Reference > Anthologies > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library > Verse

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Captain and the Mermaids
By William Schwenck Gilbert (1836–1911)
From ‘Fifty Bab Ballads’

I SING a legend of the sea,
So hard-a-port upon your lee!
  A ship on starboard tack!
She’s bound upon a private cruise—
(This is the kind of spice I use        5
  To give a salt-sea smack).
Behold, on every afternoon
(Save in a gale or strong monsoon)
  Great Captain Capel Cleggs
(Great morally, though rather short)        10
Sat at an open weather-port
  And aired his shapely legs.
And mermaids hung around in flocks,
On cable chains and distant rocks,
  To gaze upon those limbs;        15
For legs like those, of flesh and bone,
Are things “not generally known”
  To any merman timbs.
But mermen didn’t seem to care
Much time (as far as I’m aware)        20
  With Cleggs’s legs to spend;
Though mermaids swam around all day
And gazed, exclaiming, “That’s the way
  A gentleman should end!
“A pair of legs with well-cut knees,        25
And calves and ankles such as these
  Which we in rapture hail,
Are far more eloquent, it’s clear
(When clothed in silk and kerseymere),
  Than any nasty tail.”        30
And Cleggs—a worthy, kind old boy—
Rejoiced to add to others’ joy,
  And when the day was dry,
Because it pleased the lookers-on,
He sat from morn till night—though con-        35
  Stitutionally shy.
At first the mermen laughed, “Pooh! pooh!”
But finally they jealous grew,
  And sounded loud recalls;
But vainly. So these fishy males        40
Declared they too would clothe their tails
  In silken hose and smalls.
They set to work, these watermen,
And made their nether robes—but when
  They drew with dainty touch        45
The kerseymere upon their tails,
They found it scraped against their scales,
  And hurt them very much.
The silk, besides, with which they chose
To deck their tails by way of hose        50
  (They never thought of shoon)
For such a use was much too thin,—
It tore against the caudal fin,
  And “went in ladders” soon.
So they designed another plan:        55
They sent their most seductive man,
  This note to him to show:—
“Our Monarch sends to Captain Cleggs
His humble compliments, and begs
  He’ll join him down below;        60
“We’ve pleasant homes below the sea—
Besides, if Captain Cleggs should be
  (As our advices say)
A judge of mermaids, he will find
Our lady fish of every kind        65
  Inspection will repay.”
Good Capel sent a kind reply,
For Capel thought he could descry
  An admirable plan
To study all their ways and laws—        70
(But not their lady fish, because
  He was a married man).
The merman sank—the captain too
Jumped overboard, and dropped from view
  Like stone from catapult;        75
And when he reached the merman’s lair,
He certainly was welcomed there,
  But ah! with what result!
They didn’t let him learn their law,
Or make a note of what he saw,        80
  Or interesting mem.:
The lady fish he couldn’t find,
But that, of course, he didn’t mind—
  He didn’t come for them.
For though when Captain Capel sank,        85
The mermen drawn in double rank
  Gave him a hearty hail,
Yet when secure of Captain Cleggs,
They cut off both his lovely legs,
  And gave him such a tail!        90
When Captain Cleggs returned aboard,
His blithesome crew convulsive roar’d,
  To see him altered so.
The admiralty did insist
That he upon the half-pay list        95
  Immediately should go.
In vain declared the poor old salt,
“It’s my misfortune—not my fault,”
  With tear and trembling lip—
In vain poor Capel begged and begged.        100
“A man must be completely legged
  Who rules a British ship.”
So spake the stern First Lord aloud,—
He was a wag, though very proud,—
  And much rejoiced to say,        105
“You’re only half a captain now—
And so, my worthy friend, I vow
  You’ll only get half-pay!”

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