On the Embankment

Alfred Noyes

Within, it was colour and laughter, warmth and wine.
Without, it was darkness, hunger and bitter cold,
Where those white globes on the wet Embankment shine,
Greasing the Thames with gold.

And was it a bundle of fog in the dark drew nigh?
A bundle of rags and bones it crept to the light,—
A monstrous thing that coughed as it shuffled by,
A shape of the shapeless night,

Spawned as brown things that mimic their mothering earth,
Green creeping things that the grass lifts to the sun,
Out of its wrongs the City had brought to the birth
The shape of those wrongs, in one.

A woman, a woman whose lips had once been kissed,
(It was Christmas Eve, and the bells began their chime!)
She sank to a seat like a coughing bundle of mist
Exhaled from the river-slime.

Bells for the birth of Christ! She heard, and she thought—
Vacantly—of her man, that was long since dead,
The smell of the Christmas food, and the drink they had bought
Together, the year they were wed.

She thought of their one-room home, and the night-long sigh
Recalled, as he slept, of his breath in her loosened hair.
He slept. She opened her haggard eyes with a cry.
But only the night was there.

Nay, out of the formless night, at her furtive glance,
Crouched at the end of her cold wet bench, there grew
A bundle of fog, a bundle of rags that, perchance,
Once was a woman, too.

A huddled shape, a fungus of foul grey mist
Spawned of the river, in peace and much good-will,
And even the woman whose lips had once been kissed
Wondered, it crouched so still.

No breath, no shadow of breath in the lamp-light smoked,
It crouched so still—that bunch at the bench’s end.
She stretched her neck like a crow, then leaned and croaked,
“A Merry Christmas, friend!”

She rose, and peered, peered at its vacant eyes.
Touched its cold claws. Its arms of knotted bone
Were wands of ice; like iron rods the thighs;
The left breast—like a stone.

Far, far along the rows of warmth and light
The Christmas waits, with cornet and bassoon,
Carolled “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.”
The bells pealed to the moon.

A bundle of rags and bones, a bundle of mist,
And never a hell or heaven to hear or see,
The woman, the woman whose lips had once been kissed,
Knelt down feverishly.

She plucked the shawl out of that frozen clutch.
The dead are dead. Why should the living freeze?
She touched the cold flesh that she feared to touch
Kneeling upon her knees.

Her palsied hands unlaced the shoes—good shoes!—
She tore them quick from the crooked yellow feet.
If Death be generous, why should Life refuse
To take, and pawn, and eat?

A heavy step drew nearer thro’ the mist.
She bundled them into the shawl. Her eyes were bright.
The woman, the woman whose lips had once been kissed,
Slunk, chuckling, thro’ the night.

The Embankment is part of the view from Westminster Bridge which Wordsworth thought so beautiful. Noyes has the globed lights (which are still there) "greasing the Thames" with their light.