Of the myriads of poems about merchant mariners, some stand out for a simple reason. They do more than depict the physical universe in which these men struggle for a living and sometimes for their very existence. They usher the reader into the sailor’s inner world of thoughts and feelings. Three such poems are John Marr by Herman Melville, The Merchantmen by Rudyard Kipling, and Merchant Marine by Josephine Miles.

John Marr

by Herman Melville (American, 1819–1891)

Since as in night’s deck-watch ye show,
Why, lads, so silent here to me,
Your watchmate of times long ago?

Once, for all the darkling sea,
You your voices raised how clearly,
Striking in when tempest sung;
Hoisting up the storm-sail cheerly,
Life is storm–let storm! you rung.

Taking things as fated merely,
Childlike though the world ye spanned;
Nor holding unto life too dearly,
Ye who held your lives in hand–
Skimmers, who on oceans four
Petrels were, and larks ashore.

O, not from memory lightly flung,
Forgot, like strains no more availing,
The heart to music haughtier strung;
Nay, frequent near me, never staleing,
Whose good feeling kept ye young.
Like tides that enter creek or stream,
Ye come, ye visit me, or seem
Swimming out from seas of faces,
Alien myriads memory traces,
To enfold me in a dream!

I yearn as ye. But rafts that strain,
Parted, shall they lock again?
Twined we were, entwined, then riven,
Ever to new embracements driven,
Shifting gulf-weed of the main!
And how if one here shift no more,
Lodged by the flinging surge ashore?

Nor less, as now, in eve’s decline,
Your shadowy fellowship is mine.
Ye float around me, form and feature:–
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man’s simpler nature,
Unworldly servers of the world.
Yea, present all, and dear to me,
Though shades, or scouring China’s sea.

Whither, whither, merchant-sailors,
Whitherward now in roaring gales?
Competing still, ye huntsman-whalers,
In leviathan’s wake what boat prevails?
And man-of-war’s men, whereaway?
If now no dinned drum beat to quarters
On the wilds of midnight waters–
Foemen looming through the spray;
Do yet your gangway lanterns, streaming,
Vainly strive to pierce below,
When, tilted from the slant plank gleaming,
A brother you see to darkness go?

But, gunmates lashed in shotted canvas,
If where long watch-below ye keep,
Never the shrill “All hands up hammocks!”
Breaks the spell that charms your sleep,
And summoning trumps might vainly call,
And booming guns implore–
A beat, a heart-beat musters all,
One heart-beat at heart-core.
It musters. But to clasp, retain;
To see you at the halyards main–
To hear your chorus once again!

(published 1888)

NOTE: This is the lead poem in Melville’s volume of poems entitled John Marr and Other Sailors with Some Sea-Pieces. According to his commentary, John Marr was a disabled old sailor who was forced to find work on shore, where “he transfers his rambling disposition acquired as a seafarer.” Download the book here.

The Merchantmen

by Rudyard Kipling (English, 1865–1936)

King Solomon drew merchantmen,
Because of his desire
For peacocks, apes, and ivory,
From Tarshish unto Tyre,
With cedars out of Lebanon
Which Hiram rafted down;
But we be only sailormen
That use in London town.

Coastwise – cross-seas – round the world and back again –
Where the flaw shall head us or the full Trade suits –
Plain-sail – storm-sail – lay your board and tack again –
And that’s the way we’ll pay Paddy Doyle for his boots!

We bring no store of ingots,
Of spice or precious stones,
But what we have we gathered
With sweat and aching bones:
In flame beneath the Tropics,
In frost upon the floe,
And jeopardy of every wind
That does between them go.

And some we got by purchase,
And some we had by trade,
And some we found by courtesy
Of pike and carronade –
At midnight, ‘mid-sea meetings,
For charity to keep,
And light the rolling homeward-bound
That rowed a foot too deep !

By sport of bitter weather
We’re walty, strained, and scarred
From the kentledge on the kelson
To the slings upon the yard.
Six oceans had their will of us
To carry all away –
Our galley’s in the Baltic,
And our boom’s in Mossel Bay.

We’ve floundered off the Texel,
Awash with sodden deals,
We’ve shipped from Valparaiso
With the Norther at our heels:
We’re ratched beyond the Crossets
That tusk the Southern Pole,
And dipped our gunnels under
To the dread Agulhas roll.

Beyond all outer charting
We sailed where none have sailed,
And saw the land-lights burning
On islands none have hailed;
Our hair stood up for wonder,
But, when the night was done,
There danced the deep to windward
Blue-empty ‘neath the sun!

Strange consorts rode beside us
And brought us evil luck;
The witch-fire climbed our channels,
And flared on vane and truck,
Till, through the red tornado,
That lashed us nigh to blind,
We saw The Dutchman plunging,
Full canvas, head to wind !

We’ve heard the Midnight Leadsman
That calls the black deep down –
Ay, thrice we’ve heard The Swimmer,
The Thing that may not drown.
On frozen bunt and gasket
The sleet-cloud drave her hosts,
When, manned by more than signed with us
We passed the Isle of Ghosts !

And north, amid the hummocks,
A biscuit-toss below,
We met the silent shallop
That frighted whalers know;
For, down a cruel ice-lane,
That opened as he sped,
We saw dead Hendrick Hudson
Steer, North by West, his dead.

So dealt God’s waters with us
Beneath the roaring skies,
So walked His signs and marrvels
All naked to our eyes:
But we were heading homeward
With trade to lose or make –
Good Lord, they slipped behind us
In the tailing of our wake !

Let go, let go the anchors;
Now shamed at heart are we
To bring so poor a cargo home
That had for gift the sea !
Let go the great bow-anchor –
Ah, fools were we and blind –
The worst we stored with utter toil,
The best we left behind !

Coastwise – cross-seas – round the world and back again,
Whither flaw shall fail us or the Trades drive down:
Plain-sail – storm-sail – lay your board and tack again –
And all to bring a cargo up to London Town!

(published 1893)

Merchant Marine

by Josephine Miles ((American, 1911–1985)

Where is the world? not about.
The world is in the heart
And the heart is clogged in the sea lanes out of port.

Not in the world or the west,
Not in the will or the wriest
Task in the world. It is all seaward.

Chart is the world, a sheet
In the hand and a paper page,
A readable tissue of sea lanes, there is the heart.

(published 1943)

~ Barista Uno

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