Sea Stories: The Whalers Song by Lydia Huntley Sigourney

Humans have long hunted whales, but it wasn't until the 17th century that whaling became an industrial enterprise. 

Although people ate whale meat and used the baleen for making things like umbrellas, it was the whales fat - it's blubber - that made whaling on such a large scale profitable. The blubber would be boiled down into oil, which could be used to make soaps, lubricants, margarine, and lamp oil. Today, whale oil is only used by a small number of indigenous/aboriginal communities, for whom whales still provide a vital source of food.

In her poem "The Whalers Song", Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791 - 1865) imagines the whalers life, just as they spot a whale...

There she lies! There she lies!
A mountain on old Ocean’s breast.
”Where away?” Just three points west,
Toward yon waves that boldly rise.
Head the vessel! Trim the sail!
We must chase that mighty whale.

There she blows! There she blows!
Man the boats! for nothing stay!
Such a prize we cannot lose,
Stretch to your oars! away! away!

Grapple closer, careful steer,
Launch the harpoon, laugh at fear,
Plunge it deep, the barbed spear,
Strike the lance, in swift career,
Give her line! Give her line!
Down she goes through the foaming brine,
Sponge the side, where the flying coil
Mark’s the monster’s speed and toil;
But though she dive to the deepest ground,
Where the plummet fails to sound,
’Tis all in vain! All in vain!
She hath that within her side,
Will surely bring her up again.

Spout! Spout! Spout!
The waves are maddening all about,
Every billow on its head
Strangely wears a crest of red;
How she lashes the seething main,
In her flurry and her pain;

Take good heed, my hearts of oak,
Lest her terrible flukes, as she tortured lies,
Wildly hurl us to the skies:
But see! the pride of her strength is broke,
Heavy she lies, as a mass of lead,
The mighty monarch-whale is dead!

Row! Row! Row!
In our ship she must go,
Changed by fire to a liquid stream,
Over the broad Pacific’s swell,
Round Cape Horn, where the tempests dwell,
Many a night and many a day,
Home with us, she must sail away,
Till we joyful hail once more,
Old Nantucket’s treeless shore.

There, when the fair with brilliant eyes
In evening circles sit,
While the shining needle plies
Or the merry laugh replies
To pleasant wit,

Let them think, if they will,
Of the hardy tar
On seas afar,
Who risks his life, their lamps to fill.

The Whalers Song originally appeared in Poems for the Sea in 1850, and has been reproduced here under the Public Domain licence.

Header Image: The original art that accompanied The Whalers Song in Poems for the Sea. Creator unknown, but is thought to have been an employee of HS Parsons & Co., who published the works. Reproduced here under the Public Domain licence.