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Markings 73

Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology 2017

Published: Pages 92-95

Sailing off the Sun

William Dampier (1651-1715)


Lately, he had turned unwritten lines

in both Swift and Defoe’s imagination;

Coleridge found his Ancient Mariner’s rhyme:

each in the pulse and lexis of his exploration.

In fact, Darwin first trod on his words

of taking notice of the natural world.

Bligh and Banks, a thousand others stirred

by his exquisite mind: a sail unfurled

to dreams and ideas that might chart

the furthest south of any man to sail

off the edge of all the named and known parts

and in maritime madness fly his kite-tail

three times round the globe. Forgotten here:

so much depends upon this long gone buccaneer.


‘given to rambling and could not settle himself in any place’

William Whaley circa. 1675

For he still hungered for the sea. Dejected

by both earth and grass the ocean nagged

at him, craving for the wash and wreck

of waves. The oldest ache for the full flagged

boast of spar and sail, he quickly saw

the pact between wind and weather and the plan

for safe passage and sure and certain harbour.

A hundred years before Cook’s began

he mapped the storms and ocean streams, the tides

and temperatures of uncharted places.

His fastidious journals would defy

the future with their precision and their grace.

A pirate of both measure and the moment:

escaped the gallows for his islands of content.


When he was seven his father taught him

that the world began on a Monday,

only four thousand years before. Wherein

his mother told him that swallows fly away

to the moon in winter. At school the master

lectured of a land where people’s heads

grew from beneath their arms; and monsters

swam in seas far off that at all times fed

on entire sailed boats. And from the pulpit,

it was still the fashion of the faith

to believe the earth was flat, the firmament

above. He married at 28 and three months

later left for twelve years to sail beyond

it all - and prove that all but her were wrong.


‘low even land with sandy banks against the sea’

William Dampier 1688

He looked on their world through English glasses

first - and missed the harvest in their eyes.

Wandered through the bush and spiky grasses

finding European metaphors to untie

in words the heat and flies and sand. No magic

here for him: this land on the very edge

of the world. No water and all of his men sick

with scurvy it was time to leave. A pledge

with the wind and tide. And on the very brink:

no fear of slipping off but going back.

Putting the ‘some red and some white cliffs’ in ink

and then behind them. To sail into a trick

of time. Eclipsed by those who came and saw

afterward ‘things undiscovered by any before’.


‘The external world is fitted to the mind.’


Perhaps in style, a simple matter-of-fact

narrative. A rational, realistic portrait

of a pulsating world. Shed of its compact

with invention and fable. But not the freight

of feeling. The affecting and enquiring

response to exploration. Land and sea.

The universe. Coleridge writing

of his valour, genius, and degree

praised his ‘exquisite mind’. But more

than the sum of all these things

what was peripheral, exterior

was hard-wired to his being.

Sailing off the sun was what it took

for a pirate to write bestselling travel books.


‘. . . ruined by years of staring into distant sparkling horizons‘

Grace Mercer (housekeeper, cousin and executor) circa. 1714

In 1711 four years before that last voyage

he drops out of his own narrative;

his own long conversation with the page

of history. What’s done is done. The give

and mostly take of exploration:

sailing off the sun. Seizing a last treasure

ship – losing most in costly litigation.

He slips quietly into a small dark demure

cottage in Coleman Street and disappears.

His mind and memory clung to a distant

rocky shore he will not reach again. It is not clear

into what cold and fog rubbed dawn he went

on that last ice-ribbed ship. Of wind hardly a breath;

his body rolled into the drowned-sleep of death.

Jeff Guess

©Jeff Guess 2017

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