Poems about maritime pilots are so rare that ‘Le Pilote de Tonga’ (The Pilot of Tonga) is a veritable gem. But there’s another reason this prose poem is special. It was written in 1856 by Charles Meryon (1821–1868), a French artist, printmaker and naval officer whose biography makes for interesting reading .

‘Le Pilote de Tonga’ was inspired by Meryon’s travels to Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the South Pacific on board the corvette Le Rhin. Meryon intended it to serve as frontispiece to an album — a memoir, if you will. His etching of the prose poem fittingly shows a Polynesian-style frame. “I did not make this little piece as a song, though it doubtless contains the material for one, according to the custom of the Islanders,” Meryon was quoted as saying in the book, French Etchers of the Second Empire by William Aspenwall Bradley (1916).

The original text in French

par Charles Meryon

Nous partions de Tonga sur un navire de guerre; vient le pilote dan sa frêle pirogue. — Il est presque complètement nu. Fort et agile, en un saut, il est à bord; il va droit au commandant et le salue dignement. — Le navire ouvre ses voile au vent, vivement poussé par la brise qui les gonfle, il donne dan l’étroit at dangereuse passe! — Debout sur le banc de quart, la tete haute, l’oeil attentif! Son attitude est noble et fiere; tout chez lui denote l’assurance. Sa large poitrine, de teint basanee, brille au soleil comme un bouclier d’airain. Ses longs cheveux flottent au vent… — A bord tout se tait: officiers et matelots l’admirent en silence… — Et le navire marche, marche toujour… Mais la voie s’aggrandit…. Déjà la houle du large ‘clapote sous la proue…. — Hourra! vaillant pilote, hourra! La passe est franchie. — Poursuis ta course, o beau navire; devant nous s’ouvre l’Océan.. — A toi, merci Pilote de Tonga!

The Pilot of Tonga, 1856
Etching by Charles Meryon (French, 1821–1868)
Printed by Auguste Delâtre (French, 1822–1907)
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Two English translations

by Charles Meryon

We were leaving Tonga upon a ship of war; hither comes the pilot in his frail canoe. He is almost naked. Strong and active, with one bound he leaps onboard: he goes straight to the Commander and becomingly salutes him. Quickly swept onward by the breeze, the ship, with her swelling sails, enters the narrow and dangerous channel. Upright upon the quarter-deck, his head high, his eye never wandering, the pilot shows by his gestures which way the ship should take through the reef. His bearing is noble and proud and full of assurance. His broad, deeply-coloured chest shines in the sun like a brazen buckler, his long hair flows in the wind. On board no one speaks: officers and sailors watch in silent admiration. And the vessel moves on, moves on. But the path grows wider. Already the waves of the ocean ripple against the prow. Hurrah! gallant pilot, hurrah! We are through the channel. Sail on, sail on, O graceful ship, before us lies the open sea. Thanks to thee, O Pilot of Tonga.

— translation by Dora Wilcox, from her article “A Prose-poem of the South Seas”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August 1935

by Charles Meryon

We sailed from Tonga on a ship of war; now comes the Pilot in his frail pirogue.

He is nearly nude. Agile and strong, with one leap he is on board; he goes straight to the commander and greets him with a courteous salute.

The ship spreads her sails to the winds; swiftly sped by the breeze that swells them, she enters the narrow and dangerous strait.

Standing on the quarter-deck, his head held high and his eye alert, the skilful pilot shows with a gesture the course of the ship which runs gaily among the reefs! Everything about him denotes assurance. His broad bosom, of tawny hue, gleams in the sunlight like a bronze buckler. His long locks float in the wind.

On board all is still. Officers and sailors admire him in silence.

And the ship sails on, and on, and on.

But the channel broadens. At length the surge of the open sea sounds beneath the prow.

Hurrah! valiant pilot! hurrah!
The strait is passed!
Pursue thy course, O noble ship; before us opens now
The Ocean!
And to thee, Pilot of Tonga, thanks!

— translation by William Aspenwall Bradley, from French Etchers of the Second Empire by William Aspenwall Bradley, 1916

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