THE LEAK IN THE DIKE
by: Phoebe Cary (1824-1871)
- HE good dame looked from her cottage
- At the close of the pleasant day,
- And cheerily called to her little son
- Outside the door at play:
- "Come, Peter, come! I want you to go,
- While there is light to see,
- To the hut of the blind old man who lives
- Across the dike, for me;
- And take these cakes I made for him--
- They are hot and smoking yet;
- You have time enough to go and come
- Before the sun is set."
- Then the good wife turned to her labor,
- Humming a simple song,
- And thought of her husband, working hard
- At the sluices all day long;
- And set the turf a-blazing,
- And brought the coarse, black bread,
- That he might find a fire at night,
- And see the table spread.
- And Peter left the brother
- With whom all day he had played,
- And the sister who had watched their sports
- In the willow's tender shade;
- And told them they'd see him back before
- They saw a star in sight --
- Though he wouldn't be afraid to go
- In the very darkest night!
- For he was a brave, bright fellow,
- With eye and conscience clear;
- He could do whatever a boy might do,
- And he had not learned to fear.
- Why, he wouldn't have robbed a bird's nest,
- Nor brought a stork to harm,
- Though never a law in Holland
- Had stood to stay his arm!
- And now, with his face all glowing,
- And eyes as bright as the day
- With the thoughts of his pleasant errand,
- He trudged along the way;
- And soon his joyous prattle
- Made glad a lonesome place--
- Alas! if only the blind old man
- Could have seen that happy face!
- Yet he somehow caught the brightness
- Which his voice and presence lent;
- And he felt the sunshine come and go
- As Peter came and went.
- And now, as the day was singing,
- And the winds began to rise,
- The mother looked from her door again,
- Shading her anxious eyes,
- And saw the shadows deepen,
- And birds to their homes come back,
- But never a sign of Peter
- Along the level track.
- But she said, "He will come at morning,
- So I need not fret or grieve--
- Though it isn't like my boy at all
- To stay without my leave."
- But where was the child delaying?
- On the homeward way was he,
- And across the dike while the sun was up
- An hour above the sea.
- He was stooping now to gather flowers;
- Now listening to the sound,
- As the angry waters dashed themselves
- Against their narrow bound.
- "Ah! well for us," said Peter,
- "That the gates are good and strong,
- And my father tends them carefully,
- Or they would not hold you long!
- You're a wicked sea," said Peter;
- "I know why you fret and chafe;
- You would like to spoil our lands and homes;
- But our sluices keep you safe!"
- But hark! through the noise of waters
- Comes a low, clear, trickling sound;
- And the child's face pales with terror,
- As his blossoms drop to the ground.
- He is up the bank in a moment,
- And, stealing through the sand,
- He sees a stream not yet so large
- As his slender, childish hand.
- 'Tis a leak in the dike! He is but a boy,
- Unused to fearful scenes;
- But, young as he is, he has learned to know
- The dreadful thing that means.
- A leak in the dike! The stoutest heart
- Grows faint that cry to hear,
- And the bravest man in all the land
- Turns white with mortal fear.
- For he knows the smallest leak may grow
- To a flood in a single night;
- And he knows the strength of the cruel sea
- When loosed in its angry might.
- And the boy! He has seen the danger,
- And, shouting a wild alarm,
- He forces back the weight of the sea
- With the strength of a single arm!
- He listens for the joyful sound
- Of a footstep passing nigh;
- And lays his ear to the ground, to catch
- The answer to his cry,--
- And he hears the rough winds blowing,
- And the waters rise and fall,
- But never an answer comes to him
- Save the echo of his call.
- He sees no hope, no succor,
- His feeble voice is lost;
- Yet what shall he do but watch and wait,
- Though he perish at his post!
- So, faintly calling and crying
- Till the sun is under the sea;
- Crying and moaning till the stars
- Come out for company;
- He thinks of his brother and sister,
- Asleep in their safe warm bed;
- He thinks of his dear father and mother;
- Of himself as dying, and dead;
- And of how, when the night is over,
- They must come and find him at last;
- But he never thinks he can leave the place
- Where duty holds him fast.
- The good dame in the cottage
- Is up and astir with the light,
- For the thought of her little Peter
- Has been with her all the night.
- And now she watches the pathway,
- As yester-eve she had done;
- But what does she see so strange and black
- Against the rising sun?
- Her neighbors are bearing between them
- Something straight to her door;
- Her child is coming home, but not
- As he ever came before!
- "He is dead!" she cries; "my darling!"
- And the startled father hears,
- And comes and looks the way she looks,
- And fears the thing she fears;
- Till a glad shout from the bearers
- Thrills the stricken man and wife--
- "Give thanks, for your son has saved ou land,
- And God has saved his life!"
- So, there in the morning sunshine
- They knelt about the boy;
- And every head was bared and bent
- In tearful, reverent joy.
- 'Tis many a year since then; but still,
- When the sea roars like a flood,
- Their boys are taught what a boy can do
- Who is brave and true and good.
- For every man in that country
- Takes his dear son by the hand,
- And tells him of little Peter,
- Whose courage saved the land.
- They have many a valiant hero,
- Remembered through the years;
- But never one whose name so oft
- Is named with loving tears.
- And his deed shall be sung by the cradle,
- And told to the child on the knee,
- So long as the dikes of Holland
- Divide the land from the sea!
POEMS BY PHOEBE CARY
|"The Leak in the Dike" is reprinted from Historic Poems and Ballads. Ed. Rupert S. Holland. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Co., 1912.
A GREAT part of the land of Holland is lower than the level of the sea about its shores. For this reason that country and the provinces that adjoin it gained the name of "The Low Countries," or "The Netherlands." In order to keep the sea from flooding their homes the Hollanders built great walls of earth, called dikes, and spent large sums of money in repairing them. The smallest leak was a tremendous danger. In a very short time it would cause a break in the dike and let the ocean in to sweep across farms and cities.
Sometimes, when the country was at war with Spain, or some of the other great powers that tried to conquer it, the people of Holland would break the dikes themselves, and flood their country in order to defeat the invaders. This was a very costly method of defense, but several times the brave people had to resort to it.
Phoebe Cary, an American poet, wrote this poem of a Dutch boy named Peter. His mother sent him at sunset one day to carry some cakes to an old man who lived near the dike. He did the errand, and turned homeward, stopping to pick some flowers on the way. As he walked along he heard the angry sea dashing against the wall that kept it out, and he thought it was well that the wall was strong and that his father and other men watched it carefully.
Presently he heard a trickling noise. He looked for it, and saw a small stream, not as large as his hand, coming through the dike. He knew what that meant. If it was not stopped the leak would tear down the wall, the sea would sweep in, and destroy hundreds of villages. No one was there to help him, and there was no time to lose. So he pressed his hand to the crack and held it there while he called again and again for aid.
No one came, and Peter had to stay, holding back the sea, while the night passed. His mother wondered what had happened to him, and was up at dawn looking across the fields for him. After a while she saw some neighbors coming toward her, carrying someone. They had found the boy at his post of duty, and they brought him back alive to his mother. By holding the sea outside the dike he had saved his country.
This story has been told many times in prose and poetry. It is one of the legends of Holland that fathers tell their sons when the boys are old enough to understand how the dikes divide the land from the sea.
|This analysis of "The Leak in the Dike" is reprinted from Historic Poems and Ballads. Ed. Rupert S. Holland. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Co., 1912.