Cicely Fox Smith

(1 February 1882 – 8 April 1954 / Lymm, Cheshire)

The Three Ships - Poem by Cicely Fox Smith

I had tramped along through dockland till the day was all but spent,
But for all the ships I there did find I could not be content;
By the good pull-ups for car-men and the Chinese dives I passed,
And the streets of grimy houses each one grimier than the last,
And the shops whose shoddy oilskins many a sailorman has cursed
In the wintry Western ocean when it's weather of the worst . . .
All among the noisy graving docks and waterside saloons
And the pubs with punk pianos grinding out their last year's tunes,
And the rattle of the winches handling freights from near and far,
And the whiffs of oil and engines, and the smells of bilge and tar;
And of all the craft I came across, the finest for to see
Was a dandy ocean liner . . . but she wasn't meant for me!
She was smart as any lady, and the place was fair alive
With the swarms of cooks and waiters, just like bees about a hive;
It was nigh her time for sailing, and a man could hardly stir
For the piles of rich folks' dunnage here and there and everywhere.
But the stewards and the awnings and the white paint and the gold
Take a deal o' living up to for a chap that's getting old;
And the mail-boat life's a fine one . . . but a shellback likes to be
Where he feels a kind o' homelike after half his life at sea . . .

So I sighed and passed her by - 'Fare you well, my dear,' said I,
'You're as smart and you're as dainty as can be;
You're a lady through and through, but I know it wouldn't do -
You're a bit too much a rich man's gal for me!'

So I rambled on through dockland, but I couldn't seem to find
Out of all the craft I saw there just the one to please my mind;
There were tramps and there were tankers, there were freighters large and small,
There were concrete ships and standard ships and motor ships and all,
And of all the blessed shooting-match the one I liked the best
Was a saucy topsail schooner from some harbour in the West.
She was neat and she was pretty as a country lass should be,
And the girl's name on her counter seemed to suit her to a T;
You could almost smell the roses, almost see the red and green
Of the Devon plough and pastures where her home port must have been,
And I'll swear her blocks were creaking in a kind o' Devon drawl -
Oh, she took my fancy rarely - but I left her after all!
For it's well enough, is coasting, when the summer days are long,
And the summer hours slip by you just as sweetly as a song,
When you catch the scent of clover blowing to you off the shore,
And there's scarce a ripple breaking from the Land's End to the Nore;
But I like a bit more sea-room when the short dark days come in,
And the Channel gales and sea-fogs and the nights as black as sin,
When you're groping in a fairway that's as crowded as a town
With the whole damned Channel traffic looking out to run you down,
Or a bloody lee shore's waiting with its fierce and foaming lips
For the bones of poor drowned sailormen and broken ribs of ships.

So I sighed and shook my head - 'Fare you well, my dear,' I said,
'You're a bit too fond o' soundings, lass, for me;
Oh, you're Devon's own dear daughter - but my fancy's for deep water
And I think I'll set a course for open sea!'

So I tramped along through dockland, through the Isle of Dogs I went,
But for all the ships I found there still I couldn't be content . . .
Till, not far from Millwall Basin, in a dingy, dreary pond,
Mouldy wharf-sheds all around it and a breaker's yard beyond,
With its piles of rusty anchors and chain-cables large and small,
Broken bones of ships forgotten - there I found her after all!
She was foul from West Coast harbours, she was worn with wind and tide,
There was paint on all the bright work that was once her captain's pride,
And her gear was like a junk-store, and her decks a shame to see,
And her shrouds they wanted rattling down as badly as could be . . .
But she lay there on the water just as graceful as a gull,
Keeping some old builder's secret in her strong and slender hull;
By her splendid sweep of sheer-line and her clean-keen clipper bow
You might know she'd been a beauty . . . and, by God, she was one now!
And the river gulls were crying, and the sluggish river tide
Made a kind of running whisper by her red and rusted side,
And the river breeze came murmuring her tattered gear among,
Like some old shellback, known of old, that sings a sailor's song -
That whistles through his yellow teeth an old deep-water tune
(The same did make the windows shake in the Boomerang Saloon!),
Or by the steersman's elbow stays to tell a seaman's tale
About the skippers and the crews in great old days of sail!

And I said: 'My dear, although you are growing old, I know,
And as crazy and as cranky as can be . . .
If you'll take me for your lover, oh we'll sail the wide seas over,
You're the ship among them all that's meant for me!'


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Poem Submitted: Tuesday, August 31, 2010



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