Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Phantom Ship by Samuel Adams Drake 1901

The Phantom Ship by Samuel Adams Drake 1901

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THIS marvel comes to us in a letter written at New Haven, where it happened, to Cotton Mather, and printed in his "Magnolia Christi." As Wagner has confirmed to our own age the immortality of the Flying Dutchman, so have Mather and Longfellow decreed that of this wondrous sea-legend. There is no power in science to eradicate either of them. One would not have his illusions rudely dispelled by going behind the scenes while "Der fliegende Hollander" is being performed; and he does not ask if under such or such atmospheric conditions a mirage may not have deceived the good people of New Haven in the year A.D. 1647.

In that year a Rhode-Island-built ship of about one hundred and fifty tons' burden, carrying a valuable cargo, besides "a far more rich treasure of passengers," put to sea from New Haven. Among those who sailed in her were five or six of the most eminent persons in that colony. The ship was new, but so "walty," that Lamberton, her master, often said that she would prove the grave of passengers and crew. It was in the heart of winter; the harbor was frozen over, and a way was cut through the ice, through which the ship slowly passed on her voyage, while the Reverend Mr. Davenport, besides many other friends who witnessed her departure, accompanied her with their prayers and tears until she was lost to view.

An ill-omened gloom overspread the scene, to which the prayer of the pastor lent an emphasis of its own. They who were departing heard these solemn words of invocation, wafted like a prayer for the dead to their ears: "Lord, if it be thy pleasure to bury these our friends in the bottom of the sea, take them; they are thine: save them!"

When, in the following spring, the ships arriving from England brought no tidings either of ship or company, "New Haven's heart began to fail her." This, says the narrative, "put the godly people upon much prayer, both public and private, that the Lord would — if it was his pleasure — let them hear what he had done with their dear friends, and prepare them with a suitable submission to his holy will."

One afternoon in June a great thunderstorm arose out of the northwest. After it had spent itself, —after this grand overture had ceased, — the black clouds rolled away in the distance, and the skies again became serene and bright. All at once, about an hour before sunset, the people saw a large ship, with all her sails spread and her colors flying, coming gallantly up from the harbor's mouth. But such a ship as that had never before been seen; for notwithstanding the wind was blowing dead against her from the land, she moved steadily on against it as if her sails were filled with a fresh and favorable gale. The people looked on in wonder and in awe. The strange vessel seemed floating in air; there was no ripple at her bow, nor on her deck any of the bustle denoting preparation to anchor. All those who had assembled to witness the strange sight gazed in stupefaction. The children clapped their hands and cried out, "There's a brave ship!" while up the harbor she sailed, stemming wind and tide, and every moment looming larger and more distinct.

At length, crowding up as far as there is depth of water sufficient for such a vessel, —in fact so near to the spectators that the figure of a man standing on her poop, with a naked sword, which he pointed seaward, was distinctly seen,—suddenly and noiselessly, as if struck by a squall, her main-top seemed blown away, and, falling in a wreck, hung entangled in the shrouds; then her mizzen-top, and then all her masts, spars, and sails blew away from her decks, and vanished like thistledown, leaving only a dismantled hulk floating in the quiet haven. As if yielding now to an invisible but resistless force, this too began to careen dangerously more and more, until it went down before the eyes of the beholders in a mist-like cloud, which after a little time melted away, leaving the space lately occupied by the Phantom Ship, as everywhere else, clear and unobstructed.

The wonder-struck lookers-on, while this weird counterfeit of a wreck at sea was enacting before their eyes, could so far distinguish the peculiar form and rigging of the Spectre Ship as to be able to say that "This was the very mould of our ship, and thus was her tragic end." The learned and devout Mr. Davenport also declared publicly, "That God had condescended, for the quieting of their afflicted spirits, this extraordinary account of his sovereign disposal of those for whom so many fervent prayers were made continually."

Mr. Bryant, writing to the poet Dana in 1824, says that he had formed the idea of constructing a narrative poem on this subject; but upon finding that the legend had already been made use of by Irving, he abandoned the purpose, which Longfellow subsequently carried out, with dramatic effect, as follows:—

A ship sailed from New Haven;
  And the keen and frosty airs,
That filled her sails at parting,
Were heavy with good men's prayers.

But Master Lamberton muttered,
   And under his breath said he,
"This ship is so crank and walty,
     I fear our grave she will be!"

And at last their prayers were answered:—
   It was in the month of June,
An hour before the sunset
Of a windy afternoon,

When, steadily steering landward,
 A ship was seen below,
And they knew it was Lamberton, Master,
Who sailed so long ago.

On she came, with a cloud of canvas,
 Right against the wind that blew,
Until the eye could distinguish
 The faces of the crew.

Then fell her straining topmasts,
 Hanging tangled in the shrouds,
And her sails were loosened and lifted,
 And blown away like clouds.

And the masts, with all their rigging,
  Fell slowly, one by one,
And the hulk dilated and vanished,
 As a sea-mist in the sun!

And the people who saw this marvel
  Each said unto his friend,
That this was the mould of their vessel,
And thus her tragic end.

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