Bret Harte tackles Jones
in his poem "Off Scarborough"
Read more poems about JPJ
Scores, perhaps hundreds, of artists have
been drawn to the legend of John Paul Jones, crafting it into paintings,
plays, songs, poems and stories. James Fennimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas,
Herman Melville, Sarah Orne Jewett, William Makepeace Thakery and the
American novelist Winston Churchill are among the famous literary names
who have taken a whack at depicting Jones. 1 And letís not
forget Bret Harte (1836-1902), the cowboy poet, whose "Luck of Roaring
Camp" and other works helped pump up the literary legends of the American
West. By comparison, Jonesí rip-roaring reputation in 19th
century America was an apt character for Harte.
Like many writers, Bret Harte focused on the famous
battle between the BONHOMME RICHARD and HMS SERAPIS
for his poem "Off Scarborough". The date
of the poemís appearance in Scribner's Monthly, (vol. 16, issue
4, August 1878) indicates it was a centennial tribute to one first and one
of the bloodiest naval battles in American history.
Like Thomas Bailey Aldrich and Mark
Twain , Harte was also an Eastern
boy transplanted West. After working a series of jobs, Hart hit the
popularity jackpot and in the mid-1800s was offered $10,000 by the
Atlantic for whatever novel he might write next. He became friendly with
Aldrich who once received a letter from Twain saying:
"Bret Harte trimmed and trained and schooled me patiently until he
changed me from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesqueness to a writer of
paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favor in the eyes of
even some of the very decentest people in the land."2
The poem "Off Scarborough" is a stirring account of the battle narrated
by an unnamed crewman aboard the BONHOMME. Harte accurately tells how
Capt. Landais of the American ship Alliance actually turned against his
colleague Jones during the battle. Grappled together off Flamborough Head
along the British coast, the two ships literally tore each other to pieces
in a prolonged battle.
The ships were so close together that the narrator of this
poem was able climb out on the BONHOMME yardarn and
drop a lit grenade down into the hold of the SERAPIS, an historically
accurate event that turned helped the tide of the battle. One of the grenades
fell through an opening in the ship and did severe damage below decks. Recent research tells
us that this figure was a Scot named William Hamiltin,
a fact Harte would not have known. 3
1. "Cooper as Historian" by Kay S.
House, San Francisco State University, 1987, State University of New York
College at Oneonta
2. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, by Ferris Greenslet,
3. Night on Fire by John Evangelist
Walsh, Mc-Graw-Hill, 1978.
Copyright © 2002 SeacoastNh.com. All rights
Photo Credit: From the "Life of Bret Harte, by Henry Childs
Merwin, Houghton, Muflin, NY, 1911
"Have a care!" the bailiffs cried
cockleshell that lay
Off the frigate's yellow side,
While the forty sail it convoyed on a bowline
"Take your chicks beneath your wings,
And your claws
and feathers spread,
Ere the hawk upon them springs,--
Swoops Paul Jones, the Yankee falcon, with his beak
and talons red."
How we laughed! -- my mate and I, --
On the "Bon
Homme Richard's" deck, --
As we saw that convoy fly
snow-squall, till each fleck
Melted in the twilight shadows of the
coast-line, speck by speck;
And scuffling back to shore
Scarborough bailiffs sped,
As the "Richard" with a roar
cannon round the Head,
Crossed her royal yards and signaled to her
consort: "Chase ahead"
But the devil seize Landais
that consort ship of France!
For the shabby, lubber way
worked the "Alliance"
In the offing, -- nor a broadside fired save to
our mischance! --
When tumbling to the van,
With his battle-lanterns
Rose the burly Englishman
'Gainst our hull as black as jet,
Rode the yellow-sided "Serapis," and all alone we met!
All alone, though far at sea
Hung his consort,
All alone, though on our lee
Fought our "Pallas,"
stanch and true!
For the first broadside around us both a smoky circle
And, like champions in a ring,
There was cleared a little
Scarce a cable's length to swing --
Ere we grappled in
All the world shut out around us, and we only face to
Then awoke all hell below
From that broadside,
For our long eighteens in row
Leaped the first
discharge and burst!
And on deck our men came pouring, fearing their
own guns the worst.
And as dumb we lay, till, through
flame and bitter cry,
Hailed the "Serapis:" "Have you
colors?" Our reply,
"We have not yet begun to fight!" went shouting to
Roux of Brest, old fisher, lay
Like a herring
Bunker of Nantucket Bay,
Blown from out the port,
Half a cable's length to leeward; yet we faintly raised a
As with his own right hand
Our Commodore made fast
foeman's head-gear and
The "Richard's" mizzen-mast,
And in that
death-lock clinging held us there from first to last!
Yet the foeman, gun on gun,
"Richard" tore a road, --
With his gunners' rammers run
ports at every load, --
Till clear the blue beyond us through our
yawning timbers showed.
Yet with entrails torn we clung
Spartan to our fox,
And on deck no coward tongue
Wailed the enemy's
Nor that all below us trembled like a wreck upon the
Then a thought rose in my brain, --
Channel mists the sun. --
From our tops a fire like rain
decks every one
Of the enemy's ship's company to hide or work a
And that thought took shape as I
On the "Richard's" yard lay
That a man might do and die,
If the doing brought
Freedom for his home and country, and his messmates' cheering
Then I crept out in the dark
Till I hung above
Of the "Serapis,"-- a mark
For her marksmen! -- with a
And a hand-grenade, but lingered just a moment more to
One last look at sea and sky!
At the lighthouse on the
At the harvest-moon on high!
And our pine flag fluttering
Then turned and down her yawning throat I launched that devil's
Then a blank was all between
As the flames around
Had I fired the magazine?
Was the victory lost or
Nor knew I till the fight was o'er but half my work was
For I lay among the dead
In the cockpit of our foe,
roar above my head, --
Till a trampling to and fro,
And a lantern
showed my mate's face, and I knew what now you know!
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