Christmas At Sea

 
On Winter Solstice Eve, Saturday, December 20, 2014, I was privileged to spend the evening with the Ocean Quartet, performing a Song of Solstice concert at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring. We thoroughly enjoyed playing with the church's choir, the "Life the UUniverse and Everything Band," and other guests.  As part of the program, I performed one recitation of poetry on a theme both seasonal and nautical.  The performance was recorded, and I offer it here as a Christmas present to anyone who might enjoy it.  Folks who know the poem, which is by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) may note that I have taken a few liberties with the text, primarily in order to make the story clearer or to improve the scansion, since we pronounce things a little differently now.

Just press the round "play" button below to hear the poem.

Press Play to Hear the Poem

Christmas at Sea: The Text

By Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
(With Slight Adaptations by Stephen Winick) 

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor'-wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

We heard the surf a-pounding just before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw HOW ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we worked the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide-race roared;
But with every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard.
So we saw the cliffs and houses and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every longshore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we smelled the victuals as the vessel went about.

Then the bells were rung upon the church with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.

And well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My father's silver spectacles, my mother's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stood upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household since their son had gone 
to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

Then they lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
"All hands to loose topgallant sails," I heard the captain call.
"By the Lord, she'll never stand it," our first mate, Jackson, cried.
. . . ."'Tis the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson," he replied.

Then she staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood;
As the winter's day was dying, in the entry of the night,
We finally cleared the headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
Just to see her quivering bowsprit pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household since their son had gone to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

All writing on stevewinick.com © Stephen D. Winick. The copyright on all images remains with the artist or photographer.