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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. III. The Growth of the National Spirit: 1710–1775

John Osborn

JOHN OSBORN was the son of a New England clergyman whose Arminian leanings had caused him to be dismissed from his parish. He was born in Sandwich, Massachusetts, in 1713, and died at Middletown, Connecticut, forty years later. Graduating at Harvard College in 1735, he studied theology, but falling under suspicion of heresy, like his father, he was refused ordination. He then studied medicine, was admitted to practice, declined a tutorship at Harvard on account of the celibacy then required there, and marrying, removed to Middletown, where he spent the rest of his life. He enjoyed considerable colonial reputation as a poet, based mainly on the Whaling Song here given, which is said to have long been popular on the hardy vessels that tracked the Pacific in search of their lucrative prey. Osborn’s other verses are imitative and bad, but a few stanzas of his song seem to have a truly poetic ring.

  • When eastward, clear of Newfoundland,
  • We stem the frozen pole,
  • We see the icy islands stand,
  • The northern billows roll,
  • may not be great poetry, but it is better than most other colonials could write. Yet Osborn’s production is sometimes spoken of with contempt, as, for example, by the late Professor Moses Coit Tyler.

    A Whaling Song.
    [Preserved in Kettell’s “Specimens of American Poetry.” 1829.]

  • WHEN spring returns with western gales,
  • And gentle breezes sweep
  • The ruffling seas, we spread our sails
  • To plough the watery deep.
  • For killing northern whales prepared,
  • Our nimble boats on board,
  • With craft and rum (our chief regard)
  • And good provisions stored.
  • Cape Cod, our dearest native land,
  • We leave astern, and lose
  • Its sinking cliffs and lessening sands
  • While Zephyr gently blows.
  • Bold, hardy men, with blooming age,
  • Our sandy shores produce;
  • With monstrous fish they dare engage,
  • And dangerous callings choose.
  • Now towards the early dawning east
  • We speed our course away,
  • With eager minds and joyful hearts,
  • To meet the rising day.
  • Then as we turn our wandering eyes,
  • We view one constant show;
  • Above, around, the circling skies,
  • The rolling seas below.
  • When eastward, clear of Newfoundland,
  • We stem the frozen pole,
  • We see the icy islands stand,
  • The northern billows roll.
  • As to the north we make our way,
  • Surprising scenes we find;
  • We lengthen out the tedious day,
  • And leave the night behind.
  • Now see the northern regions, where
  • Eternal winter reigns:
  • One day and night fills up the year,
  • And endless cold maintains.
  • We view the monsters of the deep,
  • Great whales in numerous swarms;
  • And creatures there, that play and leap,
  • Of strange, unusual forms.
  • When in our station we are placed,
  • And whales around us play,
  • We launch our boats into the main,
  • And swiftly chase our prey.
  • In haste we ply our nimble oars,
  • For an assault designed;
  • The sea beneath us foams and roars,
  • And leaves a wake behind.
  • A mighty whale we rush upon,
  • And in our irons throw:
  • She sinks her monstrous body down
  • Among the waves below.
  • And when she rises out again,
  • We soon renew the fight;
  • Thrust our sharp lances in amain,
  • And all her rage excite.
  • Enraged, she makes a mighty bound;
  • Thick foams the whitened sea;
  • The waves in circles rise around,
  • And widening roll away.
  • She thrashes with her tail around,
  • And blows her reddening breath;
  • She breaks the air, a deafening sound,
  • While ocean groans beneath.
  • From numerous wounds, with crimson flood,
  • She stains the frothy seas,
  • And gasps, and blows her latest blood,
  • While quivering life decays.
  • With joyful hearts we see her die,
  • And on the surface lay;
  • While all with eager haste apply
  • To save our deathful prey.