Shanties (shipboard work songs) are fun to listen to because of their typically jaunty rhythm and hilarious lyrics. One exception is the popular ‘Leave Her, Johnny’, which was sung by 19th-century sailors on the Atlantic Ocean packet trade. Despite its dash of humour, this shanty tells of the trials and tribulations of seafarers.
As the end of the old year nears, I thought I would share three songs in remembrance and honour of seafarers. I dedicate these songs to all those who are still working at sea, to those who have grown old and are now retired, and to those who have sadly departed. As the Scottish dramatist and novelist Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860–1937) wrote, “God gave us memories that we might have roses in December.” Smell the roses, dear readers.
Almost a century has passed since Max Ehrmann, an American writer and lawyer from Indiana, wrote his 1927 prose poem ‘Desiderata’ (Latin word meaning “things that are needed or wanted”). Many who were college students during the heady 1960s will remember the opening line, “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste…” and the immortal phrase “you are a child of the universe”. Ehrmann’s words still ring true today. Not only do they inspire. They also offer bits of practical wisdom, a philosophy of life, that seafarers and others can live by during these tumultous times. Here is the complete original text, followed by two video clips (in English and Spanish) of ‘Desiderata’ read aloud.
In ordinary usage, the word “siren” is defined by the Oxford English Dictiionary as “a woman who is considered to be alluring or fascinating but also dangerous in some way”. Feminists might object to the term as being sexist. However, not a few women would feel flattered if they were called “siren”. In Greek mytholody, sirens (pictured above) were creatures, half bird and half woman, whose music and singing lured unsuspecting sailors to destruction. They have since become the archetype of the woman who has the ability to bewitch and have control over men.
Who would not want to journey to Venice, the city beloved by famour artists and ordinary tourists alike? The English Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, summed up its appeal in his poem ‘Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation’: “Its temples and its palaces did seem / Like fabrics of enchantment piled to Heaven.” Alas, not everyone has the means or the opportunity to visit the place. But no worries, the following artworks and poems will transport you blissfully to beautiful Venice.
These are not the best times for America. The nation has been ravaged by the coronavirus and rent by racial divisions. For all this, Americans have good reason to celebrate the 4th of July in a big way. As John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote:
‘It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.’ (Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776)
The thought of seafarers stranded by the thousands because of the COVID-19 pandemic makes me hark back to a poem in Spanish entitled ‘Perdón si por mis ojos’. It was written by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973), winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am delighted to share this powerful poem together with my English translation. Neruda describes the inner life of the seafarer against a backdrop of water, rock and seaweed.
American poet Emily Dickinson once said of poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” The following sea poems may well induce the same effect. Together they speak of the joy and pain of the seafaring life in simple but heartfelt language.
One of the most beautiful tributes to mothers I have come across is a poem by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral (1889—1957). It is entitled ‘Caricia’ (meaning “Caress” in English). The short poem has a power of emotion that shines through Mistral’s simple, down-to-earth language. The last line makes a reference to the sea, which makes this a wonderful Mother’s Day read for those who miss the sand and salt water.
The women of Spain have such captivating beauty that the great Joaquín Sorolla featured them in many of his paintings, including his 1889 Los Guitarristas, Costumbres Valencianas (pictured above). They also inspired Spanish Ladies, a traditional British naval song...
How many sailors and maritime professionals would spare some time to read poems? Not many, I suppose. Poetry won't fill anyone's pocket any more than viewing Ivan Aivazovsky's sublime 1874 painting, Brig Mercury in Moonlight (pictured above), would. But it can do...
Until recently, I was a total stranger to sea shanties. My taste in music has usually veered towards the classical, my favourites being Frédéric Chopin's nocturnes and Beethoven's piano concertos. But after listening to a few shanties, I have become a fan. These work...