"A Knight of the Ocean-Sea" by Alfred Noyes

December 2, 2019
12 mins read

Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Tales of the Mermaid Tavern, by Alfred Noyes (published 1913). All spelling in the original.

Under that foggy sunset, London glowed,
Like one huge cob-webbed flagon of old wine.
And, as I walked down Fleet Street, the soft sky
Flowed thro’ the roaring thoroughfares, transfused
Their hard, sharp outlines, blurred the throngs of black
On either pavement, blurred the rolling stream
Of red and yellow busses, till the town
Turned to a golden suburb of the clouds.
And, round that mighty bubble of St. Paul’s,
Over the up-turned faces of the street,
An air-ship slowly sailed, with whirring fans,
A voyager in the new-found realms of gold,
A shadowy silken chrysalis whence should break
What radiant wings in centuries to be.

So, wandering on, while all the shores of Time
Softened into Eternity, it seemed
A dead man touched me with his living hand,
A flaming legend passed me in the streets
Of London — laugh who will — that City of Clouds,
Where what a dreamer yet, in spite of all,
Is man, that splendid visionary child
Who sent his fairy beacon through the dusk,
On a blue bus before the moon was risen, —
This Night, at eight, The Tempest!

Dreaming thus,
(Small wonder that my footsteps went astray!)
I found myself within a narrow street,
Alone. There was no rumour, near or far,
Of the long tides of traffic
In my doubt I turned and knocked upon an old inn-door,
Hard by, an ancient inn of mullioned panes,
And crazy beams and over-hanging eaves:
And, as I knocked, the slowly changing west
Seemed to change all the world with it and leave
Only that old inn steadfast and unchanged,
A rock in the rich-coloured tides of time.

And, suddenly, as a song that wholly escapes
Remembrance, at one note, wholly returns,
There, as I knocked, memory returned to me.
I knew it all — the little twisted street,
The rough wet cobbles gleaming, far away,
Like opals, where it ended on the sky;
And, overhead, the darkly smiling face
Of that old wizard inn; I knew by rote
The smooth sun-bubbles in the worn green paint
Upon the doors and shutters.

There was one
Myself had idly scratched away one dawn,
One mad May-dawn, three hundred years ago,
When out of the woods we came with hawthorn boughs
And found the doors locked, as they seemed to-night.
Three hundred years ago — nay, Time was dead!
No need to scan the sign-board any more
Where that white-breasted siren of the sea
Curled her moon-silvered tail among such rocks
As never in the merriest seaman’s tale
Broke the blue-bliss of fabulous lagoons
Beyond the Spanish Main.

And, through the dream,
Even as I stood and listened, came a sound
Of clashing wine-cups: then a deep-voiced song
Made the old timbers of the Mermaid Inn
Shake as a galleon shakes in a gale of wind
When she rolls glorying through the Ocean-sea.

Marchaunt Adventurers, chanting at the windlass,
Early in the morning, we slipped from Plymouth Sound,
All for Adventure in the great New Regions,
All for Eldorado and to sail the world around!
Sing! the red of sun-rise ripples round the bows again.
Marchaunt Adventurers, O sing, we’re outward bound,
All to stuff the sunset in our old black galleon,
All to seek the merchandise that no man ever found.
Marchaunt Adventurers!
Marchaunt Adventurers!
Marchaunt Adventurers, O, whither are ye bound? —
All for Eldorado and the great new Sky-line,
All to seek the merchandise that no man ever found.

Marchaunt Adventurers, O, what’ull ye bring home again? —
Woonders and works and the thunder of the sea!

Whom will ye traffic with? — The King of the Sunset!
What shall be your pilot then? — A wind from Galilee.
Nay, but ye be marchaunts, will ye come back empty-handed? —
Ay, we be marchaunts, though our gain we ne’er shall see.
Cast we now our bread upon the waste wild waters.
After many days, it shall return with usury.

Marchaunt Adventurers!
Marchaunt Adventurers!

What shall be your profit in the mighty days to be? —
Englande! — Englande! — Englande! — Englande! —
Glory everlasting and the lordship of the sea!

And there, framed in the lilac patch of sky
That ended the steep street, dark on its light,
And standing on those glistering cobble-stones
Just where they took the sunset’s kiss, I saw
A figure like foot-feathered Mercury,
Tall, straight and splendid as a sunset-cloud.
Clad in a crimson doublet and trunk-hose,
A rapier at his side; and, as he paused,
His long fantastic shadow swayed and swept
Against my feet.

A moment he looked back,
Then swaggered down as if he owned a world
Which had forgotten — did I wake or dream?—
Even his gracious ghost!

Over his arm
He swung a gorgeous murrey-coloured cloak
Of Ciprus velvet, caked and smeared with mud
As on the day when — did I dream or wake?
And had not all this happened once before? —
When he had laid that cloak before the feet of Gloriana!
By that mud-stained cloak,
‘Twas he! Our Ocean-Shepherd! Walter Raleigh!
He brushed me passing, and with one vigorous thrust
Opened the door and entered. At his heels
I followed — into the Mermaid! — through three yards
Of pitch-black gloom, then into an old inn-parlour
Swimming with faces in a mist of smoke
That up-curled, blue, from long Winchester pipes,
While — like some rare old picture, in a dream
Recalled — quietly listening, laughing, watching,
Pale on that old black oaken wainscot floated
One bearded oval face, young, with deep eyes,
Whom Raleigh hailed as “Will!”

But as I stared
A sudden buffet from a brawny hand
Made all my senses swim, and the room rang
With laughter as upon the rush-strewn floor
My feet slipped and I fell. Then a gruff-voice
Growled over me — “Get up now, John-a-dreams,
Or else mine host must find another drawer!
Hast thou not heard us calling all this while?”
And, as I scrambled up, the rafters rang
With cries of ” Sack! Bring me a cup of sack!
Canary! Sack! Malmsey! and Muscadel!”
I understood and flew. I was awake,
A leather-jerkined pot-boy to these gods,
A prentice Ganymede to the Mermaid Inn!

There, flitting to and fro with cups of wine
I heard them toss the Chrysomelan names
From mouth to mouth — Lyly and Peele and Lodge,
Kit Marlowe, Michael Drayton, and the rest,
With Ben, rare Ben, brick-layer Ben, who rolled
Like a great galleon on his ingle-bench.
Some twenty years of age he seemed; and yet
This young Gargantua with the bull-dog jaws,
The T, for Tyburn, branded on his thumb,
And grim pock-pitted face was growling tales
To Dekker that would fright a buccaneer, —
How in the fierce Low Countries he had killed
His man, and won that scar on his bronzed fist;
Was taken prisoner, and turned Catholick;
And, now returned to London, was resolved
To blast away the vapours of the town
With Boreas-throated plays of thunderous mirth.
“I’ll thwack their Tribulation-Wholesomes, lad,
Their Yellow-faced Envies and lean Thorns-i’-the-Flesh,
At the Black-friars Theatre, or The Rose,
Or else The Curtain. Failing these, I’ll find
Some good square inn-yard with wide galleries,
And windows level with the stage. ‘Twill serve
My Comedy of Vapours; though, I grant,
For Tragedy a private House is best,
Or, just as Burbage tip-toes to a deed
Of blood, or, over your stable’s black half-door,
Marked Battlements in white chalk, your breathless David
Glowers at the whiter Bathsheba within,
Some humorous coach-horse neighs a ‘hallelujah’!
And the pit splits its doublets. Over goes
The whole damned apple-barrel, and the yard
Is all one rough and tumble, scramble and scratch
Of prentices, green madams, and cut-purses
For half-chewed Norfolk pippins. Never mind!
We’ll build the perfect stage in Shoreditch yet.
And Will, there, hath half promised I shall write
A piece for his own company! What d’ye think
Of Venus and Adonis, his first heir,
Printed last week? A bouncing boy, my lad!
And he’s at work on a Midsummer’s Dream
That turns the world to fairyland!”

All these
And many more were there, and all were young!
There, as I brimmed their cups, I heard the voice
Of Raleigh ringing across the smoke-wreathed room, —
“Ben, could you put a frigate on the stage, I’ve found a tragedy for you. Have you heard
The true tale of Sir Humphrey Gilbert?”


“Why, Ben, of all the tragical affairs
Of the Ocean-sea, and of that other Ocean
Where all men sail so blindly, and misjudge
Their friends, their charts, their storms, their stars, their
If there be truth in the blind crowder’s song
I bought in Bread Street for a penny, this
Is the brief type and chronicle of them all.
Listen!” Then Raleigh sent these rugged rhymes
Of some blind crowder rolling in great waves
Of passion across the gloom. At each refrain
He sank his voice to a broad deep undertone,
As if the distant roar of breaking surf
Or the low thunder of eternal tides
Filled up the pauses of the nearer storm,
Storm against storm, a soul against the sea: —

Sir Humphrey Gilbert, hard of hand,
Knight-in-chief of the Ocean-sea,
Gazed from the rocks of his New Found Land
And thought of the home where his heart would be.

He gazed across the wintry waste
That weltered and hissed like molten lead, —
“He saileth twice who saileth in haste!
I’ll wait the favour of Spring,” he said.

Ever the more, ever the more,
He heard the winds and the waves roar!
Thunder on thunder shook the shore.

The yellow clots of foam went by
Like shavings that curl from a ship-wright’s plane,
Clinging and flying, afar and nigh,
Shuddering, flying and clinging again.

A thousand bubbles in every one
Shifted and shimmered with rainbow gleams;
But — had they been planets and stars that spun
He had let them drift by his feet like dreams:

Heavy of heart was our Admirall,
For, out of his ships, — and they were but three! —
He had lost the fairest and most tall,
And — he was a Knight of the Ocean-sea.

Ever the more, ever the more,
He heard the winds and the waves roar!
Thunder on thunder shook the shore.

Heavy of heart, heavy of heart,
For she was a galleon mighty as May,
And the storm that ripped her glory apart
Had stripped his soul for the winter’s way;

And he was aware of a whisper blown
From foc’sle to poop, from windward to lee,
That the fault was his, and his alone,
And — he was a Knight of the Ocean-sea.

“Had he done that! Had he done this!”
And yet his mariners loved him well;
But an idle word is hard to miss,
And the foam hides more than the deep can tell.

And the deep had buried his best-loved books,
With many a hard-won chart and plan:
And a king that is conquered must see strange looks,
So bitter a thing is the heart of man!

And — “Who will you find to pay your debt?
For a venture like this is a costly thing!
Will they stake yet more, tho’ your heart be set
On the mightier voyage you planned for the Spring?”

He raised his head like a Viking crowned, —
“I’ll take my old flag to her Majestie,
And she will lend me ten thousand pound
To make her Queen of the Ocean-sea!”

Ever the more, ever the more,
He heard the winds and the waves roar!
Thunder on thunder shook the shore.

Outside — they heard the great winds blow!
Outside — the blustering surf they heard,
And the bravest there would ha’ blenched to know
That they must be taken at their own word.

For the great grim waves were as molten lead
— And he had two ships who sailed with three! —
“And I sail not home till the Spring,” he said,
“They are all too frail for the Ocean-sea.”

But the trumpeter thought of an ale-house bench,
And the cabin-boy longed for a Devonshire lane,
And the gunner remembered a green-gowned wench,
And the foc’sle whisper went round again, —

“Sir Humphrey Gilbert is hard of hand,
But his courage went down with the ship, may-be,
And we wait for the Spring in a desert land,
For — he is afraid of the Ocean-sea.”

Ever the more, ever the more,
He heard the winds and the waves roar!
Thunder on thunder shook the shore.

He knew, he knew how the whisper went!
He knew he must master it, last or first!
He knew not how much or how little it meant;
But his heart was heavy and like to burst.

“Up with your sails, my sea-dogs all!
The wind has veered! And my ships,” quoth he,
“They will serve for a British Admirall
Who is Knight-in-chief of the Ocean-sea!”

His will was like a North-east wind
That swept along our helmless crew;
But he would not stay on the Golden Hind,
For that was the stronger ship of the two.

“My little ship’s-company, lads, hath passed
Perils and storms a-many with me!
Would ye have me forsake them at the last?
They’ll need a Knight of the Ocean-sea!”

Ever the more, ever the more,
We heard the winds and the waves roar!
Thunder on thunder shook the shore.

Beyond Cape Race, the pale sun splashed
The grim grey waves with silver light
Where, ever in front, his frigate crashed
Eastward, for England and the night.

And still as the dark began to fall,
Ever in front of us, running free,
We saw the sails of our Admirall
Leading us home through the Ocean-sea.

Ever the more, ever the more,
We heard the winds and the waves roar!
But he sailed on, sailed on before.

On Monday, at noon of the third fierce day
A-board our Golden Hind he came,
With a trail of blood, marking his way
On the salt wet decks as he walked half-lame.

For a rusty nail thro’ his foot had pierced.
“Come, master-surgeon, mend it for me;
Though I would it were changed for the nails that amerced
The dying thief upon Calvary.”

The surgeon bathed and bound his foot,
And the master entreated him sore to stay;
But roughly he pulled on his great sea-boot
With — “The wind is rising and I must away!”

I know not why so little a thing,
When into his pinnace we helped him down,
Should make our eye-lids prick and sting
As the salt spray were into them blown,

But he called as he went — “Keep watch and steer
By my lanthorn at night!” Then he waved his hand
With a kinglier watch-word, “We are as near
To heaven, my lads, by sea as by land!”

Ever the more, ever the more,
We heard the gathering tempest roar!
But he sailed on, sailed on before.

Three hundred leagues on our homeward road,
We strove to signal him, swooping nigh,
That he would ease his decks of their load
Of nettings and fights and artillery.

And dark and dark that night ‘gan fall,
And high the muttering breakers swelled,
Till that strange fire which seamen call
“Castor and Pollux,” we beheld,

An evil sign of peril and death,
Burning pale on the high main-mast;
But calm with the might of Gennesareth
Our Admirall’s voice went ringing past,

Clear thro’ the thunders, far and clear,
Mighty to counsel, clear to command,
Joyfully ringing, “We are as near
To heaven, my lads, by sea as by land!”

Ever the more, ever the more,
We heard the rising hurricane roar!
But he sailed on, sailed on before.

And over us fled the fleet of the stars,
And, ever in front of us, far or nigh,
The lanthorn on his cross-tree spars
Dipped to the Pit or soared to the Sky!

‘Twould sweep to the lights of Charles’s Wain,
As the hills of the deep ‘ud mount and flee,
Then swoop down vanishing cliffs again
To the thundering gulfs of the Ocean-sea.

We saw it shine as it swooped from the height,
With ruining breakers on every hand,
Then — a cry came out of the black mid-night,
As near to heaven by sea as by land!

And the light was out! Like a wind-blown spark,
All in a moment ! And we — and we —
Prayed for his soul as we swept thro’ the dark;
For he was a Knight of the Ocean-sea.

Over our fleets for evermore
The winds ‘ull triumph and the waves roar!
But he sails on, sails on before!

Silence a moment held the Mermaid Inn,
Then Michael Drayton, raising a cup of wine,
Stood up and said, — “Since many have obtained
Absolute glory that have done great deeds,
But fortune is not in the power of man,
So they that, truly attempting, nobly fail,
Deserve great honour of the common-wealth.
Such glory did the Greeks and Romans give
To those that in great enterprises fell
Seeking the true commodity of their country
And profit to all mankind; for, though they failed,
Being by war, death, or some other chance,
Hindered, their images were set up in brass,
Marble and silver, gold and ivory,
In solemn temples and great palace-halls,
No less to make men emulate their virtues
Than to give honour to their just deserts.
God, from the time that He first made the world,
Hath kept the knowledge of His Ocean-sea
And the huge Aequinoctiall Continents
Reserved unto this day. Wherefore I think
No high exploit of Greece and Rome but seems
A little thing to these Discoveries
Which our adventurous captains even now
Are making, out there, Westward, in the night,
Captains most worthy of commendation,
Hugh Willoughby — God send him home again
Safe to the Mermaid! — and Dick Chauncellor,
That excellent pilot. Doubtless this man, too,
Sir Humphrey Gilbert, was worthy to be made
Knight of the Ocean-sea. I bid you all
Stand up, and drink to his immortal fame!”

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Support Men Of The West

Previous Story

Sermon: "Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?"

Next Story

Patton's Christmas Prayer

Latest from Culture

Dangerous Left Wing Rhetoric

On Saturday, July 13, 2024, an assassin came within inches of murdering Donald Trump on a live broadcast. Democrat talking heads immediately split into two camps: some said Trump staged the shooting

Movie Review: Streets of Fire

Underrated. Yes, the acting is forced, the lines are flat, the sets limited, but it makes up for it by being awesome. It's more of a modern Western than anything.

Calvin Coolidge on Independence Day

Speech Given July 1926 We meet to celebrate the birthday of America. The coming of a new life always excites our interest. Although we know in the case of the individual that
Go toTop