X

No tengo más que darte —Inscription on a Spanish sailor’s gold ring, in the shape of a hand holding out a heart, found off the western coast of Ireland.

Their splintered hulls well-raked with cannon fire,
Great sails shot ragged by hot English grape,
The rigging singed or severed or undone,
And decks awash with blood of casualties,
Philip’s Armada has no choice—it must
Go home by circling Scotland to the north.
Ships crawl along the British coast, aware
That capture in this realm of heretics
Means long imprisonment or instant death.
The helmsmen are from every port in Spain:
Málaga, Cádiz, Palos, Santander—
And have brought board and canvas through rough seas
That span an empire. Carefully they guide
The bruised fleet northward, past the brackish fens
Of Lincolnshire, and Whitby’s craggy head,
Grey Scottish shores that blink with lonely fires
And give no sound save that of screaming birds.
They thread the Orkneys, and the Shetland Isles,
For Spaniards as mysterious as Thule:
Cold barren wastes of rock, kelp, moss, and gulls
Bejewelled with ice, and swathed in milky mist,
Held by half-savage fishermen who speak
In harsh laconic grunts, unwelcoming.
They turn the Minch, pass through the Hebrides,
And set sail for west Ireland’s rocky edge.
Then storms come up to roil the northern waves—
A few tossed ships go down with every hand
And sons of Castile, Navarre, and Aragon
Whirl in the currents, graveless and unmourned,
Amidst the keening shriek of Irish gales.
The Spanish pilots grip the spokes of wheels
To which no rudder will respond. The winds
Remind them of mad whistling hurricanes
Off Hispaniola in the new-found world.
A scattering of ships will see this through
And make their limping way back home to Spain,
But other craft spin wildly, stripped of sail,
Dismasted, driven landward, to be wrecked
On the green rocks of Galway, where a few
Gasping survivors crawl up from the surf
And go to helpless slaughter at the hands
Of gallowglasses and barbaric kerns.
In the dark sea, a golden ring slips from
The finger of some luckless mariner
Who will not drink sweet wine again, nor breathe
His country’s air, perfumed with oranges.
No tengo más que darte is engraved:
“I have no more to give you.” A small hand
Offers a golden heart that now sinks down
Into the sandy bottom of the bay.
A sweetheart waits in Spain, and shall wait till
Time and despair have hollowed out her breast
And left her eyes as dim as the damp mists
That girdle Galway when a plangent tide
Withdraws at evening from a wreck-strewn beach,
And takes its tears back to the troubled sea.

From Masquerade (2005)

X

X

Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


NOTE: The Society considers this page, where your poetry resides, to be your residence as well, where you may invite family, friends, and others to visit. Feel free to treat this page as your home and remove anyone here who disrespects you. Simply send an email to mbryant@classicalpoets.org. Put “Remove Comment” in the subject line and list which comments you would like removed. The Society does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments and reserves the right to remove any comments to maintain the decorum of this website and the integrity of the Society. Please see our Comments Policy here.

21 Responses

  1. Lawrence Fray

    Very evocative and a pleasure to read. Great descriptive poetry. It reminds me of myvschool history project long ago in my Irish south coast home town.

    Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    Dear Joe,
    Thank you for this fine descriptive poem. I now have some idea of what that battle was like, plus yoiu have added a bit to my knowledge of my ancestors.
    Several years ago I was deeply immersed in genealogy. I had both English and Irish ancestors, and found that each group had somehow participated in the Battle with the Spanish Armada. I had, and have a medal struck from the cannons used there which I had from my father. Thinking I had something terribly unique, I wrote to the British Museum, only to be told that it was authentic but virtually valuless – after all, how many medals will just one cannon yield ? I believe the medal came from one John Davis, who was in the English Navy, and had belonged to one of his ancestors.
    The other family, the Nicholsons, were from the north of Ireland. The story of their emigration to this country is horrific. But a few managed to survive; hence my presence on this page!
    But here is the curious thing. Sometimes you must take a genealogical leap in order to get from one place to another, and I had noticed something curious about the Nicholsons. BEginning about the time of the Battle, I noticed that in every subsequent generation there was an Isabella Nicholson who married a John Nicholson. Having taken that intuitive leap, I believed that a Spanish survivor had been taken in and married and that the story survived for several generations along with the name Isabella
    After reading your poem I am convinced of the probability of this. I thank you.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Sally. It does seem to be the case that some Spanish sailors survived, and intermarried with the Irish (at that time almost all persons in Galway were monoglot Gaelic speakers, so the sailors had to become totally acculturated to their new environment). The thing they had in common with the Irish was devout Catholicism.

      By the way, there is no spacing in my poem at line 31. This is just a computer glitch. I hope Mr. Mantyk will remove the line space.

      Reply
  3. Jeff Eardley

    Mr Salemi, thank you for this most moving and enjoyable history lesson and thank you for Thule, gallowglasses and kerns, words I was not familiar with.

    Reply
  4. C.B. Anderson

    I think, Joseph, that this excellent example of blank verse must be one of your mostly widely reprinted poems. I’m pretty sure I read it in Measure and in Candelabrum. I have a copy of Masquerade, so I likely read it there as well. And while we are on the subject of reprints, I beg you to submit “The Lilacs on Good Friday” sometime next spring.

    When I die, I would like that to happen in the Scapa Flow, just off Orkney, but perhaps at some distance from where the German flotilla was scuttled during WWII. That way, I will be in close proximity to the source of two of my favorite single malt whiskies: Scapa & Highland Park. I wear no jewelry, so don’t expect anything to wash ashore, except perhaps a gold tooth or two.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, the poem has been reprinted in a few places over the years. I submitted it here to the SCP at the suggestion of a Hispanic friend who has always favored the piece.

      Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Thank you, Joe. I wish my History lessons were as engaging, atmospheric and poetic as this – I’d have walked away with an A. This wonderful piece is a masterclass in blank verse and makes me want to take on the challenge of this form. I particularly like lines such as; “The bruised fleet northward, past the brackish fens” and “Bejewelled with ice, and swathed in milky mist”. The cruel circumstance and surrounds are brought to life magnificently. The closing lines are sorrowful and beautiful and have me hand wringing over that “hot English grape” – what heartless brutes the English were! 😉

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Susan. I am particularly proud of this poem. As for the English grapeshot, no need to wring your hands. The English were justified in defending themselves and their country, even if my personal sympathies as a Latin and a Catholic lie with King Philip’s Armada. Like Sally Cook, who had ancestors in the English and the Spanish ships, I can see both sides.

      My father (a decorated and wounded combat veteran of many World War II campaigns), said “We fought the German Wehrmacht fiercely. But we deeply respected their courage, their military skill, and their daring.”

      Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    This magnificent poem offers an almost unbearable depiction of defeat, inflicted for days and weeks after the decisive battle, and indeed for years, from the point of view of the Spanish woman who had given, and lost, everything she had. Regarding the individuals, defeat becomes evident in the carefully chosen details, as with the pilots who try to exercise their skills, but feel no response from a rudder. The central image of the ring is most effective, because a ring slips from a finger only when the chilled finger shrinks (here, frozen to the bone in sea water).

    Moving to the spiritual and civilizational aspect of the Armada’s utter defeat, I think of the individual and family losers within England and Scotland and Wales. They would remain defeated for generations. The Elizabethan government persecutors of Catholics became secure, such that English priests could be safely butchered to death, and a simple butcher’s wife pressed to death beneath a ton of stones. This goes way beyond the poem, but figures the defeated plight of people who could no longer take any active part in their own culture without surrendering what was most precious to them, namely, the Faith they shared with the defeated Spanish.

    Your poem, Joseph, presents a useful alternative perspective on history as it has always been taught to English speakers. As long as history was taught, that is, the defeat of the Armada was an unalloyed, God-given triumph, confirming the primacy of English civilization, and justifying continued hostilities between English and Spanish culture. Little notice was taken of the event as a major one in the sad divorce between Britain and Catholic Europe, contributing to future evils such as the atrocities of Cromwell in Ireland.

    Reply
  7. Joseph S. Salemi

    I actually saw this ring, with its Spanish inscription, in a journal carrying an article (with color photos) on marine archaeology off the coast of Galway. It is exactly as I have described in the poem.

    Genocidal atrocities against Roman Catholics did not just occur in Ireland, but also in Cornwall, where the deeply devout Celtic culture (Kernewek speaking) was massacred in several forced impositions of Thomas Cromwell’s Book of Common Prayer, and similarly in Wales (Cymric speaking), and in the north of England, during the Pilgrimage of Grace. England is unique in having two mass murderers with the same last name: Thomas Cromwell in the sixteenth century, and Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for answering my unasked question about the ring!

      I learned all about the Cornwall events from the most fiery speech Michael Davies ever gave, right here in Southern California. “It’s the Mass that Matters” is the most memorable lecture I ever heard. Looking it up online, I see that Internet Archive has a printed copy, which seems to be the essence of the speech, but lacks the final words, “We will not rest until we drive the Mass of Paul VI off the altars of the Catholic Church.” Somewhere, I have a not-very-professional audio recording made that day; I should look for it, and check with the speech sponsors to see if they have re-issued it. Davies made a great point of the huge assembly with outdoor Mass in 1949 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Western Rebellion’s last stand at Sampford Courtney. In 1999, Davies was there with a few friends and no ceremony. The Catholic bishop had refused the offer of Anglicans to celebrate the Latin Mass the rebels died for, in the church where it all began, because “it might harm ecumenical relations.”

      Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      True enough, though to be fair, the English under Mary Tudor had seen Protestants burned at the stake. As in most religious conflicts (perhaps all wars) neither side was pulling its punches.

      Reply
  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    Yes, that certainly looks like the ring I saw in the archaeological journal. It was many years ago.

    Reply
    • Mike Bryant

      I did a little research and found out the ring is from the wreck of the ’Girona.’ The ring, along with other treasures, is on display at Ulster Museum.

      Reply
  9. David Watt

    Joe, I can see why this highly descriptive poem has been reprinted over the years. The mix of seascape, coastal landscape, movement, history, cruelty, and the despair of loss can’t help but leave a lasting impression.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, David — and thanks also to all others who have commented.

      Reply
  10. BDW

    We can thank Mr. Salemi’s Hispanic friend for getting him to post this older poem of his. Although the Shakespearean borrowing of “kerns and gallowglasses” from his Scottish play “Macbeth” is appropriate to the lines of “The Homeward-Bound Armada, 1588” with its remarkable, striking vantage point, Mr. Salemi’s blank verse and diction remind me more of a cross between Milton and Melville. As to other “Armadas” in English literature. I think of Macaulay’s balladic “The Armada”, whose enthusiasm and national patriotic pride I doubt any New Millennial British poet could match, so natural is his lay. As to the defeat of the Armada itself, I have believed for decades that the energy of that important historical event was, in part, responsible for the rise and height of English poetic drama, one of the cornerstones of British, and, therefore, English literature.

    Reply
  11. Paul A. Freeman

    Wow! Now that’s what I call poetry.

    Blank verse is highly underrated in my opinion, but it’s perfect in a longer, intricate storytelling piece like this.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to BDW Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.