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The Titanic

E.J. Pratt
From:   E.J. Pratt: Complete Poems. ed. Sandra Djwa and R.G. Moyles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.


The hammers silent and the derricks still,
And high—tide in the harbour! Mind and will
In open test with time and steel had run
The first lap of a schedule and had won.
Although a shell of what was yet to be
Before another year was over, she,
Poised for the launching signal, had surpassed
The dreams of builder or of navigator.
The Primate of the Lines, she had out—classed
That rival effort to eliminate her
Beyond the North Sea where the air shots played
The laggard rhythms of their fusillade
Upon the rivets of the Imperator.
The wedges in, the shores removed, a girl's
Hand at a sign released a ribbon braid;
Glass crashed against the plates; a wine cascade,
Netting the sunlight in a shower of pearls,
Baptized the bow and gave the ship her name;
A slight push of the rams as a switch set free
The triggers in the slots, and her proud claim
On size — to be the first to reach the sea —
Was vindicated, for whatever fears
Stalked with her down the tallow of the slips
Were smothered under by the harbour cheers,
By flags strung to halyards of the ships.

MARCH 3, 1912

Completed! Waiting for her trial spin —
Levers and telegraphs and valves within
Her intercostal spaces ready to start
The power pulsing through her lungs and heart.
An ocean lifeboat in herself — so ran
The architectural comment on her plan.
No wave could sweep those upper decks — unthinkable!
No storm could hurt that hull — the papers said so.
The perfect ship at last — the first unsinkable,
Proved in advance — had not the folders read so?
Such was the steel strength of her double floors
Along the whole length of the keel, and such
The fine adjustment of the bulkhead doors
Geared to the rams, responsive to a touch,
That in collision with iceberg or rock
Or passing ship she could survive the shock,
Absorb the double impact, for despite
The bows stove in, with forward holds aleak,
Her aft compartments buoyant, watertight,
Would keep her floating steady for a week.
And this belief had reached its climax when,
Through wireless waves as yet unstaled by use,
The wonder of the ether had begun
To fold the heavens up and reinduce
That ancient hubris in the dreams of men,
Which would have slain the cattle of the sun,
And filched the lightnings from the fist of Zeus.
What mattered that her boats were but a third
Of full provision — caution was absurd:
Then let the ocean roll and the winds blow
While the risk at Lloyd's remained a record low.


Calved from a glacier near Godhaven coast,
It left the fiord for the sea — a host
Of white flotillas gathering in its wake,
And joined by fragments from a Behring floe,
Had circumnavigated it to make
It centre of an archipelago.
Its lateral motion on the Davis Strait
Was casual and indeterminate,
And each advance to southward was as blind
As each recession to the north. No smoke
Of steamships nor the hoist of mainsails broke
The polar wastes — no sounds except the grind
Of ice, the cry of curlews and the lore
Of winds from mesas of eternal snow;
Until caught by the western undertow,
It struck the current of the Labrador
Which swung it to its definite southern stride.
Pressure and glacial time had stratified
The berg to the consistency of flint,
And kept inviolate, through clash of tide
And gale, facade and columns with their hint
Of inward altars and of steepled bells
Ringing the passage of the parallels.
But when with months of voyaging it came
To where both streams — the Gulf and Polar — met,
The sun which left its crystal peaks aflame
In the sub—arctic noons, began to fret
The arches, flute the spires and deform
The features, till the batteries of storm,
Playing above the slow—eroding base,
Demolished the last temple touch of grace.
Another month, and nothing but the brute
And palaeolithic outline of a face
Fronted the transatlantic shipping route.
A sloping spur that tapered to a claw
And lying twenty feet below had made
It lurch and shamble like a plantigrade;
But with an impulse governed by the raw
Mechanics of its birth, it drifted where
Ambushed, fog—grey, it stumbled on its lair,
North forty—one degrees and forty—four,
Fifty and fourteen west the longitude,
Waiting a world—memorial hour, its rude
Corundum form stripped to its Greenland core.


An omen struck the thousands on the shore —
A double accident! And as the ship
Swung down the river on her maiden trip,
Old sailors of the clipper decades, wise
To the sea's incantations, muttered fables
About careening vessels with their cables
Snapped in their harbours under peaceful skies.
Was it just suction or fatality
Which caused the New York at the dock to turn,
Her seven mooring ropes to break at the stern
And writhe like anacondas on the quay,
While tugs and fenders answered the collision
Signals with such trim margin of precision?
And was it backwash from the starboard screw
Which, tearing at the big Teutonic, drew
Her to the limit of her hawser strain,
And made the smaller tethered craft behave
Like frightened harbour ducks? And no one knew
For many days the reason to explain
The rise and wash of one inordinate wave,
When a sunken barge on the Southampton bed
Was dragged through mire eight hundred yards ahead,
As the Titanic passed above its grave.
But many of those sailors wise and old,
Who pondered on this weird mesmeric power,
Gathered together, lit their pipes and told
Of portents hidden in the natal hour,
Told of the launching of some square—rigged ships,
When water flowed from the inverted tips
Of a waning moon, of sun—hounds, of the shrieks
Of whirling shags around the mizzen peaks.
And was there not this morning's augury
For the big one now heading for the sea?
So long after she passed from landsmen's sight,
They watched her with their Mother Carey eyes
Through Spithead smoke, through mists of Isle of Wight,
Through clouds of sea—gulls following with their cries.


Electric elements were glowing down
In the long galley passages where scores
Of white—capped cooks stood at the oven doors
To feed the population of a town.
Cauldrons of stock, purées and consommés,
Simmered with peppercorns and marjoram.
The sea—shore smells from bisque and crab and clam
Blended with odours from the fricassees.
Refrigerators, hung with a week's toll
Of the stockyards, delivered sides of lamb
And veal, beef quarters to be roasted whole.
Hundreds of capons and halibut. A shoal
Of Blue—Points waited to be served on shell.
The boards were loaded with pimolas, pails
Of lobster coral, jars of Béchamel,
To garnish tiers of rows of chilled timbales
And aspics. On the shelves were pyramids
Of truffles, sprigs of thyme and water—cress,
Bay leaf and parsley, savouries to dress
Shad roes and sweetbreads broiling on the grids.
And then in diamond, square, crescent and star,
Hors d'oeuvres were fashioned from the toasted bread,
With paste of anchovy and caviar,
Paprika sprinkled and pimento spread,
All ready, for the hour was seven!
Rivalling the engines with their steady tread,
Thousands of feet were taking overhead
The fourth lap round the deck to make the mile.
Squash racquet, shuffle board and quoits; the cool
Tang of the plunge in the gymnasium pool,
The rub, the crisp air of the April night,
The salt of the breeze made by the liner's rate,
Worked with an even keel to stimulate
Saliva for an ocean appetite;
And like storm troops before a citadel,
At the first summons of a bugle, soon
The army massed the stairs towards the saloon,
And though twelve courses on the cards might well
Measure themselves against Falstaffian juices,
But few were found presenting their excuses,
When stewards offered on the lacquered trays
The Savoy chasers and the canapés.

The dinner gave the sense that all was well:
That touch of ballast in the tanks; the feel
Of peace from ramparts unassailable,
Which, added to her seven decks of steel,
Had constituted the Titanic less
A ship than a Gibraltar under heel.
And night had placed a lazy lusciousness
Upon a surfeit of security.
Science responded to a button press.
The three electric lifts that ran through tiers
Of decks, the reading lamps, the brilliancy
Of mirrors from the tungsten chandeliers,
Had driven out all phantoms which the mind
Had loosed from ocean closets, and assigned
To the dry earth the custody of fears.
The crowds poured through the sumptuous rooms and halls,
And tapped the tables of the Regency;
Smirked at the caryatids on the walls;
Talked Jacobean—wise; canvassed the range
Of taste within the Louis dynasty.
Grey—templed Caesars of the world's Exchange
Swallowed liqueurs and coffee as they sat
Under the Georgian carved mahogany,
Dictating wireless hieroglyphics that
Would On the opening of the Board Rooms rock
The pillared dollars of a railroad stock.


A group had gathered round a mat to watch
The pressure of a Russian hammerlock,
A Polish scissors and a German crotch,
Broken by the toe—hold of Frank Gotch;
Or listened while a young Y.M.C.A.
Instructor demonstrated the left—hook,
And that fight upper—cut which Jeffries took
From Johnson in the polished Reno way.
By midnight in the spacious dancing hall,
Hundreds were at the Masqueraders' Ball,
The high potential of the liner's pleasures,
Where mellow lights from Chinese lanterns glowed
Upon the scene, and the Blue Danube flowed
In andantino rhythms through the measures.

By three the silence that proceeded from
The night—caps and the soporific hum
Of the engines was far deeper than a town's:
The starlight and the low wash of the sea
Against the hull bore the serenity
Of sleep at rural hearths with eiderdowns.

The quiet on the decks was scarcely less
Than in the berths: no symptoms of the toil
Down in the holds; no evidence of stress
From gears drenched in the lubricating oil.
She seemed to swim in oil, so smooth the sea.
And quiet on the bridge: the great machine
Called for laconic speech, close—fitting, clean,
And whittled to the ship's economy.
Even the judgment stood in little need
Of reason, for the Watch had but to read
Levels and lights, meter or card or bell
To find the pressures, temperatures, or tell
Magnetic North within a binnacle,
Or gauge the hour of docking; for the speed
Was fixed abaft where under the Ensign,
Like a flashing trolling spoon, the log rotator
Transmitted through a governor its fine
Gradations on a dial indicator.

Morning of Sunday promised cool and clear,
Flawless horizon, crystal atmosphere;
Not a cat's paw on the ocean, not a guy
Rope murmuring: the steamer's columned smoke
Climbed like extensions of her funnels high
Into the upper zones, then warped and broke
Through the resistance of her speed — blue sky,
Blue water rifted only by the wedge
Of the bow where the double foam line ran
Diverging from the beam to join the edge
Of the stern wake like a white unfolding fan.
Her maiden voyage was being sweetly run,
Adding a half—knot here, a quarter there,
Gliding from twenty into twenty—one.
She seemed so native to her thoroughfare,
One turned from contemplation of her size,
Her sixty thousand tons of sheer flotation,
To wonder at the human enterprise
That took a gamble on her navigation —
Joining the mastiff strength with whippet grace
In this head—strained, world—watched Atlantic race:
Her less than six days' passage would combine
Achievement with the architect's design.

9 A.M.

A message from Caronia: advice
From ships proceeding west; sighted field ice
And growlers; forty—two north; forty—nine
To fifty—one west longitude. S.S.
'Mesaba' of Atlantic Transport Line
Reports encountering solid pack: would guess
The stretch five miles in width from west to east,
And forty—five to fifty miles at least
In length.

1 P.M.

           Amerika obliged to slow
Down: warns all steamships in vicinity
Presence of bergs, especially of three
Upon the southern outskirts of the floe.

1.42 P.M.

The Baltic warns Titanic: so Touraine;
Reports of numerous icebergs on the Banks,
The floe across the southern traffic lane.

5 P.M.

The Californian and Baltic again
Present their compliments to Captain.




'That spark's been busy all the afternoon —
Warnings! The Hydrographic charts are strewn
With crosses showing bergs and pack—ice all
Along the routes, more south than usual
For this time of year.'
                 'She's hitting a clip
Instead of letting up while passing through
This belt. She's gone beyond the twenty—two.'
'Don't worry — Smith's an old dog, knows his ship,
No finer in the mercantile marine
Than Smith with thirty years of service, clean
Record, honoured.with highest of all commands,
Majestic, then Olympic on his hands,
Now the Titanic.'
                        'Twas a lucky streak
That at Southampton dock he didn't lose her,
And the Olympic had a narrow squeak
Some months before rammed by the British Cruiser,
The Hawke.'
                  'Straight accident. No one to blame:
'Twas suction — Board absolved them both. The same
With the Teutonic and New York. No need
To fear she's trying to out—reach her speed.
There isn't a sign of fog. Besides by now
The watch is doubled at crow's nest and bow.'

'People are talking of that apparition,
When we were leaving Queenstown — that head showing
Above the funnel rim, and the fires going!
A stoker's face — sounds like a superstition.
But he was there within the stack, all right;
Climbed up the ladder and grinned. The explanation
Was given by an engineer last night —
A dummy funnel built for ventilation.'

'That's queer enough, but nothing so absurd
As the latest story two old ladies heard
At a rubber o'bridge. They nearly died with fright;
Wanted to tell the captain — of all things!
The others sneered a bit but just the same
It did the trick of breaking up the game.
A mummy from The Valley of the Kings
Was brought from Thebes to London. Excavators
Passed out from cholera, black plague or worse.
Egyptians understood — an ancient curse
Was visited on all the violators.
One fellow was run over, one was drowned,
And one went crazy. When in time it found
Its way to the Museum, the last man
In charge — a mothy Aberdonian —
Exploding the whole legend with a laugh,
Lost all his humour when the skeleton
Appeared within the family photograph,
And leered down from the corner just like one
Of his uncles.'
         'Holy Hades!'
                        'The B.M.
Authorities themselves were scared and sold
It to New York. That's how the tale is told.'

'The joke is on the Yanks.'
                      'No, not on them,
Nor on The Valley of the Kings. What's rummy
About it is — we're carrying the mummy.'


Green Turtle!
            Potage Romanoff!
                                                    'White Star
Is out this time to press Cunarders close,
Got them on tonnage — fifty thousand gross.
Preferred has never paid a dividend.
The common's down to five — one hundred par.
The double ribbon — size and speed — would send
Them soaring.'
                   'Speed is not in her design,
But comfort and security. The Line
Had never advertised it — 'twould be mania
To smash the record of the Mauretania.'
        'The rumour's out.'
                                   'There's nothing in it.'
'Bet you she docks on Tuesday night.'
                                                I'll take it.'
'She's hitting twenty—two this very minute.'
'That's four behind — she hasn't a chance to make it.'

Brook Trout!
                 Fried Dover Sole!
                                            'Her rate will climb
From twenty—two to twenty—six in time.
The Company's known never to rush their ships
At first or try to rip the bed—bolts off.
They run them gently half—a—dozen trips,
A few work—outs around the track to let
Them find their breathing, take the boiler cough
Out of them. She's not racing for a cup.'
        'Steamships like sprinters have to get
Their second wind before they open up.'

'That group of men around the captain's table,
Look at them, count the aggregate — the House
Of Astor, Guggenheim, and Harris, Straus,
That's Frohman, isn't it? Between them able
To halve the national debt with a cool billion!
Sir Hugh is over there, and Hays and Stead.
That woman third from captain's right, it's said
Those diamonds round her neck — a quarter million!'

Mignon of Beef!
                        'I heard Phillips say
He had the finest outfit on the sea;
The new Marconi valve; the range by day,
Five hundred miles, by night a thousand. Three
Sources of power. If some crash below
Should hit the engines, flood the dynamo,
He had the batteries: in emergency,
He could switch through to the auxiliary
On the boat deck.'
                        Woodcock and Burgundy!
'Say waiter, I said RARE, you understand.'
Escallope of Veal!
                Roast Duckling!
More Rhine!
'Marconi made the sea as safe as land:
Remember the Republic — White Star Line —
Rammed off Nantucket by the Florida,
One thousand saved — the Baltic heard the call.
Two steamers answered the Slavonia,
Disabled off the Azores. They got them all,
And when the Minnehaha ran aground
Near Bishop's Rock, they never would have found
Her — not a chance without the wireless. Same
Thing happened to that boat — what was her name?
The one that foundered off the Alaska Coast —
Her signals brought a steamer in the nick
Of time. Yes, sir — Marconi turned the trick.'

The Barcelona salad; no, Beaucaire;
That Russian dressing;
                             Avocado pear;

'They wound her up at the Southampton dock,
And then the tugs gave her a push to start
Her off —as automatic as a clock.'

        'For all the hand work there's to do
Aboard this liner up on deck, the crew
Might just as well have stopped ashore. Apart
From stokers and engineers, she's run
By gadgets from the bridge — a thousand and one
Of them with a hundred miles of copper wire.
A filament glows at the first sign of fire,
A buzzer sounds, a number gives the spot,
A deck—hand makes a coupling of the hose.
That's all there's to it; not a whistle; not
A passenger upon the ship that knows
What's happened. The whole thing is done without
So much as calling up the fire brigade.
They don't even need the pumps — a gas is sprayed,
Carbon dioxide — and the blaze is out.'

A Cherry Flan!
                        Chocolate Parfait!

'How about a poker crowd tonight?
Get Jones, an awful grouch — no good to play,
But has the coin. Get hold of Larry.'
'You fetch Van Raalte: I'll bring in MacRae.
In Cabin D, one hundred seventy—nine.
In half—an—hour we start playing.'


The sky was moonless but the sea flung back
With greater brilliance half the zodiac.
As clear below as clear above, the Lion
Far on the eastern quarter stalked the Bear:
Polaris off the starboard beam — and there
Upon the port the Dog—star trailed Orion.
Capella was so close, a hand might seize
The sapphire with the silver Pleiades.
And further to the south — a finger span,
Swam Betelgeuse and red Aldebaran.
Right through from east to west the ocean glassed
The billions of that snowy caravan
Ranging the highway which the Milkmaid passed.


I say, old man, we're stuck fast in this place,
More than an hour. Field ice for miles about.


Say, 'Californian,' shut up, keep out,
You're jamming all my signals with Cape Race.

10 P.M.

A group of boys had gathered round a spot
Upon the rail where a dial registered
The speed, and waiting each three minutes heard
The taffrail log bell tallying off a knot.


First act to fifth act in a tragic plan,
Stage time, real time — a woman and a man,
Entering a play within a play, dismiss
The pageant on the ocean with a kiss.
Eleven—twenty curtain! Whether true
Or false the pantomimic vows they make
Will not be known till at the fifth they take
Their mutual exit twenty after two.

11.25 P.M.

Position half—a—mile from edge of floe,
Hove—to for many hours, bored with delay,
The Californian fifteen miles away,
And fearful of the pack, has now begun
To turn her engines over under slow
Bell, and the operator, his task done,
Unclamps the 'phones and ends his dullest day.

The ocean sinuous, half—past eleven;
A silence broken only by the seven
Bells and the look—out calls, the log—book showing
Knots forty—five within two hours — not quite
The expected best as yet — but she was going
With all her bulkheads open through the night,
For not a bridge induction light was glowing.

Over the stern zenith and nadir met
In the wash of the reciprocating set.
The foam in bevelled mirrors multiplied
And shattered constellations. In between,
The pitch from the main drive of the turbine
Emerged like tuna breaches to divide
Against the rudder, only to unite
With the converging wake from either side.
Under the counter, blending with the spill
Of stars — the white and blue — the yellow light
Of Jupiter hung like a daffodil.


'Ace full! A long time since I had a pot.'
'Good boy, Van Raalte. That's the juiciest haul
Tonight. Calls for a round of roodles, what?
Let's whoop her up. Double the limit. All
In.' (Jones, heard muttering as usual,
Demurs, but over—ruled.) 'Jones sore again.'

Van Raalte (dealer):
        'Ten dollars and all in!
                         The sea's like glass
Tonight. That fin—keel keeps her steady.'

Jones:                                           'Pass.'
        (Not looking at his hand)
Larry:                                    'Pass.'

Cripps:                          'Open for ten.'

         (Holding a pair of aces.) 'Say, who won
         The sweep today?'
                           'A Minnesota guy
         With olive—coloured spats and a mauve tie.
         Five hundred and eighty miles — beat last day's run.'

Mac: 'My ten.'

Harry: (Taking a gamble on his four
        Spades for a flush) 'I'll raise the bet ten more.'

Van R.: (Two queens) 'AND ten.'

Jones:                          (Discovering three kings)
        'Raise you to forty' (face expressing doubt).

Larry: (Looking hard at a pair of nines) 'I'm out.'

Cripps: (Flirts for a moment with his aces, flings
        His thirty dollars to the pot.)

Mac:                                                 (The same.)

Harry: 'My twenty. Might as well stay with the game.'

Van R.: 'I'm in. Draw! Jones, how bloody long you wait.'

Jones: (Withholds an eight) 'One.' (And then draws an eight.)

Cripps: 'Three.' (Gets another pair.)
                                                'How many, Mac?'

Mac: 'Guess I'll take two, no, three.' (Gets a third Jack.)

Harry: 'One.' (Draws the ace of spades.)

Van R.:                                                         'Dealer takes three.'

Cripps (The Opener): (Throws in a dollar chip.)

Mac:                                                 (The same.)

Harry:                                                          'I'll raise
         You ten.'

Van R.:           'I'll see you.'

Jones:                                                 (Hesitates, surveys
          The chips.) 'Another ten.'

Cripps:                   'I'll call you.'

Mac:                                                              'See.'

Harry: 'White livers! Here she goes to thirty.'

Van R.:                                                                'Just
          The devil's luck.' (Throws cards down in disgust.)

Jones: 'Might as well raise.' (Counts twenty sluggishly,
          Tosses them to the centre.)
                                        Staying, Cripps?'

Cripps: 'No, and be damned to it.'

Mac:                               'My ten.' (With groans.)

Harry: (Looks at the pyramid and swears at Jones,
          Then calls, pitching ten dollars on the chips.)

Jones: (Cards down.) 'A full house tops the flush.' (He spreads
          His arms around the whites and blues and reds.)

Mac: 'As the Scotchman once said to the Sphinx,
         I'd just like to know what he thinks,
         I'll ask him, he cried,
         And the Sphinx — he replied,
         It's the hell of a time between drinks.'

Cripps (watch in hand):
          'Time? Eleven forty—four, to be precise.'

Harry: 'Jones —that will fatten up your pocket—book.
          My throat's like charcoal. Ring for soda and ice.'

Van R.: 'Ice: God! Look — take it through the port—hole — look!'

11.45 P.M.

A signal from the crow's nest. Three bells pealed:
The look—out telephoned — Something ahead,
Hard to make out, sir; looks like ... iceberg dead
On starboard bow!


                      Starboard your helm: ship heeled
To port. From bridge to engine—room the clang
Of the telegraph. Danger. Stop. A hand sprang
To the throttle; the valves closed, and with the churn
Of the reverse the sea boiled at the stern.
Smith hurried to the bridge and Murdoch closed
The bulkheads of the ship as he supposed,
But could not know that with those riven floors
The electro—magnets failed upon the doors.
No shock! No more than if something alive
Had brushed her as she passed. The bow had missed.
Under the vast momentum of her drive
She went a mile. But why that ominous five
Degrees (within five minutes) of a list?


'What was that, steward?'
                   'Seems like she hit a sea, sir.'
'But there's no sea; calm as a landlocked bay
It is; lost a propellor blade?'
                      'Maybe, sir.'
'She's stopped.'
                 'Just cautious like, feeling her way,
There's ice about. It's dark, no moon tonight,
Nothing to fear, I'm sure, sir.'
                                            For so slight
The answer of the helm, it did not break
The sleep of hundreds: some who were awake
Went up on deck, but soon were satisfied
That nothing in the shape of wind or tide
Or rock or ice could harm that huge bulk spread
On the Atlantic, and went back to bed.


'We've struck an iceberg — glancing blow: as yet
Don't know extent; looks serious; so get
Ready to send out general call for aid;
I'll tell you when — having inspection made.'


A starboard cut three hundred feet or more
From foremast to amidships. Iceberg tore
Right at the bilge turn through the double skin:
Some boiler rooms and bunkers driven in;
The forward five compartments flooded — mail
Bags floating. Would the engine power avail
To stem the rush?


                                                                  Titanic, C.Q.D.
Collision: iceberg: damaged starboard side:
Distinct list forward. (Had Smith magnified
The danger? Over—anxious certainly.)
The second (joking) — 'Try new call, maybe
Last chance you'll have to send it.'
Then back to older signal of distress.
On the same instant the Carpathia called,
The distance sixty miles — Putting about,
And heading for you; double watch installed
In engine—room, in stokehold and look—out.
Four hours the run, should not the ice retard
The speed; but taking chances: coming hard!


As leaning on her side to ease a pain,
The tilted ship had stopped the captain's breath:
The inconceivable had stabbed his brain,
This thing unfelt — her visceral wound of death?
Another message — this time to report her
Filling, taxing the pumps beyond their strain.
Had that blow rent her from the bow to quarter?
Or would the aft compartments still intact
Give buoyancy enough to counteract
The open forward holds?
                                  The carpenter's
Second report had offered little chance,
And panic — heart of God — the passengers,
The fourteen hundred — seven hundred packed
In steerage — seven hundred immigrants!
Smith thought of panic clutching at their throats,
And feared that Balkan scramble for the boats.

No call from bridge, no whistle, no alarm
Was sounded. Have the stewards quietly
Inform the passengers: no vital harm,
Precautions merely for emergency;
Collision? Yes, but nature of the blow
Must not be told: not even the crew must know:
Yet all on deck with lifebelts, and boats ready,
The sailors at the falls, and all hands steady.


The lilac spark was crackling at the gap,
Eight ships within the radius of the call
From fifteen to five hundred miles, and all
But one answering the operator's tap.
Olympic twenty hours away had heard;
The Baltic next and the Virginian third;
Frankfurt and Burma distant one—half day;
Mount Temple nearer, but the ice—field lay
Between the two ships like a wall of stone;
The Californian deaf to signals though
Supreme deliverer an hour ago:
The hope was on Carpathia alone.


So suave the fool—proof sense of life that fear
Had like the unforeseen become a mere
Illusion — vanquished by the towering height
Of funnels pouring smoke through thirty feet
Of bore; the solid deck planks and the light
From a thousand lamps as on a city street;
The feel of numbers; the security
Of wealth; the placid surface of the sea,
Reflecting on the ship the outwardness
Of calm and leisure of the passengers;
Deck—hands obedient to their officers;
Pearl—throated women in their evening dress
And wrapped in sables and minks; the silhouettes
Of men in dinner jackets staging an act
In which delusion passed, deriding fact
Behind the cupped flare of the cigarettes.
Women and children first! Slowly the men
Stepped backward from the rails where number ten,
Its cover off, and lifted from the chocks,
Moved outward as the Welin davits swung.
The new ropes creaking through the unused blocks,
The boat was lowered to B deck and hung
There while her load of sixty stepped inside,
Convinced the order was not justified.

Rockets, one, two, God! Smith — what does he mean?
The sounding of the bilges could not show
This reason for alarm — the sky serene
And not a tipple on the water — no
Collision. What report came from below?
No leak accounts for this — looks like a drill,
A bit of exhibition play — but still
Stopped in mid—ocean! and those rockets — three!
More urgent even than a tapping key
And more immediate as a protocol
To a disaster. There! An arrow of fire,
A fourth sped towards the sky, its bursting spire
Topping the foremast like a parasol
With fringe of fuchsia — more a parody
Upon the tragic summons of the sea
Than the real script of unacknowledged fears
Known to the bridge and to the engineers.

Midnight! The Master of the ship presents
To the Master of the Band his compliments,
Desiring that the Band should play right through;
No intermission.

Conductor:        'Bad?'

Officer:                'Yes, bad enough,
The half not known yet even to the crew;
For God's sake, cut the sentimental stuff,
The BLUE BELLS and Kentucky lullabies.
Murdoch will have a barrel of work to do,
Holding the steerage back, once they get wise;
They're jumpy now under the rockets' glare;
So put the ginger in the fiddles — Zip
Her up.'

Conductor: 'Sure, number forty—seven.' E—Yip
I Addy—I—A, I Ay ... I don't care...


Full noon and midnight by a weird design
Both met and parted at the median line.
Beyond the starboard gunwale was outspread
The jet expanse of water islanded
By fragments of the berg which struck the blow.
And further off towards the horizon lay
The loom of the uncharted parent floe,
Merging the black with an amorphous grey.
On the port gunwale the meridian
Shone from the terraced rows of decks that ran
From gudgeon to the stem nine hundred feet;
And as the boat now tilted by the stern,
Or now resumed her levels with the turn
Of the controlling ropes at block and cleat,
How easy seemed the step and how secure
Back to the comfort and the warmth — the lure
Of sheltered promenade and sun decks starred
By hanging bulbs, amber and rose and blue,
The trellis and palms lining an avenue
With all the vista of a boulevard:
The mirror of the ceilings with festoon
Of pennants, flags and streamers — and now through
The leaded windows of the grand saloon,
Through parted curtains and the open doors
Of vestibules, glint of deserted floors
And tables, and under the sorcery
Of light excelling their facsimile,
The periods returning to relume
The panels of the lounge and smoking—room,
Holding the mind in its abandonment
During those sixty seconds of descent.
Lower away! The boat with its four tons
Of freight went down with jerks and stops and runs
Beyond the glare of the cabins and below
The slanting parallels of port—holes, clear
Of the exhaust from the condenser flow:
But with the uneven falls she canted near
The water line; the stern rose; the bow dipped;
The crew groped for the link—releasing gear;
The lever jammed; a stoker's jack—knife ripped
The aft ropes through, which on the instant brought her
With rocking keel though safe upon the water.


Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen—three
Full knots beyond her running limit, she
Was feeling out her port and starboard points,
And testing rivets on her boiler joints.
The needle on the gauge beyond the red,
The blow—offs feathered at the funnel head.
The draught—fans roaring at their loudest, now
The quartermaster jams the helm hard—over,
As the revolving searchlight beams uncover
The columns of an iceberg on the bow,
Then compensates this loss by daring gains
Made by her passage through the open lanes.


         East side, West side, all around the town,
         The tots sang 'Ring—a—Rosie'
         'London Bridge is falling down,'
         Boys and girls together ....

The cranks turn and the sixth and seventh swing
Over and down, the 'tiller' answering
'Aye, Aye, sir' to the shouts of officers —
'Row to the cargo ports for passengers.'
The water line is reached, but the ports fail
To open, and the crews of the boats hail
The decks; receiving no response they pull
Away from the ship's side, less than half full.
The eighth caught in the tackle foul is stuck
Half—way. With sixty—five capacity,
Yet holding twenty—four, goes number three.

The sharp unnatural deflection, struck
By the sea—level with the under row
Of dipping port—holes at the forward, show
How much she's going by the head. Behind
The bulkheads, sapping out their steel control,
Is the warp of the bunker press inclined
By many thousand tons of shifting coal.

The smoothest, safest passage to the sea
Is made by number one — the next to go —
Her space is forty — twelve her company:
'Pull like the devil from her — harder — row!
The minute that she founders, not a boat
Within a mile around that will not follow.
What nearly happened at Southampton? So
Pull, pull, I tell you — not a chip afloat,
God knows how far, her suction will not swallow.'

   Alexander's rag—time band...
   It's the best band in the land...

Voices From the Deck:
'There goes the Special with the toffs. You'll make
New York tonight rowing like that. You'll take
Your death o'cold out there with all the fish
And ice around.'
              'Make sure your butlers dish
You up your toddies now, and bring hot rolls
For breakfast.'
          'Don't forget the finger bowls.'

The engineering staff of thirty—five
Are at their stations: those off—duty go
Of their free will to join their mates below
In the grim fight for steam, more steam, to drive
The pressure through the pumps and dynamo.
Knee—deep, waist—deep in water they remain,
Not one of them seen on the decks again.
The under braces of the rudder showing,
The wing propeller blades begin to rise,
And with them, through the hawse—holes, water flowing —
The angle could not but assault the eyes.
A fifteen minutes, and the fo'c'sle head
Was under. And five more, the sea had shut
The lower entrance to the stairs that led
From C deck to the boat deck — the short cut
For the crew. Another five, the upward flow
Had covered the wall brackets where the glow
Diffusing from the frosted bulbs turned green
Uncannily through their translucent screen.


White Star — Cunarder, forty miles apart,
Still eighteen knots! From coal to flame to steam —
Decision of a captain to redeem
Errors of brain by hazards of the heart!
Showers of sparks danced through the funnel smoke,
The firemen's shovels, rakes and slice—bars broke
The clinkers, fed the fires, and ceaselessly
The hoppers dumped the ashes on the sea.

As yet no panic, but none might foretell
The moment when the sight of that oblique
Breath—taking lift of the taffrail and the sleek
And foamless undulation of the swell
Might break in meaning on those diverse races,
And give them common language. As the throng
Came to the upper decks and moved along
The incline, the contagion struck the faces
With every lowering of a boat and backed
Them towards the stern. And twice between the hush
Of fear and utterance the gamut cracked,
When with the call for women and the flare
Of an exploding rocket, a short rush
Was made for the boats — fifteen and two.
'Twas nearly done — the sudden clutch and tear
Of canvas, a flurry of fists and curses met
By swift decisive action from the crew,
Supported by a quartermaster's threat
Of three revolver shots fired on the air.

But still the fifteenth went with five inside,
Who, seeking out the shadows, climbed aboard
And, lying prone and still, managed to hide
Under the thwarts long after she was lowered.

         Jingle bells, jingle bells,
         Jingle all the way,
         0 what fun ....

'Some men in number two, sir!'
                                 The boat swung
       'Chuck the fellows out.'
                             Grabbed by the feet,
The lot were pulled over the gunwale and flung
Upon the deck.
                     'Hard at that forward cleat!
'A hand there for that after fall. Lower
Away — port side, the second hatch, and wait.'

With six hands of his watch, the bosun's mate,
Sent down to open up the gangway door,
Was trapped and lost in a flooded alley way,
And like the seventh, impatient of delay,
The second left with room for twenty more.

The fiddley leading from a boiler room
Lay like a tortuous exit from a tomb.
A stoker climbed it, feeling by the twist
From vertical how steep must be the list.
He reached the main deck where the cold night airs
Enswathed his flesh with steam. Taking the stairs,
He heard the babel by the davits, faced
The forward, noticed how the waters raced
To the break of the fo'c'sle and lapped
The foremast root. He climbed again and saw
The resolute manner in which Murdoch's rapped
Command put a herd instinct under law;
No life—preserver on, he stealthily
Watched Phillips in his room, bent at the key,
And thinking him alone, he sprang to tear
The jacket off. He leaped too soon. 'Take that!'
The second stove him with a wrench. 'Lie there,
Till hell begins to singe your lids — you rat!'

But set against those scenes where order failed,
Was the fine muster at the fourteenth where,
Like a zone of calm along a thoroughfare,
The discipline of sea—worn laws prevailed.
No women answering the repeated calls,
The men filled up the vacant seats: the falls
Were slipping through the sailors' hands,
When a steerage group of women, having fought
Their way over five flights of stairs, were brought
Bewildered to the rails. Without commands
Barked from the lips of officers; without
A protest registered in voice or face,
The boat was drawn up and the men stepped out
Back to the crowded stations with that free
Barter of life for life done with the grace
And air of a Castilian courtesy.

         I've just got here through Paris,
         Front the sunny Southern shore,
         I to Monte Carlo went ....


At the sixteenth — a woman wrapped her coat
Around her maid and placed her in the boat;
Was ordered in but seen to hesitate
At the gunwale, and more conscious of her pride
Than of her danger swiftly took her fate
With open hands, and without show of tears
'Returned unmurmuring to her husband's side;
'We've been together now for forty years,
Whither you go, I go.'
                     A boy of ten,
Ranking himself within the class of men,
Though given a seat, made up his mind to waive
The privilege of his youth and size, and piled
The inches on his stature as he gave
Place to a Magyar woman and her child.

And men who had in the world's run of trade,
Or in pursuit of the professions, made
Their reputation, looked upon the scene
Merely as drama in a life's routine:
Millet was studying eyes as he would draw them
Upon a canvas; Butt, as though he saw them
In the ranks; Astor, social, debonair,
Waved 'Good—bye' to his bride — 'See you tomorrow,'
And tapped a cigarette on a silver case;
Men came to Guggenheim as he stood there
In evening suit, coming this time to borrow
Nothing but courage from his calm, cool face.

And others unobserved, of unknown name
And race, just stood behind, pressing no claim
Upon priority but rendering proof
Of their oblation, quiet and aloof
Within the maelstrom towards the rails. And some
Wavered a moment with the panic urge,
But rallied to attention on the verge
Of flight as if the rattle of a drum
From quarters faint but unmistakable
Had put the stiffening in the blood to check
The impulse of the feet, leaving the will
No choice between the lifeboats and the deck.

The four collapsibles, their lashings ripped,
Half—dragged, half—lifted by the hooks, were slipped
Over the side. The first two luckily
Had but the forward distance to the sea.
Its canvas edges crumpled up, the third
Began to fill with water and transferred
Its cargo to the twelfth, while number four,
Abaft .and higher, nose—dived and swamped its score.

The wireless cabin — Phillips in his place,
Guessing the knots of the Cunarder's race.
Water was swirling up the slanted floor
Around the chair and sucking at his feet.
Carpathia's call — the last one heard complete —
Expect to reach position half—past four.
The operators turned — Smith at the door
With drawn incredulous face. 'Men you have done
Your duty. I release you. Everyone
Now for himself.' They stayed ten minutes yet,
The power growing fainter with each blue
Crackle of flame. Another stammering jet —
Virginian heard 'a tattering C.Q.'
Again a try for contact but the code's
Last jest had died between the electrodes.

Even yet the spell was on the ship: although
The last lifeboat had vanished, there was no
Besieging of the heavens with a crescendo
Of fears passing through terror into riot —
But on all lips the strange narcotic quiet
Of an unruffled ocean's innuendo.
In spite of her deformity of line,
Emergent like a crag out of the sea,
She had the semblance of stability,
Moment by moment furnishing no sign,
So far as visible, of that decline
Made up of inches crawling into feet.
Then, with the electric circuit still complete,
The miracle of day displacing night
Had worked its fascination to beguile
Direction of the hours and cheat the sight.
Inside the recreation rooms the gold
From Arab lamps shone on the burnished tile.
What hindered the return to shelter while
The ship clothed in that irony of light
Offered her berths and cabins as a fold?

And, was there not the Californian?
Many had seen her smoke just over there,
But two hours past — it seemed a harbour span —
So big, so close, she could be hailed, they said;
She must have heard the signals, seen the flare
Of those white stars and changed at once her course.
There under the Titanic's foremast head,
A lamp from the look—out cage was flashing Morse.
No ship afloat, unless deaf, blind and dumb
To those three sets of signals but would come.
And when the whiz of a rocket bade men turn
Their faces to each other in concern
At shattering facts upon the deck, they found
Their hearts take reassurance with the sound
Of the violins from the gymnasium, where
The bandsmen in their blithe insouciance
Discharged the sudden tension of the air
With the fox—trot's sublime irrelevance.

The fo'c'sle had gone under the creep
Of the water. Though without a wind, a lop
Was forming on the wells now fathoms deep.
The seventy feet — the boat deck's normal drop —
Was down to ten. Rising, falling, and waiting,
Rising again, the swell that edged and curled
Around the second bridge, over the top
Of the air—shafts, backed, resurged and whirled
Into the stokehold through the fiddley grating.
Under the final strain the two wire guys
Of the forward funnel tugged and broke at the eyes:
With buckled plates the stack leaned, fell and smashed
The starboard wing of the flying bridge, went through
The lower, then tilting at the davits crashed
Over, driving a wave aboard that drew
Back to the sea some fifty sailors and
The captain with the last of the bridge command.

Out on the water was the same display
Of fear and self—control as on the deck —
Challenge and hesitation and delay,
The quick return, the will to save, the race
Of snapping oars to put the realm of space
Between the half—filled lifeboats and the wreck.
The swimmers whom the waters did not take
With their instant death—chill struck out for the wake
Of the nearer boats, gained on them, bailed
The steersmen and were saved: the weaker failed
And fagged and sank. A man clutched at the rim
Of a gunwale, and a woman's jewelled fist
Struck at his face: two others seized his wrist,
As he released his hold, and gathering him
Over the side, they staunched the cut from the ring.
And there were many deeds envisaging
Volitions where self—preservation fought
Its red primordial struggle with the 'ought,'
In those high moments when the gambler tossed
Upon the chance and uncomplaining lost.

Aboard the ship, whatever hope of dawn
Gleamed from the Carpathia's riding lights was gone,
For every knot was matched by each degree
Of list. The stern was lifted bodily
When the bow had sunk three hundred feet, and set
Against the horizon stars in silhouette
Were the blade curves of the screws, hump of the rudder.
The downward pull and after buoyancy
Held her a minute poised but for a shudder
That caught her frame as with the upward stroke
Of the sea a boiler or a bulkhead broke.

Climbing the ladders, gripping shroud and stay,
Storm—rail, ringbolt or fairlead, every place
That might befriend the clutch of hand or brace
Of foot, the fourteen hundred made their way
To the heights of the aft decks, crowding the inches
Around the docking bridge and cargo winches.
And now that last salt tonic which had kept
The valour of the heart alive — the bows
Of the immortal seven that had swept
The strings to outplay, outdie their orders, ceased.
Five minutes more, the angle had increased
From eighty on to ninety when the rows
Of deck and port—hole lights went out, flashed back
A brilliant second and again went black.
Another bulkhead crashed, then following
The passage of the engines as they tore
From their foundations, taking everything
Clean through the bows from 'midships with a roar
Which drowned all cries upon the deck and shook
The watchers in the boats, the liner took
Her thousand fathoms journey to her grave.

. . . . .

And out there in the starlight, with no trace
Upon it of its deed but the last wave
From the Titanic fretting at its base,
Silent, composed, ringed by its icy broods,
The grey shape with the palaeolithic face
Was still the master of the longitudes.

E.J. Pratt's works copyright © to the estate of the author.

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