Kenneth Slessor

Captain Cook

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Cook was a captain of the Admiralty
When sea-captains had the evil eye,
Or should have, what with beating krakens off
And casting nativities of ships;
Cook was a captain of the powder-days
When captains, you might have said, if you had been
Fixed by their glittering stare, half-down the side,
Or gaping at them up companionways,
Were more like warlocks than a humble man –
And men were humble then who gazed at them,
Poor horn-eyed sailors, bullied by devil’s fists
Of wind and water, or the want of both,
Childlike and trusting, filled with eager trust –
Cook was a captain of the sailing days
When sea-captains were kings like this,
Not cold executives of company-rules
Cracking their boilers for a dividend
Or bidding their engineers go wink
At bells and telegraphs, so plates would hold
Another pound. Those captains drove their ships
By their own blood, no laws of schoolbook stream,
Till yards were sprung, and masts went overboard –
Daemons in periwigs, doling magic out,
Who read fair alphabets in stars
Where humbler men found but a mess of sparks,
Who steered their crews by mysteries
And strange, half-dreadful sortilege with books,
Used medicines that only gods could know
The sense of, but sailors drank
In simple faith. That was the captain
Cook was when he came to the Coral Sea
And chose a passage in the dark.

How many mariners had made that choice
Paused on the brink of mystery! “Choose now!”
The winds roared, blowing home, blowing home,
Over the Coral Sea, “Choose now!” the trades
Cried once to Tasman, throwing him for choice
Their teeth or shoulders, and the Dutchman chose
The wind’s way turning north. “Choose, Bougainville!”
The wind cried once, and Bougainville had heard
The voice of God, calling him prudently
Out of the dead lee shore, and chose the north,
The wind’s way. So, too Cook made choice,
Over the brink, into the devil’s mouth,
With four months’ food and sailors wild with dreams
Of English beer, the smoking barns of home.
So Cook made choice, so Cook sailed westabout,
So men write poems in Australia.

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Kenneth Slessor