Rossetti Archive Textual Transcription

Document Title: The White Ship
Author: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Date of Composition: 1878-1880
Type of Manuscript: fair copy

The full Rossetti Archive record for this transcribed document is available.

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Note: Bookplate with standing female angel blowing trumpet and seated female angel. Between the two figures is a flowing banner on which is inscribed the owner's name. Below the figures and the ower's name is an inscribed poem.



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Note: Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Note: After this page, only the rectos have been tagged. All the versos in the volume are blank.
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The White Ship

A Ballad


Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The original holograph Manuscript

composed during the years 1878 to 1880

First printed in ”Ballads and Sonnets“


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Added Text1
The White Ship

(25 Nov: 1120.)

  • By none but me can the tale be told,
  • The butcher of Rouen, poor Berold.
  • ( Lands are swayed by a King on a throne.)
  • 'Twas a royal train put forth to sea,
  • Yet the tale can be told by none but me.
  • ( The sea hath no King but God alone)
  • King Henry held it as life's whole gain
  • That after his death his son should reign.
  • 'Twas so in my youth I heard men say,
  • 10And my old age calls it back today.
  • King Henry of England's realm was he,
  • And Henry Duke of Normandy.
  • The times had changed when on either coast
  • “Clerkly Harry” was all his boast.
  • Of ruthless strokes full many an one
  • He had struck to crown himself and his son;
  • And his elder brother's eyes were gone.
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  • But all the chiefs of the English land
  • Had knelt and kissed the Prince's hand.
  • 20And next with his son he sailed to France
  • To claim the Norman allegiance:
  • And every baron in Normandy
  • Had taken the oath of fealty.
  • 'Twas sworn and sealed, and the day had come
  • When the King & the Prince might journey home:
  • For Christmas cheer is to home hearts dear,
  • And Christmas now was drawing near.
  • Stout Fitz-Stephen came to the King;—
  • A pilot famous in sea-faring;
  • 30And he held to the King, in all men's sight,
  • A mark of gold for his tribute's right.
  • ”Liege Lord! my father guided the ship
  • From whose boat your father's foot did slip
  • When he caught the English soil in his grip,
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  • “And cried,” By this clasp I claim command
  • O'er every rood of English land!”
  • “He was borne to the realm you rule o'er now
  • In that ship with the archer carved at her prow:
  • “And thither I'll bear, an' it be my due,
  • 40Your father's son and his grandson too.
  • “The famed White Ship is mine in the bay;
  • From Harfleur's harbour she sails today,
  • With masts fair-pennon'd as Norman spears
  • And with fifty well-tried mariners.”
  • Quoth the King: “My ships are chos'n each one,
  • But I'll not say nay to Stephen's son.
  • “My son and daughter and fellowship
  • Shall cross the water in the White Ship.”
  • The King set sail with the eve's south wind,
  • And soon he left that coast behind.
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  • The Prince and all his, a princely show,
  • 50Remained in the good White Ship to go.
  • With noble knights and with ladies fair,
  • With courtiers and sailors gathered there,
  • Three hundred living souls we were:
  • And I Berold was the meanest hind
  • In all that train to the Prince assign'd.
  • The Prince was a lawless shameless youth;
  • From his father's loins he sprang without ruth:
  • Eighteen years till then he had seen,
  • And the devil's dues in him were eighteen.
  • 60And now he cried: “Bring wine from below;
  • Let the sailors revel ere yet they row:
  • “Our speed shall o'ertake my father's flight
  • Though we sail from the harbour at midnight.”
  • The rowers made good cheer without check,
  • The lords and ladies obeyed his beck;
  • The night was light, and they danced on the deck.
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  • But at midnight's stroke they cleared the bay,
  • And the White Ship furrowed the water-way.
  • The sails were set, and the oars kept tune
  • 70To the double flight of the ship and the moon:
  • Swifter and swifter the White Ship sped
  • Till she flew as the spirit flies from the dead:
  • As white as a lily glimmered she
  • Like a ship's fair ghost upon the sea.
  • And the Prince cried, ”Friends, 'tis the hour to sing!
  • Is a songbird's course so swift on the wing?”
  • And under the winter stars' still throng,
  • From brown throats, white throats, merry & strong,
  • The knights and the ladies raised a song.
  • 80A song,—nay, a shriek that rent the sky,
  • That leaped o'er the deep!—the grievous cry
  • Of three hundred living that now must die.
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  • An instant shriek that sprang to the shock
  • As the ship's keel felt the sunken rock.
  • 'Tis said that afar—a shrill strange sigh—
  • The King's ships heard it and knew not why.
  • Pale Fitz-Stephen stood by the helm
  • 'Mid all those folk that the waves must whelm.
  • A great King's heir for the waves to whelm,
  • 90And the helpless pilot pale at the helm!
  • The ship was eager and sucked athirst
  • As a swimming bladder fills when pierc'd;
  • And like the moil round a sinking cup,
  • The waters against her crowded up.
  • A moment the pilot's senses spin,—
  • The next he snatched the Prince 'mid the din,
  • Cut the boat loose, and the youth leaped in.
  • A few friends leaped with him, standing near.
  • “Row! the sea's smooth and the night is clear!”
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  • “What! none to be saved but these and I?”
  • 100“Row, row as you'd live! All here must die.”
  • Out of the churn of the choking ship,
  • Which the gulf grapples and the waves strip,
  • They struck with the strained oars' flash & dip.
  • 'Twas then o'er the splitting bulwarks' brim
  • The Prince's sister screamed to him.
  • He turned about, still rowing apace,
  • And through the whirled surf he knew her face.
  • To the toppling decks clave one and all
  • As a fly cleaves to a chamber-wall.
  • 110I Berold was clinging anear;
  • I prayed for myself and quaked with fear,
  • But I saw his eyes as he looked at her.
  • He knew her face and he heard her cry,
  • And he said, “Put back! she must not die!”
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  • And back through the flying foam they reel
  • Like a leaf that scuds in a water-wheel.
  • 'Neath the ship's travail they scarce might float,
  • But he rose and stood in the rocking boat.
  • Prone the poor ship leaned on the tide:
  • 120O'er the naked keel as she best might slide,
  • The sister toiled to the brother's side.
  • He reached an oar to her from below,
  • And stiffened his arms to clutch her so.
  • But now from the ship some spied the boat,
  • And “Saved!” was the cry from many a throat:
  • And down to the boat they leaped and fell:
  • It turned as a bucket turns in a well,
  • And nothing was there but the surge & swell.
  • The Prince that was and the King to come,
  • 130There in an instant gone to his doom,
  • Despite of all England's bended knee
  • And maugre the Norman fealty!
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  • He was a Prince of lust and pride;
  • He showed no grace till the hour he died.
  • When he should be King, he oft would vow,
  • He'd yoke the peasant to his own plough.
  • O'er him the ships score their furrows now.
  • God only knows where his soul did wake,
  • But I saw him die for his sister's sake.
  • 140By none but me can the tale be told,
  • The butcher of Rouen, poor Berold.
  • ( Lands are swayed by a King on a throne.)
  • 'Twas a royal train put forth to sea,
  • Yet the tale can be told by none but me.
  • ( The sea hath no King but God alone.)
  • And now the end came o'er the waters' womb
  • Like the last great Day that's yet to come.
  • With prayers in vain and curses in vain,
  • The White Ship sundered on the mid-main:
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  • 150And what were men and what was a ship
  • Were toys and splinters in the sea's grip.
  • I Berold was down in the sea;
  • And passing strange though the thing may be,
  • Of dreams then known I remember me.
  • Blithe is the shout on Harfleur's strand
  • When morning lights the sails to land:
  • And blithe is Honfleur's echoing gloam
  • When mothers call the children home:
  • And high do the bells of Rouen beat
  • 170When the Body of Christ goes down the street.
  • These things and the like were heard & shown
  • In a moment's trance 'neath the sea alone;
  • And when I rose, 'twas the sea did seem,
  • And not these things, to be all a dream.
  • The ship was gone and the crowd was gone,
  • And the deep shuddered & the moon shone:
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  • And in a strait grasp my arms did span
  • The mainyard split from the mast where it ran;
  • And on it with me was another man.
  • 180Where lands were none 'neath the dim sea-sky,
  • We told our names, that man and I.
  • “O I am Godefroy de l'Aigle hight,
  • And son I am to a belted knight.”
  • “And I am Berold the butcher's son
  • Who slays the beasts in Rouen town.”
  • Then cried we upon God's name, as we
  • Did drift on the bitter winter sea.
  • But lo! a third man rose o'er the wave,
  • And we said, “Thank God! us three may He save!”
  • 190He clutched to the yard with panting stare,
  • And we looked & knew Fitz-Stephen there.
  • He clung, and “What of the Prince?” quoth he.
  • “Lost, lost!” we cried. He cried, “Woe on me!”
  • And loosed his hold & sank through the sea.
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  • And soul with soul again in that space
  • We two were together face to face:
  • And each knew each, as the moments sped,
  • Less for one living than for one dead:
  • And every still star overhead
  • 200Seemed an eye that knew we were but dead.
  • And the hours passed; till the noble's son
  • Sighed, “God be thy help! my strength's foredone!—
  • “O farewell, friend, for I can no more!”
  • “Christ take thee!” I moaned; & his life was o'er.
  • Three hundred souls were all lost but one,
  • And I drifted over the sea alone.
  • At last the morning rose o'er the sea
  • Like an angel's wing that beat tow'rds me.
  • Sore numbed I was in my sheepskin coat;
  • 210Half dead I hung, and might nothing note
  • Till I woke sun-warmed in a fisher-boat.
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  • The sun was high o'er the eastern brim
  • As I praised God and gave thanks to Him.
  • That day I told my tale to a priest,
  • Who charged me, till the shrift were releas'd,
  • That I should keep it in mine own breast.
  • And with the priest I thence did fare
  • To King Henry's court at Winchester.
  • We spoke with the King's high chamberlain,
  • 220And he wept and mourned again & again,
  • As if his own son had been slain:
  • And round us ever there crowded fast
  • Great men with faces all aghast:
  • And who so bold that might tell the thing
  • Which now they knew to their lord the King?
  • Much woe I learnt in their communing.
  • The King had watched with a heart sore stirr'd
  • For two whole days, and this was the third:
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  • And still to all his court would he say,
  • 230“What keeps my son so long away?”
  • And they said:— “The ports lie far and wide
  • That skirt the swell of the English tide;
  • “And England's cliffs are not more white
  • Than her women are, and scarce so light
  • Her skies as their eyes are blue and bright;
  • “And in some port that he reached from France
  • The Prince has lingered for his pleasaùnce.”
  • But once the King asked: “What distant cry
  • Was that we heard 'twixt the sea and sky?”
  • 240And one said: “With suchlike shouts, pardie!
  • Do the fishers fling their nets at sea.”
  • And one: “Who knows not the shrieking quest
  • When the sea-mew misses its young from the nest?”
  • 'Twas thus till now they had soothed his dread,
  • Albeit they knew not what they said:
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  • But who should speak today of the thing
  • That all knew there except the King?
  • Then pondering much they found a way,
  • And met round the King's high seat that day:
  • 250And the King sat with a heart sore stirr'd,
  • And seldom he spoke and seldom heard.
  • 'Twas then through the hall the King was 'ware
  • Of a little boy with golden hair,
  • As bright as the golden poppy is
  • That the beach breeds for the surf to kiss:
  • Yet pale his cheek as the thorn in Spring,
  • And his garb black like the raven's wing.
  • Nothing heard but his foot through the hall,
  • For now the lords were silent all.
  • 260And the King wondered, and said, “Alack!
  • Who sends me a fair boy dressed in black?
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  • “Why, sweet heart, do you pace through the hall
  • As though my court were a funeral?”
  • Then lowly knelt the child at the dais,
  • And looked up weeping in the King's face.
  • “O wherefore black, O King, ye may say,
  • For white is the hue of death today.
  • “Your son and all his fellowship
  • Lie in the Sea's bed with the White Ship.”
  • 270King Henry fell as a man struck dead;
  • And speechless still he stared from his bed
  • When to him next day my rede I read.
  • There's many an hour must needs beguile
  • A King's high heart that he should smile,—
  • Full many a lordly hour, full fain
  • Of his realm's rule and pride of his reign:—
  • But this King never smiled again.
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  • By none but me can the tale be told,
  • The butcher of Rouen, poor Berold.
  • 280( Lands are swayed by a King on a throne.)
  • 'Twas a royal train put forth to sea,
  • Yet the tale can be told by none but me.
  • ( The sea hath no King but God alone.)

D G Rossetti 1880.

(To Lucy Rossetti for her children,

with her brother's and their uncle's love.)

Transcription Gap: Ballads and Sonnets text (relevance to document questionable)
Transcribed Note (page 17):
Note: In this bound volume, Wise included the text from the fourth edition (1882) of DGR's Ballads and Sonnets, which has been omitted in this transcription.
Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 1-1878.blms.rad.xml
Copyright: By permission of the British Library