, never sleeping or at rest,
Pallid as a man of marble, ever looking to the west?

As I lie and watch the heavens, once again I seem to be
Out upon the waste of waters, sailing on from sea to sea. . . .
Hark! what's that? -- the monks intoning in the chapel close at hand?
Nay, I hear but sea-birds screaming, round dark capes of lonely land.

Out upon the still equator, on a sea without a breath,
Burning, blistering in the sunlight, we are tossing sick to death;
Every night the sun sinks crimson on the water's endless swell,
Every dawn he rises golden, fiery as the flames of Hell.

Seventy days our five brave vessels welter in the watery glare,
O'er the bulwarks hang the seamen panting open-mouth'd for air;
On the 'Trinitie' Magellan watches in a fierce unrest,
Never doubting or despairing, ever looking to the west.

Then at last with fire and thunder open cracks the sultry sky,
While the surging seas roll under, swift before the blast we fly,
Westward, ever westward, plunging, while the waters wash and wail;
Nights and days drift past in darkness while we sail, and sail, and sail.

Then the Tempest, like an eagle by a thunderbolt struck dead,
With one last wild flap of pinions, droppeth spent and bloody-red,
Purpling Heaven and Ocean lieth on the dark horizon's brink,
While upon the decks we gather silently, and watch him sink.

Troublously the Ocean labours in a last surcease of pain,
While a soft breath blowing westward wafts us softly on the main, --
Nearer to the edge of darkness where the flat earth ends, men swear,
Where the dark abysses open, gulf on gulf of empty air!

Creeping silently our vessels enter wastes of wondrous weed,
Slimy growth that clings around them, tangle growing purple seed,
Staining all the waste of waters, making isles of floating black,
While the seamen, pointing fingers, shrink in dread, and cry, 'Turn back!'

On the 'Trinitie' Magellan stands and looks with fearless eyes --
'Fools, the world is round!' he answers, 'onward still our pathway lies;
Though the gulfs of Hell yawn'd yonder, though the Earth were ended there,
I would venture boldly forward, facing Death and Death's despair.'

On their knees they kneel unto him, cross themselves and shriek afraid,
Pallid as a man of marble stands the Captain undismayed,
Claps on sail and leads us onward, while the ships crawl in his track,
Slowly, scarcely moving, trailing monstrous weeds that hold them back.

On each vessel's prow a seaman stands and casts the sounding-lead,
In the cage high up the foremast gather watchers sick with dread.
Calmly on the poop Magellan marks the Heavens and marks the Sea,
Darkness round and darkness o'er him, closing round the 'Trinitie.'

Days and nights of deeper darkness follow -- then there comes the cry,
'He is mad -- Death waits before us -- turn the ships and let us fly!'
Storm of mutinous anger gathers round the Captain stern and true,
Near the foremast, fiercely glaring, flash the faces of the crew.

One there is, a savage seaman, gnashing teeth and waving hands,
Strides with curses to the Captain where with folded arms he stands, --
'Turn, thou madman, turn!' he shrieketh -- scarcely hath he spoke the word,
Ere a bleeding log he falleth, slaughter'd by the Leader's sword!

'Fools and cowards!' cries Magellan, spurning him with armèd heel,
'If another dreams of flying, let him speak -- and taste my steel!'
Like caged tigers when the Tamer enters calmly, shrink the band,
While the Master strides among them, cloth'd in mail and sword in hand.

O Magellan! lord and leader! -- only He whose fingers frame
Twisted thews of pard or panther, knot them round their hearts of flame,
Light the emeralds burning brightly in their eyeballs as they roll,
Could have made that mightier marvel, thine inexorable soul!

Onward, ever on, we falter -- till there comes a dawn of Day
Creeping ghostly up behind us, mirror'd faintly far away,
While across the seas to starboard loometh strangely land or cloud --
'Land to starboard!' cries Magellan -- 'Land!' the seamen call aloud.

Southward steering creep the vessels, while the lights of morning grow;
Fades the land, while in our faces chilly fog and vapour blow;
Colder grows the air, and clinging round the masts and stiffening sails
Freezes into crystal dewdrops, into hanging icicles!

Suddenly arise before us, phantom-wise, as in eclipse,
Icebergs drifting on the Ocean like innumerable ships --
In the light they flash prismatic as among their throng we creep,
Crashing down to overwhelm us, thundering to the thund'rous Deep!

Towering ghostly and gigantic, 'midst the steam of their own breath,
Moving northward in procession in their snowy shrouds of Death,
Rise the bergs, now overtoppling like great fountains in the air,
While along their crumbling edges slips the seal and steals the bear.

With the frost upon his armour, like a skeleton of steel,
Stands the Master, waiting, watching, clad in cold from head to heel;
Loud his voice rings through the vapours, ordering all and leading on,
Till the bergs, before his finger, fall back ghostlike, and are gone!

Once again before our vision sparkles Ocean wide and free,
With the sun's red ball of crimson resting on the rim of sea; --
'Lo, the sun!' he laughs exulting -- 'still he beckons far away --
Earth is round, and on its circle evermore we chase the Day!'

As he speaks the sunset blackens. Twilight trembles through the skies
For a moment -- then the heavens open all their starry eyes!
Suddenly strange Constellations flash from out the fields of blue --
Not a star that we remember, not a splendour priestcraft knew!

Sinking on his knee, Magellan prays: 'Now glory be to God!
To the Christ who led us forward on His wondrous watery road!
See, the heavens give attestation that our search shall yet be crowned,
Proving Pope and Priests still liars, and the sun-kist world is round!'

Sparkling ruby-ray'd and golden round the dusky neck of Night
Hangs the jewel'd Constellation, strangely, mystically bright --
Pointing at it cries the Master, 'By the God we all adore,
It shall bear my name, Magellan!' and it bears it, evermore.

Storms arising sweep us onward, but each night our courage grows,
Newer portals of the Heavens seem to open and enclose,
Showing in the blue abysm vistas luminously strange,
Sphere on sphere, and far beyond them fainter lights that sparkle and change!

Presently once more we falter among pools of drifting scum,
Weed and tangle -- o'er the blackness curious sea-birds go and come --
While to southward looms a darkness, as of land or gathering cloud,
Northward too, another darkness, and a sound of breakers loud.

Once again they call in terror, 'Turn again, for Death is near!
Once again he quells their tumult, smiting till they crouch in fear.
On the darkness closing round them, land or cloud, our fleet is led,
Fighting tides that sweep them backward, flowing from some gulf of dread.

Next, the Vision! next the Morning, after rayless nights and days,
Twinkling on a great calm Ocean stretching far as eye can gaze, --
Newer heavens and newer waters, solitary and profound,
Rise before us, while behind us Day arises crimson-crown'd!

Turning we behold the shadows of the straits through which we sped,
Then again our eyes look forward where the windless waters spread;
Overhead the sun rolls golden, moving westward through the blue,
Reddens down the far-off heavens, beckons bright, and we pursue.

On that vast and tranquil Ocean, folding wings the strong winds dwell,
Sleeping softly or just stirring to the water's tranquil swell,
Peaceful as the fields of heaven where the stars like bright flocks feed, --
So that many dream they wander thro' the azure Heaven indeed!

Then Magellan, from its scabbard drawing forth his shining sword,
Grasps the blade, and downward bending dips the bright hilt overboard --
'By the holy Cross's likeness, mirror'd in this hilt!' cries he,
'Be this Ocean called Pacific, since it sleeps eternallie!'

Pastured with a calm eternal, drawing down the clouds in dew,
Sighing low with soft pulsations, darkly, mystically blue,
Lies that long untrodden Ocean, while for months we sail it o'er;
Ever dawns the sun behind us, ever swiftly sets before.

But like devils out of Tophet, as we sail with God for Guide,
Rise the Spectres, Thirst and Hunger, hollow-cheek'd and cruel-eyed;
Fierce and famish'd creep the seamen, while the tongues between their teeth
Loll like tongues of hounds for water, dry as dust and black with death.

Many fall and die blaspheming, 'Give us food!' the living call --
Pallid as a man of marble stands the Master gaunt and tall,
Hunger fierce within him also, and his parch'd lips prest in pain,
But a mightier thirst and hunger burning in his heart and brain!

Black decks blistering in the sunlight, sails and cordage dry as clay,
Crawl the ships on those still waters night by night and day by day;
Then the rain comes, and we lap it as upon the decks it flows --
'Spread a sail!' calls out the Master, and we catch it ere it goes.

Now and then a lonely sea-bird hovers far away, and we
Crouch with hungry eyes and watch it fluttering closer o'er the sea,
Curse it if it flies beyond us, shoot it if it cometh nigh,
Share the flesh and blood among us, underneath the Captain's eye.

Sometimes famish'd unto madness, fierce as wolves that shriek in strife,
One man springs upon another, stabs him with the murderous knife;
Then the Master, stalking forward where the murderer shrinks in dread,
Bids him kneel, and as he kneeleth cleaves him down, and leaves him dead.

O Magellan! mighty Eagle, circling sunward lost in light,
Wafting wings of power and striking meaner things that cross thy flight,
God to such as thee gives never lambkin's love or dove's desire --
Nay, but eyes that scatter terror from a ruthless heart of fire!

Give me wine. My pulses falter. . . So! . . . Confusion to the cowls!
They who hooted at my Eagle, eyes of bats and heads of owls!
Throw the casement open wider! There is something yet to tell --
How we came at last to waters where the naked islesmen dwell.

Isles of wonder, fringed with coral, ring'd with shallows turquoise-blue,
Where bright fish and crimson monsters flash'd their jewel'd lights and flew,
Steeps of palm that rose to heaven out of purple depths of sea,
While upon their sunlit summits stirr'd the tufted cocoa-tree --

Isles of cinnabar and spices, where soft airs for ever creep,
Scenting Ocean all around them with strange odours soft as sleep --
Isles about whose promontories danced the black man's light canoe,
Isles where dark-eyed women beckon'd, perfumed like the breath they drew.

Drunken with the sight we landed, rush'd into the scented glades,
Treading down the scented branches, seized the struggling savage maids.
Ah, the orgy! Still it sickens! -- blood of men bestrewed our path,
Till the islesmen rose against us, thick as vultures shrieking wrath.

Then, the sequel! Nay, I know not how the damnëd deed could be --
By some islesman's poisoned arrow or some Spaniard's treacherie;
But one evening, as we struggled fighting to our boats on shore,
In the shallows fell the Captain, foully slain, and rose no more!

O Magellan! O my Master! O my Captain, King of men!
Was it fit thou so shouldst perish, though thy work was over then,
Foully slain by foe or comrade, butcher'd like a common thing,
Thou whose eagle flight had circled Earth upon undaunted wing!

Nay, but then my King had conquered! Earth and Ocean to his sight
Open'd had their wondrous visions, shaming centuries of night;
Nay, but even the shining Heavens kept the record of his fame --
Earth was round, and high above it shone Magellan's starry name.

How our wondrous voyage ended? Nay, I know not, -- all was done;
Lying in my ship I sickened, moaning, hidden from the sun.
Yea! the vessels drifted onward till hey came to isles of calm,
Where some savage monarch hail'd them, standing underneath a palm.

How the wanderers took these islands tributary to our King,
Show'd the Cross, baptized the monarch, homeward crept on weary wing?
Pshaw, 'tis nothing! All was over! He had staked his soul and gained,
They but reaped the Master's sowing, they but crawl'd where he had reigned!

Hark! what sound is that? The chiming of the dreary vesper bell?
Nay, I hear but Ocean sighing, feel the waters heave and swell.
Earth is round, but sailing sunward with my Master still I fare --
Other Heavens his ship is searching, -- and I go to seek him there!

The wall of darkness round the rainy house
Broke as I ended, and a watery beam
Of sunshine struck the pane, and lingering on it,
Became prismatic. Then with quiet smile
Professor Mors, the truculent Irishman,
Whose treatise on the origin of worlds
Fluttered the Churches for a season, said:
'Man conquers earth, and climbing yonder Heaven
Pursues the baleful gods from throne to throne!
Ah, but the strife was long, and even here
It hath not ended yet. Each Phantom laid,
Another rises, though on fearless wing
We creep from world to world. Evil abides,
And with her hideous mother, Ignorance,
Scatters pollution!'

       Calmly answered him
Dan Paumanok, the Yankee pantheist:
'Friend, I have dwelt on earth as long as you,
And found all evil here but forms of good!'
Whereat some laughed, and cried, 'A paradox!'
But, gravely leaning back in his arm-chair,
The greybeard cried, 'Knowledge and Ignorance,
I calculate, are sisters -- otherwise
Named Good and Evil. Hand in hand they walk,
So like, that even those who know them best
Scarcely distinguish their identities!
Thro' the dark places of the troubled earth
The first walks radiant and the last gropes blind;
But when they come upon the mountaintops,
In the night's stillness, underneath the stars,
The last it is that ofttimes leads the first
And points her upward to the heavenly way!'

'If this be so,' the grim Professor cried,
Shrugging his shoulders with impatient sneer,
'Then wrong is every whit as good as right,
The Darkness is no better than the Light
It comprehends not!' 'Certainly,' exclaimed
The melancholy transcendentalist;
'One is the tally of the other, friend;
Nay more, they intermingle, and are one!
The morning dew, that scarcely bends the flowers,
Exhaled to heaven becomes the thunderbolt
That strikes and slays at noon.'

            But Mors replied
With cold superior smile: 'A cheerful creed!
And comfortable, -- since, whate'er befalls,
No matter if the foemen sack the city,
No matter if the plague-cart comes and goes,
No matter if the starving cry for bread,
The sleepy watchman calmly cries "All's well!"
For my poor part, as one whose youth was spent,
Not in pursuit of vain delusive dreams,
But in the halls of Science, whom I serve,
I fail to find in Evil any form
My mistress would be brought to christen good;
Nay, on my life,' he added, gathering zeal,
'Than such a pantheistic lotus-flower
I'd rather choose those husks and shells of grace
John Calvin found when, prone on hands and knees,
He searched the garbage of Original Sin!
And rather than believe that Hell was Heaven,
People my Hell once more with soot-black fiends!
For Fever, Pestilence, and Ignorance
No angels are, fall'n from some high estate,
But devilish shapes indeed, beneath the heel
Of Hermes, god of healing and of light,
Soon to be trampled down and vanquishëd.
And other hideous things that waste the world,
War, Superstition, Anarchy, Disease,
Monsters that Man has fashion'd, like to that
Framed in the poet's tale by Frankenstein --
These shall be slain by their creator's hand,
Their Master's, even Man's. Survey the earth;
And see the sunrise of our saner creed
Scattering the darkness and the poisonous fumes
Which eighteen hundred weary years ago
Came from the sunless sepulchre of Christ.
Where Fever poisoned the pellucid wel
The drinking-fountain clear as crystal flows;
Where the marsh thicken'd and miasma spread,
Cities arise, with clean and shining streets
And sewers transmuting garbage into gold;
Where the foul blood-stained Altar once was set,
Stand the Museum and Laboratory;
The Library, the Gymnasium, and the Bath
Replace the palace; Manufactories,
Gathering together precious gifts for man,
Supplant the Monolith and Pyramid.
Thus everywhere the light of human love
Brightens a wondering convalescent world
Just rising from the spectre-haunted bed
Whereon it sickened of a long disease,
Attended by the false physician, Christ.'

He paused; the fever of his eager words
Flash'd on from face to face until it reached
The face of Verity, the priest of Art;
But there it faded, for with pallid frown
And lifted hands, the gentle prophet cried:
'Light? Sunrise? Sunlight? I who speak have eyes,
And yet I see but darkness visible!
Lost is the azure in whose virgin depths
The filmy cirrus turn'd to Shapes divine,
Goddess and god, soft-vestured, white as wool!
Faded the sun, which, striking things of stone,
Turn'd them to statues which like Memnon's sang,
And palpitating over domes and walls,
Cover'd them o'er with forms miraculous,
Prismatic, which the hand of genius touch'd
And fixed in colour ere the forms could fade!
The world, you say, is heal'd; to me, it seems
Just smitten with the plague, and everywhere
The foul cloud gathers, shutting out the sun.
And that faint sound we deem the sweet church chimes,
Is but the death-bell tinkling, while the cart
Comes for its load of dark disfigured dead.
Meantime, within the foul dissecting-room
The form of Man, which, ere our plague-time came,
Was reverenced in shapes of loveliness,
Rosy in flesh, or snowy white in stone,
Lies desecrated, hideous, horrible,
Pois'ning the air and sickening the soul!
And on the slab, beneath the torturer's knife,
Man's gentle friend, the hound, shrieks piteously,
Answer'd by all the bleeding flocks of Pan!
And everywhere the fume of Anarchy,
And hideous monsters of machinery
Toiling for ever in their own thick breath,
Blends with the plague-smoke, blotting out the sun,
Whereby alone all shapes of beauty live!'

'Nay, nay,' cried Barbara, 'though it rains to-day
The lift will clear to-morrow. I believe
You all are partly right and partly wrong,
For surely many things in life that seem
Most evil are but blessings in disguise?
And difficult 'tis, maybe, to discern
Where Knowledge ends and Ignorance begins.
But then, again, what soul rejoices not
To see yon mailéd Perseus, Science, stand
Bruising the loathsome hydra of Disease,
Ay, often slaying Sin and conquering Death?
And yet, again, the counter-plea is true,
That Science, though she heals the wounds of life,
Whiles heals them cruelly and uncannily, --
Just shuts the sufferer in a sunless room,
And changes the old merry tunes of time
To daft mechanic discord, such as that
Which issues from the throats of mine and mill,
With sough of poisonous reek and flames more sad
Than ever came from Tophet!'

            As she ceased,
Professor Mors, the pallid pessimist,
Outstretched his lean and skeletonian hand,
Pointing out sunward: -- 'See!' he cried, 'the God,
Last-born and first-born, Nature's microcosm,
Who, sitting on his mighty throne of graves,
Murmurs the death-dirge of Humanity!
Had ye but ears, methinks that you might catch
The burthen of his melancholy song,
As I myself have heard it oftentimes
When wandering weary underneath the stars.
'Twas thus, methinks, it ran, or something thus,
Full of a burthen strange and sad as ever
Was heard beside the wave-wash'd shores of Time.'