Good Writing On Rowing 3

Unless you are a rowing historian, rowers and scullers tend to regard rowing in narrow, slender racing shells as the pure “rowing”; then forgetting hundreds and maybe thousands of years of activities in galleys, Viking boats, fishing boats, different types of work boats, and recreational boats, etc. Following here are ten poems and “sayings” that show another side of the rich history of rowing. Enjoy!


And here

father Aeneas hangs a leafy branch
of ilex as a signal for his crews,
the goal at which they are to turn around,
to wheel back on their long way. Then they choose
places by lot; above the sterns, far off,
the captains gleam in purple, gold; the oarsmen
are crowned with poplar leaves, their naked shoulders
are glistening, wet with oil. They man the benches;
their arms are tense upon the oars; they wait,
expectant, for the start as throbbing fear
and eager love of praise drain their high hearts.
At last, with the bright trumpet blast, at once
they all shoot from their starting places; shouts
of sailors beat against the skies, the waters
are turned to foam beneath the stroking arms.
They cleave the furrows with their equal thrusts;
the whole sea gapes, torn by oars, the ships’
three-pointed beaks.
From Book V in The Aeneid of Virgil (translation by Allen Mandelbaum)

Pull babes – pull, sucklings – pull, all. But what the devil are you hurrying about? Softly, softly, and steadily, my men. Only pull, and keep pulling; nothing more. Crack all your backbones, and bite your knives in two – that’s all. Take it easy – why don’t ye take it easy, I say, and burst all your livers and lungs!
From Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

The banked oars fell an hundred strong,
And backed and threshed and ground,
But bitter was the rowers’ song
As they brought the war-boat round.

They had no heart for the rally and roar
That makes the whale-bath smoke–
When the great blades cleave and hold and leave
As one on the racing stroke.
From Rudyard Kipling’s “The Rowers”

So they took the oars from where they lay in crotches under the gunwales and began to row. Many of the oars had been broken or lost in the storm, but there were enough left to row twenty a side. The sea grew white under their strokes. The breath of the rowers came from their mouths like a thick mist, and the chop of the oars, the creaking of their straps against the thole-pins, made a noise that seemed pleasant enough after the silence in which they had lain.
From The Men of Ness by Eric Linklater

There’s no earthly way of knowing
Which direction we are going
There’s no knowing where we’re rowing
Or which way the river’s flowing
From Roald Dahl’s “The Rowing Song”

Once upon Iceland’s solitary strand
A poet wandered with his book and pen,
Seeking some final word, some sweet Amen,
Wherewith to close the volume in his hand.
The billows rolled and plunged upon the sand,
The circling sea-gulls swept beyond his ken,
And from the parting cloud-rack now and then
Flashed the red sunset over sea and land.
Then by the billows at his feet was tossed
A broken oar; and carved thereon he read,
Oft was I weary, when I toiled at thee;
And like a man, who findeth what was lost,
He wrote the words, then lifted up his head,
And flung his useless pen into the sea.
“The Broken Oar” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The pots were safely sunk; and then
The father gave the word for home:
He took the tiller in his hand,
And, in his heart already home,
He brought her nose round towards the land,
To steer her straight for home.

He never spoke,
Nor stirred again:
A sudden stroke,
And he lay dead,
With staring eyes, and lips off lead.

The son rowed on, and nothing feared:
And sometimes, merrily,
He lifted up his voice, and sang,
Both high and low,
And loud and sweet:
For he was ever gay at sea,
And ever glad to row,
And rowed as only blind men row:
And little did the blind lad know
That death was at his feet:
For still he thought his father steered;
Nor knew that he was all alone
With death upon the open sea.
So merrily, he rowed, and sang:
And, strangely on the silence rang
That lonely melody,
As, through the livid, brooding gloam,
By rock and reef, he rowed for home–
The blind man rowed the dead man home.

/- – -/

His hand has never touched an oar,
Since they came home together–
The blind, who rowed his father home–
The dear, who steered his blind son home.
From Wilfred Wilson Gibson’s “The Blind Rower”

I took the oars: the Pilot’s boy,
Who now doth crazy go,
Laughed loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro.
‘Ha! ha!’ quoth he, ‘full plain I see,
The Devil knows how to row.’
From “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side…
The Bending forward and backward of the rowers…”
From Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”

[They talked about other occasions when they have been out on the river, like when George was on his first outing in] “an eight-oared racing outrigger” [when he] “immediately on starting, received a violent blow in the small back from the butt-end of number five’s scull [sic], at the same time that his own seat seemed to disappear from under him by magic, and leave him sitting on the boards. He also noticed, as a curious circumstance, that number two was at the same instant lying on his back at the bottom of the boat, with his legs in the air, apparently in a fit.”
From Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

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