The Masters of the Sea [poem by Grant Hervey]

[Editor: This poem by Grant Hervey was published in Australians Yet and Other Verses, 1913.]

The Masters of the Sea

There are nations born for Power,
There are nations born to cower —
And, like slaves, to fetch and carry for the peoples strong and free ;
From the dim dead throats of Time
Rolls a fierce and ringing rhyme —
Hear the launching-chant loud pealing from the
Masters of the Sea !
Through the misty wrack of years,
See the lean Phoenician steers
Forth from ports of Spain and Carthage long before the CHRIST was born ;
Thrusts his prow thro’ Biscay’s seas
Towards the Cassiterides —
And his oars go thrashing bravely through Atlantic mists of morn !

Westward sweeps a Roman fleet,
Driving thro’ the storm and sleet —
Circumsailing ancient Britain in those chartless days of yore ;
’Gainst some gloom-grey marge of sky
Fabled Thule they descry —
Loud they hear the stern sea stamping all along its frozen shore !
All their hearts beset with fear,
Lo ! they creep past Foula sheer —
Stormy Shetlands, dost remember those intrepid sailor-men ?
Stars alone had they for guide,
O the seas were grim and wide —
There were Heroes walking westward o’er the trackless ocean then !

O ye waves that murmur peace
On the western shores of Greece !
Dost recall the crash of galleys on the Day of Actium ?
How the lords of East and West
Gathered for the last great test —
Dost recall the battle-music of the fierce hortator’s drum ;
How they came to deadly grips :
Cleopatra’s sixty ships —
How they brought most fell disaster to the dooméd Antony ;
How Octavianus’ head
Lifted proudly when they fled —
How the sea with blood grew crimson in those hours of victory ?

O, the clanging of the shields !
O, the sword each Norseman wields !
Forth the stalwart sons of ODIN troop to ply their trade of war !
Hear the cry of Vortigern,
Whom they succour ere they spurn —
Whom they smite, and whom they shatter, with the iron fist of Thor !
South and west across the sea
Come the Vikings, fierce and free.
Hear the shout of Hengist’s heroes ! hear old
Rollo’s soldiers sing !
From the far Norwegian fiords
Stream the blue-eyed battle-lords —
There were thrones to win in Britain — he who dared might be a king !

Lo ! the ocean-brood of Danes —
Charged with passion all their veins —
Baltic Berserks seeking vengeance for Gunhilda, dead and fair ;
Came the beaked ships of Sven,
Filled with mighty fighting men —
Ho ! the flashing of their axes and their sword-blades bright and bare !
They were Masters of the Sea,
And they saw the Saxons flee —
Yea, their camp-fires circled London as they ravaged England o’er ;
While they held the sea with ships,
Lo ! they plied their earnest whips —
Flogging England, Saxon England, with the reeking thongs of war !

Lo ! the hardy Genoese,
Sweeping past the Cyclades —
How they churn the blue Propontis with their rhythmic beat of oars ;
From Gibraltar’s narrow straits
To the Tanais’ iron gates,
Ho ! they ride upon their galleys and patrol the Seven Shores !
Seeking John Cantacuzene,
Lo ! They search the broad Tyrrhene —
And the Greeks are fed or famished as the grim sea-captains please ;
And Doria’s ships of war
Drive the Pisans fast and far,
As with sturdy, earnest hands they grip the scepter of the seas !

Venice moulders in the slime —
Does the world recall the time
When the Lion of St. Marco held the nations all in fee ;
When the Adriatic’s coasts
Saw the onset of its hosts,
And the blind Dandolo staring out across the trackless sea ?
Half a thousand years ago
There was wailing, there was woe,
When the Doge’s fleets were sighted from the old Byzantine walls.
By the fair Euboean isle,
See the swift Venetians file —
Hear the arbalests a-twanging while the throne of Caesar falls.

Dost remember Sulieman,
And his conquests African —
Dost remember Barbarossa — dost recall his Tunis lair?
How the Pope and Emperor
And the Doge were beaten sore
All along the Gulf of Arta by the Sultan’s great corsair !
How that Master of the Seas
Brought the Christians to their knees —
How Dragut and his brethren fought the proudest fleets of Spain ;

He of Mohacs — he was great,
And the nations felt his weight
When the galleys of Mahomet dared the world upon the main !

Fallen from his high estate
Like a beggar at the gate,
Next the combat off Lepanto told the Porte another tale ;
Yea, that Selim, called the Sot,
Most emphatic beating got
When the Spaniards and Venetians blasted forth their iron gale ;
The Crescent went below,
Where the old lost banners go,
When puissant Father Pius organized the squadrons three !
’Twas a great and famous day
When the Pope’s ships blazed away,
And broke Mahomet’s prestige most completely on the sea !

It was Philip, King of Spain,
Brake the Sultan’s ships in twain,
Yet soon his great Armada reeled beneath an English blow,
And in 1588
Fell the heavy fist of Fate,
And the greedy master-monarch in the dust was scattered low.
Gone his galliasses tall —
Gone his galleys, one and all —
When Howard smote the yellow flag along the southern shore ;
Past the Start and Portland Bill
Did he drive them with a will —
And his captains swept the Channel from the Needles to the Nore !

* * * * *

Read, Australians, read the page
Of that dim, forgotten age —
Lo ! the beacons, they are blazing down the vistas of the past ;
When the new Armadas come,
Ye must beat your battle-drum —
Ye must hold the seas or perish ’neath the weight of navies vast !
Are ye born for strength and power,
Or to meanly skulk and cower —
Are ye born to fetch and carry, or to stand erect and free ?
If the latter ye desire,
Ships and sailors ye require —
For the weak must bow submissive to the Masters of the Sea !

Grant Hervey. Australians Yet and Other Verses, Thomas C. Lothian, Melbourne, 1913, pages 87-93

Editor’s notes:
1588 = a reference to the Spanish Armada of 1588, the naval fleet that was defeated in its attempt to invade England

Barbarossa = Frederick I (1122 – 1190), also known as Barbarossa (an Italian name meaning “red beard”), was Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 1155 to 1190

Cassiterides = a Greek name meaning “Tin Islands”, a name for an ancient group of islands of now-disputed location; possibly referring to Great Britain, especially with the presence of the tin mines in Cornwall that were known to rulers of Mediterranean states in ancient times

corsair = privateers (private captains or ships authorised by letters of marque by a government to attack foreign shipping during wartime); in this context, a reference to the Barbary corsairs (also known as Ottoman corsairs or Barbary pirates) who raided Mediterranean countries along their coastlines (but even raiding as far north as Britain), capturing or sinking ships and trade goods, as well as kidnapping an estimated one million Europeans for sale as slaves; they operated from about the 1300s to at least the early 1800s

Crescent = the crescent, especially a star and crescent, was the main symbol of the Ottoman Empire (later on becoming the symbol for the successor states of the Ottomans, such as Turkey)

Cyclades = a group of islands south-east of the Greek mainland, part of the Aegean archipelago

Dandolo = Enrico Dandolo, the Doge (leader) of Venice from 1195 to 1205, who was blind

Day of Actium = the Battle of Actium; a significant naval battle, fought between the forces of Octavian and the combined forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII, which took place on 2 September 31 BC, on the Ionian Sea near the city of Actium, Greece

Dragut = Turgut Reis (1485–1565), an Ottoman Admiral and privateer, also known as Dragut and Darghouth

Euboean isle = the island of Euboea, Greece

Foula = an Old Norse name meaning “bird island”, Foula island is part of the Shetlands Islands, off the north coast of Scotland

galleasses = military galleys (ships), higher and larger than regular galleys

Genoese = people from the Republic of Genoa, situated in north-west Italy, an independent state from 1005 to 1797

Gunhilda = noted in sagas of 13th century, Princess Gunhilda of Wenden was a West Slavic princess who married King Sweyn I of Denmark (986-1014)

Hengist = a leader of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Great Britain in the 5th century

hortator = an encourager, exhorter, inciter

Howard = Charles Howard (1536–1624), 1st Earl of Nottingham, was Lord High Admiral and the commander of the English forces who defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588

John Kantakouzenos = the emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 1347 to 1354

Lion of St. Marco = the winged lion of St. Marco, a symbol of the Republic of Venice, situated in north-east Italy, an independent state from 697 to 1797

Lepanto = “combat off Lepanto” refers to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when the fleets of the Holy League (a coalition of southern European nations), defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire, thus preventing the Ottomans (Turks) from capturing parts of southern Europe

Mohacs = Mohács is a river port and town on the Danube in south central Hungary; at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 the Turks defeated the Hungararians and Bohemians, this decisive encounter marked the beginning of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire’s domination of Hungary; conversely, the Battle of Mohács in 1687 marked the end of Ottoman rule when the Turks were defeated by the forces of the Holy Roman Empire

Needles = a row of three distinctive stacks of chalk that rise out of the sea off the western extremity of the Isle of Wight, England

Nore = a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames Estuary, England, being the point where the River Thames meets the North Sea

Pius = Pope Pius V, who was responsible for the formation of the Holy League alliance against the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, leading to the European states winning the Battle of Lepanto in 1571

Porte = an indirect reference to the central government of the Ottoman Empire; a reference to the High Gate (Porte) of the Divan (court) of the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul (a figure of speech similar to that of the modern media using “Canberra” as an indirect reference to the central government of Australia)

Portland Bill = a promontory (or bill) on the southern part of the Isle of Portland, part of the county of Dorset, on the south coast of England [see Start Point for the notation regarding the Spanish Armada]

Propontis = the ancient Greek name for the Sea of Marmara (the inland sea that connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea)

Rollo = the Viking leader who was the first ruler of the Normandy region of France, having been granted the land by Charles III of France under the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in the year 911 (Rollo was the Latin version of the Old Norse name Hrólfr)

Selim = Selim II, also known as Selim the Sot, was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1566 to 1574

Sot = see Selim (Selim the Sot)

Start = Start Point, a promontory in Devon on the south coast of England (not to be confused with Start Point in Cornwall on the south-west coast of England), on the eastern curve of the wide bay of the Devonshire and Dorset coasts, with Portland Bill on the western curve of the same bay; this is a reference to an area involving the route of the Spanish Armada of 1588; the logbook of Duke of Medina Sidonia’s account noted that 130 ships of the Spanish Armada were becalmed between Start Point and Portland Bill [and see: The Story of the Great Armada by John Richard Hale, 1913]

Sulieman = Suleiman I, or Suleiman the Magnificent, was the Sultan, or Emperor, of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, from 1520 to 1566

Tanais = the ancient Greek name for the River Don in Russia.

Thule = a Greek name for an ancient island, or region, of now-disputed location; possibly referring to Greenland, Iceland, Norway, the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands, or Scandinavia (the phrase “Ultima Thule” is a symbolic reference for a far-off land or an unattainable goal)

Tyrrhene = an archaic term for Etruscan (from the Etruscan civilization, located around the modern region of Tuscany, Italy, 768 BC to 264 BC); in this context, “the broad Tyrrhene” would refer to the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the western coast of Italy (part of the Mediterranean Sea)

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