A Melancholy Anniversary: The White Ship Disaster, November 25, 1120
11/24/2020
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I'm sure all our American readers know that last weekend saw the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth, as we have traditionally celebrated it—the precise date seems not to be known.

For English people tomorrow, November 25th 2020, is a much more melancholy anniversary. It is 900 years on from the greatest tragedy to befall their nation's monarchy: the White Ship disaster. As well as breaking the heart of King Henry I, the sinking of the White Ship was a tragedy for the English nation, as it led indirectly to the bloody 18-year civil war described by novelist Ken Follett in The Pillars of the Earth.

On the upside, the disaster generated at least three fine 19th-century poems. The best-known but much the longest (279 lines) of the three is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 1881 "The White Ship." It's in The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse—of which, if you don't own a copy, you really should.

Shorter (32 lines) but more expressive is Mrs. Heman's 1830 poem "He Never Smiled Again." 

Then from this side of the Atlantic came "Ballad of a Ship" (1891) by Edwin Arlington Robinson, Teddy Roosevelt's favorite poet. This is shorter yet, only 28 lines, but beautifully crafted, ringing with measured assonance ("wild white bird") and alliteration ("bones of the brave"). 

Nine hundred years, and still painful to read about.

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