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Featured Poem: Ships That Pass in the Night by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 9th May 2011

While coming up with ideas for and compiling last week’s Featured Poem, which greeted the month of May with a celebration of nature at its very best, blooming and brightest, I got to thinking about ‘May Day’ – in particular pondering the wider semantics of the combination of those two small words. Positivity predominates when it comes to the now-passed annual holiday and there’s even an association with the progressive side of politics, given that the first of the month has long been aligned with the continuing achievements of workers. Yet the other cultural context linked to the seemingly unassuming rhyming pair is a world away from the joyful atmosphere created by dances around the maypole and other festivities, instead calling to mind distress, danger and a much darker state of affairs. It’s hard to imagine a bigger chasm of contrast and so it seems nonsensical to bind the two very distinct situations together – although there is the matter of translation to contend with – but it is yet another testament to how perversely diverse, certainly weird but definitely wonderful our language, with all its borrowing and ever widening spectrum of meaning, is.

The long-held traditions of commemorating the actual May Day predates the coining of the internationally recognised distress signal by quite some time, and so the carefree, celebratory sense is perhaps more solidified in our consciousness due to centuries of history – and also because most of us, thankfully, don’t find ourselves in mortal danger on a regular basis and much prefer any excuse for a party (although they can also frequently have the tendency to turn dangerous, in some ways…). But even when there is a designated time for celebration, feelings of personal and emotional distress cannot be so easily put aside and it’s at those times that pain and anguish become amplified; there’s a strong possibility of being sent overboard with lifeboats and ports in the storm seeming few and far between.

Hopefully there is no need for you to call ‘mayday’ at present but if you are struggling then perhaps you can find some comfort in this poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar; while it may not be visibly optimistic, there is considerable heart wrenching emotion packed into a relatively short space which makes you feel but crucially makes you feel that you are not alone – whatever intense feelings of despair and hopelessness there exist to be endured, it’s a near guarantee that someone somewhere, far off or near, has felt them sometime previous. Here, the ship setting – coupled with the particularly ‘great dark’ night – is especially appropriate; an actual perceptible representative of the tumultuous and oppressive atmosphere, the hazard looming on the horizon mirroring the emotional discord and the personal feeling of being ‘all at sea’. The poem recalls The Theologian’s Tale in Tales of a Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.” What makes Dunbar’s poem all the more poignant is the apparent absence of speaking, even distant, from the ship that passes him, the only sights and sounds coming from other places with the longed for ship completely removed. The distress call made may not be audibly loud, but it is certainly one of the most expressive and powerful that can be read.

Ships That Pass in the Night

Out in the sky the great dark clouds are massing;
I look far out into the pregnant night,
Where I can hear a solemn booming gun
And catch the gleaming of a random light,
That tells me that the ship I seek is passing, passing.

My tearful eyes my soul's deep hurt are glassing;
For I would hail and check that ship of ships.
I stretch my hands imploring, cry aloud,
My voice falls dead a foot from mine own lips,
And but its ghost doth reach that vessel, passing, passing.

O Earth, O Sky, O Ocean, both surpassing,
O heart of mine, O soul that dreads the dark!
Is there no hope for me? Is there no way
That I may sight and check that speeding bark
Which out of sight and sound is passing, passing?

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

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