Shipwreck Poem: ‘The Wreckers’

Here’s another shipwreck-themed poem pulled from the archives [for others see this and this]. Originally published in 1854, The Wreckers, by George S. Burleich, relies on the mid-century trope of the piratical wrecker–one who lured ships ashore, murdered survivors and plundered anything in sight–in a prohibitionist tract that derides the the ills of “liquid fire” and the “ruin and shame” attending “the Drunkard.”

By the 1850s the wrecker had become an established character in an American culture inundated with stories of shipwrecks. (The above depiction of “The Wrecker” appeared in the April 1859 edition of Harper’s Magazine.) Artists, authors and cultural commentators frequently used the wrecker as a metaphor to make a point about everything from the ills of alcohol to the questionable character of duly elected public officials. The Wreckers a fantastic example of the wrecker-metaphor in action.

The Wreckers 

By George S. Burleich


Hark to the roar of the surges!

Hark to the wild wind’s howl!

See the black cloud that the hurricane urges,

Bend like a maniac’s scowl!

Full on the sunken ice-ledges

Leaps the devoted barque,

And the loud waves, like a hundred sledges,

Smite to the doomed mark.


Shrilly the shriek of the seamen

Cleaves like a dart through the roar;

Harsh as the pitiless laugh of a demon

Rattles the pebbled shore!

Ho for the Life-boat, Brothers!

Now may the hearts of the brave,

Hurling their lives to the rescue of others,

Conquer the stormy wave.


Shame! For Humanity’s treason;

Shame to the form we wear;

Blush, at the temple of pity and reason

Turned to a Robber’s lair!

Worse than the horrible breakers,

Worse than the shattering storm,

See! The rough-handed, remorseless Wreckers,

Stripping the clay yet warm!


Plucking at Girlhood’s tres-es,

Tangled with gems and gold;

Snatching love-tokens from Manhood’s caresses,

Clenched with a dying hold.

What of the shrieks of despairing!

What of the last faint gasp?

Robbers! Who would but lessen your sharing;

Gold! ‘twas a god in your grasp!


Boys in their sunny-brown beauty,

Men in their rugged bronze,

Women whose wail might have taught wolves duty,

Died on the merciless stones.

Tenderly slid o’er the plundered

Shrouds from the white-capped surge;

Loud on the traitors the mad ocean thundered,

Low o’er the lost sand a dirge!


Wo! Tere are deadlier breakers

Billows that burn as they roll,

Flank’d by a legion of cruelier Wreckers,–

Wreckers of body and soul!

Traitors to God and Humanity,

Circles that hold in their urns,

Blood-dripping Murder and hopeless Insanity,

Folly and Famine by turns.


Crested with wine redly flashing,

Swollen with liquid fire,

How the strong ruin comes, fearfully dashing,

High as the sould walks, and higher!

Manhood and Virtue and Beauty,

Hope and the sunny-haired Bliss,

With the diviner white Angel of Duty,

Sink in the burning abyss.


What if the soul of the Drunkard

Sarivel in quenchless flame!

What if his children, by beggary conquered,

Plunge into ruin and shame?

Gold has come in to the Wreckers,

Murder has taken her prize,–

Gold, though a million hearts burst on the breakers,

Smothers the crime and the cries!


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Filed under Shipwreck culture, Shipwreck Kitsch, Source of the Week

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