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”

The errand of the eye

Whether my bark went down at sea,
Whether she met with gales,
Whether to isles enchanted
She bent her docile sails;

By what mystic mooring
She is held to-day,—
This is the errand of the eye
Out upon the bay.

~Emily Dickinson

This whole poem is a sentence–one act of wondering, of uncertainty. The “bark” could represent anything, really–the point of the poem is the questioning. The poem crystallizes a moment of uncertainty.

I love the line “the errand of the eye.” The notion of the eye on a mission, actively searching rather than passively receiving images, is an intriguing one.

May all your isles be enchanted.

Shipwreck

IT tossed and tossed,—
A little brig I knew,—
O’ertook by blast,
It spun and spun,
And groped delirious, for morn.

It slipped and slipped,
As one that drunken stepped;
Its white foot tripped,
Then dropped from sight.

Ah, brig, good-night
To crew and you;
The ocean’s heart too smooth, too blue,
To break for you.

~Emily Dickinson

Image via Pexels.com

Dickinson’s oeuvre is full of shipwreck poems. A ship is always a good metaphor, and she uses them frequently. So, November is shipwreck month here at The Emily Project. This is the season of hurricanes and storms. Last night, the wind rose and knocked everything about the yard. It was a veritable tempest for Halloween night.

In this poem, the storm has overwhelmed the ship that seems “drunk” and “delirious” from its battle with the waves. The last stanza is where Dickinson really gets to the meat of this poem–the ocean (nature? the divine??) doesn’t really care about any of us. We are insignificant, in the grand scheme of things. Yet that hasn’t stopped the speaker from valuing the little craft and its crew, their struggles on the deep. The meaning we find in our lives is meaning we make for ourselves, not anything conferred upon us from without. The universe may not note or care what we do, but we can value human effort and struggle, and feel for those who are lost.

Infinite to venture

Finite to fail, but infinite to venture.
For the one ship that struts the shore
Many’s the gallant, overwhelmed creature
Nodding in navies nevermore.

~Emily Dickinson

I love this one. The opening line is perfection–it perfectly captures something fundamental about human nature. We are made to try. The rest of the poem serves as a commentary and qualifier of this epigrammatic opening. For each individual success, there are whole navies of failures.

I just spent WAY too much time tracking down this column I chanced across yesterday, so I’m calling it quits for now and leaving you with that. Go out there and fail like a champ!

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?

Eternity

I’m just going to put these right here and let them talk with each other. Enjoy!

ON this wondrous sea,
Sailing silently,
Knowest thou the shore
Ho! pilot, ho!
Where no breakers roar,
Where the storm is o’er?


In the silent west
Many sails at rest,
Their anchors fast;
Thither I pilot thee,—
Land, ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!

~Emily dickinson

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,


But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.


Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;


For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

~Alfred, lord tennyson