Monday 24 April 2017

Poetry: Verses that make you feel the roll of the waves

'Premature loss': James Elroy Flecker
'Premature loss': James Elroy Flecker

Ulick O'Connor

This year is the 100th anniversary of James Elroy Flecker's death. One critic described him as "unquestionably the greatest premature loss that English literature has suffered since the death of Keats".

Some claim! But Flecker did indeed write one poem which is among the masterpieces of verse. This is 'The Old Ships'. How often, lying on the strand, has one's eye been caught by a white sail scudding across the blue. Such a scene has set the poet's mind off on a journey through the past in which he imagines the ship may be that of Ulysses returning after the burning of Troy.

Somehow through the magic of words he has created a poem which allows you to feel the bump and the roll of the waves. He creates an image too of that "talkative bald-headed seaman" which Ulysses was, instead of the over romantic figure visualised by Tennyson. Then the last verse is masterly switching back to the oak trees that the ship had been hewed from before falling to the axe. It may make for a long read but I think you'll feel it's worth it.

From 'The Old Ships'

I have seen old ships sail like swans asleep

Beyond the village which men still call Tyre,

With leaden age o'ercargoed, dipping deep

For Famagusta and the hidden sun

That rings black Cyprus with a lake of fire;

And all those ships were certainly so old -

Who knows how oft with squat and noisy gun,

The pirate Genoese

Hell-raked them till they rolled.

But now through friendly seas they softly run,

Still patterned with the vine and grapes in gold.

But I have seen,

Pointing her shapely shadows from the dawn,

An image tumbled on a rose-swept bay,

A drowsy ship of some yet older day;

And, wonder's breath indrawn,

Thought I - who knows - who knows - but in that same

That talkative, bald-headed seaman came

(Twelve patient comrades sweating at the oar)

From Troy's doom-crimson shore,

And with great lies about his wooden horse

Set the crew laughing, and forgot his course.

It was so old a ship - who knows, who knows?

- And yet so beautiful, I watched in vain

To see the mast burst open with a rose,

And the whole deck put on its leaves again.

James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915)

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