Saturday 28 November 2020

Bring Up the Body

 Talking of Puritans, here is a poem of that name by Richard Wilbur – 

Sidling upon the river, the white boat
Has volleyed with its cannon all the morning,
Shaken the shore towns like a Judgment warning,
Telling the palsied water its demand
That the crime come to the top again, and float,
That the sunk murder rise to the light and land.

Blam! In the noon’s perfected brilliance burn
Brief blooms of flame, which soil away in smoke;
And down below, where slowed concussion broke
The umber stroll of waters, water-dust
Dreamily powders up, and serves to turn
The river surface to a cloudy rust.

Down from his bridge the river captain cries
To fire again. They make the cannon sound;
But none of them would wish the murder found,
Nor wish in other manner to atone
Than booming at their midnight crime, which lies
Rotting the river, weighted with a stone.

   This poem rests on the folk belief that firing a cannon across a body of water will bring to the surface a corpse lying on the bottom. This was supposed to happen when concussion burst the gall bladder (which doesn't seem to make a lot of sense). Reading the Wilbur poem I remembered a scene in Huckleberry Finn – well, when I say remembered, I mean a hazy image of it formed somewhere in the recesses of my memory.  Huck, in flight from 'sivilization', is hiding out on an island, having covered his tracks with the blood of a pig, thereby giving the impression that he has been murdered: 

Well, I was dozing off again, when I thinks I hears a deep sound of "boom!" away up the river. I rouses up and rests on my elbow and listens; pretty soon I hears it again. I hopped up and went and looked out at a hole in the leaves, and I see a bunch of smoke laying on the water a long ways up–about the area of the ferry. And there was the ferry-boat, full of people, floating along down. I knowed what was the matter now. "Boom!" I see the white smoke squirt out of the ferry-boat’s side. You see, they was firing cannon over the water, trying to make my carcass come to the top.

  Reading that again reminds me of the sheer thrill of discovering Huckleberry Finn; it was one of the most thrilling reading experiences of my boyhood, as was (in its more genial, smoother-edged way) reading Tom Sawyer.
The young Samuel Langhorn Clemens (Mark Twain) also had the experience of hearing the cannon boom to bring his body to the surface. Having jumped off a ferryboat midstream on a stormy day, determined to retrieve his hat, he was quite reasonably thought to have drowned, and cannon were fired over the water to bring his body up. In fact, he had swum after his hat for two or three miles (by his own account) and finally retrieved it, then swam back to the shore. This was one of several close shaves with drowning that young Sam survived. His mother laughed them off by telling him that 'people born to be hanged are safe in the water' – a superstition echoed by the slave Jim in Huckleberry Finn. 


  1. The superstition turns up in Great Expectations, when Mr. Jaggers tells an applicant for his services that he will tell the man's fortune: "You'll never drown."

  2. Thanks George. A strange superstition, tho I guess sailors' superstitious refusal to learn to swim is even stranger. That one's probably still going strong in some parts of the world...