Saturday 12 August 2017

A Burnt Ship - Early Modern Roots of War at Sea Poetry (1)

                                              Update from August 2017 and research notes

                                         Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom 'Battle between England and Spain 
                                                      1601-[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Further Update - a revised version of this article has been used to launch a new blog that began at the start of October 2017  A Burnt Ship    about 17th Century War poetry

Update  Though the Great War at Sea Poetry Project has officially collapsed, and little has been posted on this blog in 2017, visitors from all over the world keep visiting. Really appreciate your interest. Thank you.

Thought that I would look at the roots of War at Sea Poetry from the turn of the 16th century so that people who keep returning to this blog actually have something new to read. 

New blog launched in February 2023 Bleak Chesney Wold Charles Dickens/ 'dark' Victoriana

                               A Burnt Ship 

Fighting at sea can be particularly ferocious, simply because there is so little chance to retreat let alone desert ; as the medieval chronicler Froissart observed  concerning the 1340 Battle of Sluys;

“It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill.”

In other words there a combatant who loses his nerve during a sea battle  can't play dead, hide under a pile of corpses or in a fox hole, abandon the battlefield. The sea will not offer sanctuary.

'The Burnt Ship ' -John Donne

Out of a fired ship, which by no way
But drowning could be rescued from the flame,
Some men leap'd forth, and ever as they came
Near the foes' ships, did by their shot decay;
So all were lost, which in the ship were found,
They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drown'd.

John Donne ( 1572- 1631) was one of the few British poets to have been to sea, and one of even fewer poets to have experienced warfare at sea- he joined the notorious 1596 expedition to Cadiz led by Sir Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex .The town was sacked and some prize galleons set on fire. John Donne was with a fleet that sailed for the Azores in 1597, but a storm drove them back to Plymouth. A second sailing was more successful,

What is fascinating is about this epigram is that the sea is neutral . All the action concerns human conflict, the only hint of how menacing the sea can be is in the last line  they in the burnt ship drown'd. The claustrophobia of being trapped between fire and water is a constant theme in War at Sea poetry. Looking at Alan Ross writing during his time on Arctic convoy PW51b as a rating on board HMS Onslow at the battle of Baring Sea on 30th December 1942 , using a hose to tackle a fire beneath desks whilst sea water is also leaking in ( from the poem 'PW51b".)

"So Onslow rejoined in falling darkness.
Having aided the elements cancellation
Of each other; fire and water"

John Donne wrote a large amount of love poetry, and also as Dean of St. Paul's , became renowned for the quality of his sermons. The theme of the sea returned to his work.


'The Calm' - John Donne

Storms chafe, and soon wear out themselves, or us;
In calms, Heaven laughs to see us languish thus.
As steady'as I can wish that my thoughts were,
Smooth as thy mistress' glass, or what shines there,

The sense of  man’s  helplessness is conveyed so well. The sea is part of a elemental world which is largely indifferent to the fate of humanity. John Donne himself was on a ship that was becalmed in September 1597. Not surprisingly , ‘The Calm’ ends with a sense of late 20th century existential angst.

“Fate grudges us all, and doth subtly lay
A scourge, 'gainst which we all forget to pray.”


“ Is man now, than before he was? He was
Nothing; for us, we are for nothing fit;
Chance, or ourselves, still disproportion it.
We have no power, no will, no sense; I lie”

          In the world of sail, ships rely on wind to navigate. The sense of human vulnerability is even stronger, As well as current and storms, the risk of being stranded if the winds simply do not move is great. Or if sails and rigging are destroyed in battle. ‘The Calm ‘ is one of the strongest poems to convey this.

Andrew Marvell ( 1621- 1678) summed up how vulnerable ships could be to enemy raids;

‘Last Instruction to a Painter ‘ -Andrew Marvell

There our sick ships unrigg’d in summer lay
Like molting fowl, a weak on easy prey,
For whose strong bulk earth scarce could timber find,
The ocean water of the heavens wind-
Those oaken giants of the ancient race,
That rul’d all seas and did our Channel grace "

The sick ships are in fact the becalmed Royal Navy of 1667, an easy target for the fleet of the Dutch Republic under the command of the mighty Michiel De Ruyter , who managed to sail up the Medway and caused some havoc.. The Royal Navy Dockyard at Chatham euphemistically refer to the event as' The Battle of the Medway' , the Dutch call their visit on 10th-12th June 1667 'De Tocht Naar Chatham' , 'the excursion to Chatham.' The Royal Navy towed away the English flagship the 'Royal Charles'

Pieter Cornelisz van Soest [Public domain], via Wikimedia Common

The year before, on 10th -12th August 1666, an English fleet under Robert Holmes had raided the Dutch town of West Terschelling, which was set on fire along with some 140 merchant ships . This incident is sometimes referred to as 'Holmes Bonfire'. A future post will look at the work of John Dryden, whose poem -'Annus Mirabelis' also covered the Second Anglo-Dutch War .

References ; 'John Donne -the complete English Poems' edited by A.J. Smith,Penguin, ( 1971).
'Froissart's Chronicles' Geoffrey Bereton translation, Penguin ( 1968)
'Andrew Marvell- The complete Poems' , Penguin, edited - Elizabeth Story Donno, Penguin ( 1972)
'Alan Ross Poems selected and introduced by David Hughes', Harvill Press, 2005

Monday 10 April 2017


The Great War at Sea Poetry Project will come to an end on the 30th April 2017. I would like to thank everyone from so many different countries who has visited the blog.

The posts on this blog will be archived at  whilst anyone interested in World War 2 poetry is welcome to visit

Michael Bully
Brighton- 10th April 2017