Today is National Poetry Day. PANZA (Poetry Archive of NZ Aotearoa) would like to celebrate by posting a classic New Zealand poem by John Henry Dillon (1860-1922).
Dillon was a New Zealand-born Manawatū poet and builder, living in Palmerston North. He was the son of John Frederick and Maria Dillon.
His only collection Echoes of the War and Other Poems, appeared in 1897 printed by Wm. Hart, Caxton Printing Works, Palmerston North, and J C Andersen lists it in his 1936 Author’s Week bibliography.
As well as poems concerning the land wars of the 19th century (‘The Fall of Von Tempsky’ for instance) and pioneering bush-life, the book contains a moving poem about the wreck of the steamship Wairarapa on the Great Barrier Rocks in 1894.
Andrew Fagan recently revisited this tragedy of New Zealand’s past for TV One’s series about New Zealand disasters, Descent from Disaster.
Dillon’s poem further illuminates the tragedy by offering a powerful insight into the ferocity of the ocean and illustrates the helplessness of the passengers aboard at the time the ship struck the rocks.
The poem will register strongly for all who lost family members in the tragedy.
PANZA recognises John Henry Dillon as a rewarding and worthwhile poet of the 19th century. He doesn’t appear in any New Zealand poetry anthology that PANZA is aware of.
John Henry Dillon
The Wreck of the Wairarapa on the Great Barrier Rocks
On a dark October evening, at the silent midnight hour,
Through the surge of maddened waters as they rush around her side;
With her head towards the harbour, though the storm clouds darkly lower,
Sweeps the steamer Wairarapa like a giant in his pride.
’Twas a summer Sabbath evening that had lulled them to their rest,
Who were sleeping in their cabins, dreaming little as they lay
Of the danger just before them, as they broke the billow’s crest,
Ploughing onward in the darkness o’er the dawning of the day.
For the fog was thick about them, hanging like a winding sheet,
And the waves beneath it murmured sullen, as they hurried by;
And the winds with fiendish hissing round about the rigging bent,
As they swept towards the danger hidden from the keenest eye.
Danger! what of danger was there when the ship was stout and tried,
She had breasted many a billow, passed unscathed through many a gale;
When the tempest in its fury swept across the ocean wide,
She had kept undaunted onward, never did her engines fail.
Danger! yes, when darkness gathers o’er the bosom of the deep,
And a heavy fog sinks slowly like a pall o’er land and sea;
Then ’twere better to be tossing on the wide expanse than keep
Where the jagged rocks are jutting, and the shore is on the lea.
For she speeds across the billows, cutting through the sheets of foam,
Still unchecked, though prudence whispers caution on so wild a coast;
And a sense of dire forebodings fill the anxious souls of some,
Though the captain keeps his vigil, and each man is at his post.
Yet they watch with straining vision through the darkness of the night,
For the friendly beacon flashing o’er the dense enfolding gloom;
Hoping still to catch the glimmer of the Mokohinui light,
Never dreaming they are dashing madly onward to their doom.
Sudden breaks a cry of warning from the look-out all too late,
As with eager eyes down-bending through the gloom he sees below
Whitened foam and curling waters; telling of a coming fate,
And the startled winds give echo, breakers underneath the bow!
All too late; one moment longer, o’er the man beside the wheel,
Quick to action, hears the order of the captain, comes the shock;
With the dreaded awful grinding of the fated vessel’s keel,
As she goes to helpless ruin on the jagged Barrier rock.
God can this be true! that blindly, on this wild temptuous night,
Far away from friend or succour, far away from human care;
Midst the heavy brooding darkness, with the tempest of its height,
They have rushed upon destruction in their madness unaware.
Was it madness! who can answer? Only on the Judgement Day,
When from silent depths of ocean shall the dead return again;
And the veil that shrouds the future be for ever rent away,
Will those lost effects and causes, with their issues be made plain.
Ah, but then that scene of terror, as the waves like wolves in chase,
Swept across the hapless vessel all unhindered as she lay;
Like a worn-out panting quarry, in the long and weary race,
Driven from its native refuge, hunted down and run to bay.
Then above the raging water, reaching upward to the sky,
Mingled with the storm wraiths shrieking, burst that helpless frenzied wail;
Moan of mothers in their anguish, sending up the pleading cry,
Most for loved ones swept to ruin where no help could e’er avail.
For like sheep without a shepherd, scattered impotent and frail,
Helpless in their awful peril, racked with anguish and despair;
How they battle with the fury of the unabated gale,
Lifting still the heart’s petition in the broken voice of prayer.
Flung in helpless dire confusion, on the wave-washed slippery deck,
Hurled resistless from their foothold, swept away across the side;
Tossed like bubbles on the billows, as they broke around the wreck,
Till the living hope within them and the breath of courage died.
Women frail of form and lacking strength to buffet with the wave,
Reared in luxurious lap and nurtured in the midst of warmth and ease;
Now the sport of angry waters where the strongest and the brave,
Sink in helplessness and shudder in the trough of angry seas.
Tossed about amongst the wreckage, bruised and battered on the sand,
Caught upon the backward roller as it followed in retreat;
Lifted up upon the breakers, flung again upon the land,
Till the spark of life was stifled and the heart had ceased to beat.
Never from the jaws of ruin, yawning ready to devour,
Struggled mortal in his peril, grappling fiercely with his doom;
More than they who with the fury of the tempest in its power,
Fought with death amidst the waters in the almost stygian gloom.
See those manly swimmers striking bravely for the wave-beat rocks,
Where the slippery foothold threatens death e’er they shall reach the crest;
Scarcely refuge there for human, where the screaming seagull flocks,
And amongst the ragged ledges high above them builds her nest.
Now they reach the place of safety, now the life-line stretches tight,
Down whose narrow way of rescue they who cluster on the deck;
And amongst the clammy rigging in the bitter blasts of night,
Fain must pass to leave behind them all the perils of the wreck.
But alas! no hand can ever reach to rescue those whose life
Ended with that Sabbath sunset, never more to see the light;
Lost amidst the briny waters in the vain unequal strife,
As the billows broke above them in the death fogs of the night.
Morning breaks, and through the mistage looks the sun o’er sea and land,
On the wreck amongst the breakers, on the wreckage on the beach;
On the lifeless forms now scattered in the seaweed and the sand,
Flung like refuse of the ocean up beyond the billows reach.
Morning breaks to wails of sorrow from the hearts bereft that mourn,
Far and wide, in hall and cottage, waiting vainly evermore,
For the loved ones lost and sundered, riven from their lives and torn,
Loved ones whom with greeting never shall they welcome at the door.
Though mayhap when years have ended, when the storms of life at last,
And the partings borne in anguish, and the waiting days are o’er;
Hands may join in tender greetings, while the memories of the past
Cease for ever in the sunlight of that bright eternal shore.
Poem © John Henry Dillon