Thursday, 21 April 2016

Faithless Sally Brown, by Thomas Hood



( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Thomas Hood (1799-1845) wrote two “Faithless” poems, the other being “Faithless Nelly Gray”. They both take the form of mock-heroic ballads in which love is blighted and the young man dies of a broken heart. They are both comic poems in which most of the humour comes from puns, some of them very clever and others excruciating. Unfortunately, some of the humour is lost on a modern audience, which is why a little explanation is required.

The story concerns Ben, a carpenter who is taken by the press gang to be forcibly enlisted in the Navy. We therefore get plenty of seagoing puns, as in:

“For when your swain is in our boat, / A boatswain he will be." and

“Alas! they've taken my beau Ben / To sail with old Benbow”.

(Benbow was a famous English admiral during the War of the Spanish Succession who died from his wounds in 1702. Many “Admiral Benbow” pubs were named in his honor.)

Sally Brown weeps at his being taken from her by the press gang bosun:

“Says he, ‘They've only taken him / To the Tender ship, you see’; / ‘The Tender-ship,’ cried Sally Brown / ‘What a hard-ship that must be!’

(A tender is the small boat used to take people and goods to ships riding at anchor)

Ben is taken away and sails the seven seas. The ship returns, two years later:

“But when he call'd on Sally Brown, / To see how she went on, / He found she'd got another Ben, / Whose Christian-name was John.”

He bemoans his fate:

"O Sally Brown, O Sally Brown, / How could you serve me so? / I've met with many a breeze before, / But never such a blow.”

“He heaved a bitter sigh, / And then began to eye his pipe, / And then to pipe his eye.”

Here, Hood uses the technique seen before of reversing a pair of words or syllables to comic effect: “eye his pipe” means to look at his smoking pipe and “pipe his eye” to cry or weep. At other times Hood relies on the double meanings of common words, either as lookalikes or soundalikes.

Ben proceeds to die of a broken heart, after much chewing of his pigtail. This leads to final verse, and the best puns of the lot:

“His death, which happen'd in his berth, / At forty-odd befell: / They went and told the sexton, and / The sexton toll'd the bell.”

Nobody would claim that this is great poetry, or that Hood was a great poet, but as nonsense verse it certainly holds its own. The puns are incessant, and you have to listen carefully unless you miss one. It has been said that punning is the lowest form of wit, so it is perhaps fortunate that the novelty has not worn off before the poem ends.

Nevertheless, this poem and a few others by Hood mark the beginning of a tradition of nonsense verse writing in the 19th and 20th centuries. Only a year after Hood’s death, Edward Lear published his “Book of Nonsense” and Lewis Carroll was to follow later in the century. It is a tradition that has been respected to the present day, such that many people who would never normally dream of reading poetry are perfectly happy to read nonsense!

“Faithless Sally Brown” is still able to raise a chuckle today.


The full text of the poem is as follows:


Young Ben he was a nice young man,
A carpenter by trade;
And he fell in love with Sally Brown,
That was a lady's maid.

But as they fetch'd a walk one day,
They met a press-gang crew;
And Sally she did faint away,
Whilst Ben he was brought to.

The Boatswain swore with wicked words,
Enough to shock a saint,
That though she did seem in a fit,
'Twas nothing but a feint.

"Come, girl," said he, "hold up your head,
He'll be as good as me;
For when your swain is in our boat,
A boatswain he will be."

So when they'd made their game of her,
And taken off her elf,
She roused, and found she only was
A coming to herself.

"And is he gone, and is he gone?"
She cried, and wept outright:
"Then I will to the water side,
And see him out of sight."

A waterman came up to her,
"Now, young woman," said he,
"If you weep on so, you will make
Eye-water in the sea."

"Alas! they've taken my beau Ben
To sail with old Benbow;"
And her woe began to run afresh,
As if she'd said Gee woe!.

Says he, "They've only taken him
To the Tender ship, you see";
"The Tender-ship," cried Sally Brown
"What a hard-ship that must be!".

"O! would I were a mermaid now,
For then I'd follow him;
But Oh!--I'm not a fish-woman,
And so I cannot swim.

"Alas! I was not born beneath
The virgin and the scales,
So I must curse my cruel stars,
And walk about in Wales."

Now Ben had sail'd to many a place
That's underneath the world;
But in two years the ship came home,
And all her sails were furl'd.

But when he call'd on Sally Brown,
To see how she went on,
He found she'd got another Ben,
Whose Christian-name was John.

"O Sally Brown, O Sally Brown,
How could you serve me so?
I've met with many a breeze before,
But never such a blow":

Then reading on his 'bacco box
He heaved a bitter sigh,
And then began to eye his pipe,
And then to pipe his eye.

And then he tried to sing "All's Well,"
But could not though he tried;
His head was turn'd, and so he chew'd
His pigtail till he died.

His death, which happen'd in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll'd the bell.


( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Discussion © John Welford