“The Moon Was a Ghostly Galleon . . .”

” . . . tossed upon cloudy seas.” Alfred Noyes’ poem “The Highwayman” was one of the first long ballads I remember reading. Louis Untermeyer included it in the wonderful anthology for young readers that I still have. Even before then, I remember hearing my mother and father quoting the lines when winter winds blew and shreds of cloud dimmed the moon.

“The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.   

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.   

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   

And the highwayman came riding—

         Riding—riding—

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43187/the-highwayman

Loreena McKennitt arranged parts of the poem, not the full ballad of doomed love and blind fury. I was reminded of both ballad and song on the eve of the Harvest Moon, when I glanced out a window and saw the above. And below.

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,

When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,   

When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   

A highwayman comes riding—

         Riding—riding—

A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.

He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.   

He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there   

But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,

         Bess, the landlord’s daughter,

Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

Nonsense Poems

One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead men got up to fight,
Back to back they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other,

One was blind and the other couldn’t, see
So they chose a dummy for a referee.
A blind man went to see fair play,
A dumb man went to shout “hooray!”

A paralysed donkey passing by,
Kicked the blind man in the eye,
Knocked him through a nine inch wall,
Into a dry ditch and drowned them all,

A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came to arrest the two dead boys,
If you don’t believe this story’s true,
Ask the blind man he saw it too!

The above is one of the nonsense poems I learned as a child and still enjoy as an adult. They are silly, illogical, full of contradictions, and leave little kids and some adults scratching their heads and frowning because the poem breaks all the rules of logic.

Here’s another one I remember, but in a slightly different variation:

Ladies & Jellyspoons…
: : I stand before you to go behind you
: : To tell you something I know nothing about.
: : This Thursday, which is Good Friday,
: : There will be a mothers’ meeting to which only fathers are invited.
: : Wear your best clothes if you haven’t any,
: : And if you can come, please stay at home.
: : Admission is free, pay at the door.
: : Grab a chair and sit on the floor.
: : It doesn’t matter where you sit,
: : The man in the gallery is sure to spit.
: : Our next meeting is about the four corners of the round table.
: : Thank me!

The version I learned was from a folklore book, and goes:

Ladies and jellybeans
Reptiles and crocodiles
I stand before you to sit behind you
To tell you something I know nothing about
There will be a meeting tomorrow evening
Right after breakfast
To decide which color to whitewash the church
There is no admission
So pay at the door
There are plenty of seats
To sit on the floor.

A discussion on StackExchange points back to manuscripts dated from the 1400s and 1305 with examples of nonsense-type sayings. It also ties into ballads where impossible tasks are assigned to a hero, or would-be (or former lover), as in “Scarborough Fair:”

“Tell her to make me a cambric shirt
Without any seam nor needlework*
Tell her to wash it in yonder dry well
Which never sprung water nor rain ever fell

Tell her to dry it on yonder thorn**
Which never bore blossom since Adam was born.

Ask him to find me an acre of land
Between the salt water and the sea-sand

Oh, will he plough it with a lamb’s horn,
and sow it all over with one peppercorn,

And when he has done and finished his work,
then come to me for your cambric shirt,
and he shall be a true love of mine

Both are common folklore tropes, and appear in a lot of places.

*The Virgin Mary was said to have made a seamless robe for Jesus, although whether this was Jesus as a child, or later in his career, depends on which source you look at. It is based on John 19: 23-24, with some medieval updates and theological embroidery.

**The opposite of this appears in “The Corpus Christi Carol,” which describes a thorn tree that has bloomed ever since Jesus birth (also the German carol “Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging.”

East and West and Strong Men

Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West” is one of my favorites, and I can declaim large chunks from memory. The Australian poet A.B. “Banjo” Patterson observed that Kipling had a gift for describing horses, and that shines through in the mid-section of the poem. But I want to focus on Kamal and the Colonel’s son.

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face,
tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”

For two, or three, strong men, a chase after a stolen horse becomes an occasion for a feat of daring, a display of honor, and a moment of brotherhood.

Kamal has gripped him by the hand and set him upon his feet.
“No talk shall be of dogs,” said he, “when wolf and gray wolf meet.
May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath;
What dam of lances brought thee forth to jest at the dawn with Death?”
Lightly answered the Colonel’s son: “I hold by the blood of my clan:
Take up the mare for my father’s gift — by God, she has carried a man!”
The red mare ran to the Colonel’s son, and nuzzled against his breast;
“We be two strong men,” said Kamal then, “but she loveth the younger best.
So she shall go with a lifter’s dower, my turquoise-studded rein,
My broidered saddle and saddle-cloth, and silver stirrups twain.”
The Colonel’s son a pistol drew and held it muzzle-end,
“Ye have taken the one from a foe,” said he; “will ye take the mate from a friend?”
“A gift for a gift,” said Kamal straight; “a limb for the risk of a limb.
Thy father has sent his son to me, I’ll send my son to him!”
With that he whistled his only son, that dropped from a mountain-crest —
He trod the ling like a buck in spring, and he looked like a lance in rest. . .

They have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no fault,
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on leavened bread and salt:
They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut sod,
On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous Names of God.”

The Ballad of East and West.” Rudyard Kipling

Two strong men, one older, one younger, both brave, both determined, and both seeing honor and respect in the other, even though they are sworn enemies (more or less). And it doesn’t matter, not in that moment.

I grew up understanding what Kipling meant, and what veterans and others meant, when they showed respect (if at times grudging) for opponents and foes. The loss of that sense is something I feel keenly. “The honorable opponent” seems to be fading from popular culture. I try to explain it to younger people, that you can respect people you disagree with, and even feel sorrow at their passing even as you know that they’d have killed you first if given the chance. “For true comrades and true foemen, Madonna, intercede!” Kipling wrote in a different place.

There’s an academic I vehemently disagree with. She sets my teeth on edge. Her work broke major ground in our field, and has opened up useful new lines of questioning and uses of archaeological and archival material. So when I had the chance, I told her how much I admired her work and how valuable it has been to me. She was glad that a younger generation still read and engaged with her ideas. I still don’t care for her, and she probably would not care for me, were we to meet in other than an academic setting. It didn’t—and doesn’t—matter.

“But there is neither east nor west, border, nor breed, nor birth

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

Poetic Humor

Most of us are familiar with doggrel, attributed or otherwise. Kipling and other “serious” poets wrote funny poems, some aimed at laughter, some just pointing to the foibles of life.

Then there are the “nonsense” poets, like Edward Lear and Ogden Nash, who gave us such words of wisdom as:

“God in His Wisdom made the fly/ And then forgot to tell us why.” (Nash)

or

“There was an Old Man with a Beard/ Who said, “It is just as I feared.”

Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren,

Have all built their nests/ In my beard.” (Lear)

Poul Anderson’s scientific riff on the invisible man:

“My theorems require, when mesons pair

A particle that isn’t there.

It isn’t there again today –

Please, Fermi, make it go away!”

And another Nash favorite of mine. I learned the first four lines from an LP of Carnival of the Animals.

“Come crown my brows with leaves of myrtle,

I know the tortoise is a turtle.

Come carve my name in stone immortal;

I know a turtoise is a tortle;

I know to my profound despair;

I bet on one to beat a hare.

I also know I’m not a pauper

Because of its tortley turtley torpor. “

And apropos of that, “Fossils.”

Fossils by Ogden Nash

At midnight in the museum hall
The fossils gathered for a ball
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
Amid the mastodontic wassail
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
“Cheer up, sad world,” he said, and winked-
“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”

(And if you hear a bit of the Danse Macabre, you’re right . . . “Fossils” also includes snips from older compositions as well.)

Oak and Ash and Thorn

I first heard this while sitting in a car outside the Bagel Bin, the Jewish/Christian* deli in Omaha where MomRed would get bagels on occasion. A grey mist sort of drizzled down halfheartedly, and MomRed had left the engine running and the radio tuned to the NPR station. It played eclectic music on Saturdays, and this came on, followed by “Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod.” I didn’t know it was a Kipling poem. All I knew was it was really neat. I was seven or eight years old.

A Tree Song from Puck of Pook’s Hill

(A. D. 1200)
Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.
Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, good sirs,
(All of a Midsummer morn!)
Surely we sing no little thing,
In Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Oak of the Clay lived many a day,
Or ever AEneas began.
Ash of the Loam was a lady at home,
When Brut was an outlaw man.
Thorn of the Down saw New Troy Town
(From which was London born);
Witness hereby the ancientry
Of Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Yew that is old in churchyard-mould,
He breedeth a mighty bow.
Alder for shoes do wise men choose,
And beech for cups also.
But when ye have killed, and your bowl is spilled,
And your shoes are clean outworn,
Back ye must speed for all that ye need,
To Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Ellum she hateth mankind, and waiteth
Till every gust be laid,
To drop a limb on the head of him
That anyway trusts her shade:
But whether a lad be sober or sad,
Or mellow with ale from the horn,
He will take no wrong when he lieth along
‘Neath Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But–we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
And we bring you news by word of mouth-
Good news for cattle and corn–
Now is the Sun come up from the South,
With Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, good sirs
(All of a Midsummer morn):
England shall bide till Judgment Tide,
By Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

“A Tree Song”

It turns out that the tune was done by Robert Bellamy, and has been recorded by several people. Here’s one of the better ones. I recall it done by a small group, but this is close to the tune I half-recall. It haunted me for years.

*It was kosher, as I recall, and the Christian partner worked on Saturday mornings, the Jewish partner worked on Mondays, and they were closed on Sundays.

Speaking of Frontiers and Poems . . .

Since I’m in an odd mood today, here’s a poem I first encountered as the title of a fun history/fiction/who knows book. “The Coming American.”

Bring me men to match my mountains;
Bring me men to match my plains, —
Men with empires in their purpose,
And new eras in their brains.
Bring me men to match my praries,
Men to match my inland seas,
Men whose thought shall pave a highway
Up to ampler destinies;
Pioneers to clear Thought’s marshlands,
And to cleanse old Error’s fen;
Bring me men to match my mountains —
Bring me men!


Bring me men to match my forests,
Strong to fight the storm and blast,
Branching toward the skyey future,
Rooted in the fertile past.
Bring me men to match my valleys,
Tolerant of sun and snow,
Men within whose fruitful purpose
Time’s consummate blooms shall grow.
Men to tame the tigerish instincts
Of the lair and cave and den,
Cleans the dragon slime of Nature —
Bring me men!


Bring me men to match my rivers,
Continent cleavers, flowing free,
Drawn by the eternal madness
To be mingled with the sea;
Men of oceanic impulse,
Men whose moral currents sweep
Toward the wide-enfolding ocean
Of an undiscovered deep;
Men who feel the strong pulsation
Of the Central Sea, and then
Time their currents to its earth throb —
Bring me men!

Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911) is another Victorian poet, popular in his time and now pretty much forgotten. Some of his pieces sound a bit like Robert Service, others like early Robert Frost, James Whitcomb Riley, and similar poets. The book (by Irving Stone) that took its title from the above poem is about the opening up of Nevada and the Sierras, about scandal and triumph, engineering, and Populism, and all sorts of Wild West stuff. The book caused a flurry of unhappiness among people who didn’t care to recall that their ancestors had not been as pure as the driven snow. Today, history buffs of the American West take that for granted, but in 1956? Oh, the pearl clutching. The book ranks up there with De Voto’s Across the Wide Missouri and Stanley Vestal’s books, in my opinion, as far as “should be required reading for US West 101.”)

On Odd Poem for (and from) an Odd Time

The poem, which I’m only excerpting is “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan.”

“Oh the longhorns from Texas,
The jay hawks from Kansas,
The plop-eyed bungaroo and giant giassicus,
The varmint, chipmunk, bugaboo,
The horn-toad, prairie-dog and ballyhoo,
From all the newborn states arow,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on.
The fawn, prodactyl, and thing-a-ma-jig,
The rackaboor, the hellangone,
The whangdoodle, batfowl and pig,
The coyote, wild-cat and grizzly in a glow,
In a miracle of health and speed, the whole breed abreast,
The leaped the Mississippi, blue border of the West,
From the Gulf to Canada, two thousand miles long:-
Against the towns of Tubal Cain,
Ah,– sharp was their song.
Against the ways of Tubal Cain, too cunning for the young,
The longhorn calf, the buffalo and wampus gave tongue.”

[SNIP]

“And these children and their sons
At last rode through the cactus,
A cliff of mighty cowboys
On the lope,
With gun and rope.
And all the way to frightened Maine the old East heard them call,
And saw our Bryan by a mile lead the wall
Of men and whirling flowers and beasts,
The bard and prophet of them all.
Prairie avenger, mountain lion,
Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun,
Smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West,
And just a hundred miles behind, tornadoes piled across the sky,
Blotting out sun and moon,
A sign on high.”

Vachel Lindsay is probably better known, if anyone knows him these days, for “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.” He’s one of the Victorian ballad poets, along with Stephen Vincent Benet, Sam Walter Foss (“The Coming American” aka “Give me Men to Match my Mountains”) and Sidney Lanier. Lindsay has a dubious reputation because of his poem “The Congo.” He encouraged African-American poets and authors, but also condescended to non-Anglos in general, and to Africans in particular (like so many in his time), and is pretty much ignored these days. However, the second excerpt appeared as a comment on The Powerline Blog, which sent me tracking down the source. G-d bless PoemHunter and other sites!

I warned you, it’s a strange poem. I suspect any ballad about US politics is going to veer into the surreal.

Lindsay’s poem is about William Jennings Bryan, the Populist (and later Democrat) who became a symbol for the ordinary people of the rural areas and US West, those shut out of machine politics. There was a growing sense in the 1870s-1890s that the East had grown corrupt, and rotten, isolated from the real people of the country. The Populists wanted to reclaim their voice in government, to stop the long deflation that so hurt farmers and miners, to clean out the machines that seemed to control national and state (and local) politics. These were the days when men really did meet in dark, smoke-filled back rooms to decide who would be president. The Republicans were resting on the laurels of the Civil War, the Democrats didn’t seem much more responsive, and the Populists, Farmers’ Alliance, and others wanted their turn.

If you’ve read Kipling, or much Old Testament, you’ll recognize Jubal and Tubal Cain. Some of the creatures Lindsay lists are imaginary, some are folk-lore, some (jay hawk) have political connotations that he ignored. The young west, the wild west, the clean, honest wilderness and the people who settle there, they are going to reclaim the East, to smash the corruption, all led by William Jennings Bryan.

The idea of the west, the frontier, as a place of moral superiority and uplift was very popular in the late 1800s. You get a hint of that in Kipling, especially “The Explorer” (“Something Lost Beyond the Ranges”.) Without a frontier, the US would grow decadent, and corrupt, and stagnant, and start to rot – like Europe. In 1892 the head of the US Census had declared that the frontier was closed. The population had settled too much of the country, and no open frontier remained. This led to much philosophizing and bewailing the lack. This was also the age of the machine politics, the Gilded Age, Mark Hanna, Boss Tweed, the Chicago Machine and “Honest Graft.”

The comment on Powerline ended with something to the effect that “Who would have thought that Lindsay was talking about truck drivers?”

The Populists didn’t win, exactly, the Progressives and the machines did (temporarily. Then the Progressives became the machine.) The Populists didn’t disappear. The Farmers’ Alliance is still around, the Farmers’ Union still has members and supporters, and the sense that the ordinary people of the Midwest and South are less corrupt than the professional politicians of the coasts, that’s still with us.

Blame Kipling

My mind went wandering during a homily recently, because of a reference to the story of the Prodigal Son.

So I started reciting Kipling instead of listening intently to the Important Spiritual Message.

Here come I to my own again,
Fed, forgiven and known again,
Claimed by bone of my bone again
And cheered by flesh of my flesh.
The fatted calf is dressed for me,
But the husks have greater zest for me,
I think my pigs will be best for me,
So I’m off to the Yards afresh.

I never was very refined, you see,
(And it weighs on my brother’s mind, you see)
But there’s no reproach among swine, d’you see,
For being a bit of a swine.
So I’m off with wallet and staff to eat
The bread that is three parts chaff to wheat,
But glory be! – there’s a laugh to it,
Which isn’t the case when we dine.

My father glooms and advises me,
My brother sulks and despises me,
And Mother catechises me
Till I want to go out and swear.
And, in spite of the butler’s gravity,
I know that the servants have it I
Am a monster of moral depravity,
And I’m damned if I think it’s fair!

I wasted my substance, I know I did,
On riotous living, so I did,
But there’s nothing on record to show I did
Worse than my betters have done.
They talk of the money I spent out there –
They hint at the pace that I went out there –
But they all forget I was sent out there
Alone as a rich man’s son.

So I was a mark for plunder at once,
And lost my cash (can you wonder?) at once,
But I didn’t give up and knock under at once,
I worked in the Yards, for a spell,
Where I spent my nights and my days with hogs.
And shared their milk and maize with hogs,
Till, I guess, I have learned what pays with hogs
And – I have that knowledge to sell!

So back I go to my job again,
Not so easy to rob again,
Or quite so ready to sob again
On any neck that’s around.
I’m leaving, Pater. Good-bye to you!
God bless you, Mater! I’ll write to you!
I wouldn’t be impolite to you,
But, Brother, you are a hound!

I’ve sympathized with the narrator ever since I first heard the poem, or read it. I know a few people like him, and I suspect Kipling knew a large number. “Yes, I learned the hard way. Had a lot of fun, what I remember of it, but woke up with a headache and an empty wallet. No point in moping and starving, and any strong back can find work, so . . .”

I sing this one, but I modify the tune to suit my voice a bit better.

Kipling and . . . Dante?

The textbook I use to teach history has a picture of Dante in the section about the Renaissance. This year (September 14 to be exact) is the 700th anniversary of his demise. He is most famous for a series of three epic poems detailing a soul’s journey through Hell and Purgatory into Paradise, and then back to the world.

The third chapter (Canto) of The Inferno describes souls and angels who are tormented, but are not in either Hell or Heaven, because the angels would not choose between G-d and Satan, and the people were neither good nor evil. They can’t go up because they lack virtue, but they will be lorded-over by the truly damned in Hell, which isn’t just (and would reward some of the damned, so that’s not acceptable, either.)

For some reason, this year I was skimming over bits of the Inferno to use in a lesson about education and the Renaissance, and thought of someone who was neither good enough for heaven or bad enough for the infernal realm.

Now Tomlinson gave up the ghost in his house in Berkeley Square,
And a Spirit came to his bedside and gripped him by the hair —
A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the Milky Way:
Till he heard the roar of the Milky Way die down and drone and cease,
And they came to the Gate within the Wall where Peter holds the keys.
“Stand up, stand up now, Tomlinson, and answer loud and high
The good that ye did for the sake of men or ever ye came to die —
The good that ye did for the sake of men in little earth so lone!”
And the naked soul of Tomlinson grew white as a rain-washed bone.

“Tomlinson” by Rudyard Kipling.

The poem is much longer than the excerpt above, but Tomlinson, the newly dead, can’t get into heaven or you-know-where because he never did anything. Now, [spoiler] since Old Scratch is a lawyer at heart, he finds “the roots of sin” in the unhappy Tomlinson and sends him back to go, you know, actually commit a sin and earn his place among the damned.

Both Dante and Kipling are riffing off of Revelation 3: 14-22, the letter to the church in Laodicea. Because the Laodiceans were neither hot nor cold, they are rejected. “Go do something!” Preferably good, of course, but anything is better than nothing. Dante finds himself in trouble at the beginning of the Inferno because he is guilty of acedia (sloth). He knows what is good, what he ought to do, and . . . can’t be bothered. He’s spiritually lazy. He doesn’t do any good (” . . . those things which we have done and those which we have left undone,” as one confession puts it.) That’s Tomlinson’s sin as well. Acedia, “sloth,” not doing what should be done. In Tomlinson’s case, he hadn’t bothered to do anything but read about other people’s activities. Dante . . . spent a wee bit too much time on politics, but he claims sloth/acedia.

I’m sure that Kipling had read Dante. Everyone did, in those days. I know Kipling knew the Biblical reference. And he probably had met more than one Tomlinson, people who lived only in books, and never thought for themselves. “This I thought that another man thought of a Karl in Norway,” Tomlinson claims. But he, himself, never did.

Be either hot or cold, a saint or a sinner, choose G-d or Satan. But don’t just sit there!