The Seine River in France runs for 780 kilometres (485 miles) — shorter than the country’s longest river, the Loire (1,020 kilometres or 634 miles). But it is the beloved river of Paris and one of Europe’s great historic rivers. And like other great rivers such as the Volga and the Mississippi, it has, through the centuries, held a strong fascination for creative spirits — poets, musical composers and artists. The stream of inspiration has never stopped flowing.
Knowing the historical and cultural context of a song can lead to a better appreciation of it. In the case of Soon May the Wellerman Come (The Wellerman, for short), it is in fact necessary . This whaling song which has gone viral (it is not a sea shanty) makes specific references to the whaling tradition of New Zealand and to whale hunting in general. To know the meaning of some of the words and phrases used is to understand what the song really tries to convey.
What better time to indulge in some poetry than on a weekend — when the noise of the work-a-day world has subsided, and you can sit quietly to savour the words of a poem like a cup of home-brewed coffee?
What is it about beaches that inspires so much art and poetry? Is it the heady mixture of sea breeze, salt water and warm sand that makes human emotions rise up and rush in like the tide? Is it the brief encounter with eternity as one stands alone by the sea?
Yes, there are real ghost ships. Phantom ships they are usually called, drifting at sea with their crew missing or dead. Amongst such mysterious vessels was the schooner Carroll A. Deering, which was found run aground off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in 1921 minus its crew. But equally mysterious are the ghost ships of legend and folklore, the most famous being the Flying Dutchman. These spectres of the sea live on through the works of writers and artists.
After reading the limericks of Edward Lear, the English painter and writer, I felt that I should try my hand at this popular form of humourous verse. Traditional limericks are often nonsensical and even bawdy. But why not, I thought, put in some meaning and relevance to the times? The following nautical limericks are my first attempts at the craft.
Many folks who have fallen in love with The Wellerman (full title: ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’) call it a “sea shanty”. Even Scottish singer Nathan Evans, whose version went viral on TikTok in late 2020, has labelled it as such. They are sadly mistaken. The Wellerman is not a shanty but a 19th-century whaling ballad or folk song from New Zealand.
Why is it important to know this?
First, because it prevents us from making the same mistake many people make when they assume that Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a sacred song or hymn. This highly popular song, which Cohen recorded in 1984, is actually about earthly, profane love that makes references to the Bible and has erotic connotations.
The coronavirus is still on a rampage, spinning off new variants that cause even more sickness and death. These are gloomy times indeed. But why fret and wear a long face? La vida es bella y corta! Life is beautiful and short. Cheer up with some limericks — short, humorous verses that are often silly, nonsensical and even lewd.
“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” wrote W.H. Auden in his poem First Things First. This is such an obvious truth that one wonders why the seas are strewn with tonnes of plastic waste and rivers are polluted till they become dark and ugly. The following song and works of art are a tribute to life-giving andl life-sustaining water. They are a reminder as well that water is a precious resource that ought not to be taken for granted.
To suggest that poetry can be useful to maritime executives and professionals may sound silly. In the contemporary shipping world, it is Plutus, the Greek god of wealth, who rules — not Apollo, the god of music, poetry, and light. Indulging in poetry seems such a waste of time, a luxury for practical people. But is it really?
I had wanted to write an obituary-style article about Captain Michael (“Mike”) Cuanzon, a dear friend who passed away in late March at the age of 91. However, Mike eschewed accolades. He once declined an ‘Outstanding Master Mariner’ award which a national association of ship officers had planned to bestow on him. He suggested that they give it instead to someone who was, as he put it, “hungry for recognition”. In light of this, I am sharing a song in Spanish in honour of this rare Filipino old salt.
No song probably depicts the hardships and suffering of African-Americans as poignantly and as beautifully as ‘Ol’ Man River’. Jerome Kerr composed the song for the 1927 musical Show Boat with Oscar Hammerstein II as lyricist. Almost a century on, the words and the melody still resound in a society that has yet to really come to grips with racism.