The Rime of the Mary Celeste
Inspired by the poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the mysterious fate of the crew of the real-life ship ‘Mary Celeste’ in 1872, this piece aims to combine the themes/style of both in a narrative poem I dedicate to sailors taken by the sea, those who seek to preserve life on Earth and (of course) to Coleridge himself.
Part I – Fortune and Fate
”Twas dawn upon the restless dock,
Our boots were salt and dry
The ocean lust weighed down on us
We urged the hour to fly.
The brigantine was tidy trim
The Cap’n satisfied
That ship and crew were ready through;
We’d sail upon the tide.
Below the deck, all barrels held
For Genoa the cargo bound
With strictest protocol.
More precious cargo was to come!
The cap’n’s wife and kid.
Two lovely maidens sure and true –
None loved them like Briggs did.
And after this, our voyage next
Would be his last, he said.
His Ocean Mistress spurned to tend
Not sea but marriage bed.
The Tars of old might grouse and scold
If women were on board
They bring ill chance upon the ship
Bad luck and such dischord.
I would that I had taken heed
Of salty superstition
Instead our crew – the infant too –
Fell foul of my contrition.
Thursday. This to be the day
When fate would send us on.
Staten growled its brief farewell:
We set-to and were gone.
New York melted like a dream:
A mirage in the mist.
We turned instead – horizon’d head –
To that smile we’d ne’er resist.
And like a flatstone flick’d from shore
The beautied Brig skipped through.
Spirits high, the crew and I
Worked hard and course held true.
Not three weeks in, in circles keen
An albatross appeared
To visit ship at ocean’s lip –
Of man ‘twas not affear’d!
It fed from scraps hand-held by chaps
And answered to its name!
So crew and guest made sport with jest
When ocean spirit came.
But soon our play became dismay;
The albatross made brave
Spied morsels pass to Captain’s lass
Rich food the bird would crave.
And quick as flash, the albatross
Was on the little child!
Without a thought I quickly fought
The bird, now dreadful wild.
It pecked and shrieked. It’s wingbeats bruised.
I held its neck across;
They called me ‘No!’ But even so
I killed the albatross.
In temper weak, with rage to wreak
I killed that albatross!
Part II – Death’s Familiar
The sea keeps many mysteries
And those that pass thereon
For time or trade do as they’re bade…
Rules set in times long gone.
Folk with oceans in the bone
Regard the feathered beast
As avatar to passing tar,
To sailors since deceased.
And never, never might we kill
An innocent at sea,
Horizons held within their eye
And freedom’s reverie.
They say no man’s an island,
But in their eyes I saw
A fateful rift cast me adrift:
I was their mate no more.
They took their duties silently.
Some made the sign of cross.
Alone on deck, around my neck
Was hung the albatross.
I took the carcass to the side
And dropped it secretly
When all at once a calm befell
As feather touched the sea.
Not wind nor fidget took the sail
The sea was mirror-calm
They feared the worst and I was cursed
As one who’d brought them harm.
The hours slowed like time had froze
They set like springs to leap
Should slightest breeze respond to pleas
And spare us from the deep.
But shiver’d fingers took on hue
Like briny blue leaked in
As days gave way to disarray
In minds which knew my sin.
‘The fault is his!’ The steward said.
‘Let’s offer him to pay
The life he took. Yes, by The Book
Let’s cast him out today!’
But as he marched me to the rail
Another boat was spied;
It parted sea so silently
And soon drew side-by-side.
And on the deck a figure stood
A cowled skull for head
And yet we felt its heavy gaze –
Not living nor yet dead.
Blind fear tugged the mortal bowel
And some began to pray
Our Captain proud said firm, aloud…
‘What brings thee now our way?’
The spirit raised a bony arm.
The albatross hung there.
With eyes on me the company
Condemned me with a stare.
The captain said: ‘This is my ship
These people, in my care.
Grant release – go forth in peace
‘Tis human but to err.’
‘Go forth in peace?’ The horror spake,
‘In pieces I claim thee!
Man’s sins alone you can’t condone
Such pride is blasphemy.’
With that, the Captain glanced behind
His face resigned and grey.
Across the sea, to the entity
His fingers flew away.
Next his hand detached from arm
The blood spilled to the sea.
The arm went next. His face, perplexed
And then a wail from his throat
As I had never heard
Told of his pain and once again
He cursed me for the bird.
The heart came out from in his chest
His wife fell in a swoon
And limb-by-limb it unmade him
Our captain gone too soon.
Part III – Pestilence
The captain’s ruined flesh lay strewn
Across the phantom deck
And silently in spectral winds
Thus left that cursed wreck.
“What evil madness have you wrought
Upon our innocence?”
“I’d gladly give my life for yours…
To die for recompense!”
But pay we must, as once again
Appearing close beside
The Albatross’ corse is laid
With movement from inside.
What grim abomination might
In carrion reside?
Hi, look! From wretched beak there crawls
A lousy pestilence;
Black, biting fleas rife with disease
The swarm advanced, immense.
Distraught, the Captain’s wife made plea –
‘I beg you – save my daughter!’
We looked between us – then a shout:
‘There’s land out in the water!’
And sure enough, as though a gift,
We saw in easy reach
A craggy island off to port
No tree nor golden beach.
The sailor to my right cried out
As mites crawl’d on his skin
But tho he brushed and crushed and thrashed
The foul beasts burrowed in.
Grave and pale the second mate
Could hesitate no more;
He bade that Gilling take the yawl
And row to island’s shore
With Briggs’s widow and her child,
He pressed against the oar.
Beset with mites, our ravaged flesh
We clawed and made to bleed
And scarce a man had brief relief
To see them leave at speed.
But then,as quickly as they’d come,
The pestilence was gone.
Heaving breaths and bloodied hands
We cheered the lifeboat on.
But sailors keep a warning sense
Most heightened when at sea
As Gilling rowed, strange luck must bode:
No end goes happily.
So close to landing was the yawl
With precious crew aboard
We prayed to God the island odd
Would grant them safe accord.
Alas! With only feet from land,
The island quaked and raised!
To our surprise there surfaced – eyes!
The crew was still, half-dazed.
The eyes were black and deep as death
With aspect like a shark
The size of ship, a fanged lip
Raised out of fathoms dark.
A moment, monster watched the yawl.
A moment, hearts apace…
Then as the beast’s jaw opened slow
We screamed to Gilling – ‘race!’
Our fellow heaved upon the oars
Each muscle took the strain
We called the lifeboat back to us
But – horror! ‘‘Twas in vain.
The monster’s maw – cathedral sized –
Drank in the briny swell;
The lifeboat yawl – with Child and all
Drew back to mouth of hell.
With silent tear and bitter fear,
The lifeboat tipped and fell.
Part IV – Fire!
Their screams soon dwindl’d all to naught
Like threads of black despair
In dark descent our crewmates went
To the bowels of a nightmare.
We wept and cursed at their grim end
Yet all the while we raced
To move our boat from monster’s throat
Should we be next. Make haste!
Fools! We could not hope to run
From seabeast in its lair…
Nor could we wait for that same fate
‘‘Twas best to try. Prepare!
Too late. The creature made to dive,
The chilling eye submerged
It’s fluke swept high – far in the sky
Then down! the vast beast surged.
Our first thought was to fear below:
The rising, ship-sized maw!
But where it fell there rose a swell
Full twelve men’s height or more…
A water wall to drown us all
The diving monster bore.
Nought to do but watch, weak-kneed
Before the tow’ring wave
This final curse – a blue-grey hearse
To send us to the grave!
But as the ship began to pitch,
The ocean’s wall beside us,
It’s progress stilled… momentum killed.
A kinder death denied us?
We’d gripped the rails but now eased back
And stared with wary awe
Not splash nor spray then fell our way
Confounding reason’s law.
We could stretch to touch the sea
Like Neptune’s salty skin.
But peering out, there was no doubt
An image lit within!
Before us, clear as day appeared:
A woman graced with charm…
Benevolently smiled at us,
A babe held in her arm.
And tenderly, she reached a hand
Towards us from the sea
Afraid, alert… this kindness hurt!
We craved it endlessly.
The Steward raised his arm to meet
The apparition’s touch
As out and in, at water’s skin
The press of peace meant much.
The infant turned its tiny head
And looked up at her face
Two little hands held up to her
As if to seek embrace.
But oh! More horrors were to come:
The childish face grew cold;
With monstrous ease began to squeeze
Her throat in crushing hold.
In hurt and shock she gasped and gaped
Mouthed silent pleas in vain
And Widow Briggs gave anguished wail
A mother, too, in pain.
We could not help nor turn away
From this most foul attack
Then by and by in silent cry
The woman’s head fell back.
And from her open mouth there rose
A column of deep flame
And from each maw beside I saw
My crew mates burned the same.
Like hell’s own candles, each one stood
Mouth open… fire retched.
With sightless head, these blazing dead
Came for me, arms outstretched!
Part V – Looking On
I held unto the deck’s staunch rail
Retreating from their clutch
Now full afire, a walking pyre
I drew back from their touch.
Climbing up upon the rail
I shed a bitter tear
For all I’d wrought without a thought
To each soul lost on here.
I leapt into the water wall
Lest this might spare me death!
Not water, but the visions there
Full robbed me of my breath.
Within, the babe and mother gone
I saw a world infernal
Of flame, disease… of choking seas
And suffering eternal.
The monuments of civil pride
Lay hidden in the dust
No human stirred, nor beast nor bird
All things were rot and rust.
Though weighted by a heavy heart
I surfaced by and by.
Brine to East and brine to West
Not brine enough to cry.
And distant, as a flotsam dream,
At grave horizon’s crest
Afloat, I took one final look
At the brave Mary Celeste.
Empty. Still and touched by ill
Our sad Mary Celeste.
I know not how I came ashore;
Awaking on the sand
Of foreign coast. No friend, no post
No homely square of land.
“O’ why didst thou not take my life?”
I bellowed to the sky
Twas then I heard a replying bird:
An albatross’ cry.
And in that sound my goal was found:
I lived and I knew why!
Don’t look for me in port or yard
Nor homestead on the hill
I wander Earth, no rest or mirth
Sans absolution still.
Atonement have I made for life
For killing without need.
For nature need not oft forgive
Hear me now – take heed!
A curse upon the one who kills
For jest or for his sport
Who doth ignore the nature law –
Takes life without a thought.
Be wary as you plunder all
There’s payment in thy wake
When on with zeal we kill and steal –
We owe more than we take.
This world comes knocking for its debt
Without a warning bell.
So watch horizons. Make amends
We court a self-made Hell!
The ship you sail – may it prevail –
And now, my friend, farewell.