Oct 9, 2022Liked by H. W. Brands

About fifty years ago I heard a concert given by the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar. He sang of course, mostly Scottish songs -some were fabulous poems by Burns, Scott, and Byron -others were fun ditties. But one song he sang I will never forget as it made such an impression on me. McKellar made some comments on Scots going to sea and ship building and that everyone in the hall probably had an ancestor or relative who was in the Merchant Marine or Navy. I remembered that my Scottish grandfather had gone to sea himself on a tall ship circa 1895 when he was eight years old. The song McKellar sang was Sea-Fever by John Masefield (music by Ireland)

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.

The first time I heard this song I did not understand it completely.

I have read the poem dozens of times in the last fifty years and heard the song in recordings by McKellar and many other times. Today I appreciate the lovely imagery of the poem and the lure of adventure and excitement that is the sailor's life but also how lovely it is to experience nature in person. I know the word WHETTED means sharpened. I know the whale's way is the deep blue ocean. Reading the poem, I have some idea of what my grandfather experienced before the mast in the late 19th century. The song is forever linked to memories of my grandfather and to Kenneth McKellar and my parents who took me to see him perform at Kearny High School in Kearney New Jersey so long ago.

Poetry like prayer is important for our inner lives. We will all have challenges and disappointments in life. We will all know sickness (how dreary!) and the death of loved ones (how heart breaking!). We will feel an intense emotion, but we won't know what to say. We will be at a loss for words or an explanation. But the bard and songster can put our feelings into words and provide some consolation. In this poetry comes close to religion. Many times, people have come close to Sergeant Death in bombings of cities (I knew people who survived the London Blitz and one who was buried alive for three days). Many times, in battle under a bombardment men huddled closely and put their hands over the bible in their front pocket or grabbed hold of their rosaries. It is almost unbelievable to read that regiments like my grandfather's (The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) were under continuous attack for thirty-six days during 2nd Ypres (1915). The soldiers repeated the Hail Mary and the Our Father over and over and Psalm 23. The freethinkers among them did not argue, in fact one said "GIE ME THEM BEADS!". They repeated together an ancient poem that some had not said since boyhood.

...The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want....

And they found great comfort in these words. I am sure many thought back to their mothers and loved ones and quiet and safe times back home. Many found comfort in those words as no words of their own would have brought them.

I remember the day my mother died at age 86. On New Year's Day she unexpectedly had a heart attack. She lingered a few days in the hospital but before we knew it she was gone.

I will never forget when she said to us, "This time I don't think I am going to make it."

My immediate reaction was to take her by her hand now cold and weak and say with her the OUR FATHER, the Hail Mary and repeat the 23rd Psalm that she had taught me as a child. She smiled an angelic smile and was not worried about her death and her parting from this world. She instead was WORRIED FOR US! She said she would be waiting on the other side in paradise, but we would suffer many years of separation.

My mother had a Good Death. There is such thing as a Good Death. She did not suffer. She was not alone when she died, and he lived a long life mostly in good health. Before my mother's death I found it very difficult to deal with the deaths of loved ones but after her death I found a new wisdom and a maturity to endure without losing control.

We all at some time in the mysterious future may have to endure some experience absolutely outside our present scope such as war, a major accident or contagion.

Even if we personally are not called to endure such extremes there are those about us, perhaps very close who will face situations: drug abuse, alcoholism, a car crash, a mugging, sudden wealth, divorce, sudden unemployment, poverty, old age and humiliations.

We will all suffer personal loses in this life because no man and no woman is master of the line of his or her life.

We are all mortal. Genesis 3:19

By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,

till thou return unto the ground;

for out of it wast thou taken:

for dust thou art,

and unto dust shalt thou return.

So here's an idea. Find a poetry anthology. Find a poem. Find a quotation. Perhaps a fragment of a poem or anonymous ballad.

Any poem. Any song. Write it down. Say it. Memorize it. Then when you feel down in a funk you can say it to yourself or look it up and find it and read it again. You can say it in your head or on your tongue.

And you will find that poetry is magic. It restores love. It restores joy. It Connects to memory. It gives us laughter and tears. It reminds us that life and love are just brief moments in time and that one day "the long trick" will be over.

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It was one of the best things high school ever did for me.

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I was made to memorize that Masefield poem, and many others, in 9th grade.

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So much to say here. But even from a practical perspective, the ability to use metaphor, rhythm, and rhyme makes us better thinkers and more powerful and persuasive speakers and writers.

I just came from Rome and made a point to visit the place where Keats died. In the room, I silently mouthed the last stanzas of ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE.

I am a better, more alive man because I read poetry.

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In the 2017 movie Darkest Hour, Churchill (played by Oscar-winning Gary Oldman) boards a subway to see what the average Englishman/woman thinks about whether England should stand up to Hitler or seek a compromise situation. Quoting from "Horatio at the Bridge," Churchill says to an "average Joe" on the subway:

Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:

"To every man upon this earth, death cometh soon or late;

The young man finishes that part of the poem for Churchill:

And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods,

That scene in the movie was probably fictional, but a great scene, nonetheless. Would it be believable today? How many people, young or old, could recite key lines from great poems?

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As a retired professor of English, I loved the essay. I enjoyed reading it with my morning coffee. I may comment more later.

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