The Glenaloon

This poem was published in The Glenaloon and Other Poems [link to Google Books version] by Francis Alexander Durivage, a book first published in 1881. Sadly, the author provides no information or context for this poem, although an asterisk beside the title is linked to a note, “founded on fact.” But is this claim true, or is it a rhetorical strategy to more fully engage the reader? Later, it was collected as a song by folklorist and song collector Roy MacKenzie, who writes:

This song, also a late acquisition, belongs with “The Wreck of the Atlantic” and “The Cedar Grove” (Nos. 88 and 89). In spite of its self-conscious and occasionally thwarted attempts to achieve emotional intensity through the power of description it is, on the whole, a very effective tale. Its model, apparently, is not the popular ballad, but rather the literary narrative poem in which the story is subordinated to description and introspection. There is too much insistence upon the sombre accompaniment of night, but the scene is somehow realized; and the fourth stanza, at least, serves as a link to bind the song to the poetry of the folk (1963: 387).

There are quite a few minor variations in MacKenzie’s version. For example, the first two lines of Durivage’s poem,

Only a ripple and just a puff,
Stirring the old brown sails,
Like as a breath from a sick man’s lips
Flutters a bit, then fails.

became this in the song MacKenzie collected:

It’s only a rivel and just a puff
That’s moving her old brown sail,
Like a sickly man with a fever and faint
She mutters a while and stays

Because we have the original poem in print, we can clearly see how this song has changed through the process of oral transmission. At the same time, despite quite a few variations in vocabulary, there is a remarkable consistency in the number of verses, their order, and the subject matter of each. It also clearly illustrates how a poem can go from print into oral culture and back again, as opposed to the stereotype that assumes oral culture always comes first.

Source:
Mackenzie, W. Roy. 1963. Ballads and Sea Songs from Nova Scotia. Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates.

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Lyrics

Only a ripple, and just a puff
Stirring the old brown sails,
Like as a breath from a sick man’s lips
Flutters a bit, then fails.
After awhile the wind was dead,
And we rolled on the oily sea,
Like a weary man in a fever fit
Moving uneasily.

No headway on the old barky now!
She might have been a log.
Ten leagues away the land lay hid
By a strip of cold, gray fog:
And three points off the starboard bow—
‘Twas a summer night in June—
Where the sky and the water joined in one,
Heaved up the red, full moon.

Bloody red, but silver soon,
With a path of glittering light
Stretched from the bark to the ocean’s edge,
Waving, and broad, and bright.
Something dark in the shining belt,
About a league away,
A shapeless bulk, like a ragged rock,
On the face of the water lay.

There was no rock or reef on the chart
Laid down as here about;
We looked through the night-glass steadily
But we couldn’t make it out.
I kept my eye on the ugly thing
As I stood on the quarter-deck,
Then ordered the crew to lower the gig—
It might be it was a wreck.

We pulled away for the shapeless hulk
Till it loomed against the moon,
And we read on the bow of a mastless brig
The name—the “Glenaloon.”
We hailed, tho’ never a man was on deck,
And never a voice replied;
We shipped our oars as we touched the wreck,
And climbed the vessel’s side.

There was a rubbish of splintered spars—
Mainmast and foremast gone—
Shattered boats on the littered deck,
But of living beings—none!
Surely that is a human form
Crouching upon the deck,
In an old sou’ wester and Guernsey frock!
“Shipmate! what of the wreck?”

Surly old chap! I raised his hat—
Remember, the moon was full—
And started back, for its white rays fell
On a ghastly, grinning skull.
Groping our way through spars and sails,
Mottled with shade and light,
Five more skeletons we found
Bleached to a deathly white.

Then walking aft—the deck was flush—
To the cabin I made my way.
Stretched on the transom at full length
The skeleton captain lay.
In his bony hand a paper was clutched
(I read what it said next day),
“Wrecked—boats stove and food all gone—
We can but wait and pray.”

As we pulled from the brig o’er the steel-black sea,
In the light of the pitiless moon,
We read again her fateful name—
The weird name—”Glenaloon.”
And faster and faster into the waves
The blades of our stout oars fell,
For the deck seemed swarming with shadowy forms
Waving a wild farewell.

In the sunny calm of the following day
We buried the fleshless crew.
Shrouded and shotted, one by one,
They sank through the water’s blue
And I never look of a summer night
On the blood-red disk of the moon,
But I think of the horror she once revealed—
The wreck of the “Glenaloon.”

Source:
Durivage, Francis Alexander. The Glenaloon and Other Poems. New York: Trow’s Print and Bookbinding, 1881.

This book can also be found on Google Books.


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