I had this wild idea one night (while drinking rum, believe it or not) to write a poem about a sailor. I wanted it to be grubby and salty, like a band of scallywags were singing it on a hot summer night at high sea. It turned into a much longer piece than I anticipated, but I was having so much fun, I couldn't stop (for a time, I kid you not, I was thinking in pirate speak).
It might be a bit like an epic, so you might find a comfy chair and settle in (or take an extended bathroom break). It's written as a ballad, in 8-6-8-6 syllabic fashion, and A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. There are separations -- every eight lines to break up the stanzas for ease of reading.
As you read, find the tempo, and imagine a scruffy, scrappy, wasted, smelly pirate singing this song with a bottle of rum in his hand. Loosen up, rub some funk on the voice, throw in a "ya-har!" and have some fun with it.
Hope you enjoy!
The Empress in the Tempest
Tuck’d deep inside a moonlit bay
there slept a harbor small.
The sea was sluggish, soft and gray;
the wind blew at a crawl.
“Now here’s a place,” to me, I said,
“where man can wet his throat,
and eat his fill and rest his head,
and off this wretched boat!”
I moored my Bella to the dock,
and firmly tied her down,
then turning, I began the walk
into the harbor town.
There stood a pub, with weather’d sign,
that read ‘The Siren’s Tail’.
The air was rich and thick with brine
and cheap beer, flat and stale.
“What will it be?” the barkeep called
as I came traipsing in.
The man was thin and going bald,
his voice was high and thin.
“A mutton leg,” I answered back,
“and bourbon from the shelf.”
I bothered none, but ate my snack
and kept quite to myself.
The pub was lit by lantern flame;
the pale moon, soft aglow,
slid ever up the window frame
as thunder clapped below.
The reek of ale and whiskey rye
and dirty, salty sweat
did coat the tongue and sting the eye
with smell you’d not forget.
Some mates, all scruff and grubby hair,
were telling tales of old:
of treasures rich, of ladies fair,
of captains fierce and bold.
“Pay ye no mind to idle speak—”
said one old man to me.
“—If it be glory that ye seek,
then find ‘her’ on the sea.”
“Who is this ‘her’?” inquired I,
“and what is that ye say?
What purpose have ye, drawing nigh,
to speak to me this way?”
“I mean ye no offense, me boy,
and I’ve no ill intent.
I speak of, though, a greater joy,
‘twill bring yer heart content.”
“Content?” said I, “What makes ye think
I’m not already there?
With this here meat and bourbon drink,
I’d say I’m pretty fair.”
“No, no!” cried he, “much more than that!—
Have ye no taste for quests?
As ‘venturous as a fat house cat;
an infant suck’ling breasts!”
He threw his head back, laughed aloud,
then trained his eyes on me:
“What’s wrong, me boy? Are ye too proud
to sail an unknown sea?”
“I may be proud, but I’m no fool
to chase a fairytale.
I’m more content to ride this stool
than down some rabbit trail.”
“Fine, fine,” said he, “I’ll leave ye ‘lone—
but first hear this me friend:
The joy ye find in the unknown
this world cannot amend.
“Ye’ll search and search and maybe find
a fat wife and a home.
Ye’ll leave this ‘venturous life behind
but still yer heart will roam.
“Ye’ll miss the sea, and long to ride
the tide just one more time,
but come to find the chance has died—
ye'll be way past yer prime.
“Ye might go live a happy life
chock-full of memories,
but yer regrets, they will be rife
for not traversing seas.
“Believe me, boy, I know the look—
ye have it in yer eyes!
One glance was truly all it took
to know ye’d seek a prize.
“I’ve spoke me piece, I’ll say no more;
the choice is yer’s to make.
But let yer mind, the thought, explore,
at least, for goodness sake!”
I pondered o’er the sailor’s talk—
what's all his talk about?
What could it hurt to let him squawk?
Let him, his knowledge, tout.
The distant clouds had closer come;
they blotted out the moon,
and thunder rumbled like a drum;
it would be storming soon.
“So tell me then,” said I to him,
“Who be this fabled gal
that I should risk my life and limb
and lose all rationale?”
“She be no gal,” his eyes grew wide,
“though that would seem her form.
Where mortal and divine collide,
ye’ll see her in the storm.
“Her face is white—a ghastly white,
her eyes, an icy blue,
and shines from her, the coldest light
creation ever knew.”
“She doth high in a tempest float,
deep in its very heart.
She’s torn through countless life and boat—
aye, torn them clean apart!
“She wanders o’er the high seas, aye,
a-lookin’ fer her boys.
And those she finds who be not they,
she treats like worthless toys.
“Nobody knows her name—alas
the ones who did are gone—
some walked the plank; some bit the brass;
some sailed into the dawn.”
“How came she by such cruel a fate?”
I asked the mariner.
“What earned her this accursed state,
Why, this, did she incur?”
“She were not cursed, me boy,” said he.
“She chose it as her own.
For once was she, an Empress, free;
a Queen of earth and stone.
“Her empire spanned from east to west,
unto the farthest shore.
Her footstool was a treasure chest
of gold and gems galore.
“She never once was want for food,
for clothing or a bed.
And fair was she, and wise and shrewd—
at least, so it was said.
“Her king set sail to find new land
and conquer distant shores.
Their sons and he, with oars in hand,
set off in search of wars.
“They set out with ten thousand strong,
their banners waving high;
with shout and cheer and battlesong,
their hearts, content and spry.
“Well weeks went by, then months, then years,
but no report was heard.
She held out hope, though held through tears,
and uttered not a word.
“Then, like a mist, a decade ran,
yet still she sat alone.
She’d not permit another man
to fill the empty throne.
“And then one dim fall day, upon
the beach, there washed a sign—
a scrap of parchment, scribbled on,
bound in a flask of wine.
“And these few words upon the parch
were scrawled in smear’d black ink:
‘Beloved Queen, the fifth of March:
We have begun to sink.
“‘We met a gale that thrashed the bow
against a mighty reef;
we took on water from the prow
at speeds beyond belief.
“‘The other ships are sunk as well—
the reef has took them all!
The grief is more than I can quell—
what bitterness and gall!
“‘I’ve barely time to write to you
to tell of our demise.
I doubt we’ll last the whole night through;
‘twould come as a surprise.
“‘My dearest lady, fair you are!
I never should have left,
for now your heart shall bear a scar;
shall be, your soul, bereft.
“‘I pray this letter finds its way
into your loving hand,
and this command would you obey,
my Queen: leave not the land!’
“For months she neither slept nor ate,
nor changed out of her clothes.
The queendom met a wretched fate,
for all did decompose.
“Her cities were, by rival kings,
all plundered, sacked, and burned.
To her, these were but worthless things;
not in the least concerned.
“‘A curse upon the wretched sea!’
with arms raised high, she roared.
‘For, hence and evermore, in thee,
shall I provoke discord!’
“She left the ruins of her home
with tears of vengeance hot.
She'd rather ride the ocean foam
than, in her queendom, rot.”
“A heap of bollocks!” one drunk cried,
and hacked and spat and sneered.
“A barren tale, I say, and chide!”
The drunk’s eyes flashed and leered.
“If ye believe this old goat’s yarn,
then ride the waves to hell!
‘Twould seem a fitting place—so g’arn!—
ye be a fool as well.”
“Heed not his words, me hearty-chum;
I see fear in his eye.
There be more courage in me thumb
than in that butterfly!”
The pub roared laughter, drunk and hot,
then each turn’d to his own.
Another bourbon round I bought;
again, we were alone.
Intriguing as it all did sound,
I could not help but think:
Would it be worth this solid ground
to take the risk and sink?
“Now that is quite a tale,” said I,
“but why should I pursue?
‘Twould seem to seek her is to die,
and with this life, be through.”
“I can’t explain,” he said to me,
“ye’d have to taste to know.
But I’d give me eternity
to give her one more go.
“There’s nothin’ more ye’ll want in life,
why, just ye wait and see.
The vision of her’s worth the strife
of forging trech’rous sea.
“‘Tis more than worth yer while, me lad;
this be no idle tale.
‘Twas lesser when Sir Galahad
beheld the Holy Grail.”
“I’m in,” said I, “let’s seek this dame;
she truly must astound.
If she be half the sight ye claim,
then tell me where she’s found.”
“Ya-har, me boy!” the old man cried,
“Now that, the spirit, be!”
His grizzled face, like old rawhide,
was now alight with glee.
The storm outside was gaining legs
as lightning shattered sky.
I drained my bourbon to the dregs
and got us whiskey rye.
“No baby’s milk for ye?” he laugh’d
and drained his whiskey dry,
and called for yet another draught,
as dawn came crawling nigh.