The sea poems of Cicely Fox Smith


I’ve just learned about the poet Cicely Fox Smith. Not too much is known about her, but there’s a short biography at The Little Red Tree website.

As a woman, Ms Fox Smith  (1882-1954), must have been pretty well excluded from working as a sailor herself, but  she writes very convincingly about ships and men – so convincingly, in fact, that quite a few of her poems have been set to tunes and are being sung by the kind of people you would normally expect to sing traditional shanties, ballads about cruel ships’ mates and ribald ditties about landlords’ daughters, as I discovered recently when listening to Tyne and Tide, a new CD made by group of Tyneside singing group The Keelers.

She wrote hundreds of poems on a variety of themes, and they can be found here.

I’ve pasted two particularly powerful examples below.


These were the ships that kept on going
When the seas were thick with the War’s black sowing –
Great ocean liners in white paint and gold,
Shabby little colliers, all grime and green mould,
Up-to-date cargo boats ugly as sin,
Old seven-knotters with their plates rusted thin,
Has-been clipper-ships, laid up for ages,
Fitted out and rigged new and sent to earn their wages,
Coal-ships and cotton–ships,
Sound ships and rotten ships
From Thames and Clyde and Merseyside that fetched their ports no more –
Tyne ships and Humber ships,
Grain-ships and lumber-ships –
Ships that went down in the War!

These were the men that knew no shirking
The hungry waters where death lay lurking –
Grizzled old skippers that had grown grey in ships,
Young brassbounders with the down on their lips,
White-faced black squad and tanned A.B.’s
In oil-stained boiler-suits and torn dungarees,
That dropped beside the wheel on the deck all bloodied,
That drowned in the darkness when the stokehold flooded,
That froze on the rafts in the bitter Atlantic,
That drifted in boats till the thirst drove them frantic,
Some with wives and youngsters to cry their eyes red,
Some with neither chick nor child to care that they were dead.

Not reckoned greatly daring men,
But every-day seafaring men,
Who stood their trick and earned their whack and took their fun ashore,
Until on every tide for us
They took their chance and died for us –
Men that went down in the War!

Copper Ore

Jane Price
of Swansea
Thirty days out,
With Copper ore from Carrizal
And sinking . . .

With her cargo shifting
And her steering gear gone:
And the pumps clanking on
The whole day through
And the whole night too,
And the water gaining
Spite of all we can do,
And no use complaining
And no use thinking . . .

In the
Jane Price
of Swansea
Thirty days out,
With Copper ore from Carrizal
And sinking . . .

Like a log, and lifting
To the big green seas
That crash aboard like thunder,
With her lee rail under
And the water to our knees
And all the while mounting,
And we’ve got past caring,
And we’ve got past counting,
And the mate’s quit swearing,
And the Old Man’s drinking . . .

In the
Jane Price
of Swansea
Thirty days out
With Copper ore from Carrizal
And sinking…

4 thoughts on “The sea poems of Cicely Fox Smith”

  1. Hi, Gav,
    Shortly after reading the above post, my wife found a copy of Ocean Racers by C.Fox-Smith in a local charity shop. The book is about the 19th century square-riggers and is a very interesting read based partly on interviews with shipmasters and others involved. If you can find a copy, it will be well worth reading.

  2. Anyone interested in Cicely Fox Smith and her poems may like to know there is a facebook page “Friends of Cicely Fox Smith” and you are invited to have a look and register if you wish

    1. Always good to see more of Cicely Fox Smith’s work being passed around. She was a very talented lady. You will find a fuller biography by Charlie Ipcar and myself at the Allpoetry web site [ ] which is almost as good a source as the book Complete Poems of Cicely Fox Smith 🙂

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