Robert Louis Stevenson telescopes the distance between a cosy Christmas scene and a life-and-death struggle on the high seas
Born in Edinburgh in 1850, Robert Louis Stevenson was the son of a light-house engineer. He was a sickly child and a life-long invalid, but an inveterate traveller, living his final years in Samoa, where he was known as "Tusitala" – the Teller of Tales. While Queen Victoria's reign saw the steady rise of steam-powered ships, sailing vessels only slowly became obsolete, and ships often used a combination of steam and sail. Stevenson had very likely experienced first-hand, if only as a passenger, the drama of "Christmas at Sea."
The poem first appeared in the Scots Observer in 1888, several years after the publication of the enormously successful adventure novel Treasure Island. It's a confident performance, vividly depicting, from the point of view of a crew-member, the life-or-death struggle of steering a sailing-ship through winter storms, and contrasting this with a glowingly sentimental, spy-glass view of a Victorian family Christmas. The dash of novelistic irony in the poem is that the parlour scene the sailor witnesses is taking place in his own childhood home.
Immediately, the poem strikes the reader's tactile sense, with sails frozen so hard their edges "cut the naked hand." Then it troubles our sense of balance with those decks "like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand." The 7-beat line is well-chosen. The metre is regular, on the whole, but the relentless rise and fall evokes a pitching movement and simultaneous lack of progress: the frequent slight mid-line caesura adds a momentary hesitation, as if the line had crested a wave and was about to topple. There's a brilliant effect when Stevenson adds an extra syllable in line 21, evoking the tumbled sound of church-bells rung "with a mighty jovial cheer." This, the sixth stanza, is where we learn that it's now Christmas morning.
Stevenson never fails to sustain the reader's interest in the story, or faith in the narrator. He finds an authentic-sounding voice, using judicious touches of dialect spliced with enough sailing jargon to make for a thoroughly convincing mariner's tale – to this landlubber, anyhow. At first, the protagonist speaks as a crew-member, but later shifts from the collective "we" as his experience becomes a personal one and separates him from the others.
Unfolding at a smooth, unhurried pace, the narrative maintains tension, and a happy ending for the ship and her crew seems by no means guaranteed. Stevenson's craft reminds me of something once said by the poet-priest Peter Levi: that a poet must hear every nuance of his poem just as an 18th century sailor would have been aware of every creak and squeak of his ship. Stevenson tacks and hoists the sails of the narrative with a timing that is truly elegant.
The domestic scene the speaker views with such uncanny clarity is clearly not meant to be a fantasy. The house he sees above the coastguard's is where his parents are still living, celebrating Christmas under the shadow of an absent son. He sees the old couple in some detail: they, of course, cannot see him. The ship is eventually manoeuvred into safety and now the speaker most sharply feels his separation from the collective: "And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me…" The danger is past and the vessel is "pointing handsome out to sea" but the speaker is stricken with guilt and a sense of mortality. He left home before, but without thinking about it. The voyage has been one of understanding: he has learnt that time passes, parents age and die. Now he is really leaving home.
Whether you're literally at sea, or only metaphorically "all at sea" this Christmas, here's wishing "Poem of the Week" readers a a cheery and storm-free passage through the festivities … "Fetch aft the rum, me hearties."
Christmas at Sea
The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor'wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.
They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.
All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.
We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So's we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.
The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every 'long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.
The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.
O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother's silver spectacles, my father's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.
And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.
They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
'All hands to loose top gallant sails,' I heard the captain call.
'By the Lord, she'll never stand it,' our first mate, Jackson, cried.
… 'It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,' he replied.
She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.
And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.