Burning Drift-Wood

By John Greenleaf Whittier 1807–1892 John Greenleaf Whittier
Before my drift-wood fire I sit,
   And see, with every waif I burn,
Old dreams and fancies coloring it,
   And folly’s unlaid ghosts return.

O ships of mine, whose swift keels cleft
   The enchanted sea on which they sailed,
Are these poor fragments only left
   Of vain desires and hopes that failed?

Did I not watch from them the light
   Of sunset on my towers in Spain,
And see, far off, uploom in sight
   The Fortunate Isles I might not gain?

Did sudden lift of fog reveal
   Arcadia’s vales of song and spring,
And did I pass, with grazing keel,
   The rocks whereon the sirens sing?

Have I not drifted hard upon
   The unmapped regions lost to man,
The cloud-pitched tents of Prester John,
   The palace domes of Kubla Khan?

Did land winds blow from jasmine flowers,
   Where Youth the ageless Fountain fills?
Did Love make sign from rose blown bowers,
   And gold from Eldorado’s hills?

Alas! the gallant ships, that sailed
   On blind Adventure’s errand sent,
Howe’er they laid their courses, failed
   To reach the haven of Content.

And of my ventures, those alone
   Which Love had freighted, safely sped,
Seeking a good beyond my own,
   By clear-eyed Duty piloted.

O mariners, hoping still to meet
   The luck Arabian voyagers met,
And find in Bagdad’s moonlit street,
   Haroun al Raschid walking yet,

Take with you, on your Sea of Dreams,
   The fair, fond fancies dear to youth.
I turn from all that only seems,
   And seek the sober grounds of truth.

What matter that it is not May,
   That birds have flown, and trees are bare,
That darker grows the shortening day,
   And colder blows the wintry air!

The wrecks of passion and desire,
   The castles I no more rebuild,
May fitly feed my drift-wood fire,
   And warm the hands that age has chilled.

Whatever perished with my ships,
   I only know the best remains;
A song of praise is on my lips
   For losses which are now my gains.

Heap high my hearth! No worth is lost;
   No wisdom with the folly dies.
Burn on, poor shreds, your holocaust
   Shall be my evening sacrifice!

Far more than all I dared to dream,
   Unsought before my door I see;
On wings of fire and steeds of steam
   The world’s great wonders come to me,

And holier signs, unmarked before,
   Of Love to seek and Power to save,—
The righting of the wronged and poor,
   The man evolving from the slave;

And life, no longer chance or fate,
   Safe in the gracious Fatherhood.
I fold o’er-wearied hands and wait,
   In full assurance of the good.

And well the waiting time must be,
   Though brief or long its granted days,
If Faith and Hope and Charity
   Sit by my evening hearth-fire’s blaze.

And with them, friends whom Heaven has spared,
   Whose love my heart has comforted,
And, sharing all my joys, has shared
   My tender memories of the dead,—

Dear souls who left us lonely here,
   Bound on their last, long voyage, to whom
We, day by day, are drawing near,
   Where every bark has sailing room.

I know the solemn monotone
   Of waters calling unto me;
I know from whence the airs have blown
   That whisper of the Eternal Sea.

As low my fires of drift-wood burn,
   I hear that sea’s deep sounds increase,
And, fair in sunset light, discern
   Its mirage-lifted Isles of Peace.

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier 1807–1892

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Victorian

Subjects Midlife, Living, Disappointment & Failure, Activities, Travels & Journeys, Growing Old, Time & Brevity, Sports & Outdoor Activities, Mythology & Folklore, Fairy-tales & Legends

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

 John  Greenleaf Whittier

Biography

The 1866 publication of his long poem Snow-Bound brought John Greenleaf Whittier popular acclaim and financial security. But literary success was of secondary importance to him: his priorities were dictated by his Quaker faith and his courageous battle against slavery. Whittier was born and raised on a farm near Haverhill, Massachusetts, and felt a strong kinship throughout his life with the hard-working, rural poor.

Continue reading this biography

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.