Cicely Fox Smith
The Figurehead - Poem by Cicely Fox Smith
In the days when every seaport had its figureheads to show -
Queens, princesses, sea-nymphs, witches, girls of all sorts, row on row,
With their faintly smiling faces and their outstretched pointing hands
Reaching out across the water-lanes that lead to far-off lands -
There was once a ship a-building on the slips down Black-wall way
(Yard and builder, ship and owner, long ago they had their day),
And it chanced one summer morning when the work was nearly done
The Owner came to look at her and see how things went on.
Now this Owner, I must tell you, was a pious sort of bloke
That didn't know the way to smile and never cracked a joke:
He'd an 'albert' on his waistcoat and a whisker on each cheek,
And his face was like a sea-boot or the wettest kind of week.
Well, he looked the ship all over and he'd got no fault to find,
But, says he, 'There is a point on which I've quite made up my mind;
I will not have this ship o' mine called after one of those
Outrageous heathen goddesses with hardly any clo'es.
It's not a good example to the people where we trade
To see upon our vessels' bows such things as those displayed;
So let her name be Enterprise or Thrift or Industry,
And I think we can't do better than a figurehead of ME.'
So the carver carved his likeness, though he said it was a job
To make a decent showing of that hammick-faced old swab;
And they launched the ship and christened her with homemade rhubarb-wine,
For he said he 'd have no dealings with the product of the vine.
They named her Perseverance, and they sent her out to sea
To show the folks in foreign parts a figurehead of HE,
With a go-to-meeting topper of the real stove-pipe sort
And the kind of stick-up collar Mr. Gladstone used to sport.
And when she got to forty South up comes old Davy Jones
From his house below the water that's all built of sailors' bones,
To see the latest vessel and her figurehead to scan,
For he likes, a nice young female, just like any sailor-man.
But when he clapped his eyes on her it made him fair disgusted;
He cussed like any bucko mate until he nearly busted,
And looked and looked and looked again, and said, 'Well, strike me pink!'
Then took and yanked the Owner off and slung him in the drink.
And he drifted and he lifted as the winds and currents chose.
With the seabirds sitting on him from his waistcoat to his nose,
And he lifted and he drifted many a month and many a mile.
Till he fetched up at the finish on a South Pacific isle.
And there the natives found him, high and dry upon the shore,
And they gathered round and stared at him till they could stare no more;
Then they set him on a heap of stones and hung him round with flowers
And said, 'Now where's the island that can show a god like ours?'
And fuzzy-headed damsels wearing hardly any clo'es
But wisps of grass and feathers - and uncommon few of those -
Used to come and dance for him o' nights beneath the golden moon
To the singing of the palm-trees and the tide in the lagoon.
And there he sat and scowled at them; and so the years went on
Till, what with time and weather, all the paint off him was gone,
And his whiskers and his collar had got worn so flat and small
That you couldn't recognise him for the Owner's self at all.
Well, at last there came a schooner cruising round the Southern Seas
With a learned bloke on board collecting curiosities,
And when he saw the figurehead he cried, ''Now here's a find;
This here's a tribal totem of a most unusual kind.'
And the island folks were thinking that he couldn't be much good
Because he hadn't made it rain just when they thought it should,
So they swopped him for a gramophone as willing as you please,
And he travelled back to England wrapped up careful like a cheese.
He's in Blankby Town Museum now for all the world to see,
With a label underneath him, 'Heathen Idol from Fiji';
And if there is a moral in this story strange but true,
Well I only hope you see it - I'll be jiggered if I do!
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