Monday, April 04, 2011

"Shakespeare" = salty dog

Thanks to reader R.H. for passing along this great little excerpt from the book A Gipsy of the Horn: The Narrative of a Voyage Round the World in a Winjammer (Rex Clements, 1925).

Upshot: The Bard knew sailing and nautical terminology first-hand. Almost as if, say, he had crossed the English channel at least four times (SBAN pp. 70-71, 75 & 113), had circumnavigated much of Italy in a Venetian galley (pp. 85-92) and likely plied stormy seas on the open Atlantic, in advance of the Spanish Armada attack (pp. 222-29):
The books that had survived the West Coast had succumbed to the rigours of the Horn and had been dumped, a sodden pulp, overboard.  My battered old Shakespeare was the only book left in the half-deck and I hung on to that with grim solicitude. ... 
On one occasion, when the bosun came in I fired off the first scene of the The Tempest to him. He was immensely taken with it, but would hardly believe it was Shakespeare at all.  However, he knew what "bring a ship to try" was, which was more than I did at the time or, I dare say, a good many others who have read the play.  Shapespeare’s knowledge of the sea always struck me as remarkable.  For an inland-born poet he was very fond of similes, and astonishingly accurate in his use of nautical technicalities.  How did he acquire his knowledge? One ignorant of sea-life would hardly use the phrase "remainder biscuit after a voyage" as a synonym for dryness, or talk of a man as "clean-timbered." I like to think that in the obscure early years of the poet’s life in London he made a trip to sea, perhaps as an adventurer in one of the ships that smashed up the Armada. ['cuz why not? –Ed.] At least, no one can prove he didn’t; [!] and to my mind what more likely than that a high-spirited youth doing odd jobs about the old Shoreditch theatre, in the scampling and unquiet times when Medina Sidonia was fitting out should join some salt scarred vessel. ...

His use of marine technicalities was far wider than that of any of his contemporaries.  He mentions nearly all the parts of a ship, and he mentions them with evident knowledge of their various functions.  "The giddy footing of the hatches" as the open gratings of the main deck of an Elizabethan ship were called; the admiral bearing "The lantern in the poop"; the shrouds that "stay" the mast; "the high top-gallant" -- they had no royals in those days; "the small spare mast such as seafaring men provide for storms"; these and many others he alludes to casually but with absolute correctness.  Might he have learnt so much from ships lying in the London river, and not so far from Bankside? 
The poet might even have learnt therefrom what the "remainder biscuit after a voyage" is like; found the inspritation of that simile "Pun thee into shivers with his fist, as a sailor breaks a biscuit" and seen "the new map of the world with the augmentation of the Indies," that was so popular among seafaring men.  Mixing with the mariners of those ships he might have gone so far as to hear of "great sea marks, standing every flaw," of the depth of "the bay of Portugal." Of the "guards of  the pole," of taking the altitude or "height" of a star, of "keeping the weather gauge" of the need to "slack the boline" in heavy weather; and learnt to speak of the wind "fetching about," the anchor "coming home," of being "unclewed" by misfortune or "be-lee’d" by lack of favour, though no other writer without sea experience that I know of ever got the hang of sailor-talk so naturally.
But admitting all this, there is still more that can hardly be explained in these ways.  How came he to know what "noise the shrouds make at sea in a stiff tempest"? That dolphins "showed their backs above the element they lived in"? That a shifted wind unto a sail makes a vessel’s course to "fetch about," mark you – or that, in a chase, if the pursuing vessel "yaws," a quarry of quick sail will escape her?  Yet know it all he did and much more, and on occasion makes Ancient Pistol talk like Drake himself going into action.

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