by Alfred Noyes
We are indebted to Joanne West of Dallas, Texas for sending us this long-forgotten poem about Nelson which, in Joanne’s own words, is “too good not to share” with a wider audience. Our only comment is that Nelson didn’t wear an eye-patch but apart from that it is a dramatic and colourful story of the Old English Sea Tradition. The English poet and play writer Alfred Noyes lived from 1880 to 1958 and is best known for his poem “The Highwayman” which many will remember from school-days.
I tell you a tale tonight
Which a seaman told to me,
With eyes that gleamed in the lanthorn light
And a voice as low as the sea.
You could almost hear the stars
Twinkling up in the sky,
And the old wind woke and moaned in the spars
And the same old waves went by.
Singing the same old song
As ages and ages ago,
While he froze my blood in that deep-sea night
With the things he seemed to know.
A bare foot pattered on deck;
Ropes creaked; then … all grew still,
And he pointed his finger straight in my face
And growled, as a sea-dog will.
“Do ‘ee know who Nelson was?
That pore little shrivelled form
With the patch on his eye and the pinned-up sleeve
And a soul like a North Sea storm ?
“Ask of the Devonshire men !
They know, and they’ll tell you true;
He wasn’t the pore little chawed-up chap
That Hardy thought he knew.
“He wasn’t the man you think !
His patch was a dern disguise !
For he knew that they’d find him out, d’you see,
If they looked him in both his eyes.
He was twice as big as he seemed;
But his clothes were cunningly made.
He’d both of his hairy arms alright !
The sleeve was a trick of the trade.
You’ve heard of sperrits, no doubt;
Well there’s more in the matter than that !
But he wasn’t the patch and he wasn’t the sleeve,
And he wasn’t the laced cocked-hat.
Nelson was just …. a Ghost !
You may laugh ! But the Devonshire men
They knew that he’d come when England called,
And they know that he’ll come again.
I’ll tell you the way it was
(For none of the landsmen know),
And to tell it you right, you must go a-starn
Two hundred years or so.
“The waves were lapping and slapping
The same as they are today;
And Drake lay dying aboard his ship
In Nobre Dios Bay.
The scent of foreign flowers
Came floating all around;
‘But I’d give my soul for the smell o’ the pitch,’
Says he, ‘in Plymouth Sound.
” ‘What shall I do,’ he says,
‘When the guns begin to roar,
An’ England wants me, and me not there
To shatter ‘er fores once more ?’
” (You’ve heard what he said, maybe,
But I’ll mark you the p’ints again;
For I want you to box your compass right
And get my story plain.)
” ‘You must take my drum’, he says,
‘To the old sea-wall at home;
And if ever you strike that drum,’ he says,
‘Why, strike me blind, I’ll come !
” ‘If England needs me, dead
Or living, I’ll rise that day !
I’ll rise from the darkness under the sea
Ten thousand miles away.’
“That’s what he said; and he died;
An’ his pirates, listening roun’
With their crimson doublets and jewelled swords
That flashed as the sun went down.
“They sewed him up in his shroud
With a round-shot top and toes,
To sink him under the salt-sharp sea
Where all good seamen go.
They lowered him down in the deep,
And there in the sunset light
They boomed a broadside over his grave,
As meaning to say ‘Good night.’
“They sailed away in the dark
To the dear little isle they knew;
And they hung his drum by the old sea-wall
The same as he told them too.
“Two hundred years went by,
And the guns began to roar,
And England was fighting hard for her life,
As ever she fought of yore.
” ‘It’s only my dead that count,’
She said, as she says today;
“It isn’t the ships and it isn’t the guns
‘Ull sweep Trafalgar’s Bay.’
“D’you guess who Nelson was ?
You may laugh, but it’s true as true !
There was more in that pore little chawed-up chap
Than ever his best friend knew.
“The foe was creepin’ close,
In the dark, to our white-cliffed isle;
They were ready to leap at England’s throat,
When ..O, you may smile, you may smile;
“But .. ask of the Devenshire men;
For they heard in the dead of night
The roll of a drum, and they saw him pass
On a ship all shining white.
“He stretched out his dead cold face
And he sailed in the grand old way !
The fishes had taken an eye and his arm,
But he swept Trafalgar’s Bay.
“Nelson .. was Francis Drake !
O, what matters the uniform,
Or the patch on your eye or your pinned-up sleeve,
If your soul’s like a North Sea storm ?”