The Pirate Song
Created on March 27, 2012, 1:14 a.m.
I stumbled upon The Pirate Song while browsing a typical home-grown website, the kind you would have expected to find on geocities and imagine to be created by housewives, entranced with the internet after using it to aid their children with homework.
Amongst the animated GIFs, advertisements for sparkly cursors and tiled backgrounds, The Pirate Song stuck out. Printed alone, with no explanation, this was unusual content.
What struck me is the fact it's dark. This isn't What Shall we do with the Drunken Sailor, wenches and mead. This is something else. Most pirate songs you might be familiar with have disappointing origins - Robert Louis Stevenson's sea-shanty "Dead Man's Chest" is from the well known 1883 Treasure Island and "A Pirate's Life for me" was written purely for Pirates of the Caribbean. The Pirate Song seemed much more like an older sea shanty, it had the structure of a conventional folk song, but it's clearly about Piracy, and it's written from a personal perspective. This piqued my interest into its genuineness.
By Googleing the first line, I traced it back through various re-publishings to what appeared to be its first appearance. The Pirate's Own Book, published in 1837. This, itself, is an amazing book, with many more lines of anonymous verse, similar to that of The Pirate Song. But it also contains fantastic descriptions and prints of most of the well known pirates and their stories. Frustratingly and mysteriously, The Pirate Song is printed as the last thing in the book, given more as a footnote or afterthought, with no explanation of the origins or context.
The Pirate's Own Book claims to be based upon actual documents of the day, and much of it's material is taken from the better known A General History of the Pyrates, published in 1724. Both of these books have been somewhat confirmed by alternative sources, but historians agree that in many places, they have to be taken with a pinch of salt. A General History of the Pyrates, too, is a fascinating book, with an unknown author (suspected to be Daniel Defoe) and many graphic, in depth accounts of pirate life. It more or less laid the groundwork for everything we know about Pirates today. Still, searching the content, I couldn't find any mention of The Pirate Song, and so it seemed it wasn't taken from this book, but rather sourced elsewhere. Even if I had found it, I don't think it would have helped. None of these publications cited sources, and in some ways this is what added to their mysticism.
Looking through some more online archives I searched again for the lyrics of the song and found copies of sheet music for it. On the front was a lovely painting of a pirate ship, with the lyrics attributed to a "L.E.L". Now, I'd like to say this led me down a long and complicated path searching for the mysterious Pirate "L.E.L", and upon completion, I not only found out about "L.E.L", but found out about the deepest parts of my own soul. Unfortunately it turned out this was not one of those times. It soon transpired this was Letitia Elizabeth Landon, a fairly well known poet born in 1802. I imagine she must have contributed the poem to the book, or that it had appeared in an early publication of the Gazette, which she commonly wrote for, and was taken from that by the Author for Pirate's Own Book.
Still, the fact that I could believe, even for a second, that these were the actual words of a real pirate, was a feeling even more haunting than of reading the lyrics themselves.
The Pirate Song
To the mast nail our flag it is dark as the grave,
Or the death which it bears while it sweeps o'er the wave;
Let our deck clear for action, our guns be prepared;
Be the boarding-axe sharpened, the scimetar bared:
Set the canisters ready, and then bring to me,
For the last of my duties, the powder-room key.
It shall never be lowered, the black flag we bear;
If the sea be denied us, we sweep through the air.
Unshared have we left our last victory's prey;
It is mine to divide it, and yours to obey:
There are shawls that might suit a sultana's white neck,
And pearls that are fair as the arms they will deck.
There are flasks which, unseal them, the air will disclose
Diametta's fair summers, the home of the rose.
I claim not a portion: I ask but as mine
'Tis to drink to our victory - one cup of red wine.
Some fight, 'tis for riches - some fight, 'tis for fame:
The first I despise, and the last is a name.
I fight, 'tis for vengeance! I love to see flow,
At the stroke of my sabre, the life of my foe.
I strike for the memory of long-vanished years;
I only shed blood where another shed tears,
I come, as the lightning comes red from above,
O'er the race that I loathe, to the battle I love.
You can also listen to a rendition of the first verse here.