I’m bound for the Rio Grande !
I’m bound for the Rio Grande!
No one who is old enough to remember the glorious spectacle of a full-rigged American clipper ship getting under full sail outside of the headlands of a harbor, after having been cast off by the tug, is likely to have forgotten the sight: the white sails dropping from the yards, being sheeted home, and swelling out to the fresh wind, until a cloud of canvas sparkled in the sun ; the strong and graceful life which the ship took on under their power; the foam curling up under the bow with her forward rush ; the great plain of the ocean, with all its free airs and salt scents, beckoning to life and adventure seaward round the world. To this, to one on board or near enough to hear, will be added the indefinable and mysterious charm of the sailors’ chants, as they haul in the bowline, and tauten up the tacks and sheets by a pull requiring unison of effort; and the cadence, at once long-drawn and vigorous, fills the air with a magic voice of the wind and the sea. It has the melopœism, if it may be so called, of the cadence of nature, and takes its note from the solitude and melancholy of the world, never more impressive than upon the vast plain of the sea. It has been heard from immemorial time, since the first oarsmen pulled together along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, and possesses the same essence in whatever language it is uttered ; and, while it has its practical purpose in securing unison and accentuation of effort, it would be a mistake to suppose it without origin in and appeal to the innate impulse for the expression of sentiment in melody in the heart of man. Every sea captain knows, or used to know, how much more quickly the anchor came up, or how much more hearty were the pulls on the bowlines, if there were a full-lunged and melodious leader for the “ shanty ; ” and his practical-minded mate would at times shout, when the chorus was going faintly and mechanically, “ Sing out there, can’t ye ? ” with the same purpose with which he would exhort the men to take a stronger pull. Conversely, a poor leader, or a second who could not or would not keep in proper time, was a decided injury to the effectiveness of the labor ; and it sometimes happened that an energetic captain, when his ship was being got under way, would step up to a sailor, apparently heaving sturdily at the windlass, and knock him sprawling, for the reason that he had detected him giving the wrong time to the chant, out of mischief, or for the sake of testing the sharpness and intelligence of the " old man.”
The words of these windlass and bowline “ shanties ” have, of course, little of the element of finished poetry about them. They are not songs, but chants, whose purpose is to give accentuation and force to the exertion of united strength rather than to the expression of sentiment, and of which the rhythmical melody is the essential element. Whether they be new or old, they always have been essentially improvisations, capable of being stopped at any moment or added to indefinitely, and, like the refrains of the old ballads, are dependent upon the sound rather than the sense for their effect. Nevertheless, however imperfect and indefinite their expression, they took their tone and color originally from the elements in which they were born, and gave out not only the voice of the sea and the wind, the notes of the never silent Æolian harp of the cordage and the bellying sails, but the prevailing sentiment of the human heart upon the great deep, its underlying oppression, its longing for home, its craving for relief from monotony ; and it is a dull ear that would not detect this under the most absurd and uncouth words ever strung together in a sailor’s shanty.
As among the seamen of all races, the chants of the American sailors, before they were so reduced in quality and number by the combined influence of steam vessels and a protective tariff, were of ancient and indefinite origin, and were constantly being altered or added to by circumstance and improvisation. They came, of course, first from the English seamen, who were our sailors’ ancestors and associates, to whom at least the element descended from the songs to which the galleys of the sea kings of Scandinavia were impelled over the foaming brine, or the Celtic coracle was paddled on the lonely lake; and it is impossible, in a mass of rude verse, of little definite meaning, of a fluid and fluctuating form, and handed down from lip to lip without ever, except incidentally, having been put into print and preserved, to fix the origin or the date of creation of any of these songs. There are traces of old phrases and archaisms, ancient words strangely metamorphosed into a semblance of modern meaning, and all such settlings and deposits as are to be found in the geological strata of spoken language, — references to mermaids, sea serpents, and survivals of myths regarding the powers of the sea and air; but they are of no such distinct historic value as are the indications to be found in the more definite folk lore in prose or verse, which have the element of dramatic interest and narrative. It is to be remembered that these chants, as we have said, were essentially improvisations, with a purpose different from ordinary song, — that is, to give the governing power of melody to united exertion, — and that whatever color and substance they have are extraneous, and not inherent. What is distinctively American can be determined only by local allusions or by definite knowledge of their origin : the first are of very little value, for an English chant, with its local allusions, might be very readily altered into an American one by the substitution of American names ; and in regard to the second, as has been said, the songs were born, and passed from mouth to mouth, and from ship to ship, without any one’s knowing or caring where they originated. Nevertheless, the American sailors, when there were American sailors, had as strong a national and provincial feeling as those of any other country; were capable of making their own chants, if not as much given to improvisation as those of the Latin races; and had a selection of local names as sonorous and as readily adapted to the needs of a rhythmical chorus as those of any English-speaking people. The Rio Grande and the Shenandoah were as mouth-filling and sonorous as the High Barbarie or any of the refrains of the English shanties, and the American sailor sheeted home his canvas with Virginia Ashore, or Baltimore, or Down to Mobile Bay in his remembrance as well as on his lips.
Premising that American shanties are not American sea songs in any definite sense of the term, and fulfill only the conditions to which they are subject as aids to labor and stimulants to exertion, we may take a specimen or two to show what they were like. It is needless to say that neither the words nor a musical notation would give any idea of their effect when sung with full-throated chorus to sea and sky, and that their peculiar melodious cadence and inflection can be caught only by hearing them. Like the chants of the negro slaves, which they resemble in many respects, musical notes would give only the skeleton of the melody, which depends for its execution upon an element which it defies the powers of art to symbolize. They have various forms, — a continued and unbroken melody, as when turning the capstan or pumping, or they show an emphatic accentuation at regular intervals, as when stretching out a bowline with renewed pulls ; and such as they are, they are given precisely as sung, with a dependence upon the reader’s imagination to supply in some degree the cadence and accentuation. The following are good specimens of the bowline chants.
Chorus. Way-hay, knock a man down !
Solo. A-rolling cotton night and day,
Chorus. This is the time to knock a man down!
And so on ad infinitum, until the hoarse “ Belay ! ” of the mate or the “ bosun ” ends it.
Hooray, you rolling river !
Oh, Shenandoah ’s a rolling river,
Ah-hah, I ’m bound away to the wild Missouri !
Hurrah, you high-low!
For without Tommy I can’t do,
My Tommy ’s gone a high-low!
My Tommy ’s gone to Baltimore, etc.
A favorite and familiar pulling song is Whiskey for my Johnny : —
We 'll drink our whiskey while we can,
Whiskey for my Johnny !
The way she drinks it is a sin,
For she drinks whiskey in her tea,
And she put whiskey in her pies,
For without whiskey I can’t do, etc.
A very enlivening windlas or pumping chant is I ’m Bound for the Rio Grande: —
Oh, you Rio!
I ’m bound away this very day,
I’m bound for the Rio Grande !
And away, you Rio, oh, you Rio!
I 'm bound away this ve-ry day,
I ’m bound for the Rio Grande !
Another is Homeward Bound with a Roaring Breeze : —
Good-by, fare you well !
We ’re homeward bound with a roaring breeze,
Hurrah, my boys ! We ’re homeward bound!
Good-by, fare you well!
She rooms at the Astor and dines at the Bell,
Hurrah, my boys ! We ’re homeward bound !
There were many, with slight American variants, which were undoubtedly of English origin, and have been heard on English merchant ships from time immemorial ; some which relate especially to the operations of whaling ; and some which had their origin on the river flatboats and in the choruses of the roustabouts on the Ohio and Mississippi, and have been only slightly changed for salt-water purposes, the quality being as little varied as the number is endless. Their essential quality was that of an improvised chant, and the dominant feeling was to be found in the intermingling of the words and the cadence, as in the apparently meaningless refrain of the old ballads. They expressed, through all their rudeness and uncouthness, and more through the melody than the words, the minor chords which distinguish all folk music, the underlying element in the human heart oppressed by the magnitude and solitude of nature, as well as the enlivening spirit of strong exertion ; and no sensitive ear could ever call them really gay, however vigorous and lively they might be. The shanties are passing away with the substitution of iron cranks and pulleys for the muscles of men, and the clank of machinery has taken the place of the melodious chorus from human throats. It is not probable that they will ever entirely disappear so long as men go down to the sea in ships ; but whatever life and flavor they had will fade away, and the first-class leading tenor among the “ shanty men ” will vanish with the need and appreciation of his skill. As for the old words, they will also be utterly lost, because they have no existence except in oral recitation and memory, and do not contain enough of the elements of pure poetry to secure their preservation in print, as the folk songs and ballads have been preserved. They are relics of custom rather than of literature; and although any poet or musician who deals with the sea will miss a source of very valuable inspiration if he does not possess himself of the spirit of their weird melody and the unconscious power of their vigorous rhythm, in themselves they are likely to be lost with the chants of the Phœnician sailors or the rowers of the galley of Ulysses, which they have succeeded, and some of whose melody they have perhaps reproduced.
The genuine sea songs differ from the shanties in that they had a definite poetical purpose to tell a story or express emotion, and were not merely words strung together to give voice to a rhythm of labor. It cannot be said that the genius of the American sailor has turned itself especially to expressing his emotions in song, any more than that of the English. His nature is entirely too practical, and the touch of tender sentiment which, in the Scotch nature, produced the beautiful fishing songs of the coast and the grand rowing and boat songs of the Western Islands, is wanting alike in him and his English associate. The French, as sailors, are not to be compared with the English or Americans in native fondness for the sea, but there is no genuine sea song in the English language that will compare, for sweetness, grace, and melody, with such songs as Jean Renaud, Trois Matelots de Croix, Saute, ma Jolie Blonde, or that one of infinite beauty and tender pathos, La Femme du Marin, in which the husband, returning from the wars, finds that his dear wife has been informed that he is dead, and has married again; and without a word the
Brave marin vida son verre,
Sans remercier, tout en pleurant,
S’en retourua-t-au régiment,
It is needless to say that this gentle chivalry would find no echo in the heart of the ordinary English or American Jack Tar, and the voice of the forecastle would be that he was a sanguinary and condemned milksop and duffer; a marine, in fact.
It would probably astonish must readers to be told that English literature is singularly deficient in sea songs, when they have in memory the noble odes of Campbell, the long list of the Tom Bowlings and Jack Junks of Dibdin, Cherry’s Bay of Biscay and The Minute Gun at Sea, and the many good songs about ships and sea fights by Barry Cornwall, Cunningham, and many others. But these songs were not written by sailors. There never has been any English sailor, except the respectable William Falconer, the author of The Shipwreck, in several cantos of desiccated decasyllabic verse, who has written of the sea in verse from the standpoint of actual experience, or to do for it in poetry what Captain Marryat, Michael Scott, and W. Clark Russell have done in prose. English sea songs have been written by landsmen; even the charming Wapping Old Stairs is a song of the waterside, and not of the ocean; and as for the famous heroes of Dibdin’s nautical songs, including Tom Bowling himself, they are very much, as Thackeray said, “ har-lar ” Mr. T. P. Cooke, the actor, who personated the gallant Jack Tar in a very blue jacket with very bright buttons, and very white duck trousers, and appealed to “ England, Home, and Beauty ” as represented in the cits of the gallery at Sadler’s Wells theatre. Dibdin’s heroes smell of stage gas rather than of tar, and their purpose and effect were very much more to persuade susceptible landsmen that the British navy was an elysium, in which beating Frenchmen was a glorious episode in an existence devoted mainly to passing the case between decks at sea and basking in the smiles of lovely Nan and faithful Poll on shore, than to tell what the seamen themselves really felt about it. The writers of the ordinary English sea songs had their lodgings in the neighborhood of Drury Lane rather than in the forecastle, and their inspiration was as strictly commercial as that of Mr. Slum, who supplied the anagrams and acrostics announcing the treasures in Mrs. Jarley’s waxworks. Some of them are good in their way, as are a few of those of Dibdin and Andrew Cherry, and particularly The Saucy Arethusa, in which there is a real flavor of the sea spirit, and which was written by one Prince Hoare, a comic opera libretto writer of sixty years ago ; the author, by the way, of Mrs. Micawber’s favorite song, Little Tafflin with the Silken Sash. But when one comes to look for real forecastle songs, written by a sailor, and smelling of pitch and tar, one finds very few. Doubtless some have been lost, although there is a strong vitality to anything that is good ; but except Robert Kidd, Sailing down on the High Barbarie, Captain Glen, Jacky Tar with his Trousers on, — the immortal song which appealed to the feeling heart of Captain Edward Cuttle,
And not give me my heart’s delight;
Give me the lad whose tarry trousers
Shine to me like diamonds bright,” —
The Mermaid, and a few others, there is nothing which indicates that the British sailor was given to expressing himself in verse beyond the simple exigencies of the shanty. The ease was very much the same with the American, and, under ordinary circumstances, it would be as vain to look for poetical feeling in the shrewd, practical-minded, and gritty New England seaman as in his more stolid and coarse-fibred English associate. Nevertheless, so much of the best spirit of the American people was once turned toward the sea for its field of action, its naval history has been so inspiring to national pride, and its record of adventure in all parts of the world has been so remarkable that it would have been impossible that it should not have produced some worthy or at least illustrative fruit in poetry.
The era of the Revolution was not distinguished for its naval exploits, except the memorable raid of the Scotch adventurer, John Paul Jones, upon the English seas, and the fight of the Bonhomme Richard with the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough, for the reason that the colonies had no war-ships, and no means of procuring any. There were, however, a few privateers: the Hyder Ali, commanded by Captain Barney, which won a victory over the British vessel General Monk, and was celebrated in verse by Philip Freneau, and for which he wrote a recruiting song, with at least one verse of a practical tendency: —
I know your hearts are firm and stout.
American blood will never give out,
As often we have proved it; ”
the Fair American, commanded by Captain Daniel Hawthorne, which fought a British snow, laden with troops, off the coast of Portugal, and whose exploits are recorded in a ballad of very considerable spirit, and evidently by one of the crew ; and some others, who did not happen to have a poet on board or a laureate on shore, and are not embalmed in verse. To this period, however, belongs what is, perhaps, the very best of American sea songs. We do not know whether its authorship was of that time or not, although it probably was, and from internal evidence would seem to have been composed by one of the very crew of the Ranger, Paul Jones’s ship, which escaped from a British squadron in the Irish Channel, in 1778. It was first published by Commodore Luce, in his collection of Naval Songs, with the statement that it was taken down from the recitation of a sailor. It is one of the gems of forecastle song, has the full scent of the brine and the gale, and the ship does not manœuvre as if she were a wagon on dry land, as was said of Allan Cunningham’s account of Paul Jones’s cruiser. The title given is
THE YANKEE MAN-OF-WAR.
And the whistling wind from the west-nor’-west blew through the pitch-pine spars.
With her starboard tacks aboard, my boys, she hung upon the gale.
On an autumn night we raised the light on the old head of Kinsale.
As gayly over the sparkling deep our good ship bowled along;
With the foaming seas beneath her bow the fiery waves she spread,
And bending low her bosom of snow, she buried her lee cat-head.
And under the press of her pond’ ring jib the boom bent like a hoop,
And the groaning water-ways told the strain that held her stout main tack.
But he only laughed as he glanced abaft at a white and silvery track.
And the mist hung heavy upon the land from Featherstone to Dunmore ;
And that sterling light on Tucker rock, where the old bell tolls the hour,
And the beacon light that shone so bright was quenched on Waterford tower.
The spanker and her standing jib, the spanker being fast.
“ Now, lay aloft, my heroes bold, let not a moment pass! ”
And royals and topgallant sails were quickly on each mast.
’T is time our good ship hauled her wind abreast the old saltees ;
For by her ponderous press of sail and by her consorts four
We saw our morning visitor was a British man-of-war.
“ Haul snug your flowing courses, lay your topsail to the mast !”
The Englishmen gave three loud hurrahs from the deck of their covered ark,
And we answered back by a solid broadside from the decks of our patriot bark.
And the swiftest keel that ever was launched shot ahead of the British fleet.
And amidst a thundering shower of shot, with stunsails hoisting away,
Down the North Channel Paul Jones did steer, just at the break of day.
The naval war of 1812 was a glorious epoch in American history. The achievements of the troops were very far from creditable, with a few exceptions, including, of course, the great one of the repulse of British regulars at New Orleans; but on the ocean the American sailors proved themselves quite the equal, if not more, of the English seamen, who had learned to consider themselves invincible, and despised the petty fleet of half a dozen cruisers, — not a single line-ofbattle ship in the number, — which they had force enough to sweep off the seas without a struggle, and which they finally dill blockade into inaction. There was quite an outburst of surprise, incredulity, and indignation in England, when the news came in that British frigates, one after another, the Guerriere, the Java, and the Macedonian, had been captured in single-ship fights by American ships of the same grade, and that in contests between vessels of smaller size, like the Wasp and the Frolic, the Hornet and the Peacock, Yankee pluck and seamanship had been equally successful; and British naval historians, then and since, have been earnest in showing that the victories were due to superior weight of metal, to the presence of deserters from the British navy on board the American ships, and to the accidents of naval warfare. Nevertheless, the facts of the captures remained the same, and privateers ravaged the seas, plundering and burning English ships, and causing the most bitter annoyance as well as incalculable loss and damage. To the vindictive depreciation and abuse of the English writers the Americans were not slow to respond, with a joyous outburst of national pride and exultation, and a mighty flapping of the wings of the American eagle, and the poets and song-writers joined in the shrill cock-a-doodle-doo of victory. The country was a great deal more boastful and self-assertive than it has been since it has come to rely on its own strength and has known the achievement of the great and sobering task of the civil war. The spirit of the spread eagle pervaded our national literature; the poets burst into songs, — generally, it must be admitted, very bad, — in which they celebrated the naval victories of the day. They indulged in mythological flights of the highest kind, in which Neptune bestowed a laurel crown upon Hull, Amphitrite smiled upon Bainbridge and Decatur, and the Tritons and the Nereids joined in a chorus of love and admiration for the American sailor. America, Commerce, and Freedom appeared as conjoined goddesses, and everybody was summoned to fill the bumper and pledge the flowing bowl, to thank the mighty Jove and invoke Bacchus, and do all sorts of things entirely unfamiliar to a people whose principal intoxicating beverages were Medford rum and Monongahela whiskey, and who had not the slightest acquaintance with heathen gods and goddesses. It is needless to say that none of these songs were written by sailors, or were ever sung by them, even if they could have been sung by anybody.
There was, however, better stuff than this in the naval songs of the war of 1812. The American sailor himself sometimes cleared his cheek of its quid, and sang in a clear if somewhat nasal voice some of the deeds which he had seen and done. Thus there is a great deal of rude vigor in one of the verses of a song describing the fight between the Constitution and the Guerriere, the first of our naval victories, and a very favorite theme : —
At the roaring of the Bull.
His heart filled with anything but fears ;
And squirting out his quid,
As he saw the captain did,
He cleaned out his mouth for three cheers.”
Another song on the same engagement, entitled Halifax Station, begins thus : —
To take or be taken, called Dacres by name;
And who but a Yankee he met on his way;
Says the Yankee to him, 1 Will you stop and
take tea ? ’ ”
After giving Dacres’s high and mighty address to his crew, and Hull’s more modest appeal, it says : —
Swore we ‘d stick by brave Hull, while a seaman could steer.
Then at it we went with a mutual delight,
For to fight and to conquer is a seaman’s free right.”
The poet naturally takes the privilege of presenting the confounded Britisher in the most humiliating light, and the manner in which Captain Dacres signified his surrender is probably more graphic than historically correct: —
When he found that his masts had all gone by the board.
And, dropping astern, cries out to his steward,
‘ Come up and be d—d ! Fire a gun to leeward ! ' ”
This battle, fought in the North Atlantic on August 2, 1812, between the American frigate Constitution, Captain Isaac Hull, and the British frigate Guerriere, Captain James R. Dacres, and one of consummate seamanship as well as fighting capacity on the part of Hull, was the theme of the best and most spirited song of the whole war; one which still keeps its place in the forecastle, and, it may be hoped, will keep it so long as Uncle Sam has a war-ship afloat. It is set to a very lively and emphatic air, called, indifferently, The Landlady of France and The Bandy-Legged Officer, from the coarsely comical words which George Colman, the younger, had written to it.
THE CONSTITUTION AND THE GUERRIERE.
That the British sailors bold
Could flog the tars of France so neat and handy, O.
And they never found their match
Till the Yankees did them catch.
O, the Yankee boys for fighting are the dandy, O.
On the foaming ocean rolled,
Commanded by proud Dacres, the grandee, O.
With choice of British crew,
As ever rammer drew,
They could flog the Frenchmen two to one so handy, O.
Says proud Dacres to his crew,
“ Come, clear the ship for action, and be handy, O.
To the weather-gage, boys, get her,”
And to make his men fight better
Gave them to drink gunpowder in their brandy, O.
“ Make this Yankee ship your prize !
You can in thirty minutes, neat and handy, O.
Thirty-five’s enough, I 'm sure ;
And if you ’ll do it in a score,
I ’ll give you a double dose of brandy, O.”
Which the Yankee answered not,
Till they got within the distance they called handy, O.
Now says Hull unto his crew,
“ Boys, let ’s see what we can do.
If we take this boasting Briton, we ’re the dandy, O.”
Carried their mainmast by the board,
Which made the lofty frigate look abandoned, O.
Then Dacres shook his head,
And to his officers he said,
“ Lord! I did n’t think these Yankees were so handy, O.”
That their fore and mizzen fell,
Which doused the royal ensign so handy, O.
“ By George,” says he, “ we ’re done! ”
And he fired a lee gun,
While the Yankees struck up Yankee doodle dandy, O.
To deliver up his sword.
Loath was he to part with it, it was so handy, O.
“ O, keep your sword,” says Hull,
“ For it only makes you dull.
So cheer up ; let us take a little brandy, O.”
And we ’ll drink to Captain Hull,
And so merrily will push about the brandy, O.
John Bull may toast his fill,
Let the world say what it will,
But the Yankee boys for fighting are the dandy, O.
The English celebrated their one signal victory of the war — the capture of the Chesapeake by the Shannon, off Boston Light, a year later — by a parody of this song, of a decidedly inferior quality.
One of the most notable events of the war was the cruise of the Essex, Captain David Porter, in the South Pacific, in 1813 and 1814. She did an immense amount of damage to the British whalemen, and the British ships Cherub and Phœbe were sent to capture her. After a rencontre in the harbor of Valparaiso, in which the captain of the Phœbe, taken at a disadvantage, protested his purpose to respect the neutrality of the port, and a challenge from which the British ships ran away, the Essex was caught disabled by a squall, chased into a harbor near Valparaiso, and captured after a tremendous engagement, in which the calibre of the British guns gave them every advantage, and in which the neutrality of the port was not taken into account. There was a poet on board the Essex, and he produced a long ballad describing the cruise and the retreat of the British ships before the challenge ; but whether he perished in the later fight, or had no heart to add it to his verses, is not known. Among the crew of the Essex who did survive the fight was Midshipman David G. Farragut, who lived to achieve the greatest naval renown since that of Nelson, and be the theme of The Bay Fight, the noblest sea poem yet written.
The ballad of the Essex is entitled “ A Pleasant New Song. Chanted by Nathan Whiting (through his nose) for the amusement of the galley slaves on board the Phœbe, who are allowed to sing nothing but psalms. ” After describing the beginning of the trouble caused by “John Bull’s taking our ships and kidnapping our true sailors,” and the capture of British vessels in the first year of the war, the ballad takes up the cruise of the Essex.
To see what she could do.
Her captain is from Yankee land,
And so are all her crew.
Down to the Galapagos,
And toted all the terrapins,
And nabbed the slippery whalers.
Why, down to the Marquesas.
And there we buried underground
Some thousand golden pieces.
Sinking, burning, taking,
Filling pockets, spilling oil,
While Johnny’s heart was aching.”
The ballad then describes the arrival of the Phœbe and Cherub and the rencontre in Valparaiso Bay, the challenge and the flight of the Phœbe, in verses which have a great deal of rude vigor.
And called us traitors all,
And Swore he ’d fight our gallant crew,
Paddies and Scots and all.
Swearing, as sure as day,
He ’d starve us all or dare us out
Of Valparaiso Bay.
As if he thought to fright us,
Run up his flag and fired a gun
To say that he would fight us.
And ran down on his quarter,
And Johnny clapped his helm hard up,
And we went following after.
Soon bent his scurvy way,
While we returned in merry glee
To Valparaiso Bay.
We ’ll take no farther trouble,
Since all the world must fairly know
They ’ll only fight us double.
4 Free trade and sailors’ rights.’
May liquor never fail the lad
Who for his country fights.
And toast them as they run:
4 Here ’s to the sailors and their king
Who 'll fight us two to one.' ”
There were other exploits of American ships told in verse, among them the gallant repulse, by the crew of the privateer General Armstrong, Captain Samuel C. Reid, in the harbor of Fayal, of the boats of three British men-of-war, which was the subject of a forecastle ballad, but none of this memorial verse reached the level of poetry. The battles of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain also had their numerous laureates ; and the raid of Admiral Cockburn and the troops upon Baltimore was the subject of a song, the opening lines of which have a vigor and strong rhythm not maintained throughout.
And many a bloody villain more,
Swore with their bloody, savage crew
That they would plunder Baltimore.”
The American sailor was not sentimental, as a general thing, and his poetry was of the practical kind, as we have seen ; but there is a song showing a good deal of feeling, which appears in the old American song-books that went to sea in the sailors’ chests, and may have been written by the American sailor, or by some one for him. There is an Elizabethan flavor in its form and melody, and it may have been altered from an English original by substituting " Columbia ” for “ Britannia,” as the allusions to France and Spain would indicate ; but in a pretty thorough search through English songs I have been unable to find it.
“ The topsails shiver in the wind,
The ship, she casts to sea;
But yet my soul, my heart, my mind,
Are, Mary, moored with thee.
For tho’ thy sailor ’s bound afar,
Still love shall be his guiding star.
Oh, doubt their artful tales.
No gallant sailor ever failed,
If love breathed constant gales.
Thou art the compass of my soul
That steers my heart from pole to pole.
“ Sirens in every port we meet,
More fell than rocks and waves ;
But such as grace Columbia’s fleet
Are lovers, and not slaves.
No foes our courage shall subdue,
Although we leave our hearts with you.
We 'll scorn the dashing main,
The rocks, the billows, and the wind,
The power of France and Spain.
Columbia’s glory rests with you.
Our sails are full. Sweet girls, adieu.”
The naval service during the civil war did not produce any songs that achieved popularity in comparison with that won by the songs of land service, like John Brown’s Body, The Year of Jubilo, and Marching through Georgia, and, in fact, was singularly deficient in poetry, with the remarkable exception of the productions of Mr. Henry Howard Brownell. There were few single-ship engagements except the fight between the Monitor and the Merrimac, and the Kearsarge and the Alabama, and the blockading service was not calculated to inspire the martial muse.
The two great naval achievements of the war were the capture of New Orleans and of the forts in Mobile Bay by the fleets under Farragut; and these were celebrated in poetry worthy of them — and no more can be said — by Henry Howard Brownell, who witnessed the second from the deck of Admiral Farragut’s flagship. The fire, spirit, and grand fighting élan of The Bay Fight have never been surpassed in English poetry, and the accuracy of its pictures is as notable as their vigor. But these are poems, and not songs, and there is nothing in the naval songs of the civil war which will compare with those of the war of 1812. It was rather past the time for the genuine forecastle ballad, and none of the land poets hit the true vein, as Buchanan Read, Stedman, and others did when commemorating military exploits.
There was one other field of American seamanship, full of romance and excitement, which should have produced some worthy poetry and song, and that was the whaling service before the days of iron steamers and bomb lances. The chase of the gigantic cetacean in the lonely solitude of the Arctic and Indian oceans, the fights in frail boats with the maddened monster and all the perils of sea and storm, the visits to the palmy islands in the Southern Sea and the frozen solitude of the Arctic, were full of the materials of poetry. The long watches of the monotonous cruising during the four years’ voyage gave plenty of time for any occupation, whether it was carving whales’ teeth or making verses; and there were many bright spirits, attracted by the adventure of whaling, who could have made a literary use of their opportunity. The novels of Herman Melville, some of the strongest and most original in our literature, have given the romance of the South Sea islands as they appeared to the adventurer of that day; and in Moby Dick, or The White Whale, he has shown both the prose and the poetry of a whaling cruise with singular power, although with some touch of extravagance at the end. The whaling songs are, however, not very abundant, nor, it must be confessed, of a high standard of quality. To this there is one remarkable exception, which appears to be wholly unknown in American literature, although it has been in print. It is entitled a “ Brand Fire New Whaling Song Right from the Pacific Ocean. Tune, Maggy Lander. By a Foremast Hand,” and was printed in a little five-cent pamphlet, by E. B. Miller, in New Bedford, in 1831. It does not seem to have come under the eye of any critic who could appreciate its spirit and faithfulness, and no mention is made of it in any of the collections of American poetry. It is extremely doubtful if the author received enough from its sale to repay him for the investment of a portion of his “lay” in printing it, and his name is utterly lost in his modest pseudonym of “ Foremast Hand ; ” so that he obtained neither fame nor fortune from his epic. The poem, which is too long for entire quotation, was unquestionably the work of a sailor on a whaling ship, and probably, as he says, of a foremast hand. It lacks some of the finish of professional literature, as shown in the ruggedness of some of its rhymes, and the vigorous compulsion of the rules of grammar and syntax, when necessary, although the author was evidently of higher education than would belong to one in his position, and its jigging measure becomes tiresome ; but it is of very great spirit and vigor, as well as fidelity to its theme, and by no means deserves to have fallen so entirely into oblivion. Indeed, it seems to me to be quite as good as, and a great deal more original than, any American poetry which had appeared up to that time. The song has for its subject the chase and capture of a whale in the North Pacific, and relates the course of events from the time of the first sighting of “ white water ” on the horizon by the lookouts to that when the monster, stabbed to death by the keen lances, rolls “ fins out ” in the bloody water, amid the hurrahs of the excited boats’ crews. All the details of this grande chasse are given with wonderful vigor, as well as faithfulness, and the historian of the whale fishery will find it as accurate as a logbook. Perhaps the account of the chase by the boats and the harpooning will give as good an idea of the force and spirit of the poem as any part of it; and, in reference to the emphasis of the language, it may be remembered that mates of whaling ships in pursuit of an eight-hundred-barrel whale had a good deal of energy and excitement to relieve. The boats have been lowered, and are darting toward the unsuspecting whale with all the speed of ashen oars and vigorous muscle, while their commanders objurgate and stimulate the crews, as the poet says, “judiciously.”
They ’re going slow as night, too.
Pull, pull, you dogs! they lie like logs, -
Thank Heaven they ’re headed right, too.’
‘ Spring, spring, nor have it said, men,
That we could miss a chance like this
To take them head and head, men.
There ’s that old sog, he ’s like a log.
Spring, lads, and show your mettle;
Strain every oar; let ’s strike before
He ’s gallied, mill, or settle.'
The others peak their oars now.
From his strained eyes the lightning flies,
And lion-like he roars now.
' Pull, pull, my lads! why don’t you pull ?
For God’s sake, pull away, men!
Hell’s blazes ! pull but three strokes more,
And we have won the day, men !
Hold water — give it to her!
Stern all, stern all — God damn it, heave
Your other iron through her !
We ’re fast, we ’re fast — stern out her way !
Here, let me come ahead, men.
There, peak your oars — wet — line — wet — line —
Why, bloody zounds, you ’re dead, men! ’”
The rush of the whale towing the boat, his sounding to the uttermost length of the line, his reappearance, the lancing, the mad dash at the boats, and the death flurry are all described with great vividness, but there is room only for the verses in which the monster comes up from his long dive, and obliges the poet to appeal to the enemy of sea songs, the steam boiler:
Full length the monster breaches, —
So strongly sped, his scarred gray head
High as our topmast reaches ;
From mountain height descending,
Down thunders he upon the sea,
Ocean with ether blending.
As from his spout-hole gushing,
His breath, long spent, now finds a vent,
Like steam from boiler rushing.”
It does not seem that a poet who could write so vividly and forcefully as this ought to be without a place in American literature, even if there were no other interest in his work.
Alfred M. Williams.