Tag Archives: Poem

The Wreckers, an 1856 poem

Here’s another shipwreck-themed poem culled from the archives. These four stanzas were published by Auburn, New York’s Cayuga Chief on July 8, 1856. It originally appeared in the Utica Teetotaler.

The Wreckers

A gallant ship was seen on the sea–

The sea was beating the breakers–

Her masts were split, her sails were torn;

And this was seen by the “wreckers”


‘Twas coming night when those brave hearts saw

That feeble ship on the ocean;

Each swore to save, and smote his breast

As proof of his devotion.


In darkness soon their craft was lost,

For night had spread her shadows,

And all that was seen was a phantom sail,

And all that was heard was the billows.


A long, long night ere morning came

Then slowly up the river

Floated the ship, with gallant crew,

But the wrecker was gone–was gone–forever.


Filed under Dissertation Digest, Notes from the Field, Shipwreck culture, Shipwreck Kitsch

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.

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

Shipwreck Poem: The Seaman’s Home

It might be a bit of an exaggeration to label this a “shipwreck poem,” but three sonorous stanzas about sailors, the sea and a “cumb’ring wreck” counts to me. I came across The Seaman’s Home a few months back while researching early nineteenth-century shipwreck ephemera. I don’t know who wrote it and this is the only copy I’ve found so far. The image above was taken from the January 18, 1802 edition of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s  The Oracle of Dauphin, and Harrisburgh Advertiser (great name for a newspaper!). Below is a transcription. Enjoy!

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

Shipwreck Poetry: ‘Patroling Barnegat’

What was the visceral experience of a coastal shipwreck during the the mid nineteenth century? Newspaper accounts, sermons, customs records and court transcriptions give a sense of the particulars of the experience–the weather, the place, the people, the sequence of events and vessels involved. But what about the intangibles–the terror, fury and fear–of a shipwreck? This is an important question for my dissertation research and I’ve increasingly relied on poetry (and fiction) to answer it. As I see it, Plato had it right: “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” Fortunately, there is much shipwreck poetry. [See this or this earlier post for more.]

Here’s the text of Walt Whitman’s “Patroling Barnegat,” first published in 1880. [Yes, Whitman spelled it  patroling not patrolling.] The poem was eventually added to the Sea Drift section of Leaves of Grass.

Patroling Barnegat

Wild, wild the storm, and the sea high running,
Steady the roar of the gale, with incessant undertone muttering,
Shouts of demoniac laughter fitfully piercing and pealing,
Waves, air, midnight, their savagest trinity lashing,
Out in the shadows there milk-white combs careering,
On beachy slush and sand spirts of snow fierce slanting,
Where through the murk the easterly death-wind breasting,
Through cutting swirl and spray watchful and firm advancing,
(That in the distance! is that a wreck? is the red signal flaring?)
Slush and sand of the beach tireless till daylight wending,
Steadily, slowly, through hoarse roar never remitting,
Along the midnight edge by those milk-white combs careering,
A group of dim, weird forms, struggling, the night confronting,
That savage trinity warily watching.

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Source of the Week: Shipwreck Doggerel

On a stormy night in January 1896, one of the newest and largest transatlantic passenger liners ran aground on its final approach to the port of New York. For ten days the massive steamship St. Paul loomed just a few hundred yards from Long Branch, New Jersey’s famous Iron Pier. It became a national sensation–tens of thousands traveled to see the “helpless monster” and newspapers around the country published daily updates for millions more. (Why? See upcoming article in New Jersey History!) Like today’s media sensations, the St. Paul became a resonate symbol for a fractious nation. But let’s not get too highfalutin — the wreck was solid joke material. It was also the inspiration for this lovely bit of doggerel titled “The St. Paul Lies Beside the Sea,” which was published in several papers including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Tribune. The four stanzas mock the despair of the wreckers who “dropped a bitter tear” over their inability to free the stranded liner — brilliant! (Of course, they got it off not long after “The St. Paul Lies Beside the Sea” appeared in print.)

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