Tall Ships That Aren't and Really Tall Ships That Were

By Gould, John | The Christian Science Monitor, July 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

Tall Ships That Aren't and Really Tall Ships That Were


Gould, John, The Christian Science Monitor


A recent TV nugget showed the "Tall Ships" arriving for a harbor visit and one of 'em looked a good bit like the Banks schooner Gertrude L. Thebeau returning to Gloucester with a get of dabs, or as we highlanders put it, a hold of groundfish. Welcome aboard, Matey, for a hearty nautical briefing!

This same TV promo had a salty voice-over misquoting John Masefield thus: "I must go down to the seas again...." John Masefield never wrote such a thing, he didn't, and I happen to know! And a schooner is not a tall ship. John Masefield did ask for a tall ship and a star to steer her by, but he downed to sea, and the very transitive verb "go" was not in his desire. I asked him about this and he told me so.

Back in the l930s, poet Masefield came to lecture at Bowdoin College. After his talk we went with a small group to an informal reception at the home of Prof. Herbert Brown, who had made the arrangements for the poet's appearance. It seemed to me the situation was tense, perhaps in awe of the guest. So I took a chance at easing things, and I offered, "Tell us, Mr. Poet, have you 'downed' to the seas lately?" It was sneaky, but it worked. Mr. Masefield looked to see who had asked this and said, "You rascal! My answer takes 20 minutes, and here goes!"

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and a few anthologies give Masefield's "Sea Fever" as he wrote it. Otherwise, you'll find that the editors know more about poetry than did the poet, and have corrected him so he "goes down" to the seas. Masefield told us that evening that when he wrote the poem he said he must "down" to the seas, and the idea of "going" never entered his head. As the years passed, he learned it did no good to write letters and orate: Everybody knew more than he did, and he was doomed to perpetual misquotation. I didn't see Mr. Masefield again, but I've always felt sorry for him.

I feel sorry, too, for the swabs who think they know their sailing terms and toss them off glibly and won't listen to an expert. People who are told over and over that there is no direction nor'east, there is no place abaft the aft, and that a pail is a bucket.

I grew up in a Downeast coastal town, and one of my friends was Cappy Lon Lavers who had been 32 times around the world and once to Philadelphia. He set me straight early about brigs and barques, the names of the masts on the seven-stick Lawson, and about the only two six-masters afloat that collided in curious coincidence in Boston Harbor.

He was strong on the Dash, a privateer launched in our town in l8l3 and the fastest boat afloat. The Dash did have a heroic record, and was no more than a licensed pirate meant to catch British vessels during the War of l8l2. …

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