Thursday, 15 April 2010

Billy Budd

Herman Melville’s unfinished Billy Budd is somewhere high on my list of great unreads. The novel lends its name to a Morrissey song and a Benjamin Britten opera and it’s generally supposed the homosocial and possible homoerotic subtexts of the story were appealing to both. In any case, I haven’t read it, but I have read, and am in the process of attempting to memorise, the desperately sad ballad that closes the story, called 'Billy In The Darbies‘' ('darbies' are handcuffs).

Billy has been wrongfully court-martialled for attempted mutiny and is subsequently hanged from the ship’s yardarm (the horizontal portion of the mast). A fellow sailor composes a ballad chronicling Billy’s final night and day before the execution and it is this which closes the tale. It is full of exciting sailing paraphernalia and Billy’s sweet nature shines through. What makes it heartbreaking are the minute touches of human kindness offset by the brutalities of maritime justice, in other words, how cruel men can be to each other, and how kind.

Along with some Plath, Frank O’Hara, D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Tortoise’ sequence and the odd bit of Shakespeare it’s one of my favourite pieces of poetry. My favourite thing is to turn off the lights and say in a tiny slow whisper, ‘No pipe to those halyards. - But aren't it all sham? A blur's in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am …

‘Billy In The Darbies’

Good of the chaplain to enter Lone Bay
And down on his marrowbones here and pray
For the likes just o' me, Billy Budd. - But, look:
Through the port comes the moonshine astray!
It tips the guard's cutlass and silvers this nook;
But 'twill die in the dawning of Billy's last day.
A jewel-block they'll make of me tomorrow,
Pendant pearl from the yardarm-end
Like the eardrop I gave to Bristol Molly --
O, 'tis me, not the sentence they'll suspend.
Ay, ay, all is up; and I must up too,
Early in the morning, aloft from alow.
On an empty stomach now never it would do.
They'll give me a nibble -- bit o' biscuit ere I go.
Sure, a messmate will reach me the last parting cup;
But, turning heads away from the hoist and the belay,
Heaven knows who will have the running of me up!
No pipe to those halyards. -- But aren't it all sham?
A blur's in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am.
A hatchet to my hawser? All adrift to go?
The drum roll to grog, and Billy never know?
But Donald he has promised to stand by the plank;
So I'll shake a friendly hand ere I sink.
But -- no! It is dead then I'll be, come to think.
I remember Taff the Welshman when he sank.
And his cheek it was like the budding pink.
But me they'll lash in hammock, drop me deep.
Fathoms down, fathoms down, how I'll dream fast asleep.
I feel it stealing now. Sentry, are you there?
Just ease these darbies at the wrist,
And roll me over fair!
I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Grand to see the truly great Thomas Allen posted on there!!! He's always been a bot of a hero. The only world-class opera singer I know who keeps his geordie accent!