Friday, December 10, 2010

"Christmas At Sea"

Sting set Robert Louis Stevenson's "Christmas at Sea" to music.

I think I know why. It becomes clearer to me each year.

A voyage on the cold sea is universal. So is the sight of the distant, lighted window of home that we always spy in blinks and squints through the wind and the fog, while we work the frozen ropes. It's the price you pay for leaving the place that made you. Home perches there up on the hill where memory has placed it, even if, in reality, it never stood there.

As she sails, one day we are gliding across glassy seas, faces toward the warm, golden wind like hungry flowers feasting. Yet, in a moment no longer than the first raindrop hitting a nose tip, breakers pound the rails and she lists and we slide over the decks, scrabbling for a handhold. Still, home stands above the rocks and the rocks are between us and docking safely again. Turning into the wind shouldering past the breakers is our only possible salvation; out into the sprawling, churning unknown in search of our own hidden harbor. We glance over shoulders at the soft yellow glow of that high window, shrinking and blinking. That warm place has somehow gone from a harbor of habit to a haven that can only be remembered in misty thoughts and squinted at through driving rains. And we feel foolish for ever having left it behind:

The conclusion of Stevenson's poem, with some verses that Sting dropped:

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 blessed 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 blessed 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.
The difficult voyage is navigable ("the sails were new and good") though it may seem the end "one way or the other." The destination remains possible. This is only one Christmas day in a young sailor's life. Stevenson might not be making a final statement for our young shipmate.

For all of us, there is always hope of a Christmas night spent looking down upon a winter sea; down from the very glowing window the wind and rain had blown so hard to extinguish -- some day, we'll find it again if we hold fast to the wheel, a warm coffee mug warming our hands, as we watch the churning coldness, distant below. Some day, mother and father at our sides again -- or warming our hearts with their remembered love or joining us in the perfect moment, beyond -- we can look back on the voyage and smile at the sea monsters and the storms and at the things that wriggled away out of our reach.

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