A Watch in the Night

by Algernon Charles Swinburne


Watchman, what of the night?—
  Storm and thunder and rain,
  Lights that waver and wane,
Leaving the watchfires unlit.
Only the balefires are bright,
  And the flash of the lamps now and then
From a palace where spoilers sit,
  Trampling the children of men.


Prophet, what of the night?—
  I stand by the verge of the sea,
  Banished, uncomforted, free,
Hearing the noise of the waves
And sudden flashes that smite
  Some man's tyrannous head,
Thundering, heard among graves
  That hide the hosts of his dead.


Mourners, what of the night?—
  All night through without sleep
  We weep, and we weep, and we weep.
Who shall give us our sons?
Beaks of raven and kite,
  Mouths of wolf and of hound,
Give us them back whom the guns
  Shot for you dead on the ground.


Dead men, what of the night?—
  Cannon and scaffold and sword,
  Horror of gibbet and cord,
Mowed us as sheaves for the grave,
Mowed us down for the right.
  We do not grudge or repent.
Freely to freedom we gave
  Pledges, till life should be spent.


Statesman, what of the night?—
  The night will last me my time.
  The gold on a crown or a crime
Looks well enough yet by the lamps.
Have we not fingers to write,
  Lips to swear at a need?
Then, when danger decamps,
  Bury the word with the deed.


Warrior, what of the night?—
  Whether it be not or be
  Night, is as one thing to me.
I for one, at the least,
Ask not of dews if they blight,
  Ask not of flames if they slay,
Ask not of prince or of priest
  How long ere we put them away.


Master, what of the night?—
  Child, night is not at all
  Anywhere, fallen or to fall,
Save in our star-stricken eyes.
Forth of our eyes it takes flight,
  Look we but once nor before
Nor behind us, but straight on the skies;
  Night is not then any more.


Exile, what of the night?—
  The tides and the hours run out,
  The seasons of death and of doubt,
The night-watches bitter and sore.
In the quicksands leftward and right
  My feet sink down under me;
But I know the scents of the shore
  And the broad blown breaths of the sea.


Captives, what of the night?—
  It rains outside overhead
  Always, a rain that is red,
And our faces are soiled with the rain.
Here in the seasons' despite
  Day-time and night-time are one,
Till the curse of the kings and the chain
  Break, and their toils be undone.


Christian, what of the night?—
  I cannot tell; I am blind.
  I halt and hearken behind
If haply the hours will go back
And return to the dear dead light,
  To the watchfires and stars that of old
Shone where the sky now is black,
  Glowed where the earth now is cold.


High priest, what of the night?—
  The night is horrible here
  With haggard faces and fear,
Blood, and the burning of fire.
Mine eyes are emptied of sight,
  Mine hands are full of the dust.
If the God of my faith be a liar,
  Who is it that I shall trust?


Princes, what of the night?—
  Night with pestilent breath
  Feeds us, children of death,
Clothes us close with her gloom.
Rapine and famine and fright
  Crouch at our feet and are fed.
Earth where we pass is a tomb,
  Life where we triumph is dead.


Martyrs, what of the night?—
  Nay, is it night with you yet?
  We, for our part, we forget
What night was, if it were.
The loud red mouths of the fight
  Are silent and shut where we are.
In our eyes the tempestuous air
  Shines as the face of a star.


England, what of the night?—
  Night is for slumber and sleep,
  Warm, no season to weep.
Let me alone till the day.
Sleep would I still if I might,
  Who have slept for two hundred years.
Once I had honour, they say;
  But slumber is sweeter than tears.


France, what of the night?—
  Night is the prostitute's noon,
  Kissed and drugged till she swoon,
Spat upon, trod upon, whored.
With bloodred rose-garlands dight,
  Round me reels in the dance
Death, my saviour, my lord,
  Crowned; there is no more France.


Italy, what of the night?—
  Ah, child, child, it is long!
  Moonbeam and starbeam and song
Leave it dumb now and dark.
Yet I perceive on the height
  Eastward, not now very far,
A song too loud for the lark,
  A light too strong for a star.


Germany, what of the night?—
  Long has it lulled me with dreams;
  Now at midwatch, as it seems,
Light is brought back to mine eyes,
And the mastery of old and the might
  Lives in the joints of mine hands,
Steadies my limbs as they rise,
  Strengthens my foot as it stands.


Europe, what of the night?—
  Ask of heaven, and the sea,
  And my babes on the bosom of me,
Nations of mine, but ungrown.
There is one who shall surely requite
  All that endure or that err:
She can answer alone:
  Ask not of me, but of her.


Liberty, what of the night?—
  I feel not the red rains fall,
  Hear not the tempest at all,
Nor thunder in heaven any more.
All the distance is white
  With the soundless feet of the sun.
Night, with the woes that it wore,
  Night is over and done.

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