Friday, 7 October 2011

Mystical Voyages (3) The Old Ships

A couple of quick ones this week. Two poems, in fact. Here's the first, and the second will be up just after the weekend. 

I remember coming across this poem in a school anthology, and it's stayed with me ever since.  You probably know it too, but it's well worth reading again.  It references not only the tale of Odysseus, but a story about Dionysos, god of wine and ecstasy.  Once, sitting on the seashore in the form of a beautiful youth, he was kidnapped by sailors who dragged him on board their ship, intending to sail away and sell him into slavery.  This turned out to be an extremely bad move - never kidnap gods! - for as they raised the sail, Dionysos caused vines to spring up all over the ship, twining up the mast and tangling the oars so that they could not move.  Then he turned himself into a fierce lion and killed everyone on board, except for the helmsman who had pleaded for him, and those terrified sailors who had jumped into the sea, whom he transformed into dolphins. The story is depicted above by the painter Exekias in black-figure on the interior of a kylix, a shallow two-handled bowl for drinking wine.

'The Old Ships' by James Elroy Flecker
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,
Questing brown slaves or Syrian oranges,
The pirate Genoese
Hell-raked them till they rolled
Blood, water, fruit and corpses up the hold. 
But now through friendly seas they softly run,
Painted the mid-sea blue or shore-sea green,
Still patterned with the vine and grapes in gold. 

But I have seen,
Pointing her shapely shadows from the dawn
And 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
(Fished up beyond Aeaea, patched up new - 
Stern painted brighter blue -)
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.


  1. I loved reading the poem, and seeing this picture, Kath.

    For a long while I've been fascinated by the Ancient Greeks and their ships. Later on, of course, sea power was crucial in saving Athens and other Greek city states from the Persians, and its been suggested that the importance of the rowers, and the comradeship of the rowing benches, was important in forging the ideals of democracy.

    So the ships were emblems of power, money, equality, well as being extremely beautiful.

  2. I know this poem well - thank you for reminding me of it. Such wonderful word pictures...