Poetry in Ocean

A brief look at rhymes and verse
in the archival collections of San Francisco Maritime NHP

by Gina Bardi, Reference Librarian

National Arts and Humanities Month is a very good excuse to comb through our extensive historical document collections and see what we may find in the way of poems and verse. Contrary to the stereotype of sailors as dull or brutish, many who sailed both fore and aft the mast were thoughtful people engaged with the natural world and how it determined their fate. After all, things both above and below the ocean had direct influence on their livelihood and indeed their lives. Long stretches at sea gave one time to contemplate and contemplation often gives way to inspiration. It's no wonder that our collections contain many works of a poetic nature which attempt to describe a sailor's connection to the sea, their ship and their shipmates.

Probably the most prolific poet in our collection is Captain Roy Moyes (HDC 235 SAFR 17110). Captain Moyes was born in Grafton, Australia in 1885. At the age of 14, he left his home to become an apprentice on a ship. Reading his poem "Becalmed" gives a sense of the connection sailors have to their immediate environment and how it can lead the way to introspection. There is more to this poem than being becalmed at sea.

Only the sea, motionless in calm

Only the hope of a stirring breeze;
There's naught, but the depth's alluring charm,
Rippling reflections in placid seas--
Only the sails and the dawning sun.
Only the loss of the foaming run.

Yet, deep in the soul the sea reflects
In the light of questing, seeking thoughts
The cause of its wonderful objects
The gale, the calm, the loneliness wrought.
All is still; there is no when, or how--
Only the presence of the now.

The day drifts on, and at evening fall
Golden painted clouds drift idly by:
The sea lies still; and over it all
The awe of silence reigns far and nigh.
Patient we must be, whole darkness hides
The ship and our fate on the still tides.

Moyes eventually worked his way up to captain, working on both sail and steamships. He was the captain of our very own Balclutha, when she was called the Pacific Queen. His love for his time spent on her is evident in this piece called, "Balclutha : the old ship (Pacific Queen):"
Balclutha : the old ship (Pacific Queen)
Balclutha : the old ship (Pacific Queen) by Captain Roy Moyes (HDC 235, SAFR 17110)

NPS photo

Our beautiful ship, the Balclutha, has been quite a muse. Our Park historian, Stephen Canright, has been moved to write an homage to her as well, a nice little piece which is not only artistic, but an education in shipbuilding as well. "Ode to a Scottish Ship" can be found in HDC 1631, SAFR 23001:

Ode to a Scottish Ship by Stephen Canright HDC 1631, SAFR 23001
Ode to a Scottish Ship by Stephen Canright (HDC 1631, SAFR 23001)

NPS photo

Sometimes sailors used poetry to try and make sense of a tragedy or as a lyrical reminder of the dangers faced by those who go to sea for us. Here's a poem by Oskar A. Moe (HDC 1225, SAFR 20036). Mr. Moe went to Normandy in 1944 aboard the liberty ship the SS Edwin Abbey. Poetry in this case may have been a way to deal with the anguished feelings he had and a way for him to urge himself and others not to forget.

The Atlantic 1940-1945 by Oskar A. Moe (HDC 1225, SAFR 20036)
The Atlantic 1940-1945 by Oskar A. Moe (HDC 1225, SAFR 20036)

NPS photo


Not all of the poems are in a serious vein though. Here's a fun little ditty scribbled on a scrap of paper from the Captain Peter Petersen Papers (HDC 883, SAFR 8451). Written at the top of the torn sheet is, "This poem Miss Bradley had readen [sic] on the bottle when the skiff was launched this summer after she had painted it."

"Here's to Peter the great..." HDC 833, SAFR 8451
"Here's to Peter the great..." (HDC 833, SAFR 8451)

NPS photo


Scraps of paper seem to be a common way of capturing a fleeting poetic thought. Here's one from the Walter W. Taylor Papers (HDC 1454, SAFR 21896). There's no author attributed, so it can't be said of Taylor was the author or not. The author took a more famous poem, "Racing Clippers: a Woold Fleet Memory" by C. Fox Smith and changed the words to make it more personal.

"There ain't no racin' clippers now..."
(HDC 1454, SAFR 21896)

NPS photo

(Note the use of the term "Frisco" to describe the city. Take that Herb Caen!)


Taylor, or someone close to him, again laments the passing of his sailing in this piece:

"When I was a boy I strolled..."
Manuscript poem from HDC 1454, SAFR 21896

NPS photo

Now some in the collection use the pen for more than crafting words--they illustrate as well. One collection which...illustrates...this is HDC 35, SAFR 17607, Captain Thompson poems and illustrations. There are so many charming verses and drawings done by Captain Thompson, it was difficult to narrow down the choices presented here. We don't know much about Captain Thompson, in fact, we don't even know if Captain Thompson is the author/illustrator or even if he existed. The catalog record only states these were done circa 1914 aboard the "Goodship K." If you recognize the work or know more about these poems, please get in touch with us.

"With Tyrrell's sneeze..."
Illustrated manuscript poem from HDC 35, SAFR 17607.

NPS photo

Also included in the Captain Thompson collection is this delightful letter. The "Poet's Club" is extending a cordial invitation to a Mr. Wilson of the Exchange (perhaps the Marine Exchange?) to become a member of their poet's club--the caveat being all new members must host the entire club at the Palm Hotel for a banquet meal! Notice the names of the club members are some of the people mentioned in the poems and illustrations. It is unknown whether or not Mr. Wilson of the Exchange Dept. accepted this "gracious" offer.

Manuscript letter to Mr. Wilson from the Poet's Club (HDC 35, SAFR 17607)
Manuscript letter to Mr. Wilson from the Poet's Club (HDC 35, SAFR 17607)

NPS photo


This is just a sampling of the rare and unique items that can be found in our historical document collections. To make an appointment to see any of these, or to request further information, please contact us.

Explore more language and literature in SF Maritime Collections.

Last updated: October 20, 2020

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