Friday, July 6

Poetry Friday "Derelict"

I'm taking the plunge and joining the Poetry Friday melee. And when I say melee I'm using the more archaic meaning of "a group of diamonds, each weighing less than 0.25 carat" both in reference to fellow poetry bloggers and with a particularly oblique reference to the subject of my inaugural post.

The poem is from a collection called Song of Men which, when I first came across it, brought a smirk to my face that never fails to return every time I see it. The pub date on my copy (obtained at an estate sale) is 1918 from Houghton Mifflin , though Amazon shows it's still available with a pub date of 2006. Who knew there was still a market for a book of poetry with so rugged and manly a title?

There is a bit of explanation, a bit of history, that precedes the poem in the book but I'm going to dive straight in and give some particulars afterward.

by Young Ewing Allison

Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest—
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
The mate was fixed by the bos'n's pike,
The bos'n brained with a marlin spike,
And Cookey's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped
By fingers ten;
And there they lay,
All good dead men
Like break-o'-day in a boozing-ken—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of the whole ship's list—
Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist!—
The skipper lay with his nob in gore
Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore—
And the scullion he was stabbed times four.
And there they lay,
And the soggy skies
Dripped all day long
In upstaring eyes—
In murk sunset and at foul sunrise—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark—
Ten of the crew had the Murder mark—
'Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead,
Or a yawing hole in a battered head—
And the scuppers glut with a rotting red
And there they lay—
Aye, damn my eyes—
All lookouts clapped
On paradise—
All souls bound just contrariwise—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

Fifteen men of 'em good and true—
Every man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew—
There was chest on chest full of Spanish gold,
With a ton of plate in the middle hold,
And the cabins riot of stuff untold,
And they lay there,
That had took the plum,
With sightless glare
And their lips struck dumb,
While we shared all by the rule of thumb—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

More was seen through the stern light screen—
Chartings no doubt where a woman had been!—
A flimsy shift on a bunker cot,
With a thin dirk slot through the bosom spot
And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot.
Oh was she wench…
Or some shuddering maid…?
That dared the knife—
And took the blade!
By God! she was stuff for a plucky jade—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest—
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight
With twice ten turns of a hawser's bight
And we heaved 'em over and out of sight—
With a Yo-Heave-Ho!
And a fare-you-well!
And a sullen plunge
In the sullen swell,
Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell!
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!


You've got gore and pirating and treasure and all sorts of poetic manliness going on. Brained by marlin's spike? Yawing holes in heads? Purplish blots of clotting blood? If this doesn't have Hollywood Summer Movie written all over it... oh, wait.

Young Ewing Alison? I thought Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that Yo-ho-ho! bit in Treasure Island. Yes and no. Stevenson is responsible for setting the tone with following lines:
"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest-- Yo-ho-ho, and
a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest--
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"
But it was Allison who in 1891 fleshed out the story of the Dead Man's Chest, a treacherous bit of reef located near the island of Tortola in the Caribbean with a history of wrecking ships. You can jump here for a complete rundown on Allison, the background to the legend behind the poem, and annotations for the poem itself. Apparently there was even a Broadway musical version of Treasure Island that used Allison's verse in 1901 and saw a revival in the 1970's.

Given the amount of pirate information floating out there culturally this might not be such a bad addition to an educational framework. Since we all pick up a little Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! along the way, might as well feed it to the kids from the source. Give or take a little Stevenson.


Saints and Spinners said...

Thank you for this poem. Pippi Longstocking would sing the song (readers just got the first line plus the "Yo ho ho"s), and make Tommy and Anika shiver.

Elaine Magliaro said...

Welcome to Poetry Friday in the kidlitosphere. I warn you: Once embarked on our Friday frigate--you may be hooked!

Have you ever read Colin McNaughton's CAPTAIN ABDUL'S PIRATE SCHOOL? It's one heckuva funny picture book.

Anonymous said...

I'm very happy that I can see poetry here now on Fridays. Woo hoo!