Sinbad's Yellow Shore

By W. B. Yeats

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When I arrived at the Clarence Basin, Liverpool, on my way to Sligo for my holidays I was among Sligo people. When I was a little boy, an old woman who had come to Liverpool with crates of fowl made me miserable by throwing her arms around me, the moment I had alighted from my cab, and telling the sailor who carried my luggage that she had held me in her arms when I was a baby. The sailor may have known me almost as well, for I was often at Sligo quay to sail my boat; and I came and went once or twice in every year upon the SS Sligo or the SS Liverpool which belonged to a company that had for directors my grandfather and his partner William Middleton. I was always pleased if it was the Liverpool, for she had been built to run the blockade during the war of North and South.

I waited for this voyage always with excitement and boasted to other boys about it, and when I was a little boy had walked with my feet apart as I had seen sailors walk. I used to be sea-sick, but I must have hidden this from the other boys and partly even from myself; for, as I look back, I remember very little about it, while I remember stories I was told by the captain or by his first mate, and the look of the great cliffs of Donegal, and Tory Island men coming alongside with lobsters, talking Irish and, if it was night, blowing on a burning sod to draw our attention. The captain, an old man with square shoulders and a fringe of grey hair round his face, would tell his first mate, a very admiring man, of fights he had had on shore at Liverpool; and perhaps it was of him I was thinking when I was very small and asked my grandmother if God was as strong as sailors. Once, at any rate, he had been nearly wrecked; the Liverpool had been all but blown upon the Mull of Galloway with her shaft broken, and the captain had said to his mate, ‘Mind and jump when she strikes, for we don’t want to be killed by the falling spars’; and when the mate answered, ‘My God, I cannot swim’, he had said, ‘Who could keep afloat for five minutes in a sea like that?’ He would often say his mate was the most timid of men and that ‘a girl along the quays could laugh him out of anything’. My grandfather had more than once given him a ship of his own, but he had always thrown up his berth to sail with his old captain where he felt safe. Once he had been put in charge of a ship in a dry dock in Liverpool, but a boy was drowned in Sligo, and before the news could have reached him he wired to his wife, ‘Ghost, come at once, or I will throw up berth.' He had been wrecked a number of times, and maybe that had broken his nerve or maybe he had a sensitiveness that would in another class have given him taste and culture. I once forgot a copy of Count Robert of Paris on a deck-seat, and when I found it again, it was all covered with the prints of his dirty thumb. He had once seen the coach-a-baur or death coach. It came along the road, he said, till it was hidden by a cottage and it never came out on the other side of the cottage.

Once I smelled new-mown hay when we were quite a long way from land, and once when I was watching the sea-parrots (as the sailors call the puffin) I noticed they had different ways of tucking their heads under their wings, or I fancied it, and said to the captain, ‘They have different characters’. Sometimes my father came too, and the sailors when they saw him coming would say, ‘There is John Yeats and we shall have a storm’, for he was considered unlucky.

I no longer cared for little shut-in places, for a coppice against the stable-yard at Merville where my grandfather lived or against the gable at Seaview where Aunt Micky lived, and I began to climb the mountains, sometimes with the stable-boy for companion, and to look up their stories in the county history. I fished for trout with a worm in the mountain streams. and went out herring fishing at night; and because my grandfather had said the English were in the right to eat skate, I carried a large skate all the six miles or so from Rosses Point, but my grandfather did not eat it.

One night, just as the equinoctial gales were coming, when I was sailing home in the coastguard’s boat, a boy told me a beetle of solid gold, strayed maybe from Poe’s Gold Bug, had been seen by somebody in Scotland and I do not think that either of us doubted his news. Indeed, so many stories did I hear from sailors along the wharf, or round the fo’castle fire of the little steamer that ran between Sligo and Rosses, or from boys out fishing that the world seemed full of monsters and marvels. The foreign sailors wearing earnings did not tell me stories, but like the fishing-boys I gazed at them in wonder and admiration.

When I look at my brother’s picture, Memory Harbour - houses and anchored ship and distant lighthouse all set close together as in some old map - I recognize in the blue-coated man with the mass of white shirt the pilot I went fishing with, and I am full of disquiet and of excitement, and I am melancholy because I have not made more and better verses. I have walked on Sinbad’s yellow shore and never shall another’s hit my fancy.