Nice “found” poem by Alfred Corn today on Poetry Daily.
Poem Found in Two Years Before the Mast
Yes, whales. The first time that I heard them breathing,
We had the watch from twelve to four, and coming
Upon deck, found the little brig quite still,
Surrounded by thick fog, and the sea smooth
As though anointed with fine oil. Yet now
And then a long, low swell would rise and roll
Under the surface, slightly lifting the vessel
But without breaking the water’s glassy skin.
We were surrounded far and near by shoals
Of sluggish whales and grampuses, though fog
Prevented us from seeing them rise slowly
To the surface, perhaps lying out at length,
And heaving those peculiar lazy, deep,
Long-drawn breathings, which must ever leave
An impression of supine, majestic strength.
Some of the watch were sleeping, and the others
Perfectly still, so that there could be nothing
To break the wild illusion, and I stood
Leaning over the bulwarks, listening
To the slow breathings of the mighty creatures—
Now one breaking the water just alongside,
Whose sable body I almost fancied I
Could see despite the fog; and again another,
Just audible in the distance—until the low,
Regular swell seemed like the heaving of
The ocean’s mighty bosom to the sound
Of its sublime and long-drawn respirations….
Does anybody still read Two Years Before the Mast? I remember it mostly as a used-book store classic…there always seemed to be copies of it gathering dust next to out-of-date Whole Earth Catalogs, and cracked spine and crackled cover paperback editions of the lesser Dreiser.
But perhaps it is worth a read…particular with my new found, midlife fascination with 19th century stories of the sea and whaling (gathering points of reference for Moby Dick, which I guess one could look at as a singularly insane take on the genre Mast belongs to.)
Herewith the first lines of Mast:
The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim, on her voyage from Boston, round Cape Horn, to the Western coast of North America. As she was to get under way early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o’clock, in full sea-rig, with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three years’ voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books, with a plenty of hard work, plain food, and open air, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my studies, and which no medical aid seemed likely to remedy.
Nice 19th century pile up of clauses. You feel like you know him (whether you want to spend two years and 528 pages with him is another matter).