Sea Songs and Ballads

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Sea Songs and Ballads.   By Dibdin and Others.

(Bell & Daldy.)


ENGLAND, the greatest nation ocean-born and billow-bred, has been lifted by the heaving sea-waves into a prouder position than that of old Rome when she sat on her seven hills and called herself Mistress of the World.   The ocean influence has been one of the mightiest of those influences which have conduced to her present greatness and glory.   The sovereignty of the sea has enabled her to attain the most stable power ever reared on a floating foundation.   The sea-spirit has passed into our race, with the Norse gleam of fire and sword; quickened the blood with a lustier life, and filled the breast with a larger breath of freedom.   Yet that voice of the sea, for ever sounding through England's heart, has never obtained adequate expression in our poetry.   Our early writers did not take kindly to the sea.  Chaucer seems to have had a positive aversion to it.  If he ever ventured upon it, the first heaving made him sick; and if it blew a gale, he, like Panurge, wished himself safe on dry land, with somebody kicking him, to be sure of his footing!  He was glad to get back to his oak-sheltered lanes, green, sunny glade, and purple, shadowed moorland.   Shakspeare, having all the characteristics that we call English, of course included a love of the sea; but he loved it most when on dry land.  He was at heart an inland man.   He could call spirits from the deep, but was not so sure that they would come when he did call.   He once bade the "Tempest" arise; but having quietly laid it again, broke his wand and buried it.   We believe he desired to die a dry death.  Milton cares little for the sea.   The Queen Anne men cut but a sorry figure when afloat.   Dryden labours heavily, and rolls in the trough like the Great Eastern with her helm gone.   Campbell has three or four times matched his theme with music, and left us ballads worthy of their subject, in spite of an alloy of pinchbeck in his gold.   Much as we admire the songs and lyrics of Barry Cornwall, we only acknowledge his freshwater sovereignty.   He is no sea-king amongst the poets.   He has not grasped the facts nor shadowed forth the image of the sea.   His sea-poetry does not bite nor leave the salt virtue stinging the blood.   Allan Cunningham sang one song with the salt wind whistling through it.   Thomas Hood gave us a rich bit of true character in his sailor's apology for bow legs.   William Pitt also wrote one of the best songs in his 'Sailor's Consolation.'  Some true things in this way have been done in our day.   Here is one, cropping up in an unexpected place.   It is by the author of 'Balder,' and full, we think, of the spirit in which our bluejackets clear the deck for action, and go at overwhelming numbers.   It might have been a little more shipshape:


"How many?" said our good Captain.—"Twenty sail
        and more."
            We were homeward bound,
Scudding in a gale, with our jib towards the Nore.
            Right athwart our tack,
            The foe came thick and black,
Like hell-birds and foul weather—you might count them
        by the score.

The Betsy Jane did slack to see the game in view;
They knew the Union Jack, and the Tyrant's flag we knew;
Our Captain shouted "Clear the decks!" and the Bosun's
        whistle blew.

Then our gallant Captain, with his hand he seized the
And pointed with his stump to the middle of the Foe.
            "Hurrah lads, in we go!"
(You should hear the British cheer, fore and aft!)

            "There are twenty sell," sang he,
"But little Betsy Jane bobs to nothing on the sea!"
(You should hear the British cheer, fore and aft!)
"See yon ugly craft, with the person at her main!
Hurrah, my merry boys, [there] goes the Betsy Jane!"
(You should hear the British char, fore and aft!)

The Foe he beats to quarters, and the Russian bugles sound,
And the little Betsy Jane she leaps upon the sea.
"Port and starboard!" cried our Captain; "pay it in
        my hearts!" sang he, .
"We're Old England's sons and well fight for her today!"
(You should hear the British cheer, fore and aft!)
"Fire away!" in she runs, and her guns thunder round!


    Still, no poet has yet glorified the sea and the sea-spirit in our poetry as Turner has in painting.   He has given us the infinite tenderness of its calm, the inexorably cruel strength of its storm, the sickening heave of its mountain billows and the whelming wash of its immeasurable waves, the ghastly awe of its gloom and the splendid sparkle of its morning sands, the might and majesty of its deep waters, the fretful restlessness of its play upon the shelly shore, the honest English face of its merchantmen and colliers and fishing-boats, and the grandeur of its noble men-of-war, going forth in their pride, with the sea one vast mirror of their beauty, the heavens an arch of triumph over them; or coming home in their sunset glory, worn and weather-stained, having done good work and won a worthy rest.   Turner alone has given us the "joy and beauty of it, all the while so mingled with the sense of its unfathomable danger, and the human effort and sorrow going on perpetually from age to age, waves rolling for ever, and winds moaning for ever, and faithful hearts trusting and sickening for ever, and brave lives dashed away about the rattling beach like weeds forever!"  And yet how much there is to be seen by the heartsight of the poet that did not unveil to the eyesight of the painter!   What inexpressibly pathetic appeals it makes to us, whether we catch a glimpse of vessels burning like the Amazon, with that last look of poor Eliot Warburton standing helpless on deck, his form darkly figured against the advancing flame; or going down like the Birkenhead, with those brave fellows calmly firing their last salute, that flashed round them so forlorn a splendour as the ship gave its last lurch and they went down, each man still in his place; or, if we turn to the men who have dashed again and again at the icy barriers of the North, and ground among the icebergs, and groped their way through the six-months' night, fighting with death in a thousand shapes, to plant our flag on some outermost peak of peril, willing to lay down their lives in unknown regions, and cheerfully, as though they laid down their heads in England's lap?—the cool-headed old fighters who have pulled back the warm-hearted youngster rushing on the guns, and, at a thought of his mother, stepped into his place, and died in his stead,—the gallant hearts that have kept their watch till they crackled in the flames, as did Capt.  Douglas, of the Royal Oak, when the Dutch were in the River Medway, and he, having no orders to retreat, perished with his ship.

    Dibdin embraces his subject heartily, and grips, so far as his reach goes, with the real smack of a sailor's salute.   He is true to certain qualities of the English nature, which lie, with their mineral strength, at the heart of all who are worthy of wearing the English name,—that superior sense of being English which alone has often served to grapple us together, rich and poor, as with hooks of steel, and served us nobly when peer and peasant have gaily galloped the death-gaps horse to horse, or swept up to the deadly breach shoulder to shoulder, and on many a hard-fought field lain down side by side in a peerless brotherhood after turning the tide of battle,—that singleness of purpose which puts the whole heart into the act,—that union of gentleness and strength which produces our favourite heroes, the darlings of the national heart, who solve Samson's riddle for us, and show the honey of sweetness hidden in the lion of their strength, as in Nelson's noble and tender type—he who struck such a blow as left our country without a rival on all the seas, then, like a noble boy going to bed, said, "Kiss me, Hardy," and fell asleep, or, as Dibdin sings,—


I heard his last words, that so grieved each bystander,
    Words sounding so mournful and sweet;
'Twas his "Love and farewell"—Damme!  there's a
        —To each brother tar in the fleet.


    Dibdin caught a glimpse of the right kind here.   His sailor has a tender heart underneath the coarse, rough strength of his character; a spring of fresh water welling, and sweetening the great salt ocean of his brute force.   In his foretop moralizing mood he considers, after all, that piping your eye and a wet pocket-handkerchief are about the best things to bring you into port at last; although his mode of soothing his sweetheart at parting is anything but comfortingly sequential:—


I said to our Poll, for, d'ye see, she would cry,
    When last we weighed anchor for sea,
What argufles sniv'lling end piping your eye?
    Why what a d—d fool you must be!
Can't you see the world's wide and there's room for us all,
    Both for seamen and lubbers ashore?
And if to Old Davy I go, my dear Poll,
    Why, you never will hear of me more.


    He does not wear the soft heart on his sleeve, and is glad of any excuse for keeping the mother down from his throat:—


Just hear the Chaplain's story, glowing
    With all that's good and wise;
He swabs his bows while tears are flowing—
    The scuppers are his eyes.
He talks in terms to melt a lubber;
    And then he'll preach and pray
So moving, one could almost blubber,
    But, that's all in his way!


    Still, choke it down as he may, the tenderness is there.   There is always a soft corner, and a woman in it, in Jack's heart; or else little child-fingers are playing on it as an instrument.   He has the true English feeling for home and its joys, albeit he may have strange ways of showing his domesticity, realizing his own commentary on Jove:—

            What a devil that god was for following the gals!

    —When at sea he likes to think of his Nancy, with all her loving works and household ways; and thoughts, and images, and feelings, come crowding all sail on his soul, till, as he says, "I'm nothing but Nancy."  Living a life that is passed in a fluctuating world of change, he tries to be true to Nancy.   Amid the trials and temptations of foreign ports how hard he strives to be constant, and if he fails, why it is only because Nancy or Poll will assume so many shapes:—


Some with faces like charcoal and others like chalk,
    All ready ones heart to o'er-haul;
"Don't you go to love me, my good girl;" says I, "walk;
    I've sworn to be constant to Poll."


    From far away his heart will be running home like a very Gulf-stream, brightening and enriching some little green spot where he hopes to set foot and empty a lot of shiners into Poll's lap, dart into her arms like the ball from an Armstrong, get married and launch a young navy to repay the sea and country for his own desertion!

    It is in a lower range, however, that Dibdin shows his greatest force of portraying the British tar.   His most successful painting is done by very broad handling, a thick brush and a coarse touch.   His delight is the jolly Jack Tar, who will stick like pitch to friend or sweetheart, and, come weal, come woe, come friend or foe, it's all one to Jack.   He goes at everything broadside on, with heart sailing too, fast even for his generous hand, making his head swim to keep his heart from sinking, pushing the grog about from year's end to year's end, too fond of sounding the bowl, making the can go round, and relying on grog aboard and girls ashore as the sailor's sheet-anchor.   This now is a neat and lively picture of Dibdin's sailor-life:—


We sing a little, we laugh a little, 
And work a little, and swear a little, 
And fiddle a little, and foot it a little, 
            And swig the flowing can.


    The worst of it is that Dibdin's sailor cannot be thus moderate.   Why, in the one article of loyalty alone, he is rich enough to ruin himself.   He will drink so many healths to Majesty that he quite forgets his own.  Dibdin is true enough to the sailor-nature in its love of fair play, a stand-up fight, a clear deck, and no favour; its desire to make mincemeat of an enemy, and its gentleness in binding him up again with a sort of motherly care and tenderness; its equal readiness to save as well as to damn; its fair, open front, and broad, honest back never turned on danger.   True, likewise, to the national habit of brag, which shows our descent from the worshippers of the god Brage, every lad in the land that has played one to three at "English and French" will instantly understand this image of Nelson fighting the foe with only one arm:


Thus with one of his precious limbs shot away,
    Bold Nelson know'd well how to nick 'em;
So as for the French, 'tis as much as to say,
    We can tie up one hand, and then lick'em.


    Dibdin has also given us the philosophy of the sailor's frank fearlessness and his rough-and-ready welcome to whatsoever lot may befall.   This is how he can look at life and death:—


Why now, if they go for to talk about living,
    My eyes—why a little will serve:
Let each a small part of his pittance be giving,
    And who in the nation can starve?
Content's all the thing—rough or calm be the weather,
    The wind on the beam or the bow,
So if honestly he can splice both ends together,
    Why then, damme if Jack cares how!

And then for a bring-up, d'ye see, about dying,
    On which such a racket they keep,
What argufles if in a churchyard you're lying,
    Or find out your grave in the deep?
Of one thing we're certain, whatever our calling,
    Death will bring us all up—and what then?
So his conscience's tackle will bear overhauling,
    Why then, damme if Jack cares when.


    These things Dibdin has done,—done well, once and for ever.   His songs are true so far as they go, and they will live by virtue of the truth that is in them.   But how much more has Dibdin left undone!   He never got right down to that unfathomable simplicity of a sailor's soul wherein lies such a world of possible greatness.   He often tried to interpret that simplicity by slang and the assumption of knowingness, which is of the stage, stagey!   His Jack Tar is conscious of simplicity and able to thrust the tongue in his cheek at you.   He has been too much Dibdinized and T.-P.-Cooked, and the Salt has lost his genuine savour.   Dibdin has represented him too much after the fashion of that enthusiastic Yankee's ideal, which he had seen at the theatre, and described as firing his pistol to the last shot, fighting to the last gasp of his breath, and then he folded the flag of his country round his noble breast and died like a son of a female parent of pups!

    Dibdin was seldom true to the deepest truth: once or twice, as in 'Poor Jack' and 'Tom Bowling,' his language; may be a good deal like that spoken by sailors, but this mere likeness of literal language is often very deceiving in value, especially upon the lower grounds of Art.   Sailors must live an infinite deal more than they can put into words.   And the poet cannot be limited to their language alone if he is to give utterance to their deeper life.   If we refer to Shakspeare, always our highest court of appeal, as the great master of dramatic representation, we shall see that kings or heroes would not in real life have used the language which he has put into their mouths.  We know that at such swift moments as are the turning-points of destiny they could not stay to make those very long speeches; words would have to wait for actions, not actions for words, and Shakspeare does not give us the likeness of literal language.   Yet we see no incongruity, nor do we question the validity of his representation.   We feel that he is true to the highest and the deepest truth.   For if the hero or king in real life did not say all that in the grand style, he might think it all,—or, if he did not think it all he would feel it all, and more; for we may feel in a moment what speech would fail to unfold in an hour, and the dramatist only expands in expression the intense pressure of feeling.   Again, the Noakeses may be a poetical family, but the poetry does not of necessity lie in the snub-noses and muckle mouths by which the Noakeses have been long distinguished.   So the poetry of a sailor's life is not confined to the language which distinguishes him from landsmen, nor limited to the grog and grog-blossoms, the dancing and swearing, the dare-devilries of his riot and raking.  There are other, nobler elements, which he shares in common with other men, made more powerful and pathetic by his peculiar experience.

    Should there be any sailor-lad now in Her Majesty's service—cabin-boy or middy—like Douglas Jerrold half-a-century ago, who is to write us songs of the sea and the poetry of sailor-life, let him tell us something more of the sailor in that long, lonely companionship of earth and sky, in which he moves as sole inhabitant of the mysterious space between two worlds,—tell us what appeal the spirit-side, so to speak, of our globe makes to the spirit-side of his nature, with its solemn silence, its voices of the storm, its spirits of the great deep.   Our national character has revealed some of its loftiest qualities in their proudest perfection on the sea.   Under its larger horizon have risen to higher stature our clear-natured, large-hearted, cheery-voiced, simple heroes and faithful men whose names will be found written all round the map of the world, and whose lives and deeds and deaths have almost made old ocean richer in glorious records than is our proud.  and peerless land.   What fidelity and endurance, faith and honour, patience and self-sacrifice have been called forth as the sailor-spirit answered its challenge!   How readily have all its dangers been accepted!  How heroically have its rewards been won!   We do not want the Norse spirit that lives in our race to leave off fighting on purpose to take to writing.  We want it to find the one compatible with the other.   It has done grand deeds for freedom and fatherland.   We should like to see it wield the pen as it has wielded the battle-axe and pushed with the pike and swept its way with the sword.   We want a nobler justice done to our naval achievements.   Dibdin hardly got a glimpse of that spirit which, working in our British blood, is the same resistless influence that made those early dwellers in the plains of Iran wake up in that cradle of the nations and wander away till they came to the sea.   No matter in what quiet nook of a happy English home the sea's young heir may be born, he will be sure to dream of the sea that lies beyond the range of blue, billowy hills.   The boy may never have seen the face of that ancestral sea, but it sings to him in his sleep by night and his dream by day till his whole being is filled with the weird wild echoes of the ocean music.   The instinct stirs within him, for he hears the voice of the ancient mother crooning her grey old Runic sorcery, as the Scandinavian blood surges up and sings in his ears.   He must up and go, and leave home and friends, father and mother, and away to the sea, that draws him by the old irresistible, spell.  Some fine morning there will be another sailor-boy, perhaps, found hidden, aboard ship, and all the kindly comforts of home will be given up for the rough sea-life, and, instead of being tucked into the warm bed by mother's hands on the cold winter's night, the boy will be hanging out on the yards when the sea gets up in heaps, and the green mounds go rolling by, and the black gaps open wide, and are lighted by the white flash of the foam.


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