A Tall Ship and A Star To Steer Her By: A Reflection

Montague Dawson RMSA, FRSA (1890–1973)
Montague Dawson RMSA, FRSA (1890–1973)


From Homer to Patrick O’Brian great sea adventures have been passed down in oral form since humans first cast their envious eyes on the waterways of earth and wondered what lay over the horizon. Oral traditions like the Great Deluge of Genesis and the Sumerian Gilgamesh were passed down to countless generations before they were penned onto stone, clay, eventually to parchment and their final evolution into books, magazines and films.

In secondary school our English teacher introduced us to the writings of Joseph Conrad, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Rudyard Kipling. Jules Verne and Johann David Wyss were writers I was familiar with before taking secondary English.

A number of years ago I read the complete and unabridged works of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is known for his tales of the macabre and mystery, but not as a storyteller of the sea.

In his South Seas tale The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe penned a tale of the drudgery of a sea voyage with its perils and human savagery. Mr. Pym’s last entry in his adventure is as solemn as a literary passage can be:

“March 22d.—The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him, we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”

Mr. Pym’s account ended there because Poe had him meet a mysterious death and his tale remained unfinished. Perhaps, Poe intended for the readers, especially the ones who longed for a sense of adventure on the high seas, to embrace the tale and add their own conclusion based on their own adventures or Poe drew tired of writing a novel since short stories and poetry was his forte.

Novel writing is an art form of painstaking effort and commitment. Not all writers can undertake such an enterprise.

The Bible has two sea tales. Everyone has heard of Jonah and the Great Fish. However, few may know the sea adventure of the Apostle Paul and his companions of being ship wrecked on an island, attacked by vipers, and mistaken for Roman gods as described by Luke in the Book of Acts 27-28.

In the beautiful ending to the film Shakespeare in Love these words framed the final scene as the Bard of Avalon begins to write the TWELTH NIGHT:

“My story starts at sea, a perilous voyage to an unknown land. A shipwreck. The wild waters roar and heave. The brave vessel is dashed all to pieces. And all the helpless souls within her drowned. All save one. A lady. Whose soul is greater than the ocean, and her spirit stronger than the sea’s embrace. Not for her a watery end, but a new life beginning on a stranger shore. It will be a love story. For she will be my heroine for all time. And her name will be Viola.”

The lure of the high seas has given way to the fanciful notions of traversing the galaxy. Science fiction has given rise to the new frontier of adventure out there among the stars.

However, the pull of the oceans and seas of earth still touch the heart of many. This is especially true as you stand on the sandy shore and cast a wishful eye toward the horizon. There is something strangely appealing about the horizon where past, present and future meet.

What would be like to be aboard a mighty sailing vessel roaming the seven seas? To be the master and commander of a frigate? To sail with Odysseus? Engage in the naval battle at Salamis? To fight in the Spanish Armada?

The romance of the sea may be a bit faded with the excitement of space travel, but the romance of the past still draws each of us to that terran shore where our progenitors stood and pondered on the mysteries of the cosmic ocean above them and the endless sea before them.

Like John Masefield wrote in Sea Fever:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


G. D. Williams © 2015

POST 621


Sailing Ship Parts



The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym




The Square Rigging










Shakespeare In Love: Closing Scene