“The Needles have sometimes been fatal to Mariners.”
Picture of Isle of Wight.
One close of day —’twas in the Bay
Of Naples, bay of glory!
While light was hanging crowns of gold
On mountains high and hoary,
A gallant bark got under weigh,
And with her sails my story.
For Leghorn she was bound direct,
With wine and oil for cargo,
Her crew of men some nine or ten,
The captain’s name was Jago;
A good and gallant bark she was,
La Donna (call’d) del Lago.
Bronzed mariners were hers to view,
With brown cheeks, clear or muddy,
Dark shining eyes, and coal-black hair,
Meet heads for painter’s study;
But midst their tan there stood one man,
Whose cheek was fair and ruddy;
His brow was high, a loftier brow
Ne’er shone in song or sonnet,
His hair, a little scant, and when
He doff’d his cap or bonnet,
One saw that Grey had gone beyond
A premiership upon it!
His eye — a passenger was he,
The cabin he had hired it —
His eye was gray, and when he look’d
Around, the prospect fired it —
A fine poetic light, as if
The Appe-Nine inspir’d it.
His frame was stout, in height about
Six feet — well made and portly;
Of dress and manner just to give
A sketch, but very shortly,
His order seem’d a composite
Of rustic with the courtly.
He ate and quaff’d, and joked and laughed,
And chatted with the seamen,
And often task’d their skill and ask’d,
“What weather is’t to be, man?”
No demonstration there appeared,
That he was any demon.
No sort of sign there was that he
Could raise a stormy rumpus,
Like Prospero make breezes blow,
And rocks and billows thump us —
But little we supposed what he
Could with the needle compass!
Soon came a storm — the sea at first
Seem’d lying almost fallow —
When lo! full crash, with billowy dash,
From clouds of black and yellow,
Came such a gale as blows but once
A cent’ry, like the aloe!
Our stomachs we had just prepared
To vest a small amount in;
When, gush! a flood of brine came down
The skylight — quite a fountain,
And right on end the table rear’d
Just like the Table Mountain.
Down rush’d the soup, down gush’d the wine,
Each roll, its rôle repeating,
Roll’d down — the round of beef declar’d
For parting — not for meating!
Off flew the fowls, and all the game
Was “too far gone for eating!”
Down knife and fork — down went the pork,
The lamb too broke its tether;
Down mustard went — each condiment —
Salt — pepper — all together!
Down everything, like craft that seek
The Downs in stormy weather.
Down plunged the Lady of the Lake,
Her timbers seem’d to sever;
Down, down, a dreary derry down,
Such lurch she had gone never;
She almost seem’d about to take
A bed of down forever!
Down dropt the captain’s nether jaw,
Thus robbed of all its uses,
He thought he saw the Evil One
Beside Vesuvian sluices,
Playing at dice for soul and ship,
And throwing Sink and Deuces.
Down fell the steward on his face,
To all the Saints commending;
And candles to the Virgin vow’d,
As save-alls ‘gain’st his ending.
Down fell the mate, he thought his fate,
Checkmate, was close impending!
Down fell the cook — the cabin boy,
Their beads with fervor telling,
While Alps of surge, with snowy verge,
Above the yards came yelling.
Down fell the crew, and on their knees
Shudder’d at each white swelling!
Down sunk the sun of bloody hue,
His crimson light a cleaver
To each red rover of a wave:
To eye of fancy-weaver,
Neptune, the god, seemed tossing in
A raging scarlet fever!
Sore, sore afraid, each Papist pray’d
To Saint aid Virgin Mary;
But one there was that stood composed
Amid the waves’ vagary;
As staunch as rock, a true game-cock
‘Mid chicks of Mother Carey!
His ruddy cheek retained its streak,
No danger seem’d to shrink him:
His step still bold — of mortal mould
The crew could hardly think him:
The Lady of the Lake, he seem’d
To know; could never sink him.
Relaxed at last the furious gale
Quite out of breath with racing;
The boiling flood in milder mood,
With gentler billows chasing;
From stem to stern, with frequent turn,
The Stranger took to pacing.
And as he walked to self he talked,
Some ancient ditty thrumming,
In undertone, as not alone —
Now whistling, and now humming —
“You’re welcome, Charlie,” “Cowdenknowes,”
“Kenmure,” or “Campbells’ Coming.”
Down went the wind, down went the wave,
Fear quitted the most finical;
The Saints, I wot, were soon forgot,
And Hope was at the pinnacle:
When rose on high a frightful cry —
“The Devil’s in the binnacle!”
“The Saints be near,” the helmsman cried,
His voice with quite a falter —
“Steady’s my helm, but every look
The needle seems to alter;
God only knows where China lies,
Jamaica, or Gibraltar!”
The captain stared aghast at mate,
The pilot at th’ apprentice;
No fancy of the German Sea
Of Fiction the event is:
But when they at the compass look’d,
It seem’d non compass mentis.
Now north, now south, now east, now west,
The wavering point was shaken,
’Twas past the whole philosophy
Of Newton, or of Bacon;
Never by compass, till that hour,
Such latitudes were taken!
With fearful speech, each after each
Took turns in the inspection;
They found no gun — no iron — none —
To vary its direction;
It seem’d a new magnetic case
Of Poles in Insurrection!
Farewell to wives, farewell their lives,
And all their household riches;
Oh! while they thought of girl or boy,
And dear domestic niches,
All down the side which holds the heart,
That needle gave them stitches.
With deep amaze, the Stranger gazed
To see them so white-livered:
And walked abaft the binnacle,
To know at what they shivered;
But when he stood beside the card,
St. Josef! how it quivered!
No fancy-motion, brain-begot,
In eye of timid dreamer —
The nervous finger of a sot
Ne’er showed a plainer tremor;
To every brain it seemed too plain,
There stood th’ Infernal Schemer!
Mix’d brown and blue each visage grew,
Just like a pullet’s gizzard;
Meanwhile the captain’s wandering wit,
From tacking like an izzard,
Bore down in this plain course at last,
“It’s Michael Scott — the Wizard!”
A smile passed o’er the ruddy face:
“To see the poles so falter
I’m puzzled, friends, as much as you,
For with no fiends I palter!
Michael I’m not — although a Scott —
My Christian name is Walter.”
Like oil it fell, that name, a spell
On all the fearful faction;
The captain’s head (for he had read)
Confess’d the needle’s action,
And bow’d to Him in whom the North
Has lodged its main attraction!
† Written when Walter Scott was familiarly known as the “Wizard of the North,” the title which is the key to the present poem. Scott died in September, 1832, in the interval between the writing and the publishing of the verses, for which Hood makes regretful apology in the Preface to the Comic Annual for 1833, in which they appeared.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51