Songs of the Sea

Songs of the Sea

15 May 2020: Poet’s Day 7

This isn’t quite what I had in mind for my choice of sea poems, but these have a rhythm and a force to them. The authors of sea shanties are often unknown, as they usually grew out of the rhythm of hard work: rowing a boat or lifting a sail or raising the anchor.

The poems are:

Poem 19. Spanish Ladies

“We’ll rant and we’ll roar, all o’er the wild ocean, we’ll rant and we’ll roar, all o’er the wild seas”

Anon

Farewell and adieu to you, Fair Spanish Ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, Ladies of Spain
For we’ve received orders to sail for old England,
But we hope in a short while to see you again.

We’ll rant and we’ll roar, all o’er the wild ocean,
We’ll rant and we’ll roar, all o’er the wild seas,
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of Old England
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty-five leagues.

We hove our ship to, with the wind at sou-west, boys,
We hove our ship for to make soundings clear;
Then filled the main topsail and bore right away, boys,
And straight up the Channel our course we did steer.

We’ll rant and we’ll roar, etc…

The first land we made was a point called the Dodman,
Next Rame Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight,
We sailed then by Beachy, by Fairlee and Dung’ness,
Then bore straight away for the South Foreland Light.

We’ll rant and we’ll roar, etc…

The signal was made for the Grand Fleet to anchor,
We clewed up our topsails, stuck out tacks and sheets,
We stood by our stoppers, we brailed in our spanker,
And anchored ahead of the noblest of fleets.

Then let every man here toss off a full bumper,
Then let every man here toss off his full bowl,
For we will be jolly and drown melancholy,
With a health to each jovial and true-hearted soul

We’ll rant and we’ll roar, etc…

I think I first encountered this song in the Swallows and Amazons books by Sir Arthur Ransome. The Swallows, being children of a naval father (and presumably accustomed to naval life and folklore), often sing sea songs when putting up their boat’s sail, and Spanish Ladies is frequently mentioned across the series of books. It is also sung by Robert Shaw’s character Quint in Jaws (1975).

It is first mentioned in a ship’s log dating back to 1769 and it is suggested that it arose during the alliance with Spain in time of war with France and gained popularity during the Peninsular War. This song actually predates shanties, most of which were work songs of merchant sailors and largely emerged in the mid 1800s but Spanish Ladies is now often considered to be part of the genre.

The song is full of sailor’s jargon. “Hove to” is the past tense of “Heave to”, meaning to configure the sails such that the vessel is effectively ‘parked’, allowing the crew time to wait for a storm to break or to have a meal without needing to steer; a single-handed sailor can use it to go and rest.

A sounding is made by casting a lead-weighted line overboard and measuring the length of the wet line to judge the depth of the water in which the vessel is riding, so as to know whether the stretch of water can accommodate it. Hence the phrase “taking soundings”; the other term which arises from this practice comes from the markings on the sounding line: the “leadsman” would cry out the number of fathoms, and if the depth was two fathoms, the cry would be “By the mark, twain!” which is likely where the American writer took his pen name from, as he was formerly a river pilot.

The main topsail is as its name suggests, the top-most sail on the main mast; topsails were the largest sails and provided much of the driving force for the ship since they received a steady breeze even in rough seas. Therefore when they filled the main topsail, they bore right away: the wind drove them swiftly up the channel, and the direction can be guessed from the order of the landmarks.

The Grand Fleet is usually associated with the main fleet of the British Navy during the First World War but these words date back to 1840 or earlier, so the same term evidently also referred to an earlier British naval force.

The next few lines speak of bringing the ship to a halt. Clews are the moveable lower corners of a square sail, tacks and sheets are the lines attached to the lower corner of a sail, stoppers are short ropes that keep a cable in a fixed position and a spanker is a triangular sail to the rear of the square sails.

In the last verse, the sailors make merry with bumpers and bowls of strong drink, “toss off” meaning drinking to the dregs in the manner of the Full Pint Challenge.

Poem 20. The Mingulay Boat Song

“Hill you ho boys; Let her go, boys, bring her head ‘round into the weather”

Sir Hugh S. Roberton (1874—1952)

This song is copyright—read it here.

I first heard this sung by the Fishermans Friends, led by their bass singer Jon Cleave, and it got my attention because it sounded so different to the other shanties they sing.

The song describes the feelings of the crew of a small fishing smack returning to port across a perilous stretch of water—they can see the danger in the flowing white water, but they can also see the homely candles shining in the windows and the heather on the familiar hills.

The song was written by Sir Hugh S. Roberton and uses a traditional Gaelic tune. It has been recorded at various times by The Corries and Mike Oldfield, amongst others, as well as The Fisherman’s Friends.

Roberton was a Scottish composer and led the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, Britain’s foremost choir for almost fifty years. He was knighted for his contribution to music in 1931 but was a pacifist and was as a result barred from broadcasting by the BBC during the Second World War!

Poem 21. The Drunken Sailor

“Hooray and up she rises, early in the morning!”

Anon

What shall we do with a drunken sailor,
What shall we do with a drunken sailor,
What shall we do with a drunken sailor,
Early in the morning?

CHORUS

Hooray and up she rises,
Hooray and up she rises,
Hooray and up she rises,
Early in the morning!

Put him in a leaky boat and make him bail her,
Put him in a leaky boat and make him bail her,
Put him in a leaky boat and make him bail her,
Early in the morning!

CHORUS

Put him in the brig until he’s sober,
Put him in the brig until he’s sober,
Put him in the brig until he’s sober,
Early in the morning!

CHORUS

Shave his belly with a rusty razor,
Shave his belly with a rusty razor,
Shave his belly with a rusty razor,
Early in the morning!

CHORUS

This is perhaps the archetypal sea shanty; the lyrics vary wildly from one rendition to another, but the rhythm is the same. You can picture the square sails of an old clipper rising to the strains of this song.

You can see several versions of the song on YouTube—it’s the song The Irish Rovers use to close their shows; the Fishermans Friends have also performed it, and versions appear in the video games Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Dishonoured.