The Starry Night

John Masefield

That starry Night when Christ was born,
The shepherds watched by Dead Man’s Thorn;
They shared their supper with the dogs,
And watched the sparks flick from the logs
Where the coppings from the holly burned.

  Then the dogs growled, and faced turned
To horsemen, coming from the hill.

  A Captain called to them, ‘Keep still…
We’re riding, seeking for a sign
Than human beings are divine…
Is there such marvel, hereabout?

  The shepherds said, ‘Us don’t know nowt.
We’re Mr Jones’s shepherd chaps.
Old Mr Jones might know, perhaps…
But if you’ve come this country road,
You’ve passed his house and never knowed.
There’s someone in the town might know;
A mile on, keeping as you go’.

  Long after all had disappeared,
More horsemen (from the woodland), neared;
And one, a King, with a dark skin,
Cried, ‘Friends, are gods and men akin?
A wonder tells of this, they say.
Is it near here? Is this the way?’

  ‘Why, no’ the shepherds said….’Perhaps.
We’re Mr. Jones’s shepherd chaps.
Old Mr. Jones would know, I wis,
But he’ll be gone to bed  by this.

  After the troop had passed away
A third came (from the River way)
And cried, ‘Good friends, we seek to find
Some guidance for the questing mind,
Eternity, in all this Death,
Some life out-living flesh and breath.
Can we find this, the way we ride?

  ‘You’d better picket down and bide,’
The shepherds said ‘And rest your bones.
We’re shepherds here to Mr. Jones.
When morning comes, you ask of he,
For he’d know more of that than we.
We’re only shepherds here; so bide.’

  ‘We cannot wait’ the horseman cried.
‘Life cannot wait; Death cannot stay;
This midnight is our only day.
Push on, friends; shepherd all, farewell.
This living without Life is Hell’.

  The clatter of the horse-hoofs failed,
Along the wood a barn-owl wailed;
The small mice rustled in the wood;
The stars burned in their multitude.

  Meanwhile, within the little town,
The camping horsemen settled down;
The horses drank at stream and fed
On chaff, from nose-bags, picketed.
The men rolled blankets out, and stretched;
Black Nim their hard cheese supper fetched;
Then, after spirit from the gourd,
Each turned to sleep without a word,
But shortly roused again to curse
A some-one calling for a nurse
To help a woman in her woe.

  All this was very long ago.


Copyright © The Estate of John Masefield.  All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of John Masefield. "The Starry Night" is also published in Cancarnet's 2005 edition of "Sea Fever: Selected Poems of John Masefield"   (Contact Carcanet)

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