On this date

GLEE! the great storm is over!
Four have recovered the land;
Forty gone down together
Into the boiling sand.

Ring, for the scant salvation!
Toll, for the bonnie souls,—
Neighbor and friend and bridegroom,
Spinning upon the shoals!

How they will tell the shipwreck
When winter shakes the door,
Till the children ask, “But the forty?
Did they come back no more?”

Then a silence suffuses the story,
And a softness the teller’s eye;
And the children no further question,
And only the waves reply.

~Emily Dickinson

This poem reminds me of a song sung by William Pint and Felicia Dale, so I’m including the lyrics here in full, though there are rather a lot of them. They recount a true story–the loss of the British lifeboat The Mary Stanford on this date ninety-one years ago. It’s a tragic tale, made all the more tragic by the fact that the vessel which The Mary Stanford was sent out to rescue was already saved by the time the English lifeboat launched. It seems like the kind of story that would have struck a chord in Dickinson’s imagination.

When master John Stanford of London town died
They read out his will and his legacy spied
It said take this bequest for to build me a craft
So that with it my name shouldn’t die
And give it to the R.N.L.I.

So they fashioned a lifeboat of Liverpool class
38 feet from the stem to the aft
With a close reefed mainsail on a 20 foot mast
And to grant the last wish of his life
Named it Mary after his wife

She went into service in 1916
And 63 times from the boathouse she screamed
Cross the shale of Rye Bay
Through the teeth of the storm
And into the mouth of the waves
All sailors lives there to save

Johnny come home they all sing from the pier
On the 15th day of November each year
And one day the sea she will give up her dead
And home will come young Johnny Head
Home will come young Johnny Head

Young Johnny Head
Had just turned seventeen
And to serve on the lifeboat was
Young Johnny’s dream
His father was the coxswain
His brother in the crew
And to serve he was willing to die
On the Mary Stanford of Rye

On November 15th
With the storm at its height
The Alice of Riga was losing her fight
Seven miles from Dungeness
She was drifting and lost
And the crew prayed and cried
To the moon
That’s when they heard the maroon

It was four in the morning
When young Johnny Head
On hearing the signal
He leapt from his bed
With his father and brother
They ran like the wind
That whipped up the furious waves
But there were lives to be saved

To haul out the lifeboat
Took blood, sweat and tears
It took them two hours
Must have seemed like two years
Exhausted and spent, they set her afloat
And into the barbarous waves
Rowed Mary to Alice’s aid

It was 6:45 when the shoremen lost sight
of the Mary
As she pitched out into the night
And at 6:51 the coastguard he rang,
Saying “Stand down your lifeboatmen
brave
For the Alice is already saved.”

Nobody knows from that day to this,
Why the coastguard got word
At eleven past six
But the message he kept forty minutes
or more
While seventeen brave men of Rye
Rowed into the tempest to die

It was almost noon on the terrible morn
And the families and launch crew had
Waited since dawn
When suddenly somebody
Pointed and cried
And there in the surf and the spray
The Mary Stanford she lay

Her body was battered
Her keel was upright
No close-reefed mainsail
No crewman in sight
They hauled her ashore
And they knelt round and prayed
Then gazed out again at the main
And the tears they ran like the rain

Then one by one
The sea gave up her dead
First Willie Clark then young Jimmy Head
Then Albert and Rob, the two Cutting boys
And three from the Pope family
And nine more sons of the sea

But young Johnny Head
He never came home
He lies out somewhere in the ocean alone
His comrades lie buried
In the churchyard at Rye
And they keep him a space for his bed
One day they’ll find Johnny Head

So the next time you sail
Around Hastings and Rye
Look to the distance and keep out an eye
And if you see a young man from the R.N.L.I.
Standing guard over the foam
You’ll know that Johnny’s come home

~Allen Maslen, “The Mary Stanford of Rye”

grasped of God

Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise.
Three times, ’t is said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode

Where hope and he part company,—
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker’s cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.

~Emily Dickinson

I chose this one to continue November’s shipwreck theme, though this is perhaps stretching a little. What really strikes me about this poem, though, is the depiction of the divine.

The speaker begins by describing the human desire for life–a drowning man is said to rise three times, attempting to save himself. When he at last sinks, he descends “to that abhorred abode/Where hope and he , part company.” So far this seems pretty standard. The “abhorred abode” is death, and of course none of us are anxious to get there.

But then Dickinson explains what she’s really getting at–the man loses hope, “For he is grasped of God.” It’s because he’s meeting God that the drowning man despairs.

This is the opposite of how Christianity is supposed to work. The end goal is heaven, God, the divine, eternal life. But there is something deeply human in the tendency of even the most Christian souls to fight death. Christians are supposed to be happy to meet God. Despair is the opposite of faith. This poem takes what must have been a very rebellious view at the time–the notion that we should be glad to meet God, but instead we fight it tooth and nail.

Fictitious shores

I MANY times thought peace had come,
When peace was far away;
As wrecked men deem they sight the land
At centre of the sea,

And struggle slacker, but to prove,
As hopelessly as I,
How many the fictitious shores
Before the harbor lie.

~Emily Dickinson

Let’s do another NaNo prompt! Because why not. If you’re struggling for word count, consider what might be your main character’s “fictitious shores.” What do they see hovering just over the horizon that’s keeping them going? What do they think they want? Now, what happens if that gets taken away?

Happy writing!

The lighthouse spark: a NaNoWriMo prompt

GOOD night! which put the candle out?
A jealous zephyr, not a doubt.
Ah! friend, you little knew
How long at that celestial wick
The angels labored diligent;
Extinguished, now, for you!

It might have been the lighthouse spark
Some sailor, rowing in the dark,
Had importuned to see!
It might have been the waning lamp
That lit the drummer from the camp
To purer reveille!

~Emily Dickinson

Happy National Novel Writing Month! Confession: I haven’t started yet. But. In honor of NaNoWriMo, today’s post is a prompt inspired by this poem for everyone out there NaNo-ing.

What is your character’s “lighthouse spark”? What is their compass, their north star, the thing that orients them? What if you take that thing away?

Odd secrets of the line

Just lost when I was saved!
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Therefore, as one returned, I feel,
Odd secrets of the line to tell!
Some sailor, skirting foreign shores,
Some pale reporter from the awful doors
Before the seal!

Next time, to stay!
Next time, the things to see
By ear unheard,
Unscrutinized by eye.

Next time, to tarry,
While the ages steal,–
Slow tramp the centuries,
And the cycles wheel.

~Emily Dickinson

The phrase “Odd secrets of the line” has snared my imagination. It reminds me of these lyrics, so today’s post is a conversation between two poems. I’ll put them both here and let them talk it out.

Heaven’s a bar down by the dock
Where the liquor is free they keeps a great stock
There’s always a place, always a smile
For a sailor come home from sea
Girls they are beauties they dance and they sing
They treat an old tar like a lord or a king
Heaven’s a bar down by the dock
Where there’s liquor for all and it’s free

Heaven’s a bar down by the dock
Where the liquor is free they keeps a great stock
There’s always a place, always a smile
For a sailor come home from sea

There in the snug drinking with me Shipmates return from the seven salt seas Tarry tailed tars, gold buckles shoes
The cream and the dregs of the crew.
Just sailors on shore with a dream in their eyes
Who saw the world’s end where the sea meets the sky
Vision remains, wonders recalled By the trinkets that hang on the walls

Late in the night clouds hurry past
The moon winks and goes, the doors are barred fast
The charts are laid out, the contraband found The crossbones laid out on the ground
The figurehead does it she never gets tired She beckons a breeze from her berth by the fire
Songs roll around, waves hit the bar
Til the bottles wash up on the shore

~”Heaven’s a bar,” via Warham Whalers

Two swimmers

Two swimmers wrestled on the spar
Until the morning sun,
When one turned smiling to the land.
O God, the other one!

The stray ships passing spied a face Upon the waters borne,
With eyes in death still begging raised,
And hands beseeching thrown.

~Emily Dickinson

Maybe I’ve been watching too much BBC lately, but this sounds like a murder to me. I haven’t found any reference to this yet, but the image of the swimmers wrestling on the spar, with one succeeding and surviving, the other drowning, is suggestive.

It’s also curious the way the speaker inserts herself as observer. The broken exclamation, “O God, the other one!” sounds as if she is somehow watching the drama unfold, if only in her very vivid imagination.

The poem also reads like a riddle. Who or what do the two swimmers represent? What do you think?