The Phoenix (magazine)/Volume 3/Number 1/The Dead Men's Song

For other versions of this work, see The Dead Man's Chest.


IF the year that is past brought no other cause for rejoicing, at least it discovered for us the man who wrote that ripping piratical blood-boltered ballad "Fifteen Men on the Dead Man's Chest." I do not refer merely to the original gruesome quatrain quoted in Robert Louis's "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!

but to the elaborate piece of rhythmic devilry evolved and educed and expanded therefrom by a heretofore unknown or, at any rate, unaccredited hand. Here follows the sanguine sonata alluded to, an impeccable text favored with the latest revision of the only true and genuine author.

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 'era 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 a hawser's bight,
And we heaved 'era 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 history of this poem illustrates anew the fallibility of human evidence and the tenuous character of human veracity. It has been traveling the rounds of the newspaper and so-called literary press, pawed over by editors and copyreaders, sniffed at by office critics and regarded with mixed favor and distrust by "literary" printers, during a matter of twenty-odd years. There has been a considerable variation of text, since everybody wants to "improve," and thereby claim something in, an anonymous masterpiece.

I can't understand why there should ever have been any mystery or question about its authorship, unless the poet was for a long time indifferent to caveat or judged that a temporary sequestration of his title would redound to his greater ultimate fame. At any rate, these circumstances have given full play to the invention of fakers, the "pipes" of well-meaning hallucinants, and the painful ingenuity of those who weave literary mare's nests.

A fabrication of the latter sort deceived the Hawkshaw of the New York "Times" into swallowing a yarn about the poem (found, as alleged, in an "old scrapbook") having been sung as a charity by English buccaneers in the Caribbem, say a century ago. The literary Hawkshaw was taken in so completely that subsequent admission of his error, upon an unanswerable presentation of the real facts, was not easily wrung from him:—there is nothing like a Texas mule or a literary expert for a certain kind of opinionative contumacioushess. Howbeit, the laurel of "The Dead Men's Song" has now finally been placed upon the modest yet Jovian brow of Mr. Young E. Allison, a veteran journalist of Louisville, Ky. Or to speak with allowable metaphor, that rakish craft, the "Derelict," with her papers finally cleared and her true skipper on board, now stands out to sea for the long voyage!

This same Allison ought to be a man delightfully worth knowing, to judge from a certain tall red-and-green volume of appreciation in his honor lately put forth in a privately published edition by his friend Champion Ingraham Hitchcock, also of Louisville and the honorable profession of journalism. The book fully establishes Mr. Allison's claim to the parentage of the truculent chef d'oeuvre so long disputed about and errantly fathered, and also raises the wonder that he should have been content with having once miraculously centred the bullseye of literary achievement. However, according to a famous French critic, the man who produces only one masterpiece,—be it only a single page of perfect prose or verse,—has a better chance of future fame than the author of many volumes indifferently good. Indeed fame seems to have made a special provision for carrying the monopoematic genius, as a search of the anthologies will readily disclose. In its peculiar class Allison's poem is as memorable as Poe's "Raven"—and I can see him still steering that sullen "Derelict" of his upon future seas not a wave of which will be hazarded by many admired literary cockboats of the present time.

This, I am proud to advance, is also the view of Mr. James Whitcomb Riley (an undoubted Immortal) who in a letter to the present writer coins an inspired word, "delishamous," to express his pleasure in the poe, and, who has heretofore estimated it as a "masterly, and exquisite ballad of delicious horrificness." A tribute which, failing all other endorsement, would send the "Derelict" a long way on her cruise to the future.

In a copy of the book mentioned above, presented to a certain person, Mr. Riley has inscribed this characteristic verse of appreciation (ah, collectors! wouldn't ye like to set gloating lamps upon it?— Hold off!—your pieces of eight shall not tempt me.)—

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 it ort to be—
Clean through time and eternity.
Yo—ho—ho and a bottle of rum!

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