Tom Deadlight (1810)

Original Text: 
Collected Poems of Herman Melville, ed. Howard P. Vincent (Chicago: Packard, 1947): 182-84. PS 2382 V5 Robarts Library
                    During a tempest encountered homeward-bound from the Mediterranean, a grizzled petty-officer, one of the two captains of the forecastle, dying at night in his hammock, swung in the sick-bay under the tiered gun-decks of the British Dreadnought, 98, wandering in his mind, though with glimpses of sanity, and starting up at whiles, sings by snatches his good-bye and last injunctions to two messmates, his watchers, one of whom fans the fevered tar with the flap of his old sou'-wester. Some names and phrases, with here and there a line, or part of one; these, in his aberration, wrested into incoherency from their original connection and import, he involuntarily derives, as he does the measure, from a famous old sea-ditty, whose cadences, long rife, and now humming in the collapsing brain, attune the last flutterings of distempered thought.
2    Farewell and adieu to you ladies of Spain,
4    But hope with the grand fleet to see you again.
8    Right up the Channel for the Deadman I'll steer.
13But what's this I feel that is fanning my cheek, Matt?
19Dead reckoning is good for to sail for the Deadman;
20    And Tom Deadlight he thinks it may reckon near right.
21The signal! -- it streams for the grand fleet to anchor.
22    The captains -- the trumpets -- the hullabaloo!
24    For the Lord High Admiral, he's squinting at you!


1] A work well-known to modern audiences from Steven Spielberg's film, Jaws (1975), in which -- sung below-decks at night by the doomed captain, Quint (played by Robert Shaw), with Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) -- it attracts the shark's first assault on the boat. Back to Line
3] Deadman: timber or metal anchorage in the ground used to secure ships in harbour. Back to Line
5] hove: anchored. Back to Line
6] soundings: measurements of the depth of the water. Back to Line
7] black scud: dark rainy and fast-moving clouds. Back to Line
9] Doldrums: becalmed waters without wind. Back to Line
10] Sargasso: mass of sea-weeds. Back to Line
11] light-ship: a ship with a warning light, a floating light-house. Back to Line
12] Flying Dutchman: "A legendary spectral [Dutch] ship supposed to be seen in the region of the Cape of Good Hope" (OED "Dutchman", 3). odds bobbs: a mild oath, "God's God." Back to Line
14] goney: albatross. Back to Line
15] kit: bag of possessions. mess: crew, the mates that eat together. Back to Line
16] avast: hold up, stop. crape: mourning bands, made often of thin worsted cloth. Back to Line
17] Dead reckoning: "The estimation of a ship's position from the distance run by the log and the courses steered by the compass, with corrections for current, leeway, etc., but without astronomical observations" (OED). Back to Line
18] doused all the glims: put out all the candles (i.e., stars). Back to Line
23] blue-blazes: flamns of hell. shank-painters: "The rope or chain with which the shank and flukes of the anchor, when carried at the cathead, are confined to the ship's side" (OED, "painter 2", 1). Back to Line
25] tot: mug (of rum). Back to Line
26] flipper: hand. Back to Line
27] baccy: tobacco. Back to Line
28] blubber: weep. lubbers: those that do not go to sea. turn up my keel: keel over, die. Back to Line
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire