So the night passed, but then
no morning broke—
Only a something showed that night was dead.
A sea-bird, cackling like a devil, spoke,
And the fog drew away and hung like lead.
Like mighty cliffs it shaped, sullen and red;
Like glowering gods at watch it did appear,
And sometimes drew away, and then drew near.
Then suddenly swooped down the immense black fiend of the storm, catching, as the Bosun put it, the ship “in her ball-dress.”
The blackness crunched all memory of the sun.
Henceforth we have a tale of white fear changing into heroism as Dauber clambers to his giddy place in the rigging, and goes out on the yard to his task,
Sick at the mighty space of
Below his feet, where soaring birds were wheeling.
It was all a “withering rush of death,” an orgy of snow, ice, and howling seas.
The snow whirled, the ship
bowed to it, the gear lashed,
The sea-tops were cut off and flung down smashed;
Tatters of shouts were flung, the rags of yells—
And clang, clang, clang, below beat the two bells.
How magnificent a flash of the fury of the storm we get when the Dauber looks down from his scramblings among rigging and snapped spars, and sees the deck
Filled with white water, as though heaped with snow.
In that line we seem to behold the beautiful face of danger—a beauty that is in some way complementary to the beauty of the endurance of ships and the endurance of men. For the ship is saved, and so is the Dauber’s soul, and the men who had been bullies in hours of peace reveal themselves as heroes in stress and peril.
Dauber, it will be seen, is more than an exciting story of a storm. It is a spiritual vision of life. It is a soul’s confession. It is Mr. Masefield’s De Profundis. It is a parable of trial—a chant of the soul that has “emerged out of the iron time.” It is a praise of life, not for its own sake, but for the spiritual mastery which its storms and dangers bring. It is a paean of survival: the ship weathers the storm to go boldly forward again:—
A great grey sea was running
up the sky,
Desolate birds flew past; their mewings came
As that lone water’s spiritual cry,
Its forlorn voice, its essence, its soul’s name.
The ship limped in the water as if lame,
Then, in the forenoon watch, to a great shout,
More sail was made, the reefs were shaken out.
Not even the death of the Dauber in a wretched accident defeats our sense of divine and ultimate victory. To some readers this fatality may seem a mere luxury of pathos. But it is an essential part of the scheme of the poem. The poet must state his acceptance of life, not only in its splendid and tragic dangers, but in its cruelty and pathetic wastefulness. He must know the worst of it in order to put the best of it to the proof. The worst passes, the best continues—that is the secret enthusiasm of Mr. Masefield’s song. Our final vision is of the ship in safety, holding her course to harbour in a fair wind:—