Victorian Poetry 39.1 (2001) 91-100
[Access article in PDF]
Tom Baynes' Yarns May Now Set Sail!
Fo'c's'le Yarns: An Uncensored Edition of Four Manx Narratives in Verse, by T. E. Brown, ed. Max Keith Sutton, Maureen E. Godman, and Nicholas L. Shimmin. Lanham, Maryland: Univ. Press of America. 1998. 328 pp. $51.00.
In the files of the Manx Museum and Library at Douglas, Isle of Man, there is an unknown world and an unknown poet, Thomas Edward Brown, 1830-1897. This edition prints Brown's four earliest narrative poems, found in the Manx Museum, in a text closest to Brown's conception. In nautical terms, the poems are now, for the first time, under their own sail.
In 1965, an elderly Manxman, Ramsey Moore, Attorney-General of the Island of Man, described hearing Brown recite his poems. Moore descended from a distinguished Manx family, and men of his family act in the poems:
Splendid family them Moores--
Deemshtars [senators], Clerk-of-the-Roulses [Rolls], brewers--
All sorts of swells." (Tom Baynes in "Tommy Big Eyes," ll. 1376-78)
Moore regretted that Brown had written in Anglo-Manx. He "could have been a classical English poet. Instead, he sacrificed himself to the Manx." Ramsey Moore was wrong, but he could not have known the Anglo-Manx poems that Brown wrote. This edition of Brown's first Manx poems provides the opportunity, almost 130 years later, to see Thomas Edward Brown (hereafter TEB) at his most authentic moment as an Anglo-Manx poet, and to judge his position in the wider tradition of English-language verse. Tom Baynes, an unsophisticated Manx sailor, speaks in the island dialect, but Thomas Edward Brown, Oxford graduate, writes.
The Isle of Man, in the 1840s or 1870s, was a kind of colony. Although Man had its own assembly of deemsters or parliament (unlike Ireland), it depended on England for money, thought, and politics. It had its own Episcopal church and its Methodists. It exported lead and took in tourists. In the original text, and in the form which this new edition for the first time presents to a reading public, TEB's poems are (1) elegies for [End Page 91] a dying culture, (2) representations of a divided Victorian self, (3) narratives of the struggle to escape colonialism, (4) narratives about male failures, and (5) successful enlargement, diversification, and expansion of the English language.
This new edition of the four original texts--Betsy Lee, Christmas Rose, Captain Tom and Captain Hugh, and Tommy Big Eyes--is carefully and fully annotated. The editors might have used the first newsprint text of Betsy Lee as their copy text rather than the Macmillan Magazine text, but all the Macmillan changes (spelling and accidentals) are shown. They might also have added a glossary of Manx words. Both complaints are trivial. The edition is a fine piece of scholarship with a succinct introduction and full list of other works about TEB. Everyone interested in English-language poetry should own it and read it.
Mid-twentieth-century criticism of the Victorians spoke of "the divided self." TEB's narrator, Tom Baynes, is an innocent, a natural, a naked man. His narratives, however, are controlled by TEB, Oxford graduate and member of a Clifton College, Bristol, community that knew John Henry Newman, Alfred Tennyson, and John Addington Symonds. The community travelled up to London for music and to Oxford for lectures. TEB was a master of a newly founded secondary, public (in the English sense) school, but his imagination existed on the Isle of Man, where a sailor could love an illegitimate child, describe passions vivdly, and be entranced by landscapes and the running of the sea. The poems exhibit the two selves of the Victorian mindset--intelligent and innocent at once.
Although about twenty percent of the verse in TEB's Collected Poems is in "classic" English, Tom Baynes, his narrator and sometime actor in these four long narrative poems, speaks in four-beat rhymed couplets to other Manx sailors in the fo'c's'le ("the foreward...