January 14, 2012

Howells and Webb: safe-harbored!

After the publication of Vagrom Verse by Charles Henry Webb, critics were quick to praise the well-established New York writer. The influential William Dean Howells wrote to Webb (who occasionally used the pen name "John Paul") just how much respect he earned by the book's publication. In a letter dated January 14, 1889, Howells wrote to Webb:

The low standard of literature in Boston may be guessed from the following paragraph out of the Transcript: —

"No book of poems has touched the people's heart for a long time like Charles Henry Webb's (John Paul) 'Vagrom Verse,' from which we copied 'Alec Dunham's Boat' the other day.

Webb already had a long career in the literary world, including serving as an editor in California for a time (his writers included Mark Twain and Bret Harte). Some of his work was humorous (including his dedication to Vagrom Verse, which included the lines, "I dedicate my verse to those / Who really do not like my prose"), though much was serious. The poem which Howells referenced, "Alec Dunham's Boat," got a fair amount of attention.

There she lies at her moorings,
    The little two-master,
Answering not now
    The call of disaster.
Loose swings the rudder,
    Unshipped the tiller;
Crossing the Bar so,
    One sea would fill her!

Foresail and mainsail
    In loose folds are lying:
Naked the mast-heads —
    No pennon flying;
Seaweed and wreck
    Alike may drift past her;
There lies the pilot-boat —
    Where is her master?

Lantern at Great Point,
    Brightly it burns;
Beacon on Brant Point
    The signal returns.
Far out to sea
    Sankoty flashes;
White on the shore
    The crested wave dashes.

Strident No'th-easter
    And smoky Sou'-wester
Call for the pilot-boat,
    Eager to test her.
And a ship on the Bar,
    Just where the waves cast her!
Moored lies the pilot-boat —
    Where is her master?

Oh, barque driving in,
    God send that you lee get,
Past Tuckernuck shoals,
    The reefs of Muskeget.
There go minute guns;
    Now faster and faster —
But no more to their aid
    Flies the little two-master.

For the pilot one night
    Left his boat as you see her —
Light moored, that at signal
    He ready might free her.
But not from her moorings
    Came the pilot to cast her,
Though a signal he answered —
    One set by the Master.

Gone, say you, and whither?
    Do you ask me which way
Went good pilot as ever
    Brought ship into bay?
Who shall say how he cast off,
    If to starboard or larboard?
But of one thing I'm sure —
    The pilot's safe-harbored!

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