Buried Caesars/Chapter 14

For other versions of the poem quoted in this article, see The Dead Man's Chest.


Y. E. A. AND A BOTTLE OF RUM

LIVING to-day in Louisville, Kentucky, is an elderly gentleman, with a white mustache and a droll eye, slightly deaf and soft-spoken, who some day will be just such a subject for gossip as are Goldsmith, Charles Lamb and Eugene Field. Not perhaps for the masses; but certainly for the members of that inner circle who appreciate the finer flowerings of letters, the permanent contribution rather than the ephemeral success. I can not better introduce him than by re-telling the story of a famous controversy.

In the early fall of the year 1914, a considerable dispute arose concerning the authorship of a poem. In the mèlée of words, Walt Mason justified his existence, Champion I. Hitchcock produced an unique volume, and the New York Times made a gaudy spectacle of itself. The poem was that delightful piece of rhythmic devilry which will instantly be recalled by its opening lines:

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

A correspondent wrote to the Times, requesting the poem; another correspondent furnished it, shockingly mutilated, claiming to have found it written on the fly-leaf of a book dated 1843. The Times spoke sapiently about this "rough, unstudied sailor's jingle." Immediately the fight was on. Walt Mason vigorously rebuked the newspaper for its characterization, and furnished the name of the poem's author—Young E. Allison. The venerable Times dissented, thinking it "unlikely that Mr. Allison wrote the famous old chanty," and finally Champ Hitchcock wrote a monograph to prove it, and published it himself, achieving at once a triumph of truth and of bookmaking. The Times gracefully recanted, and again all was well.

Thus did one of the world's most famous fugitive poems receive, at length, the full publicity it deserved. Since that time, a host of admirers have paid this masterpiece the tribute of unqualified admiration, and not long before his death James Whitcomb Riley added a stanza, in jest, which is practically unknown. It ran:

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Young E. Allison done all the rest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
He's sung this song for you and me,
Jest as it wuz—or ort to be—
Clean through time and eternity,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Before that, Riley had called the poem "delishamous," and "a masterly and exquisite ballad of delicious horrificness." But Riley missed an opportunity; in my opinion, the last line of his stanza should have been written, "Y. E. A. and a bottle of rum!"

What Riley meant by his stanza was that Allison took the original four lines, as they occur in Stevenson's "Treasure Island," and wrote the tremendous poem known as "Derelict," using the Stevenson quatrain as a text; and that is the truth. Like other readers, Allison was captured by the grisly charm of the chorus, and wondered where Stevenson had got it, and whether there were any more of it. Like one or two others, he determined to finish it himself. Allison, I think, never was certain whether the original stanza was Stevenson's own composition; but recently I became curious on this score, and now I am enabled to quote from a letter written by Mr. Lloyd Osbourne, stepson of R. L. S., for whom "Treasure Island" was written and to whom the work was dedicated. Says Mr. Osbourne: "'Fifteen Men' was wholly original with Stevenson, and it has always been a regret to me that he never saw the Allison extension of the chanty."

But long before the Times controversy brought the whole matter before the public, an circle knew the name of "Derelict's" author, and cherished the poem. As first written, it contained three stanzas, and was entitled "A Piratical Ballad." It was set to music by Henry Waller, published by William A. Pond & Co., and sung by Eugene Cowles; this was in 1891. But the trio of ragged stanzas, as he called them, did not satisfy Allison, and during the next four or five years he amended and changed and added and polished until the result was the poem as it is known to-day. First publication of the whole work was in the Louisville Courier-Journal; reprintings have not yet ceased, nor are they likely to. At just what point an exchange-editor's scissors slipped is not known, but for a number of years the reprinted ballad was attributed to that prolific writer, "Anonymous;" then followed the Times episode and Champ Hitchcock's book reproducing the original scraps of manuscripts.

Few poems have received such careful, persistent revision; one thinks of Poe's explanation of the development of "The Raven," in "The Philosophy of Composition." Allison is not yet quite satisfied with his achievement; he believes there should be one more stanza in which Captain Flint's green parrot should be celebrated, with that immortal squawk—"Pieces of eight!" Be this as it may, from first to last there have been word-, line-, and punctuation-changes of the shrewdest sort, until at present the nuances are as perfect as the author can make them. From the beginning, Allison's intention has been to complete the poem as Stevenson himself might have done, and explanation of the italicized fifth stanza is found in that intention; it is a delicate intimation that the theme of a woman is foreign to the main idea.

The following version of the ballad incorporates its author's final revisions:

DERELICT

A Reminiscence of Treasure Island.

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
(Cap'n Billy Bones his song)

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
The mate was fixed by the bos'n's pike,
The bos'n brained with a marlinspike,
And Cookey's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped
By fingers ten;
And there they lay,
All good dead men,
Like break-o'-day in a boozing ken—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of a whole ship's list—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Dead and bedamned, and the rest gone whist—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
The skipper lay with his nob in gore
Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore—
And the scullion he was stabbed times four.
And there they lay,
And the soggy skies
Dripped all day long
In up-staring eyes—
At murk sunset and at foul sunrise—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Ten of the crew had the murder mark—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
'Twas a cutlass swipe, or an ounce of lead,
Or a yawing hole in a battered head,
And the scuppers glut with a rotting red.
And there they lay—
Aye, damn my eyes!—
All lookouts clapped
On paradise—
All souls bound just contrariwise—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of 'em good and true—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Every man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
There was chest on chest full of Spanish gold,
With a ton of plate in the middle hold,
And the cabins riot of stuff untold.
And they lay there
That had took the plum,
With sightless glare
And their lips struck dumb,
While we shared all by the rule of thumb—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

More was seen through the sternlight screen—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Chartings ondoubt where a woman had been—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
A flimsy shift on a bunker cot,
With a thin dirk slot through the bosom spot
And the lace stiff-dry in a purplish blot.
Or was she wench…
Or some shuddering maid…?
That dared the knife
And that took the blade!
By God! She was stuff for a plucky jade—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight,
With twice ten turns of the hawser's bight,
And we heaved 'em over and out of sight—
With a yo-heave-ho!
And a fare-you-well!
And a sullen plunge
In the sullen swell—
Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

The first, second, third and last stanzas are the best; the fourth and fifth, in my judgment, are unnecessary and weaken the poem. In an earlier version, the third line of the second stanza was, "All of 'em down from the devil's own fist;" but the amended fancy is much happier. Comparison of the several versions printed since the poem's first appearance will show many changes, and in Allison's opinion, at least, there was good reason for every change.

In my search for Stevensoniana, and latterly for Allisoniana, I have unearthed two other "extensions" of "Fifteen Men," neither of the slightest literary importance, but both of considerable bibliographical importance. In the Chicago Times-Herald, many years ago, appeared an entertaining hoax, captioned "Stevenson's Sailor Song." Nobody signed it, but it was probably the work of some lesser contemporary of Eugene Field. The anonymous newspaper writer, after recalling Stevenson's refrain in "Treasure Island," alleges to have come upon a group of "oldtime sailors" on the Chicago river-front (!), lustily singing at their work on one of the big lake boats; they were "tugging at a hawser." A solo voice carried the main thread of the narrative, the other voices coming in on the refrain; and "here was Louis Stevenson's famous pirate song sung on a peaceful lake liner, with nothing more piratical in sight than the low, long, rakish trolley of an electric car on Clark Street!" Of course, the listener crept closer, and this is what he heard:

Fifteen men on the dead man's chest,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

For they drank and drank and got so drunk,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Each from the dead man bit a chunk,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

The bottle burst and the men accurst,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Sucked his blood to quench their thirst,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

They sucked his blood and crunched his bones,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
When suddenly up came Davy Jones,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

'My men,' says he, 'you must come with me,'
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
And he grinned with a horrible kind of glee,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Davy Jones had a big black key,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
It was for his locker beneath the sea,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

He winked and he blinked like an owl in a tree,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
And he sank them all to the bottom of the sea,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Now, all take warning from this 'ere song,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Never drink whisky so divilish strong,
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

The narrator concludes: "The song ended on an ear-piercing shriek, tremendous emphasis on the next to the last line. When inquiry was made of the sailors as to where they learned the song, they stared solemnly at the questioner until one black-haired giant, in a red woollen shirt, hitched his trousers defiantly and answered: 'We never learned it nowhere, we allers knowed it!'".

That is obviously a hoax, with no particular intention to deceive, and it is also good fun. The stanzas are exceedingly clever regarded as a "rough, unstudied sailor's jingle," and the fellow who composed them knew what he was about. Allison's chanty is far too good to have been written by any but a very superior sort of sailor; but this newspaper-chanty might actually have been the work of a singing seaman. It is quite possible that the author of the newspaper article did not himself compose the chanty he quoted, that he heard it sung, someplace, and adopted and adapted it; but, granting that possibility, the suggestion that the chanty is an ancient one from which Stevenson drew his lines is only conceivable on the hypothesis that Lloyd Osbourne is in error (which is unlikely), and that Stevenson himself hinted an untruth. For, in a letter to Henley, dated August 25, 1881, R. L. S. makes the following statement about "The Sea Cook" (later called "Treasure Island"), which was then being written:

"It's all about … a sea song with a chorus, 'Yo-ho-ho and a Bottle of Rum,' (at the third 'ho' you heave at the capstan bars,) which is a real buccaneer's song, only known to the crew of the late Capt. Flint, who died of rum at Key West much regretted."

The italics, of course, are mine. In other words, then, the song was known only to the fictitious crew of a fictitious captain; the extraordinary puppets of an invincible invalid who invented and wrote about pirates because it was neither expedient nor possible to be one himself. In a letter to Colvin, in July, 1884, the invalid added: "'Treasure Island' came out of Kingsley's 'At Last,' where I got 'The Dead Man's Chest.'" That is, Stevenson had been reading Kingsley's intolerably dull account of a visit to the West Indies, once a scene of splendid pirate activity, and had run onto that single phrase, "the Dead Man's Chest," descriptive, I believe, of a dangerous reef. That would be enough for Stevenson, to whom names and localities cried out for stories to be written around them.

Some years after the Chicago hoax, this same chanty, introducing Davy Jones, got itself into print as "Billy Bones's Fancy," with slight verbal changes and the injunction to sing it to the tune of "Blow the Man Down." It may be noted that in these versions the author takes the "dead man's chest" rather literally, and obviously himself sees a fantastic picture of fifteen men actually enthroned on the breast of a deceased pirate; or perhaps he is thinking of a sea chest conveniently beside the body. The better-informed Mr. Allison understood the reference, and was not misled by the "chest."

Then in 1902 there appeared "The Pirate Song," with music by Henry F. Gilbert, and "words adapted from Stevenson's 'Treasure Island.' Additional stanzas by Alice C. Hyde." This is an admirable musical macabre, although it is not as good as Waller's. The verses by Miss Hyde are ordinary. To complete the note, however, they are here transcribed:

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest,
Yo! ho! ho! and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest,
Yo! ho! ho! and a bottle of rum!

Hate lies close to love of gold,
Yo! ho! ho! and a bottle of rum!
Dead men's secrets are tardily told,
Yo! ho! ho! and a bottle of rum!

Dead men only the secret shall keep,
Yo! ho! ho! and a bottle of rum!
So bare the knife and plunge it deep,
Yo! ho! ho! and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest,
Yo! ho! ho! and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest,
Yo! ho! ho! and a bottle of rum!

Possibly there are other versions builded upon the original quatrain, but I have not seen them. A good musical setting of Allison's version was published for male voices, in 1907, by the Boston Music Company. Francis Campbell is the composer, and the piece is called "On Board the Derelict."

To come back to Allison: I suppose there is little doubt that his fame is assured by this remarkable poem, so far as it is possible to predict the vagaries of fame's erratic flight; and it is pleasant to know that the controversy over authorship was happily adjusted in his lifetime. Without Champ Hitchcock and the other champions, the dispute might have been continued indefinitely, for Allison himself is far too retiring an individual to push his own claims beyond a modest statement of fact. It is his notion that "these things take care of themselves, and usually work out all right." I am cynical enough to doubt it.

Now when a reader ecstatically has "discovered" this famous ballad, and has learned it by heart, and has run around chanting it to his friends, his first thought is likely to be: "What else has this Allison man done?" And he will hasten off to book-shops and libraries intent on procuring a whole volume of equally delectable and fascinating pirate songs. I made this heartbreaking search years ago; but it was a long time before I found a trace of Young E. Allison. Then I met a man who knew him. Then I met Allison himself. I wish it were permitted me to eulogize at length this delightful man, but here is not the place.

Young E. Allison is the editor of the Insurance Field, with headquarters in Louisville. That has been his profession and his home for a great many years. All day long his head is filled with figures, as for many years was Lamb's. In odd moments, when he happens to feel like it, he writes verses and essays; less often he writes short stories. At long intervals he is dragged from his home and cozened into maiding addresses, but the occasion must be a rare one—the birthday anniversary of Burns accomplished it once. His remarks at the memorial service for his friend Riley were perfect and memorable.

I think he does not regret the little time left by his duties for literature; he is an excellent economist and while his collected works will be few, they will be precious. No other poem by him compares with "Derelict;" the rest are engaging but, I think, ephemeral. Years ago, he wrote a newspaper novel, "The Passing of Major Kilgore," a good story; but it is buried in the files of a defunct magazine. His short stories and his essays also for the most part are hidden in old files. The librettos of two comic operas by him, one of them a collaboration, once were printed; but they are now almost unprocurable.

What else, then, is there that may bring happiness to the admirer of "Derelict," on his Twistian search?

There is "The Delicious Vice," if one can come across it. The editions (there have been two) were limited, and both are out of print. Since the death of Charles Lamb, who now hobnobs genially, it is to be hoped, with Walter Savage Landor, in some paradisal inn, no more delightfully bookish volume has come from any press. "The Delicious Vice," to which Allison pleads guilty, is novel-reading. The sub-title of the slim volume is, "Pipe Dreams and Fond Adventures of an Habitual Novel-Reader among Some Great Books and their People." It is the friendliest book imaginable; in it, a confirmed bookman takes you by the hand and leads you through his library—and there is not a Gutenberg Bible in the collection! Not a Caxton, not an Elzevir, not a Kelmscott. Instead, you meet (again, it is assumed) "Robinson Crusoe," and "The Three Musketeers," very little of Dickens and Scott, every line of Stevenson, and every juvenile of importance from Beadle's Dime Library to "Kingston and Ballantyne the brave." Through the book, a glittering thread, runs Allison's quaint humour, Allison's high spirits, Allison's remarkable personality.

Young E. Allison has done many fine things, and some day they will be diligently sought out and reprinted; but if he had done nothing else he would still stand high in the affection of discriminating readers because of "Derelict" and "The Delicious Vice."