An Awfully Big Adventure

An Awfully Big Adventure

This week’s choices are about adventures.

Rudyard Kipling tells us the story of the crew of the ‘Bolivar’, Alfred Noyes recollects his boyish adventures in “Pirates”, and G.K. Chesterton shows how the mundane and fantastic are interwoven in “Modern Elfland”.

Far over the Misty Mountains old
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

So begins the song of Thorin and his companions in the hole of Bilbo Baggins, and it briefly inspires the hobbit:

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

At the end of Bilbo’s story, the hobbit reflects on his adventures and concludes that perhaps coming home is the best adventure of all:

Roads go ever on and on
      Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone
      By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
      And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
      And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever on and on
      Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
      Turn at last to home afar
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
      And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
      And trees and hills they long have known.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Poem 106. The Ballad of the ‘Bolivar’

Seven men from all the world, back to town again,
Rollin’ down the Ratcliffe Road drunk and raising Cain

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)
SEVEN men from all the world, back to Docks again,
Rolling down the Ratcliffe Road drunk and raising Cain:
Give the girls another drink ‘fore we sign away—
We that took the “Bolivar” out across the Bay!
We put out from Sunderland loaded down with rails;
We put back to Sunderland ’cause our cargo shifted;
We put out from Sunderland—met the winter gales—
Seven days and seven nights to the Start we drifted.
Racketing her rivets loose, smoke-stack white as snow,
All the coals adrift adeck, half the rails below,
Leaking like a lobster-pot, steering like a dray—
Out we took the Bolivar, out across the Bay!
One by one the Lights came up, winked and let us by;
Mile by mile we waddled on, coal and fo’c’sle short;
Met a blow that laid us down, heard a bulkhead fly;
Left the Wolf behind us with a two-foot list to port.
Trailing like a wounded duck, working out her soul;
Clanging like a smithy-shop after every roll;
Just a funnel and a mast lurching through the spray—
So we threshed the Bolivar out across the Bay!
’Felt her hog and felt her sag, betted when she’d break;
Wondered every time she raced if she’d stand the shock;
Heard the seas like drunken men pounding at her strake;
Hoped the Lord ’ud keep his thumb on the plummer-block.
Banged against the iron decks, bilges choked with coal;
Flayed and frozen foot and hand, sick of heart and soul;
Last we prayed she’d buck herself into judgment Day—
Hi! we cursed the Bolivar knocking round the Bay!
O her nose flung up to sky, groaning to be still—
Up and down and back we went, never time for breath;
Then the money paid at Lloyd’s caught her by the heel,
And the stars ran round and round dancin’ at our death.
Aching for an hour’s sleep, dozing off between;
’Heard the rotten rivets draw when she took it green;
’Watched the compass chase its tail like a cat at play—
That was on the Bolivar, south across the Bay.
Once we saw between the squalls, lyin’ head to swell—
Mad with work and weariness, wishin’ they was we—
Some damned Liner’s lights go by like a long hotel;
Cheered her from the Bolivar swampin’ in the sea.
Then a grayback cleared us out, then the skipper laughed;
“Boys, the wheel has gone to Hell—rig the winches aft!
Yoke the kicking rudder-head—get her under way!”
So we steered her, pulley-haul, out across the Bay!
Just a pack o’ rotten plates puttied up with tar,
In we came, an’ time enough, ‘cross Bilbao Bar.
Overloaded, undermanned, meant to founder, we
Euchred God Almighty’s storm, bluffed the Eternal Sea!
Seven men from all the world, back to town again,
Rollin’ down the Ratcliffe Road drunk and raising Cain:
Seven men from out of Hell. Ain’t the owners gay,
’Cause we took the “Bolivar” safe across the Bay?

This poem seems like a real sea-faring adventure and it starts with seven sailors partying in their home port because they survived a voyage from Sunderland to Bilbao despite the parlous state of their ship and dreadful weather. The continual references to “the Bay” are to the Bay of Biscay.

The second stanza tells us that the beginning of the journey was a false start as they have to return to Sunderland to secure their cargo, setting out in the teeth of winter storms and taking seven days to drift from Sunderland in the north of England to Start Point in Devon.

The third stanza tells us something of the state of their steam ship, with the coal fuelling the ship rolling around the deck and the cargo of rails once again adrift in the hold. A lobster pot is a kind of cage made of rope that is used to trap lobsters — they swim into the pot and can’t get out. Since it is a cage and not a box, a lobster pot is proverbially leaky. A dray is a large cart, typically used in the past for carrying kegs of ale from the brewery to the tap room, and drawn by two large cart horses: Clydesdales, for example. The manoeuvrability of such a cart (or lack thereof) can be easily imagined.

The subsequent stanzas heighten the drama as the ship labours onward, passing by various light houses (the Lights), short of fuel and crew members (coal and fo’c’sle — a contraction of forecastle, the part of the ship where the ordinary sailors were quartered) and the ship becoming less and less sea-worthy as she progresses. She is laid down (turned on her side) by a powerful gust of wind (a blow), an internal partition intended to protect against sinking comes loose (“heard a bulkhead fly”) and, as she goes past the Wolf Rock Lighthouse (off Land’s End in Cornwall), she is listing (tilting) two feet from the vertical (imagine a plumb line hanging straight down, the end being two feet away from the straight up-and-down marker, and that’s a serious amount of tilt).

There is a lot of jargon specific to sea-faring in this poem and I don’t propose to go into it all, but the situation becomes ever more desperate: as a liner passes in the distance and the Boliver flounders in the heavy swell, a huge wave (a greyback) damages the steering gear and they have to resort to a primitive arrangement of winches to control the ship’s direction. The eighth stanza refers to “the money paid at Lloyd’s”, meaning the insurance paid to Lloyds of London.

They reach the port of Bilbao by which time the sailor describes his ship as “Just a pack o’ rotten plates puttied up with tar” but despite being overloaded and undermanned, the seven seamen have succeeded in bringing the Bolivar and its cargo to their destination, a feat lauded as euchring God Almighty’s storm (i.e. beating Him at the card game Euchre) and bluffing the Eternal Sea (escaping the doom that appeared certain while they were on the ship).

This poem is interesting because as well as the adventure of the voyage it tells, Kipling wrote it in support of a campaign to prevent unscrupulous owners from sending ships to sea in a dangerous condition. Kipling apparently wrote the poem in about half an hour for Sidney Low, a journalist who was writing about these “coffin-ships” and the campaign was taken up by Samuel Plimsoll, M.P. for Derby, whose laws introduced the Plimsoll Line which denoted the safe depth to which a vessel could be loaded.


Poem 107. Pirates

Let us be boys together to-night, and pretend as of old
We are pirates at rest in a cave among huge heaps of gold,
Red Spanish doubloons and great pieces of eight, and muskets and swords,
And a smoky red camp-fire to glint, you know how, on our ill-gotten hoards.

Alfred Noyes (1880—1958)
Come to me, you with the laughing face, in the night as I lie
Dreaming of days that are dead and of joys gone by;
Come to me, comrade, come through the slow-dropping rain,
Come from your grave in the darkness and let us be pirates again.
Let us be boys together to-night, and pretend as of old
We are pirates at rest in a cave among huge heaps of gold,
Red Spanish doubloons and great pieces of eight, and muskets and swords,
And a smoky red camp-fire to glint, you know how, on our ill-gotten hoards.
The old cave in the fir-wood that slopes down the hills to the sea
Still is haunted, perhaps, by young pirates as wicked as we:
Though the fir with the magpie's big mud-plastered nest used to hide it so well,
And the boys in the gang had to swear that they never would tell.
Ah, that tree; I have sat in its boughs and looked seaward for hours.
I remember the creak of its branches, the scent of the flowers
That climbed round the mouth of the cave. It is odd I recall
Those little things best, that I scarcely took heed of at all.
I remember how brightly the brass on the butt of my spy-glass gleamed
As I climbed through the purple heather and thyme to our eyrie and dreamed;
I remember the smooth glossy sun-burn that darkened our faces and hands
As we gazed at the merchantmen sailing away to those wonderful lands.
I remember the long, slow sigh of the sea as we raced in the sun,
To dry ourselves after our swimming; and how we would run
With a cry and a crash through the foam as it creamed on the shore,
Then back to bask in the warm dry gold of the sand once more.
Come to me, you with the laughing face, in the gloom as I lie
Dreaming of days that are dead and of joys gone by;
Let us be boys together to-night and pretend as of old
We are pirates at rest in a cave among great heaps of gold.
Come; you shall be chief. We'll not quarrel, the time flies so fast.
There are ships to be grappled, there's blood to be shed, ere our playtime be past.
No; perhaps we will quarrel, just once, or it scarcely will seem
So like the old days that have flown from us both like a dream.
Still; you shall be chief in the end; and then we'll go home
To the hearth and the tea and the books that we loved: ah, but come,
Come to me, come through the night and the slow-dropping rain;
Come, old friend, come thro' the darkness and let us be playmates again.

This makes me think of the adventures of youth when imagination makes the best stories.

We see someone sleeping, dreaming of past days when he and a friend who have now died played at being pirates, pretending to sit in their cave amidst their treasure: golden coins and oiled weapons lit by the flames of a smoking fire. Their den was evidently a haunt of young pirates since time immemorial and kept secret by the succeeding generations of children. The dreamer recalls the salient features of the den: the look-out tree, the flowers at the mouth of the cave, the ships sailing across to the horizon, the sound of the sea, and the quarrels over who would be chief pirate.

I love the way Noyes conjures up the memories of this (perhaps middle-aged) man: they seem so vivid.

Comments (from the original post)

  • Linda Willing: Sounds like a brilliant childhood xxx

Poem 108. Modern Elfland

‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’

G.K. Chesterton (1874—1936)
I cut a staff in a churchyard copse,
 I clad myself in ragged things,
I set a feather in my cap
 That fell out of an angel's wings.
I filled my wallet with white stones,
 I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
 And so I went to fairyland.
But lo, within that ancient place
 Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
 That telleth where she takes a town.
But cowled with smoke and starred with lamps,
 That strange land's light was still its own;
The word that witched the woods and hills
 Spoke in the iron and the stone.
Not Nature's hand had ever curved
 That mute unearthly porter's spine.
Like sleeping dragon's sudden eyes
 The signals leered along the line.
The chimneys thronging crooked or straight
 Were fingers signalling the sky;
The dog that strayed across the street
 Seemed four-legged by monstrosity.
‘In vain,' I cried, ‘though you too touch
 The new time's desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
 I hear the heart of fairyland.'
I read the name above a door,
 Then through my spirit pealed and passed:
‘This is the town of thine own home,
 And thou hast looked on it at last.'

In this poem, the narrator sets out for fairyland with his rather eccentric choice of accoutrements, only to find that Science has got there first, occupying it with a burst of steam. Despite the trappings of smoke and lights, this land still retains its spirit and the old magic of woods and hills works on iron and stone just as well.

Chesterton personifies a railway line as “a mute unearthly porter” with a bent spine (reflecting the curved track) and the actinic lights along the railway as dragons’ leering eyes. He likens chimneys to bent fingers and even the dog seems a monstrosity.

So in the midst of this mundane town, the traveller finds marvels and wonders and hears “the heart of fairyland”, discovering at last that it is his own town which he has rediscovered and reclaimed for his fairyland.