John Boyle O'Reilly

(28 June 1844 - 10 August 1890 / Dowth Castle, County Meath)

The Amber Whale - Poem by John Boyle O'Reilly

WE were down in the Indian Ocean, after sperm, and three years out;
The last six months in the tropics, and looking in vain for a spout,—
Five men up on the royal yards, weary of straining their sight;
And every day like its brother,—just morning and noon and night—
Nothing to break the sameness: water and wind and sun
Motionless, gentle, and blazing,—never a change in one.
Every day like its brother: when the noonday eight-bells came,
'Twas like yesterday; and we seemed to know that to-morrow would be the same.
The foremast hands had a lazy time: there was never a thing to do;
The ship was painted, tarred down, and scraped; and the mates had nothing new.
We'd worked at sinnet and ratline till there wasn't a yarn to use,
And all we could do was watch and pray for a sperm whale's spout—or news.
It was whaler's luck of the vilest sort; and, though many a volunteer
Spent his watch below on the look-out, never a whale came near,—
At least of the kind we wanted: there were lots of whales of a sort,—
Killers and finbacks, and such like, as if they enjoyed the sport
Of seeing a whale-ship idle; but we never lowered a boat
For less than a blackfish, —there's no oil in a killer's or finback's coat.
There was rich reward for the look-out men,—tobacco for even a sail,
And a barrel of oil for the lucky dog who'd be first to 'raise' a whale.
The crew was a mixture from every land, and many a tongue they spoke;
And when they sat in the fo'castle, enjoying an evening smoke,
There were tales told, youngster, would make you stare—stories of countless shoals
Of devil-fish in the Pacific and right-whales away at the Poles.
There was one of these fo'castle yarns that we always loved to hear,—
Kanaka and Maori and Yankee; all lent an eager ear
To that strange old tale that was always new,—the wonderful treasure-tale
Of an old Down-Eastern harpooneer who had struck an Amber Whale!
Ay, that was a tale worth hearing, lad: if 'twas true we couldn't say,
Or if 'twas a yarn old Mat had spun to while the time away.

'It's just fifteen years ago,' said Mat, 'since I shipped as harpooneer
On board a bark in New Bedford, and came cruising somewhere near
To this whaling-ground we're cruising now; but whales were plenty then,
And not like now, when we scarce get oil to pay for the ship and men.
There were none of these oil wells running then,—at least, what shore folk term
An oil well in Pennsylvania,—but sulphur-bottom and sperm
Were plenty as frogs in a mud-hole, and all of 'em big whales, too;
One hundred barrels for sperm-whales; and for sulphur-bottom, two.
You couldn't pick out a small one: the littlest calf or cow
Had a sight more oil than the big bull whales we think so much of now.
We were more to the east, off Java Straits, a little below the mouth,—
A hundred and five to the east'ard and nine degrees to the south;
And that was as good a whaling-ground for middling-sized, handy whales
As any in all the ocean; and 'twas always white with sails
From Scotland and Hull and New England,—for the whales were thick as frogs,
And 'twas little trouble to kill 'em then, for they lay as quiet as logs.
And every night we'd go visiting the other whale-ships 'round,
Or p'r'aps we'd strike on a Dutchman, calmed off the Straits, and bound
To Singapore or Batavia, with plenty of schnapps to sell
For a few whale's teeth or a gallon of oil, and the latest news to tell.
And in every ship of that whaling fleet was one wonderful story told,—
How an Amber Whale had been seen that year that was worth a mint of gold.
And one man—mate of a Scotchman—said he'd seen, away to the west,
A big school of sperm, and one whale's spout was twice as high as the rest;
And we knew that that was the Amber Whale, for we'd often heard before
That his spout was twice as thick as the rest, and a hundred feet high or more.
And often, when the look-out cried, 'He blows!' the very hail
Thrilled every heart with the greed of gold,—for we thought of the Amber Whale.

'But never a sight of his spout we saw till the season there went round,
And the ships ran down to the south'ard to another whaling-ground.
We stayed to the last off Java, and then we ran to the west,
To get our recruits at Mauritius, and give the crew a rest.
Five days we ran in the trade winds, and the boys were beginning to talk
Of their time ashore, and whether they'd have a donkey-ride or a walk,
And whether they'd spend their money in wine, bananas, or pearls,
Or drive to the sugar plantations to dance with the Creole girls.
But they soon got something to talk about. Five days we ran west-sou'-west,
But the sixth day's log-book entry was a change from all the rest;
For that was the day the mast-head men made every face turn pale,
With the cry that we all had dreamt about,—'He Blows! The Amber Whale!'
And every man was motionless, and every speaker's lip
Just stopped as it was, with the word half-said: there wasn't a Sound in the ship
Till the Captain hailed the masthead, 'Whereaway is the whale you see?'
And the cry came down again, 'He blows! about four points on our lee,
And three miles off, sir,—there he blows! he's going to leeward fast!'
And then we sprang to the rigging, and saw the great whale at last!

'Ah! shipmates, that was a sight to see: the water was smooth as a lake,
And there was the monster rolling, with a school of whales in his wake.
They looked like pilot-fish round a shark, as if they were keeping guard;
And, shipmates, the spout of that Amber Whale was high as a sky-sail yard.
There was never a ship's crew worked so quick as our whalemen worked that day,—
When the captain shouted,' Swing the boats, and be ready to lower away!'
Then, 'A pull on the weather-braces, men! let her head fall off three points!'
And off she swung, with a quarter-breeze straining the old ship's joints.
The men came down from the mastheads; and the boat's crews stood on the rail,
Stowing the lines and irons, and fixing paddles and sail.
And when all was ready we leant on the boats and looked at the Amber's spout,
That went up like a monster fountain, with a sort of a rumbling shout,
Like a thousand railroad engines puffing away their smoke.
He was just like a frigate's hull capsized, and the swaying water broke
Against the sides of the great stiff whale: he was steering south-by-west, —
For the Cape, no doubt, for a whale can shape a course as well as the best.
We soon got close as was right to go; for the school might hear a hail,
Or see the bark, and that was the last of our Bank-of-England Whale.
'Let her luff,' said the Old Man, gently. 'Now, lower away, my boys,
And pull for a mile, then paddle,—and mind that you make no noise.'

'A minute more, and the boats were down; and out from the hull of the bark
They shot with a nervous sweep of the oars, like dolphins away from a shark.
Each officer stood in the stern, and watched, as he held the steering oar,
And the crews bent down to their pulling as they never pulled before.

'Our Mate was as thorough a whaleman as I ever met afloat;
And I was his harpooneer that day, and sat in the bow of the boat.
His eyes were set on the whales ahead, and he spoke in a low, deep tone,
And told the men to be steady and cool, and the whale was all our own.
And steady and cool they proved to be: you could read it in every face,
And in every straining muscle, that they meant to win that race.
'Bend to it, boys, for a few strokes more,—bend to it steady and long!
Now, in with your oars, and paddles out,—all together, and strong!'
Then we turned and sat on the gunwale, with our faces to the bow;
And the whales were right ahead,—no more than four ships' lengths off now.
There were five of 'em, hundred-barrelers, like guards round the Amber Whale.
And to strike him we'd have to risk being stove by crossing a sweeping tail;
But the prize and the risk were equal. 'Mat,' now whispers the Mate,
'Are your irons ready?' 'Ay, ay, sir.' 'Stand up, then, steady, and wait
Till I give the word, then let 'em fly, and hit him below the fin
As he rolls to wind'ard. Start her, boys! now's the time to slide her in!
Hurrah! that fluke just missed us. Mind, as soon as the iron's fast,
Be ready to back your paddles,—now in for it, boys, at last.
Heave! Again!'

'And two irons flew: the first one sank in the joint,
'Tween the head and hump,—in the muscle; but the second had its point
Turned off by striking the amber case, coming out again like a bow,
And the monster carcass quivered, and rolled with pain from the first deep blow.
Then he lashed the sea with his terrible flukes, and showed us many a sign
That his rage was roused. 'Lay off,' roared the Mate, ' and all keep clear of the line!'
And that was a timely warning, for the whale made an awful breach
Right out of the sea; and 'twas well for us that the boat was beyond the reach
Of his sweeping flukes, as he milled around, and made for the Captain's boat,
That was right astern. And, shipmates, then my heart swelled up in my throat
At the sight I saw: the Amber Whale was lashing the sea with rage,
And two of his hundred-barrel guards were ready now to engage
In a bloody fight, and with open jaws they came to their masters aid.
Then we knew the Captain's boat was doomed; but the crew were no whit afraid,—
They were brave New England whalemen,—and we saw the harpooneer
Stand up to send in his irons, as soon as the whales came near.
Then we heard the Captain's order, 'Heave!' and saw the harpoon fly,
As the whales closed in with their open jaws: a shock, and a stifled cry
Was all that we heard; then we looked to see if the crew were still afloat,—
But nothing was there save a dull red patch, and the boards of the shattered boat!

'But that was no time for mourning words: the other two boats came in,
And one got fast on the quarter, and one aft the starboard fin
Of the Amber Whale. For a minute he paused, as if he were in doubt
As to whether 'twas best to run or fight. 'Lay on!' the Mate roared out,
‘And I'll give him a lance!' The boat shot in; and the Mate, when he saw his chance
Of sending it home to the vitals, four times he buried his lance.
A minute more, and a cheer went up, when we saw that his aim was good;
For the lance had struck in a life-spot, and the whale was spouting blood!
But now came the time of danger, for the school of whales around
Had aired their flukes, and the cry was raised, 'Look out! they're going to sound!'
And down they went with a sudden plunge, the Amber Whale the last,
While the lines ran smoking out of the tubs, he went to the deep so fast.
Before you could count your fingers, a hundred fathoms were out;
And then he stopped, for a wounded whale must come to the top and spout.
We hauled slack line as we felt him rise; and when he came up alone,
And spouted thick blood; we cheered again, for we knew he was all our own.
He was frightened now, and his fight was gone,—right round and round he spun,
As if he was trying to sight the boats, or find the best side to run.
But that was the minute for us to work: the boats hauled in their slack,
And bent on the drag-tubs over the stern to tire and hold him back.
The bark was five miles to wind'ard, and the mate gave a troubled glance
At the sinking sun, and muttered, 'Boys, we must give him another lance,
Or he'll run till night; and, if he should head to windward in the dark,
We'll be forced to cut loose and leave him, or else lose run of the bark.
'So we hauled in close, two boats at once, but only frightened the whale;
And, like a hound that was badly whipped, he turned and showed his tail,
With his head right dead to wind'ard; then as straight and as swift he sped
As a hungry shark for a swimming prey; and, bending over his head,
Like a mighty plume, went his bloody spout. Ah, shipmates, that was a sight
Worth a life at sea to witness! In his wake the sea was white
As you've seen it after a steamer's screw, churning up like foaming yeast;
And the boats went hissing along at the rate of twenty knots at least.
With the water flush with the gunwhale, and the oars were all apeak,
While the crews sat silent and quiet, watching the long, white streak
That was traced by the line of our passage. We hailed the bark as we passed,
And told them to keep a sharp look-out from the head of every mast;
'And if we're not back by sundown,' cried the Mate, 'you keep a light
At the royal cross-trees. If he dies, we may stick to the whale all night.'

'And past we swept with our oars apeak, and waved oar hands to the hail
Of the wondering men on the taffrail, who were watching our Amber Whale
As he surged ahead, just as if he thought he could tire his enemies out;
I was almost sorrowful, shipmates, to see after each red spout
That the great whale's strength was failing: the sweep of his flukes grew slow,
Till at sundown he made about four knots, and his spout was weak and low.
Then said the Mate to his boat's crew: 'Boys, the vessel is out of sight
To the leeward: now, shall we cut the line, or stick to the whale all night?'
'We'll stick to the whale!' cried every man. 'Let the other boats go back
To the vessel and beat to wind'ard, as well as they can, in our track.'
It was done as they said: the lines were cut, and the crews cried out, 'Good speed!'
As we swept along in the darkness, in the wake of our monster steed,
That went plunging on, with the dogged hope that he'd fire his enemies still,—
But even the strength of an Amber Whale must break before human will.
By little and little his power had failed as he spouted his blood away,
Till at midnight the rising moon shone down on the great fish as he lay
Just moving his flukes; but at length he stopped, and raising his square, black head
As high as the topmast cross-trees, swung round and fell over—dead!

'And then rose a shout of triumph,—a shout that was more like a curse
Than an honest cheer; but, shipmates, the thought In our hearts was worse,
And 'twas punished with bitter suffering. We claimed the whale as our own,
And said that the crew should have no share of the wealth that was ours alone.
We said to each other: We want their help till we get the whale aboard,
So we'll let 'em think that- they'll have a share till we get the Amber stored,
And then we'll pay them their wages, and send them ashore—or afloat,
If they show their temper. Ah! shipmates, no wonder 'twas that boat
And its selfish crew were cursed that night. Next day we saw no sail,
But the wind and sea were rising. Still, we held to the drifting whale,—
And a dead whale drifts to windward,—going farther away from the ship,
Without water, or bread, or courage to pray with heart or lip
That had planned and spoken the treachery. The wind blew into a gale,
And it screamed like mocking laughter round our boat and the Amber Whale.

'That night fell dark on the starving crew, and a hurricane blew next day;
Then we cut the line, and we cursed the prize as it drifted fast away,
As if some power under the waves were towing it out of sight;
And there we were, without help or hope, dreading the coming night.
Three days that hurricane lasted. When it passed, two men were dead;
And the strongest one of the living had not strength to raise his head,
When his dreaming swoon was broken by the sound of a cheery hail,
And he saw a shadow fall on the boat,—it fell from the old bark's sail!
And when he heard their kindly words, you'd think he should have smiled
With joy at his deliverance; but he cried like a little child,
And hid his face in his poor weak hands,—for he thought of the selfish plan,—
And he prayed to God to forgive them all. And, shipmates, I am the man! —
The only one of the sinful crew that ever beheld his home;
For before the cruise was over, all the rest were under the foam.
It's just fifteen years gone, shipmates,' said old Mat, ending his tale;
'And I often pray that I'll never see another Amber Whale.'


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Poem Submitted: Sunday, May 20, 2012



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