Steamer ‘Pargoud’ leaving Baton Rouge with 3,000 bales of cotton, 1890
Photo credit: Andrew David Lytle (1834-1917) / Louisiana Digital Library

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The reverse can be true. A poet who is not banal can paint, with just a line or two, a picture that is worth a thousand words. Such a poet can even convey certain sounds that a mute painting or photograph cannot.

The following are three of the best poems about steamboats. They were written by poets who lived through the long-bygone age of steamers. A brief commentary (in italics) follows each poem.

On the Mississippi

by Hamlin Garland (American, 1860–1940)

Through wild and tangled forests
The broad, unhasting river flows—
Spotted with rain-drops, gray with night;
Upon its curving breast there goes
A lonely steamboat’s larboard light,
A blood-red star against the shadowy oaks;
Noiseless as a ghost, through greenish gleam
Of fire-flies, before the boat’s wild scream—
A heron flaps away
Like silence taking flight.

Garland uses some striking images to describe a steamboat wending its way through the Mississipi of old. The river is “spotted with rain-drops, gray with night”. The steamboat’ light is like “a blood-red star against the shadowy oaks”. When the boat sounds its whistle (“wild scream”), a heron “flaps” way “like silence taking flight.” Garland’s poetic imagination and metaphorical language make this short poem one of the best, if not the best, poems ever written about steamboats. — BU

The Steamboats

by George Alfred Townsend (American, 1841–1914)

I saw the steamboats ere the cars,
And pleasant in my fancy
The old Balloon, the Pioneer,
The Whilldin and Cohansy!
Those were the years when books were dear
And therefore life-long treasured,
We read the long voyage with no care
And naps the chapters measured.

Down the companion-way bright feet
Above the page we took in,
Like illustrations painted meet
The beautiful new book in.
Sometimes a miss would with us speak,
Both timid, in old fashion;
We wondered at her blooming cheek,
The first sweet taste of passion.

The open engine door us thrilled,
She shuddering my wrist on;
The walking beam, the furnace grilled,
The axle and the piston;
She bought the candy whilst we sat
The negro fiddlers jigging;
Her father was a Democrat,
And mine was slyly Whigging.

The pilot grinding of his wheel
We saw up there a’chewing;
The deckhand ever coiling rope,
The plank his mates were clewing;
And when some passenger was left
The long wharf hardly halfing,
And looked of every hope bereft,
We almost died of laughing.

Baskets of cherries made the freight
And chickens chilled in feathers,
Some lambs a’bleating in a crate
Accusing their bellwethers;
At Marcus Hook we took in shad,
At Pennsgrove peaches yellowed,
And at old Chester calves so bad
They pulled back and they bellowed.

O, how the coming city smoked!
Its shot tower and its steeples!
Its final pier by cabmen folked,
And nothing grew but peoples:
“Your tickets ready; step ashore!”
Where is my girl, that beamer?
She’s got already beaux galore.
O, how I loved that steamer!

The poem takes the modern-day reader on a nostalgic journey to the colourful era of steamboats. Townsend’s journalistic background (he was a war correspondent during the American Civil War) shows in his attention to detail. The last three lines of the poem reflect his romantic view of steamboats: “Where is my girl, that beamer?/ She’s got already beaux galore./ O, how I loved that steamer!” — BU

Steamboats and Railways

by William Wordsworth (English, 1770–1850)

Motions and means on sea, on land at war
With old poetic feeling, not for this
Shall ye, by poets even, be judged amiss!
Nor shall your presence, howsoe’er it mar
The loveliness of Nature, prove a bar
To the mind’s gaining that prophetic sense
Of future good, that point of vision, whence
May be discovered what in soul ye are
In spite of all that Beauty must disown
In harsh features, Nature doth embrace
Her lawful ofspring in man’s Art; and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o’er his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hold the proffered crown
Of hope, and welcomes you with cheer sublime.

Written in 1933, the poem is Wordsworth’s dialogue with himself as a poet whose “old poetic feeling” made him see steamboats and steam-powered trains as ruining the natural landscape However, he comes to realise that they are beneficial and that man’s inventions need not be anathema to the “loveliness of Nature”. —BU

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