Last of the Wooden Walls
DESCRIPTION: "Here Atlantic's foam-wreaths float In aqua-floral tribute to a ship submerged." The unnamed ship's activities are recalled, the men aboard mentioned; we are told of the tears shed when her journeys ended
AUTHOR: Harry R. Burton
EARLIEST DATE: 1952 (Harrington, Poems of Newfoundland)
KEYWORDS: ship nonballad hunting
1950 - Scuttling of the SS Eagle, the last of the Newfoundland sealing steamers
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Ryan/Small, pp. 142-143, "Last of the Wooden Walls" (1 text)
NOTES [410 words]: Yes, this is as, um, aqua-floral as it looks. Really, it doesn't belong in the Index. But I've done everything else in Ryan/Small; leaving out one of many irrelevant poems because it's irrelevant is rather pointless.
This should not be confused with the various other poems about the decline of sailing ships, several of which share similar titles.
This piece nowhere names any names; there is no way to be certain what it refers to. But the fact that it was printed in 1952 is indicative. In 1950, the very last of the sealing steamers, the S.S. Eagle, had been scuttled by Bowring's, her owners; she was too worn-out to continue as she was, and not worth enough to fix. Attempts to make her a museum had failed. Many protested; it was the end of an era in Newfoundland. Little wonder that it would encourage poetry like this -- even *I* think it a tragedy that the wooden walls were all lost without any memory, and it all happened before I was born, and I don't like sealing anyway! But there was no money to maintain her. For more about the Eagle, see "The Ice-Floes," which is sort of the reverse of this song: instead of a song about a real ship hidden behind a lack of names, "The Ice-Floes" is a fictitious song about the real ship Eagle.
Confirming the connection to the Eagle is the reference to the wooden ship's "more than forty years of service"; the Eagle first went to the ice in 1904 under Arthur Jackman (see Levi George Chafe, Chafe's Sealing Book: A History of the Newfoundland Sealfishery from the Earliest Available Records Down To and Including the Voyage of 1923, third edition, Trade Printers and Publishers, Ltd., 1923 (PDF scan available from Memorial University of Newfoundland), p. 99), so she was 46 years old when she was scuttled.
A few terms used in the song (which I'm too lazy to footnote, but I've read a lot of sealing books to learn this vocabulary):
"Barrelmen": men who took their place in the barrel on the mast to guide the ship. They were lookouts, in a way, but they were also navigating the ship.
"Whitecoat patches, bedlamers and old dog-hoods": whitecoats were infant harp seals, the main target of the seal hunt; "bedlamers" were seals (whether harp seals or hooded seals) which were in their second year -- not fully grown, but living on their own. "Dog-hoods" were male hooded seals, which were dangerous and had to be hunted with guns; they became a target only if the whitecoat hunt had failed.- RBW
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