Our Maximum Leader’s tribute to Trafalgar Day earlier this week has put me in something of a nautical mood.  So it was especially pleasant to stumble across this little ditty whilst skimming through the Bab Ballads of W.S. Gilbert:

THE MYSTIC SELVAGEEadmiral-rodney

Perhaps already you may know
SIR BLENNERHASSET PORTICO?
A Captain in the Navy, he –
A Baronet and K.C.B.
You do? I thought so!
It was that Captain’s favourite whim
(A notion not confined to him)
That RODNEY was the greatest tar
Who ever wielded capstan-bar.
He had been taught so.

“BENBOW! CORNWALLIS! HOOD! – Belay!
Compared with RODNEY” – he would say –
“No other tar is worth a rap!
The great LORD RODNEY was the chap
The French to polish!
“Though, mind you, I respect LORD HOOD;
CORNWALLIS, too, was rather good;
BENBOW could enemies repel,
LORD NELSON, too, was pretty well –
That is, tol-lol-ish!”

SIR BLENNERHASSET spent his days
In learning RODNEY’S little ways,
And closely imitated, too,
His mode of talking to his crew –
His port and paces.
An ancient tar he tried to catch
Who’d served in RODNEY’S famous batch;
But since his time long years have fled,
And RODNEY’S tars are mostly dead:
EHEU FUGACES!

But after searching near and far,
At last he found an ancient tar
Who served with RODNEY and his crew
Against the French in ‘Eighty-two,
(That gained the peerage).
He gave him fifty pounds a year,
His rum, his baccy, and his beer;
And had a comfortable den
Rigged up in what, by merchantmen,
Is called the steerage.

“Now, JASPER” – ‘t was that sailor’s name –
“Don’t fear that you’ll incur my blame
By saying, when it seems to you,
That there is anything I do
That RODNEY wouldn’t.”
The ancient sailor turned his quid,
Prepared to do as he was bid:
“Ay, ay, yer honour; to begin,
You’ve done away with ‘swifting in’ –
Well, sir, you shouldn’t!

“Upon your spars I see you’ve clapped
Peak halliard blocks, all iron-capped.
I would not christen that a crime,
But ’twas not done in RODNEY’S time.
It looks half-witted!
Upon your maintop-stay, I see,
You always clap a selvagee!
Your stays, I see, are equalized –
No vessel, such as RODNEY prized,
Would thus be fitted!

“And RODNEY, honoured sir, would grin
To see you turning deadeyes in,
Not UP, as in the ancient way,
But downwards, like a cutter’s stay –
You didn’t oughter;
Besides, in seizing shrouds on board,
Breast backstays you have quite ignored;
Great RODNEY kept unto the last
Breast backstays on topgallant mast –
They make it tauter.”

SIR BLENNERHASSET “swifted in,”
Turned deadeyes up, and lent a fin
To strip (as told by JASPER KNOX)
The iron capping from his blocks,
Where there was any.
SIR BLENNERHASSET does away,
With selvagees from maintop-stay;
And though it makes his sailors stare,
He rigs breast backstays everywhere –
In fact, too many.

One morning, when the saucy craft
Lay calmed, old JASPER toddled aft.
“My mind misgives me, sir, that we
Were wrong about that selvagee –
I should restore it.”
“Good,” said the Captain, and that day
Restored it to the maintop-stay.
Well-practised sailors often make
A much more serious mistake,
And then ignore it.

Next day old JASPER came once more:
“I think, sir, I was right before.”
Well, up the mast the sailors skipped,
The selvagee was soon unshipped,
And all were merry.
Again a day, and JASPER came:
“I p’r’aps deserve your honour’s blame,
I can’t make up my mind,” said he,
“About that cursed selvagee –
It’s foolish – very.

“On Monday night I could have sworn
That maintop-stay it should adorn,
On Tuesday morning I could swear
That selvagee should not be there.
The knot’s a rasper!”
“Oh, you be hanged,” said CAPTAIN P.,
“Here, go ashore at Caribbee.
Get out – good bye – shove off – all right!”
Old JASPER soon was out of sight –
Farewell, old JASPER!

Heh.  I’m sure my fellow port-swilling fans of Patrick O’Brian will find the plethora of nautical terms and naval references here as amusing as I do.  And for those of you who don’t recognize the name, Admiral George Rodney was probably England’s most famous naval commander prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.  He certainly was amongst the most successful, crowning his career by thumping the Comte de Grasse in 1782 at the Battle of the Saintes.

I mention this to follow up on a comment that I dropped in response to Maxy’s post pointing out that Nelson was able to crush Villeneuve at Trafalgar in large part because by then the superiority of the Royal Navy in terms of both seamanship and aggressiveness had been thoroughly stamped on the psyches of both the British and the French.  It is arguable that this ascendancy can be traced directly back to Rodney’s triumph at the Saintes – prior to then the Royal Navy had had a pretty lackluster record in the American Revolution and had been given as good as it gave the French during the Seven Years’ War.