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Short poem

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Tom Deadlight (1810)

                    During a tempest encountered homeward-bound from the Mediterranean, a grizzled petty-officer, one of the two captains of the forecastle, dying at night in his hammock, swung in the sick-bay under the tiered gun-decks of the British Dreadnought, 98, wandering in his mind, though with glimpses of sanity, and starting up at whiles, sings by snatches his good-bye and last injunctions to two messmates, his watchers, one of whom fans the fevered tar with the flap of his old sou'-wester. Some names and phrases, with here and there a line, or part of one; these, in his aberration, wrested into incoherency from their original connection and import, he involuntarily derives, as he does the measure, from a famous old sea-ditty, whose cadences, long rife, and now humming in the collapsing brain, attune the last flutterings of distempered thought.

              1Farewell and adieu to you noble hearties, --
              2    Farewell and adieu to you ladies of Spain,
              3For I've received orders for to sail for the Deadman,
              4    But hope with the grand fleet to see you again.

              5I have hove my ship to, with main-top-sail aback, boys;
              6    I have hove my ship to, for to strike soundings clear --
              7The black scud a'flying; but, by God's blessing, dam' me,
              8    Right up the Channel for the Deadman I'll steer.

              9I have worried through the waters that are callèd the Doldrums,
            10    And growled at Sargasso that clogs while ye grope --
            11Blast my eyes, but the light-ship is hid by the mist, lads: --
            12    Flying Dutchman -- odds bobbs -- off the Cape of Good Hope!

            13But what's this I feel that is fanning my cheek, Matt?
            14    The white goney's wing? -- how she rolls! -- 't is the Cape!
            15Give my kit to the mess, Jock, for kin none is mine, none;
            16    And tell Holy Joe to avast with the crape.

            17Dead reckoning, says Joe, it won't do to go by;
            18    But they doused all the glims, Matt, in sky t' other night.
            19Dead reckoning is good for to sail for the Deadman;
            20    And Tom Deadlight he thinks it may reckon near right.

            21The signal! -- it streams for the grand fleet to anchor.
            22    The captains -- the trumpets -- the hullabaloo!
            23Stand by for blue-blazes, and mind your shank-painters,
            24    For the Lord High Admiral, he's squinting at you!

            25But give me my tot, Matt, before I roll over;
            26    Jock, let's have your flipper, it's good for to feel;
            27And don't sew me up without baccy in mouth, boys,
            28    And don't blubber like lubbers when I turn up my keel.


1] A work well-known to modern audiences from Steven Spielberg's film, Jaws (1975), in which -- sung below-decks at night by the doomed captain, Quint (played by Robert Shaw), with Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) -- it attracts the shark's first assault on the boat.

3] Deadman: timber or metal anchorage in the ground used to secure ships in harbour.

5] hove: anchored.

6] soundings: measurements of the depth of the water.

7] black scud: dark rainy and fast-moving clouds.

9] Doldrums: becalmed waters without wind.

10] Sargasso: mass of sea-weeds.

11] light-ship: a ship with a warning light, a floating light-house.

12] Flying Dutchman: "A legendary spectral [Dutch] ship supposed to be seen in the region of the Cape of Good Hope" (OED "Dutchman", 3). odds bobbs: a mild oath, "God's God."

14] goney: albatross.

15] kit: bag of possessions. mess: crew, the mates that eat together.

16] avast: hold up, stop. crape: mourning bands, made often of thin worsted cloth.

17] Dead reckoning: "The estimation of a ship's position from the distance run by the log and the courses steered by the compass, with corrections for current, leeway, etc., but without astronomical observations" (OED).

18] doused all the glims: put out all the candles (i.e., stars).

23] blue-blazes: flamns of hell. shank-painters: "The rope or chain with which the shank and flukes of the anchor, when carried at the cathead, are confined to the ship's side" (OED, "painter 2", 1).

25] tot: mug (of rum).

26] flipper: hand.

27] baccy: tobacco.

28] blubber: weep. lubbers: those that do not go to sea. turn up my keel: keel over, die.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Collected Poems of Herman Melville, ed. Howard P. Vincent (Chicago: Packard, 1947): 182-84. PS 2382 V5 Robarts Library
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition:
Recent editing: 1:2003/6/2

Rhyme: abcb

Other poems by Herman Melville