Thursday, 27 May 2010

Epilogue To The Lighthouse Invites The Storm

New Brighton Lighthouse by David Ward

June too soon.
July stand by.
August look out you must.
September remember.
October all over.

Epilogue to The Lighthouse Invites The Storm in The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry

I am continuing with my look at Lowry's sources in his poetry. The above epilogue is often referred to as a seaman's or mariner's proverb. The proverb refers to the hurricane season in the Caribbean. I was interested to identify Lowry's original source for the quote. It is possible that he read the phrase in his many nautical readings though I haven't discovered a source from the likes of Conrad, Masefield etc. He may have heard it during his association with sailors in Liverpool or Birkenhead or on board Pyrrhus during his voyage to the Far East in 1927.

Another possible source is from a book called Weather Lore by Richard Inwards published in 1898- "a collection of proverbs, sayings and rules concerning the weather". Inwards quotes his source for the proverb about "hurricanes in the West Indies" as Admiral George Nares. Nares wrote a book called Practical Seamanship for young officer cadets to keep the skills of seamanship alive in the days of transition from sail to steam in case the skills were required if steam failed. Nares's book was adapted by the British Admirality and became a standard work on the subject.

Lowry may have had access to Inward's collection in the family library at his home in Ingelwood or at his schools Caldicott and The Leys. He may have also read the proverb in a magazine or newspaper as he was a prolific reader of both as his sources prove.

One other possible source is his brother Wilfrid, as he was a part time naval officer with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in the latter part of WW1 on HMS Eagle seen above in Liverpool, who may have had a copy of Nares's book. If Wilfrid did have the Nares book, I am sure that an inquisitive young Malc would have taken a peek inside as he was fascinated by all things nautical as a youth. By coincidence, Nares was Acting Conservator of the River Mersey in the years before his death in 1915. The Mersey was the river that Lowry crossed many times and sailed out of in 1927 to the far east.

I can find no details whether Nares sailed to the Caribbean during his time with the Royal Navy. Again, he may have picked up the proverb from mixing in naval circles.

According to Malena Kuss, in Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: an encyclopedic history, the actual source for the proverb is from the Anglophonic Caribbean. Kuss details how sea shanties originated with in the Anglophonic Caribbean:

Shanties performed in call-in-response style are relics of the past and still sung in some parts of Anglophonic Caribbean and, according to Abrahams, thrived in areas where different ethnic groups (Europeans, African Americans and European Americans) were brought together to perform a common task. In Deep Water, Shallow Shore 1974, he (Abrahams) traces representations of this tradition in 19th Century English travel chronicles, probes the co-ordination between song-patterns and tasks, and differentiates local repertoires from those influenced by the international sea trade.

Songs might be improvised to suit the occasion or come from a repertoire of shanties "associated with the sea trades in the days of large sailing vessels", and both the local and international types exist side by side. As an example from Nevis whose distribution remained limited to the Caribbean. Caesar, Boy Caesar was one of the local songs most commonly used to haul boats out of the water. The strength required for the task used to congregate men at the beach before the hurricane season and often a big drum ensemble was brought to provide further encouragement, along with vast quantities plenty of rum. The lengthy strophic text which provokes fun at the drummer, is sung without much variation to a simple "western" type of tune whose regular phrase structure is subverted by an "African" call-and-response performance style. The principle of complementary opposition built into the task and established between the leader and the followers is encode in the alternation of shantyman solo with group response.

Both the the tune and the text of Caesar, Boy Caesar were transcribed by Abrahams (1974) but musical notation does not do justice to the rhythmic subtleties in the chanter's performance that he and Lomax recorded on Nevis in 1962 in Nevis and St. Kitts Tea Meetings, Christmas Sports and The Moonlight Night. Instead of sea shanties, short "routines" also were used for heavy lifting as in the following "mnemomic rhyme" also sung to haul boats out of the water before the hurricane season:

June too soon.
July stand by.
August look out you must.
September remember.
October all over

I cannot find the above rhyme in a musical form but here is Caesar, Boy Caesar:

You can buy Caesar, Boy Caesar on a CD issued on Rounder Records called Caribbean Voyage: Nevis & St. Kitts: Tea Meetings, Christmas Sports, & the Moonlight Night

Lowry's work has other references to sea shanties such as Seraphina in his short story Goya The Obscure which I will post about at a later date. You can imagine the young Malc reading Melville or Dana and dreaming about singing songs in the fo'c'sle on Saturday night as seen in the above drawing.

I soon got used to this singing; for the sailors never touched a rope without it. Sometimes, when no one happened to strike up, and the pulling, whatever it might be, did not seem to be getting forward very well, the mate would always say, "Come, men, can't any of you sing? Sing now, and raise the dead." And then some one of them would begin, and if every man's arms were as much relieved as mine by the song, and he could pull as much better as I did, with such a cheering accompaniment, I am sure the song was well worth the breath expended on it. It is a great thing in a sailor to know how to sing well, for he gets a great name by it from the officers, and a good deal of popularity among his shipmates. Some sea-captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope. (Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage, 1849)

A song is as necessary to sailors as the drum and fife to a soldier. They must pull together as soldiers must step in time, and they can't pull in time, or pull with a will, without it. Many a time, when a thing goes heavy, with one fellow yo-ho-ing, a lively song, like "Heave, to the girls!" "Nancy O!" "Jack Crosstree," "Cheerly, men," &c., has put life and strength into every arm. We found a great difference in the effect of the various songs in driving in the hides. Two or three songs would be tried, one after the other, with no effect,-- not an inch could be got upon the tackles; when a new song, struck up, seemed to hit the humor of the moment, and drove the tackles "two blocks" at once. "Heave round hearty!" "Captain gone ashore!" "Dandy ship and a dandy crew," and the like, might do for common pulls, but on an emergency, when we wanted a heavy, "raise-the-dead pull," which should start the beams of the ship, there was nothing like "Time for us to go!" "Round the corner," "Tally high ho! you know," or "Hurrah! hurrah! my hearty bullies!" (Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast, 1840)

Lowry's own experiences, at sea on the voyage to the Far East, fell short of the camaraderie he had dreamed about as a boy. His first novel Ultramarine chronicles his disappointment that Pyrrhus didn't have a fo'c'sle and no one sang sea shanties either!

I couldn't find a drum ensemble from St. Kitts but I did find this ensemble from Haiti:

If we take the description of Kuss's above of the "mnemomic rhyme" about the hurricane season then I presume it may have sounded similar to the Haiti video.


After posting the above, I returned to the The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry and noticed that Chris Ackerley had included a reference to Hart Crane's poem Eternity in his annotation for the Epilogue to The Lighthouse Invites The Storm. Hart Crane wrote the following as an epilogue to Eternity:

September - remember!
October - all over.
Barbadian Adage

Hart Crane wrote Eternity following a hurricane which hit Cuba during his stay on the Isle Of Pines (now called Isla de la Juventud)on October 18th 1926. Hart Crane may have picked up the adage from fishermen on the Isle Of Pines or he may have heard it from one of his sailor friends or acquaintances. Lowry himself was familiar with Crane's poetry and probably picked up a copy of Crane's posthumous Collected Poetry published in 1933 which included the unpublished Eternity.

Below is a postcard of a steamer similar to one Hart Crane refers to in Eternity as being wrecked by the hurricane.


  1. Fascinating work you're doing here with regard to Lowry and cross-references to a multitude of other writers. I'm very impressed and need to sort out a block of time soon to sift through it all.

  2. Hi Rodger - thanks for your feedback - enjoy!!! Don't forget my new Gutted Arcades of the Past blog - I will be loading more posts over next few weeks.