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Most tolerant and patient reader
“What's in a name?" In connection with this query, let me suggest that you do not run your curious eye down the list of authors herein represented with the expectation of finding many celebrities. Famous poets and such poetry as suits you and me do not always travel hand in hand. If, however, you will take the time for a leisurely voyage through the little book itself, you'll be both surprised and well repaid to note the great variety of beautiful and virile seaverse that has been written by a goodly number of latter-day and mightily worth-while poets, some of whose lights, comparatively speaking, have been hidden under a bushel.
Barring the immortal verse of an exceeding few who flourished prior to and during the Victorian era, very little sea-poetry worthy the name was written previous to the advent of Kipling – a bare thirty years ago. Take the human note out of poetry, no matter how faultless its technique, and we have left something closely resembling "sounding brass and tinkling cymbal,” which leads me to say that this compilation includes only such material as carries with it a definite human interest. To be the lucky delver who brings such an array of dynamic verse before an ever-widening range of readers is a joy reserved for the anthologist alone. It is a most interesting fact that with two notable exceptions practically all the worth-while poetry dealing with the sea has been written by landsmen. These exceptions are John Masefield, the versatile Briton who has come into his own, and Bill Adams, of California, who, close to the halfcentury mark, is just "arriving." Both of these men served before the mast in their youth, when the full-rigged ship was Empress of the High Seas, and to their dying day will never get the tang of salt-water out of their nostrils. There is a poignancy to much of Adams's verse which reveals his Celtic ancestry and takes swift toll of a man's emotions. Though he will never sail the seas again, he will always be under the spell of a glowing love for a ship and the “fenceless meadows,” and he paints Jack afloat and ashore as no other salt-water poet has ever visioned him.
Another popular British sea-poet whose rhyme would indicate a long apprenticeship in the fo'csle and an intimate acquaintance with London's famous docks on Thames-side, is C. Fox Smith. It is known to comparatively few that the initial “C” is an abbreviation of Cicely, and that this much-admired and trenchant versifier is a woman who, had she been born a man, would, doubtless, be a British Admiral of the Fleet by this time.
It is eminently fitting that the Sailors' Chanteys
eloquent of a day that is past never to return should be recorded here with the music to which they were sung hundred years ago. Not a harbor in either the eastern or the western hemisphere but
has rung to these ancient airs. They have broken the silences of tropic seas and mingled with the howl of the tempest off Cape Horn. Such melodies can never die, ghosts though they be of a bygone day. The old-time “able seamar sang as he worked, and it is significant of the fearful hardships of those early days that there was at least one chantey exclusively devoted to his opinion of a brutal ship-master, generally sung while dropping the anchor on return to port after a long voyage: “Leave her, Johnny, leave her.” The singing of that chantey at such a time was the sailorman's method of serving notice on a skipper shorn of further retaliation that he would have to find a new crew for the next voyage.
Ah! those were the good old days, in comparison with which the roar of a chantey on the fo'c'sle of an ocean greyhound or a tramp steamship to-day would be like a foreign language to the great majority of the sailors assembled, not to mention that famous old “fore-bitter," "Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies,” which was a prime favorite nearly two hundred years agone, and will never be heard again on the deck of any ship"Sic transit gloria!”
What's that? You don't know what a “forebitter" is? Well — I had to look it up myself and am glad to pass it on to you. In contradistinction to the chanteys, which were always sung by the ship's crew in chorus, led by the chantey-man, either at the capstan while raising the anchor or hauling on the halyards — work confined exclusively to merchant ships the fore-bitter was a sentimental ballad, sung for entertainment only,
on British naval vessels where the chantey was never permitted, as all work aboard warships was done in silence. The singer was chosen, first for his good memory, as the songs were always of great length and never written, and second for his vocal power. He always stood on the fore-bitts, a timber construction near the foremast, raised some three feet above the deck, through which were led many of the principal ropes used in navigating the ship. The crew squatted around on the deck, or perched on coils of rope and on the gun-carriages, listening attentively, as it was only by so doing that the ballads could be memorized and passed on by word of mouth.
Yea, verily, "Times change and we change with
the fast ship-