I should perhaps state an interest at the start: I have had an unhealthy fascination with the history of pirates for many years, so could be expected to take an interest in a pamphlet of 17 poems on famous pirates. Those here are mostly, though not all, based on some of the pirates recorded in his General History of the Most Notorious Pirates by Captain Charles Johnson, who may or may not have been Daniel Defoe.
There is a considerable variety of forms among these poems, including sapphics and a sonnet, though many are closely or loosely based on the ballad form. This is a massively tempting form for poets; nothing looks easier to write than a ballad, and indeed nothing is easier to write than a bad one. At its best, it is a tight, spare form that uses few words to make much impact and has a rhythm that is at once both memorable and easy to speak. But it can easily become rhyme-led and galumphing. I don’t think Tyrrell always avoids this danger, particularly in those poems that follow the ballad form most closely, “A Frightful Ballad of the Third Lord Boyce” and “Of Captain Avery”. Their abcb quatrains are often on the edge of sounding like pastiches of a bygone form, rather than modern riffs on it
By contrast, “Of Graínne Ni Mháile” and “Anne Bonny to Captain Johnson”, which use the ballad’s techniques of repetition and musicality but tweak the form quite a lot, sound much more authentic. Anne’s ballad, with its rollicking anapaests and light rhyme linking the verses, picks up on Johnson’s comparison of her and Mary Read’s story to a “Novel or Romance”:
Ah, Captain Johnson, our lives
were no mere amatorious novel,
unlike your Roxanas, Clarindas
and such drabs of the bookseller’s stall.
I was pirate and woman and all,
and I sailed with and lay with Jack Rackham,
who, if he had fought like a man,
need not have been hanged like a dog.
There is also from time to time an amusing correlation between subject and form: Mary Read’s sapphics:
Anne, mad Anne, the girl that I stole from Rackham,
know this now: however my death shall claim me
our last stand is all that my heart could wish for,
and “Of Major Bonnet”, whose name inevitably suggests a sonnet. The image of Stede Bonnet bored in retirement and longing for “mad romance” is captivating; it also perhaps highlights a problem with this subject-matter. Much as I admire the enterprise of the pirates, not to mention their democratic leanings and rudimentary health insurance, it cannot be denied that they were basically maritime burglars, who quite often added murder, torture and rape to their crimes. When Ned Low is described as “the only pirate not to have/a redeeming feature”, I can’t help thinking Tyrrell is over-romanticising the trade as a whole. Low was by no means the only sadist on the block – what about Montbars, known as the Exterminator, and Nau l’Ollonois? – but even those with what he calls “the swashbuckling romanticised/look” could be vicious enough when the need arose.
Granted, the respectable folk were behaving no better: in “Pieces of Eight” there is an image of the Spanish treasure-ships full of the gold mined at the cost of human misery
Pirates and privateers
circle them like sharks
which subtly and skilfully recalls the way real sharks followed slave-trading vessels, waiting for discarded corpses. Indeed the collection’s title comes from a line in the ballade “The Last Speech of the Condemned Pirate”, “The poor rogues hang; the rich rogues thrive.” I think it’s arguable that the ballade’s envoi weakens its point by comparing its pirate speaker to Charles I, a rich rogue who did end up on a block, but the general point stands. And there is no doubt that the appeal of these deplorable but irresistible characters continues, as RLS forecast it would: those of us who are finding our lives dull are always going to be tempted at least to read about free spirits, if hopefully not to join them. As Major Bonnet muses, “there’s always piracy”….