The Muse in Arms/The Sea Affair

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The Sea Affair


XXXI

The Old Way

"I deeply regret to report the loss of H.M. ships. . . ."—Sir John Jellicoe's Despatch ("The Times," July 7th, 1916).

THERE'S a sea that lies uncharted far beyond the setting sun,
And a gallant fleet was sailing there whose fighting days are done,
Sloop and galleon, brig and pinnace, all the rigs you never met,
Fighting frigate, grave three-decker with their snowy canvas set;
Dozed and dreamed, when, on a sudden, ev'ry sail began to swell,
For the breeze has spoken strangers, with a stirring tale to tell,
And a thousand eager voices flung the challenge out to sea:
"Come they hither in the old way, in the only way that's free?"


And the flying breeze called softly: "In the old way,
Through the winters and the waters of the North,
They have waited, ah the waiting! in the old way,
Strong and patient, from the Pentlands to the Forth.
There was fog to blind and baffle off the headlands,
There were gales to beat the worst that ever blew,
But they took it, as they found it, in the old way,
And I know it often helped to think of you."


'Twas a frigate, under stun-sails, as she gently gathered way
Spoke in jerks, like all the frigates, who have little time to stay:
"We'd to hurry, under Nelson, thank my timbers I was tough,
For he worked us as he loved us, and he never had enough.
Are the English mad as ever? Were the frigates just as few?
(Will their sheets be always stranding, ere the rigging's rove anew?)
Just as Saxon slow at starting, just as weirdly wont to win?
Had they frigates out and watching? Did they pass the signals in?"


And the laughing Breeze made answer: "In the old way;
You should see the little cruisers spread and fly,
Peering over the horizon, in the old way,
And a seaplane up and wheeling in the sky.
When the wireless snapped 'The enemy is sighted,'
If his accents were comparatively new,
Why, the sailor-men were cheering, in the old way,
So I naturally smiled, and thought of you."


Then a courtly voice and stately from a tall three-decker came—
She'd the manners of a monarch and a story in her name:
"We'd a winter gale at even, and my shrouds are aching yet,
It was more than time for reefing when the upper sails were set.
So we chased in woful weather, till we closed in failing light,
Then we fought them, as we caught them, just as Hawke had bid us fight;
And we swept the sea by sunrise, clear and free beyond a doubt.
Was it thus the matter ended when the enemy was out?"


Cried the Breeze: "They fought and followed in the old way,
For they raced to make a record all the while,
With a knot to veer and haul on, in the old way,
That had never even met the measured mile—
And the guns were making merry in the twilight.
That the enemy was victor may be true,
Still—he hurried into harbour—in the old way—
And I wondered if he'd ever heard of you."


Came a gruff and choking chuckle, and a craft as black as doom
Lumbered laughing down to leeward, as the bravest gave her room.
"Set 'un blazin', good your Lordships, for the tide be makin' strong,
Proper breeze to fan a fireship, set 'un drivin' out along!
'Tis the 'Torch,' wi' humble duty, from Lord Howard 'board the 'Ark,'
We'm a laughin'-stock to Brixham, but a terror after dark.
Hold an' bilge a-nigh to burstin', pitch and sulphur, tar an' all,
Was it so, my dear, they'm fashioned for my Lord High Admiral?"


Cried the Breeze: "You'd hardly know it from the old way
(Gloriana, did you waken at the fight?).
Stricken shadows, scared and flying in the old way
From the swift destroying spectres of the night,
There were some that steamed and scattered south for safety,
From the mocking western echo 'Where be tu?'
There were some that—got the message—in the old way,
And the flashes in the darkness spoke of you."


There's a wondrous Golden Harbour, far beyond the setting sun,
Where a gallant ship may anchor when her fighting days are done,
Free from tempest, rock and battle, toil and tumult safely o'er,
Where the breezes murmur softly and there's peace for evermore.
They have climbed the last horizon, they are standing in from sea,
And the Pilot makes the Haven where a ship is glad to be:
Comes at last the glorious greeting, strangely new and ages old,
See the sober grey is shining like the Tudor green and gold!


And the waiting jibs are hoisted, in the old way,
As the guns begin to thunder down the line;
Hear the silver trumpets calling, in the old way!
Over all the silken pennons float and shine.
"Did you voyage all unspoken, small and lonely?
Or with fame, the happy fortune of the few?
So you win the Golden Harbour, in the old way,
There's the old sea welcome waiting there for you."


XXXII

Song of the White Ensign[1]

THEY made an Order in Council ('twas in eighteen sixty-four)
That gave me my proud position—the sign of a man-of-war,
And there isn't a tropic island or a bay where the anchors hold
But knows that I fly for Freedom and Honour worth more than gold.


Tens of thousands pay homage, as they raise me with loving hands
And free my soul in the morning to the drums of a hundred bands;
And thousands again salute me as the sun sinks down in the west,
For my Lords have decreed that the sun and I go down together to rest.


I flaunt my head in the breezes that the ice-bound Pole sends forth
As my halliards curse and chatter in the hail-swept frozen North;
And there's never an ocean steamer or his mate with t'gallant yard
But dip their colours in passing to show me their due regard.


I appeared off the Rio de Oro and secured the Atlantic trade,[2]
I showed off the Isle of Fernandez and saved the Pacific from raid[3];
From barren Perim to Delgado, there isn't a creek or bay[4]
But knows of the power behind me and the price that my enemies pay.


I drooped in the Karun River, but my head wasn't hung for shame;
I prayed for the winds to gather so the Arabs might chant my fame[5];
From Java to Gulf of Aden, from Frisco to Sea of Timor,
There's joy in the hearts of thousands when my colours are seen off shore.


They scarred me and pocked my beauty with the bursts of their well-aimed shell,
When they found me showing my colour to the westward of Coronel;
I hated being torn and tattered; they gave me no time to mend,
But they saw my honour untarnished, for my halliards held to the end.


I covered the sleeping corpses, for they slept there for my sake,
And I tethered myself to the shingle, till my country bade me wake;
Then I once more danced to the wind's tune and the Southern oceans knew
That the men and the ships they carried were safer because I flew.


I strained at my bow-taut halliards from Messina to Cape Matapan[6];
It wasn't the wind that frayed me, but the speed of the ships in the van;
And for many a long day after, I flew midst despair and loss,
But none disputed the honour of my jack and my great red cross.[7]


Tens of thousands revile me and pray for my colours to fade,
But I've covered ten thousand corpses and I'll fly till the debt is paid;
For thousands will fight for my honour, so long as my halliards last,
And if my halliards are shattered, fight on—when I'm nailed to the mast.


XXXIII

Undying Days

January 24th, 1915

June 1st, 1794, 1813, 1916

FROM the "George" in Portsmouth High Street north to the Scottish shore
The post-chaise carried the message; 'twas in seventeen ninety-four;
Men quaffed their ale on the village green and danced to the fiddler's tune,
And talked of Howe and the men he led on the glorious First of June.
They sang and they danced, for they'd lost all fear
Of losing their maids and their baccy and beer.


Fiona Plymouth Hoe to Yeovil town, through Reading to Harrow Hill
Just twenty-nine years after, men called for their host to fill
Their tankards up with English ale and the fiddler to scrape a tune,
And talked of Broke and the Shannon's tars and the Battle of First of June.
They danced and they toasted the frigate's crew,
And sang of the guns and the men in blue.


Once more from Plymouth and Portsmouth towns the news has spread like fire,
Instead of the chaise and its sweating team, it's carried by miles of wire;
Though beer is scarce and tobacco dear, and no fiddlers to give a tune,
Men talk of the fleet that held the field, and prayed for a "First of June."
No song and no dance, but a quiet content
For the news that their great grey ships have sent.


Merchants sailed from the Port of Leith and passed by the Head of Skaw,
And the sea to them looked all the same from St. Abb's to the Danish shore;
But the skippers knew of the Fisher Bank and the fifteen-fathom patch;
You'd have heard of it too in Jutland, when they talked of the "last night's catch."
They worked and fished on the slippery decks
With never a thought of gun-swept wrecks.


Travellers sailed from the Port of Hull to land on Stavanger pier,
And they never looked at the soundings, or thought of the course to steer;
But the skippers knew of the Dogger Bank where the lead can "find" at eight;
You'd have heard of it too at Grimsby town, when the boats were a few days late.
The packers and fishwives knew it well,
For that's where their men got the fish to sell.


But now the merchants from Port of Leith will ask for the shallow patch,
And the Jutland men will haul their nets, fearing for what they'll catch;
Talking ever of homes that shook when the great grey vessels fought
And a fleet sent out on an enterprise, crippled and back in port.
They'll marvel at men who'll struggle and drown
For the sake of the maids in an East Coast town.


The travellers, too, from the Port of Hull will ask for the Dogger Bank,
And think of the day the great ships met, and the place where the Blücher sank;
And talk of the deeds of sailor folk who fought for their homes and trade,
And an enemy baffled by English strength, turned from an East Coast raid.
They'll know they travel because men fought
And skilfully handled what strong men wrought.


Thousands who never have seen the sea, or the great grey steel-clad forms,
Or the lithe black shapes of the smaller craft, or the scud of the North Sea storms,
Will talk of armour and shells and guns, and the battle by Horn Reef light,
And of sunken ships and of brave deeds done in the hours of a short May night.
No song and no dance!—but they've lost the fear
Of losing their maids and their baccy and beer.


XXXIV

To a Naval Cadet

Lost in H.M.S. "Hogue," North Sea, August 1914

HERO of tender age,
Scarce had you turned a page
Of the fair Book of Life, ere it was ended:
As bud by autumn nipped,
Closed Youth's sweet manuscript,
Dust once again to dust descended.


Called from the sheltered peace
Of naval colleges,
True to the training and the breed of you,
Putting your games aside,
You thrilled with boyish pride
To think that now your Motherland had need of you.


Not yours to know delight
In the keen, hard-fought fight,
The shock of battle and the battle's thunder;
But suddenly to feel
Deep, deep beneath the keel,
The vital blow that rives the ship asunder.


Well might a soul more staid
Than yours have been afraid
In whom th' encroaching sea no fear could waken,
So to your end you passed
Steadfast unto the last,
Bearing your boyhood's courage still unshaken.


But ere the icy breath
Of that grim spectre Death
Had any power to affright or pain you,
Hovered around your head
Shades of our Greater Dead—
I like to think—to welcome and sustain you.


For all your tender years,
Amidst your mother's tears
Still must there be one glowing thought of pride for her,
And those less fortunate
Must envy you your fate
So to have served your Land and to have died for her.


XXXV

Lines written somewhere in the North Sea

THE laggard hours drift slowly by; while silver mist-wreaths veil the sky
And iron coast wheron, flung high, the North Sea breaks in foam.
When flame the pallid Northern Lights on seeming age-long winter nights,
Then oftentimes for our delight God sends a dream of Home.


And once again we know the peace of little red-roofed villages
That nestle close in some deep crease amid the rolling wealds
That northward, eastward, southward sweep, fragrant with thyme and flecked with sheep,
To where the corn is standing deep above the ripening fields.


And once again in that fair dream I see the sibilant, swift stream—
Now gloomy-green and now agleam—that flows by Furnace Mill,
And hear the plover's plaintive cry above the common at Holtye,
When redly glows the dusky sky and all the woods are still.


Oh, I remember as of old, the copse aflame with russet gold,
The sweet half-rotten scent of mould, the while I stand and hark
To unseen woodland life that stirs before the clamant gamekeepers,
Till, sudden, out a pheasant whirrs to cries of "Mark cock, mark!"


And there are aged inns that sell the mellow, cool October ale,
What time one tells an oft-told tale around the friendly fires,
Until the clock with muffled chime asserts that it is closing time,
And o'er the fields now white with rime the company retires.


How long ago and far it seems, this peaceful country of our dreams,
Of fruitful fields and purling streams—the England that we know:
Who holds within her sea-girt ring all that we love, and love can bring;
Ah, Life were but a little thing to give to keep her so!


XXXVI

Battle of the Falkland Isles

THE Isle Juan Fernandez off Valparaiso Bay,
'Twas there that Cradock sought
The action that he fought—
For he said: "To run from numbers is not our English way,
Nor do we question why
We are fore-ordained to die."
Though his guns were scooping water and his tops were blind with spray.


In the red light of the sunset his ships went down in flame,
He and his brave men
Were never seen again,
And Von Spec he stroked his beard, and said: "Those Englishmen are game,
But their dispositions are
More glorious than war;
Those that greyhounds set on mastiffs are surely much to blame."


Then the Board of Admiralty to Sir Doveton Sturdee said:
"Take a proper naval force
And steer a sou'west course,
And show the world that England is still a Power to dread."
Like scorpions and whips
Was vengeance to his ships,
And Cradock's guiding spirit flew before their line ahead.


Through tropic seas they shore like a meteor through the sky,
And the dolphins in their chase
Grew weary of the race;
The swift grey-pinioned albatross behind them could not fly,
And they never paused to rest
Upon the ocean's breast
Till their southern shadows lengthened and the Southern Cross rode high.


Then Sir Doveton Sturdee said in his flagship captain's ear:
"By yon kelp and brembasteen
'Tis the Falkland Isles, I ween,
Those mollymauks and velvet-sleeves they signal land is near,
Give your consorts all the sign
To swing out into line,
And keep good watch 'twixt ship and ship till Graf von Spec appear."


The Germans like grey shadows came stealing round the Horn,
Or as a wolf-pack prowls
With blood upon its jowls,
Their sides were pocked with gun-shots and their guns were battle-worn,
And their colliers down the wind
Like jackals trailed behind,
'Twas thus they met our cruisers on a bright December morn.


Like South Atlantic rollers half a mile from crest to crest,
Breaking on basalt rocks
In thunderous battle-shocks,
So our heavy British metal put their armour to the test.
And the Germans hurried north,
As our lightnings issued forth,
But our battle-line closed round them like a sickle east and west.


Each ship was as a pillar of grey smoke on the sea,
Or mists upon a fen,
Till they burst forth again
From their wraiths of battle-vapour by wind and speed made free;
Three hours the action sped,
Till, plunging by the head,
The Scharnhorst drowned the pennant of Admiral von Spec.


At the end of two hours more her sister ship went down
Beneath the bubbling wave,
The Gneisenau found her grave,
And Nürnberg and Leipzig, those cities of renown,
Their cruiser god-sons, too,
Were both pierced through and through,
There was but one of all five ships our gunners did not drown.


'Twas thus that Cradock died, 'twas thus Von Spec was slain,
'Twas thus that Sturdee paid
The score those Germans made,
'Twas thus St. George's Ensign was laundered white again,
Save the Red Cross over all
The graves of those who fall,
That England as of yore may be Mistress of the Main.


XXXVII

Guns at Sea

LET me get back to the guns again, I hear them calling me,
And all I ask is my own ship, and the surge of the open sea,
In the long, dark nights, when the stars are out, and the clean salt breezes blow,
And the land's foul ways are half forgot, like nightmare, and I know
That the world is good, and life worth while, and man's real work to do,
In the final test, in Nature's school, to see which of us rings true.
On shore, in peace, men cheat and lie—but you can't do that at sea,
For the sea is strong; if your work is weak, vain is the weakling's plea
Of a "first offence" or "I'm only young," or "It shall not happen again,"
For the sea finds out your weakness, and writes its lesson plain.
"The liar, the slave, the slum-bred cur—let them stay ashore, say I,
"For, mark it well, if they come to me, I break them and they die.
The land is kind to a soul unsound; I find and probe the flaw,
For I am the tears of eternity that rock to eternal law."


I love the touch of the clean salt spray on my hands and hair and face,
I love to feel the long ship leap, when she feels the sea's embrace,
While down below is the straining hull, o'erhead the gulls and clouds,
And the clean wind comes 'cross the vast sea space, and sings its song in the shrouds.
But now in my dreams, besides the sounds one always hears at sea,
I hear the mutter of distant guns, which call and call to me,
Singing: "Come! The day is here for which you have waited long."
And women's tears, and craven fears, are drowned in that monstrous song.
So whatever the future hold in store, I feel that I must go,
To where, thro' the shattering roar, I hear a voice that whispers low:
"The craven, the weak, the man with nerves, from me they must keep away,
Or a dreadful price in shattered nerves, and broken health they pay.
But send me the man who is calm and strong, in the face of my roaring blast,
He shall tested be in my mighty fires, and if he shall live at the last,
He can go to his home, his friends, his kin, to his life e'er war began,
With a new-found soul, and a new-found strength, knowing himself a man."


XXXVIII

News of Jutland

June 3rd, 1916

(On June 3, 1916, when the news of our sad losses in our first great naval battle off the Jutland Bank had just come to hand, I went fishing with a sailor in the Naval Reserve. The following lines are, almost word for word, a transcript of his talk.)

THE news had flashed throughout the land,
The night had dropped in dread—
What would the morrow's sunrise tell
Of England's mighty dead?
What homes were wrecked? What hearts were doomed
To bleed in sorrow's school?

·····

At early morn I sought my friend,
The fisherman of Poole.


He waited there beside the steps:
The boat rocked just below:
"You're ready, m'm? The morning's fine!
I thought as how you'd go!
I dug the bait an hour agone—
We calls 'em 'lug-worms' here.
The news is grave? Aye, so I've heard!
Step in! Your skirt is clear.


"My brothers? Any news, you ask?
No, m'm! Nor like to be
A fortnight yet! Maybe they're both
Asleep beneath the sea!
I saw 'em start two years agone
Next August—and I says
We'll see 'em back by Christmas time—
But we don't know God's ways!


"I'll pull her round the fishing-boats!
The Polly's lying there!
D'you see her, m'm? The prettiest smack
For weather foul or fair!
It's just the ways they've builded her
As seems to make her feel
Alive! She's fifty sovereigns' worth
O' lead along her keel.


"Fine men my brothers war—I'll tie
Her up against this boom!
Don't fear to move free! This here boat
Is built with lots o' room!
You're safe with Jacob Matthews, m'm!
He's ne'er been called a fool
By any of the fisher-folk
As lives in little Poole!


"How many left? Well, maybe half;
They've gone off one by one.
It's likely I'll be gone myself
Afore the war is done.
Attested just a month agone,
And passed for fit and sound—
It's shallow here for flat-fish, m'm,
The boat's well-nigh aground.


"I'll throw your line out—that'll do!
Aye, fights on sea are grave!
There ain't no Red Cross people there
To lift you off the wave!
There ain't no 'cover' you can take,
No places to lie down!
You got to go—wi' red-hot shells
Just helping you to drown!


"It minds me of a night we men
Had got the life-boat out.
They'd 'phoned us up! And off we pulled
With many a cheer and shout!
We rowed her hard up to the wind,
And clear the moonlight shone—
But when we reached—you see, just there—
Both ship and crew were gone!


"We cruised around for half an hour!
Ah, m'm, our hearts was sore!
We'd looked to throw the line to them,
And bring 'em safe to shore!
Aye! these blue waves ha' swallowed up
More finer men than me!
But we've been always fisher-folk,
And we can't fear the sea!


"Why, there's a catch! Aye, pull it in!
'Tis on your second hook!
Well, that's as odd a little fish
As e'er a line ha' took!
I've ne'er seen nothing like it, m'm—
Don't touch it wi' your hand—
These strange 'uns prick like poison, m'm,
Sometimes—you understand?


"I'll take it off! It won't hurt me!
You wonder what it's called?
I couldn't say! The rummest thing
That ever yet was hauled!
A farthing's worth o' queerness, m'm,
I'd name it if 'twas priced!
A young John Dory? No—they bears
The marks o' Jesus Christ.


"You'll see His fingers and His thumb!
Where are they? Well, a bit
Beyond the gills—look! Here's the place,
Just where I'm holding it!
So this ain't no John Dory, m'm!
I'll put it safe away!
You'll tell your friends you pulled it from
The bottom o' Poole Bay!


"'Twas better than a submarine?
There ain't such devils here!
We've got the North Sea trawlers down,
They keeps the harbour clear!
You saw a heap o' tangled wire
A-lyin' on the quay?
And thought as they'd just hauled it up?
Aye, m'm! That's how 'twould be.


"We're what they calls a 'Naval Base'
Since this here war abroke!
You seen it up? Aye, yonder there!
'Tis hard for fisher-folk!
We gets our catches in the night!
But we mayn't leave the Bay
Save when the sun is on the sea—
You don't catch much by day!


"But we've our bit to bear, as much
As richer men nor we.
We got to get a 'permit' now
To take our nets to sea.
We starts at dawn—if tides is right—
And, when the sun be gone,
Unless we lie inside the booms
We'd like be fired upon!


"You want to see the mack'rel shoals?
They come in black as—see—
Yon house that's tarred from roof to floor
Just there, beside the quay!
My smack's up now by Christchurch steps,
I've got my 'permit' signed!
I'll take you out o' Thursday next
If so be you've a mind?


I shan't be gone? Not yet! I waits
Until I gets the call!—
If you'll come out, m'm, with the nets,
I'll promise you a haul!
You're safe with Jacob Matthews, m'm!
He's ne'er been called a fool
By any of the fisher-folk
The war has left in Poole!"


  1. As the ensign is hoisted in the morning, the band plays the National Anthem and all officers and men on deck face the ensign and salute. As the ensign is hauled down at sunset, the bugles sound the "Sunset call" and all officers and men on deck face the ensign and salute. The white ensign is laid over the coffins of naval men during funerals.
  2. H.M.S. Highflyer defeated Kaiser Wilhelm.
  3. Sinking of the Dresden.
  4. Königsberg, etc.
  5. Mesopotamia.
  6. Chase of the Goeben.
  7. Dardanelles.